Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Fanboys

Long before I was a comic book professional, I was a fanboy, though we were not called that back then. We were often geeks or nerds to those who did not share our passion for comics, but we just thought of ourselves as fans.

My particular niche in fandom was as a letterhack, one of those readers whose letters appeared quite regularly in the books. From 1970 till I started working at DC Comics in 1973, there was not a month that went by that I did not have a missive or three appearing in print. All told, 135 of my letters were published.

Over the years, many people asked how I got so many letters printed. Well, I wrote a lot of them, over 500, in fact. And the fact that I typed rather than hand wrote them helped, I'm sure.
In my years at DC when I was on the other side of the lettercols, choosing the ones to use and writing the answers, I always appreciated the typewritten ones. There was one regular writer who always used a purple pen, using both sides of sheets of loose leaf paper. And while he often had interesting things to say, it was a pain reading his letters.

After three years of constant letter-writing, when I was in my senior year at Hofstra University, I decided to try to arrange a visit to the DC offices. I called their number, asked to speak with Julie Schwartz, and was put right through. I was startled when he answered; after all, this was like calling the White House, asking to speak with the President and suddenly finding the Commander-in-Chief answering his phone. Equally surprising was that Julie knew who I was and readily agreed to have me come up for a visit.

During that period, I had also started making up comics-related crossword and word-find puzzles for a couple of fanzines. Figuring that E. Nelson Bridwell, who was Julie's assistant editor and one of the first of the generation of fans who got into the comics business, would enjoy them, I brought copies along. As I was handing them to Nelson, Julie said, "Hey, what are those?" I explained, he grabbed them, and said, "I'll be right back." With that, he left the office, returning a couple of minutes later with Sol Harrison, the V.P. of Production.

Sol was impressed with my handiwork and asked if I could make up puzzles specific to Superman, Batman, and the Justice League. I replied that I could. "Then do three of each and we will buy them," he told me.
That was on a Friday afternoon. The following Monday I was back at DC with three crosswords, three word finds, and three mazes. I had used graph paper and a black marker to make the grids and lots of press-type for the numbers on the crosswords and the letters in the word-finds. All they needed was some stock art from the DC files and they were ready to go. For this, I received a check for $135 -- $15 a page, making me an "official" comics freelancer.

Over the next few weeks, I tried to come up with plots for stories that would interest Julie. Julie was receptive to my submitting them, but nothing got past the plot stage. (One that I recall had Superman getting a super-ulcer because he was stressed out over some problem; it was a story best left unwritten.)

Then one afternoon, I was sitting in the Hofstra yearbook office and got a phone call from Midge Bregman, Sol's secretary. She said that Sol needed to speak with me about something important, that they'd called my home and my mother had given her the yearbook number.
Sol got on the phone and asked, "Do you know anything about Tarzan?"
In fact, I knew quite a bit, as I had over the past year or so been reading all of Edgar Rice Burroughs' books -- not just the Tarzan novels, but the John Carter, Pellucidar, and lesser-known ones as well.
"Great," said Sol, "I need three Tarzan puzzles on Monday."
Graph paper, press-type, and black markers at the ready, I put the pages together and was at DC the following Monday morning. It turned out that Sol really did need the pages in a hurry; they were being used in a tabloid-sized collection of Tarzan stories that came out about eight weeks later, making those puzzles my first published work.

Concurrent with my visits and freelance work, DC had announced the Junior Bullpen Program, an idea of Sol's in which the company would hire a writer and an artist to work on staff. I had hoped that, with my inside track, I would be considered for the program.
So, with my college graduation imminent, I asked Sol if I had a shot at the program. To my surprise, he hired me as a production assistant and one of the first things he had me do was go through all the submissions he'd received for the program! (Among the "finalists" I culled from the mountain of submissions was that of Marty Pasko, another longtime letterhack whose name I knew but had never met. When Sol asked which one I would pick, I pointed out that Marty lived in New Jersey and it would be a lot easier for him to take the position than someone outside the NYC metro area. Sol agreed that it made sense and Marty got the nod.)

About a month after I joined the staff -- just in time for the big company move from 909 Third Avenue to 75 Rockefeller Plaza, by the way, leaving me wondering if one of the reasons I was hired was that Sol figured I could lift a lot of boxes -- Sol told me he had a new project for me. I would be taking over driving the Comicmobile from Michael Uslan. But that, as they say, is a story for another day...

**

A final note:

Outside of comics fandom, "fanboys" has a completely different meaning. It is a way to remember the seven words that are used as conjunctions in compound sentences. And while its use is now quite common -- I've had students in my CTY writing class tell me their teachers invented it -- you can trace its roots back to a grammar book written a number of years ago by my wife Laurie. She was writing about the conjunctions and asked me if I could come up with a mnemonic to make them easy to remember.
For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So.

Who better to come up with that than one of the original fanboys!

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