Treasured Stories: “Don’t Play That Ukelele!” (1975) and “Tender Feelings” (1974)

« There’s something about guitars, they’re just so big, you know what I mean? You’re just like, ‘Ugh!’ It just seems so overwhelming. And the ukulele is, like, the opposite of overwhelming. » — Zooey Deschanel

It’s no big secret: the chief asset of Gold Key’s line of mystery comics (The Twilight Zone, Thriller / Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery, Ripley’s Believe It or Not!, Dark Shadows, Grimm’s Ghost Stories and The Occult Files of Doctor Spektor) was its (generally) painted covers, the bulk of the work handled by the prolific George Wilson, with occasional contributions by Luis Dominguez and Jesse Santos.

While the inside artwork also had its charms, the weak link in the chain was the writing. Pedestrian and formulaic, most of its anonymous load was borne by Paul S. Newman, one of the comics industry’s great cranker-outers. And so things ran their humdrum course, even with the arrival of talented DC expatriate Arnold Drake in the early 1970s. I strongly suspect rampant conservatism on the part of the editors, as even normally-compelling authors produced the same generic plots, ground out like under-seasoned sausage.

Then occurred a curious bump in the road: the unheralded, near-anonymous arrival of future Clown College alumnus*Connor Freff Cochran (1954-), who scripted (as Freff, when credited — a rarity at GK) a number of short tales for Gold Key’s anthology titles for a few years (1974-1977). Of those I’ve read, most docilely follow the publisher’s tame editorial formula. But there are exceptions, and they really do stand out. Here’s such a pair, which I’m boldly attributing to Mr. Cochran.

Interesting that writer Freff opted here for the obscure, alternate spelling of ukulele. Speaking of which, how do you think ‘ukelele‘ is pronounced? You might be surprised. Check here for the answer. And, er… 1907? “One of the earliest appearances of the word ukulele in print (in the sense of a stringed instrument) is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Catalogue of the Crosby Brown Collection of Musical Instruments of All Nations published in 1907.” [ source ]
Man, that lake monster looks familiar. I smell a swipe.
And for the full multimedia experience, you can sing and strum along with George!

Ahem — sloppy research on Freff’s part:

The ukulele was popularized for a stateside audience during the Panama–Pacific International Exposition, held from spring to autumn of 1915 in San Francisco.

[ source ]

It is therefore highly unlikely that anyone on the American continent would have been plucking a uke, let alone that two random Missouri farmboys would spot a specimen from a distance. Not to mention the fact that the uncredited and unknown artist (no, it’s not Bill Molno, dear ignoramuses at the GCD) drew… a plain old guitar. Let’s face it, a banjo or even a mandolin would have made more sense.

In his defense, Freff recalled:

« I absolutely did write “Don’t Play That Ukulele!” But I don’t deserve the ding for the misspelling — that was the letterer’s error, which no one fixed. I will cop to not knowing (in 1975) that the ukulele wasn’t introduced stateside until 1915…but even there the story is a bit more complicated than it appears on the surface. When I pitched the idea it was a guitar that brought doom down on our unfortunate swain, same as it wound up being drawn. But editor Paul Kuhn thought a ukulele was intrinsically funnier than a guitar, and he’s absolutely right about that. I remember us both giggling over the title when we came up with it. »

Oh, I fully agree. A pox on that sloppy letterer.

So, who is this Freff guy? Here’s a bit of self-provided biography:

At fourteen, he and his family moved to Placentia, California, east of Los Angeles, where he graduated from El Dorado High School a year ahead of the normal schedule. One of his fellow students had combined the words “friend” and “Jeff ” to coin the name “Freff ”— and while at first this remained only a nickname, by 1970 he had started signing his artwork that way, as well. Like many artists, Cochran entered the science fiction field doing “freebie” drawings for fanzines. His first paid job were pen and ink drawings for Andrew Porter’s semi-prozine Algol, done in 1972. In the same year he dropped out of Fullerton Junior College after two months of art classes to live on his own. He worked in various fields to make a living and “The rest was all just self-directed study and experimentation,” he says, adding “as a young pro, just starting out, I was lucky enough to be mentored ever-so-slightly by two of my early faves in the field: Kelly Freas and Jack Gaughan. At Kelly Freas’s suggestion Cochran moved to New York in September 1973 and started looking for work as an illustrator.

When that was not forthcoming, Cochran attended the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Clown College — class of 1974.

In that year he got his first big break from Jim Baen, the new editor of Galaxy and If. Baen needed people who would work fast and cheap and put up with being paid late — in other words, the perfect opportunity for beginning artists like Cochran. By this time he was aware that other professional artists and cartoonists were named “Cochran”— and feeling that using his initials “JC” would be presumptuous — the artist in 1976 went to court and legally adopted “Freff ” as his professional nom de brush, and kept it during his years of magazine illustrating. Baen was so taken with the name that he put it on the cover of Cochran’s first cover for IF, as if Cochran was an author with a story in the magazine. After that “Freff ” did a lot of work for Baen, primarily interiors in black-and-white. He also did drawings for Cosmos, Isaac Asimov’s SF, and did cover work for publishers such as Dell, Berkley, and Doubleday. Cochran was selected to be one the artists in the special 1975 NASA/Smithsonian Artists Tour. After early success illustrating Zelazny’s “Amber” novels for Galaxy, followed by cover art and interior illustrations for a set of hardcover novels by Zelazny for Gregg Press in the early 1980s, Cochran became disgruntled over nonpayment for the use of his art in foreign editions of John Varley’s novel Titan, for which he had done a frontispiece and 16 illustrations—and the argument led to the end of Cochran’s illustrating in the field.

He turned to other endeavors, but briefly “dipped a toe back into the waters by collaborating on the first (and only) issue of an SF comic book called D’Arc Tangent” in 1982–1983. He did inking and penciling for DC and Marvel comics: Star Trek** and Tomb of Dracula***.

This is Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 64 (Oct. 1975, Gold Key), featuring a painted cover by Argentine master Luis Dominguez. Don’t Play That Ukelele! isn’t even the cover story… there’s just a lot of aquatic peril in this particular issue.

And here’s the uncredited, utterly batty Tender Feelings, recognizably illustrated by another hardworking Argentine, José Delbo. It saw print in Boris Karloff Tales of Mystery no. 53 (Apr. 1974, Gold Key).

Part of my reasoning for attributing authorship of Tender Feelings to Freff is his penchant for light, deftly humorous tales that conclude with several characters meeting dismal ends. Churrr...

But… nope. The mystery of this mordant little tale remains whole. Freff helpfully eliminated himself as a suspect, and proposed some intriguing leads:

« I can’t take credit for “Tender Feelings.” I certainly wish I could, since it’s a delightful mashup/piss-take on DC’s Swamp Thing and Marvel’s Man-Thing. But nope — not me.

The publication date I find online for that story is April 1974. But Gold Key titles usually hit the stands a month ahead of the printed date, and editors Wally Green and Paul Kuhn liked to have a solid backlog of finished stories on hand. That puts the likely writing window for “Tender Feelings” somewhere around August 1973, which means there’s a chance that “Tender Feelings” was written by Len Wein himself. Len did a lot of uncredited Gold Key stories, starting around 1969, but he stopped in late summer 1973. It would have been absolutely in keeping with his sense of humor to write something like “Tender Feelings” as a happy sendoff for himself.

My best second guess after that would be John David Warner…though if I really had to bet, I’d bet on Len. In any case, whoever did it was lightyears better than the usual Gold Key writer. Glad to see them get this recognition. »

-RG

*Class of ’74. As Freff himself stated: « The Really Famous Guy from our session was Bill Irwin, who went on to a great stage, TV, and film career, and was the first performer to win a Genius Grant from the MacArthur Foundation.) I did originally intend to apply for the ’73 class, but I learned about it too late to make that year’s deadline. So I went to NYC instead to pursue art, while waiting for my next chance to roll around.. »

**he inked two drawings (one of them a double-paged splash) in Who’s Who’s in Star Trek (1987). That seems to be all.

***a pair of frontispiece illustrations in Tomb of Dracula (the magazine, that is: six issues, published Oct. 1979 – Aug. 1980); he also conducted a fine interview with Stephen King, published in issues 4 and 5 of TOD. Freff provides some illumination: « plus the framing graphics for the magazine’s title/table of contents page, plus I got to ink a bunch of ads for the magazine. The one I know they used involved inking Gene Colan’s pencils, which was hella fun and a childhood dream come true. I grew up on Gene’s work in DAREDEVIL, DOCTOR STRANGE, IRON MAN, CAPTAIN MARVEL, etc, and he was easily as big an influence on my visual thinking as people like Jack Kirby, Steve Ditko, Neal Adams, or Jim Steranko. (I got to achieve another childhood comics dream when I got to re-pencil, ink, and color a Curt Swan drawing for the October 1988 cover of KEYBOARD magazine.)

I did a lot more writing than artwork at Marvel, but most of it was nonfiction material in their b&w magazines — 100+ articles for PLANET OF THE APES, DEADLY HANDS OF KUNG-FU, CELEBRITY, NOSTALGIA ILLUSTRATED, THE TOMB OF DRACULA, etc. »

2 thoughts on “Treasured Stories: “Don’t Play That Ukelele!” (1975) and “Tender Feelings” (1974)

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