Wednesday, June 30, 2010

You Could Look It Up

Here's one of the ways technology has changed things.

I'm currently at Washington College in lovely, bucolic Chestertown, Maryland, for my annual summer stint teaching Writing & Imagination in the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth program. This morning at breakfast, one of my students came over and told me that her mother had Googled me and passed along a host of information, presumably from the Wikipedia entry about me.

This prompted one of my fellow instructors, who was sitting with me, to say, "There's a Wikipedia page about you? Did you make it yourself?" When I replied that I had not created the page and that I do not even know who did, she said, "So, are you famous?"

Well, I suppose if having a page in Wikipedia makes one famous, I suppose I am, but my life and career are probably only of interest to comic book fans... and, it would seem, the parents of my writing students. But the option is there for anybody with internet access and, as Casey Stengel would say, "You could look it up."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

In the Swim (or Not)

An article in the Daily News this morning reports that kids in four working class neighborhoods in New York City will not be able to swim in their local city pools this summer. Though some fifty other city pools will be opened, these four -- one each in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Queens and Manhattan -- will not be opened due to the budget crunch and this will save the city $800,000.

How much use do the four pools in question get, you may wonder. According to the article, the total number of visitors last year was about 100,000 people and by my rough calculation, that's 1,300 per day. Quite a few sweaty folks on a hot, muggy summer afternoon.

While I'm sure there are those who would suggest that charging admission to cover the costs would be viable, $8 a day per person is a bit steep. So, instead, let me propose another alternative. First, we'll ignore the fact that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the eighth richest person in the world, with a personal fortune of $18 billion, and could foot the bill without blinking an eye.

Let's instead turn to some of the highest-paid people working in the City, the New York Yankees. If just the eight highest-paid members of the team -- Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter, Mark Texiera, CC Sabathia, Jorge Posada, AJ Burnett, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera -- kicked in $100,000 each (a drop in the bucket when you consider what they are paid each season), the four pools could be opened.

Imagine the good will they could generate, especially in light of another story in the paper about the outrageous processing and courtesy fees baseball fans paid (on top of the already-exorbitant ticket prices) to attend the games between the Yankees and the Mets this weekend.


The article also reports that city will save another $600,000 by ending the swimming "season" two weeks early, closing the remaining fifty pools on August 22nd. Maybe they've read something in The Farmer's Almanac that leads them to believe otherwise, but in all my years living in the NY Metro area, it's always remained pretty hot right through the end of August and into the Labor Day weekend.

But we won't ask the Yankees to foot that additional cost. There is, after all, another highly-paid team across town and it would only require the six highest-paid Mets to cover it.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Eggplant Burgers

I don't think I ever expected to be posting a recipe here, but Laurie and I have invented a tasty treat: The Eggplant Burger.

A week or so ago, we grilled some eggplant on the barbecue while making a steak for dinner. I remarked that the slices of eggplant were much like hamburger patties. That led to a discussion of what it would be like to have them on a hamburger bun. And this is what we came up with...

Peel an eggplant and slice it into 1/2" thick "patties."
Marinate in balsamic vinegar overnight.
Grill the patties over a high heat, flipping them over after two minutes.

Serve on a bun with a slice of mozzarella cheese, a slice of beefsteak tomato, and a fresh basil leaf. (Well, the basil leaf might be hard to find unless you happen to be growing it like we do.)

A splendiferous mingling of flavors for a tasty dinner!

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

World Blood Donor Day

Yesterday I got an email from the New York Blood Center:

The World Health Organization has designated June 14th as World Blood Donor Day, "Celebrating the Gift of Blood." World Blood Donor Day celebrates those who donate their blood in order to save lives. This year's theme is "New Blood for the World" focusing on young donors.

New York Blood Center would like to thank both our young and "young at heart" donors on this special day. Please click on the following link to see our special video of thanks:

Remember, each day, New York Blood Center needs close to 2,000 people a day to roll up their sleeves to give the gift of life.Without volunteer donors, such as yourselves, our community would not have an adequate blood supply.

Thank you for being a donor with New York Blood Center.

As I've mentioned in a prior posting, only 2% of the population donates blood. Though there are a number of restrictions on who can donate -- prior and current medical conditions, exposure and potential exposure to a variety of diseases, travel -- there are still a lot more folks who could than do. And there is still no artificial substitute for blood; those who need it -- accident and burn victims, cancer patients, people needing surgery, et al -- rely on "the kindness of strangers" every single day.

You don't have to be as diligent a donor as I am (9+ gallons and more than 160 platelet donations); even a donation or two a year will make a difference. Someday you might be on the receiving end and you would be quite thankful that there were people who took the time to roll up their sleeves.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

The Comicmobile

About a month after I started working at DC Comics back in 1973, I arrived at the office one morning and was confronted by Vice President / Production Manager Sol Harrison. “What are you doing here?” he asked.

Startled, I replied, “I work here.”

“I know that. You’re supposed to be in New Jersey, picking up the Comicmobile.”

Yes, the Comicmobile, that fabled vehicle of comics history that many have heard of but few have seen (and even fewer have actually purchased anything from). For those of you who are unfamiliar with it: It was Sol’s idea that if kids living in the suburbs couldn't get to the old “mom and pop stores” that sold comics, we should bring the comics to them. So he leased a big blue van, had “The DC Comicmobile” painted on it, and plastered super-hero stickers all over it. Then he stocked it with leftover comics from the DC library and sent Michael Uslan (much later the executive producer of the Batman and Swamp Thing movies, among lots of other things) out on the streets of New Jersey to sell them.

When it was time for Mike to leave for the University of Indiana, Sol decided that I should take the Comicmobile to Long Island. And I knew I was supposed to pick it up, but Mike and I had worked it out that I would do so the following day.

Sol, however, did not agree. Midge Bregman, his secretary, handed me money for train fare, told me what little town in the Garden State I was taking the train to, and shooed me out of the office. They did give me time to make my one phone call -- to tell my parents I would not be coming home from work that night!

Mike met me with the Comicmobile and we spent the afternoon and evening riding around, ringing the bells and selling comics at local parks, beaches, and in front of other places potential customers were gathered. He had "lovely assistant” named Robin working with him and, frankly, I think she attracted more than one father of small children over to be persuaded into buying a few comic books.

I slept at Mike’s parents’ home that night. They were as surprised to have an overnight guest as I had been when I learned from Sol I was going to be one. And the next morning, after going over what was in our “inventory” and how to keep track of the money, Mike was off to Indiana University and I was on the road back to Long Island.

Those of you who are unfamiliar with the roads of the New York metropolitan area probably don’t know that there are no commercial vehicles allowed on the parkways; they are only allowed on expressways and turnpikes. The Comicmobile, decked out with all its superhero decals and such, would not qualify as anything other than commercial. Needless to say, it made my trip home all the more interesting as I had to abandon some of the familiar routes for other highways and byways.

At one point, while driving through New York City, I passed a college friend, who was quite startled to see me. Our paths have never crossed again and to this day, I’m convinced he thought my job in the comic book industry was delivering them to stores. And when I arrived home and parked the garish-looking van in front of the house, my father’s first comment was, “I sent you to college for four years so you could drive a comic book truck?”

The hardest part about driving the Comicmobile on Long Island had to be getting a vendor’s license for each of the townships I would be working in. Each town – Hempstead, North Hempstead, Oyster Bay, and Huntington – had its own set of requirements and its own set of rules. They did have one basic rule in common.

Where Mike had had it fairly easy in New Jersey, being able to drive to a local park or beach and set up shop in the parking lot, the powers-that-be on Long Island were nowhere near as liberal. I was prohibited from bringing the Comicmobile anywhere near beaches, parks, schools, and pretty much any other place kids might be. Instead, I was reduced to driving up and down individual streets, holding a set of bells out the window and ringing them vigorously. (Since DC had only leased the van, there was no way Sol was going to let me mount the bells on it.)

As those of you who have lived in areas that were served by an ice cream man might guess, I was often mistaken for someone selling Popsicles and Klondike Bars. There was, in fact, one little boy who would demand a Creamsicle every Thursday when I showed up. And all he ever had to pay for it was a nickel. I’m not sure what an ice cream bar cost in those days, but it was certainly more than 5c.

Over the six weeks that I drove the Comicmobile, I did develop something of a regular clientele. And some of the customers would request specific issues that I could often find among the leftovers in the DC library. This resulted in one of the most amusing tales of my Comicmobile adventures, when Joe Orlando tried to have me arrested.

One afternoon I was in the library, loading a box with a variety of books from the shelves therein. Joe, who did not know who I was, saw me and hustled down to the office of Vice President Sol Harrison. “Call the cops! There’s some kid in the library stealing books,” he told Sol.

Sol followed him back up the hall, took one look at me and said, “That’s not some kid; that’s Rozakis!”

For years after that, I would kid Joe about how he almost sent me to jail.

When school started, the Comicmobile’s hours of operation were severely reduced and Sol decided it was time for me to come back and work in the office. I’m sure part of it also had to do with the fact that we were barely making enough to cover the cost of gasoline the van was guzzling… and gas was only 20c a gallon at the time!

The Comicmobile was shipped off to comics dealer Bruce Hamilton out in the southwestern U.S. for continued "testing." The entire project, however, met an untimely end when the Comicmobile came out on the losing end of a collision with a semi.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010


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!