Saturday, December 31, 2011

Behind The Scenes of the "Secret History Of Marvel Comics" P2

Let's close out 2011 with how it all began in 2010! The good news re: this project is that the deck is completely clear. The Bill Everett Archives v1 is likely on shelves in late January, the third volume of the Steve Ditko Archives is out of my hands and in production (for an April release), I finished a significant piece on Ditko for a 2012 publication (the proprietor of which should be announcing the details in Jan or early Feb), and I even just dusted the distributor's catalog promo text for the Bill Everett Archives v2 (yep, the publishing wheel begins to turn that far in advance). All of the above means that my entire focus is on tying off my next publication, The Secret History Of Marvel Comics: Jack Kirby and the Moonlighting Artists at Martin Goodman’s Empire that makes its debut at the San Diego Comicon in July of 2012.

I just came off a conference call with my collaborator, Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, about where we are with our particular responsibilities, and we are going to have a major announcement about the book next weekend, but let's first recap how we got here.

My best friend of almost 30 years, Len Lumbers (noted in comic-book history for the distinction of having three letters printed in Steve Ditko's 10-issue run of the Marvel comic, Speedball), sent me an email back in 1997, advising me of a Steve Ditko Discussion Group on the Internet, and that's what launched me into comic-book fandom. From there, I produced my Ditko Looked Up web site (now mothballed for the time being), and it led to my association with TwoMorrows for my first article in 2001 and my first book, I Have To Live With This Guy! being published in 2002. And, for a blip in 2001, I created and ran the official web site for Steve Ditko and his publisher.

But one of the participants on the Ditko group was Dr. Michael J. Vassallo; "Doc V" his moniker, noted for his collection of 1950s Marvel material. He graciously shared information and photocopies with everyone of any artist you'd request. Once I had unveiled the Ditko web site in April of 1998, I began work on a Bill Everett / Alex Schomburg / Syd Shores web site. One day, I was chatting online with Michael and told him that I wanted to start up a Bill Everett Discussion Group. Instead, he suggested that I start a Timely-Atlas list (the names associated with Marvel Comics' output in the 1940s and 1950s). On September 24th, 1999, I did just that and it lasted until late 2006 (topped out at 500 members) when a crash at yahoogroups made the list disappear for a few days. In its absence, Michael started a new one and that continues to go strong (join here).

In November 2001, Len and I had the pleasure of staying at Michael's place in upstate New York, mainly driven by me doing research on my first book, but also wrapped around a NYC comic convention. It was right after 9/11, and was the first time I visited Steve Ditko at his Times Square studio (more on that another time) and we saw David Letterman live too (was approached about tickets literally right after leaving Ditko's studio).

If you've scanned the pictures taken from the weekend back in November of this year spent at Michael's (click here and work through the links in the first sentence), you'll notice that it is quite the experience to be in his "Fortress of Sequential Art" aka the basement of his house that his wife kindly tolerates. I stayed there again in June of 2008 (and August) when my Strange & Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko book was being released, but it was the subsequent visit in August of 2010 that spawned our collaboration.

My Bill Everett biography had just debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comicon, but our August visit was strictly a social call with my 12-year old son, Luke, determined to see the new Yankees stadium (he had attended a game at the old Yankees stadium in Aug '08 with me). By this point, Michael had expanded the scope of his collecting to include more than just Martin Goodman's 1950s comic-book output. Michael's main focus at this time was Goodman's pulps of the late 1930s and 1940s.

Whilst the family dog, Cindy (aka "Jaws"), was taking chunks of flesh out of my son's foot and hand (completely unprovoked), I was looking over these pulps and said to Michael, "Wow, there's a whole secret history of Marvel Comics that barely anyone knows!" Michael concurred, saying that there was a ton of material by the Marvel artists who were moonlighting on Goodman's non-comic-book publications.

"We gotta do a book on this," I said to Michael, "'The Secret History of Marvel Comics'!" After some debate on the word "secret" (hey, if only a handful of people have this material - Michael now being the #1 collector of Goodman publications by a mile - and no one has showcased and documented this work and history in print, that's a pretty workable definition of "secret" in my book!), I whipped together a proposal and the publishers of Fantagraphics, Gary Groth and Kim Thompson, agreed to publication immediately. And the rest will be history in 2012 when the book debuts in about 7 months!

Michael and I landed on two main objectives for the project - one, showcase the non-superhero artwork of the Marvel Comics' artists of the 1930-50s; and two, showcase the fact that comics were, indeed, a small part of Martin Goodman's publishing empire. The artists' crossover was bound to happen, and was far more prevalent than anyone truly understands (based on the stunning volume of material that we keep uncovering literally to this day).

We'll be back next weekend with another installment as we edge closer and closer to revealing all the secrets of Marvel Comics...

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

Bill Everett Archives v1 advance copies in!

The advance copies of Amazing Mysteries: The Bill Everett Archives v1 have arrived on U.S. shores! My publisher, Fantagraphics, has received the small batch, destined for promotional outlets, and the book looks amazing. The rest of the print run is literally on a slow boat from China and will likely hit stores in late January or early February. You can pre-order it from at the link above, or pre-order it directly from Fantagraphics to get it ahead of the game (they ship out pre-orders as soon as the books hit their warehouse). I am very proud of this volume for a number of reasons. First and foremost is that it gets this super-rare, super-expensive, super-awesome Bill Everett artwork out there for the first time. When the book finally hits stores, I'll run through the Overstreet Price Guide and tally up how much it would cost to buy all this material even in not-so-good condition. Prediction: a lot of money. And that's even if you could find half of it. There is so much super-rare, barely-ever-seen material in this book; some illustrations that I had never even seen before until putting together this volume.

Second reason for contentment is how I organized the book - by hero, not by chronology - and how that plays out so wonderfully in the design. Each action hero has its own special section, introduced by some context regarding their history and appearances. It's so "colourfully" organized too, so well designed overall and with such wonderful reproduction of this 1938-42 artwork. Thirdly, there's the value of the introductory essay. I went to town on the piece, drawing the lines from the earliest sequential art to this specific period in history. That's important given that Everett's first work in comics predates every major superhero milestone in comic-book history.

Need proof of how good this book looks? Here's a POV promo video on YouTube:

Need more proof? Read this 23-page .pdf preview that features three Hydroman stories! And here's a Facebook Photo Album with lots of still photos of the book and insides. Have to get back to work now on the distributor catalog text for volume two...

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Being Punked by Jerry Robinson & Other Memories

I never run into writer/artist Darwyn Cooke without him reminding me of the time I was punked by Jerry Robinson, one of the earliest Batman artists and creator of The Joker. Jerry passed away earlier this month at the young age of 90. I say “young” because his mind was that right up to the last time we spoke, even if his body had begun to slow him down in the last three years to the point of him riding around the San Diego Comicon in his own motorized chariot. (That’s what happens in a solitary occupation like comic books. You often only see fellow professionals once a year, or every other year, which means you come with a picture of how they looked/moved since you last saw them, and it can be a bit sad/jarring to see their health/mobility drop another level.)

I give thanks for the few encounters I had with the man related to my books on Steve Ditko and Bill Everett...including the time when I walked straight into a metaphorical, super-powered punch in the jaw while hosting a one-on-one panel in Toronto with Jerry, clearly still a man with his utmost wits and sense of humour about him. “Punked!”

Everyone in the field knows Robinson for his work on Batman, but his contributions to the comic-book medium include being, first, an inspiration to Steve Ditko and, second, his teacher at (what is now) the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. Ditko was unique for many reasons, and one of those was that he didn’t fit the stereotypical profile of a comic-book cartoonist in the “Golden Age of Comics” – he wasn’t Jewish and he wasn’t born in New York state.

Ditko was from Johnstown, PA, and developed his love of comics through Robinson’s work on Batman (as well as Eisner’s The Spirit newspaper strip). Such was Ditko’s interest in the strip that, in his youth, he had his mother craft Batman and Robin costumes for him and his best friend Mike to wander the streets of Johnstown playing Cased Crusader and Boy Wonder.

Inspiration turned to influence when Ditko used his monies from the G.I. Bill (after having served in Germany in the post-War constabulary forces there) to head to Manhattan in 1950 to study under Robinson at the Cartoonists & Illustrators School. Robinson spoke of teaching Ditko in an interview for Alter Ego #39 conducted by Jim Amash: “Steve was quiet and retiring, a very hard worker who really focused on his drawing. Some of the ones who weren’t overly gifted went further than more talented ones, solely because they were driven. They must understand the story’s structure and characterization. Steve understood all of that. He could work with other writers as well as write his own stories and create his own characters.”So impressed with Ditko was Robinson that he helped him get a scholarship for Ditko’s second year. Ditko was so devoted to his schooling that he even remained in school part-time at night in 1954 after being published in 1953.

Ditko was also effusive in his praise of Robinson. In a 1959 letter to fan Mike Britt, Ditko said of his 1953 work, “If Robinson had seen some of that stuff, he’d have me shot. But there’s a big difference in knowin [sic] what’s right and having time to apply everything properly. I’m not alabing [sic] the things I did, a lot of it was pure junk but now I’m in a position to do better and I hope I am.”

In a 1966 interview conducted by Robert Greene for issue 2 of the fanzine Rapport , Ditko expanded on this: “Until I came under the influence of Jerry Robinson, I was self-taught, and you’d be amazed at the hours, months, and years one can spend practicing bad drawing habits.” Of the chief lessons Ditko learned from Robinson: “The basics of art — perspective, composition, anatomy, drapery, light and shade, storytelling, etc. You can’t really draw anything well unless you understand the purpose of that drawing (storytelling), the best way to get the drawing across (individual point of view — composition) and convincingly (perspective, anatomy, drapery, light and shade).”

In my 2008 bio/art book on Ditko, Strange & Stranger: The World of Steve Ditko, I put panels of Robinson’s early 1950s work against Ditko’s late 1950s work and you’d struggle to tell the difference. Ditko’s creation of Captain Atom was a homage to Robinson’s 1946 character Atoman in form and function.

In 2005, I had the pleasure of hosting a Jerry Robinson one-on-one at a Toronto comic-book convention. He was an exemplary gentleman, but also had a mischievous look in those eyes when he playfully thought he could mess with a youngster like me. During the one-on-one, I asked all my penetrating questions about his time on Batman and his later career...all leading up to my "true intent": to drill him more about his time as teacher with Ditko.

He must have sensed this because, when the questions at the end died out, I explicitly went after him to relate some untold stories about that period. Without a hint of sarcasm in his eyes, he said, “Blake, did I ever tell you about the time at the school when Steve Ditko saved a woman from being raped?”

My ears, eyes and entire posture shot to attention with the glow of a naive researcher coming across a gold nugget of history never before discovered. I exclaimed, “No, Jerry, you’ve never told that story!” Jerry then replied, “Oh, that’s because it never happened. I’m just messing with you.”

I quickly turned to the maddening crowd and said, “I just got ‘punked’ by the Joker!” and the audience roared in approval at my folly. (Punked was the Ashton Kutcher show at the time where he pull practical jokes on his Hollywood peers, Kutcher famous for his part in the That 70s Show, being married to Demi Moore, and replacing Charlie Sheen in Two And A Half Men.)

Darwyn Cooke was amongst those in attendance, and has never failed to remind me of my shame and humiliation. Secretly, it was, and is, a great joy to share any memories with one of the industry's original members.

I also had occasion to talk with Jerry in person at the 2008 San Diego Comicon about Bill Everett and, like most of Bill's peers in the 1940s who worked for Marvel, Jerry had few memories of the man, just admiration of his work. (Everett worked in Lloyd Jacquet's Funnies Inc. shop that supplied Marvel with all that Golden Age material such as Bill's Sub-Mariner, but Everett never worked in the offices.)

When my Everett book debuted at the 2010 San Diego Comicon, I spoke with Jerry again, this time while he was in that scooter, his legs having begun to fail him (at least in terms of getting around a behemoth like that convention). That was the first moment where it hit home that time stands still for no man, no matter how much you freeze them and their work in your mind as eternal.

I started writing this post on December 12th. Since then, Joe Simon has passed away, as well. Joe was Jack Kirby's partner for many years. Together, they created Captain America, the romance genre and countless titles in the 1940s and 1950s. Joe was one of the first employees for Martin Goodman at Marvel Comics (then known as Timely Productions).

With the passing of these two legends, we are again faced with the reality that almost all members of the first generation of comic-book creators are gone. Few still stand, like Stan Lee and Al Jaffee, and we are blessed to have them around still, as we were to have Jerry and Joe with us for so many years. They lived long, healthy lives and leave a legacy up and down the comic-book industry. I'm glad I had the chance to appreciate them while they were still with us.

PS. My co-conspirator, Dr. Michael J. Vassallo, on our book, The Secret History of Marvel Comics, has a lengthy blog post with rare art, photos and videos of both men.