Gary Groth on Bill Schelly

A letter to Bill Schelly from Joe Kubert, seent after Man of Rock came out.

I don’t remember when I met Bill Schelly, but it may have been as late as 2006, when he pitched the idea of a Joe Kubert biography to me. It may have been earlier—and we may have corresponded briefly in the 1970s, as two teen-age comics fans putting out fanzines—but if we did, it would’ve been cursorily because I have no memory of it. I knew of Bill primarily as a long-time comics fan and, more recently, as the author of two books on the history of comics fandom. In my brain, he was stuck in fandom and in the past. Was he up for writing a biography of one of the great journeyman artists in the history of comic books? I wasn’t sure. A short history of a finite period in comics fandom is one thing, a full-scale biography of Joe Kubert is another. (I did not know he had written biographies of Harry Langdon and Otto Binder previously.) I knew Joe and respected his work, but more as a craftsman than as an artist, which valuation may have given me the confidence that Bill could do the job as well as it needed to be done; I may have thought, cynically, and possibly doing a disservice to both men, how good does a Joe Kubert biography have to be? So I threw my lot in with Bill, trusted that he would do a competent job, and told him we’d publish it.

Which we did in 2008. Man of Rock was better than competent. It was, if you’ll pardon the expression, rock solid. Bill’s research methodology was first rate, he knew mainstream comics and the period of comics that Kubert’s career traversed intimately, which gave him the foundational knowledge to dig deeper in an efficient and focused and intelligent way. Bill took on biographical subjects because they fascinated him personally, and Kubert’s career was varied enough to have gone beyond one work-for-hire assignment after another: There was his early entrepreneurship, claiming ownership of his character Tor (unusual in the 1950s), his involvement in creating 3D comics, his self-publishing efforts with Sojourn, his creation of the Kubert School in 1976, and his later independent graphic novel efforts (such as Fax from Sarajevo). Bill’s bio was exhaustive, respectful without being obeisant, sensitive to the historical period it chronicled. In retrospect, I think it was the best writing Bill had done up that point. I think the scope of the project brought the best out of Bill.

Bill edited two more Kubert-related projects in 2011, The Art of Joe Kubert, a coffee table book spotlighting Kubert’s art with text by Bill that emphasized analysis over history, and 2013, Weird Horrors and Daring Adventures, a collection of obscure comics stories Kubert did in the 1940s and 1950s. I think Bill had felt that he’d invested so much time and effort into researching Kubert’s career that he should take advantage of that knowledge by editing two companion volumes—and compensate himself for not making much money on the biography. Oddly, in a deal Joe struck with Bill, Kubert received half the royalties from the sale of his biography (I had never heard of a biographical subject receiving royalties from his biography). But Bill received all the royalties from these two books, and Kubert was, after I had exchanged e-mails negotiating with him, as he put it, “cool” with that. I was pleased that Bill could see a little more money from all the research he did on Man of Rock.

It was between 2008 and 2011 when I got to know Bill, and around 2011 when Bill and I started getting closer. I think the reason for this is because he started working on his Kurtzman biography in 2011 (while he was finishing editing his second Kubert book). Bill was local—literally less than a ten-minute drive away—so he would often drop by the office—to confer with the editor or designer of his books, see proofs, or just sit and talk with me. He came in on June 6, 2011 to brainstorm about his next project. He had a few ideas, none of which I was taken with, none of which I thought would be a step up from Kubert. I told him that Harvey Kurtzman deserved a serious biography. He was a complex personality and a complex cartoonist with a fascinating career that intersected with the wider world of popular culture. It would challenge him and stretch him and I thought that’s what he needed at this point in his journalistic/historical career. There was a coffee table/biographical book about Kurtzman that had come out in 2009, and he was worried that the Kurtzman bio train had left the station. I told him it was more of an art book and biographically half-assed and that he could do a far better job. He said he’d think about it. It didn’t sound like he was convinced. The next day I received this e-mail from him:

The reason I hadn’t considered doing a Kurtzman biography was simply that I thought it was being done. I’ll do a lot of reading about Harvey and see how my thoughts progress on doing the book.

On June 17, he wrote:

I’m inclining toward doing the Kurtzman biography, but I’d like to meet with you again to talk at greater length, explore the idea a bit more, and ask some questions. 

He came over on June 28, and after some discussion, made the decision to write Harvey Kurtzman’s bio. By August, he was forging ahead full throttle, making contacts, arranging interviews, doing preliminary research, adding to what he already knew. We kept in far closer and more frequent touch during his writing the Kurtzman bio than we ever did with his Kubert bio; I have over 400 e-mails between us with “Kurtzman” in them, most, based on the headers, about the book. He came over to the office at least twice a month to discuss his progress and to discuss how to navigate tricky ethical questions that often arise while writing a biography. I don’t remember a single instance where we were at loggerheads. We always talked things out thoroughly and arrived at a mutually agreed strategy. He would call me excitedly when he found a new lead or tracked down an important figure in Kurtzman’s career or connected the dots in a way no one had previously. He sent me at least two drafts of the book over the course of his writing it. I received the final manuscript on August 6, 2014, which means it took Bill almost exactly three years to research and write it. I wouldn’t be surprised if he worked on it virtually every day.

It was three years well spent. I think it’s the best and most important book he wrote, and stands with the best cartoonist biographies—David Michaelis’ Schulz and Peanuts; Deirdre Blair’s Saul Steinberg; Michael Tisserand’s Krazy: George Herriman, a Life in Black and White; R.C. Harvey’s Meanwhile… It is a monumental work, full of love, dedication, scholarship. I also think his writing improved tremendously since he wrote the Kubert bio. His prose became more confident and, I have to say it, less fannish. He worked closely with Fantagraphics editor Kristy Valenti, whom he enjoyed working with, and who went over his manuscript meticulously for both content and style. Bill thought her input improved his work and he praised their working relationship to me. Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America is an important book.

Bill went on to write one more book for us: Empire of Monsters, a biography of the comics entrepreneur James Warren. He chose Warren wisely. Kurtzman took three years to write and I think Bill felt a heaviness over writing it—an exhilaration, too, but he knew he was writing what may stand as the definitive biography of one of the most important cartoonists of the 20th century, and he felt the moral obligation that goes along with that. He needed to take on a less imposing project and Warren was made to order: significant in his own way, but also in a minor way. Not that Bill slacked in any way; he dove into it with the same focused energy he brought to Kurtzman, but I don’t think he felt the burden quite so much. The book is superb in the same way that Linda Davis’s Chas Addams: A Cartoonist’s Life is superb: the book’s length, depth, and tone perfectly suit its subject.

As I alluded to earlier, Bill and I shared the same debased cultural DNA: We both started off as young comics fans, addicted to superhero comics and publishing fanzines at a young age (Bill in 1964, me in 1967). But, growing up absurdly as a comics nerd is both a blessing and a curse. It provides a temporary exit ramp from one’s adolescent woes (Bill’s were different than mine, but similar enough) as well as fueling a life-long passion, but it also has the danger of poisoning your future relationship with an art form that one wants to take seriously in adulthood. Nostalgia can be an insidious impairment of the critical faculties. I suspect Bill accepted this double-edged patrimonial sword with greater equanimity than I did.

Bill had retired from a civil service job in local government, and decided to spend his retirement writing about the subject he loved—comics and its creators. He did not waste time. He was—the quantity and quality of his work bears this out—incredibly disciplined and highly organized. Surely he could not have accomplished what he did if he hadn’t been. He was punctilious—not just about his work, but about his social commitments, too. I don’t think he ever missed a hard deadline. One example of his professional conscientiousness was a June 6, 2010 e-mail, which began with a perfunctory author-to-publisher progress report on the book he was currently working on, The Art of Joe Kubert; then, he segued into an explanation as to why he was getting less work done than he’d anticipated:

I feel I have to explain the reason progress has been a bit slower than I figured. Gary, there’s no other way to say it, so I’ll just spit it out there: my son Jaimeson received a terminal cancer diagnosis on December 31, 2009, and the past five months have been the worst time of my life. And things are just going to get worse. He has germ cell tumors in his lungs and pelvis, and every known means of curing him has been exhausted. We are now fighting to get him the best treatment possible, to attempt to prolong his life. Realistically, I don’t know if he will live out the year.

Emotionally, Bill played things close to the vest. Note the lack of self pity or emotional intensity. It was pretty much the facts, laid out. In fact, his son died on October 8, 2010—five months after he wrote this e-mail. He wrote something about Jamieson’s death that was so lovely I’d like to share it:

My feelings of sadness and loss upon the passing of my son are compounded by the knowledge that his life ended too soon. That is undeniably true, but I’m reminded of something T. S. Eliot wrote: “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration.” Meaning, a life of whatever length is a complete experience.

Bill accepted this tragedy with a self-possession, at least on the few private moments we talked about it, that I surely could not have mustered. It was not exactly stoicism, but as if he’d made peace with it, and could talk about it with some distance. He once referred to himself as a “solitary guy,” and I suspect he was profoundly that, as well as a single man, in Christopher Isherwood’s sense of the phrase. He lived alone and seemed absolutely content. Yet he was also sociable.

In June of 2015, I started hosting what I called Noir Nights. I’d send out e-mails, negotiate the date, and a group of simpatico friends would assemble at my home. I’d cook dinner, we’d eat, see a noir flick, and discuss it (and many other things) over dessert. It was always (and still is) a convivial four or five hours. Bill was a regular; in fact, he never missed a single night—until the most recent evening when he was too incapacitated to attend due to what we now know was more than a broken rib. I saw Bill exclusively in two places: my office and at my dining room table. This is how I truly got to know him (that and thousands of e-mails over the years, mostly utilitarian). Bill was a pop culture maven. His greatest passions, I think, were comics and film—two of my great passions as well. He had an encyclopedic memory for second and third tier actors and directors (the kind that populate film noir). If we watched an Anthony Mann movie, he could place it in the context of Mann’s career, knew the movies he made before and after, and where it fit into his oeuvre. The movies were often mediocre because we eschewed the masterpieces that we had all seen in favor of movies we hadn’t, so it was always a crapshoot, but, frankly, it was the company that counted, not the cinema, and we always had a good time talking about comics, film, music, gossip.

Bill’s aesthetic judgments could be, I thought, overly generous, whereas mine could be overly harsh. Bill did not enjoy brawling verbal debates. He tended to retreat when differences of opinion reached a certain crescendo; when things got loud, he got quiet. I had the feeling that when someone offered an opposing opinion and was too strident or dismissive about it, he took it personally, as if his taste was under assault. Whereas I had developed an imperviousness to verbal assault under the forensic tutelage—and pummeling—of some of the most acerbic, opinionated people in comics (Burne Hogarth, Gil Kane, Alex Toth, Steve Ditko, Howard Chaykin) and outside of comics (Artie Shaw and Christopher Hitchens) and learned to enjoy the art of impersonal debate. But the ground rules of impassioned argumentation have to be implicitly agreed to by both parties, and you need the right combination of good cheer and thick-skinnedness to pull it off. I think Bill was uncomfortable with arguments and his boiling point was a lot lower than mine. I noticed this early on and I would occasionally ratchet back the severity of my comments if I thought it would discomfort him; after all, that wasn’t my intention.  

Our noir nights would start at 7:00 p.m. There were usually between four and seven people in attendance, depending on who was available. Bill would arrive every single time at 7:00 p.m. Not at 6:59 or 7:01. At 7:00 sharp. I don’t even know how he did it. Did he sit in his car until 6:59 and then walk to the front door? The rest of the crew would start arriving 15 or 20 or even 30 minutes later. It was during that time, before everyone else arrived, that Bill and I would talk about things that wouldn’t have been appropriate among a group. And it was during one of these times that Bill opened up to me and told me about a current love affair. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention this in a brief sketch of Bill because I think it played a central role in the last three years of his life. He and Joey (not his real name) had a relationship many years ago, which fell apart. Bill regretted this, but moved on. Recently, they had reconnected (I forget how). Joey lived on the East Coast. But their love affair, and their love, reignited, long distance. Bill told me that they’d exchange 20 e-mails a day. They would occasionally speak on the phone. Joey’s circumstances made it difficult for him to be open about their relationship and they never met. I once asked Bill where he saw this going, and he said he didn’t know, didn’t even care if it went anywhere farther than where it was at that moment, that he was happy with the way it was. Bill would give me updates on how his relationship was going, usually unprompted, which was a little uncharacteristic of him, and while he wasn't emotionally demonstrative he didn’t conceal the joy he was feeling and the genuineness of the experience. Bill was as close to giddy as he ever got, and it was a pleasure to see him so happy.

In retrospect, everyone’s life breaks down into discrete chapters. I was lucky enough to know Bill in the last chapter of his life, where he transitioned from a fan to a professional, where he went from dabbling as a writer to making it a profession and a vocation. We had the ideal publisher-author relationship, built on mutual respect, supportive, and collaborative. Our friendship was growing, slowly, at its own comfortable pace. I’m still in denial that he won’t swing by Fantagraphics, make a beeline for my office, apologize for interrupting me, sit down, and chat for 30 or 40 minutes, or be the first to show up at Noir Nights—7:00 p.m. sharp.