« I can think of no other edifice constructed by man as altruistic as a lighthouse. They were built only to serve. » — George Bernard Shaw
Today, let’s spread a little romance around. This much-maligned genre certainly deserves more affection and respect. From what I’ve observed, even social media groups nominally dedicated to romance comics mostly exist to mock and denigrate them. Honestly, are they truly sillier and more formulaic than superhero comics?
Anyway, while recently visiting a local comic shop with the intent of buying some supplies, I also discovered a fine trove of late 60s to mid-70s romance titles, affordably-priced to boot. Having spent a month or so leisurely reading through the pile, here’s a favourite tale. My co-conspirator and romantic partner ds spotted this one first, and I agreed with her assessment that this was something special. Let us, then, cast off into the briny blue… just don’t forget to bring the oars.
Jack Abel (1927-1996) was one of those efficient and reliably solid artists of the sort that held the comics industry together through the years. I honestly can’t think of any other artist who, more than once, worked concurrently for DC (mostly inking, but occasionally pencilling) Marvel (inking and editorial), Charlton (pencils and inks) and Gold Key (pencils and inks). Add to that tally Atlas-Seaboard (in its sole year of existence, 1975) and Skywald, and you have a mighty ubiquitous fellow. It is worth specifying that, unlike most of comics’ other utility players and pinch hitters, his work never seemed rushed or botched.
I enjoy Abel’s Charlton work most, because he was often assigned some memorable scripts (an unlikely prospect at Gold Key), chief among them The Lure of the Swamp! (script by Nicola Cuti, Haunted no. 8, Oct. 1972); Mr. Blanque (script by Cuti, Ghostly Haunts no. 28, Nov. 1972); Like Father, Like Son (script by Cuti, Haunted no. 10, Jan. 1972); Sewer Patrol! (script by Cuti, Ghostly Haunts no. 31, Apr. 1973); and The Teddy Bear! (script by Cuti, Haunted no. 15, Nov. 1973)…
Any Port in a Storm, however, is clearly the work of Joe Gill, who frequently helped distinguish and elevate Charlton’s romance material by deftly integrating just the right amount of plausible detail of business, engineering, sports or what-have-you matters into his narratives. Presumably, Gill was getting further mileage from all the research he’d conducted in order to write the fifteen-issue Popeye Career Awareness Library, a couple of years earlier.
As you can witness, this is every bit as much of a tale of adventure as it is a romance, and indeed, why split hairs when you can have both?
« Programmed for love, she can be quite tender Treat her unkind, nothing offends her She vacuums the carpet and doesn’t complain She’ll walk the dog in the pouring rain. » — Was (Not Was), Robot Girl
Today, on the occasion of his birthday (this would be number 112), we celebrate the great writer and editor Leo Rosenbaum (1909-1974), Potentate of Pseudonyms. If you know of him at all, odds are it’s under his nom de plume of Richard E. Hughes, pioneering chief writer and editor of the American Comics Group (ACG, 1943-67), and then perhaps under one of the numerous colourful aliases he adopted to conceal the fact that he was doing most, if not all, the company’s writing. In alphabetical order, meet Pierre Alonzo, Ace Aquila, Brad Everson, Lafcadio Lee (a salute to the Irish-born writer of Japanese ghost stories of Kwaidan fame, perhaps?), Kermit Lundgren, Shane O’Shea, Greg Olivetti (probably inspired by the brand of his typewriter!), Kurato Osaki, Pierce Rand, Bob Standish and Zev Zimmer.
Early in my comics collecting days, I spent a lot of time consulting Robert Overstreet‘s The Comic Book Price Guide (a practice I’ve utterly abandoned) gleaning random bits of trivia and dreaming about potential acquisitions. One item that greatly piqued my interest was this note:
Well, I did eventually get my hands on a copy, and I must say wasn’t disappointed. And since I was taught to share with the other kids, here’s the story in question.
As for the artist: Johnny Craig (1926-2001) had been absent from the comics field most of the decade that followed EC Comics’ near-total collapse and the advent of the Comics Code, when he suddenly turned up at ACG (he’d been toiling in advertising). He would later do some work with Warren, Marvel and DC until the early 80s, at which point he more or less retired. Craig’s always been near the very top of my favourites at EC. Since he was, artistically-speaking, painstaking (‘slow as mollasses in February‘, my art school drawing teacher was fond of saying) and quite self-critical, Gaines entrusted him, as he did in the case of Harvey Kurtzman, with some editorial and scripting responsibilities to make up the income shortfall and keep him around and happy. And so the Craig-edited-and-led Vault of Horror is easily the finest of the company’s horror trio, largely thanks to Craig’s solid writing skills, not to mention his inspired artwork. Craig’s stories provided a much-needed breather from Gaines and Feldstein’s often powerful, but also formulaic and overwritten tales.
Interestingly, while Craig’s art style is overall understated and full of spit and polish, he created several of the company’s most transgressive images (such as this one and that one). Editor-writer Hughes knew precisely what he was doing (as any editor worth his salt should) when he conceived this story and assigned it to Craig. It plays superbly to the man’s strengths, if you ask me.
« 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. »
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).
« 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. »
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.
What’s that? Oh, right. Fine, here’s that « FREE Pin-Up Poster of David Cassidy » already.
*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).
« 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?
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).
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!
« 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!
Is it just me, or can you also picture Thomas Dolby as a grown-up Jack?
« 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.
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)?
« 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.
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 ReindeerLimited 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.
« 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
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.
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.
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 notBill 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. »
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***.
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. »
*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.. »
***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. »
« 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.
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?
*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.