The Third

It's Harlan Ellison day today on the site, as we publish Michael Dean's obituary of the writer.

Ellison is known primarily for his work in science fiction (or speculative fiction, as he preferred to call it), including the Star Trek episode “The City on the Edge of Forever”, the novella and movie A Boy and His Dog, and his editing of two Dangerous Visions anthologies. But though he scarcely wrote any comics stories, he has long been embraced by the comics community as a kindred spirit, a challenge to the hidebound, compromised conventions of traditional entertainment. Comics fans identified with his attitude, his wide knowledge of comics mythology, and his strongly held opinions, perhaps because when it came to comics he was more fan than pro. He loved comics and he was iconoclastic enough to liberate the form from its cultural ghetto, granting comics the same respect and high standards he accorded more mainstream literature.

If one were to draw a graph of Ellison’s creative career, it would appear as a rapidly ascending line in the early 1950s, bulging heavenward throughout the following densely productive couple of decades until around 1975 (roughly from Ellison’s early 20s to his mid 40s), when it would seem to fall off a cliff. Beginning around 1975, Ellison all but ceased to be a working writer, becoming instead a re-packager, an introducer, a creative consultant, a master of ceremonies, a cameo voice in video games and animated TV shows, a guest of honor, a website commenter, and a lawsuit filer. The first half of his career alone, however, was fertile enough to leave most other professional biographies green with envy. Ellison had written so many stories, novels, screenplays, teleplays, movie and television reviews and essays, won so many awards and assaulted so many publishers, critics, professors and Hollywood producers in such a short period of time, that an early burnout would seem to have been inevitable. His persona — the young, vital, aesthetically righteous punk who did not hesitate to kick the ass of the stodgy, greedy entertainment establishment — was so indelible, that it was hard to imagine Harlan Ellison as an old man.

We are also republishing one of the most legendary articles in TCJ history, Gary Groth's 1979 interview with Ellison, to which Gary has added a new introduction.

When I arrived at the midtown Manhattan apartment Ellison was staying at, I had no idea what to expect or what I would come away with. The original impetus for the interview was a review I had published panning a collection of comics adaptations of his short stories called The Illustrated Ellison (published, again, by Byron Preiss), which elicited a screaming phone call from Ellison.

I suggested that we record an interview where he could address what he considered the review’s shortcomings and critical inaccuracies. He agreed to meet me the next time he came east. I probably also wanted to interview him because he was familiar with and loved comics but traveled professionally in circles outside of comics; because he was not beholden to the corporate interests that controlled comics production and thus could speak more freely; and because he was notoriously outspoken about his high aesthetic standards.

The interview began about 9:00 p.m. and lasted until about 3:00 a.m. As it turned out, we both spoke freely — in the opinions of many working professionals at the time, too freely — often crossing the line into tasteless disparagement of good professionals and of the values of professionalism generally.

People who were not yet born when this interview was conducted have told me that today’s young generation may well be horrified by it. Maybe so. But I believed then, and I believe now, that it was a necessary corrective to the institutionalized complacency, sterility, and code of silence that had at that time settled upon the comics industry like a shroud.

We'll see you after the holiday.