In a way, Bill and I have been friends for more than 50 years, since we both contributed to the same fanzines way back in the mid-1960s. We reconnected in the early ’90s when he joined the CAPA-alpha amateur press alliance and then solidified our friendship at San Diego Comic-Con in 1991, where we met for the first time. We bonded immediately and that began a near-20 year relationship that was closer to brothers than pals.
Even then, Bill was chronicling comics history in his CAPA-alpha fanzines, and then later in self-published books about comics fandom and its creators. So, it was a small leap to his initial “real” books on comics and their creators.
He was always interested in becoming a better writer, right to the end. He was relatively pleased with his later works, particularly the Kurtzman and Warren books he did for Fantagraphics.
Writing was his passion, although not his only one. He also loved comics, of course, and fanzines, rock music, the James Bond books and movies, Robert E. Howard, and film noir, just for starters.
He was perfectly happy in his comfortable home in a Seattle suburb, surrounded by the things he loved, doing the work he loved and communicating with those he loved. He and I vacationed together to Comic-Con many times, or in Seattle or my hometown of Los Angeles. We watched movies, visited used book stores or comic-book stores, ate Mexican or Thai food, and yapped away until our throats were hoarse. We never ran out of things to say about our shared passions.
He told me just days before he passed away that he was happy with who he was and what he had done with his life. Cancer took him way too quickly but, in the end, he said he was ready to go. He leaves behind a wonderful daughter named Tara and many friends, myself included, who now face an enormous hole in our lives where Bill resided. Thankfully, his many published works provide a rich legacy for those who want to get to know Bill better from now on. For me, he will never be replaced, but my numerous memories of our unique friendship will provide comfort.
I was first aware of Bill Schelly when I was a comics-crazed kid in the 1970s. Copies of his fanzine, Sense of Wonder, added to my knowledge of comics — at a time when such information was arcane. This first wave of publishing fandom was older than I by at least a decade (which seemed like a lifetime then) and I felt like I’d missed out on something big. I had no idea that this growing fascination with comics and cartooning would someday lead to a career in the field, or that I would eventually meet folks like Bill Schelly.
I met Bill six years ago. I’d thought about reaching out to him throughout the 2000s but was bashful about doing so. Bill reached out to me to ask for my help with a biography he was writing on John Stanley. Bill had seen my work on Stanley and thought enough of it to call on me. It was a shock to learn that someone else was going to write the book on Stanley. Once I met Bill and realized how much of his work I’d read in the past decade-plus (going back to the first version of his book on Harry Langdon), I knew the project was in good hands. Above all else, I discovered what a fine person Bill Schelly was.
We hit it off easily, and soon after our first meeting we asked one another, “How come we didn’t become friends a long time ago?” That question, spoken then in good humor, is now haunting. I have lost some dear friends in the past few years and have tried to be philosophical about it all. Death is part of the cycle of life, and nobody lives forever. But there are certain people one encounters in this life that are gone too soon — people you wished to know better. Bill was one of those people.
Humble, hardworking, smart, diligent and in for the long haul — that was Bill Schelly. He took no task lightly. His friendships with the first-generation fandom helped him gain access to aspects of John Stanley’s life that no one had thought to ferret out. When he had access to more information — as with Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Kubert and James Warren — he could paint an in-depth portrait of his subjects, warts and all. His assessment of Kurtzman was an enormous contribution to our understanding of the man and may be Bill’s finest achievement as a writer.
Bill had come back to comics after a long absence and had a different perspective. He was not a collector, as he often insisted. He cared about the history of comics and was interested in its future potential. He spoke to me about his concerns that he was doing his best to tell the stories of the creators he chose to research and write about. He felt that hard work and discipline were essential to the success of his writing. To get a compliment from him about my work was an honor. Bill’s work ethic set a high and inspiring bar for due diligence and staying on task.
As we got to know each other, our lives outside of comics became part of the discussion. Both of us being gay and resigned to the single life was one thing; our mutual interest in film and music another. On occasion, when our schedules permitted, I’d come up from Portland, where I moved in 2014, and stay overnight. We’d go to a favorite Mexican restaurant in his neighborhood and then watch a movie or two. He showed me a deeply moving documentary about songwriter “Doc” Pomus and convinced me to give Jim Jarmusch’s Paterson a second chance. And he humored my suggestion that we view the whacked-out 1962 SF movie Creation of the Humanoids.
Our conversations, which covered any topic that came into our thoughts, went into the wee hours as we sat in the comfortable living room of his small, tidy house. Those were precious times, and times we hoped to have more of in the future. Bill was great company; he made you feel at home.
Damn it, I was just getting to know Bill Schelly. It floored me to learn of his demise from multiple myeloma. My skirmish with cancer, which I believe is a done deal, nearly led to my death due to misdiagnosis. I fear the same happened with Bill. If only someone had taken note early enough. Myeloma can be overcome if it’s caught before it spreads. When last we spoke, Bill complained of back pains that made it hard for him to work. He seemed confident that he’d get over it and be back on track. It angers me to think that his doctors might have overlooked the symptoms until there was no way to overcome the problem.
The last time we conversed, I was helping Bill update his Wikipedia page. He wanted to have his bibliography current. He also had a photograph he liked and wanted to have on the page. That turned into a screwball misadventure that left us both befuddled and bemused. There seemed no portent of his passing. He chalked the back issues up to advancing age, and what bothered him most was the toll it took on his work time.
At the time of his passing, Bill was at work on an American Comic Book Chronicles volume covering the years 1945–1949. That’s a choice period for comic books — a time of complete overhaul for the industry, with new genres emerging as past trends declined. It was a book I looked forward to reading. He was also at work on a biography of Steve Ditko — which he hadn’t mentioned to me. I don’t know how far along he was on that project, but he had already turned up some fascinating leads and no doubt it would’ve made for another first-rate book.
The critical success Bill experienced with his Kurtzman-Stanley-Warren trifecta might have given other authors a swelled head. But Bill remained realistic and modest about his achievements. He spoke with me about moments in the Kurtzman book he wished he could re-do (and they were small things) and he never assumed that his work was good. He worked hard and hoped the results were worthwhile.
Bill Schelly will always be a personal role model for doing my best and not taking the easy way out, as well as to be comfortable with, and accepting of, myself. His books will live on as definitive portraits of their subjects. I hope they inspire other writers to roll up their sleeves and dig in.
I edited four of Schelly's books for Fantagraphics: Man of Rock, John Stanley: Giving Life to Little Lulu, Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America and James Warren, Empire of Monsters. Three of those were designed by Keeli McCarthy. I can truly say he was an absolute dream of an author to work with and made me a better editor (mea culpa typos). Schelly was extremely professional, very gracious about notes and he just got better and better with every book. I am very, very proud of the work Schelly, Keeli and I did — most likely, it's some of the best in my 16-year career, and it's thanks to him.
Schelly was also a very sweet man. I went to a local reading he did and the audience was filled with people from the community who clearly loved him. One of the last conversations we had about how odd it was to have his autobiography read by someone else for the audiobook. I am saddened by losing Schelly as a presence in my life, and — selfishly — I'm sad about the projects we won't get to accomplish together.
"I regard my time as valuable, and I use my time to my best advantage because God knows I'm running out of it." Harvey Kurtzman said this in 1987 but it could just as well have been his biographer, Bill Schelly speaking about himself in 2016 when I first met him.
Although I had known of him and enjoyed his work for years, I met Bill for the first time a little more than three years ago, after he had retired from working at the same office job for decades. Sitting together in the Panera bakery at the Northgate Mall in Seattle (recently demolished), Bill told me he planned to use his retirement to produce as many good books as possible. I was insanely envious. He had a pension, a house, a great comics collection, the mastery of his craft, and didn't need to focus on anything but writing about comics and the people who made them, or anything else his heart desired (he reissued his early coming-of-age novel, Come With Me, in May of 2019).
His 642-page brick of a book, Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America, had recently come out from Fantagraphics. Over white mugs of dark, steaming coffee and flaky chocolate croissants, I gushed like a fanboy to Bill about this monumental achievement. He told me Gary Groth had suggested to him he write a biography of Kurtzman and said he was initially quite daunted by the idea. He took the task on as a life mission, admitting to me that he even started working out and taking vitamins so he could be as sharp as possible while writing his book.
I admire Bill Schelly because he humbly chose to tell the stories of extraordinary people with love and care, reflecting his own character and values. As a writer, he had some chops. I love this bit from his 1982 biography of Harry Langdon (reissued in a second edition in 2008): "The truth was that by the 1920s, American vaudeville was in decline. It was being cut down in its prime by a series of silvery shadows projected on a screen." Silvery shadows: factual and poetic.
In our meeting, Bill mentioned to me he had almost finished writing his book on John Stanley. He modestly said something like "it's just a small project." Imagine that. With his Kurtzman biography, Schelly reached a level of vitality and mastery in his writing projects few folks in his field have known and he stayed at that level for the rest of his life.
Schelly was a dedicated, disciplined, and organized comics historian. His Stanley book reflects these qualities with clean prose, sharp insights, expertly curated art, sidebars, an extensive chronology, and endnotes. It's not a small project in my book.
In his work, Schelly responsibly stated only what he could document and resisted the urge to speculate about his subjects. One email exchange I had with Bill illustrates his professionalism and high standards as a comics historian and writer. We were discussing the idea that John Stanley may have been more influenced by Marge Henderson Buell's original Little Lulu panel cartoons than had previously been thought. Bill wrote me: "I would agree that Stanley probably spent more time studying Marge's work than he later acknowledged .... but, as you say, it ends up being speculation because to document it would be impossible. I did make sure that I pointed out specific things he took from her Lulu panels, and also some cross-pollination from the Lulu cartoons, and how Stanley's later work influenced some of the Woody Woodpecker cartoons, and vice versa. It's too bad that Stanley himself was so unwilling to admit to putting so much care into his work."
I remember we talked about the loss of his adult son and how hard that had been for him. He had recently begun to share some personal photos on social media and I took this as an opening to get a little personal. We also discussed his Joe Kubert biography, Man of Rock. His eyes softened and his face lit up with a smile as he recalled the fatherly Kubert, whom he had interviewed and known. The section in that book which historically and critically discusses Kubert's Golden Age Hawkman stories is some of the most engaging writing about comics I've ever read.
Shortly after our meeting, Bill won an Eisner Award for his Kurtzman biography. I had never followed the awards live before, but that night I was pulling for Bill. I emailed him warm congratulations minutes after his win was announced. He immediately wrote me back: "I'm in shock. I really couldn't believe it would happen." He later wrote to me, " I can only say that winning the Eisner was a great capper to a five-year project that means more to me than anything else I've ever written."
From that point on, Schelly wrote and released a bookshelf's worth of good books related to comics. He seemingly wrote books faster than I could read them. It was truly remarkable. And everyone is valuable and sheds light on something we didn't know much about before. Notably, he reissued a revised and expanded version of his Otto Binder biography. There are few people who would dedicate themselves to documenting the life and work of a largely unknown, unsung comic book writer of the relatively distant past. I remember how proud he was of that book and that when we met, he regaled me with his adventures writing it. It's a valuable book, carefully documenting the intimate relationship science fiction and comic books in their youth. There were also books on L.B. Cole, two Kubert comics collections, early comic zines, a warm memoir of early comics fandom, and his last published book, a monster tome on Creepy publisher James Warren.
Sitting in that sunny coffee shop, we made plans to work together and discussed possible projects. I got a book contract and spent some years writing a book, going into seclusion to do so. Neither of us had any idea Bill would only be in the world a little more than three more years. Had I but known, I would have spent more time with him. Unaware he was ill, I emailed Bill ten days before he died that I had finished my book and was ready to hang and take on those collaborative projects we had dreamed up. Bill Schelly is gone too soon. It is a comfort and an example to us in the comics community to see the stately use he made of his time on this planet with the legacy of his books.
This a video of Bill in conversation with Jeff Gelb was recorded by J. Michael Catron.
Bill Schelly was a true gentleman, gracious, considerate, generous, and good-hearted to his core. I feel very fortunate to have been a long-time correspondent and close friend of Bill's for 25 years, and am completely devastated by his untimely death. Our friendship was an essential part of my life that is now suddenly gone, and I will miss him very much for a very long time to come. I really don't want to write more, because I'll have to use the past tense to talk about Bill and I'm just not ready to do that.