Lee Wochner: Writer. Director. Writing instructor. Thinker about things.


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Lasting impact

Sunday, April 14th, 2019

 

ScrewIranColoringBook

You see above you the legendary “Screw Iran Coloring Book,” written and published by me and my then-business partner, in 1980. Back in 2007 on this blog, I shared the story of how this came to be created (you can read it again here) and how we were unable to sell it at the time.  Since then, the thing was listed in The Official Underground and Newave Comix Price Guide, has somehow wound up in the collection of the Michigan State University libraries, gotten identified  as a “Head Comix” (which it isn’t), and is the subject of periodic unsolicited emails and phone calls that I get from strangers asking if they can buy a copy — which they haven’t been able to do for almost 40 years.

Well, as you can see from the photo above, I found some of them. Actually, while looking up in the “Anne Frank Room” (my wife’s name for a hidden storage space in our house) for something else, my 16-year-old came across them and asked me what they were. I had him bring them down, I held onto the four above, and I contacted the people on my decades-long wait list to see if they still wanted them. They did — and so yesterday I started shipping them out.

My wife Valorie’s immediate suggestion was to put them on eBay for $25 each. I told her that one of the people on the list, who’d waited more than 10 years for a copy, had already immediately sent me $25 via PayPal as soon as he got my email. That seemed like too much — I was just honored by the interest of people who wanted it — but he insisted on sending it. (And I’ll tell you in a minute what I spent that on.)

I’ve got those four copies above remaining. If you don’t already have one coming to you via express mail from me, and really really really want one because you just can’t get enough of the chuckles sure to be brought to you by this 40-year-old hostage drama, let me know — I might part with another one or two. Side note:  the art by Rich Mayone, whom I’m back in touch with via Facebook, really holds up; I think his Jimmy Carter (seen on the back cover above) is lightyears better than Neal Adams’ version in that artist’s Jimmy Carter coloring book from the same period.

So, what did I spend that 25 bucks on?

JamesWarrenBioTwo weeks ago, I finished reading the new biography of comics publisher James Warren, written by Bill Schelly. (You can learn more about that book here.) I was interested in the Warren biography because I’m always interested in the business aspect of the arts (being an artist who is also a businessman), and because as a teen I had read my share of Creepy and Eerie, and had lusted over the horror- and comics-related merchandise I couldn’t afford in the back of my neighbor Donny’s copies of Famous Monsters of Filmland. The book was just about unputdownable for me, partly because of Warren’s story (determined climb from poverty and obscurity to publishing success; major setbacks; big rebuilding; then a final bankruptcy and the mystery of what had happened to Warren, and why he hadn’t even tried to save his company), and partly because so many people I’ve known in my life were name-checked:  comics conventioneer and distributorPhil Seuling, artist/writer Walt Simonson, Famous Monsters editor Forrest Ackerman (upon moving to Los Angeles in 1988, I want to the Ackermansion and spent the morning with him), writer Don McGregor, and many others… including Harvey Kurtzman, founder of Mad (both the comic book and the magazine) and of Help!, an influential humor publication published by James Warren and that, legend has it, led to the naming of the Beatles’ second movie.

In the 1980s, I did a fair amount of writing for The Comics Journal, including reviews and essays, and, when they assigned them, interviews. For the magazine’s landmark 100th issue, I was assigned five interviews, and one of them was with Harvey Kurtzman. The last time I took a look at that interview was 12 years ago — because I found it reprinted, without my permission and without any payment or even notification, by Fantagraphics Books in a big oversize book of theirs about Kurtzman. I alerted my attorney, who sent them a demand letter, we got back a letter from their attorney, and there was a settlement — which included a copy of that book and, finally, more than 20 years after publication, a copy of the printed edition of something else I’d written for them and had been asking for a copy of ever since (as they had promised).

As I was reading the Schelly biography of James Warren, and noting the references to Kurtzman, and then noting that the publisher was Fantagraphics, and then learning on Wikipedia that Schelly had also written a biography of Kurtzman himself, I got a strange feeling, one that Google confirmed.

Yep. I’m listed three times in the index of the Kurtzman biography.

So I spent the 25 bucks, plus a little more, on ordering that. I used the money from a 39-year-old writing and publishing project of mine to get a copy of a book referencing another three-decade-old writing project of mine.

In my life, I’ve written filing cabinets full of stuff:  plays, essays, book reviews, short stories, news stories, interviews, opinion pieces, and lots of corporate writing. At this point, it’s clear what will last:  the stuff related to genre. The books that have survived the millennia are those that were most cherished by adherents; monks fleeing fires or infidels grabbed what they thought was most important. Well, nobody loves their stuff more than fan boys. My good friend Larry Nemecek is this universe’s foremost expert on Star Trek; he’s a bestselling author and international lecturer on the topic. Given my own experience in my little corner of the comics world, where people will wait decades to lay hands on an obscure underground coloring book, or will endlessly reprint a brief, bad interview of a major comics figure conducted by a callow youth, I now believe that of all the well-known people I’ve known in my life, Larry will be the one with the most lasting impact. His maps of the Star Trek universe, and his many years of magazine coverage of every rivet and bolt on all the various incarnations of the Enterprise, will live on and on. As will, I hope, my writing about comic books.

 

A period of transition

Sunday, March 31st, 2019

I was just searching for something in my Evernote file and found this:

We’re in a period of permanent transition. Nothing will settle.
It’s not an age of reading — it’s an age of looking. Looking at print or looking at screens — some of the print is interactive with sound and motion.

The old forms needn’t die. People are still buying tickets to the theatre, which has been dying for thousands of years.

I wrote that on July 25, 2014 (at Comic-Con in San Diego), no doubt as a jumping-off point for something I didn’t wind up writing. Since then, the permanent transition has continued, and nothing has settled.

By happenstance, I went to WonderCon today. I spent half of my time in the exhibit hall searching for just where comic books might be, then discovered that I was in Hall C of the Exhibit Hall — an area mostly devoted to independent artists and people lumbering around in gigantic bulky clumsy costumes representing things I didn’t recognize — and that comic books were in a small quadrant in a corner of Hall A. I’m now calling that one of the sections where “old forms needn’t die.”

I’ve been going to comics conventions for 54 years, and can remember when the exhibit hall was a smorgasbord. You’d have a comic-book dealer next to a science fiction dealer next to somebody selling Tribbles and around the corner from somebody hawking his own new board game. That’s how you’d come across new things you never knew about or thought about. Now we’ve got redlining:  comics way over there; whatever Funko Pops are and similar novelties in a separate hall, gaming stuff way back there, and so forth. At a time when the people of the U.S. seem more divided than ever (almost; we haven’t hauled out any cannons yet), someone has now split fandom down into its constituent elements too.

I remember being warned about this in the 2000s:  that, increasingly, we’d get served only the news we wanted, and blithely ignore the things that didn’t pertain to us, that we didn’t select. Take a look at Twitter or Facebook and tell me that that isn’t exactly what’s happening. And who is the perfect avatar of this dynamic? The guy who lobs one distracting new “emergency” after another into the chattersphere. It’s aggravating how much oxygen and attention he consumes.

Still, the old forms needn’t die. We’ve carved everything and everyone into smaller and smaller niches, just as the Alvin and Heidi Toffler predicted in “The Third Wave.” It’s all still here, just smaller and discrete. Which is fine in many ways. A lot of the mass market didn’t serve a lot of people, including me. Television was very bad when I was a kid; ironically, there’s so much great television now that no one could possibly watch all of it and most of it looks bland. Turn on your TV (or device) and there are so many high-quality choices that none of them seems compelling. A lone diamond sparkles against velvet, but looks lost inside a gem mine.

Now we search, in a time when everything is findable. Nothing need go out of print (or “print”) any more, and no market is too small for some attention. At the convention, I picked up a newly published book called “Comic Book Implosion:  An Oral History of DC Comics Circa 1978.” The book relates the story of DC Comics announcing a big “DC Explosion!” of new titles in 1978 — and then canceling the entire effort two months later. Not exactly “The Story of Civilization,” right? Pretty arcane — but, still, there’s some interest in the topic somewhere (like, here — with me), so it exists. I also would assume that the topic exists on Wikipedia, and it does. In 2001, I attended a speech by Thomas Friedman wherein he talked about what he called the “Evernet” — being ever-available, ever-on, because of the cellphone and the internet.

That was six years before the iPhone, which solidified the Evernet, increased immediate access to information, and also increased the immediate sharability of information — as well as disinformation. Since then, the permanent transition has continued abated. And now, thanks to speed and availability, fluctuations will increase (economic; sociopolitical; cultural) and nothing will settle.

Spider-Man’s inker no more!

Sunday, March 17th, 2019

FinalSpidermanStrip

Today, King Features retired the Amazing Spider-Man newspaper strip and, with it, beloved longtime Marvel comics inker Joe Sinnott also retired. Although Joltin’ Joe stopped inking comics in 1992, he’d still been doing the Sunday Spider-Man strip… at the age of 92. He worked for Marvel for 69 years, most famously, to many of us, on Fantastic Four. Indeed, his first inking job for Marvel was Fantastic Four #5, which introduced Doctor Doom. During his run on that title, he inked the introductions of Galactus, the Silver Surfer, the Black Panther, the Inhumans, Adam Warlock, and many others.

If you’re seeing the Spider-Man strip in your newspaper, it’ll probably remain, but in reruns. The original strip is over, according to its writer and artists, and its syndicate. Today’s Sunday strip, above, is the last original strip, credited to Stan Lee (as so much of Marvel has been), but actually courtesy of Roy Thomas, Alex Saviuk and Joe Sinnott.

SinnottSpidermanI’ve told the story many times of how tongue-tied I was to meet Jack Kirby when I was 12. But a big part of that revolves around Joe Sinnott, who was sitting next to him at that convention in New York in 1974:

But when I was 11, I was just amazed to see him in person. It was like seeing Leonardo da Vinci or Abraham Lincoln or Jesus Christ or some other enormously great historical figure in the flesh. How was it even possible?

That July, just a week-and-a-half before my 12th birthday, my father took me to the 1974 New York Comic Art Convention; this was an incredible gift, which I’m still grateful for, 25 years after his death. And there, in some little room, back when comic-book conventions were far far smaller, I stood at the back of a line of maybe 10 people waiting to meet Jack Kirby.

Kirby was seated at the left of two folding tables, drawing sketches and signing autographs and chatting with whoever was next in line. To his left (my right) was his longtime inker on “Fantastic Four,” Joe Sinnott. (Mr. Sinnott, aged 90, is still with us.) Although Kirby by this point had left Marvel for DC, and I had read some of those DC comics, I was still completely enamored with “Fantastic Four” — as was seemingly every person in line ahead of me. One by one, each of them remarked upon “Fantastic Four.”

But I didn’t want to be like them. Who would want to approach the godhead and seem like just another supplicant?

So, when it was finally my turn to approach the great man, I said with as much of a squeak as I could register, in something like a high-pitched mumble filled with nervous anxiety, “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

Now, for the record, Kirby’s work on “The Avengers,” while displaying the same dynamism he brought to pretty much everything, was nowhere near on a par with his work on “Fantastic Four.” And I knew this. I said this only to be different. At age 11, and small in stature and frame and tiny in self-confidence in front of Kirby in particular, it was, in retrospect from 40 years later, a little brave for me to say: “I really like your work on ‘The Avengers.’ ”

To which Jack Kirby replied, “What?”

At age 57, he hadn’t quite heard what my pipsqueak voice had said.

Fully intimidated to be in his presence, I couldn’t even bring myself to look up and see the great man sitting eight inches in front of me. I just trembled and managed to say in a quaking voice, “Oh, never mind” and stood quaking as Kirby signed an autograph for me.

I am not exaggerating this encounter.

And I have never again been so intimidated in my life. Not because of him — he was eminently approachable — but because of what he signified: everything that was important to me.

Joe Sinnott, God bless him, saw my extreme mortification and called me over and drew for me a full sketch of the Thing, a member of the Fantastic Four, and wrote my name and signed it and I cherish it to this day and am still struck by his monumental kindness.

Here’s a profile of Mr. Sinnott from the New York Times two years back.  Yes, on Facebook today, Mr. Sinnott’s son announced his father’s retirement. If it’s so, I wish Joltin’ Joe many happy returns. But I like to think that, somehow, in some way, we’ll find out that his story as a comics artist is continued.

No future for funnybooks

Monday, March 11th, 2019

Something I care a great deal about is right on the precipice — and at a time when its identity is more popular than ever.

I speak of the comic book.

Growing up, I learned a lot from them, including the basics of storytelling, acceptance of others, and wonder at the universe, and they gave me a lot of joy. But it pains me to see that just about nobody buys them any more. Comic books are mostly unseen, hard to find, expensive to purchase, and also difficult to get into because of convoluted and interwoven back stories that scare away all newcomers.

While comic-book characters rule screens around the world, as demonstrated again just this week with the out-of-this-world success of “Captain Marvel,” grossing over $150,000,000 in its opening weekend, titles of big-name characters from Marvel (which spawned Captain Marvel, as well as Spider-Man, the Avengers, Black Panther and countless others) and DC (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc.) rarely scrape together 100,000 unit sales. In fact, many of today’s comics from the big two publishers linger down around 20,000 sales or lower. I have tried, more than once, to pencil out just how a Marvel comic book selling under 20,000 copies is sustainable. The answer:  It’s not. But then, none of them are.

Here’s something else that isn’t happening. All of those movie (and TV) fans of these Marvel and DC heroes and villains? They’re not turning into buyers of comics. The movies have replaced the comic books.

Gerry Conway, who in the 1970s and ’80s wrote just about every major DC and Marvel character (and in the process killed off Spider-Man’s girlfriend Gwen Stacy, and created The Punisher, Firestorm, and several other significant characters) lays out a lot of the problem in this post on his blog:

On the one hand, you have superhero mythology in mainstream media– a mass market appealing to millions upon millions of consumers world wide, a potential audience beyond anything imagined by comic book creators half a century ago in our most weed-enhanced fantasies. And on the other hand, you have superhero publishing in the direct market– a shrinking niche market numbering in at most a hundred thousand, dominated by a core readership of a few thousand, whose financial support is strained to the breaking point and beyond by ruthless and extortionate marketing of low-value-added gimmick publications that thwart long term emotional investment.

He also proposes a solution:  Recognize that that the money, and the interest, in comics is actually an interest in the characters and the stories — in the intellectual property — and that the companies should just use comics creation to foster creativity accessible in other media.

… But, I would ask… isn’t that what’s already happening?

Last week, just before I came across Conway’s blog post, I happened to read a 10-point prescription from comic-book-store owner Brian Hibbs on how to save the comic-book industry. Here it is.  For the most part, Hibbs wants the direct distributor of comic books, Diamond Comic Distributors, to change a lot of its terms, and his fellow comics retailers to stop falling victim to all sorts of sales schemes intended to extract more money from the wallets of an ever-dwindling supply of comics buyers.

His viewpoint is shared by the four people who sat on a panel I sat in on this past weekend at San Diego Comic Fest. The panel was called “What’s Wrong with Comics and How Can We Fix it?” The retailer on the panel, who doubled as the moderator, said that there were two perceived problems with comics:  content and cover price (the lowest cover price is now $3.99 — and $7.99 is not unique), but that it was “naive” for anyone to think that the cover price was going to drop, so he immediately took that off the table. He too blamed Diamond, but also added that DC and Marvel don’t make it easy for new readers to enter the market, and they should make it easier to navigate which publications are entry-level for people who come into comic-book stores and don’t know what to buy. Other panelists agreed in various ways. Finally, I put up my hand, and said something like this:

“All of your proposed solutions are related to comic-book stores. Comic-book stores are a subset of book stores. They are specialty book stores. Last week, Samuel French, the specialty book store devoted to theatre, film, and television, closed all of its stores. [Note: They still have one inside a theatre in London, England.] Barnes & Noble is going out of business. Even the porn bookstore in West Hollywood just went out of business! Book stores aren’t going to be around. The solution to the problem with comic books isn’t going to come from comic-book stores. When’s the last time you had a new customer come into a comic-book store?”

They chattered about this for a while, and much of the subsequent discussion from the audience and the panel revolved around my statement, and then about 20 minutes later, someone else on the panel turned back to me and said, “No one up here answered your question, did they?” And I said no, they hadn’t.

Before the panel, I had gone out to the exhibit hall — what, back in the 1970s we used to call the dealers room — and wound up chatting with a middle-aged guy named Koop who was selling comics from the Silver Age. I asked him where he was from, and guessed correctly — it’s hard to mask a Pittsburgh accent — but he’s lived in Arizona for decades. Koop said that selling comics is his hobby, and it’s a lot of fun, but the rest of the time he’s a database administrator. We talked about comic-book shows of the 1970s and people we used to know in common, and I told him that I now realize what a good father I had because he was willing to take me when I was 12 years old to New York City in 1975 at great expense and inconvenience because he knew how much the chance to go to a comic-book convention — my first! — meant to me. He took me the following year, too, and we stayed over, and the year after that I got to take a friend as well. After that, I was selling comics at conventions and hiring friends or, later, my niece to work for me.

“You must be around my age,” Koop said, and we figured out that I am. His father wouldn’t take him to that convention in New York City, so he didn’t get to start going to conventions until he was older. I shared with him the story of how my father and I met legendary Disney artist Carl Barks, the creator of Uncle Scrooge, at a small convention in central New Jersey when I was about 15. Barks had brought one of his paintings of the Disney ducks to auction off, and it had gone for $3,000 on the spot. “THREE THOUSAND DOLLARS!?!?!” my father exclaimed loudly. “I was just having a beer with that guy in the bar!”

Koop loved that story — what comics fan wouldn’t? — and noted just how much $3,000 was in the 1970s. I pulled a bunch of bagged-and-boarded ACG comics from the mid-60s out of one of his long boxes and when he saw what I’d fished out, Koop said, “Ahh… great Kurt Schaffenberger covers!”

“Nobody else is going to appreciate these,” I said. “None of this. When we’re gone, the hobby’s gone. There’s nobody after us.”

Just then, a guy in his 30’s next to me said that his son, aged 12, was here in the room and loving every minute of the convention. I’m still doubtful that that kid is ever going to develop a love for Silver Age and Bronze Age comic books, but it was nice to hear.

I took the ACG comics, and two DCs, all from 1965 to 1971, and paid Koop $55. He cut me a break on the price, and it felt to me like a steal.

If comic books have a future, it won’t be as periodicals. Will they even be in print? I don’t know. I’m glad they’re here while I’m here. I don’t expect things to last forever, and I don’t hold onto the past.

Although I do plan to hold onto my comic books.

Speaks for itself

Wednesday, February 20th, 2019

Screen Shot 2019-02-19 at 3.25.43 PM

last request of 2018

Monday, December 31st, 2018

I just got another email request for “The Screw Iran Coloring Book.”

I couldn’t give these away in 1980. Now that they’re relics, there’s low but persistent demand.

 

 

With great career comes great gratitude

Tuesday, November 13th, 2018

Of all the tributes to Stan Lee that I’ve read in the past day-and-a-half, it’s Gerry Conway’s that has touched me the most.

Conway succeeded Stan Lee in scripting Spider-Man at age 19 (!!!). He was a significant comic-book writer for Marvel from 1971 to 1977 (and a minor writer for DC for three years before that), and thereafter became a major comics writer elsewhere, before transitioning into television. So he knows what he’s talking about — and he attributes his entire career to the jolt given him by an early issue of Fantastic Four — and, therefore, to Stan Lee.

What I most appreciate about this piece is that he looks at Stan unsentimentally — noting the shortcomings many of us saw — but comes away recognizing just how essential Stan Lee was to revolutionizing both comic books and pop culture.

What, according to Gerry Conway, was Stan Lee’s most significant achievement? Making it cool to want to work in comics… and to love comics.

“Nobody aspires to play in a rock band if they’ve never heard of a rock band. The Marvel Bullpen of the 1960s was comicdom’s first rock band.

“That was because of Stan.”

Spot on.

You can read the rest of the piece here.

‘Nuff said.

Now it can be told!

Monday, November 12th, 2018

According to longtime DC Comics scribe Elliot S! Maggin, here’s how Stan Lee got started in a career in cameos.

StanLeeCameos

Another wonderful part of Stan Lee’s legacy

Monday, November 12th, 2018

Countless young people like me read this at the time and were positively influenced by it.

StansSoapbox

Stan Lee, R.I.P.

Monday, November 12th, 2018

StanLee

Stan Lee has died. And with that, we’ve lost the last luminary of the Golden Age of comics.

I owe the man a lot. He and his creative partner Jack Kirby shaped my early life, helping me to understand that while each of us would always have problems to deal with, there was a universe of adventure awaiting our exploration.

Kirby was the cosmic explorer, a man overfilled with big ideas and the drawing ability to set them down on paper. It was Lee, though, who supplied the underlying humanity — whether it was the tortured Ben Grimm trying to hold onto his sense of self while trapped within the body of a monster, or, even, the imposter who’d taken Ben’s guise but who, as he learned about Ben’s noble character, sacrificed himself to save the rest of the Fantastic Four. Kirby’s later comics, without Lee, were fun but soulless; Lee’s few attempts at comics without Kirby were all spin and no groove. While DC characters like the Flash and Green Lantern had all the personal luster of a subcommittee hearing, Marvel’s characters were conflicted and torn:  Tony Stark, the munitions maker with the damaged heart trying to protect those closest to him while supplying arms; Thor, trying to balance the competing demands of godhood, an overbearing father, and the mortals he was drawn to; Bruce Banner, a sensitive scientist struggling with the rage he personified as the Hulk. The Silver Surfer, in particular, trying to find his proper place in a universe that’s been closed off to him. These and many more speak to Stan Lee’s gift for archetypal character.

I’ve run into Stan Lee many, many, many times over the course of my life, and not just at comics conventions. At the Beverly Center, a mall on the west side of town, I was going down one side of an escalator while he was rising on the other, his lovely wife in tow. I’ve seen him on the street or at events here and there throughout the past 30 years. A client of mine had Stan Lee consulting for him. About four years ago, I literally almost collided with him in a crowded stairwell at a hotel, where he was pursued by admirers. This is a man who was famous as early as 50 years ago, speaking on college campuses and even putting on a show at Madison Square Garden. The Marvel movies of the past 10-plus years, with his signature cameos, only increased his fame.

Last night, as I was leaving the gym, I came across a white Dish satellite panel van, its interior lights left on, I assumed, by a driver who was now working out in the gym. I was tired — bedraggled, even — but made my way back around the corner and around another corner and into the gym to tell the man at the front desk that someone had left his lights on and that they should make an announcement. This wasn’t on a par with warning people about the imminence of Galactus, but it still reflects the sort of values I learned from my parents and in indelible ink from Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and that I try to practice every day.

His work, though easily mocked as lowbrow pop culture, was an inspiration to millions of us. He also brought delight to a lot of lonely bookish kids like me all across the world.

Excelsior!