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Personal Preview: Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates: Essays on Cartoons and Cartoonists
posted March 25, 2005
 

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"Reflections of a Fan-Addict Past"
From Outlaws, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates: Essays on Cartoons and Cartoonists
By Bob Levin


Bob Levin is one of the best writers about comics and cartooning to ever put pen to paper. He was one of the few contributors that worked regularly for The Comics Journal during the entirety of my brief stint of service in the late 1990s. Bob practices a kind of criticism filtered through his own experiences, which is then put into story form. This could be tediously self-indulgent in less graceful hands but Bob has a few advantages. He's generally smart and insightful, he stopped reading comics from the moment the ECs passed into history until the moment he began writing about them, and he has a nice sense of humor and proportion regarding his own story.

Bob's first piece of book-length comics journalism was The Pirates and the Mouse: Disney's War Against the Counterculture, which came out in mid-2003. This year's follow-up is a collection of his profiles from The Comics Journal, including particularly amazing pieces on S. Clay Wilson, Maxon Crumb and Jack Katz. What follows is the first essay in Bob's new book, a look back at his own comics reading experiences that sets the stage for the rest of the collection. I was lucky to edit both volumes, and offer this up here with the permission of the author and Fantagraphics Books to help draw your attention to Bob's work.

(The document is taken from my own records, and may not exactly reflect the final, proofread, published copies, just in case anyone sees something and groans.)

Tom Spurgeon


Reflections of a Fan-Addict Past

The first EC comic I ever owned was MAD #3. On a motor trip with my parents in 1952, I plucked it from a revolving metal rack in Bowling Green or St. Augustine or Cody, Wyoming. I was 10 years old: tall, skinny, wore glasses, was uncoordinated, shy. For the rest of the trip I sat in the back seat of our '50 Hudson and, between bouts of hysterics, read "Dragged Net" and "Lone Stranger" aloud to my parents, who smiled.

I.

Either Fletcher Sparrow or Davey Peters placed MAD #3 for me in the context of the world of ECs. I met them both within the next year. Fletcher was the one friend I made when my parents thought it would benefit me socially to become a Boy Scout. I went to a few meetings of the local troop, the Jaguars, whose mascot was a stuffed red fox because, I suppose, there were few jaguars in the vicinity of West Philadelphia for a troop member's uncle to pop. Most of the Jaguars were orthodox Boy Scouts, enamored of helping old ladies cross streets and rubbing together sticks. Such activities lit few sparks for me; but one night, walking home, discussing literary matters with him, Leif Israel, and Bernard Weinstein, I mentioned "Dragged Net" and Fletcher riposted with "Superduperman."

I discovered Davey in his natural habitat, scouring the back rows of the comic book stand in the drugstore at 48th and Spruce. I had gone to the drug store with Max Garden to play pinball machines. I had met Max when we had been allies in the pretzel fight at Herbie Bender's birthday party, and he had met Davey in the lobby of the Academy of Music, where both had been strong-armed by their mothers into attendance at a Philadelphia Orchestra Youth Concert. At the time Fletcher and Davey entered my life, I was still unformed, a dabbler, an unprincipled generalist, equally content to drop a dime on Little Lulu, Tarzan, or Uncle Scrooge. But Fletcher and Davey burned with the single-mindeds' zeal. They possessed the truth -- a truth that scorned all cute, sassy talking animals and ridiculed all superheroes, noble and pure. This truth held that ECs were the only comics of value and brooked no derivation from its creed. Once Fletcher and Davey had admitted me into their bedrooms -- and showed me the contents of the cartons on their closets' floors -- I, too, quivered, enraptured by the source of their vision's heat.

II.

The ages 10, 11, 12, I see now, are significant developmentally. The child, while still totally dependent on the parent, is, for the first time, gaining freedom from it. The parent can urge the child to pursue rewarding activities and associate with worthwhile company: Boy Scouts; Youth Concerts; Herbie Bender, who was a principal's son. But the child can ride its bike out of the parents' view. It can take the 42-trolley downtown. It can spend hours behind its friends' bedroom doors. For the first time, the child can separate sufficiently from the family to carve its identity with its own hands.

Fletcher Sparrow and Davey Peters were not the sort of company parents would want at the table when such carving was going on. Fletcher was a thin, pale, only child, a year older than me, who spent hours trying to comb his hair like Tony Curtis. He lived in a tiny apartment with his mother, a dental hygienist, and her occasional boyfriend. He swore and smoked and showed his mother's falsies to his friends. Davey was short, prematurely cynical, and prankishly inclined. He had already established a C.V. that would have made most child analysts drool: chasing Mrs. Kephart with her homeroom flag; ambushing a patrol car on Sansome Street with Roman candles; dousing toy cars with lighter fluid, torching them atop a steep backyard obstacle course, and taking home movies while they dropped and burned.

And, of course, EC comics were on few adults' list of recommended reading. At the time, EC published 10 titles: Tales From the Crypt, Vault of Horror, Haunt of Fear, Crime SuspenStories. Shock SuspenStories, Frontline Combat, Two-Fisted Tales, and MAD. They were, quite simply, the finest comics of their age. EC's stable of writers and artists -- Harvey Kurtzman, Bill Elder, Jack Davis, Wally Wood, Al Feldstein, Johnny Craig, Joe Orlando, Jack Kamen, Bernie Krigstein, George Evans, Reed Crandall, Al Williamson, Graham "Ghastly" Ingels, John Severin -- was unequaled; and its publisher, William M. Gaines, gave their talents full rein. Under his aegis EC scaled the heights of genre art, using a popular form to -- through the mastery of style and technique, the expansion of boundary and content, the infusion of magic and surprise -- expose its audience to the new and different and make it rethink the world. EC was also sound politically. Its stories took courageous and commendable positions for the 1950s -- opposing racial and religious discrimination, battling censorship, and scorning McCarthyism -- which would not have dented the consciousness of Superman or The Lone Ranger, let alone Donald Duck. Finally, through lively letters pages, various promotional activities, and a generally self-mocking, conspiratorial editorial tone, EC fostered a community of spirit between company and reader that made us all feel intimately involved with its good work.

But what truly made EC great was the horror and the sex. The man who was chained in the old hag's attic. The husband who incinerated his wife with flood lights and the one who froze his. The wife who put her husband's hacked-up remains in Mason jars and the one who used the shop display windows for hers. The man who was eaten by piranha in his bubble bath and the one who slid down the pole honed razor-sharp and the one who fed himself to dogs. The woman who was steamed by the smoke ring and the one rotted by perfume and the one whose face was torn from her cranial bones. The space colonist who had 50 beautiful women in suspended animation and unthawed them one at a time like Sara Lees. Thirty years later, the images still sear the brain.

Horror and sex. At 10, 11, 12, the child remains weak and vulnerable. It is aware of the possibilities of destruction and its inability to protect itself against them. EC, arguably, assisted adjustment here. Several sterling issues a month, four heart-poundingly plotted, excruciatingly well-drawn, stories an issue, by ax and acid, fang and talon, club and disintegrator ray, EC allowed us to confront destruction in every imaginable form. We could read it and discuss it. We could contemplate it and brood about it and replay it in our dreams. We might shiver. We might shudder. But we overcame destruction. Several issues a month, we woke or walked from it, unbruised and not visibly scarred.

And sex. The child is also about to turn adolescent. It will be consciously pursuing its libidinal drives. EC, whose basic male-female relationship was: Boy meets Girl; Boy kills Girl; Girl -- "rotting, pulsating, oozing slime" -- returns from the grave for Boy, was less therapeutically valuable here. Of course, for a child in the early '50s there was little healthy sex depicted anywhere. Superman and Lois did not kiss. Tubby and Lulu did not play doctor. Tarzan and Jane never behaved like they had a clue from where they got Boy. Even in adult American popular culture, sexuality was repressed or violent far more often than it was fun. Ricky and Lucy had separate beds. Allison McKenzie was raped. The older guys on the corner talked only about girls they "got" or "scored" or "banged." At least EC took the sadomasochistic to extremes; and extremity in art, I believe, can be valuable. The extreme can pry apart an audience's defenses and force it to confront what exists within itself but has been concealed. Such confrontations can lead to self-education and growth; in some circles, they are prized.

III.

My parents, however, were of a different critical school. I don't think they read Fredric Wertham, M.D., a psychiatrist whose writings accused comic books of turning innocent children into major felons. I doubt they were swayed by the Reader's Digest articles or PTA speakers who implicated comics in the spread of juvenile delinquency, the Red Menace, and general moral decline. But my parents remembered whose nightmares woke them. They recalled who hid behind the seat, eyes closed, hands over ears, when the flying monkeys came for Dorothy. And they forbade me to buy any comics that were scary. As a fledgling EC zealot, that left my wings pretty well clipped.

Still, I did what I could. I bought MAD. I bought Panic, a MAD clone introduced in early 1954, and Piracy, which was devoted to sea stories and launched later that year. When Two-Fisted Tales diluted its blood-and-guts into a duller pulp hero format, I added that to my approved list and bought it too. I read the other ECs at newsstands and drug stores, until their owners asked me to leave; and I spent hours in Davey's and Fletcher's bedrooms attempting to close my cultural gap.

By now, we had formally established EC in our lives. One promotion had been the chartering of official EC Fan-Addict Clubs for groups of five or more. Enlisting Max Garden; Howard Fratkin, an asthmatic, eager-to-please boy who lived around the corner; and Stuart Kimmelman, my younger cousin, we rushed in our 25-cent initiation fees and became card-carrying members.

We were as devoted to our club as any Mason. We met twice a month in Davey's basement. We elected officers. (By virtue of having the most ECs and it being his basement, Davey was President. Fletcher was Vice President, and I was Secretary-Treasurer.) We traded comics, exchanged tips on what dealers stocked which titles and when deliveries were made, quizzed each other on all manner of EC esoterica (Identify by issue number, story title and artist: (a) five corpses who kill their murderer; (b) four characters whose eviscerated organs are laid out in the last panel; (c) three children who slay their parents), and debated such compelling issues as who at EC was best suited to draw everyone we knew.

One never-ending quest for the club was its search for back issues. None of us had bought ECs from the start. The resultant gaps in our collections continually grew because of EC's poor distribution system and the financial and social pressures which caused once dependable dealers to drop its line. Our only recourse was to meet someone who had ECs for trade or find those five-and-tens or grocery stores which sold old, usually coverless comics from cardboard boxes or wrapped, three-for-a-dime, in cellophane. We were constantly setting off, eyes peeled, fingers crossed, on treks into new neighborhoods to find such stores. Once, Howard Fratkin told of a paper company with bins of old comics awaiting rescue from a shredder. If his lead had proved successful, he might have deposed Davey as President. But when it came to attaching an address to this entity, it might as well have been in Eden, Brigadoon, or The Lost Dutchman Mine.

The Club's greatest trek was to New York. Every issue of every EC listed its home address: 225 Lafayette St.; but until Davey suggested it, none of us had ever conceived of that 90-mile pilgrimage actually being made.

The building was on a narrow, industrial street on the East Side. We rode up in an elevator with -- we noted ominously -- padded walls. We knocked on the door.

"Who's there?"

We told him.

"It's kids," the voice said.

"Kids?" another voice said.

"Yeah. A bunch of kids."

"Kids actually read our stuff?"

"Yeah. Kids."

"Goddamn! Did you hear that? Kids."

The office was dingy and cluttered. Except for some cubicles with drafting tables, it might have belonged to a shirt manufacturer or shoe company. The dozen men and women looked more like aunts and uncles than gods or fiends. The staff stared at us and we stared at the clutter. On one desk was the sign: DO NOT DISTURB. HAVING SEX.

Then Gaines arrived.

The staff began shouting, "It's him! It's him!" and salaaming.

This did not seem like their customary behavior. We assumed they were doing it for us. We appreciated the effort to put us at ease with some good, old-fashioned EC lunacy.

Gaines invited us into his office. He was big and fat. Not fat-fat. Big-fat. He reminded me of my Uncle Douglas, the Aluminum Siding King. Hanging from his ceiling was a mobile made from a portrait of the Old Witch or Vault Keeper or Crypt Keeper, the hosts of EC's horror comics, which had been jigsawed into pieces. Gaines was very nice. He asked us our names and where we were from. He pretended to remember publishing Davey's letter requesting stories about ghouls. He was pleased to hear Fletcher say we were adoring fans. He was very pleased when Max said we wanted to buy comics.

But while Gaines would sell us some current issues that had not yet reached Philadelphia and one or two overstocked annuals, and while he would ask the staff to autograph flyers for us -- I got Gaines, Feldstein, Williamson, Krigstein, Elder, Kurtzman, and Craig on mine -- he, too, would not sell us back issues.

It did not matter in the end. We would continue our quest. And it made no difference that EC's plant and personnel were commonplace. This did not diminish the glory of their work. We retained our passion and, with it, considered ourselves blessed.

You see, we knew none of us would be class officers or date cheerleaders or be varsity stars. But we knew we had finally achieved a piece of excellence. For the first time in our lives, we were an elite. We knew the greatest comic books. We had them in our closets. We had them in our heads. Our parents did not know them. Our teachers did not know. Our classmates didn't. The fact that we were in a tiny minority with our knowledge and that we had achieved our station with our own intelligence, own intuition, own taste, without having to be told, multiplied our pride.

It was our first taste of being hip.

IV.

My big break as an EC collector occurred the summer of 1954. My family was renting a house in Ventnor, New Jersey. Mostly, I walked from this house on Buffalo Avenue to the beach, rode the waves on a rubber raft, and walked back. Sometimes, I played softball in the schoolyard or wireball in the street or went to a movie. I went, twice a week, to a candy store on Atlantic to check for ECs.

I met the midget late one August afternoon. A storm had driven us from the beach; but it had cleared, and I had decided to explore a new part of town. The streets were potholed here, the houses jammed one onto another, the cars parked leaning on the curb. The midget wore Bermuda shorts and undershirt and smoked a black cigar.

An associate, in debt to the midget for reasons not explained, had assigned him his comic book collection for liquidation in full satisfaction and accord. The collection filled four tomato crates that blocked the sidewalk. It went back many, many years. It included many ECs Fletcher and Davy did not have. The midget was selling the collection cheap. He had a tip on the sixth race at Garden State and was eager to strike a deal.

I explained my hesitation to the midget.

"I understand the situation, kid, exactly. But what they don't know won't hurtcha, you see what I mean?"

I said I couldn't lie to my parents.

"Exactly my point. Do you mind if I call you 'Kid'?"

Not at all, I said, even though I was by far the taller. It was my first conversation with a midget and very illuminating.

"Whachu fail to grasp is how you have been punitively limited by a blurring of degrees. It's a classic case of overkill, the forest swallowing the trees. Your parents have the hearse before the cart, instead of vice versa. Distinctions must be made."

I was unaccustomed to my parents being spoken of in this manner. I asked him to be more specific, please.

"I was just getting to that," said the midget, flicking ash from his cigar. "Whachu got to keep your eye on is the rule. The rule and nothing but the rule. The rule draws the line."

"I can't buy scary comics."

"And horror comics are scary." He put away Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, Vault of Horror. I was sorry to see them go. "But don't look so sad. One good thing about lines, kid. By nature, they ain't wide." The midget slid his Frontline Combats at me. "And war comics ain't horror. Am I right or am I wrong?"

"Yeah," I said.

"And science fiction ain't horror. Science fiction is educational. That's why they call it science." The cover of the issue atop the pile of Weird Science-Weird Fantasy I had selected depicted a salivating, multi-appendaged, gelatinous blob menacing a scantily clad, buxom blonde. He layered it beneath one on which an unprovocative rocket ship approached the moon. "Some of them even have stories by famous author Ray Raspberry to improve your mind."

I don't remember what the midget said about Crime and Shock Suspens, but I did not get to go home with any of those.

When I returned to Buffalo Avenue., my heart pounded and my voice cracked. Nervously, I repeated for my parents everything the midget had said. With scholarly detachment, I drew generic distinctions. With uncommon acumen, I explained forests and trees. In a heartfelt plea, I extolled the educational benefits of pictorial adaptations of stories by writers of renown. My parents offered less resistance than when, a few months earlier, I had sought permission to buy a horned toad.

V.

The New Jersey Purchase doubled my holdings. I gained new respect in Fletcher's and Davey's eyes. Now when our group traded, they had to deal with me. One afternoon, I swapped Davey two-for-one to get MAD #5, a particularly rare and desirable item. When it turned out he already had one of my two in an annual, and I refused rescission, my reputation for shrewdness and tough dealing was nailed firm.

Another gain was potentially more valuable. For the first time, I had punched a hole in my parents' proscriptions. Their "no scary" edict had kept me from possessing many comics. Now I had some of the previously forbidden titles in my box. I had survived their presence and was optimistic I would find ways to add those still barred. I would learn more persuasive arguments. I would discover additional, richly laden midgets. I was confident an Age of Plenty was at hand.

Except, like a dilettante character in a between-the-wars novel, I had not been keeping an eye on the world. Thunder clouds were gathering. The Wertham-Digest-PTA chorus was being heard. I, like Fletcher Sparrow and Davey Peters, had always snickered at critics of comic books. While we read ECs, we grew older, bigger, wiser and had a lovely time. It was difficult to believe that could be construed as troublesome. But Congress -- the United States Congress -- the United States of America's Congress -- decided to investigate comic books. Fletcher and Davey and I, who lacked credentials, who represented no constituency, who swung few votes, were not invited to testify. The PTA and Reader's Digest were.

The congressional hearings did not go well for EC. At one point, Gaines denied that a cover illustration of an axe murderer gripping the severed head of a young woman by the hair constituted bad taste. Now, he explained, if the head were depicted higher, blood dripping from the veins... Fletcher, Davey and I were delighted by this cocky wit. But shortly after the hearings, EC folded its line.

I still have the newspaper article. It is about two square column inches, clipped from the back of the Evening Bulletin, and Scotch-taped to blotting paper for posterity:
...William Gaines said his decision "seems to be what the American parents want, and the American parents should be served." He expressed a belief, however, that horror and crime comics have nothing to do with juvenile delinquency...

The size and placement of the article indicate EC's demise was of limited importance to the newspaper-purchasing public. I am not sure what effect it had on me. I was certainly shocked and disappointed and sad. I know I did not punch walls, take to the streets, or cry. I was 13 and accustomed to this adult world which regarded its view of my interests as more valid than my own.

I had also opened new fronts of insurgency. I was reading Mickey Spillane, Blackboard Jungle, and Battle Cry. With Max Garden, Fletcher Sparrow and Davey Peters, I was listening to rock 'n' roll. (It was fascinating to me -- and at least as worthy of a monograph as "Water Imagery in Herrick's Odes" -- as I grew older and met other former EC fans, how, almost without exception, they had been into early rock 'n' roll.) Now, when we trekked, it was to stores that sold used records by The Cadillacs and El Dorados, The Nutmegs and Robins for 19-cents apiece. We were on our way to sock hops and keg parties, pot brownies and brie.

For many years, though, I had one recurring dream. In it, I am in a store. The store is dusty, dingy and smells of mold. In the store I find boxes of old comic books. In the boxes are many ECs. They are for sale, cheap. In the dream I can buy everything I was not allowed to have. I tell myself, this time it is not a dream.

Postscript
For Fredric Wertham, M.D.


My cousin, Stuart Kimmelman, is a pediatrician in Philadelphia. He is unmarried. He skis, bicycles, and collects Queen Anne chairs.

Howard Fratkin sells life insurance. He is divorced -- and active in the Right to Life movement. I have had no contact with him in over 20 years.

Max Garden, I see. He is divorced and has a son who reads MAD magazine. Max lives on a disability pension for a psychiatric break he suffered in the Peace Corps. Occasionally, he plays percussion in North Beach clubs.

Fletcher Sparrow, by the time we reached high school, was obviously gay. In the 1950s, in West Philadelphia, that was not such a good thing. Even EC did not do pro-gay stories. Fletcher went to cosmetology school and became a hairdresser. The last contact anyone in our club had with him was when he sold Davey Peters the pick of his ECs in order to buy some angora sweaters.

Davey Peters was expelled from Antioch his freshman year. He told us it was for trying to start a fraternity. After a few years scuffling in the East, Davey moved to Los Angeles to make pornographic films. In 1976, he shot his girlfriend and killed himself with an overdose of pills. I learned the name of the lawyer who probated his estate but could not bring myself to inquire about Davey's comic book collection.

Jack Kamen to draw Davey Peters. For Fletcher, Al Williamson...

(March 1988)


Outlaw, Rebels, Freethinkers & Pirates
By Bob Levin
Fantagraphics Books
Art Direction by Jacob Covey
$16.95, 200 pages, including 24 pages of art
To Be Published April 2005; ISBN: 1560976314

This Essay is Here for Promotional Purposes, and Will Scroll Off the Web Site in Two Week's Time.