Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Strange Schwartz Stories

Were he still with us, Julius Schwartz would be turning 94 this Friday.
(For those among you readers who are not comic book fans, Julie was a longtime editor at DC Comics and considered one of the cornerstones of the superhero genre. Check out the entry on him in Wikipedia [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Julius_Schwartz] or http://www.juliusschwartz.com/ for biographical info.)

I first met Julie when I was a senior at Hofstra University. I had been writing letters to the various comic books he edited for a number of years and had many of them published in the books. Julie had even sent me an advance copy of Strange Sports Stories, a new title he was editing, and solicited my comments for inclusion in the first issue.
I had long thought that it would be great fun to visit the DC Comics offices and meet he people who created the books. So, one afternoon in the spring of 1973, I called the company's phone number, asked for Julie, and was put right through. Now, you have to understand that, to a comics fan, this was the equivalent of calling the White House and asking to speak to the president or calling Apple Records and asking to speak with Paul McCartney; you never expect to actually get to speak with the person.
But Julie knew immediately who I was and when I asked if I could come for a visit to the office, he said, "Sure. When do you want to come?"

About a week later, accompanied by my future wife Laurie, I made the trip into the city to 909 Third Avenue, then the home of DC Comics. Julie showed us all around the office (which was a lot smaller than I think I expected), introduced us to editors and staff and a couple of freelancers who were passing through, and then showed me proofs and original art for upcoming issues. It was fanboy heaven.
At the time, I had been creating crossword puzzles and word finds for a comics fanzine and I brought along copies for E. Nelson Bridwell, who was Julie's assistant editor (and a former fanboy himself). When I handed them to Nelson, Julie said, "What are those?" When I explained, he snatched them from Nelson, told me, "Stay right here!" and walked out of the room.
Two minutes later, he was back with Sol Harrison, DC's VP and head of Production. Sol was now holding the puzzles and said to me, "Can you make some up just about Superman and Batman?" When I said I could, he told me, "Do it. We'll buy them." Suddenly, I was a DC freelancer!
That was a Friday afternoon. On Monday I was back in the DC offices with nine puzzle pages.

Now that I had an "in," I pursued what I really wanted to do, which was write stories for Julie. I sent him a number of plots, none of which were accepted. (One, I recall, involved Superman getting a super-ulcer because he was under too much stress.) Meantime, Sol had me do more puzzle pages -- some Tarzan ones were next -- and, after graduation, I asked him for a staff job.
I started in early July as a production assistant, answering fan mail, making copies, and whatnot. In early August, I took over driving the Comicmobile from Michael Uslan and, after six weeks, I returned to the office as an editorial assistant to Julie. My duties included proofreading the art for the stories, making copies, writing up color notes for the colorists ("Superman's heat vision is red, x-ray vision is yellow, and telescopic vision is white."), and, sometimes, putting together the letter columns for the books.
Julie started allowing me to read the scripts that came in and had me makes notes on things I would change. Eventually, he allowed me to do the preliminary editing on many of them. And, all the while, I kept trying to sell him a story of my own, finally succeeding with a Robin story titled "The Touchdown Trap."

When I moved into the production department in 1976, I continued to do some "assistant editor" things for Julie, including preparing the letter columns for his books. Julie would read all the letters and give them grades. When it came time to do the lettercol, he would hand me the folder of mail, and I would use the ones with the highest grades, writing the responses. Even after I became Production Manager, I continued to handle Julie's letter columns. Laurie began to help by transcribing the chosen letters, often adding editorial responses of her own.

In 1985, to celebrate Julie's 70th birthday, DC management decided to prepare a special issue of Superman. Writer Elliot Maggin and artists Curt Swan and Murphy Anderson were recruited to provide story and art. The trick was producing the issue right under Julie's nose and keeping it a secret until it was printed.
At one point early on, Julie walked into the production department to find Elliot and me in deep conversation. When he asked what was going on, I told him Elliot was asking me income tax questions. After the book was printed and we told Julie how we'd kept it all a secret, he said, "I thought that tax business was a bit fishy!"

After he retired as editor in 1986, Julie continued to work as DC's goodwill ambassador, attending numerous comic book conventions every year. No matter how many conventions he attended and how many panels he appeared on, Julie was always ready to share a truckload of stories about his career and the comics industry. We often joked about the fact that the other people on a panel with Julie would have little to do. Once he got rolling, there wasn't much that could stop him.
One year at the San Diego convention, I moderated an hour-long panel on the origins of the Silver Age of comics. Julie was on the panel, along with three or four others, none of whom I can recall now. To open, I invited the other panelists to introduce themselves and say a few words. One objected, saying that Julie should go first. I said, "Trust me, speak now."
Once they had all said a few words, I turned to Julie and said, "Tell us how you invented the Silver Age of comics." Well, Julie was off and running. He spoke for 45 minutes non-stop, at which point he looked at his watch and said, "I'm having dinner with Gil Kane at 6:00, so I have to leave now." He got a standing ovation as he made his way to the door, but before he could leave I said, "Julie, you didn't tell them how you came up with Barry Allen's name." Which resulted in Julie doing another 15 minutes from the doorway! Then he looked at his watch, said, "That's it, Rozakis! Now I'm late for dinner!" and disappeared down the hall.
And, it now being 6:00, the panel was over. The other panelists, having spent the hour as spectators, laughed among themselves when one said, "What were we even up here for?"

One of Julie's favorite foods was bean soup. When DC was in the Warner Communications building at 75 Rockefeller Plaza, Julie would quiz whoever had eaten in the company cafeteria about whether they had bean soup that day. If they did, he would find a "willing volunteer" to go down and get him a cup.
One day while I was food shopping with Laurie, I noticed that they had a new "Cup-a-Soup" variety: bean soup. When I mentioned it to Julie the following week, he said, "And you didn't buy it for me?!" So I went back to the store to get it, only to discover that it was being test-marketed at the time and was sold out. It was at least another six months before it came on the market, but each week Julie would ask me, "Did you find that bean soup yet?"

Every day before he left the office, Julie did two things. He called his wife Jean to say he was on his way home and he went to the men's room. The latter became known as "Schwartz's Law: Never go anywhere without going first." Julie's philosophy was simple. He took the subway back and forth to work and you never knew when the train might be delayed in the tunnel somewhere.
Numerous people in the business who knew Julie readily agree with his thoughts on the matter. In fact, following Julie's funeral service in 2004, Paul Kupperberg, Marty Pasko, Bob Greenberger and I all headed to the men's room before leaving the funeral home. As Kupps put it, "Well, it's what Julie would have done!"

One last Strange Schwartz Story: My father and Julie were both born in 1915 in New York City. Both attended and graduated from Theodore Roosevelt High School. Is it hard to imagine that, in some classroom during their four years there, Schwartz and Rozakis weren't seated right near one another? My father and Julie met once during my DC tenure, fairly early in my career there, when my father came up to see the office. But who can say if it really was their first meeting and only meeting? After all, as I said in a posting last week, there are only 400 people in the world that you don't know!

So, happy birthday, Julie. I hope that, wherever you are, you are entertaining everyone with your stories, taking a break every now and then to enjoy some bean soup... and exercise Schwartz's law.

2 comments:

  1. A really enjoyable post, Mr. Rozakis. I remember the puzzles you used to make. Didn't they often appear in the 100 Page Super Spectaculars? As a young kid in the 70's, I knew you were living the dream (fandom to pro). Later, I remember wishing "Ask the Answer Man" was a full page instead of one half. It was literally the first feature I looked for and read in any new comic I purchased. Thank you for sharing these stories. Have you ever thought of writing a history of your time at DC comics? I would buy it!

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  2. I haven't written a history of my time at DC, but my new "The Answer Man's Book of Trivia Quizzes" includes a lot of "Answer Man Memories" -- anecdotes about the Daily Planet pages and the AOL chatroom. Also, my "Secret History of AA Comics," while a fictional alternate history of the industry , hits very close to reality as far as my early days in the industry.

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