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This is the first time in the last seven years I’ve had to miss the big San Diego Con.
To be honest, the show’s been getting a little big for my taste the last couple of years, now that the word’s out in Hollywood about us. Still, I’m going to miss seeing old friends, and even doing a little old-fashioned journalism. The last five years or so I’ve been part of the CBR press team down there; it started as almost a joke, with my friend Jim MacQuarrie hitting up Jonah for a press pass to get me in. Jonah was willing but they were all gone, and then it turned out I had enough pro credits to get credentialed in for free anyway. But somehow the idea lodged in Jonah’s head that I could do some press for him, and next year he offered. And the gig actually PAID. So of course I lunged at it like a bass. It became a regular thing, and you can find the work I did in the CBR News archives still, I think.
However, in the interests of fairness I thought Jonah should see some kind of a writing sample, and so I sent him some stories I had written up from the very first San Diego con I’d ever been to, in 1999. He never printed them on CBR, but since tedious medical issues sucked up all the time I’d normally have budgeted for a column this week, I thought I’d share those anecdotes here now. These are just a couple of my favorite convention stories; they were originally written for a non-comics audience, so if you are wondering why some of the introductory remarks seem to belabor the obvious, that’s why.
Some of these folks are no longer with us, sadly, and I’m glad I at least got a chance to meet them while they were still around and let them know how much their work had meant to me. I hope those of you that ARE hitting the convention trail this summer will make it a point to check out a couple of old-timer’s panels or visit their tables in Artist’s Alley. A lot of them are not only very nice folks, but also hilarious raconteurs, as you will see.
Anyway. Here you go. From 1999, a more innocent time, when the main convention floor at Comic-Con only took up two football fields’ worth of space instead of the five it does now.
There were two panels on Saturday that I was dead set on attending. Both were historical panels.
The first one was “Sixty Years Of Batman.” This was a panel discussion with six of the writers and artists that, between them, covered the whole of Batman’s history. Arnold Drake and Jerry Robinson, both of whom had worked for Bob Kane at the beginning, in the 1940’s; Julius Schwartz, the legendary DC editor who brought about the ‘new look’ Batman in the sixties that eventually culminated in the Adam West TV show; Irv Novick, who drew hundreds of Batman stories in the sixties and seventies; artist and former Batman editor Dick Giordano, who was one of the primary Batman editors in the eighties as well as having drawn dozens of Batman stories and inked dozens more over others’ pencils; and Denny O’Neil, who is generally regarded as the all-time best-ever writer of Batman stories and is the current editor of the Batman books.
The panel was largely given over to reminiscences among the older fellows. Everyone mentioned Bill Finger, the writer who worked with Kane in the beginning and the one who, everyone said, was the REAL creative force behind Batman. “But legally, we could never give him any credit,” Giordano said. “We’d been trying for twenty years to get DC to acknowledge him, give him some money or some rights. We all knew what he’d done, how much work he’d put into Batman. But the contract was with the Kane studio, and Bob had that contract locked up, they HAD to acknowledge Bob Kane as the sole creator.”
“I only really met Bill once,” Denny O’Neil said. “It was a long, strange, boozy evening at his place in New York, just the two of us, talking about movies, music, everything in the world. He loved movies. That was near the end of his life. I’ve often regretted that I didn’t try harder to get him some work then, some kind of assignment. He was still a good writer. He gave us so much — everything that I did, Batman as creature of the night, the city as Gothic mansion — all of that was implicit in Bill’s work.”
(For those who don’t know, Bill Finger died in 1974, broke and hopelessly alcoholic, and to this day most non-comics people have no idea who he was or the amazing work he did, though almost certainly they know about Batman. The history of comic books is not a proud one. I remember when I saw BATMAN FOREVER with Val Kilmer as Batman and Chris O’Donnell as Robin, feeling a little sad as I saw scenes play out on the screen that Finger had originally written for comics: Harvey Dent being splashed with acid in the courtroom, becoming the demented Two-Face; the murder of Dick Grayson’s parents at the circus that inspired Dick to eventually become Robin… and I remember thinking what a terrible shame it was that Finger, a lifelong movie aficionado, would never get to see some of his greatest moments in comics get the big Hollywood treatment.)
Arnold Drake explained how it worked with the Kane studio. “See, there were a bunch of us working there in the 40’s, like a sweatshop almost, all of us barely out of our teens. We’d do the pages and letter them and Bob would take the whole bundle and sign his name to them and take them down to the DC offices and they’d cut him a check, then he’d come back and pay us. Pay us a lot LESS,” he added. Everyone laughed. “I remember — this is a funny story — I was walking around the Village one time and I ran into Bob, and he was bitching about something or other about the business, and I said to him, ‘Bob, why don’t you just get out of comics? Do something else? You’re obviously not happy.’ ”
“Well, he says to me, ‘I am getting out of comics, I’m going to concentrate on my painting.'”
“Now that really took me by surprise, because I wouldn’t have thought of Bob as having a lot of, well, artistic ambition. So I said, ‘Why, that’s great, Bob,’ you know, real encouraging, and he gets kind of excited and asks if I want to come see his paintings, his place is just a few blocks up. So I say sure and we go up there.
“Well, when we get there, he shows me what he’s got, and it’s all these CLOWN paintings, like Red Skelton or something. And he’s obviously real proud of them. I just nodded and said something noncommittal and made my excuses and I went on my way.
“So I’m at the DC offices a few weeks later and some guy tells me that one of Bob’s ghost artists is suing him. So I got all huffy and said well, there’s no basis for that, we all knew what the deal was, all of us who worked on Batman signed a contract… and the guy interrupts me and says no, no, not one of his Batman ghosts — one of his CLOWN ghosts!!”
It brought the house down. Bill Finger may not have ever gotten credit for Batman, but he got vengeance that day. Drake’s anecdote prompted a flurry of unflattering Kane reminiscences. Here’s the other one that I can remember, from Julius Schwartz:
“Well, when I was editing Batman, we were getting near the end of the arrangement with Bob’s studio but they were still doing some stories for us, and he brought in some pages that I thought needed a little work. I didn’t think they were dynamic enough. This was when Kirby’s style was all the rage, over at Marvel, you know, his figures had so much power. So I said to Bob, ‘Why don’t you run down to the art department and fix up this one panel here, make it so Batman’s fist is coming right AT the reader — ” Schwartz pantomimed it — “like, you know, a 3-D kind of effect. So Bob says sure and he goes downstairs to redraw it.
“He comes back a few minutes later and it’s terrible. Of course we all know why, it’s because Bob had to actually do it himself for once. But anyway, I say no, do it again, so he goes away and a few minutes later he’s back and it’s gorgeous. So I tell him it’s great and — don’t laugh, this isn’t the punch line yet — he says Murphy Anderson was down there and he asked HIM to draw it, and Murph did. Now don’t laugh yet!” Schwartz thundered as a few stifled giggles erupted. “That’s not the punch line! So I asked him, ‘Bob, why didn’t YOU just do it?’ and he says — okay, here it comes — ‘LACK OF TALENT.’ ” Schwartz paused to let that sink in, then chuckled and finished, “Okay, NOW you can laugh.”
We all roared, as much at the delivery as at the long-awaited punch line.
I got moderator Mark Evanier’s permission to shoot some pictures; I felt foolish afterward, because flashes were going off all over the place and they were videotaping too. Still, it’s always polite to ask.
The other historical panel I attended was also moderated by Mark Evanier — it was called simply “Golden Age Artists,” and it was an amazing array of talent from comics in the forties and fifties. Chuck Cuidera, who gave us “Blackhawk,” the great old strip of the heroic fighter pilot squadron; Sam Glanzman, who’s drawn every war and western strip ever done (my favorites being the Haunted Tank stories he did for DC in the late 60’s); Irwin Hasen, who got his start doing Wildcat and Green Lantern for DC in the 40’s and then later did the newspaper strip “Dondi” for 37 years; John Romita Sr., who drew dozens of romance and humor comics before making his reputation at Marvel on Daredevil and Spider-Man and going on to become Marvel’s art director; Ramona Fradon, the first woman ever to work in superhero comics and whose work on “Aquaman” was so terrific I use a sample of it in my class; Irv Novick, DC comics’ utility infielder for twenty years (he could do ANYTHING, but his Batman and Flash stories were my favorites); and Russ Heath, who made his rep on the war and high-adventure stories at EC comics.
Like the Batman panel, this was mostly just a collection of funny reminiscences amongst the panelists. Irwin Hasen’s was my favorite. Asked about his first drawing job, this was his reply:
“It was when I was just a teenager, maybe seventeen or eighteen. I had all these sports drawings I’d done, baseball things, you know, if you were a kid in New York back then your heroes were all ballplayers. I thought they were pretty good and so did my friends, so one day I packed up my portfolio and I looked up every daily paper in the Manhattan phone book — there were a lot more dailies back then — and I was going to go to each one of them and see if I couldn’t get some work. So the first one I went to, it was a little seedy building, they were publishing the Daily something, and I went up to the sports editor and showed him my work. Well, he loved it, and he asked me if I couldn’t do him something for that Friday’s paper. So I raced home and did the drawing and I was back the next day, and he took it and said uh-huh, uh-huh, this is great. Then nothing.
“So I’m still standing there, waiting, and finally I had to ask the question no freelancer wants to ever ask. I said, ‘So… when do I get paid?’
“Well, the sports editor frowns and says well, you better go upstairs and talk to the boss about that. So I go up to the third floor and wait to see the publisher. He’s a nice guy, shakes my hand and tells me I’m doing great work, loved the pictures, so on and so forth, and finally I asked him, ‘well, thank you, sir, but when can I get paid?’
“He just stares at me and says, ‘But aren’t you doing it for the CAUSE?’
“See, the paper was THE DAILY WORKER, it was the Communist paper! They didn’t pay anybody! So I says no sir, I’m not a communist, I’m just trying to make some money for me and my family, and he got real upset and apologetic, sorry he couldn’t help me, but he did finally give me a nickel for the subway so I could get home. And sure enough, they printed the picture that Friday. So my first published job was for THE DAILY WORKER, and I made a nickel.”
Sam Glanzman impressed me more than any of the others, I think; he’s still so vital and lively. Most of the others are in retirement or just teaching these days. Glanzman, however, is still doing straight-ahead comics work — he just finished a Western job for DC’s Jonah Hex. Asked what he thought his best work was, he shot back, “I’d like to think I haven’t done it yet.”
Ramona Fradon was quiet and subdued, though with a wry humor that belied her forbidding expression. “For me it was the money,” she explained. “I’d married a cartoonist, that was how I got into it. He was doing all right with comic books, and I was faster than he was, drawing, so I thought, well, I can do this too. But I never really liked doing it. I could never get into the super-heroes. Metamorpho I guess I enjoyed a little more because of the humor, I could be a little broader because it wasn’t supposed to be so serious. And Plastic Man, I enjoyed that, again because of the humor. But what I’m finding out now, this is the strangest thing, back then it was always WORK. I was just trying to feed my family. Now I’m retired and I come to these shows and I do drawings for the fans, and you know, I discovered that I really LIKE drawing. I think what I hated was that I was always doing somebody else’s script. Now I can do it however I want to, and I enjoy that.”
I did get to meet Ramona Fradon later in Artist’s Alley and she kindly signed my program book. I was annoyed that we couldn’t find anything of hers printed in there, but she just laughed and signed a POGO page instead, saying, “I always loved POGO.” I told her that I used an old AQUAMAN page of hers in my drawing class as an example of how to do a nice layout, and that pleased her.
I had some time to kill between the first panel and the second, and ended up out on the main floor again, wandering around with no particular destination in mind. I went past the art auction and snapped a picture, whereupon four security people converged on me, snarling, “No camera! No video!” Well, I didn’t know. I was glad to get the picture anyway (and it turned out nice.)
Feeling chastised, I fled towards the other end of the floor, where the big publishers had all their huge multimedia displays and retailers had books and toys for sale. I had avoided this area up until now because of my relative poverty, but now it was the only thing I hadn’t seen yet, so I thought, why not have a look?
Out of the corner of my eye I saw a booth plastered with posters and paintings that looked familiar, and I realized after a moment it was because I had many of those same books at home. The posters were cover reproductions. Suddenly I found myself staring at an older man, dressed to kill in a silk shirt and a gray blazer, with a mane of white and gray-streaked hair brushed back off his forehead. Friends had told me he was here, but I still couldn’t quite believe it — it was Jim Steranko. Another drawing hero of mine from my youth.
Comics fans know him from his groundbreaking work on the late 60’s NICK FURY and CAPTAIN AMERICA; but I remembered him as the painter of the breathtaking Shadow book covers of Pyramid’s paperback re-issues of the old pulp stories in the seventies, and as the designer of Byron Preiss’ WEIRD HEROES paperbacks from that same time. Probably one of my biggest influences learning to draw was trying to figure out how Steranko used light and shadow and color to get the incredible 3-D effects that he did in his paintings. Most fans talk about his comics, but for me Steranko is a painter.
What with meals and so forth I really only had about five dollars to spend. I wanted to buy SOMETHING, though, some kind of a keepsake, and I ended up getting a trading card that was a reproduction of the cover to Steranko’s CHANDLER, a detective pastiche that he had done for FICTION ILLUSTRATED in the mid-seventies. Steranko signed it for me with a flourish, and I told him, “You know, I bought this book when it came out.”
“Well, you know what?” Steranko clapped me on the shoulder. “It’s coming out AGAIN, baby.” He grinned and handed me a promotional flyer. Sure enough, Dark Horse Comics was re-issuing CHANDLER: RED TIDE in December, with new pages of art and a new introduction by Steranko himself.
He peered at my name tag and grinned. “Seattle, huh? I been to Seattle, about ten years ago, I think it was. Nice place.”
“I hope you got a chance to enjoy the city a little,” I told him. “It’s a great town.”
“Oh yeah, I found this great little jazz record store in the older part of downtown — ”
“Bud’s Jazz Records? In Pioneer Square?” It’s one of my favorite record stores.
“Yeah! That was it!” Steranko lit up. “You go down the little stairs, it’s in the basement…” I nodded. He went on, “Yeah, loved it, but it looked pretty well picked over the day I was in there, there was this other place I liked too, up the street a little…”
I didn’t have the heart to tell him the other place was gone now, replaced by Benaroya Hall and the new Metro bus tunnel station. Damn gentrification.
That’s it. I hope everyone that made it to Comic-Con this year has a great time, and I’ll see you here with all-new stuff next week.
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