Saturday, November 20, 2010

"Swash" Buckler Saturdays: "Odd Character"

My relocation from Detroit to New York was at first a very isolated one. I felt like some kind of alien being arriving on a distant planet--where everything worked differently than at home. I was on my own in the big city--all of my close friends were now hundreds of miles away. No tour guide. And nobody close to explain how everything works. It was all very perplexing at first!

When I began to get small work assignments from each of the comic book companies I called up my friend Alan Weiss and told him: "Alan, come to New York! If they're giving me work, they sure as hell have work for you!" And a few weeks later he arrived.

The change in environment was a bit of a culture shock, as I mentioned. I was not a city boy. So it took some getting used to. Yes, I was born in Detroit, but I grew up in rural upstate Michigan near a small resort town near Higgins Lake (which is sort of near Lake Michigan, which--well, you get the idea). We're talking paved roads but no streetlights, dangerous animals in the forest, lots of people making their living from deer hunting and ice fishing, and your nearest neighbor was sometimes miles down the road.

So, after relocating to Detroit when my father passed away and living there another ten years, that still did not prepare me for life in a sprawling metropolis because I lived in the suburbs of Detroit, near Livonia and Farmington--not exactly a huge bustling city milieu.

I remember when I was in my early teens in Detroit, around eleven or twelve years old, I would take long bicycle trips with my buddies to explore the terrain. One memorable trip was all the way down Schoolcraft Road to Michigan Avenue and on to downtown Detroit--but seeing the actual city part of the downtown area was not the remarkable part.

On the way there we would stop along the way at every second-hand store and barber shop we could find asking if they had any old comic books (they're called "back issues" now--but back then, they had about as much importance and shelf life as old newspapers). Most of the time the store owners just gave us what they had for free. Well, my best friend actually scored the first issue of Spider-Man! Lucky dog!

I am digressing here to the days of grade school and junior high school--early sixties--so bear with me. These were formative times for me and had everything to do with my developing an ambition to draw comic books professionally when I grew to adulthood.

I guess me and my best friend and his younger brother were the only comic book geeks back then, at least in my neighborhood, and we started collecting. For us it was mainly super-heroes. We traded and hoarded and put everything in numerical order. We were very passionate about it.

My brother Ron was into monster movies and science-fiction movies, and then later newspaper strips, so he and I were not competing. My girlfriend decided one day to start collecting too, but at first she was no competition (she collected only Archie titles--uhh!). Later she got into the same stuff we were collecting and her and I would have occasional fights and would break up. I know, pretty dumb--but like I said, we were passionate about it.

I was into Superman at first, then Batman and the Justice League, and this was just before Marvel started launching their own super-heroes. I had no idea that there was any other comics publisher besides National Periodicals (that was D.C. Comics, back then). Duh. Hey, I was pretty smart for a kid, but it sure took me a long time to figure out that the comic books were not created by machines or printers--that people actually drew this amazing stuff!

I was buying my comics off the comics rack from the corner drug store and I became a regular customer. They got used to seeing me every Tuesday and Thursday. It was like clock work. I remember the first time I saw Spider-Man #1 on the comics rack. I actually passed it up. I thought, "Huh! What, are they trying to imitate Superman?" I didn't even check it out!

Fantastic Four was my first introduction to Marvel--and the wonderment of Jack Kirby's art! Marvel was big on giving the artist and writer credits. Small wonder that as a boy I didn't know my favorite reading material consisted of entirely hand drawn pages. I think it was the Fantastic Four Annual featuring Sub-Mariner that got me started. After that, my weekly list of purchases expanded quite a bit, and the clerk at the drug store started setting aside stacks of books for me every week (and I even figured out which days of the week each company shipped their books, so I would not miss a single issue--of anything!). How's that for passionate?

We still continued to haunt second-hand stores and hunt for back issues to fill the gaps in our burgeoning collections. There were no stores at that time that specialized in fantasy literature and comics. This was back when new comics coming out had a twelve cent cover price and it was possible then, believe it or not, to pick up early used issues of the Fantastic Four and Avengers for twenty-five or fifty cents!--and it was before comics conventions and fanzines and organized fandom.

My first real trip to a "for real" comic book shop was with Shel Dorf. Shel collected movie memorabilia, records and newspaper strips. His collection was along the lines of the lost treasure of the Sierra Madre--that's the impression it made on me at the time. Did I mention that Shel was one of the nicest and warmest human beings that I ever met?

One day Shel drove me and my brother to Able Man's Book Store in Hamtramck (a suburb of Detroit that was mostly Polish at that time). After an introduction by Shel, Tom Altschuler (the store owner) showed me around. Of course I was in total awe.

Did I say "comic book shop"? It was more like a gigantic department store emporium of everything marvelous and wonderful and rare and full of thrills and imagination! They had comic books that were published before I was born. "Golden Age" comics (featuring earlier versions of Captain America, Human Torch and Sub-Mariner, Plastic Man, Captain Marvel, Doll Man--tons of stuff my Mother had told me about, but up until then I had never seen), big-little-books, old records and movies in eight millimeter format, daily and Sunday newspaper strips, rare old volumes of Edgar Rice Burroughs and Jules Verne and Robert E. Howard and just about every cool author I could think of, movie posters from the old super-hero serials (which I didn't even know up until then existed!) and Ray Harryhausen epic fantasy movies, and--well, everything that was totally awesome and cool! You could spend years in a place like this and not get bored.

I guess that was when I became a die-hard comics fan and collector! And you know what? The most amazing part was meeting others like me and realizing that you could love the comics and all things wondrous and magical and not have to grow out of it!

And it's a good thing that I didn't grow out of it! When I got into fanzine publishing I connected with other comics fans and eventually met Edwin April, Jr., Marvin Giles, Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas. That led to comic book conventions and meeting actual professionals and becoming obsessed with the idea of one day becoming a pro artist.

So, back to New York and the beginnings of my career as a comic book professional. As I mentioned earlier, Neal Adams helped me to secure my first apartment in the Bronx. I took a few roommates--Chuck McNaughton, Jack Katz and, for a short while, Steve Englehart. I remember clearly the day Steve arrived because he had gotten mugged in Central Park on his way to my place. No serious injuries, but that was one heck of a "welcome to New York!" Believe it or not, in those days, I actually got visits from "Mr. Sub-Mariner" himself, Bill Everett!

Not many people know that Steve Englehart started out as an artist. He was being mentored at the time by Neal Adams. Neal was helping Steve work out his problems with the military draft (I had already, several years before, worked out mine) and Steve was sort of apprenticing with Neal.

I remember Steve's early art pages--quite good, actually--and how he agonized over each drawing and eventually figured out that he favored writing more than drawing and, as it turned out, very wisely decided to pursue that goal instead.

My first visit to Neal Adams' home was quite remarkable. Neal immediately put me to work at one of his drawing tables. My task? Finishing up the inking on my first pencil job for D.C. Comics, "The Symbionts." Neal had already inked about 85% of it--and boy was that an intimidating prospect! Almost one year had passed since I mailed in my pencil art to D.C., so there were a few other assignments subsequent to this job that saw print before this one. "The Symbionts," though, was the job that made it happen for me at D.C.

Neal didn't say outright, but I understood that the sooner this art was finished, the sooner it would see print--and probably sooner than if I waited for Neal to finish it. I wasn't critical about it, because the man was a drawing machine--and everything he did came out great. Here I was, a guest in Neal Adams house, spending time with his family. It was all very dream like.

So I delved into that work, totally unprepared and using Neal's art material. I was resolved to give it my best effort. I know I wanted to see it happen, so even though I didn't know what I was doing I felt confident that Neal could guide me through it (which he did). That brief stint was the extent of my "apprenticing" with Neal Adams. It was a valuable experience too!

I moved around quite a bit in those years, mostly out of necessity. Alan Weiss and I were roommates at one point and I recall crashing at Denny O'Neil's place more than a few times. I found that it was quite a struggle to manage a freelance art career and live in one of the most expensive cities in America. It was embarrassing when, from time to time, I had to borrow money just to tide me over until my next freelance check.

I would move to my second apartment in the Bronx, just off the Grand Concourse, after a brief stay "in the sticks" of Long Island (Lake Ronkonkoma, of all places). That rural stop over in Long Island was closer to my familiar lifestyle back home in Detroit, but it was isolated and remote (I was already becoming accustomed to city life), the winter months were harsh--and the commuting was difficult and time consuming.

I was newly married to Caroline, the mother of my two children (we met on a subway train to the Bronx). The move to Ronkonkoma was made a few months after the wedding, and approximately twelve months later my son was born there (now I was a father!). It was a healthy environment (trees everywhere, and my backyard just seemed to extend to an endless forest)--but it was almost intolerably quiet and peaceful, and--well, boring. I drove a beat up old Volkswagen that I had a love/hate relationship with. My son Rick was almost born in that car (but fortunately we got to the hospital just barely in time).

It was a small rented house that was just the right size for a young couple just starting out in life. My main problem with it though was that it was far away from just about everything (except my nearby almost never to be seen neighbors). Besides occasional visits from my in-laws, I got almost zero visitors. I might just as well have moved back to Detroit (which I did, years later--that didn't work out too well either--but that's another story).

Since all of my in-laws were Puerto Rican, family days at our home there were viewed obliquely by our not-so-friendly neighbors as an unusual event--sort of a Spanish invasion from the Bronx. Eventually they got used to us. Added to my troubles were the long drives to the Bronx every few days (because my bride was hopelessly homesick--I guess she had her own troubles dealing with this country-style living). That inevitably ate up a lot of my work time.

Time seemed to pass much slower there than in the city. I thought I was becoming unraveled at times--it was so incredibly "nerve-wrackingly" quiet. I guess I was just irreversibly accustomed now to the noise pollution of daily city life. To make matters worse, one day during heavy rain my basement got flooded and I lost almost my entire comic book collection. Water damaged and beyond salvaging. I was devastated.

I was definitely not at peace. And it wasn't just because I lost most of my valuable comics collection. I thought about my situation and tried to figure out what was essentially wrong. I was used to always having a sense of being in the right place at the right time. Now I was "off my game" and beginning to feel like I was stuck.

Somehow along the way what had gotten lost at that time was an ethereal "connection" to the comics business and my friends (many of whom were artists now working in the comics). As a fledgling comics artist, I had always thrived on that vital energy and symbiotic relationship with the comic book "world" and other professionals. It was my "spiritual" strength, or an important aspect of it, and one that had always sustained me through difficult times.

When I started to develop trouble with deadlines (and that was not like me at all), I finally knew that something had to be done. This "country boy" had to get back to the city.

Before I recount one special visit at my home in Long Island--a surprise visit by Al Milgrom, Jim Starlin and Bill Dubay--let me digress for a moment to when Alan Weiss and I first met Bill Dubay.

Alan and I encountered Bill briefly at Warren's office one day (I was rooming with Alan at the time--along with a couple of airline stewardesses that were almost never home, and fledgling writer Mary Skrenes). Bill, like us, had just moved to New York and was apparently trying to make it as a freelance comics artist. Okay, he was friendly enough, but he came off as glib, cavalier and a bit smarmy, so we didn't exactly connect.

"Odd character," I remember Alan commenting afterward. Alan had gotten the same impression I did, but neither of us thought much of the meeting. We did, however, remember him and his work from our earlier fanzine days.

Then one day Alan got a call from Bill--he needed help to finish an art job for Warren that was up against a killer deadline. At that time we were always networking a lot with other freelancers and Alan and I were always up for pitching in and helping out fellow artists.

So, why not? We were all "in the same boat", right? So Alan and I took the Long Island Railroad, on our own dime, out to the far reaches of the end of the island where Bill lived at the time. I remember that it was an extremely cold day--and neither Alan nor I had any idea what we were in for.

Well, here was the lowdown, as Bill laid it out for us when we arrived. He had a pencil and ink job that was due the very next day (so, the dreaded "do or die" situation for a freelancer, right?). Only this job was special. Jim Warren had challenged him. If he could meet this deadline, Warren would then hire Bill on as editor of all the black & white books. "If I hand this in on time, I get the gig," said Bill. "If not, I'm screwed."

So a lot was at stake here. "Okay, how much is done already?" I asked. Bill showed three completed pages, and the rest was scribbled pencil layouts. I said: "No way. It's due tomorrow? Forget it." But Alan, heroic spirit that he was (and still is), insisted that the three of us, full on, could do it.

It wouldn't come out great, but it would be on time. I thought about it--maybe Alan was right. Besides, I knew that Alan could draw two or three times better than me--I was faster, but more the layout and idea man--so, maybe this would work. Bill would ink while Alan and I penciled. Anyhow, we were all three of us in for a hell of an all-nighter, that was for sure.

Bill had no extra drawing tables or work space to speak of. So we bravely improvised and did our work on the living room floor--while Bill worked comfortably in a nearby room.

It turned out that this was Bill's first and only assignment at Warren, and the rest all came about mostly by bravado and bullshit. Alan and I did our part and Bill met his deadline. We never got credit on the job or payment--just a thank you very much (and we were lucky to get that!).

I remember on the way back home on the Long Island Railroad, Alan repeated his earlier observation: "What a character, eh?" And that's how Bill Dubay came to be editor at Warren Publishing.

Now, it wouldn't be unreasonable to think that maybe the two of us brave freelancers had an "in" at Warren, right? Not quite. Maybe an extra dose now and then of "professional courtesy" later? Not a chance. Gratitude? That was covered in the "thank you very much." In his new editorial role, much to everyone's dismay, Dubay (or, "The Dube", as he started calling himself) was out to prove that he was tougher than Jim Warren ever was, and demonstrate how amazingly acute he was in the "busting chops" department.

I found that to deal with Dubay on any level afterward meant encountering an almost salacious mean wit and perverse sense of self importance that put the zaniest antics of his publisher boss to shame. Alan and I had inadvertently helped to create an editorial monster--that's what I thought! You didn't hang out with a guy like this--you just put up with him. Further dealings with Bill were always full of painful surprises and redacted promises. What a character, indeed.

Now back to the visit in Long Island at my home (which took place months after the installation of Warren's new "Monster-In-Chief"--I mean Editor-in-Chief). My sister Peggy, who I have always adored, was visiting from Detroit at the time (with the intention of making the move to New York permanent eventually). As I have already hinted at, I was going through a difficult time then and I wasn't exactly the best of company.

I was behind in a Marvel deadline and I made the mistake that many a young freelancer makes early on. I fell out of touch with the offices of my employer and didn't return their phone calls. Imagine, so early in my career, and not returning calls from John Verpoorten or Roy Thomas. That was really out of touch!

I was suffering almost daily from inexplicable migraine headaches and I had lapsed into an unproductive stage that bordered at times on depression. Why this was happening to me now I hadn't the slightest idea. I did my best to deal with this and keep it to myself. Still, I was sure I would snap out of it somehow and come out winning.

Then came the surprise visit--Bill and Al Milgrom showed up at my front door one evening, unannounced. I was "missing in action," they informed me--late on a job, close to being fired, and they were the cavalry sent to help rescue me from my deadline. My first reaction was anger. But that was the headache taking over, I realized, so I apologized. Besides, it's always best to face the truth, right?--and the truth was that they were right and I was bordering on screwing up.

Then they mentioned Jim Starlin was on his way (it turned out that he was delayed because he had an accident on the way on his motorcycle--a pretty nasty spill). When he showed up later at my door, bruised and battered a bit, he was still ready to pitch in and help out. I suddenly realized how lucky I was to have friends like this.

We all threw in together to finish the art. Except for Bill, slippery fellow that he was, who spent most of the time getting close to my sister.

Well, it all turned out well and the job got finished. The headaches gradually subsided after numerous chiropractic treatments and some vitamin supplements. I hate doctors and I am very skeptical of "modern medicine"--but this doctor was different. No drug prescriptions, only vitamin supplements and nutritional recommendations that actually worked. He was a god-send! After a half dozen treatments, I realized that It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out what was wrong--why didn't I see it before?--that this wasn't just a physical problem. I needed to adjust my diet, my thinking and attitude, and I really needed a change of environment.

So after I moved back to the Bronx from Long Island to a new apartment, things evened out a bit and I had occasion to meet Don Mcgregor one day at Marvel's offices. I would take the subway to Manhattan regularly, at least twice a week. It was like medicine and revitalized me. With a new and healthier regimen, I still worked a ten hour day, six days a week (which has always been my work routine) to support my family--but I was back to feeling 100%.

Meeting Don was like encountering a creative whirlwind! His sense of humor was like medicine. His shared insights as a young writer were keen and filled with emotion, and he had an uncanny ability to make just about anything that happened to him into a fun and entertaining story.

Don and I became friends immediately and I helped him to relocate with his family to New York. For awhile we lived in the same neighborhood and visited each other regularly. We "brainstormed" a lot and we goofed off a lot . Great times. Oh, yeah--and did I mention that both Don and I were out to break new ground creatively and shake up the industry with new and forward-thinking concepts and ideas?

We were both young, fresh, idealistic, and were fortunate enough to get to collaborate a few times on early black & white comics stories for Marvel (but somehow Don and I never got to collaborate at Warren). Don started out at Marvel's editorial offices, at first as a glorified proofreader. He had suffered somewhat bravely (I thought) the slings and arrows of corporate/editorial nonsense--and managed to survive that and become one of my favorite writers and early collaborators.

Around this same time my sister had become romantically involved with Bill Dubay and I helped them get an apartment a block from where I lived. Eventually they got married. That proximity to Bill led to him buying scripts by Don--though I didn't get to draw any of them--but it also made for some strange times.

Now that Bill was my brother-in-law (a situation that neither of us was ever comfortable with), and now that he was my close neighbor, things became more--how should I put it?--interesting. So we became best friends, right? Wrong. Far from it.

For a lot of reasons, we would "lock horns" frequently. Bill could be nice--but it was always, for him, a veneer or a temporary lapse in his character. I tried to get along with him, but he would never give me anything to work with. Mostly I found him to be insufferable--some of it could have been me, but I suspect that mostly the reason was my aversion to his constant bullshit.

Both Don and I would run interference for each other with editors at Marvel. When it came to my Warren assignments, with Bill it was always tough--and I was on my own. He, annoyingly, would constantly assert that everybody loved him and he was always right, no matter what-- even when that notion clearly flew in the face of reality. Lovable? Hardly. I couldn't for the life of me figure out how my sister could put up with him. When you disagreed with him, you would get something like: "I'm never wrong--ever! Just, maybe, a little weak on being right sometimes." How do you deal with somebody like that?

He had to always have the last word, always be right, know much more than you on any given subject, and he always felt compelled to initiate stupid and totally unnecessary power plays. One time I asked him about my sister and he told me: "Oh, Peg. Yeah, she's great. Only one problem I have with her. Every time I look at her face I see yours!" Can you believe it? I mean, WTF?

So, there was always this tension and anxiety ,and never any release. Very unnerving at times. I wondered, "How does this guy make any friends? Does he have friends?" All of this nonsense was going on "in the background," mind you--while Don and I turned out some really good comic book stories for him.

One day he called me up on the phone at my home. He was upset about something minor--I don't remember what it was, something comics-related--and he started yelling into the phone and swearing and using abusive language. Like some kind of madman. I hung up on him

Then he called back, spewing poison again--and I hung up on him again. A few minutes later he showed up at the front door of my apartment. I let him in and he just took up where he left off in a venom-spewing tirade. So I threw him out. I think he never forgave me for that.

Working at Marvel Comics was a picnic compared to my work for Warren (except for some early Jim Warren assignments, and Archie Goodwin's brief time at the helm). Before Bill and I finally parted our separate creative ways, I tried one last time to help him--this time it was to get him some freelance work as an artist at Marvel. He always had a desire since his days as a comic book fan to draw super-heroes.

Somehow, in a weak moment, I agreed to let him assist on some of my work--and why I did this favor for him to this day I haven't been able to figure out. He pencil assisted on an issue of Avengers for no pay but insisted that when I hand it in that I point out each of the pages he worked on and what he contributed.

And he insisted on accompanying me to the Marvel offices when I handed the work in! Does that really sound like a strategy that would actually work? I didn't think so, but he did, and he was adamant about it. I was new to the comic business so I didn't have even the slightest hint that I might be putting my job at risk. So, anyway, for my sister's sake I went along with the plan.

Well, at Marvel's offices, when I showed the work to Roy Thomas, Roy almost went ballistic. Bill was thrown out of the office and I almost lost my job. I learned that Roy had turned Bill down a few times prior to this meeting (a fact that I wasn't privy to before), and now with this boomerang maneuver we both had come off like a couple of bumbling fools. I remember the words "sneaking around," "incompetent," and "bullshit"--and I knew I was in trouble.

I was lucky and got off with a warning. At that time it was abundantly clear that Roy and Bill did not mix. Maybe something had happened between them that I didn't know about. I never did find out what that might have been. Roy was older than me (by nine years--and, hey, he was from Missouri!), and he was my boss, so I deferred to his judgment.

I can't help thinking now that Roy had been wiser than me and apparently more perceptive of the maneuverings of Dubay's dark psyche. I would encounter a similar situation with that darkness years later when I introduced Bill to the publishers of Archie Comics.


  1. WOW!Rich your ex-brother-in-law sounds alot like my sister's ex! LOL! He made Cosmo Kramer look like the dream brother-in-law! Anyway, boy sounds like you had some grooling times. Glad you survived with a little help from Alan & co.

    I loved your work on Morbius in Vampire Tales, over at Atlas on Man-Monster & Devil Slayer & of course Deathlok. Can't wait to hear how Deathlok came about. I'm guessing since Charlton got the $6 Million Dollar Man. Marvel asked you to create a similar cyborg. Can't wait until next Sat!

  2. Rich,

    These are fascinating bio snap shots of your career. Thank you for taking the time to share these moments, very inspiring.
    I've always been a big fan of your work. My personal favorites are you with Jerry Ordway on All Star Squadron. The work still blows me away when I pull them out for a reread.

  3. This entry has been fascinating. I'm curious which issue of the avengers Dubay helped Rich draw. Does anyone know the issue number?

    As a fellow rural Michigan comic fan, I know many of the cities and locations he references. I do know Higgins Lake. I scored a used FF #52 (first Black Panther) in a bait shop there in the late 60s. But I know what me means about knowing what days comics shipments showed up. It worked all the way up to the Kree skrull war, when an issue or two vanished without arriving.

  4. Rich,
    I don't recall us doing stories for DuBay. It certainly would have been after Panther's Rage and Killraven and Morbius, because I just wasn't capable of handling more. I think Byron Preiss never really forgave me for not writing for his anthology book at the time, but I would never have been able to make the deadline. I would have loved to do it.
    I recall the times in your apartment fondly, and knew the only reason you were drawing Panther's Rage was because you told editorial you wanted to do it. For them, the title was not important enough for an artist of your talent and stature. For me, they thought the series was going to die.
    You've done a wonderful job with this, Rich.
    Hope you enjoy some of the RIDING SHOTGUN pieces at that look at some of the history, from a personal nature, and still find them fun and entertaining.

  5. I used to shop my old comics at able man's also. I loved that place. Will always remain a fond memory of my younger years.

  6. My brother and I used to go to able man's everyday after school in the 70s. We ended up in NYC also in 80.

    Talk about a treasure trove of comic and pop culture history.

    Some good memories there.



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