Bill Schelly was among the founders of comics fandom in the early 1960s. He has made his mark on comics as a biographer and historian. Schelly won a Will Eisner Award in 2016 for his acclaimed biography of Harvey Kurtzman, The Man Who Created Mad. His new biography on publisher James Warren, Empire of Monsters, uncovers the truth behind one of comics’ most misunderstood figures. It was a pleasure to discuss Schelly’s many books—and we didn’t cover them all in the interview—via phone in February 2019.
Frank M. Young: Before I read your book, my impression of Jim Warren was really a caricature of his personality. I came away feeling he was a much more complex and sympathetic person. Did your viewpoint towards Warren change as you worked on this biography?
Bill Schelly: My viewpoint did change. In the course of my research, I discovered material that made me see how very human he was, and how he put out an exterior image in order to protect who he really was. On the other hand, I’m not sure that I was able to discover exactly what that inner self was. He guards it so carefully.
He wouldn’t be interviewed for my book, so I was unable to ask him questions that got into those areas. However, I did have access to unpublished interviews (with Warren) by people like Gary Groth, Mike Catron, and some others, that provided a lot of material that he had never talked about before. They helped me flesh out things like his interest in military history. Something he did, when he had the money to do it, was to go to Europe to take part in a ride along with some of the original troops from England to Normandy, simulating the D-Day landing. He felt very strongly about WWII, defeating Hitler, and as a military buff, about the D-Day invasion.
That’s just one aspect of his life—although it did inspire his publication of a comic book about war called Blazing Combat.
It’s interesting that Warren would publish a magazine that turned out to be so controversial with the military.
He was not anti-military. He was not even anti-war, per se. But he felt that if you’re going to war, then go to win it, and don’t to dither around. He was against the Vietnam war, but maybe not when Blazing Combat first appeared, mid-decade. The magazine’s tone was set by the editor, Archie Goodwin. Goodwin was a young man and a liberal who was taking a hard look at what it meant to go off to war. His friends were being drafted. And that’s what set the tone for Blazing Combat. Warren did not criticize it or try to stop it at all. He was all for Blazing Combat, and he was 100% supportive of Archie Goodwin as an editor and a person.
I don’t feel that Blazing Combat was an attempt to emulate what Harvey Kurtzman did at EC with Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, as some have said. It’s been seen as a knock-off of Kurtzman’s work, just as Creepy and Eerie are sometimes seen as knock-offs of Tales from the Crypt. Actually, neither is the case. Goodwin loved Two-Fisted Tales and Frontline Combat, but didn’t try to imitate Kurtzman’s writing style. As for the EC horror comics, Jim Warren was not a fan of the EC horror comics. He admired the artwork and the artists. He was happy to have top artists who had worked at EC. But the comics themselves were not his taste. I think he wanted to do something that was a little classier.
I think he trusted Archie Goodwin’s vision as an editor very much.
One thing that did not get into the book was a letter that Archie wrote to a friend. He was a little bit unhappy with Warren because Warren really wanted to push the monsters in the early issues of Creepy and Eerie. He felt that Famous Monsters of Filmland [Warren’s pioneering magazine, begun in 1958] was his brand, and that was his audience. He felt that pushing the monsters was the way to go.
Archie felt that was too limiting and caused the stories to be dumbed down. But he went along with it and did the best he could. He eventually managed to get out of that directive here and there.
That is true of the early issues of Creepy…
The vampires, the werewolves, the Frankensteins. There were a lot of similar stories from issue to issue. Archie was chafing at this. Had he stayed, he would have pushed for something like what came later with Creepy and Eerie, which were stories of human horror, as opposed to evocations of the classic movie monsters.
Warren respected Ackerman’s knowledge of fantasy and horror films, but not his commercial acumen. Although Ackerman was given the title of editor of the monster magazine, the truth is that Warren would often reject articles submitted by Forry, reject cover ideas, and criticize other aspects of the magazine. For example, he didn’t care for Ackerman filling pages with photo-trips to the Ackermansion and other types of self-promotion. So I’d say they co-edited the magazine. Warren probably did take Ackerman for granted.
One of the best parts of your book deals with the second flowering of Warren’s comics in the 1970s…
This is something I discovered as I worked on the book. I was really only familiar with the Warren magazines from the ‘60s. I’d never read the 1970s issues, other than a story here or there—certainly not on a regular basis. When I got into this period, I was impressed at the quality they achieved—mainly through a group of amazing freelancers. They were top writers and artists at any time in comics. Writers like Bruce Jones, who was one of the best horror writers of all time; artists like Berni Wrightson, who was called “the modern Graham Ingels,” but was very original in his own right.
If the Archie Goodwin era was the golden age of Warren, then the Bill Dubay and Louise Simonson eras of the ‘70s were Warren’s silver age. Simonson was editor from 1976 to 1979. She contributed a substantial amount to the magazine’s history over this four year period.
They were, at the time, among the few mainstream comics that I felt were fairly intelligent…
The Comics Code, in 1955, dictated that comics would be for children. Not until the direct market could comics really be done for an older audience. There was a captive audience going to the comic book specialty stores. From 1965 to 1982, Warren published comics stories that were geared toward the slightly older reader. The adaptations of literary classics by Edgar Allan Poe or Ambrose Bierce, for example. They could deal with stories and themes that one could see on The Twilight Zone TV show—which was certainly at a higher level than what a kid could buy in a mainstream comic book at the time. Warren bridged the gap between the coming of the Code and its elimination, in large part.
You cited the story “Thrillkill,” which Neal Adams drew.
Which was about a young guy who climbed atop a building and started shooting at random people. What it did was different than Jules Feiffer’s script for Little Murders , where people decide that everything is so crazy that it makes sense to shoot people at random out the window. There was also a TV movie with Kurt Russell as a sniper in a tower. I felt that “Thrillkill” was a much more sophisticated treatment of that subject. It explores the psychology of the sniper in a remarkable way for an eight-page story.
There was a documentary feeling to it.
Absolutely. This is one of many brilliant stories from that era—many written by Bruce Jones. My one caveat: those stories got awfully wordy. When I mentioned that to Louise Simonson—then she was Louise Jones—she said that Bill Dubay loved to write wordy stories, with huge captions in every panel. Authors would see those stories, and they’d do the same thing. “Well, this is what they want…” The authors liked it, because they could say more…
It was a reiteration of the worst tendencies of EC comics; the caption describing, in detail, what the artist has illustrated. It doesn’t add anything to the story except more lines of text.
Bruce Jones and Jim Stenstrum did try to cut back on the word count, to some degree. But when Bill Dubay was editor, he rewrote most of the other scripts. This led to a confrontation with Richard Corben. Corben sent in episodes of “Mutant World,” and Dubay reworked the wording. Those were supposed to be inviolate works. Corben said, “I’ve had enough,” and he left Warren.
Bill Dubay comes across as the most contentious and difficult person in the Warren story. He struck me as an unpleasant person…
That’s the impression I got, too. Jim Warren had many off-putting aspects to his personality. He would yell at people and confront them. At one point, someone was in his office getting read the riot act. When he came out, Flo Steinberg was sitting at her desk crying. “How could you stand someone yelling at you that way?” The man answered, “I’ve wanted to work for Famous Monsters since I was kid. This isn’t gonna stop me!” [laughter]
Bill Dubay looked at Warren’s example. It was like the son learning at the father’s knee, except the son didn’t get the lesson. Warren had a lot of personal warmth and charm and could be a lot of fun to be with. He was hardly a nasty person. Dubay just saw Warren’s harsher characteristics and took them as license to unleash his dark side.
Dubay’s personality, as revealed in the book, is unsettling.
It is—especially for people who worked very closely with him, and certainly had earned his respect, like Jim Stenstrum. He felt that Dubay always wanted people to be off-kilter around him. And because he worked long hours, he had no problem asking people to do things over and over. A lot of people didn’t get along well with him.
Your writing about the relationship between Harvey Kurtzman and Warren, coming after your major biography of Kurtzman, felt fresh. It wasn’t a reiteration of what you’d done before…
I tried to make it as fresh as possible, because I’d learned a lot more about Jim Warren’s point of view. Although he wouldn’t do a new interview for this biography, I did interview Warren when I was working on the Kurtzman book. We had talked with him about Help! magazine and Kurtzman, which helped me write that chapter of this book.
Never in a million years could those two people have gotten along. Kurtzman was a super-creative person who had issues with publishers. He insisted on creative freedom, while Warren was a publisher who was a control freak. They were on completely different wavelengths. And Kurtzman felt that he was slumming, working for the publisher of Famous Monsters, which he considered low class. The only reason Kurtzman did Help! and other projects for Warren was because he needed the work.
They got along well for a while, until Warren tried to tell Harvey what should be in his magazine. That violated their agreement. Warren was to completely stay out of editorial functions, and let Harvey control the entire creative aspect of the magazine. Warren couldn’t let that go.
There were other problems. At one point, Harvey did a satire of Archie comics [“Goodman Goes Playboy, Help! #13, January 1962]. When he’d done a similar satire on Archie at EC [“Starchie,” Mad #12, June 1954], there was no legal challenge from Archie publications. But in 1962, John Goldwater (publisher of the Archie line) threatened to sue Jim Warren over this satire. Kurtzman’s stance was that satire was inviolate. Warren completely disagreed and didn’t want to contest Goldwater for any reason. He left Harvey hanging. It cost Kurtzman about $1000 to get Goldwater off his back. Plus, he had to apologize in print, which was very difficult for Harvey to do.
It was satire, which should be protected by the First Amendment. Warren and Kurtzman never got over that.
You present both sides of the story well; it’s not one of Warren’s prouder moments.
You’ve had a career as a biographer, starting with your book on Harry Langdon, the silent film comedian.
As Lin Carter famously said, writers write the books they want to read. I really wanted to have a biography of Harry Langdon when there was a silent film revival in the late 1970s. There was no single book on Langdon, who was considered by James Agee one of the four great silent clowns. I wanted to see what I could find out about [Langdon] and it gradually became a book. I started working on it in 1980, and it was published by Scarecrow Press in 1982. That was my first book, and I was immensely proud of it. About a decade ago, I rewrote it because the Internet provided me with a lot of new information and contacts I didn’t have before. The revised Langdon book was published by McFarland in 2008.
There are all these research doors open that weren’t available even a decade ago…
As a biographer, the two greatest things that have happened are word processing, which makes writing so much easier, and the Internet, which makes research much more possible for people with limited incomes, who can’t afford to travel to universities and archives all around the country to get information.
What drives me to tell these people’s stories has a lot to do with the way their art affected their lives, and vice versa, and a fascination with the creative process. Those technical things have made it possible for me to write seven or eight biographies.
You were able to unearth some fascinating new information about John Stanley in Giving Life to Little Lulu.
I found quite a bit that hadn’t been known before. Stanley was probably the toughest, but I found details about his life on the Internet, and of course working with you, as a Stanley expert, and his son James Stanley.
Was Stanley your most challenging biography?
Yes. The Kurtzman book was more challenging in terms of sheer time and effort. But there were plenty of people who wanted to talk about Harvey Kurtzman. I interviewed 25 or 30 people and traded e-mails with many more. His family was alive—his wife and his daughters—and all of them talked with me.
In Stanley’s case, the publishing company he worked for had destroyed their records. His son James was born in 1964, after his father had done his most famous comics, so he couldn’t tell me much about his career. He did tell me a little about his father’s personal life. Every tiny little fact I came up with was like gold. It was a matter of getting every possible thing I could think of to illuminate the career of this amazingly talented and unfairly neglected comic artist and writer.
It became a very visual book...
It wouldn’t have worked as a straight biography. The text is only 50,000 words. There wasn’t enough information about his life to stand alone. By putting the text next to the comic art, there’s a synergy that occurs.
Some people have asked why the book is so large (about 10” by 13”). In order to present as much material as possible, I wanted to run two pages of comic art side by side on one page and have it be readable. Therefore, the pages had to be a little larger than the standard coffee-table book. To have done a smaller book, I’d have lost about a third of the material and it would make for awkward layouts. I really love the size. It allows the single page reproductions of Stanley’s artwork to look really big and fantastic.
One of the reasons I like working with Fantagraphics is that they do provide the best quality visual side to the books as possible. The care that they give to the images and the layout is just out of this world. I’m proud to be associated with them because they make my books look so good.
They seem open to doing books in unusual formats. There’s not a set size or page length…
They’ve always had very talented designers. I worked with Keeli McCarthy on my last three books. She did the covers for all of them. I think her cover for the Warren book is a wonderful evocation of the imagery you’d find in a Warren magazine, down to the DayGlo hues. Jim Warren was in love with DayGlo colors.
These are hardback books, and they have a permanency that paperbacks don’t always have. I think that’s what the art demands and deserves.
Several of your biographies are about brilliant creators who were troubled and flawed human beings—from Harry Langdon to Jim Warren. I’ve been impressed by how you address their flaws, but never pass judgment on them. Is that a conscious thing?
Yes. I would want people to look at me, and my good points and flaws, and value what good I do—and not negate it because I am flawed. All creative people have flaws. If it weren’t for their flaws, they would not create this work. You have to take the whole person.
It’s easy to be critical. I want to treat them the way I want to be treated.
This compassionate viewpoint is much needed right now. There’s a real witch-hunt mentality at present.
It feels like just pointing the finger is enough—like in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. Without question, victims deserve to be heard and treated with respect. Justice needs to be sought in all cases. I also think that someone who gets a finger pointed at them is still innocent until proven guilty. If you’re arrested for something, it does not mean you’ve committed the crime; you were just arrested for it. We have a legal system that is supposed to determine guilt or innocence.
Of course, I do know that women have not been listened to about sexual assaults and harassment, and that justice has not always done its job. If any of the subjects I wanted to write about were racists, or had perpetrated violence, I don’t think I’d write about them. I wouldn’t forgive them. But when we’re talking about flaws that fall into the normal realm of human weakness, I would not say that they are not worth studying.
Jim Warren was a really eccentric personality—an odd individual who really pushed the boundaries. A lot of people would say, “How did he get away with this?” You’d be surprised how much a person can get away with if they’re funny and engaging and not nasty.
A lot of his aggression and pugilism had to do with surviving in a very tough business. And only he survived. Most of his competitors—all the imitations of Creepy, Eerie, and Famous Monsters—all fell away. He had to be tough in order to do that; he had to create the image of someone you don’t want to mess around with.
On the flip side, he never interfered with his writers or his artists—or his editors, even though he got into some issues with Harvey Kurtzman. He let Archie Goodwin do the kind of stories he wanted for Creepy and Eerie. Louise Jones said that she couldn’t recall him ever saying anything about the content of the magazines she was producing. He was a supporter of creative people. He knew he had to let them do what they did best. This is one of the reasons he could attract talent like he did.
Over 30 members of the Comic Book Hall of Fame had work published in the Warren magazines over the years. How did he attract all those top talents? He paid them for their work, but he let them work unfettered.
I really enjoyed learning about Louise Jones’ tenure at Warren, and the creative renaissance that she seemed to usher in.
There had been women editors in comics before, but it wasn’t widespread. His magazines were his life, and he hired a woman to edit them. He knew that he had someone smart and reliable—who could work with everybody—in Louise. She was a quality individual—much superior to Bill Dubay as an editor in my opinion. She was sort of a kindred spirit of Archie Goodwin. Nobody has bad things to say about either person. They can work with anybody; they’re always professional and they do their job well.
As I wrote this book, it seemed that Louise was the other side of the mirror of Archie Goodwin. It’s fitting that she presided over the second great period of Warren. There aren’t many people like either of them.
It’s one of the great sadnesses of my life that I never got to meet Goodwin. At the San Diego Comicon, in 1995, I came back to my table and found that he’d left a check and bought a copy of The Golden Age of Comic Fandom. But I never got to meet him, and he passed away not too long after that.
What was the biggest surprise that you came across in your research for this book?
There were two surprises. First, the original story that Jim Warren put forth, on how he started Famous Monsters of Filmland, was not actually the case—as revealed to me by his original partner in FM who has never been known until now.
The other surprise was that Jim Warren actually married—for about two weeks, three weeks [laughter]—in 1969. He had been under the influence of psilocybin mushrooms, and somehow got himself engaged to a woman who was a Native American. And so here was this wedding, in a Philadelphia hotel, with his Jewish family and her Native American family—and these two unlikely people coming together, and they were legally wed. The fact that Jim Warren was actually married is really something, because he was a bachelor all his life otherwise.
The marriage is almost symbolic of the state Jim Warren was in at the time. His magazines were struggling, and he was under a tremendous amount of stress. He was doing all kinds of things that you might call "acting out," and this might just have been one of them.
Keep in mind, in the late 1960s, there was a lot of crazy stuff going on. Jim Warren wasn’t, by any means, the most “out there” person.
He was just being a man of the times.
He was a very social guy. He wanted to be around people; he had lots of friends whom he’d invite to his house out at the beach; he didn’t isolate himself. He did that later, in the 1980s, when the magazines were struggling, and he was dealing with some demons of his own. He could have done a great deal to prevent the collapse of his company. Bill Dubay said, later, that if Warren had made the effort, he could have saved the magazines.
But times were changing. The newsstand distribution system was falling apart, and that was what Jim knew. He had been involved with Phil Seuling from the ground floor of the direct market, but he still needed newsstand distribution for his magazines. He saw that was going away. His survival would depend on whether the direct market would have supported his magazines or not. There are things he might have done to address these challenges, but he chose not to, and the book explains why.
Once you start looking into a person’s life, you begin to realize why things happened the way they did. For example, with Harvey Kurtzman, people say, “If he’d just stuck with Mad magazine, he could have become a millionaire.” He could have become Al Feldstein, who stuck with the magazine for many years and became independently wealthy. But Harvey Kurtzman could never have done what Al Feldstein did. Kurtzman would have never wanted the magazine to remain the same year after year, decade after decade. He would have always been trying to change it, and evolve it, and would have probably self-destructed at some point.
We certainly wish our heroes, like Kurtzman, didn’t have to face such great adversity in later years. In Warren’s case, he came out of it and today has a good life. He dealt with depression and some other physical issues, but he’s still with us. His mother lived to 104, so Jim, who turns 90 next year, may well be with us for a long time, and I hope he is.
The book has a genuinely happy ending.
I think it does. I ultimately came away liking him. The book isn’t a love letter to Jim Warren. It points out the things he did that were beyond the pale, and it goes into many anecdotes about situations where your jaw does kind of hit the floor. There’s a lot in there that’s never been known before.
You never comment on Warren’s behavior in the book.
I describe the behavior, so that the reader can come to his or her own conclusions.
You’re at work on a new book...
I’m currently working on another volume of The American Comic Book Chronicles. I previously wrote their book on the 1950s, and they asked me to do a book on the years 1945-1949. That will take a year and half or so to come out.
Are you having to read a lot of comics from that period?
Yes. I’m realizing that, though I know a fair amount about the history of comics, there’s still so much to learn, and to absorb, but this is what’s so great about what I do. When I’m working on biographies, I get to talk to people who knew and worked with, say, Jim Warren or Harvey Kurtzman. In the case of this book, it’s all the comics I get to read for the first time. It’s the way I get my comic art—through my projects.