[Intermission. Ellison goes to pour himself a drink. As the tape resumes, he is explaining the nature of The Comics Journal to a friend who sat in on the interview. Her question: Is it like The Armchair Detective?]
In a way. Except The Armchair Detective is much more literary and it’s about something of greater substance. I mean, what they’re basically talking about is comic books. Comic books. Whether, in fact, the Hulk is a modern representation of the Faustian legend. Or, does Spider-Woman — I’m being deadly serious — does Spider-Woman more perfectly represent contemporary woman’s search for self-identification and self-fulfillment than the traditional image of Wonder Woman? This is the kind of thing they’re in. Or Steve Gerber: “Why They Threw Me Off the Howard the Duck Strip.”
Steve Gerber is crazy as a bed bug.
GROTH: Is he?
ELLISON: Yes. He’s as crazy as a bed bug. And if he isn’t, Mike Fleisher is. Did you find that review in Publishers Weekly [of Fleisher’s new book, Chasing Hairy] that I told you about?
GROTH: No, I couldn’t get the damn issue.
ELLISON: I read it to Len and Marv when they came out to the house. Their hair stood on end. I want to tell you something. The Publishers Weekly review said, “This is the product of a sick mind. It is so twisted and nauseating, it has no — absolutely no — redeeming social value.” It’s a book about a couple of guys who like to beat up women and make them go down on them. In the end, they pick up some woman — a hippy or whatever the fuck she is — and set fire to her and she loves it so much she gives them a blow job. Which is essentially what the review said about the book. It said, “This book is so fuckin’ twisted, there is no point even in discussing it. It is beyond the pale.” Who is the publisher?
GROTH: St. Martin’s.
ELLISON: They’re an A-1 publisher. I mean, they’re not a top rank, but they’re a very reputable house. Fleisher, when he was doing the Spectre — and I guess he did Aquaman too, didn’t he?
GROTH: No, I don’t think so. Steve Skeates did Aquaman.
ELLISON: He did the Spectre and he did something else.
GROTH: And he does Jonah Hex, which is really twisted.
ELLISON: Oh, yeah, right, right. This is a guy — it’s like looking at the paintings of Giger. There is a genuine, twisted mentality at work here, and it’s fascinating to look at. And I understand he’s a very nice, pleasant man.
GROTH: I understand he looks like an accountant.
ELLISON: Aren’t all Texas Tower snipers like that? [In cornball accent:] “He went to church every Sunday. He loved his mother. I have no idea why he cut up those 135 people and mailed parts of them off to other people COD. I don’t know why he did that. But he’s a good boy, a good Christian boy.” Fleisher — I think he’s certifiable. That is a libelous thing to say, and I say it with some humor. I’ve never met the man. But, what I see in Fleisher’s work and in Giger’s work… I mean, Giger’s clearly deranged. I mean, look at [his work]. Show [his work] to any psychiatrist. All of his visuals for Alien are sexual and psychosexual in nature. All of it. Endless vaginas and fallopian tubes and burning penises, and all kinds of fascinating stuff that makes life worth living. But, I mean, he’s really a nut case. His personal life, too. He’s got the skeleton of his second mistress in his home. I’ll tell you what’s really scary. Dan O’Bannon told me how [Giger] claimed the body [of his mistress] — apparently there was nobody to claim the body, so he claimed it. At that, you say, “OK, he loved her. He’ll bury her.” No, he doesn’t bury her. He takes her and he had the flesh taken off. You know how? Carpet beetles. You know what carpet beetles are?
GROTH: They eat flesh?
ELLISON: They eat flesh. They’re used by museums to clean the flesh off skeletons. And they pick it to the bone. They’re like piranhas. He used carpet beetles to clean her off and he’s got her now as an artifact in his apartment. Cute. Cute.
GROTH: Did you read the Jonah Hex story where Fleisher had Hex killed and stuffed in the end?
ELLISON: [Laughter.] That’s fascinating. What’s interesting is that the thing that makes Fleisher’s stuff interesting was the same reason Robert E. Howard was interesting and nobody else can imitate him. Because Howard was crazy as a bed bug. He was insane. This was a man who was a huge bear of a man, who had these great dream fantasies of barbarians and mightily thewed warriors and Celts and Vikings and riding in the Arabian desert and Almuric, Conan, Kull, and all these weird ooky-booky words. He lived in Cross Plains, Texas in the middle of the Depression, and he never went more than 20 or 30 miles from his home. He lived with his mother until his mother died and then he went down and sat in the car and blew his brains out. Now, that’s a sick person. This is not a happy, adjusted person. That shows up in Howard’s work. You can read a Conan story as opposed to — I mean, even as good as Fritz Leiber is, Fritz is logical and sane and a nice man. Or take the lesser writers, all the guys who do the Conan rip-offs and imitations, which are such garbage, because all they are are manqué. They can’t imitate Howard because they’re not crazy. They’re just writers writing stories because they admired Howard, but they don’t understand you have to be bugfuck to write that way. Lovecraft — you can tell a Lovecraft story from a Ramsey Campbell story, from all the rest of those shlobos trying to imitate him, all the nameless yutzes shrieking like Lovecraft, they still have not got the lunatic mentality of Lovecraft. And the same for Fleisher. He really is a derange-o. And as a consequence, he is probably the only one writing who is interesting. The Spectre stuff was fuckin’ blood-chilling, which it was supposed to be. I mean, he really did the Spectre, man. For the first time since the ’40s, that goddamn strip was dynamite. And the first time they looked at what they were publishing, they said, “My God, we have turned loose this lunatic on the world,” and they ran him off. And that was a shame because Fleisher should have been kept on the Spectre forever. It was just the most perfectly nauseous ghoulish thing for him.
[Laughter.] What an absolute fuckin’ booby hatch this whole industry is.
GROTH: Aren’t you glad you’re not in it?
ELLISON: Yeah! I mean, I’m writing a Batman story for Julie Schwartz…
GROTH: You’ve been doing that for six years, haven’t you?
ELLISON: I know. I plan on getting it done before Julie retires. I really do. But, every time I get around these people, if they’re in L.A. and they invite me to their Comic Guild artist thing, and I look at some of these people, and I know them socially, and I say to myself, “Do I really want to go sit in a room with these people?”
GROTH: They’re all a little bonkers, aren’t they?
ELLISON: Oh, yeah.
GROTH: Have you met professionals in the industry you’ve felt were, comparatively, normal and well adjusted?
GROTH: Denny [O’Neil] is pretty normal.
ELLISON: Denny’s fairly normal. But, Denny’s got his oddnesses, too. Denny’s self-image is Orson Welles in The Lady from Shanghai. Black Irish. That’s what he thinks he is. That’s a little deranged for a man his age.
GROTH: Who do you think are abnormal and what are their particular traits?
ELLISON: I think anybody who works for Jim Warren is a card-carrying righteous nutcase who ought to be put away…
GROTH: There’s a great animosity between you and Warren, so your opinion is probably flavored quite a bit…
ELLISON: Well, the animosity is because he screwed me. And he’s got a very small mind.
GROTH: He’s not an unintelligent man, wouldn’t you say?
ELLISON: Well, wait a minute. There’s a difference between cunning and intelligence. He is a cunning man, he is a clever man, he is articulate to serve his own needs. Even when he gives out some great bit of largesse, it’s like the saints and sinners who tell nothing but scatological jokes and then give milk to children to justify it. Jim Warren is a self-server, always has been, he’ll be the first to admit it if he’s candid about it, and I don’t like his business ethics, and I think he’s an outright liar. He has lied to me. He has screwed me. And he had no need to. You see, that’s the mark of a stupid person. There are certain people I will not fuck with because I know goddamn well that they are trouble. They mean business. It is better to have them neutral to me or not aware of my existence than feeling inimical toward me. Warren gratuitously, for pennies or for pique, who knows, fucked me over. I will give him this: He got away with it. He is one of the very few who got away with it. But, as a consequence, he made a dread, living enemy of me. And I have done him great disservice that he knows nothing about, that he will never know, and have cost him thousands of dollars, thousands of dollars. Where film companies have come to me and asked me questions, and I have given them an absolutely candid answer. I could have been politic and just said, “I really don’t know anything about him.” But I told them the truth. I didn’t lie. I never went out of my way to do it. It’s just that I’m in a position… there are certain people who are going to be in your line of sight and if you fuck them over, somewhere down the line they’re going to get you, not by even doing something malevolent, just by not doing something generous. And I have no reason to be kind or generous to him. And so I don’t.
GROTH: I was just disputing the validity of your statement that anyone who works for Warren is stupid. That’s like saying everyone who works for television is stupid.
ELLISON: No. I would say unethical. Jesus Christ, do you know anyone who has ever worked for Jim Warren who has not come away from the relationship saying that he was screwed? Anyone? Name me one who hasn’t. [Silence.] Rich Corben. Will Eisner.
GROTH: No, I’m not going to defend Jim Warren.
ELLISON: It’s hardly possible.
GROTH: I’m just saying that he sounds like an intelligent man. A devious schemer, perhaps, but an intelligent man.
ELLISON: There are levels of intelligence. You’re a much more intelligent man than Jim Warren will ever be. I mean, he has a cunning, he has an animal ferocity, he has a way of working deals, but that’s not intelligence. I don’t see that as intelligence. I mean, intelligence leads to high-minded ideals and a broadening of your world and a bettering of your world with other people. Jesus Christ, look at 1984. That’s wretched.
GROTH: It’s true pornography.
ELLISON: Yeah, exactly, it’s true pornography. It’s a comic magazine filled with sex and violence of the most offensive sort. The cover of the second issue I couldn’t believe when I first saw it. Rich Corben did it. It was horrible. It was a rocket. You’re looking down on like a V-2 rocket, one of those big phallic rockets, and there is a naked woman with huge, bulbous breasts, as if they’re pumped full of cellulose, they’re like big round balloons, with gigantic, protuberant nipples, all detailed, and all of this in a kind of three-dimensional art so it looks airbrushed and real. And she is tied with ropes — ropes — to the bulk of the rocket, up near the tip, and you’re looking down on this… I mean, the sexual implications… I never opened the magazine — was there anything inside the issue that pertained to the cover?
GROTH: No, but everything inside was worse in terms of the stories. Even I was offended by that.
ELLISON: Is Warren still publishing it?
GROTH: Yeah. The audience must be composed of idiots.
ELLISON: No, no, no. Young kids who are coming into puberty, for Chrissake, and who are getting off on it.
GROTH: I don’t know about that. I believe Warren has taken marketing surveys and the average age of his reader is around 18 years old.
ELLISON: Don’t you think that retarded adolescents — that’s exactly what their age is, for Chrissake. Eighteen years old. God knows why they aren’t buying Penthouse and beating off with that.
GROTH: They probably are.
ELLISON: Penthouse is probably harder to come by for kids.
GROTH: Not 18-year-old kids.
ELLISON: No, not 18-year-old kids. Have you every done an analysis of 1984?
GROTH: Oh, yeah. [The Comics Journal #40]. You don’t remember it?
ELLISON: I didn’t read that. I didn’t see it. How does Warren justify it? Did you talk to Warren when you did the piece on it?
GROTH: No. I interviewed him once many years ago and asked him why he publishes such crap and his position was basically, “You say it’s crap but our readers don’t, so who are you to say otherwise?” There’s not much to say to that.
ELLISON: He’s like a Polish bowling league idea of a lowercase Hugh Hefner. What surprises me is… I mean, Bill DuBay has got to be as sleazy as he is. Can I tell you something? I love The Spirit and I love Will Eisner. As you know, I did the treatment for the Spirit movie. It was incredibly painful for me each month to buy The Spirit. I couldn’t not, but I swear to God it just galled me to do it. But, when I wanted Spirit binders or Spirit posters, I would not send him money. I would call a friend of mine at Warren and say, “Pssstt, slip ‘em out and send ‘em to me,” and they did. Of course if he ever found out who it was, he’d fire him, so I won’t tell you. Jim Warren is the only person I know who leaves a moist trail where he walks. He’s a petty Napoleon who’s lucked on to a small publishing idea. He’s found a way to milk adolescents out of their lunch money by selling them monster masks and other useless garbage. I mean, he really is in the great tradition of American obsolescence. You may print all of this. And instead of having a little humility about him he comes on like Billy Rose. He thinks he’s running the Ziegfield Follies or something when, in fact, all he’s got are these silly, dumb magazines that print pictures of crazed monsters. Anyone who makes a living off publishing pictures of people with pustules and running sores on their faces is in no position to be talking about art or anything. And he really babbles on like some sort of Kansas Elmer Gantry selling feces. [Laughter.]
GROTH: He’s sort of like the character on Saturday Night Live played by Gary Busey who dives into a pile of shit for 25 cents and then charges $50 to leave the area. He was called a muck-jumper.
ELLISON: [Uncontrolled laughter.] What a great analogy! I love it! You’ve got to run this! I mean, put the words in my mouth if you want to. If you’re embarrassed, put them in my mouth. It is so wonderful!!
He is so loathsome. He is so fuckin’ loathsome. He’s like a pimple that keeps coming back again and again.
GROTH: Would you say he’s more loathsome than Stan Lee?
ELLISON: Oh, I like Stan Lee. See, I like Stan. I’m sorry, man; I like Stan.
GROTH: Why? He’s built this giant conglomerate that grinds out pap every month that pollutes the stands. He has a factory outlet for vapid crap.
ELLISON: Is it any more vapid than the shit that was being published in 1940 when he was just a writer for them?
GROTH: No, but that’s irrelevant.
ELLISON: It is?
GROTH: To our assessment of Stan Lee as a human being I think it is.
ELLISON: OK. Let me tell you my assessment of Stan Lee as a human being. Stan Lee is a very fine man as far as I’m concerned. Stan Lee has never treated me with anything but respect and mutual civility. The few times that I’ve been up to the Marvel offices, Stan has… It may be because I have some kind of rep, so he does that. I know he has a thing for people who have a rep. But how can I dislike a man who has never done anything wrong to me?
GROTH: I’m not talking about personally disliking him.
ELLISON: But I don’t know anything commercially that he’s done either. I don’t understand.
GROTH: You must see his comic books on the stands.
GROTH: You shudder when you see them.
ELLISON: I do?
GROTH: I believe you implied that.
ELLISON: Well, I buy…
GROTH: You certainly don’t think the latest issue of Godzilla is any particular cultural achievement?
ELLISON: No, but then I didn’t like Super Friends either. I remember Prez. What was that other wonderful thing?
ELLISON: [Laughter.] Brother Power, The Geek, right. I remember that very well. That, I think, is the lowest moment of comics. I mean, that’s even worse than the latest issue of Scooby-Doo. [Uproarious laughter.] I mean, it just bites the big one. It’s incredible. I can’t even describe this comic. It’s just amazing. It made no fuckin’ sense at all. How could they even put out one issue? I mean, that’s all they put out, one issue. And Prez had two? Two or three. But, they must have looked at the first issue and said, “What the fuck is this?” It’s like when you wake up in the morning and your hand has turned into a claw, and you say, “What the fuck is this?” [Uncontrolled laughter.] You cut it off immediately, you don’t put it out. But, the interesting thing is if they put that out, can you imagine the ones they haven’t released?
GROTH: Stan hasn’t displayed a serious thought in his head in the 40 years he’s been in the comics industry.
ELLISON: I don’t know what I’m defending Stan Lee against. What are the indictments?
GROTH: Well, he’s at the pinnacle of this pyramid that grinds out so much crap every month. He’s the Freddy Silverman of comics.
ELLISON: As opposed to the wondrous stuff that comes out of DC?
GROTH: Not at all.
ELLISON: Well, where are you finding excellence? There are only two companies as far as I can tell.
GROTH: There are a lot of alternative publishers. Are you familiar with Craig Russell’s work?
GROTH: Russell’s Parsifal is an example of excellence.
ELLISON: Yeah, but it’s not a major work.
[NOTE: it became apparent later in the interview that Ellison was thinking of Arik Khan: as a result, his remarks on Parsifal should be read with that in mind.]
GROTH: That hardly matters. What do you mean by major?
ELLISON: I see a lot of the undergrounds, and they’re all garbage as far as I can tell.
GROTH: There are a few bright spots, certainly light years away from the Incredible Hulk.
ELLISON: I said most of them. How many years can you keep doing Robert Crumb kind of protuberant nipples, funny animals, and inner city garbage — I mean, that’s way over the hill. I’m not one of those people who did the Movement in the ‘60s and still talks about it [in senile voice]: “Yes sir, I marched with Martin Luther King,” like an old wobbly from the 1920s saying [in senile voice]: “The union, the union forever!” Times past are times past.
But, I see Star*Reach. And I don’t think much of Star*Reach.
GROTH: I think Star*Reach has published a few interesting things.
ELLISON: Well, yeah, there are always a few interesting things everywhere that have been published somewhere, which is nice, but I don’t see it as a great artistic breakthrough.
GROTH: Comparatively speaking it is.
ELLISON: Andromeda seems to me to be a pretty good magazine. They’ve done stuff with intelligence and wit and they bought a story of mine 900 years ago. They may even get around to doing it. One never knows. They keep doing all the biggies like Walter Miller and James Tiptree and Arthur Clarke, the heavyweights. Maybe they’ll get down to us lower-rank shits…
GROTH: What were we talking about?
ELLISON: We were talking about Stan Lee and how he’s at the pinnacle of shit. Yeah, I suppose that should bother me. It doesn’t, really.
GROTH: I thought it might because you’ve inveighed so heavily against television, an industry which displays the same sort of sensibility.
ELLISON: I suppose it does. But I can’t get very upset about comics because a) I don’t take them that seriously, and b) it’s people reading things. Even reading anything is better than sitting and watching the Drone Tone. I suppose I make that distinction, which I shouldn’t. But I do.
Personally, about Stan — and I’ve never said this to Stan because I’m not sure Stan and I have ever had a serious, meaningful conversation…
GROTH: It might well be impossible.
ELLISON: Well, I don’t know. I’m sure Stan talks to his wife or talks to someone — everyone has someone to whom they unmask. Stan Lee has never been anything but nice to me, polite to me, complimentary to me, not only privately, but from the public lecture platform where there was no percentage in doing it. I mean, he did it, because, I gather, he felt like doing it.
Let me give you a footnote: On a number of occasions, not one or two, but a number of occasions, I have suddenly looked out into an audience at a college, in an auditorium lecture of mine, and suddenly seen Stan Lee sitting there, with no coterie, no nothing. He may have had his wife with him, he may have been alone, he may have had a friend with him, but Stan sitting and listening to me lecture. Now, I’ve thought to myself, “What the hell is Stan Lee doing out there? Why would he be going out of his way to hear me speak?” Well, Stan has a very well-developed platform presence. He makes a lot of money doing it. One of two things occurs to me. It is either Stan Lee coming to hear me because he likes to hear me speak, or it is Stan Lee picking up variations or other ways of doing lectures. Because I have an individual way of speaking on a platform, too, and I can work a crowd very well. I think Stan may have been interested in that from a technical point of view, or it may be a combination of both. But, that is, to me, a very genuine compliment. My ego is easily as big as Stan’s, although it doesn’t manifest itself in the same ways perhaps. So, I say, how can you dislike someone who likes you? That’s all it takes to get me to like you. If you like me I’ll like you. If you fuck me over — to the grave. Or if you fuck over one of my friends… I’m very loyal.
I remember the very first time I went up to the Marvel office for some reason. I was going to pick up some kids, some friends of mine who were working there. It may have been Gerry Conway. And Stan heard that I was there. I didn’t even know he knew who in the hell I was. He invited me into his office, he sat me down, we talked for a while. He was very pleasant. So, I can’t dislike Stan Lee because of the product, because I don’t see his product as being particularly harmful.
GROTH: Isn’t banality harmful in any form?
ELLISON: Absolutely, absolutely.
GROTH: Really, here is a man running from college campus to college campus, equating Shakespeare to his stable of writers, talking to impressionable college kids, who are sucking this up.
ELLISON: C’mon, man, they’re mostly assholes in college and you know it. They’re there because they don’t want to get into the job pool. And if they’re fools enough to go and sit and listen to a man who writes comics, and let him tell them about Shakespeare, then they’re no better than boobs to begin with.
GROTH: I don’t see that as much of an excuse for his behavior.
ELLISON: What is his behavior? Here is a man who has, for wrong or right, for bad or good, changed the face of comics. He was a germinal influence, no question about it. He wrote things that hadn’t been done before. Yes, that was 20 or 25 years ago, whatever the hell it is, and times do change. But, he was also the first one to hire the kids. That’s something else in his favor. I don’t see that those magazines are any better or worse than the bulk of what’s being published. Yes, there are a few peaks — there’s Andromeda, and there’s a few things in Star*Reach, and there’s “Harlan the Duck”, which is possibly the greatest work of literary excellence of our time, dwarfed only — perhaps — by Gravity’s Rainbow, Huckleberry Finn, and Moby-Dick. Other than those, “Harlan the Duck” is in the first rank.
There’s something else in your comments. There’s the same animosity toward Stan Lee in what you say that I have toward Jim Warren.
GROTH: I don’t know Stan Lee. I met him only once and very briefly.
ELLISON: Really? That’s interesting. I’ll tell you, I like the Marvel comics a hell of a lot better than the DC comics. And that pains me because I like the DC characters better.
GROTH: There seems to be more vitality at Marvel than at DC.
ELLISON: Absolutely. I’ve always liked the Justice Society, and God knows what was done to them by Gerry [Conway]. I’ve always liked Batman, I’ve always liked Aquaman, the Flash, the Spectre, Dr. Midnight, Hourman, Starman. Those were the ones I grew up on, and to see them back, even in their altered, bastardized, corrupted, wretched, crippled, paraplegic form is some small pleasure. But I find that I can’t read the goddamn things. They are just imbecile. I read them and think, “Oh, Christ.” And the thing that annoys me even more is that they take a paranoid, pathological interest in integrating everything, so that everything joins up. Y’know, every story — “That villain was in the background of panel three in World’s Fair Comics in 1939” — what became World’s Finest — and “Now he’s back again! The Villain You Thought You’d Never See!” Who knew from this villain — Piss-Face is back, after 40, 50 years, Piss-Face is back to fight his old nemesis, Flash. [Snores.] Who needs that?
GROTH: I find your lax attitude toward comics strange insofar as you’ve always attacked the second rate or the mediocre. Mainstream comics are such repetitious banalities I find your thoughts on comics a little contradictory.
ELLISON: Do you? Do I contradict myself? I contradict myself. “I am large. I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman, Song of Myself.
GROTH: If you’re opposed to the second rate, falsity, vapidness, why excuse it in the comics form?
ELLISON: Well, we must deal with realities here. Television had the potential from the git-go of being the greatest tool for the education of the masses the world has ever known. As all mass-anything, it sank to the lowest possible common denominator as quickly as possible. It fell over itself getting there. If it had roller skates, it would have done that. It now does a lot of damage, a lot of active damage, daily, day in and day out, hour in and hour out. While we sit here, the human race is being destroyed by television. I firmly believe that. Maybe I’m being Anita Bryant-messianic about it, but I really, truly believe that. Active harm is being done, night and day, to people’s minds by television, which will eventually result in the watering down of the gene pool so completely that we will sink beneath the morass like the dinosaur.
Comic books, on the other hand, even though they are absolutely banal, absolutely pointless, kids grow out of them. They grow out of them very fast. Very few kids stay with comic books forever. There are very few like us. [Laughter.] I mean, people come into my home — I’m an adult, I’m 45 years old — on one wall they’ll see a Hundertwasser and over there they’ll see a Rothko, and over here they’ll see a statue by Brancusi, and right next to it is a wall full of comic books. And they’ll say, “Gee, do you collect those?” And I’ll say, “Yeah, I still do, but I don’t read them any more. Once in a while I’ll read them.” What they don’t know is that I buy them because I want to buy them, because I always bought comic books and I always had comic books, and I always believed in comics. We are the exceptions. We are the exceptions. Most normal children grow out of comic books very fast. Whether they graduate to something else — one hopes. And in that way comics become primers for children. So, even if they’re banal, they’re a way of seeing words and teaching linear construction and they have very positive teaching aspects, which have always been understood about comics. I think comics are very positive for kids, depending on what kind of comics they are. They’re not going to get into any trouble reading Godzilla, as bad as it is. They’re not going to learn anything really bad. Except the thing that they learn in other parts of society equally easy, and that is that articulate vocabulary of a punch in the mouth. That you can solve all problems by throwing the bad guy up against the wall. Well, if they don’t learn that in comics, they’ll learn it in movies, and if they don’t learn it in movies they’ll learn it in television, and if they don’t learn it on TV, they’ll learn it in the schoolyard. So, I’m sure that’s not a bad lesson to be learned.
I didn’t mean to imply that comics were destructive to children.
GROTH: No, but in terms of banality and mediocrity.
ELLISON: Of course, adults read these childish comics.
GROTH: Those are adults who are far gone already. There is nothing to be done for them. Any adult who would read comic books…
ELLISON: One of my dearest friends is Arthur Byron Cover. Arthur is an amazing man. His newest book, East Wind Coming, is a Sherlock Holmes-kind of pastiche. He’s a fabulous writer, a brilliant young writer. He reads comics, reads them faithfully. After I’m done with my Comics Journal, I give it to him. He reads it and keeps it. Arthur reads comics the same way, literally, that he reads Dostoevsky. He’s an authority on Russian literature. This is a man whose intellect operates at the pinnacle of literature. We’re talking about The Possessed, we’re talking The Idiot, we’re talking Turgenev, we’re talking Chekhov, people like that. At the same time, he does not miss an issue of a DC or Marvel comic. He reads them all. He doesn’t read the love comics or the war comics, but he reads all the superhero comics, every one of them, cover to cover. And can tell you anything you want to know about them. And I say to him, “Why, Arthur, why do you do that? I mean, I have the same sensibility about comics as you do. I find them great fun.” I have a voracious need to know everything. I have a house with 37,000 books in it. In a given month I will read Science News, Scientific American, Playboy, Atlantic, Harper’s, Time, New York, New West, American Film, Armchair Detective, TV Guide, Partisan Review, National Review, New York Review of Books, Intellectual Digest, which is no longer being published, sadly, Esquire, Omni, National Geographic, and a smattering
GROTH: The American Spectator?
ELLISON: What’s that?
GROTH: That’s a right-wing magazine, like National Review.
ELLISON: Oh, no. I read National Review to keep abreast of those people, not because I like any of it. Also, they do have some very, very well-written stuff, and a lot of interesting people who are not necessarily of their political persuasion do write some interesting things.
But, anyway, I buy comics the same way: Because I need to know everything. I just need to know everything. I guess it’s a fatal need to be hip or some stupid thing like that.
GROTH: You read them more to know what’s in them…
ELLISON: … than for enjoyment, yeah. I keep up with comics to know. Also, when I go out on a college campus, it’s good to be able to mention whatever is going down currently. For a long time, Howard the Duck was very good coin on college campuses. You try to establish a rapport with an audience anyhow, so you talk about whatever it is they’re doing, and since they’re only doing dope and beer what the hell else is there to talk about? It’s hard to get people to trust you on a lecture platform. I mean, they’ll listen to you and maybe believe you, but they won’t trust you, and I work off trust.
So, I think anybody who takes comics seriously as an adult is already pretty far gone. I can’t take them that seriously. When we talk about mediocrity, I say, “Yeah, but they were always mediocre.” The very few that were not mediocre — things like Doll Man, the Lev Gleason comics, Eisner’s The Spirit…
But, you see, Eisner’s The Spirit, that’s the true pinnacle. I can go back to those things and read them again and again and again. They are not only intellectually valid and enriching, but visually they are startling. The cinematic techniques in there! When I started writing the treatment for the Spirit movie, I had talked to Will a number of times and I described to him the opening scene that I was going to do. The opening scene is a terrific scene: The camera coming in in long shot, dollying down the length of a fog overridden river. High up above in the darkness you can see a bridge going across from left to right. Camera starts to come up, it’s right at the level of water, coming through the fog, and you come up on the bridge, and the bridge is very high up — it would be like if you were down at the water line of the Brooklyn Bridge looking up at it — the camera starts to come up. As the camera comes up, it moves very quickly up into the air, up toward the bridge and you see two figures up there. Suddenly there’s a flash of light, and one of them has lit a cigarette. He hands some papers to the other one. The other one tears the papers up, throws them over the bridge, the papers begin to fall as the camera is going up. The papers float past; the camera goes to the two figures as the one who has torn the papers suddenly lifts the guy bodily and throws him over the bridge. Camera holds as the body falls past. The camera goes with it. As the body falls, the camera tracks down through the paper and the paper spells out “The Spirit” in little pieces of paper. The camera follows the body as it falls into the water followed by the cigarette, which falls and extinguishes in the water. That’s the opening shot.
In the Eisner splash panel, you know how “The Spirit” is spelled out in a funny way. And there’s one of them where there’s paper falling. I told that to Will and he said yes, absolutely. He said, “How did you come to that opening sequence?” I said, “Well, it was very easy. You drew Fellini. The film has to be Fellini-esque. And you drew Fellini and I will write the film, Fellini.” And we were in heaven together for a few minutes until Friedkin ran amok. He’s a real creep. And he has so many projects going that he just couldn’t get to it, he didn’t want to get to it; he’s like a butterfly. He kept poor Will hanging and hanging and hanging. Will finally got the rights back. Anyhow, it’s a nice treatment. It’s got corrupt politicians, and all of them with funny names. One of them is named George Jerrymander, that kind of thing. There’s an alien, one of [Eisner’s] funny little bald-headed aliens. There’s a femme fatale, Ebony’s in it. Not only Ebony, but the other little kid with a lollypop always sticking out of his face. It’s got Dolan and Ellen. There’s a wonderful scene with Dolan where somebody comes in the door and threatens Dolan with a gun. It’s really funny. Dolan hits him with a lamp. And The Spirit is The Spirit. It’s Jim Garner 20 years ago, with that wry expression. It’s Terence Hill without an accent. I don’t know who else could do it. It’s a wonderful treatment. I’m so fond of it.
GROTH: What did you think of Eisner’s new book, A Contract with God?
ELLISON: Very strange, very strange. I think it’s an important book. I really do. I think it’s an important book. I think Eisner is one of the few men of whom you can say he has an individual vision with touches of genius in it. And he’s a nice man, too. But, God, his ego’s as big as Stan Lee’s. It’s just that he’s a beloved old figure. He’s not around so much, so I don’t see him, but Will has a well-developed ego.
GROTH: But he’s got talent.
ELLISON: Oh, yes, his talent is impeccable. He could be a monster; he could burn babies and still be beyond reproach. So, we’re talking there about a pinnacle. We’re talking about George Carlson — Jingle Jangle Tales, “The Pie-Faced Prince of Pretzel.” That’s genius, that’s high art. I think Carlson is high art, I really do. And he’s been almost totally ignored. But, Jesus, Maurice Horn didn’t even mention him in the Encyclopedia.
GROTH: He left out a lot of people.
ELLISON: Yeah, a very incomplete book. Those are the pinnacles as far as I’m concerned. Walt Kelly is a pinnacle for Chrissake.
ELLISON: Winsor McCay, absolutely.
ELLISON: George Herriman, of course. Absolutely. Harold Foster, Alex Raymond.
GROTH: Do you like Segar’s work?
ELLISON: Yeah, oh yeah. I’ll tell you what I liked even better. I loved Ed Wheelan and the Minute Movies. I think they were just spectacular.
ELLISON: Did you ever see Ed Wheelan’s Minute Movies?
ELLISON: Did you ever get that series of books from Hyperion Press?
GROTH: Some of them, not all of them.
ELLISON: You should’ve gotten Ed Wheelan’s Minute Movies because that’s one of the really remarkable ones. He had a repertory company of players who did stories, movies, screenplays, that he would make up. One time there would be a good-looking guy, and there would be a beautiful girl, and there would be a villain, and there would be an old man, there would be an old woman, and he would have their names: He would say Minny Starbuck as Aunt Emma in Sheik of the Desert. One time he would do a desert story and another time he would do a Captain’s The Cloud story, and they were all the old templates, and done with wonderful… I mean, they had John Barrymore physiognomies.
Percy Crosby did Skippy. Skippy was brilliant. That’s a staggeringly brilliant book. The book is a genuine work of art. Skippy was the biggest thing in this country for 25 years. Everybody knew Skippy. Jackie Cooper won his first Academy Award for the movie — his only Academy Award. There were Skippy toys, Skippy premiums, Skippy suits, and Skippy hats, Skippy everything. Percy Crosby was a multimillionaire. He was making more money than the President of the United States. Ten years later he was in an insane asylum, committed by his family. No one visited him for something like 20 years, and everything gone, everything lost. Now nobody remembers. And the strips are wonderful beyond belief. They’re so joyous, there’s so much life in them and such incredible movement! He has an understanding of movement. Those pictures of the kid riding down the hill in a drawer with the wheels on it, cartwheeling — just startling stuff. He hung in the Louvre. Now, today nobody knows him.
GROTH: It’s interesting, isn’t it, that most of the best comic art has had a great deal of humor in it?
ELLISON: Yeah, yeah.
GROTH: The Spirit. I’d put Barks in the category of the best.
ELLISON: Oh, yeah. Carl Barks. Definitely.
GROTH: Of course all the humor strips are obvious. Kurtzman who was with Mad after his war books.
ELLISON: Do you remember the little magazine he put out three issues of?
ELLISON: Trump, yeah. That was wonderful. “Hey Look!” is great stuff. Kurtzman’s wonderful. But, see, those are, to me, the pinnacles. I don’t see any of that in Parsifal.
GROTH: I really thought Parsifal was outstanding. Beautifully told and intelligently written.
ELLISON: I’ll have to go back and take a look at them. I think I’ve only seen one or two issues.
GROTH: There was only one issue. In full color.
ELLISON: Maybe I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
GROTH: It was 32 pages in full color. Craig Russell drew it.
ELLISON: No. What am I thinking of? It’s done by the people who do Andromeda. What the hell is that called? I didn’t know what you were talking about at all. Oh — “Something Khan,” that’s what it is.
GROTH: Arik Khan. That’s just a barbarian thing.
ELLISON: I was saying to myself, “Why is he so high on that?”
To go back to the original thing with Stan Lee, I can’t get upset about it because I don’t think it’s important.
GROTH: It’s as though he doesn’t want to do anything but this juvenile crap.
ELLISON: He doesn’t. What the hell does he care?
GROTH: He doesn’t. Freddie Silverman doesn’t care. Nobody seems to care…
ELLISON: Hypothetically, if he cared, what could he do?
GROTH: It would certainly be possible with Marvel’s resources to publish an adult magazine.
ELLISON: To what end? Who would buy it?
GROTH: I think there’s an adult market out there.
ELLISON: It’s called Heavy Metal.
GROTH: I’m not talking about adults tripping out on acid once a month. Preiss is trying to publish adult material. I’m talking about a mature story told in the comics form. People look at me incredulously when I say this. All an adult comic is is a mature story told in the comics form.
ELLISON: You mean like Classics Illustrated?
GROTH: Yeah, right, except not mangled as comics have always mangled classics.
ELLISON: At their best, did they ever do anything that was worth pissing on?
ELLISON: Classics Illustrated.
GROTH: I can’t say because I read them so long ago. I’m sure they didn’t because they were adapting them for children.
ELLISON: I work in film, and there’s a problem here that you have to understand. Film, even at its best, is a superficial medium. The word “superficial” is used in a very special way — I don’t mean “shallow,” I mean “surface.” There is no way, short of doing voiceover, to give you the interior monologue that informs so much great literature. So, if you want to do something like, say, Madame Bovary, which is one of the great novels, you would be reduced to some very coarse images. Because you could not penetrate the mind of Madame Bovary, and you couldn’t possibly know what moves her to passion and what moves her to destruction and all of those things. Let’s take it at the highest possible level: Crime and Punishment. There is no way you can do Crime and Punishment or its equivalent.
GROTH: You couldn’t do Remembrance of Things Past, either.
ELLISON: Right, or The Red and the Black. Or Moby-Dick.
GROTH: But I don’t see where that negates the potentialities of film.
ELLISON: It doesn’t, but this is a definite problem you work with at all times.
GROTH: What do you think of Bergman?
ELLISON: I find him an incredible crashing bore. I think he’s a dreary old man. Would you like to see my imitation of Ingmar Bergman?
GROTH: Will it sound like Woody Allen’s?
ELLISON: It’ll sound better. There are two people sitting in an all-white room. There is a vase with one dead flower over there. The man says [mimics Swedish gibberish]. The woman says [more pseudo-Swedish]. This goes on for a week and a half. Until finally Harold Pinter comes in and kills them. I think there are only seven directors in the world. That’s all. Seven. All the rest are craftsmen or women of varying degrees of ability from as high up as Steven Spielberg to as low down as Hal Ashby. But, there are only seven directors.
But, you’ve got your problems doing great works as comic books.
GROTH: That’s personally what makes it so fascinating to me.
ELLISON: Yeah, if it could be done it would be an interesting thing. You look at it at its best, you look at the Rockwell Kent illustrated books. God’s Man is a fascinating book told only in pictures by Rockwell Kent, who, God knows, is a brilliant artist. And even it is shallow. Because a picture is not worth a thousand words. It never has been and never will be. A thousand words, carefully chosen, can paint a picture that it would take a canvas the size of the Great Wall of China to compare with. I can spin a more careful and interesting and involved and intellectually stimulating story in a thousand words than the best comics artist in the world could with one picture.
GROTH: I won’t argue with that.
ELLISON: One more thing about Stan, to tie it off about Stan. We’ve been talking about a lot of other things, but this is the sort of framework of all of this bullshit. I don’t see Stan as doing any great deal of harm. I see him at worst — and I don’t even know if this is the case — but at worst, as a man with a nice little talent in a specific, little, narrow area, who has built it into a perfectly good, workable, marketable commodity. He’s like the Music Man; he sells harmless dreams. I don’t think what Stan writes is great art and I don’t think Stan really believes it. On the other hand, Stan occasionally makes the claim for the Silver Surfer. It’s not great art by any means — it really is not great art — but it may be one of the pinnacles.
GROTH: That struck me as Stan’s only “serious thought,” which is that man will triumph over his own humanity, which is an utter banality.
ELLISON: Whatever. There’s a universal thing there. There are only three or four characters in fiction that are universally known everywhere, to children in Basutoland, to adults at the North Pole. And none of them are out of Shakespeare. One of them is Sherlock Holmes, the second is Superman, the third one is Mickey Mouse, and the fourth is Tarzan. And they’re all trash. They were invented as trash, they never aspired to be anything more than trash, some of them became eloquent trash, but they were entertainments. Cheap entertainments. And yet there was something universal there. There is a transcendent quality. And I think in some way — and I don’t want to overstate this or overemphasize it — I get the same resonance from the Silver Surfer. There is something there Stan lucked onto light years — to use the idiom — beyond everything else that Stan has done or that comics have done for a long time. I think that [same quality] was there in Swamp Thing. I think they lucked onto something and went with it as long as they could. It’s a fragile thing.
GROTH: How would you differentiate what Jim Warren does from Stan Lee in terms of what they do to make a living? It could certainly be said that Jim Warren packages dreams.
ELLISON: Well, I’m not sure there is that much difference, if you press me to it. It’s obviously colored by the fact that I don’t like Warren and Warren fucked me over and Stan Lee has always been a gentleman to me, so obviously I’m going to feel that there’s a difference. I don’t know why I should, and maybe they are exactly the same. Maybe they are. Except for all the mercenary, transient things Stan Lee has done, from The Micronauts and Shogun Warriors to Star Wars and Battlestar: Galactica, all of that shit which is intended to make money, and all that garbage, Stan has never really published anything like 1984, and God knows he’s had the opportunity. He’s had the black-and-white magazines for a long, long time. And if he were as cynical as Warren I think he would have done it.
GROTH: I wonder if that is not so much due to any sort of moral commitment to his product as it is to the fact that he really doesn’t need to.
ELLISON: I don’t think there’s anything in the world that would keep Stan from putting together something that would make money. I mean, anybody who would put together a Kiss magazine and an Alice Cooper comic book, for Chrissake, would do anything. He doesn’t do it. He doesn’t do it. There’s nothing even remotely approaching that, and Warren goes right for it.
GROTH: It just seems to me that Lee’s is a subtler form of crap than Warren’s. Warren’s just more blatant about it.
ELLISON: You could well be right, Gary. I don’t think about it that hard. I go on my gut a lot of the time, and I’ve never had the feeling about Stan Lee that I have about Warren. For instance, when I discovered Warren was going to be publishing The Spirit, my first thought was, “Oh my God, poor Will Eisner! He’s in the hands of the beast-man!” And as it turned out, bad things eventually did happen, I gather, to Will Eisner.
GROTH: I’d rather not come across as dumping on Stan Lee. I throw them all in the same pool.
ELLISON: No, you make a perfectly good and, I think, valid point. That, yeah, with all the power [Stan] has, and all the abilities he has, and all the things he has at his disposal, why is it all such bland, useless garbage? But then, all of the mainstream comics are bland, useless garbage. Every time something comes along that is worthwhile, a Howard the Duck, a Swamp Thing, a… Shit, what else? I can’t think of anything else offhand. The list stops pretty goddamn fast. The Silver Surfer. The sales figures eventually take care of it. There are some publishers who will publish first novels and they will pay for them with Jaws and Jacqueline Susann. They justify the publishing of Jacqueline Susann by saying, “It permits us to publish Jose Donoso or Miguel Asturias or someone who’s unknown, a first novelist.” Even ABC kept on The Paper Chase. You’ve got to give them that. They at least kept it on a full season in the hope it would pick up. WKRP in Cincinnati was kept on, they fought for it, and they won. So it paid off. You like an underdog thing, and Stan doesn’t do any underdog things at all, and I suppose you could say, hey, if he did a little of that, it would make him the hero. And it wouldn’t be any skin off their noses. I mean, how much could they lose off one comic?
GROTH: What do you think of Heavy Metal?
ELLISON: Here I go destroying my markets again. I have very mixed feelings. They have fucked up everything they’ve ever done of mine one way or another. I mean, the most incredible fuckin’ errors. On one version of “Croatoan”, they published the last page first, so the end of the story is there before you read the beginning of the story.
GROTH: But they apologized for it.
ELLISON: Every month for months their editorial was, “Gee, we gotta apologize to Harlan Ellison because we printed his story in Urdu last month” or “Jesus, we’d really like to apologize to Harlan Ellison for painting mustaches on all his characters,” or for typographical errors. I’ve got very firm contracts with them now. They must send me the galleys now. They’re reprinting “Santa Claus Vs. S.P.I.D.E.R.” in the Christmas issue, and I wrote a new little introduction for it.
GROTH: I understand Gahan Wilson is illustrating that?
ELLISON: That’s it. But he already illustrated it. They’re reprinting the cover for the Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction. It was six, eight years ago. I sent them the original from my house. It’s all framed and everything. It’s a wonderful painting. [The story] is a dated piece, but then I’ve written an updated introduction to it, which is really kind of nice. And I must tell you, they are the third highest paying market I have. Playboy, Omni, Penthouse — but I won’t work for Penthouse anymore — and Heavy Metal. They pay me a lot of money for a story. They pay between $1100 and $1500 for a story. For the reprinting of “Santa Claus” they gave me $750. Found money.
GROTH: But what do you think of their magazine?
ELLISON: I think it sucks. I think it’s idiotic beyond belief. I think it is criminal to waste paper and space and artistry like that. It frustrates the shit out of me. I go through it, I leaf through it and never read it. The only stuff they’ve run in the last year that has been of any value as far as I’m concerned is the Strnad and Corben Arabian Nights. That’s why I wrote the introduction to the book. Have you seen the book?
ELLISON: They put them all together in a book. It was intended as a book and they ran them in bits and pieces in Heavy Metal, and they asked me to write an introduction. I wrote the introduction and I raved about it. I think it’s absolutely sensational. First rank. Have you been reading that stuff?
GROTH: Yeah. I think very, very highly of Jan Strnad. I think Strnad is a fine writer.
ELLISON: And the shame of it is that Jan is not going to get as much publicity off it as Corben. And when they talk about it, they talk about it as Corben’s Arabian Nights. And Jan has got to be as responsible because that thing is plotted well. It is really well written. And I remember Jan from years ago when he had some little fanzine he wanted me to…
ELLISON: Right, and he wanted to print something of mine, so I’ve known him for a long time. But I can’t stand that So Beautiful and So Dangerous. I think it’s stupid. The thing that really drives me crazy is that one that’s done in phonetic English, at the back of the book, where people say, “Arr yugo-ing tu thee marr-kett” — Oh, my God, I look at that and I say, That is the pure cannibalization of the acidhead. It’s lunacy eating lunacy and producing lunacy. I read it and I go, “My God!” But they have published a lot of interesting fiction. Julie’s a peculiar editor. God knows what Ted White is going to do up there.
GROTH: I was going to ask you what you thought his contribution would be.
ELLISON: I have no idea. I don’t even have an opinion. I have no way of knowing what Ted plans, or if he’ll make a contribution or if he’ll vanish from there or what. It’s a strange magazine. But then, Metal Hurlant is a strange magazine. And the reason there’s a terrible dichotomy for me is that in France, they’re the ones who publish all my books. And they have made me in France a literary sensation. I am very hot in France. I had the front page on Le Monde. You cannot get any better than that. One of the quotes was, “Three years ago, it was the time of Bukowski. Last year was the period of Hubert Selby. And this year is the Ellison Explosion.” And they went on and treated me — they’ve done three books of mine. They did Memos from Purgatory under the title Les Barons de Brooklyn, and they did Strange Wine under the title Hitler Peignait des Roses, which is “Hitler Painted Roses” — they didn’t do it as “Strange Wine” because they thought they’d think it was a wine book — and they’ve done Gentleman Junkie as Gentleman Junkie.
GROTH: Do you know French?
ELLISON: Oui. You may say, “Yeah, but the French like Jerry Lewis too, so what the fuck do they know?” and that may very well be, but they like me and they like me a lot. They treat me with the same kind of high respect as they feel for James M. Cain and Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and Nelson Algren and that’s pretty fast company for me to be running in because I think Cain is one of the finest American writers we’ve ever produced. He’s virtually unread these days, but he’s a great, great, great, great writer. They have done many pieces on me in Métal Hurlant and serious essays and interviews and they’ve picked up pieces from the American version and reprinted them there. They wanted to do a whole Ellison issue. So when you ask me, “What do I think of the magazine?” I give you a very honest answer which could cost me dearly. And I hope this will lead the readers to understand that I have held back very little here. I’ve done a couple of politic things in this interview, but on balance I did them only because what the fuck’s the point in kicking a cripple or talking about something else that I’m pissed off about out of personal pique. I mean, what’s the point? There are certainly enough people I’ve attacked viciously here to satisfy the most bloodthirsty.
GROTH: Even The Comics Journal.
ELLISON: Even The Comics Journal. Right.
GROTH: I’d like to speak about the writers, novelists, and short story writers you currently enjoy.
ELLISON: [A friend] was asking me before, “Who should I read? Who do you like?” And I said Conrad, and Mark Twain, and…
GROTH: They’re dead.
ELLISON: It was Dickens who said, “A book you haven’t read is a new book.”
GROTH: You like Doctorow, obviously.
ELLISON: I like Doctorow, I like Ragtime, I like it a lot, I really like it a lot. Oddly enough, most of my reading, particularly of fiction, in the last two years, has been of the Latin American writers. People you’ve probably never heard of in your whole life.
GROTH: You must like Borges.
ELLISON: I adore Borges. He’s had a profound influence on my work. But I’ve been reading Borges for 15 years. I’m talking about Miguel Asturias, about Cortazar, I’m talking about Llosa, Jorge Amado, Carlos Fuentes, and Gabriel García Marquez. These are giants who are with us now. I met Borges. He spoke at UCLA and I sat there and watched this almost blind old man, and it was one of the most moving and exciting evenings of my life.
I’ve been fighting for him to win the World Fantasy Award for Life Achievement for three years now, and they’ve given it to a couple of worthy people and people who are less than worthy. I won’t go back to the World Fantasy Convention because, apart from the fact that they treated me shabbily and passed me over — Strange Wine didn’t even get on the ballot this year; it was the best-selling hardcover collection of the year, which doesn’t say necessarily that it’s good — but Strange Wine is one of my very best books, and it didn’t even get on the ballot. Last year, “Jeffty Is Five” won five of the six major awards for which it was eligible, including the British Fantasy Award, and the fans put it on the ballot. It was the only story that got sufficient votes from the fans to put it on the ballot, and the judges decided to pass it over. The judges were all Lovecraftians, and all that whole Arkham group, and I finally just said, “Well, piss on you.” I mean, they weren’t all that crowd, but there were sufficient of them to swing it over to whoever they wanted to give it to. They gave it to a nice man whose story was terrible and it did not deserve the award. I’m not ashamed to say that. Again, it may sound like ego-going, but fuck it. If someone thinks it’s ego, it’s ego, but that’s a goddamn good story. “Jeffty Is Five” is a top-flight story and it should have won the award. And I got really angry about it, but more than angry about my loss was the awarding of the Life Achievement Award to Frank Belknap Long instead of to Borges. Last year. Because Belknap Long at his best — at his best, and he’s a kindly old gentleman, he’s never done me any harm, but I’m talking here about the relative value of a body of literary work — Frank Belknap Long is a hack.
GROTH: Who is that? I’m not familiar with his work.
ELLISON: It’s a science fiction/fantasy writer who was part of the old Arkham circle and who during the ’50s in New York was a copy editor for various magazines. He was paid by the word for the changes. I’ve seen manuscripts of mine that came back from Fantastic Universe where he’d change a name from Fred to Burt so that he could get a penny for that change. The manuscripts looked like fine Belgian lace when he got done with them. He had absolutely no integrity at all. He’s had a few books published, only one of which, The Hounds of Tindalos, is of any consequence as far as I’m concerned. It’s not a bad book, but he did it in the ’40s. I mean, this minor writer from Weird Tales, this minor hack writer, this commercial writer, in comparison to Borges, who is a literary giant. Apart from the fact the man is going blind, and will probably be dead very shortly, and he hasn’t been awarded the Nobel, which he long since should have been, here are those pishers sitting out in some fuckin’ Texas backwater or up in New England somewhere with the World Fantasy Award. I mean, where the fuck do they get off calling it a world fantasy award? I mean, they make this up, out of their own fuckin’ heads. I mean, the arrogance of fans. World Fantasy Award… They are totally unaware of the material being published in the area of fantasy. When I was a judge — I was a judge the second year — we made sure that the awards were significant and that they were worldwide awards. For the novelists, instead of picking up one of these slash-and-hack sword-and-sorcery bullshit numbers, we picked William Kotzwinkle’s Doctor Rat. When the winner was announced, these people said, “What? Who’s William Coxwell? What? Doctor Wha—?” Then they went out and bought the book and read it and said, “Hey, this is a great book.” We gave the art award not to one of their own. We gave it to Roger Dean. We gave the short-story award to Russell Kirk, a brilliant writer, for “There’s a Long, Long Road A-Winding”.
The best we could do for life award was to give it to Ray Bradbury. Bradbury was the only name on the list that was really significant. But there was Borges and Collier and…
This year, they were planning on giving it to — I mean, he’s a very good writer — they were going to give it to Manly Wade Wellman, and I wrote a letter to the judges and I said, “I’ve seen the names of the people who are up for this award, they are all very good writers, and Manly Wade Wellman is certainly a deserving writer, and his life achievement should be honored. But before you get to Weilman you must give it to Borges, there’s no two ways about it.” I talked to one of the judges and I said, “How did it go?” and he said, “I think he got it.” So that’s terrific.
But do you think they’re going to be smart enough to get in touch with Borges’s publisher and say, "This man is winning the World Fantasy Award and we would very much like to bring him up?" No. No. One of their own schmucks, one of their own Arkham circle, some asshole from Worcester, Massachusetts, or some place, will say, “On behalf of George Louis Bore-guess, I’d like to accept this award.” And then they’ll put it in a box with some plastic bubbles and schlep it off to South America and it’ll be busted in half and the guy will get it and he’ll say, “What the fuck is this?”
GROTH: What essayists do you admire? You mentioned Geoffrey Wolfe to me…
ELLISON: Oh yeah, I admire Geoffrey Wolfe enormously.
ELLISON: Pritchett’s good. I like Pritchett. Pritchett is a bit high-toned for me, I’m afraid. You remember Harvey Cassill? Harvey Cassill used to do a lot of the stuff that Pritchett now does. Jessica Mitford. In her new book, Poison Penmanship, I went back and read the piece she did on the Famous Writers’ School, and she got them closed down. I understand they’re back in business now.
GROTH: That was Bennett Cerf’s scam, wasn’t it?
ELLISON: Uh-huh. What a marvelous job of muckraking she did. And that’s a very honorable tradition, the muckraking thing. I like Jesse Kornbluth occasionally.
GROTH: Joan Didion?
ELLISON: I do like Didion. There’s something there that I feel uneasy with; God knows what it is. I mean, Slouching toward Bethlehem is one of the most remarkable books I ever read but The White Album… I don’t know, I’d have to go back and reread it. There’s something that troubles me there and I haven’t codified it yet. But that’s the kind of thing I like to do, I like to be troubled so that I go back and read something again. You say, “Ahh, I’m onto something here.”
GROTH: I wanted to ask you who, during your life, has most influenced your thought, the way you think, shaped your values, and so on? I’m very curious about that.
ELLISON: I suppose it would have to be Mark Twain. But when you say, “Who has influenced my thought,” it’s not so much that any one person has influenced my thought as it is that, for instance, the view of my father, a very good and kind man, who died with none of his dreams realized, all of them unfulfilled, was a living example to me of what I was not going to be under any circumstances. So that was very influential.
GROTH: So it might have been more your experience than…
ELLISON: Oh yeah, I’ve been much more influenced by experience than by the written word. Even as I have been more influenced by music and painting in my stories than I have by the written word. I’m triggered by painting and by music more than by other people’s stories. My experiences — my life has been a very peculiar one, even among the peculiar people I know, and having run away at the age of 13 and been on my own, having experienced vicious anti-Semitism and violence at a very tender age, from 13 and younger, until I finally ran away at 13. At 15, I was driving a dynamite truck in North Carolina and reading voraciously, just reading everything. I taught myself to read very young. I learned very, quickly the one lesson that I think a writer must learn to be of any use to himself or herself and the rest of the world, which is that what they tell you is real and what you perceive to be real and what really is real are three very different things and that the gap between reality and the word-of-mouth word game they play about real is an enormous one and if you can jump it and land on your feet you can probably write about it pretty well.
And I learned to take risks, I learned to be independent, and I learned to be tough, and I learned to trust my own judgment, and I learned a very important lesson that I guess has influenced almost everything I’ve ever done, which is that I can be wounded, but they can’t really hurt me. They can’t really do me any lasting damage. That makes you safe. That makes you beyond their reach. In Hollywood, they don’t know what to do with me. Except not hire me, except when they need something done that only I can do, then they’ve got to hire me, so I’ve got them by the balls. But they cannot figure out how the fuck to get me in line. And of course “in line” means not to give them any shit and to do what I’m told. And I don’t work that way; I don’t do that. I don’t mean to be troublesome. I’ve got a very low bullshit threshold. They keep trying it with money and as they go up and up and up and up I keep learning that yeah, maybe I can be bought, but, whatever it is, at the moment, the sum is higher than $265,000, which is what they offered me to do a series on CBS, to create a miniseries. And I said “No,”and hung up on them.
The words along the way, Hemingway, and Mark Twain, Conrad, Dickens, Dostoevsky, Cervantes, all the right authors — but, and this is something that I said to Time Magazine, I said, “You know, I will tell you that my germinal and seminal influences were Conrad and Dickens and Poe and Blackwood” — which they definitely were, I’m not lying about it — “but the truth of the matter is, the things that influenced me the most were comic books, pulp magazines, old-time movies, and old-time radio.” Those were the four boundaries of my world when I was a little boy and I had nothing else. Comics were always very important to me. As I said earlier, I was Supersnipe, I had all the comics. I kept them in a wooden box.
GROTH: How do you think that’s affected your view of things, your writing?
ELLISON: I do things dramatically in stories, which is a trick from comics. I write very, very visually, and people say, “Gee, that must come from writing movies.” No, I was writing that way before I went to do movies. That’s how I was able to break into movies. I’m one of the very few science-fiction writers who can also write scripts. There’s me, there’s Bob Bloch, there’s David Gerrold, Alan Brennert, there may be half a dozen. And why is that? Because writing for print and writing for movies are very, very different and you have to be able to see it to write it and I got that from comics. Abso-fuckin’-lutely. I owe a great debt to comic books. Which is, I suppose, why I feel so betrayed by the condition into which they have allowed the medium to sink. When you don’t care, you don’t care. When you love something and you’re betrayed by it, you get hostile. Which is why I’m hostile. I don’t like comics very much these days. I buy them so I don’t miss an issue, but I think it’s shameful to have to pay 40 cents for a piece of shit that’s thinner than anything you ever bought back in the goddamn ’40s. I know it’s not the ’40s and lithography costs more and typesetting costs more and ink costs more and paper, God knows, is out the window, but Jesus Christ, if they’re going to charge that kind of money, they really ought to shoot for the moon. But then you say, “Well, would the audience go for it?” Who the hell knows? Try it and see! But they don’t.
GROTH: Do you think that maybe comics haven’t changed as much as you have and that’s why you’re so dissatisfied with them?
ELLISON: I don’t know. I’ve gone back and read a lot of those from the ’40s and I feel them still — they’re silly, but there’s a vitality to them. They had an innocence. The innocence is now gone, but it hasn’t been replaced with an accompanying sensibility of intellectual or artistic viewpoint… Whether that sentence makes any goddamn sense I’m not sure, but by this time, I mean, it’s now 3:10 in the morning and I feel like someone’s sucking my brains out through my nose with a hose. Yeah, I’ve changed a lot, but I still see a lot of things through the eyes of a child. I really do. I have no time sense. If I tell you I’ll be there at six o’clock, look for me on Thursday. Nineteen-forty-one is literally the same to me as this morning. I have a oneness of time sense, which is why I’m always late. That’s why I wrote “Repent, Harlequin, Said the Ticktockman”, an apologia for my always being late. And that’s because I just can’t perceive that something is earlier or later. It’s very difficult. And so I find it dubious that I’ve changed so much that I wouldn’t see anything that was of value in comics. I really think they are worse now.
Of course, they were worse in the ’40s than they were in the ’60s. I think the stuff in the ’60s is really the Golden Age. When they talk about the Golden Age, they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about. It was the ’60s, after the “pop” thing and into the era of relevance, ’67-’72, and even that is sophomoric stuff, as you said, but I remember that Green Lantern/Green Arrow where the guy gets crucified on the SST, and I thought, “Holy fuck!” I mean, that really blew me away. And I must say that Swamp Thing was dynamite, just dynamite, the art, the conception, the whole mythic overtone. I mean, I’m not even sure Len and Bernie knew what they were dealing with, with the great legends of all time. I think they thought they were writing the Heap! And maybe that’s it. You’re not supposed to start thinking, “Hey, I’m gonna do great art,” just “I’m going to write one cracking good story.”
GROTH: Let me ask you who is the greatest living writer of fiction right now? [Pause.] Maybe I should limit it to the United States?
ELLISON: [Pause.] Boy, I hate popularity contests like that. Who’s the greatest… I would say Borges is the greatest. I would say so, yeah. Let me tell you something: The way that question is usually asked of me. [Snotty interviewer’s voice]: “Apart from yourself, who do you think is a great writer?” I usually punch on that line, because that indicates a kind of insulting supposition that I find really annoying.
An interesting thing happened today. Isaac Asimov was recounting a story — I don’t remember who the scientists were, but it was a biologist. Say that it was Haldane, if you will, I don’t know who it was. This apparently took place in the 18th, 19th century, and he was testifying as an expert witness in the trial, and they had him under oath, and at the end they asked him, “Professor Haldane, who is the greatest living biochemist?” He said, “I am, sir.” And everyone in the courtroom was horrified, because this man was known for being self-effacing, modest, quiet, generous. He had never exhibited any ego at all. After the case was over and he came out, people gathered around and said, “Why would you say such a thing?” and he said, “I was under oath. I could not lie.”
Today, Isaac said the same thing. He did this deposition. We were talking about a number of writers, and he said — I won’t name any names — but he was under oath, and it was the first time I had heard him say anything like this, it was very interesting. He was talking about a writer, who I think very highly of, but who I don’t think is one of the greats. Isaac was asked, “Was he one of the important writers?” “Well,” he said, “I would not put him in the first rank. Say there are 10 writers in the first rank. I would not put him in that first rank of important writers. If it went to 20, I would certainly say that he would be in there. And this was a name that, if I were to tell it to you, you would say, “My God!” Later on, the same question was asked of Isaac about me, and without any hesitation, Isaac said, “Oh, he is definitely in the first rank. He is one of the ten most important writers in the country.” And the other writer was such a close friend of Isaac’s that [Isaac] said, “I would be very unhappy if this remark was repeated so that this person heard it,” and so I knew he was not buttering me up or saying anything that he didn’t believe. And I suddenly realized that Isaac, whose talent I admire in many, many ways and who is a close personal friend, thought that much of me, and I began thinking, “What is my position?” And when you asked me, “Who’s the greatest living writer?” for a moment, I heard myself saying, “I am.” And I really believed it. Not out of ego, it was just an analysis. Suddenly: “Who? Who is really that important?”
And then I realized that I was talking foolishly.
Michael Moorcock was staying at my house for two months until a couple of weeks ago. Michael spent hours talking to me and explaining why I am better than Borges and Michael is no slouch in terms of literary criticism. I mean, he is hot shit, Jack. And I think he’s full of birdseed. I know damn well I am not better than Borges, because I am in absolute awe of Borges. I sit and read his stuff and I say, “Holy Jesus! It’s amazing that anyone would attempt that, much less pull it off so well.” So I know I’m not. But nonetheless, writers whose work I admire, who I think are extraordinary, first rank, look at me and talk to me that way, as if I am their mentor. I think. Bill Kotzwinkle is sensational — and he’s been reading me for years and I’ve had a mighty influence on his work. Well, I just about fell off the goddamn chair. I met Tom Chastain yesterday at a wedding. I admire Tom Chastain’s books; I think they’re awfully good. And he said, “Oh, I’ve been reading you for years, and I just admire your work.” And his wife said, “Oh my God!” and they talked chapter and verse on the stories, and that just blows me away.
So I don’t know who I would say is the greatest. I suppose Borges, perhaps W.S. Merwin. If you don’t know W.S. Merwin, you ought to look at him. He’s only had two books of very very short stories. He’s mostly known as a poet, but his short short stories are spectacular, particularly “The Miner’s Pale Children” and another book called The Carrier of Ladders, and they’re available from Athenium, and they’re now in trade paperback; you can get them at any really good bookstore. Do you know I’m getting hoarse?
ELLISON: My voice is leaving me. Four and a half hours of steady talking can do that to anybody. Anyhow, there’s a Scottish writer named George Mackay Brown who’s almost totally unknown in this country. I admire his work enormously. I think he’s brilliant. The South Americans I mentioned. The German, Günter Grass, he’s really outstanding.
GROTH: What do you think of our American establishment novelists, like Mailer?
ELLISON: Well, I think less and less of Mailer as time goes by. I probably shouldn’t. I haven’t read the new book. I just bought it, The Prisoner’s Death, or whatever…
GROTH: That’s Gary Gilmore?
ELLISON: Yeah. I understand it’s really, really good and that he’s going back to reasonable writing. Styron I like very much. I’ve always liked Styron. I don’t like Sophie’s Choice as much as I like Lie Down in Darkness. I think it’s an excellent book.
GROTH: How about Capote?
ELLISON: Capote? He’s a burnt-out case. He’s bullshit time.
ELLISON: Oh, he’s even bigger bullshit time. Updike: bullshit time. Cheever: mostly bullshit time, except sometimes in the short stories. Updike, sometimes in short stories, but very seldom. I mean, they are masters of the fine point made — the masters of the mot juste, as we say. Joyce Carol Oates I admire. I go for a lot of writers that other people have never even heard of. I just finished the Hunter Thompson book, The Great White Shark Hunt.
GROTH: Did you like that? He seems to me to be a real burnt-out case.
ELLISON: Yeah. Exactly. I’m glad you said it first so that I didn’t sound as though I was attacking my betters. I had remembered a lot of the stuff as being really impressive and I had loved it, particularly the Kentucky Derby piece that he did, and the Muhammad Ali piece, but going back and reading it — have you read the book?
GROTH: I’ve read every other book that he’s written, except that one. But I hear a lot of it is excerpts from his other works.
ELLISON: Well, there’s excerpts from both the Fear and Loathing books, there’s excerpts from a lot of other places, but it’s the gathering together of all the small pieces, all the “gonzo” papers, and I now realize that gonzo journalism is an excuse for slovenly writing, for getting crashed out of your brain and avoiding writing the story and doing all the spadework and all the research and just doing a lot of fancy footwork. It is an excuse for irresponsibility and it ennobles it and that’s dangerous, because there are hundreds of thousands of kids in journalism school all over the country who want to be Rex Reed and want to be Tom Wolfe and want to be Gael Greene, and want to be, God knows! Hunter Thompson. And he is the worst possible fuckin’ example. And the thing again — and this is going to sound like, “Oh well, he’s serving his own rep” — I was looking at the stuff and I was thinking, “Jesus Christ, all of this stuff smells, waddles, quacks, goes steady with and sheds water like the stuff I was writing for the Free Press.”
GROTH: The TV stuff?
ELLISON: Yeah. And the “Harlan Ellison Hornbook” columns, which you’ve never seen. That was another column which I did for two years. That’s going to be gathered into another book someday when I get around to it. It’s the same kind of stuff. It’s personal journalism, it’s diary, it’s confessional that goes to exploring in an investigative nature and. an analytical nature, and yet he constantly avoids the point. He goes to a place to do the job, gets off the plane drunk — if we are to believe him, and I think he’s full of shit and lying up to his ears most of the time anyhow. I don’t believe anyone can consume dope in that kind of quantity, although a woman I know was just on the set of his new movie, Where the Buffalo Roam, and she said he was crapped out all of the time. But I think that’s got to be a pose. Nobody can function, nobody can write, with that much dope in him. He talks about, “I dumped six black beauties and I made up a cocktail of three reds and two whites and then I sniffed some ether on top of that and then I chewed some blotter acid and then I shoved a little coke up my snout and then I did my gums with…” whatever the fuck. And he goes onandonandonandon and on and on… This is impossible, man. I’ve been around enough righteous, ripped-out-of-their-brains, screaming vampire-bat drug addicts to know that you get a certain amount of chemical in you and forget it, Jim, you are tabula rasa, that is it! And there are only very few moments in that book where he really gets it on and sustains it and tells you something you never knew before. One of them is in the piece he does on the Salazar slaying in L.A. Another is a very short piece about a guy who was a freelance writer who died unknown and there are some fabulous lines in that. But even in that there is an inaccuracy and a stupidity that is awesome in a man who’s so hip and is supposed to know what’s goin’ down. He’s got a paradigm — he’s made up a paradigm for this guy dying unknown and he’s picked up a record jacket — I can’t remember what the group is — and he says, “Here’s this group of musicians, their name isn’t as big as the producer’s. The producer: Tom Wilson. Tom Wilson, who the fuck is Tom Wilson? Who the hell ever heard of Tom Wilson?” He goes on and on and on, Tom Wilson, Tom Wilson, Tom Wilson.
I’ve known Tom Wilson for 25 years. Tom Wilson was Bob Dylan’s producer. He’s the one who made all the best Bob Dylan records. He produced the Band. He for Chrissake produced Miles Davis. He was the only black producer at Columbia for 15 years. He went out on the goddamn road and found Lightnin' Hopkins. He published Jazz Guide, 33 Guide, Stereo Guide out of his own pocket. He is the man who put on the Ryker’s Island Jazz Festival two years running, for Chrissake. Tom Wilson is a fuckin’ giant. And schmuckpuss didn’t know him. Schmuckpuss didn’t take the time to find out who Tom Wilson is. He used him as a paradigm and happened to pick someone with impeccable credentials. And it invalidates everything else. You say, “This guy doesn’t know what the fuck he’s talking about.” He’s just suddenly coming off the wall and sounding like Mr. Whizzbang. He’s a drunk and he’s a doper who has got a style which is very dangerous for journalism students to pick up on.
GROTH: You remember, I guess, after his series on the campaign trail in Rolling Stone was made into a book, all of a sudden there were all these gonzo journalists out there who aped his style. And of course, they bombed, every one of them.
ELLISON: Man, when I go to colleges, I mean, the condition — and I hope you publish this in one of your big call-outs — the state of academic journalism is roughly on the level of the early Cretaceous era. I’ve never seen so many fuckin’ illiterates in all my life. I mean, simple stone illiterates who cannot spell, who cannot take a note, who have to have a tape recorder and then misuse it, who never ask you to spell anything, who never look up dates, who never check back with their source to find out if they’ve gotten the right facts. And the thing that they do constantly is that they ape your style because they haven’t got one of their own. They try for flash and filigree and they come off looking like boobs. They misuse syntax, they trip over their own goddamn analogies. It’s just pathetic to look at. They think they’re hot shit, and they’re being turned out of those goddamn colleges by the hundreds every year. College newspapers everywhere I go are unbelievably bad. Even in the area of sports writing, where you usually get a little fast stuff in there, it’s just… Oh, God!
GROTH: Our universities are turning out illiterates every day.
ELLISON: Slovenly. They don’t care. They don’t have any sense of professionalism. Well, that makes it all easier for guys like you and me. I find it very easy to be an outlaw. Because the world is fuckin’ sheep and drones. Thank God. Thank God for the sheep and drones. They keep the machines functioning, they take out the garbage, they make sure the lights are lit, there’s ice in the refrigerator. That permits me all the time in the world to run around and play Zorro.