Russ Cochran: 1937-2020

Russ Cochran, circa 1986, models a T-shirt bearing the cover of Weird Science #16 by Wallace Wood.

Russ Cochran, who died Feb. 23 at the age of 82, is likely the only person on the planet who one could say straddled the worlds of both university physics and classic comics archiving. By profession, he was a professor and chairman of the physics department at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa; by avocation, he was an archivist of nearly every EC Comic ever published. He was also an art dealer with an impeccable reputation, a music historian, a good friend of both EC Publisher Bill Gaines and the Frazetta family, and the proud owner of a chimp named Sammy. 

It was Cochran’s love of EC Comics that inspired him to become an influential publisher and art dealer. As he recalled in a long interview with EC historian Grant Geissman in Tales of Terror, (an encyclopedic collection of all things EC, co-edited with long-time EC fan Fred Von Bernewitz). Cochran had actually stopped reading comic books, until he was inspired by a copy of Haunt of Fear his father had purchased for his older brother.

Cochran told Geissman, “I read that one, and said, ‘Wow, this is different. This is good stuff.’ And then I got re-interested in comics at the time. In our small town here in West Plains [Missouri], we used to trade comics a lot with other readers. I would take a stack of my comics over to David Galloway’s house, and I’d go through his stack and pick out the ones I liked, and he’d go through my stack and we’d trade one for one. I remember after having seen that Haunt of Fear, I started trading comics again and converting my inventory of comics that I had into whatever ECs I could find. We really got hooked on them and started subscribing, and we created a chapter of the EC Fan-Addict Club. In fact, we were chapter number three, which always kind of amazed me that we’d gotten in that early."

Cochran kept reading EC Comics to the bitter end, when Bill Gaines finally pulled the plug on publishing color comics in 1956 with Incredible Science Fiction #33. Cochran graduated from high school in 1955 and put his collection of comics in a wooden box and padlocked it. He vaguely recalled reading Mad magazine while he was attending college but pretty much forgot about his obsession with EC Comics until 1964, after he’d acquired his Ph.D. and assumed a teaching post at Drake University. As Cochran remembered it, “On sort of a whim I decided to write Bill Gaines. My letter said something to the effect that of the members of our chapter, EC Fan-Addict Club number three, one of us is a teacher, one is a minister, one is a doctor, one is a lawyer, and not an axe murderer in the bunch. I thought he would get a kick out of knowing that the influence of the ECs had not been detrimental to us. Anyway, he got a big kick out of the letter and wrote me back and said, ‘Next time you’re in New York, or if you’re ever in New York, give me a call and we’ll go out to dinner.’” Fortunately for EC fans, Cochran followed up on Gaines’ invitation and the two became fast friends, meeting over dinner and wine many times over the next few years.

Cochran’s reignited interest in collecting ECs led him to assemble a complete collection of comics and Picto-Fiction magazines, including the ultra-rare Shock Illustrated #3, which Bill Gaines provided. Cochran also nagged Gaines into giving him a piece of EC art, the Graham Ingels cover to Haunt of Fear #18, which became the first EC print Cochran issued. After seeing some of the EC original art, which Gaines had pulled from his vaults to be photographed for the Nostalgia Press volume, Horror Comics of the 1950s, Cochran was struck by the large size (18”x13”) and beautiful rendering on the pages. That size turned out to be impractical, but Cochran came close, reprinting the art for his portfolios at 16”x12”.

Cover illustration by Wally Wood (colors by Marie Severin) from the EC Portfolio #5

As Cochran recounted to Geissman, “The EC Portfolios were born basically because I wanted to start going to comic conventions more than I had been. The big one at that time was the July 4th convention that Phil Seuling had in New York. It was a stretch on a professor’s salary going to New York, spending a week in a hotel and so on, just for pleasure. So, I thought, what could I do to earn just enough money to pay my expenses. That was all — I wasn’t thinking of making a profit. I was just thinking of having a free ticket to go to a convention and things like that.” Cochran began reprinting ECs in 1971, with his first EC portfolio, an oversized book that reprinted a cover and four stories by Graham Ingels, Al Williamson and Roy Krenkel, Johnny Craig, and Wally Wood, all shot from the original art in Bill Gaines’ fabled vault of EC comics treasures. Priced at the princely sum of $10, it quickly sold out and Cochran followed it up with five other EC Portfolios that reprinted more stories in sparkling black and white, with cover art newly re-colored by original EC colorist Marie Severin. In the EC portfolios, Cochran’s fondness for Graham Ingels was strongly in evidence, with more Ingels stories and covers reprinted than any other artist. However, Cochran also gave the fans stories and covers by Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, Roy Krenkel, Angelo Torres, Al Feldstein, Jack Davis, Bernard Krigstein, Wallace Wood, Jack Davis, Alex Toth and Harvey Kurtzman, while ignoring such other EC stalwarts as George Evans, Reed Crandall and Jack Kamen.

To the astonishment of his academic colleagues, Cochran left his tenured university position in 1974 to become a full-time publisher, and then went on to run a prominent publishing operation for over 30 years, in the process bringing to light not only EC Comics, but vintage newspaper strips like Gasoline Alley, Alley Oop, Connie, Tarzan and others. Among his most ambitious projects was the Edgar Rice Burroughs Library of Illustration, which featured decades of beautiful art depicting the works of the creator of Tarzan. This deluxe, slip-cased three-volume edition limited to a print run of 2,000, featured paintings, illustrations and comic strips by a veritable Who’s Who of Twentieth Century illustrators and cartoonists, including J. Allen St. John, Frank Frazetta, Roy Krenkel, Rex Maxon, Russ Manning, N. C. Wyeth, Frank Schoonover, Hal Foster, Studley Burroughs, John Coleman Burroughs, Morris Gollub, and others. These well-produced volumes sold out quickly and remain out of print, commanding high prices on the aftermarket.

In 1973, Cochran began acting as a sales manager for the paintings of legendary Donald Duck comic-book artist Carl Barks. The enterprise became a major source of income and sparked a late burst of creativity for the retired Barks. It also led to the formation in 1981 of two companies jointly owned by Cochran and Bruce Hamilton: Another Rainbow and Gladstone Publishing. Gladstone, a subsidiary of Another Rainbow, brought classic Barks duck stories back into print along with stories by creators, like Don Rosa and William Van Horn, who continued the Barks tradition. Another Rainbow also published the award-winning collection of Barks paintings, The Fine Art of Walt Disney’s Donald Duck by Carl Barks. Gladstone completed its publication of the 30-volume Carl Barks Library in 1998, but the collaboration between Hamilton and Barks ended in 1997 in a blaze of cross-litigation. The dispute was primarily between Hamilton and Barks’ management team, but Barks ultimately fired his management team and reached a settlement and reconciliation with Hamilton. Cochran testified in the suits but was not named as a defendant.

Another notable limited-edition produced by Cochran was a three-volume, slip-cased set of books issued in 1991 reprinting Al Williamson and Archie Goodwin’s complete run of Star Wars dailies and Sundays, along with various Star Wars-related sketches and other art by Williamson.

Hopalong Cassidy – An American Hero, by Grace Bradley Boyd and Michael Cochran

An avid and talented amateur guitarist, he also published books on guitar legends like Les Paul and Chet Atkins, singer-songwriter Don (“American Pie”) McLean, Jazz/Bebop vocal quartet The Four Freshmen, even a book chronicling the history of Hopalong Cassidy and William Boyd, the actor who played him for decades. Cochran’s restless curiosity cast a wide net, including publishing a book on vacuum tubes (The Tube Guys), but in fan circles, he was best known as an art auctioneer and the premiere popularizer of EC Comics.

Seeing from the success of the EC Portfolios that there was a market for high-quality reprints of EC Comics, Cochran approached EC publisher Bill Gaines with a proposal to reprint EC’s entire output in a uniform format with all the comics pages, letters pages and editorials shot from the original boards. With any other publisher this would have presented an impossible task. However, EC’s output was relatively small, lasting only from around 1948 until 1956, and Cochran, who was by now one of Gaines’ best friends, knew that Gaines had retained virtually all of the artwork (with a few minor exceptions) from every EC title. With Gaines’ cooperation, Cochran began having the original artwork photographed at high resolution, giving fans the next-best thing to looking at the actual artwork. As the artwork was scanned, Gaines and Cochran gradually sold it all off through Cochran’s regular art auctions. It should be noted that although Bill Gaines owned all of the artwork outright, he shared some of the proceeds with every artist, including Graham Ingels, who initially refused the money because he was ashamed of the horror comics he’d drawn. In fact, one of Cochran’s most impressive accomplishments as an art dealer was in persuading the reclusive and curmudgeonly Ingels to revisit EC horror hostess The Old Witch in a series of four paintings and 10 smaller studies, all that Ingels could complete before he fell ill from stomach cancer, passing away April 4, 1991.

In conjunction with publishing the Complete EC Library in hardback form, Cochran also re-published all the EC New Trend and New Direction comics in a variety of formats, including EC Classics, which collected randomly selected stories between heavy glossy covers. Cochran put out 11 EC Classics that reprinted stories from Haunt of Fear, Tales from the Crypt, Weird Science, Weird Fantasy, Two-Fisted Tales, Crime SuspenStories, Shock SuspenStories, Panic and others. Cochran eventually reprinted almost every EC comic as a 32-page color comic book, first under his own imprint, and then in collaboration with Gemstone. The Complete EC Library ultimately encompassed every New Trend Title, all the New Direction titles, and Pre-Trend titles like Modern Love, War Against Crime, Crime Patrol, Saddle Justice, Gunfighter, A Moon, A Girl…Romance. The only Pre-Trend EC comics Cochran did not reprint were some of the earlier humor and funny animal comics published by M.C. Gaines, and Moon Girl, EC’s only superhero title, which has subsequently been reprinted by another publisher.

One of Cochran’s most important contributions to EC scholarship was his reprinting of the Picto-Fiction magazines, including 16 unpublished stories and several covers. His Picto-Fiction reprints included not only the rare Shock Illustrated #3, but also unpublished stories by Al Williamson and Angelo Torres, an unfinished version of “Came the Dawn” by Frank Frazetta, at least one story by non-EC regular Charles Sutton, and work by Jack Davis, Graham Ingels, George Evans, Wallace Wood, Jack Kamen and Johnny Craig.

Following the completion of the EC Library, Cochran next ventured into publishing with the EC Archives, which featured the same material reprinted in the Library, but with the addition of (sadly, inferior) color. Dark Horse took over the publication of this series and continues it to this day.

Russ Cochran’s friendship with Frank and Ellie Frazetta produced some notable publishing projects, including Untamed Love, which reprinted four breathtakingly beautiful romance stories Frazetta did in the mid-50s, and Thun’da King of the Congo, which reprinted the first issue of the comic book, with the cover and all stories by Frazetta. Cochran also issued prints of Frazetta’s final Buck Rogers cover, which had been used as the cover for Weird Science-Fantasy #29, with two small paste-overs covering Buck’s helmet, and putting hair on the head of one of the ape-men attacking him. The artwork was issued in as an autographed black and white print, and also as a hand-colored, remarqued print in an edition of about 40 copies.

As Frank Frazetta Jr. recalled in a Facebook remembrance, “Russ was one of the first close friends of my parents and quickly earned their respect with his over-the-top quality reproductions and books that he published in a small town in Iowa. Russ had a great eye for quality artwork, and at the time (around 1971) my father was just beginning to make a name for himself; the value of his work was quickly rising and Russ didn’t hesitate to drive out to our Pennsylvania farm from Iowa to introduce himself to my parents…”

On some of those visits to the Frazetta family Cochran brought his pet chimp, Sammy, along. In fact, there is a snapshot of Frazetta painting at his easel with Sammy in his lap, “helping” Frank with the painting. Apes were another of Cochran’s lifelong interests. In 1990, drawn by a newspaper article about a woman who raised chimps in Festus, Missouri, Cochran paid her a visit and met the newborn Sammy. Cochran took ownership and welcomed Sammy into his family. A second chimp, Sally, was later acquired, and as they grew larger, Cochran built a large $25,000 cage in his back yard. Having chimps as part of the household was not easy, and he lost the tip of his little finger to Sammy’s teeth when the chimp turned 9. Cochran was a constant advocate for the establishment of a national chimpanzee refuge. Nevertheless, in a post on a Chimpanzee Information blog, Cochran said, “From infancy up to the onset of puberty (approximately age 7 or 8) Sammy and Sally went everywhere with us, in the car, to the grocery store, on a trip to the river, etc. I even took Sammy to New York City where he became the first chimp to sit through an entire performance of Les Miserables.”

In his Facebook post, Frazetta Jr. wrote, that Cochran was “an innovator in the world of publishing, printing incredible quality books around famous writers and artists that sold in excess of $750, which at the time you could almost buy a new Volkswagen for. Many thought he was crazy for doing so, but in the end, he proved that quality will always have a market for top end collectors. He made numerous lithographs signed by my father along with remarques added later if the collection did not do as well as planned. Everything he produced with my father's work commands top dollar today and is sought after by Frazetta fans around the world."

Russ Cochran passed away at 6:30 a.m., Sunday, Feb. 23, 2020. He is survived by his brother, Michael, his daughter Sylvia Cochran Hershenson and his sons Vance and Jack.

Full disclosure: Russ was not only my friend, I also bought books and art from him, and worked on his publishing enterprises, including writing articles and interviews for his magazine Comic Book Marketplace, and contributing articles and interviews to various volumes of The Complete EC Library.

Special thanks to Grant Geissman, Frank Frazetta, Jr., and my editor, Mike Dean, for some insightful last-minute additions.