Saturday, February 9, 2008

Jocular Johnny's Jaunty Jabberings

It's one of my earliest memories. I'm kneeling backwards in the backseat of my father's car and waving to my grandparents out the rear window as we drove away from their Chicago home and headed out west. My father was in the Navy then and had just been relocated to the El Centro Naval Air Facility about one hundred miles east of San Diego. The drive from Chicago to California was long and took us through desert and mountains. I'm reliably informed that I was a horrible little brat on that trip; my dad once told me that driving through the desert with me howling about something or other, he thought briefly about pulling the car over and leaving me next to a cactus. And the thought made him smile.

But, though no jury on earth would have convicted him, he didn't do it. For that, I have my mom to thank. Not only was she more tolerant of my unpleasantness, she knew how to shut me up for extended periods of time. Her strategy involved a number of things, most significantly comic books. I spent most of the time on that long trip with my nose firmly jammed in the pages of Archie, Casper, Spooky, Richie Rich, and my favorite, Hot Stuff, The Little Devil. There were also a number of assorted Marvels, DCs, Gold Keys and others (Mom grabbed whatever was on the rack), but I loved the funny funny books first and foremost.

And so began a lifelong habit.

It wasn't long before I eschewed the Harvey books and their ilk as being "for kids." After all, I wasn't a kid anymore. I was all of six and we were living in Imperial Beach, just south of San Diego. Dad would take me out to the base periodically, and we would go to the PX where they had a great comics selection. By then, I was a devoted DC fan. Marvel was good, but the stories were usually a little more involved and I couldn't rely on getting consecutive issues. There was nothing more frustrating than seeing "To Be Continued" at the end of a story and knowing I was never going to get out to the base again in time for the second part.

So it was DC for me. I was usually limited in how many books I could get on any given visit, so I skewed towards team series like Justice League of America and Legion of Super-Heroes. I reasoned that a bigger cast of characters meant you were getting more for your money. Why buy Superman? He's right there in the JLA and you get Hawkman and The Atom and Black Canary besides.

We moved back to the Chicago area when I was eight and that's when my Marvel fixation really emerged. There was a small mom-and-pop grocery store that my grandparents frequented and it had a rickety wooden comics rack right next to its sole cash register.

And that's when I started to appreciate the creators behind the funny books. Harvey Comics and Archie Comics offered very little in the way of creator credits. Even DC had only a writer and an artist listed up front. But Marvel listed everybody who worked on a title. They had credits for the writers, pencillers, inkers, letterers, colorists, editors and sometimes even more. I didn't really understand what half those jobs were, but I felt like I was in the know.

It didn't end there. Every month, Stan Lee would write a "Stan's Soapbox" article that would appear alongside news and notes from Marvel's "Batty Bullpen." He'd report on what was happening at the company, promote new titles, and made the whole outfit seem like a ridiculously fun place to be. It was savvy marketing, but I didn't think about it in those terms: I just loved the idea that I knew the inside scoop about my (now) favorite comics.

And so creators and the characters they worked on became synonomous in my mind. Thor was "Merry" Gerry Conway and "Big" John Buscema. The Amazing Spider-Man was also Gerry Conway with Ross Andru on art. Daredevil was Steve "Baby" Gerber and ... well, a whole parade of different artists. Iron Man was Mike Friedrich and George Tuska.

And The Incredible Hulk was by "Stainless" Steve Englehart and "Happy Herbie" Trimpe.

Dave and I were fortunate to get to speak with Happy Herbie on the most recent edition of Pop Culture America. He spoke of his days at Marvel in the humblest of terms. But the work he did just to meet deadlines and cash a paycheck meant the world to me.

Thanks Herb.

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