I was all set to write about a certain topic… but one hurdle stopped me cold: having recently moved, we are (mostly me, I confess) still somewhat living in boxes. So… where’s that other book? In any one of a hundred or more boxes. Fortunately, I try to always have a backup plan.
This isn’t the first time I draw attention to an offering from DC’s ambitious but ill-fated Wasteland (1987-88) under the Treasured Stories rubric. See also Foo Goo and American Squalor for more details and to (beware!) suffer a case of thematic whiplash. Whatever warts and blemishes Del Close and John Ostrander‘s Wasteland creations may have borne, they weren’t interchangeable.
Today’s yarn is a spot-on homage to author Philip K. Dick (1928-82), down to the name and occupation. The ‘real’ PKD may have been fond of meat loaf as well, for all I know.
PKD had been on my mind lately. Last fall, while rambling around town, I came upon a Little Library housing one of his books, a French-language edition of 1964’s The Three Stigmata of Palmer Eldritch. I’d read the original paperback edition in 1992, but wasn’t sure I quite grasped its dénouement, and had no-one to compare notes with.
Somewhere, eons ago, I’d read that Dick’s manuscripts for his 1960s paperback originals were abridged (i.e. gutted) to fit the publishers’ format and predetermined page count. But this might be apocryphal. As it stands, I can find no trace of such a claim. The story went on to say that publishers in Belgium and France, where the author was more of a draw than in North America, based their renditions upon Dick’s unexpurgated manuscripts, leading to, unusually for translations, results hewing closer to the writer’s intent. It helps that Dick, not given to extravagant stylistic flourishes, is relatively easy to translate.
I’m currently halfway through, and so far all is clear; I may have to confer with my younger self to explain the plot to him, poor thing.
« I lived on a houseboat in Amsterdam for a year. It was intense, and it’s possible that I even had a few blackouts. » — Wolfgang Beltracchi
Today’s featured tale is an old favourite illustrated by one of American comics’ perennial mal-aimés, the much-maligned Jack Sparling (1916-1997), a prolific, reliable, distinctive stylist who toiled for just about every publisher on the block. Of course, he’s persona non grata with the superhero set (a compliment in my book!) but his chief strengths lay just about everywhere else, in humour, horror, crime and adventure… you name it.
People have quite a range of definitions as to what constitutes romance. For some it’s novels of werewolf romance, others prefer completely mind-boggling Fabiosa stories (‘Unborn triplets crashed my husband’s love‘), and some ship (I learned this term from a younger colleague) characters from whatever TV show happens to be in vogue.
If you were a teenager in the ’50s, 60s, or 70s, you probably would have read romance comics, immensely popular at the time. Charlton Comics published a whole bevy of them, and co-admin RG has amassed a respectable collection. For weeks now I’ve been reading issues of Teen-Age Love during my lunch hour, specifically for their Jonnie Love stories. Introduced in Teen-Age Love no. 61 (November 1968) as the ‘new teen swinger’ – ‘he has a way with a guitar and a way with girls!’, Jonnie lingered within its pages for quite a while, having all kinds of adventures, hanging out with new conquests and lost souls in every issue. As advertised, he was indeed good with a guitar. Joe Gill, who was scripting the stories, wrote him as a kind of chevalier errant, wandering from town to town (with the ultimate goal of going back to his hometown, which he never achieves), offering a helpful hand to damsels in distress who are running away from predatory men, disciplinarian fathers, or just the solitude of a small town.
Jonnie Love stories appeared in 31 issues overall, but I’m most intrigued by those published in Teen-Age Love issues numbers 61-74, as they were created by the same tip-top team: scripted by Joe Gill, pencilled by Bill Fraccio and inked by Tony Tallarico (see RG’s (Fondly) Remembering Tony Tallarico).
It was actually rather difficult which tale to feature, for they’re all pretty good, and I had to decide on some sort of optimal concomitance of a good plot and how the story was told visually. The final decision was Jonnie Love and the Go-Go Girls, published in Teen-Age Love no. 63 (April 1969), which I think strikes a good balance between plotting and interesting art, and is a fairly typical example of Jonnie’s behaviour in general.
This story has several things going for it – an entertainingly evil manager, a grotty dance club, the go-go-dancers, and of course the protagonist, a farmer’s daughter who ran away from her parents to make it big in showbiz (the lines dreaming of glory/twitching like a finger on a trigger of a gun‘ come to mind). ‘Cute‘, notes Jonnie, ‘but there are tens of thousands with as much talent‘. Some romance stories set out to stun their readers with ritzy places, glamorous dates, and finding a rich prince charming; others feature women who give up a life of success for simpler living – a small town, a farm, a cabin in the woods. The latter moral always feels a bit stilted, even aside from me feeling bad for women who have to give up a career they worked so hard to achieve (mostly because such plots are retrograde, and it’s all-too-seldom considered that a woman can marry and continue working).
In Jonnie Love yarns, there is a strong undercurrent of returning ~Home~, home from which one foolishly ran away and which beckons lonesome wanderers back to its comforting womb. The plots are imbued with bittersweet longing for this homecoming, and that is what lingers most in one’s mind after finishing the stories. Yet the people depicted in them are outcasts; Jonnie himself was outed as a weirdo in both dress and thoughts by the people in his home town, which is why he left it in the first place. Returning is hardly the panacea it’s supposed to be (unless one is willing, this time around, to ‘fit in’ properly), and while some of these nomads do manage to make it back, our main character is doomed to forever roam strange towns, sleep in fields, and share sweet kisses with girls he knows he’ll never see again. Rather a tragic figure, really.
Co-admin RG has previously written about Pat Boyette (1923-2000), an artist we both hold in very high regard (see his Pat Boyette — Hillbilly Makes Good post if you missed it at the time), so there’s no need to delve into his biography. He’s a mainstay of Charlton Comics, but there aren’t too many romance stories around with his art, so I was pleasantly surprised to stumble across Frozen Kisses!, signed Bruce Lovelace (one of Boyette’s cute pseudonyms), in Secret Romance no. 10 (December 1970, Charlton).
Boyette can draw anything (even horses, the usual test for an artist’s ability!), but for me it’s the way he renders faces that’s really special. In his hands, it is instantly clear what to expect of each character. The hubris of villains shows as clear as day in each wrinkle of their face, treachery lives in the corner of their eyes; the bold gaze of the courageous challenges the injustices of life; the devious throw calculating glances from under veiled lids. That is not to say that everybody broadcasts their intentions in a Boyette story – a minute shift, and the face of a villain can suddenly subtly hint at a kind smile, or the mouth can distort, revealing a seemingly undaunted man to be a spineless weakling.
But what I like best is the way Boyette depicts women, young or old. Their strong eyebrows and willful expression signals an alluring strength of personality; such a woman will stop at nothing in pursuit of her goal, whether the goal is virtuous or evil, humble or grandiose. Never mentally broken, even in hopeless situations, his heroïnes would rather literally die than to submit to someone they despise. They’re also really elegant, even innocent young maidens possessing a kind of appealing gravitas (in that, Boyette’s women remind of Jack Kirby‘s) that normally is the territory of much older and wiser women.
Although there are pleasant exceptions, romance comic plots tend to follow a rather rigid pattern – there are maybe 5 or 6 ‘typical’ templates, with small deviations to provide an semblance of variety. Boyette art would make any story enjoyable, but in this case we were also blessed with a spunky, independent heroine that’s a pleasure to watch in action. Frozen Kisses! is actually a cynical story: our leading lady, Celeste, is a scheming sort who chooses a ‘target’ based on his good looks, but also on his showmanship and money. On the other hand, it’s hard to feel sorry for Don’s beautiful-but-vapid companion, and Celeste’s quick thinking and athleticism are genuinely attractive. She doesn’t tone it down in order not to offend the fragile sensibilities of the male (I hate stories in which girls lose at chess, in tennis or whatever else on purpose, not to turn the guy off).
« From the body of one guilty deed a thousand ghostly fears and haunting thoughts proceed. » — William Wordsworth
Today’s selection is an early, early favourite of mine. I first encountered it in French, in the pages of Capitaine America no. 8 (Aug. 1971, Les Éditions Héritage); back in those days, Québécois printer-packager Payette & Simms would reprint, in black and white, recent Marvel comics in their ‘Format Double’ package, a terrific deal at 25 cents: you got two issues’ worth, no ads, plus a bonus short story. P&S’ paper stock and printing were better than Marvel’s — but their lettering and translation work generally left much to be desired*.
In this case, despite the allure of the slickly sumptuous Gene Colan / Joe Sinnott artwork, the issue’s out-of-nowhere high point was (you guessed it!) a modest little story plucked from the predawn of the so-called ‘Marvel Age’, Mister Gregory and the Ghost!, from a pre-Thor issue of Journey Into Mystery (no. 75, Dec. 1961). Many may disagree with me on this one, but boy, those post-Kirby issues of Cap’n ‘merica just serve to demonstrate what happens without a perpetual motion plot engine like Jack Kirby to propel and guide the series: when you try to introduce new foils for the hero, you get bonehead non-ideas like biker gangs, a jealous scientist in the body of a gorilla, or in issue 123’s Suprema, the Deadliest of the Species!, a brother-and-sister hypnosis act who drive around a gadget-filled tanker truck that magnifies Suprema’s power by way of a *very* 70’s medallion her brother wears around his neck. Then Cap feels its vibrations (“Ping!”) through his shield, and … oh, I won’t spoil the thing’s idiotic charms any further for you: read it here.
Ahem — back to Mister G and his Ghost. It’s not exactly a masterpiece of writing either (Larry Lieber?), but it presents Kirby at his moody, understated best. Upon seeing it in colour, I realised how providential my monochromatic encounter had been. While the story’s been reprinted a few times (in 1966, 1971, and in 2020 in a fancy and pricey hardcover omnibus), the printing’s always been pretty shoddy. As you’ll see.
But… it seems that most, if not all of the original art survives, so we’ll make the most of the situation and mix our sources as needed — hope the effect isn’t too jarring!
*here’s an example of Éditions Héritage’s lovely calligraphy, from this very story:
« 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!