Tom Spurgeon's Web site of comics news, reviews, interviews and commentary

November 24, 2006

Jerry Bails, 1933-2006

Dr. Jerry Bails, a pioneering comics historian and pop culture scholar known to many as "The Father of Comic Book Fandom," died on Wednesday night in his sleep from a heart attack.

A member of the first generation of little kids to engage the comic book format in its initial, full pulpy flowering, Bails stayed passionate about his favorite childhood feature, the multiple superhero team-up "Justice Society of America," even as he picked up advance degrees. Bails corresponded with prominent comics figures such as Julius Schwartz and Gardner Fox both in pursuit of older issues of the magazine he enjoyed so much, and for the return of the feature, or at least something much like it, to the publishing schedule.

imageBails published Alter Ego #1 in 1961, one of the great tent-pole events of comics fandom, putting many devoted comics fans in touch with one another and setting off a wave of similar ambitious homemade publications, while also shaping a core comics fandom that would interact with and then, in many cases, move into the comics industry themselves. His work with Howard Keltner and the resulting indexes of Golden Age comic books have served as primary sources for study and subsequent inventory efforts on an aspect of publishing and pop culture history that had it waited many more years, probably would have been lost.

Bails, along with a handful of other fans he helped influenced, helped to form comics' core audience, provided a connection between readers of the Golden Age comics and the newer superhero comics that helped smooth the way for older readers of modern comics, advocated for specific characters and title concepts, provided a self-publishing model that inspired a younger generation of eventual comics pros, and, I think at least, embodied a kind of core values regarding superhero comics and past works of same that would define American comic book readers through the end of the 20th Century. Almost three generations of people that read comics, at some point in their relationship to the art form, acted like or at least thought and felt like Dr. Jerry Bails.

Bails would eventually give Alter Ego to his friend and fellow fan Roy Thomas -- they met through mutual correspondence with Gardner Fox -- who in turn ended it when he joined Marvel Comics as perhaps the key figure in their late-'60s and early '70s solidification. A Thomas-led revival of the magazine currently sits on the stands, devoted to comics history, a history of which its founder is now a full part.

A needs-to-expand Wikipedia entry for Bails can be found here; there is a lovely excerpt from Bill Schelly's The Golden Age of Comics Fandom here; Mark Evanier has an obituary here. Schelly has a photo of Bails with Howard Keltner here. I love the part of the Schelly excerpt where Bails figures his fanzine will be affordable because of the probable small number of like-minded fans -- not many publishing efforts get off the ground in part because of forecasts of modesty.

Dr. Jerry Bails was 73 years old.
posted 12:19 am PST | Permalink

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