Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 19

« Hell is empty and all the devils are here. » — William Shakespeare

In the 1970’s, thanks to a boom of interest in all things Occult, we made the acquaintance of hordes of Satan and Dracula’s close relatives. Oh, these bad boys were prolific!

This is one of Atlas-Seaboard’s entries into the black and white magazine arena. The stylish cover is the work of George Torjussen, one of his rare forays into comics (so to speak); Mr. Torjusson is still active in the fine arts field.

This is Devilina no. 2 (May, 1975, Atlas-Seaboard). Interior art by Ric Estrada, Frank Thorne, Jack Sparling, Suso and Leo Summers. Cursed with a low print run, this baby’s scarce.

Here are a few sample pages from Curse of the Ra Scarab, written and illustrated by Mr. Estrada (1928-2009). Moody!

The story’s nothing spectacular, but I’ll take Ric Estrada‘s lively artwork any day over any of those stiff photo tracers who illustrated Vampirella’s exploits. Especially since Ric gets to ink himself in this case. Reportedly ambidextrous to an impressive degree, Estrada claimed he could pencil with his right hand while inking with his left.

It’s worth noting, I think, that this has to be the most rape-happy comics magazine I’ve encountered… that isn’t from Italy. The Devilina feature aside, only one story doesn’t feature or imply an instance of violent rape. I’m inclined to thing that editor and scripters’ notion of ‘Female-filled fantasy‘ was more like ‘Female-filling fantasy‘. I guess this is some people’s idea of exercising their freedom from the Comics Code Authority — but mature it isn’t.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 13

« How could you be so sure? … they could be real! » — Reggie Mantle, believer

Sure, it’s a hoary ol’ plot, used both to comedic and dramatic effect a gazillion times, but… as is often the case, the plot is more or less accessory. I always enjoy an Archie comics story that reminds us that these kids have known one another forever (from their perspective — not in the sense that they’ve been around since the 1940s, that’s too metatextual). With Archie for the most part being someone things happen to, as opposed to a catalyst — one who sets events into motion, I’m rather more interested in the adversarial (and sometimes collaborative) relationship between Reggie and Jughead… when it’s properly explored.

As with the previous Samm Schwartz story I spotlighted, Tee for Three, Dilton’s garage plays a key part. Intriguing…

Beasties of the Night originally appeared in Jughead no. 279 (Aug. 1978, Archie). It was scripted by Frank Doyle (1917-1996).

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 11

« We see light, not dark. But it is in the dark that we feel goblins and ghosts. » — Rex Brandt

The ever-creative Tom Eaton‘s Oliver Cool (1975-79) always reserved a special treat for Hallowe’en. In past countdowns, I’ve shared the first (1975) and second (1976) entries devoted to the beloved occasion, and here is the final pair.

From Young World Volume 14 no. 8 (Oct. 1977, The Saturday Evening Post Company).
Eaton’s Fizz & Farra In the Year 2250 strip ran concurrently in Young World’s sister publication, Child Life. This seasonal cover by Arthur Wallower was simply too good not to include.
From Young World Volume 15 no. 8 (Oct. 1978, The Saturday Evening Post Company).
As a bonus, here’s one item some of you monster kids may fondly remember: Monster Stand-Up Greeting Cards (1980, Scholastic). Pricey these days, from the look of it.

-RG

Hallowe’en Countdown V, Day 2

« Every scarecrow has a secret ambition to terrorize. » — Stanisław Jerzy Lec

I can’t help but feel that a villain who makes time in his nefarious schedule for taking his, er, pooch for regular walks can’t be *all* bad. Likewise for a rogue who appreciates the cleverness and joie de vivre of a raven.

This is The Joker no. 8 (July-August 1976), featuring The Scarecrow’s Fearsome Face-Off!, which was edited by Julius Schwartz (in case the alliterative title hadn’t tipped you off), scripted by Elliot S! Maggin, pencilled by the always-solid Irv Novick and inked by Tex Blaisdell. Cover by Ernie Chan (as Ernie Chua).

In the mid-70s, The Clown Prince of Crime held his own book for ten issues (nine of which appeared at the time… the tenth only seeing print in… 2019!), and its stories chiefly (and rather winningly) focussed on his squabbles with other members of The Batman’s rogues’ gallery (certainly the finest in comics). I haven’t followed the dodgy shenanigans of the back issue marketplace in decades, but I was amused and bemused by the lofty prices that this otherwise-innocuous little series commands. Overflow from his cinematic popularity, perhaps?

I like the way Professor Crane works. Over these past couple of years, this last two panel sequence has probably come to pass in real life more often than one would care to count.
The Joker adopting a hyena as a companion was but a cruel cover dodge, but The Scarecrow‘s pet raven, Nightmare, is present and accounted for, superbly crafty and most efficient, just like the genuine article!
The same page, from the original printing. In closing, a slight editorial note: It’s easy to forget that, unless you kept close tabs on the printer’s work, most mainstream comics were quite badly printed… it’s especially easy to forget since much of the more popular work has since been reprinted from the original art or photostats, and digitally coloured-and-printed. Conversely, when it comes to the work of defunct publishers, and if the original artwork, or quality photostats of same, is no longer in existence or otherwise unavailable, reprinters have to make do with a flawed, not to mention secondary, sources — at best. For instance, the printing of my original edition of this Joker issue is dreadfully out of register. In the wings, things were quickly shifting at DC: as of late ’75, Carmine Infantino (publisher, etc.) and Nick Cardy (art director, etc.) were out, and an absolutely crucial production technician, Jack Adler, was being sidelined. He would retire a few years later. Long story short, Sturgeon’s Law in action, and why I went with the digital colour job. After toning down the contrast a bit. A guy’s got to have standards.

– RG

The Truth About UFOs: The Hoaxmaster Knows — and Tells All!

« I have argued flying saucers with lots of people. I was interested in possible. They do not appreciate that the problem is not to demonstrate whether it’s possible or not but whether it’s going on or not. » — Richard P. Feynman

While the UFO (Unidentified Flying Object) mania has arguably continued unabated for the past three-quarters of a century, kicked off in 1947 by the Kenneth Arnold sighting and, of course, the so-called Roswell incident, the phenomenon hit its peak of popularity and hysteria in the 1960s and 1970s, when all things occult, bizarre and otherworldly were all the rage across all media.

You can follow the rising pitch with the publishing frequency of Gold Key’s UFO Flying Saucers: after its premiere issue hits the stands in 1968, two full years elapsed until the second, then another two until the third… and again to the fourth. It’s fair to presume that the title had been intended as a one-shot, and that encouraging sales led the way to a regular, if sparse schedule. Then the pace picked up after issue four (Nov. 1974), and so ten issues appeared in the span of just over three years. There was a brief hiatus, a retitling to UFO & Outer Space and a further dozen issues saw print, two of them reprints. By late 1979, the series sputtered to a halt.

They may not have been to everyone’s taste, but Gold Key comics provided their audience with a soothing respite and change of pace from Marvel’s endless manic brutality and insipid crossovers. Even amidst the GK line, UFO Flying Saucers stood out. It did a stellar job of covering the flying saucer craze of the Cold War years, thanks to a sober, documentary-style narrative tone and strong artwork, led by Frank Bolle, who fit the template to a T. The tone was surprisingly even-handed (far more so than most modern media; j’accuse, History Channel!) They even tossed a scrumptious pinch of skepticism into the mix now and again, and it’s this delicacy that we’ll be sampling.

The modern skeptical* movement was spearheaded by the 1952 publication of mathematician and science writer Martin Gardner‘s fascinating In the Name of Science (thereafter better known as Fads & Fallacies in the Name of Science), answering the need for an organised response to a (still) rising tide of irrationality, superstition and scientific illiteracy. When UFO Flying Saucers introduced its series featuring The Hoaxmaster, the skeptics’ flagship publication, The Skeptical Inquirer, was still a couple of years away from being launched. That auspicious occasion came in the fall of 1976, under its original title of The Zetetic: Journal of the Committee for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal.

The introduction of The Hoaxmaster, from UFO Flying Saucers no. 4 (Nov. 1974, Gold Key).
And such fakery has only become far, far easier… from UFO Flying Saucers no. 6 (May 1975, Gold Key).
Ah, that John and Marsha/Marcia routine never gets old! From UFO Flying Saucers no. 7 (Aug. 1975, Gold Key).
Mr. Bolle provided just one cover to the series, and while it’s hardly the best one, it certainly stands out amidst the lot. Again, this is UFO Flying Saucers no. 7 (Aug. 1975, Gold Key).
Say, what have we here? Could it be… fake news? From UFO Flying Saucers no. 8 (Nov. 1975, Gold Key).

Sadly, The Hoaxmaster series bears no writing credit. The only writer ever credited in the title is Western Publications staffer Patricia Fortunato, a former story editor of The Golden Magazine. If that’s your work, Pat, take a bow!

In comparison, artist identification is a cinch: the steady hand of Frank Bolle, who left us just last year, at the most venerable age of 95, is instantly recognizable. Artistically active right to the wire, he drew the final leg (1999-2015) of soap opera comic strip Apartment 3-G‘s 54-year-run. Over the course of his singularly long career, he worked for just about every comics publisher… and then some! His reliable proficiency at providing just the right tone to illuminate that delicate borderline between science fact and science fiction made him the ideal choice to adapt John Christopher‘s early young adult post-apocalyptic The Tripods trilogy (The White Mountains, The City of Gold and Lead, and The Pool of Fire), serialised in Boys’ Life magazine in the 1980s. Check it out here!

Well, that’s roughly half of the Hoaxmaster strips. If you’d like to see the rest, let us know… I can probably time it with the next edition of World Contact Day. To sign off on a musical note, here’s its catchy, Canadian-made anthem. Remember, “we are your friends“.

-RG

*as opposed to ‘denialism’, of course. It’s a crucial distinction: know the difference!

Odious Rumours: Arachnid-Enhanced Bubble Yum

« A kid one time fell asleep chewing Bubble Yum, and he woke up with his mouth full of spider eggs. » — Some nameless rumour-monger

The other day, a neighbour was asking me whether it was a safe for his Golden Retriever puppy to eat the worms it was digging up (I was impressed), the guy presuming that said worms were quite filthy and rife with germs. I replied that no, it’s probably all the rooting through the trash and gobbling up whatever it finds that’s giving the pup gastric distress. Worms, in fact, are considered a delicacy in many a culture, including some European ones. Not that I’ve indulged: just like The Kinks’ Apeman, I’m a strict vegetarian.

This brought to mind those 1970s rumours of earthworms serving as filler in McDonald’s burgers (never mind that worms are a far costlier ingredient than is beef). Which led in turn to the equally-outlandish notion that the secret of Bubble Yum’s softness (introduced in 1975 by Life Savers, it was the first soft bubble gum ever concocted) lay in its containing spider eggs. Again, steady procurement would have proved quite a daunting challenge.

Art by Tomm Coker, from The Big Book of Urban Legends (1994, Paradox Press/DC); edited by Bronwyn Carlton Taggart and featuring the most inconstant levels of skill and talent you’re ever likely to encounter in a professional comics publication: a couple dozen or so versatile cartoonists, and over a hundred superhero hacks and/or photo tracers utterly out of their depth, a reminder of just how shallow the talent pool is. This isn’t one of the good pieces, but it’s nowhere near the bottom.
A trade ad from 1977, the year of Bubble Yum’s national (and international, as this Canadian can attest) rollout.

But the bubble was about to burst (or at least deflate somewhat), as reported by The New York Times (March 29, 1977):

The Great Spider Egg Mystery remains unsolved but it may yet have several happy endings. The mystery concerns Bubble Yum, a popular new bubble gum that has, in a year, overtaken such symbols of earlier childhoods as Dubble Bubble and Bazooka. A few weeks ago came toil and trouble: the unexplained spread of lurid rumors among children in the New York area that, gasp!, Bubble Yum contained spider eggs (or, according to haughtier youthful accounts, caused cancer). Stores which had up to then been unable to stock enough to meet demand suddenly saw sales plummet. Last week, the manufacturer, Life Savers, Inc., took out full‐page ads in 30 area newspapers to combat the rumors.

This is not the first time the bubble gum business has been beset by evil rumor. When Jimmy Carter was a boy, youngsters in Sumter County, Georgia, were scared off by reports that bubble gum was made with snake oil —until they were reassured by an ad in the Americus Times‐Recorder. Nor is bubble gum normally regarded as the stuff of moral lessons. Its history, since it was invented by Walter Diemer in 1928, is marked by such milestones as packaging it with baseball cards (1933) or making it squeakless (1953).

But there is something more significant, and appealing, in the open way in which Life Savers has chosen to deal with its problem. We hope the spider egg rumors are expunged as successfully now as the snake oil rumors were then. And there will be a happier ending still if the subject is properly understood to be not bubble gum but canard. No consumer is too young to learn the malign effects of rumor or to understand that there will always be someone, not always in youthful innocence, eager to raise the cry—whether about Communists in government, environment, energy or bubble gum—of “spider eggs.”

From Morris County, NJ’s Daily Record, March 27, 1977 edition.

Susan M. Smith wrote, in her 1989 thesis, Consumer Rumors and
Corporate Communications
:

Whether the rumor is isolated or widespread, the company must select media that reach the rumor’s community of interest, and particularly, its influential leaders. The importance of this is shown by what happened after a rumor episode in New York City for the Life Saver’s Company. The company conducted an all-out attack to combat a rumor in 1977 that the company’s innovative, new soft chewing gum. Bubble Yum, contained spider eggs. It sought publicity, inserted full-page newspaper ads, and sent letters with a copy of the ad to the city’s PTA groups, school principals, and retail outlets.

The campaign successfully stopped the rumor, but Bubble Yum’s New York sales did not recover for many years. It turns out that even though the company had blanketed the city with its rumor denial, it never spoke directly to product users, the school-age children, to bolster confidence in the product. The selection of inappropriate media makes the refutation message miss the rumour’s public allowing the rumor to continue to spread or delaying recovery from the rumor.

Speaking of advertising: Marvel’s knockoff of Scholastic’s Dynamite, Pizzazz (1977-79), which included lots of ads, featured this piece in its 6th issue (March 1978, Marvel). This gives you a sense of Bubble Yum’s success, as the product was, in its field, what’s termed a disruptive innovation. Chewing gum no longer had to be hard.
Inevitably, the imitators came! Smooooth N’ Juicy, Hubba Bubba, Bubblicious, the oddball Freshen Up, and so on. Marvel switched its advertising allegiance to Topps. This is from Pizzazz no. 11 (Aug. 1978, Marvel). The art looks to me to be the work of Mad magazine veteran Jack Rickard (1922-1983).
A few issues later, (Pizzazz no. 14, Nov. 1978, Marvel), in a brazen display of corrupt insincerity, came this so-called Consumer Guide (note that only Topps products are pictured). Really, is Bubble Yum “the hardest, toughest gum our testers had to chew“? Surely anyone who’s ever tried to chew something from the Bazooka family knows better. My jaw aches just from the memory.
The company continued efforts to restore its reputation in the New York market, where the rumours had caused the most harm. A piece from The New York Times‘ Tuesday, July 22, 1980 edition.
This ad ran in Adventure Comics no. 487 (Nov. 1981, DC) and several other titles in the following months.
Now that’s better: in 1982, they turned to the incomparable Jack Davis to illustrate one of their print ads. Given his prodigious speed, he couldn’t have spent more than an hour on this specific piece, but it works far better than its predecessors. Incidentally, the ‘Super Yum’ thing (replacing Soft ‘n Juicy) appears to have been a move to block a competitor from using the appellation.

But I suppose all this controversy merely seems quaint now, what with all today’s heavy weaponizing of misinformation. Besides, the bubblegum market has been rather moribund in the past few decades, since apparently Nobody Likes to Chew Gum Anymore.

For a bit of sugar high nostalgia, I’ll leave you with a pair of vintage Bubble Yum ads: 1976’s brand introduction, featuring The Flavor Fiend;

And 1988’s spot co-starring a young Leonardo DeCaprio, which shows us he was clearly born with that insufferable smugness, or at least had honed it to perfection by his teens.

-RG

Treasured Stories: “Emancipated Amanda” (1971)

« The history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself. » — Virginia Woolf

It has dawned on me that we’ve been neglecting the romance genre of late, and so the time has come to remedy this regrettable situation. To that end, I’ve opted to spotlight some early work by Spanish-Argentine master José Luis García-López (born 1948, Pontevedra, Spain).

If you ask me, Mr. García-López is far under-appreciated. His graceful but unassuming virtuosity, and the seeming ease with which he wields it, makes it too easy to take him for granted. And while he’s tackled just about every major character (and many a minor one) in the DC Comics stable, much of it has been behind the scenes, in the way of style sheets and promotional artwork.

Meanwhile, in comic books, he’s mostly made pedestrian scripts* shine more brightly than they deserved. But there’s only so much, er… polishing one can do.

As it stands, my favourite portion of his œuvre is the romance comics he illustrated for Charlton early in his career, roughly 1968-74, before he moved to New York to launch his North American phase. While my predilection for his romantic material is a minority opinion, I’m not alone in this, I’m relieved to report.

It seems to me that, as a man who can clearly draw anything at all, JLGL’s chops are largely squandered on superheroes and such. But, in comics as in life, romance is hard. As Mr. García-López confirmed in the definitive interview he granted in 2010 to the championne of romance comics, Sequential Crush‘s Jacque Nodell: « Even now, I consider romance stories the most difficult genre to illustrate properly. » Bingo.

If you’ve at all read comics from the early 70s, romance or otherwise, you’ll have noticed that clothing and hair fashions can generally be termed (charitably) ‘of their time’. Not so much here. Have we come full circle, or does JLGL have a secret? He confides (do read the full entrevista… it’s well worth it):

« In those years we also had photo-novel magazines (like the foto-romanzo or fumetti in Italy) and they were very useful to design the characters and for the romantic scenes. Doing a good kiss without a good reference was very hard, honest. Besides, I was lucky to have two kindly girl friends that helped me with fashion advice and suggestions and even posed for me. That period was full of learning experiences – there is no better way to learn to draw than from a living model. »

Where can I get myself a pair of those snazzy Letraset pants?
Writer unknown, incidentally. Which is a shame.

Now, artwork aside, why am I fond of this particular story?

I love the mise-en-scène: characters are introduced in the background and without dialogue before they enter the stage. Namely Dorothy in the first panel of page 2 and ‘that beanpole’, Jim Loomis in the first panel of page 6. His first line comes in the final panel of page 7, but he and Dorothy have been staring holes into each other from the start. That’s great staging, not to mention something that, arguably, only the comics medium can achieve effectively.

I also enjoy the evolution of Amanda and Dorothy’s friendship; at first testy and tentative, Amanda’s calling her roommate ‘Dot’ by page 7. And they learn from, and support, each other. No cheap betrayal in this one.

It’s a lovely change of page for the genre that, once gridiron ‘hero’ and BMOC Dan Sruba commits his inevitable transgression… he’s gone (save for a passing mention from Les): no ‘second chance’, no confrontation, no revenge, no melodrama.

Despite the headline, I’m reading this as the story of Dot and Jim’s romance. Amanda’s interest in Les, beyond playing matchmaker for her roommate, is uncertain.

My wife was disappointed in the ending, and I can certainly see why: will Dorothy lose her fire and her beliefs? I prefer to think not — she was looking for an equal, respectful relationship, and I do think she’s found it with Loomis. And she had him well before word one, and she was clad in glasses, picket sign and dungarees. The guy seems like a keeper to me. They’re both quiet, thoughtful observers, for the most part. I like their odds.

There are a few glitches here and there, but given that the script had to first be translated into Spanish (Mr. García-López claims to still not speak English to this day… technically) to be illustrated, there may have been here and there a nuance missed, a description gone astray. Loomis isn’t quite a beanpole, and neither is Dorothy, for that matter. And ‘Plain Janes’? (page 8) And I scarcely think that Les and Jim were planning a hatchet piece (given Jim’s evident interest in Dorothy, for one), no-one would mistake these two for Plain Janes. Well, that’s always been a systemic weakness of the romance genre, in comics and elsewhere: the plain one, the skinny one, the rejected one? Still gorgeous.

This is I Love You no. 95 (Jan. 1972, Charlton). For a variety of factors, distance chief among them, Garcia-Lopez never drew an original cover for Charlton, but the publisher often creatively recycled story panels, a task handled exceptionally well in the present case.

What’s that? Oh, right. Fine, here’s that « FREE Pin-Up Poster of David Cassidy » already.

Art by Don Sherwood. For more David Cassidy (the good stuff, which is to say Sururi Gümen‘s), check out our earlier spotlight Farewell to David Cassidy, pop star… and Charlton Comics hero.

-RG

*as a well-scripted exception, I submit the opening chapter of David V. Reed‘s The Underworld Olympics ’76!, in Batman no. 272 (Feb. 1976, DC).

Felines and Moonshine: Two by Lee Marrs

« Moonshiners put more time, energy, thought, and love into their cars than any racer ever will. Lose on the track, and you go home. Lose with a load of whiskey, and you go to jail. » — Junior Johnson

Lee Marrs (b. 1945) is not your typical « underground » cartoonist, though to be fair — what would a typical undergrounder be? The movement’s whole raison d’être was ‘vive la différence‘, wouldn’t you say?

Hers is not a prolific career, perhaps, but look at the gloriously idiosyncratic path she followed: newspaper comic strip assistant (Hi & Lois, Prince Valiant, Little Orphan Annie…), underground (Wimmen’s Comix, Pudge, Girl Blimp, The Compleat Fart and Other Body Emissions), and mainstream cartoonist — well, even better: she was a regular contributor to DC’s justly-fabled (but yet to be reprinted, ahem) Plop!; she appeared in Marvel’s Mad knock-off Crazy; she even scripted, in the early 90s, a Viking Prince (yes, Kanigher and Kubert’s 1955 creation) epic, illustrated by Bo Hampton, and even a bit of Batman (‘Stalking‘, with Eddy Newell, in 1998). But that’s merely scratching the surface: here’s a more comprehensive rundown of her captivating journey.

Ah, don’t you love a happy ending? Originally published in Weird Mystery Tales no. 18 (May 1975, DC), edited by Tex Blaisdell.
This is The Compleat Fart and Other Body Emissions (Jan. 1977, Kitchen Sink); colours by Pete Poplaski. Featured front-and-centre, doing his thing, is Joseph Pujol, France’s fabulous Pétomane!
Originally published in Wimmen’s Comix no. 7 (Dec. 1976, Last Gasp). This is underground storytelling at its finest: uncompromising, political, passionate, personal, at once witty, moving and instructive. And that whole gamut gets run through in a mere four beautifully-drawn, expertly-paced pages.

And I’m delighted to report that the scintillating Ms. Marrs is still active today, her verve and talent undimmed and undiluted. By all means, check out her website for the undeniable evidence!

-RG

At Last… Freff Speaks!

« Only times and places, only names and ghosts. »Aldous Huxley

Last November, after we spotlighted a pair of mid-70s Gold Key gems I had presumed to be the brainchildren of Connor Freff Cochran (as it turned out, I was only half right; see my revised original post), we heard from the gentleman himself (and I don’t use the term lightly), who generously shared with us his sharp recollections and insights. Once you’ve read them, I’m confident that you’ll agree that such goods would have been squandered as mere comments at the bottom of a post.

So I’ve picked out another Freff favourite to feature, which will be followed by the author’s commentary.

But first, let us set the stage through a bit of autobiography and an inestimable glimpse into the 1970s publishing scene.

Here’s the skinny. Heeding a suggestion Kelly Freas had made to me eight months earlier, I moved to New York City right after Labor Day 1973. (It was a two-step process. First I hitchhiked from San Francisco to Toronto for that year’s Worldcon, then I caught a ride the rest of the way to NYC from there.) I was six weeks away from turning 19, and gung-ho to launch a career as a professional cover artist and illustrator. I also wanted to work in comics, and thought the best way to break in and learn the ropes was to start as an inker. On the comics side I took my portfolio around to Marvel, DC, Gold Key, and Warren. On the book/magazine side, I went to any publisher where I could land an appointment.

It was not a stellar launch. My portfolio was full of SF convention art show pieces, some semi-prozine illustrations, and a handful of two-toned small press book covers. It wasn’t bad stuff, but it was certainly not well-targeted to the people I was trying to impress. A couple of magazines did pay me for spot illustrations. Jim Baen — brand-new managing editor at GALAXY and IF — liked my stuff, but he wasn’t in charge of art assignments. As for my attempt to break into comic inking, that was a complete washout. There was a paper shortage on, and because of publishing cutbacks there wasn’t enough work for established inkers, let alone a newbie like me. Marvel did give me a bunch of pencil Xeroxes to do vellum samples over…but I was a pen inker, not a brush guy, and pen inking wasn’t the Marvel house look in 1973. I did get to know and hang around with a bunch of people in the company, but I didn’t get any work there.

At Gold Key, though…

At Gold Key, Wally Green looked at my portfolio and said “We don’t need any more artists. But we do need writers. Can you write?” Years later I learned that Wally was trying to plug the production hole created when Len Wein stopped scripting for him. Most likely he put that same question to every stranger who walked through the door. In the moment, though, all I knew was that I’d be an idiot to say anything but yes. Wally then introduced me to his second-in-command, Paul Kuhn. Paul handed over some sample issues of TWILIGHT ZONE, and told me to come back when I had a five-page script to show him. A few days later I brought in a story called “The Stand-In”, which was read and bought on the spot. Thus did my accidental writing career begin. This was in early October 1973. At the beginning of 1974 I did the math and decided to quit my 9-5 job, because by then I was making more from three days per month of Gold Key scripting (at the princely sum of $10 per page) than my fulltime gig was generating. I’ve been self-employed ever since.

I wrote for GRIMM’S GHOST STORIES, RIPLEY’S BELIEVE IT OR NOT, BORIS KARLOFF TALES OF MYSTERY, TWILIGHT ZONE, DARK SHADOWS (for a different editor, Denise Van Lehr), ADAM-12, and even one issue of Gold Key’s STAR TREK. Roughly once a month Paul would agree to a pitch session. I’d bring 10-15 different story ideas with me, knowing I needed to sell at least five to meet my monthly minimum nut (which was low, since I lived in a 7’ x 12’ fifth-floor walkup room on the West Side that rented for $50). Paul would listen intently, but he couldn’t look me in the face most of the time because he had a permanent spastic tic in his neck. Inevitably he would reject all but a couple of ideas, at which point I had to invent more on the spot and talk him into buying them. It was GREAT story development training.

Paul had an eidetic memory for every damn comic book Gold Key had ever published, which was its own kind of problem. This is a real exchange we once had:

Paul: I don’t know…

Me: Paul —

Paul (shouting through the open door to Wally, in the next-over office): Hey, Wally! Freff has an idea for an art museum guard ghost story. Didn’t we do a museum guard ghost story, what, nine years ago?

Wally: I think so.

Paul: Sorry, Freff. That’s out. What else have you got?

Me: Paul, your readers are eight years old. They weren’t even born when that other story was published! And anyway, it’s an ART museum guard ghost story. What kind of museum was it last time?

Paul: History.

Me: So no art.

Paul: Okay, I’ll think about it.

(He did…and still passed on the idea.)

And here’s our featured tale: Charm of the British, first published in Grimm’s Ghost Stories no. 22 (March 1975, Gold Key).

Before I return the floor to Freff, it bears mentioning that this tale was illustrated by Argentine cartoonist José Delbo (born in 1933 and still among us), then on the cusp of a five-year run on DC’s Wonder Woman. Delbo was quite recently in the news for the astonishing windfall he received from a crypto artwork auction. In these uncertain times, what 87-year-old on a fixed income couldn’t use an extra million to top up his or her nest egg?

While I confess I’ve never quite warmed up to most of Delbo’s DC work (his inkers did him no favours), I do have a soft spot for his solid run on Charlton’s Billy the Kid (1966-74!), I dug his deft comic touch on Dell’s The Monkees, and let’s not forget his inspired work on the real ‘weird western tales’ series, Charlton’s gonzo Geronimo Jones (1971-72).

I hear James Mason as the British Ambassador. How about you?

And now, with a first-hand account of its genesis, Mr. Connor Freff Cochran!

The publication date of the issue with “Charm of the British” was March 1975. Gold Key comics typically hit the stand a month sooner than the official date, so that makes this a February 1975 release. From that, and some internal clues, I can narrow the writing window down to the first three weeks of September 1974.

I’d been away from NYC all the previous summer, living in Champaign-Urbana, IL, where I was self-training just in case my application to that year’s Ringling Brothers Clown College was accepted. I finally got word that I’d made it when I arrived at the World SF Convention, which was held over Labor Day weekend in Washington, DC. (One day later I went out for Chinese food and got a fortune cookie that read “You will visit a strange place and find fresh work.”) The Clown College started on September 23rd and ran for just over two months, during which time I would be unable to do any paying freelance work. So between the end of WorldCon and flying to Venice, FL on 9/22, I crammed in every job I possibly could – which included selling and writing as many Gold Key stories as I usually did in three or four months. Wally Green and Paul Kuhn knew I would be unavailable until late November/early December at the soonest, so they did something they hadn’t done with me before, and built up inventory.

“Charm of the British” was one of those inventory pieces. It paid $60 (my page rate for scripting was $10), and looking back I have no idea what the exact trigger for the idea was. Most likely it was improvised during a pitch & sell session with Paul. Those were always insane. The typical structure: I’d come in once a month with 8-10 ideas, knowing that I needed to sell five or six to guarantee my monthly budget. Paul would say yes to one or two and reject the rest. At which point the improv would begin, with me inventing more stories on the spot while he tried to get me to leave… something I would only do after getting him to say yes as many times as needed. I was 19 years old, and it was great training for a creative future. 

The title’s a minor bit of wordplay, of course – “charm” as in magic and manners, both.

Grimm  always had to have jokey intro and outro lines for each story. The outro on this one wasn’t anything to be proud of, but all these years later I’m still happy with the punny “shades” (of the Boston Tea Party) in the intro.

These were stories for young kids, so you couldn’t go into detail about anything. But I did enjoy slipping in as many real Revolutionary War references as I could, both direct (namechecking Paul Revere) and indirect (referencing Revere’s profession by having my lead character ask for “the good silver” in the first panel). “I won’t be judging without representation anymore” is obviously a riff on “no taxation without representation.” No child who read this comic book was ever going to remember it years later, when they encountered the real phrase in some history class, but maybe a bit of subconscious memory would help the knowledge stick, you know? In any case I enjoyed playing with all these references.

Page 2, panel 2: I absolutely did NOT write that unnecessary “Why, No!” Either Paul or Wally or the letterer added that. Didn’t make sense to me then, and makes no sense to me now. Similarly, the “Thinks they he can come in…” in panel 4 on that page is definitely an editing/letterer goof. I wrote “Thinks he can come in…” 

As usual, my character names referenced friends, sometimes combined with private jokes. Fan friends Eli Cohen and Susan Wood had begun dating recently, so I named the house owners “Eli and Susan Wood” (though all reference to the name “Susan” somehow vanished in the editing process). Susan eventually became one of the major academic names in the science fiction field, before she sadly passed, much too young, in 1980. Our visiting British Ambassador got the name of a junior high school friend of mine who had spent a lot of his childhood growing up in Europe. These days he’s a partner with the law firm of Thompson Coburn LLP, in St. Louis. Revolutionary War ghost Nathaniel Emerson is a combination of Nathaniel Hawthorne and Ralph Waldo Emerson (they were neighbors in Concord, MA for a time), with a sideways nod to NYC fan David Emerson. David had recently shared an apartment with Eli Cohen, so it amused me to have an “Emerson ghost” hanging around to haunt an Eli living space…

Looking back from today, it amuses me to think of Outlander’s evil British soldier “Black Jack Randall” and his nice-guy modern descendant, who both have the same face. It’s a neat coincidental lineup with my evil British soldier “Black Jack” Ryder and his nice-guy, same-face descendant.

Overall… confronted with this story after nearly 50 years, I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s got some nice lines, it turns in unexpected directions, and none of the characters are idiots (though they are all amazingly blasé about spectral appearances). I can imagine the Ambassador and the ghost of Nathaniel Emerson becoming the best of friends, making regular visits back and forth across the Pond… and hanging out together in the afterlife when the Ambassador finally dies from eating one too many diplomatic desserts.

Alternatively, of course, there’s a story to be written about the Ambassador coming home to England and being haunted by Black Jack’s ghost, who is appalled that any descendant of his would make nice with Yankee riffraff like Nathaniel…

Again, my heartfelt and slightly befuddled gratitude to Mr. Cochran for all his cordiality and patience. We’ve more of it to share with our readers, so expect a sequel in the near future. Cheers!

-RG

Tentacle Tuesday: Barbarian Fatigue

Greetings all! Today we play whack-a-mole with a few warriors in loincloths – or at least that’s how I felt when looking for material in this post. Every time I found an instance of tentacles in some Conan the barbarian or Kull the destroyer tale, there was yet another one just an issue or a couple down the line. Let’s then consider this the end of a story begun with Tentacle Tuesday: the Savagery of Conan’s Savage Sword and continued with Tentacle Tuesday: Conan-o-rama: after this, I’ll be all Conan-ed out for a few years to come. So drink a shot of some concoction you like (be it coffee or the potent Zombie), and join me for this last foray into the dark, mysterious, predictable world of sword-and-sorcery heroes who run around half-naked (for better freedom of movement, no doubt).

Poor octopus, by far the most tragic figure of this story… These two pages are from The Dweller in the Dark, scripted by Roy Thomas and illustrated by Barry Smith, was published in Conan the Barbarian no. 12 (December 1971, Marvel).
You can’t have it both ways – praising a woman for exhibiting quintessentially ‘feminine’ characteristics and then getting pissed off at her dismay and fright when grabbed by a murderous monster.
The Sunken Land, scripted by Denny O’Neil (from a short story by Fritz Leiber), is pencilled by Walter Simonson and inked by Al Milgrom. This story was published in Sword of Sorcery no. 5 (Nov-Dec 1973, DC). I like Leiber, and I’ve been meaning to get to the Gray Mouser for a while – but I’m reading Andrzej Sapkowski’s Witcher right now, and one sword-and-sorcery saga at a time seems reasonable.
Page from Flame Winds of Lost Khitai!, scripted by Roy Thomas, pencilled by John Buscema and inked by Ernie Chan, published in Conan the Barbarian no. 32 (November 1973, Marvel). Interestingly, barbarians seem to universally abhor striking a woman; an attempt at primitive ethics from the part of the scripters.

One more Conan before we move on to Kull…

Page from Isle of the Dead, scripted by Bruce Jones and illustrated by Val Mayerik, published in Conan the Barbarian no. 138 (September 1982, Marvel). This page has the rare distinction of having the warrior-hero being less clothed than the girl he’s with.

As promised, here’s Kull the destroyer, engaged in battle with an eighties octopus (check out that mohawk!)

Two pages from The Thing from Emerald Darkness, scripted by Doug Moench, pencilled by Ed Hannigan and inked by Alfredo Alcala. This story was published in Kull, the Destroyer no. 17 (October 1976, Marvel). Why does a traitor (that’s not ‘traiter’) deserve better than to die from tentacles? That seems like no worse a death than any other in battle.
A page from City of the Crawling Dead, scripted by Don Glut, pencilled by Ernie Chan, and inked by Rick Hoberg. It was published in Kull, the Destroyer no. 21 (June 1977, Marvel).

Just before you pass out from over-consumption of alcoholic drinks (I’m having a gin and tonic over here!), I’d like to enliven this parade of humdrum tentacles a bit with this Conan pin-up:

This scene by Mike Zeck featured on the cover of long-running ad zine Rocket’s Blast Comicollector no. 119 (June 1975, James Van Hise).

~ ds