Treasured Stories: “Where Is the Paradise of Space?” (1962)

« Competition brings out the best in products and the worst in people. » — David Sarnoff

The other day, my partner was trying out a video game whose soundscape seemed exceptionally judicious and well-integrated to the action. At one point, she noticed that the optimal way to play was by matching one’s pace and movements to the musical rhythm. I said, “Oh, it’s just like that Star Rovers story!”

And now for a bit of context: The Star Rovers was a short-lived series that sporadically appeared in the back of DC’s Julius Schwartz-edited titles, mainly Mystery in Space, backing main feature Adam Strange.

As Michael Uslan beautifully puts it, in his introduction to Mysteries in Space: The Best of DC Science-fiction Comics (Fireside/Simon and Schuster, 1980):

« The Star Rovers were a whole other category of space heroes, typical of the kind of originality demanded by Julius Schwartz. A transgalactic trio of playboy, glamor-girl and novelist-thrill-seeker, they rarely agreed about anything and were rarely right about anything even when they did agree. »

This is the third Star Rovers episode, Where Is the Paradise of Space?, from Mystery in Space no. 74,Mar. 1962, DC).
This is the sequence that brought this story to my mind.
One of the most charming aspects of the Star Rovers is the protagonists’ equal footing. In this case, Karel is a bit more than the fellows’ equal, but the series is mostly exempt of the sexism you’d expect from the period of its creation.

Much of the appeal of the Star Rovers is that they’re not a team: they’re friendly rivals, ‘frienemies’, as we’d call them these days. Aside from matching wits and theories, they never directly compete, as differences in their fields of endeavour would make the exercice pointless. There’s a light, jovial tone to these mysteries, yet they can still be taken seriously as intriguing puzzles.

All nine episodes were edited by Schwartz, scripted by Gardner Fox, and illustrated by Sid Greene (1906-72). The latter, a veteran of the comics industry with published work going back to 1940, arguably turned in the finest work of his busy career, and likely would have kept on doing so had it not been for… Batman’s troubles.

To make a long story short, as the Batman titles were shedding readers like there was no tomorrow (making it possible that there would, indeed, be no tomorrow), DC bigwigs opted to switch things around a bit, pulling editor (and Jack Kirby blackballer) Jack Schiff off Batman and Detective Comics and handing him the reins of Schwartz’s SF titles Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space. He ran those into the ground, but in goofily entertaining fashion, at least. Unlike the bat-books, there were expendable to DC.

As the ultimate Star Rovers tale appeared in the final issue of the Schwartz-edited Strange Adventures before the changeover, it seems likely that the series would have carried on under a Schwartz régime. But the Rovers weren’t at all in Schiff’s wheelhouse: the delicate premise called for deft, intricate plotting and wit, qualities not to be found within Schiff’s stable of writers. Gardner Fox and Greene were among Schwartz’s trusted confederates, and talent poaching was rarely allowed within DC’s editorial enclaves.

After this editorial switch, Greene was, with few exceptions, put to work inking the pencils of Schwartz’s big three: Carmine Infantino on Batman and The Elongated Man, Gil Kane on Green Lantern and The Atom, and Mike Sekowsky on Justice League of America. The problem, at least as I see it: Greene’s inks didn’t mesh well with any of these pencillers’ styles. Oh well — it’s a living. At least Greene was able to return to full pencil and ink duties on a handful of short stories for editor Murray Boltinoff, mostly in the pages of The Unexpected. Better late than never.

Finally, for your edification and amusement, here’s a Star Rovers checklist:

Who Caught the Loborilla? (Mystery in Space no. 66, Mar. 1961)
What Happened on Sirius-4? (Mystery in Space no. 69, Aug. 1961)
Where Is the Paradise of Space? (Mystery in Space no. 74, Mar. 1962)
Where Was I Born– Venus? Mars? Jupiter? (Mystery in Space no. 77, Aug. 1962)
Who Saved the Earth? (Mystery in Space no. 80, Dec. 1962)
Who Went Where– and Why? (Mystery in Space no. 83, May 1963)
When Did Earth Vanish? (Mystery in Space no. 86, Sept. 1963)
Will the Star Rovers Abandon Earth? (Strange Adventures no. 159, Dec. 1963)
How Can Time Be Stopped? (Strange Adventures no. 163, Apr. 1964).

-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).

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

Treasured Stories: “Smalltown Stardom” (1999)

« I’m going down to the Dew Drop Inn / See if I can drink enough / There ain’t much to country living: sweat, piss, jizz and blood » — Warren Zevon, Play It All Night Long

Kevin Nowlan (b. 1958, Chandron, NE) is one of those artists whose style I’ve always admired, and I’m far from alone in this sentiment. However, when it comes to what I think he should be applying his tremendous talent to, I’m squarely in the minority. Most people would evidently have him drawing Batman or the X-Men or other spandex fanboy favourites… but I feel there’s far more to him. He’s too good for the mainstream comics industry as it exists.

Always a meticulous artist he’s slow as (anti-gravity?) molasses in February, but while that’s led to a relatively modest body of work, it’s all solid. Even early in his career, his path was set, as evidenced by this bit of biography that appeared along with the opening instalment of his short-lived fantasy series, Grimwood’s Daughter (written by Jan Strnad) in Dalgoda no. 2 (Dec. 1984, Fantagraphics):

He discovered that working as gun-for-hire, illustrating scripts for which he had no respect, turning out more art than he could comfortably (and conscientiously) handle, and being forced by publishing schedules to allow as four artists to ink a single story, was artistically debasing and depersonalizing.

Like other creators (say, Adam Hughes and Frank Frazetta, for instance) of the popular but leisurely persuasion, he’s got imitators that can produce at five times his rate of speed. Good; let them take care of the superhero stuff.

Nowlan’s always possessed a sure hand with wry understatement, but he’s not a writer, and that’s a thorny problem when lacking a reliable accomplice to handle that part of the equation. So Nowlan’s done more than his share of covers, pinups and inking jobs.

Ah, but then along came Alan, whom you’ve all met. That hirsute prankster from Northampton understood. He had in his mind’s eye just what Mr. Nowlan needed to truly stretch out and shine, the absurd deeds of Jack B. Quick, Boy Inventor.

JBQ was supposed to be one of a quartet of regular features appearing in the Moore-scripted anthology title Tomorrow Stories, but Nowlan didn’t last long on a schedule, and there are but a handful of JBQ tales, all excellent, capped by the fitting double-length finale, I, Robert. (Tomorrow Stories Special no. 1, Jan. 2006). The feature was (for the most part) replaced by an unfunny waste of Hilary Barta‘s talent, a woeful would-be Plastic Man ersatz, Splash Brannigan. Alan Moore can wring humour out of nearly anything, but as Splash and (even worse) The First American show, superhero parodies are his Waterloo.

JBQ, on the other hand, provides values rarely encountered, let alone appreciated, in mainstream American comics: deadpan, understated humour, surreal but non-cloying whimsy, and a rigorous, steadfast adherence to the mechanics of internal logic, no matter how outlandish things get. In prose, one might chance upon that sort of approach in the works of Marcel Aymé or R.A. Lafferty. But even there, it’s hardly routine. Oh, and given that it’s Alan Moore we’re dealing with, it’s a huge bonus that the JBQ stories are quite rape-free!

But let’s commence from the top, with the dizzying tale of Smalltown Stardom (Tomorrow Stories no. 1, Oct. 1999, America’s Best Comics). No need to shove, there’s plenty of room at the trough!

Find out more about the infamous Black Hole of Calcutta!

Is it just me, or can you also picture Thomas Dolby as a grown-up Jack?

-RG

Treasured Stories: “Tee for Three” (1975)

« Coming to play golf is not what I would consider to be an essential purpose. » — Nicola Sturgeon

I’ve long wanted to showcase one of Samm Schwartz‘s Jughead stories on this blog, but always hit the same snag: which one? Not too long ago, while revisiting my trove of 1970s issues, I came upon just the specimen. Tee for Three appeared in Jughead no. 247 (Dec. 1975, Archie). I’ll spare you the hideous-as-usual Stan Goldberg cover.

While we know the story was illustrated by Samm Schwartz, the writer’s identity remains unknown. Schwartz usually took a hand in the scripting, but he didn’t really ever work alone. The likeliest miscreants are his usual accomplices, Frank Doyle and George Gladir.

Why this one among hundreds of others, then? For one thing, it’s longer; at eleven pages long, it’s a towering freak amidst the customary five-or-six pagers.

But that’s not all: Tee for Three also boasts an unconventional plot, one that cried out for (and received) a more leisurely deployment. Its tone is also surprising: it’s quite deadpan and sanguine in its absurdity.

For once, you can envision why these three, despite being frenemies or plain rivals, would actually hang out: they challenge and entertain one another. And even collaborate when the occasion calls for it. In this case, Jug, Archie and Reggie are so bonded in their good-natured folie à trois that the rest of the world doesn’t have a clue and hardly stands a chance.

While such a golf contest would surely result in much injury, property damage and litigation in the ‘real’ world, it sure seems like a rollicking bit of sport here, and isn’t that what good fiction is for(e)?

-RG

Treasured Stories: “Christmas Dinner” (1979)

« She kept her ears permanently tuned to the chicken voices outside, so knew immediately when a coyote had crept into the yard, and barrelled screaming for the front door before the rest of us had a clue. » ― Barbara Kingsolver

Given how muted the holiday season is likely to be for most of us, and in light of how much our readers appear to enjoy our past Christmas offerings — (all year long!), I’d thought I’d get an early start on the festivities.

Here’s a fine, but truly obscure little Christmas fable. It was buried in the back of an issue of The Unknown Soldier, at a time when the DC war line was well into its final decline.

… as much of a ‘very merry Christmas’ one may possibly enjoy in the midst of war, far from home and loved ones, at any rate. I would have enjoyed seeing more of those two kind-hearted doofuses, Burf and Flaps… and their chicken mascot. I wonder what name they would have given her…

According to editor Paul Levitz, Christmas Dinner‘s script had been purchased six or seven years earlier by his predecessor Archie Goodwin but had lain fallow in the interim. It was written by one Janus Mitchell (his sole credit in comics, but we may be in the presence of pseudonymous shenanigans) and was finally assigned for illustration to Teny Henson (often credited in the US as ‘Tenny Henson, as he is here), one of my favourite creators from the ranks of the Filipino Komiks community. In America, Henson’s work mostly appeared in DC publications for about a decade (1974-83), beginning with the plum commissions of inking a returning Sheldon Mayer (post-cataract surgery) on his Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Limited Collectors’ Edition giants, and inking Ramona Fradon‘s pencils on DC’s underrated second revival of Plastic Man for a pair of issues. All in all, Teny flew under the fanboy radar, chiefly providing artwork for mystery and war short stories, and always at a high level of craft and inspiration.

I love the economy and precision of his line, his limpid storytelling, and his mastery of an aesthetic merrily at play in the sweet spot between the cartoonish and the representational. Fittingly, he went on to work in the animation field.

This is The Unknown Soldier no. 237 (Mar. 1980, so on the stands in Dec. 1979, DC), picking up its numbering from the venerable Star-Spangled War Stories; cover, of course, by Mr. Joe Kubert, though by no means among his finer moments — that ‘Nazis in ambush’ formula was getting pretty long in the tooth by then.

Watch for more holiday goodies coming your way!

-RG

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. »

Treasured Stories: “The Monster Maker of Madison Avenue!” (1967)

« I’ve learned that any fool can write a bad ad, but that it takes a real genius to keep his hands off a good one. » — Leo Burnett

Given that they’re often referred to as comics, or funnybooks, mainstream American comic books haven’t been nearly as funny as one might reasonably expect… particularly the ones that set out to be humorous.

In the scope of the Ages of Gold and Silver, the selfsame Pantheon of Exceptional Providers of Hilarity pops up as if on cue: Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge), John Stanley (Little Lulu, Melvin Monster, Dunc and Loo), Basil Wolverton (Powerhouse Pepper), Jack Cole (Plastic Man), Harvey Kurtzman (Mad). Pray note that these are all writer-artists*, hardly a negligible factor.

Humour being subjective, of course everyone will have their own favourite to contribute. The gist of my argument, however, is that comics books fail to raise guffaws to a level that, say, newspapers strips, animated cartoons and Franco-Belgian bandes dessinées routinely** do.

Meanwhile, DC Comics arguably boasted their singular genius humorist in Sheldon Mayer (Sugar and Spike). DC’s editors loved to divide and conquer, rarely allowing solo creators to take root, let alone flourish, in their tidy corporate garden patch. Given Mayer’s crucial early importance to the publisher’s rise, he was granted free(er) rein. Which leads one to ponder whether the assembly-line method, then, might not be utterly detrimental to quality humour.

So it was to my elated surprise that I came upon an authentically amusing (imho) tale betwixt the misaligned staples of a 1967 issue of Strange Adventures… what is more, uncredited. A mystery.

Which brings us ’round to another exceptional talent, a writer this time: long-time American Comics Group (ACG) editor Richard E. Hughes, who scripted most of the company’s mid-to-late output under an impressive array of aliases*** with a dry, deadpan, absurdist wit, most memorably deployed through the adventures of Herbie Popnecker, ably illustrated by Ogden Whitney.

In 1967, Hughes found himself at leisure with ACG’s demise (the final issues of its remaining titles, Adventures Into the Unknown and Unknown Worlds, were cover-dated August ’67). He passed through DC, scripting a smattering of stories for Superman czar Mort Weisinger (one might surmise that Kurt Schaffenberger, who worked for both editors, acted as the go-between), for Hawkman editor George Kashdan and Ghosts editor Murray Boltinoff before exiting the field. According to Wikipedia, « His final job appears to have been for Gimbel’s department store, composing response letters to customer complaints. » At least he’s received some posthumous recognition, as he was a 2015 recipient of the Bill Finger Award for Excellence in Comic Book Writing.

I do believe I can detect the Hughes cadence in The Monster Maker of Madison Avenue! According to GCD, the uncredited story is scripted by one Dennis Marks, an animation writer working for Filmation’s The Batman/Superman Hour at the time… but I just don’t know. It would be Marks’ sole comic book credit, and a speculative one at that. Besides, GCD attributes the artwork to Joe Orlando, which is flat-out, laughably wrong. A frequent problem of self-styled art experts is that they wear genre blinders. Most would never be caught dead reading, say, a romance comic, so they wouldn’t recognize (though they should!) the distinctive stylings of Jay Scott Pike (1924-2015).

On with our tale, which originally saw print in Strange Adventures no. 202 (July 1967, DC).

As for the ads parodied therein, I’m no expert, but I can hazard a few guesses: The Fiend in Your Fuel Tank refers to Esso’s famous Put a Tiger in Your Tank campaign; the housewive bluntly bestowing cleaning tips to her neighbour brings to mind Bold Detergent; The Green Knight surely lampoons Ajax’s White Knight; as for Popso Kooler’s Mister Power, it’s anybody’s guess. Pepsi commercials of the period looked great, but nary featured an animated lightning man. Anyone?

-RG

*Yes, Kurtzman (and Stanley) often worked with others to increase their output (and for the love of collaboration), but they fully controlled the mise-en-scène.

** They make it look easy… but it’s quite a feat.

***His imaginary roster comprised Pierre Alonzo, Ace Aquila, Brad Everson, Lafcadio Lee, Kermit Lundgren, Shane O’Shea, Greg Olivetti, Kurato Osaki, Pierce Rand, Bob Standish, Zev Zimmer… Fittingly, even Richard E. Hughes was a pseudonym: he was born Leo Rosenbaum.

Treasured Stories: “Creeping Death” (1960)

« You can’t wake a person who is pretending to be asleep. » — Navajo saying (attributed)

I’ve written before of my appreciation of Joe Gill‘s long-running yet consistent ‘good guy with an edge‘ characterization of Billy Bonney, but I had stuck to the book’s exteriors, namely Warren Sattler’s watercolour covers from the final stage of the series’ original run. I’ve also — twice! (first here, then there) drawn attention to John Severin (1921-2012) and his colossal powers as a cover artist. Today, at long last, we dare to peer inside.

Some may wonder at the up-to-date slickness of our current selection. Bear with me. Sure, it’s old, sure, it’s obscure, and the original comic book it saw print in is on the pricey side… but it’s work that’s found some resolute champions in the intervening sixty years.

After the Charlton comics line made the switch to a mostly-reprints mode (circa 1977-78), executive editor (and cartoonist) George Wildman, possibly nudged along by his colleague Bill Pearson, endeavoured to harvest some dusty gems from the vast archives at his disposal. In this case, six consecutive issues (nos. 124-129) of the long-running Billy the Kid were aimed squarely at the discerning fans with a bold ‘All Severin Art‘ label.

Fast forward to just a couple of years ago. As the nefarious, multifarious Mort Todd* tells it: « I had the extreme honor of working with John for many years as a writer, penciller and editor. When comics creator Bill Black told me he had a complete run of John’s work on Billy the Kid in the form of Charlton’s original photostats, we decided to recolor the work and release it in two volumes. Since the original artwork is lost to history, these photostats are the closest things to the originals to reproduce from. »

When I approached him, Mr. Todd most graciously granted me permission to showcase an excerpt from his restoration of Messrs Gill and Severin’s efforts. If you enjoy this one, do check out morttodd.com for more goodies!

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Why this particular story? Doesn’t it strike you as ever-so-slightly timely? We all could use a happy ending, though, in these times of contagion and racial strife.

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And here’s the original comic book in which Creeping Death appeared, namely Billy the Kid no. 20 (Jan. 1960, Charlton). Your basic “collage of interior panels” cover. Then again, with John Severin, you’re spoiled for choice… and you do get your dime’s worth.

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Not to be confused with the historical William Bonney, Charlton’s Billy was the legendary bad boy’s first cousin, and he aimed to redress the damage done to the family name by its all-too-infamous black sheep. Read it here! Written by Joe Gill, with art by Pete ‘PAM’ Morisi, this tale appeared in Billy the Kid no. 15 (Feb. 1959, Charlton).

You may have noticed that this Billy the Kid fella displays some awfully progressive attitudes for 1959… and, some might say, even for today. And if you surmised that the story’s writer, Joe Gill, was a card-carrying liberal, you’d be way off the mark. He was, after all, Steve Ditko‘s favourite collaborator**. Gill was, instead, a bonafide conservative, fair-minded, intellectually honest, prudent, sagacious. It would appear that with time and shifting meanings and mores, this once-thriving breed has been overwhelmed by today’s  reactionaries, who arguably went so far as to usurp and absorb its very name.

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An R.J. Reynolds ad from the back cover of Coronet no. 177 (July, 1951). Put that in your T-Zone and smoke it!

By way of contrast, and speaking of cowboys… Marion Morrison*** (1907-79), better known as “Popular, handsome Hollywood Star John Wayne“, despite his renown as a so-called Conservative Icon, was no conservative… he was just another reactionary. I mean, just consider *his* stance towards African-Americans (« I believe in white supremacy until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe in giving authority and  positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people. ») or Native Americans

Meanwhile, Gill’s Billy the Kid, though thoroughly adept at quick marksmanship and fisticuffs, always sought to defuse conflict and avoid bloodshed through wits and compassion. His idea of paradise (just like his real-life cousin, come to think of it) was to head South of the border into México and hang loose among his amigos, who good-naturedly called him El Chivito.

-RG

*whose name basically means “Death Death” in French and German (albeit with an extra D); how cool is that?

**The comic book story/script writer? It doesn’t matter who follows the first. That first choice is Joe Gill.” — Mr. Ditko, from his preface to Steve Ditko’s 160-page Package no.3 (1999).

***And the likely inspiration for Shel Silverstein‘s story-song A Boy Named Sue, (popularized by Johnny Cash).

Treasured Stories: “The Imitation People” (1968) – Part 2

« Maybe one day I’ll feel her cold embrace and kiss her interface; ’til then, I’ll leave her alone. » — Jeff Lynne, Yours Truly, 2095

Without further tergiversation — here’s the thrilling conclusion of our tale!

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Citizen Glutt swears by the misogynist’s playbook: talk *about* a woman in her presence, not *to* her; objectify her, allude to her sexual prowess, but in no way address the issue she brought up. “How close to a human can you build them, Simms? Hmmm?” Looks like Glutt is ready to place his order.

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Note the reborn Simms’ moment of hesitation: he doesn’t quite know himself the answer to Clarissa’s query. And ‘I know, Clarissa!‘ is a perfectly fitting ending; it perhaps means that he can now sense things the way Clarissa always could. Congratulations, you two; you’ve earned your happiness.

In case anyone’s wondering, why do I treasure this particular tale?

Let me count the ways and means: the cosmic adventures are treated as asides, ceding centre stage to Warren Simms’ and Clarissa’s slow-simmering pas de deux. Whatever surprise comes at the dénouement had been carefully and honestly foreshadowed and backgrounded, respecting the reader’s intelligence. Unsavoury implications of the robot/human relationship are brought up, then coyly cast aside, in a ‘we know, but we’re not going there‘ move.

For me, it’s mostly about Joe Gill’s sober, understated writing, though I can hardly envision anyone turning in more lushly complementary visuals than did Mr. Aparo. I’d be over the moon to say that The Imitation People was one bead on a long string of commensurate efforts, but nope, it’s just about a one-off. It was only preceded by Denny O’Neil and Pat Boyette‘s classic Children of Doom (read it here).

Thoughtful science-fiction* in American comics as always been poorly served: with meagre exceptions, it’s been a numbing, near-constant diet of space opera.

There was the anomaly of EC’s Weird Science and Weird Fantasy… DC’s long-running, Julie Schwartz-edited Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space were fun, but trifling in the end (the short length did not help), and while Warren Magazines came through on occasion, they vastly underperformed on that front. Western Publishing’s Starstream tackled some classic adaptations, but the results were a bit staid. Grandmasters Jack Kirby and Will Eisner, of course, could handily pull off the feat: the former’s OMAC was a wonder of anticipation (with an honourable mention to his 2001: A Space Odyssey), and the latter’s tense serial Life on Another Planet (also collected as Signal From Space) kept its focus on the human drama.

The 1980s saw things progress somewhat, thanks to Jan Strnad and Dennis Fujitake‘s efforts on Dalgoda, then Retief (adapting Keith Laumer), Don Simpson‘s Border Worlds and Matt Howarth‘s stellar Keif Llama Xenotech (a Keith Laumer homage… I sense a pattern), but this foothold was a precarious and marginal one. The mainstream evidently sees non-franchise, progressive science-fiction as a commercial non-starter… and who’s to say it’s wrong? It’s not as if it’s irrelevant, as the downloading of human consciousness is a long-running wet dream of our beloved technocrats.

Maybe we need a film version to get the ball rolling.

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« The perfect touch is cold and clean / she steals your soul / when kissing the machine » — Andy McCluskey

-RG

*I’ve always preferred the more encompassing alternate French term for science-fiction, ‘Anticipation’… but what can you do?