“They Changed My Life”: An Interview with Bill Schelly

Sense of Wonder is a memoir of life in comic book fandom by Bill Schelly, an early fanzine publisher and, much later, a comic book historian. Originally released in 2001, an expanded edition has just been released. The book recounts Schelly’s comics publishing, retailing and writing experiences, culminating in the book Harvey Kurtzman, The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America, which won an Eisner award in 2016. In this new edition, Schelly has also woven in the story of his realization that he is gay, and positions that acceptance within a larger story of the community of fandom. We corresponded via email.

Schelly setting up Super Comics in April 1986

Dan Nadel: Can you succinctly tell me what keeps bringing you back to the comics of your childhood? I’m fascinated by the joy you take in excavating that work. Is it the stories? Memories? I enjoy them as well, but it’s increasingly hard for me to read them separate from my knowledge of their creators’ often sad circumstances.

Bill Schelly: When I get in touch with my inner child, and conjure up the images and emotions that I felt when I first discovered the wonders of comics in the early 1960s, it’s apart from my later awareness of the lot of the creators who made them. By the time fandom zeroed in on the pernicious work-for-hire policies of the publishers, I had largely lost interest in mainstream comics, and would soon leave fandom and comics altogether in 1973.

After I returned to fandom in 1990, I ended up writing a biography of Otto Binder, who wrote six of the nine stories in my first comic book, the Giant Superman Annual #1 in 1960. The Binder bio, which I recently revised and expanded, dealt with the way DC endlessly reprinted stories he had written, paying him nothing for it—at a time when he was struggling financially. He co-created Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and many other aspects of the Superman mythos, yet had no ownership, profit participation, or royalty arrangement—or even credit—when his ideas were exploited by the publisher.

What keeps bringing me back to the comics of my childhood is the undeniable fact that they took hold of my imagination so powerfully that they changed my life. The love of comics set me on a course that continues to the present day. Therefore, revisiting it in this memoir seems perfectly natural and appropriate.

I am curious about the role of criticism in fandom. Even now, there seems like a sharp divide between fandom and critics, despite the fact that in many ways one feeds the other. I wonder if you can tell me a bit about your relationship to criticism (including the kind pioneered in comics by your old fandom colleague Gary Groth). And secondarily, when you approach a subject, do you feel you have an obligation to look at the unvarnished truth about their work? To be critical when necessary?

I understand what you’re saying about a sharp divide between fandom and critics. Criticism of comics didn’t play much of a role in fandom in general in its earliest years, say, 1960 to 1963. The famous series “All in Color for a Dime” which appeared in Richard and Pat Lupoff’s Xero, the first serious attempt to chronicle the history of comics, was written mostly from a nostalgic point of view. But in 1964, Rick Weingroff published erudite studies of comics in his fanzine Slam-Bang, and the following year, Richard Kyle’s “Graphic Story Review” column debuted in Bill Spicer’s Fantasy Illustrated. Kyle’s analysis of the roles of the editor, writer and artist in comic books, and analysis of specific comics (such as Warren’s Blazing Combat) introduced a new level of discourse.

Keep in mind that I was only 13 or 14 years old in 1964. I didn’t engage with that sort of thing until a few years later, when I read John Benson’s interviews with Harvey Kurtzman, Bernard Krigstein, and Will Eisner. They opened my mind to new, more mature perspectives. However, I was in the midst of my “sabbatical” by the time Gary Groth shed his teenage infatuation with Marvel and started The Comics Journal with Kim Thompson.

Whether or not I am critical of certain comics depends on the purpose of what I’m writing. A memoir, at least as I see it, isn’t the place to do much of that. Whereas a biography needs to provide a relatively unvarnished view of the subject. I think I achieved that in my Kurtzman book, in the way I lay out his relationship to William M. Gaines, and the failures of much of his later work.

You mention being in an elevator with Vaughn Bodé and Gil Kane at the 1973 New York comic convention. Did those two artists exist on the same continuum for you? Did you have a sense of aesthetic hierarchies?

I saw Gil Kane as a mainstream comics artist who was an articulate, even visionary individual when it came to his views about the potential of comics. He had worked in the comic book trenches since World War II, and had gained most of his reputation from drawing Green Lantern and Atom for DC. Whereas Vaughn Bodé was more akin to an underground comix artist, and (as far as I know) always retained ownership of his material. His work didn’t grow out of mainstream comics. It was his own idiosyncratic vision. And there I was, standing between two such different creative types, unsure what to say to either one of them. Ultimately, I had a conversation with Gil Kane which resulted in him semi-offering me a job, if I could move to Connecticut. I didn’t take him up on it.

Something that struck me about your story is that, while you lived through times of liberation, you often, according to your account, stayed on the sidelines. Given your own coming to terms with your sexuality, did you seek out queer comics in the 1960s and '70s (I mean before you mention Gay Comics #1)? There was an active underground there—from porn to early hippie work. And even now, is that work of interest to you?

Blackburn's Coley in Deathsnake #1
There wasn’t much gay liberation going on in the 1960s until the Stonewall uprising, at least nothing that I was aware of, and I didn’t see much gay material in the underground comix when I was in college. Then, as I’ve already mentioned, I left fandom in 1973, so I didn’t see any gay comics until 1982 when I met Howard Cruse and he showed me Gay Comix, as related in the book. But that was a relatively isolated incident, and I didn’t return to comics for another six years. Then I found more gay comics, such as those that appeared in the Meatmen anthologies, and some gay comix published by Fantagraphics under their Eros imprint. I became a fan of John Blackburn’s Coley, and corresponded with John in the mid-1990s. I still have some nice original art that John sent me. I loved Howard Cruse’s Stuck Rubber Baby.

The latter portion of Sense of Wonder tells how I moved from writing books on the history of fandom, like The Golden Age of Comic Fandom in 1995, to writing the history of comics in general. I became obsessed with comics of the 1940s and 1950s, and wrote a number of introductions to the DC Archives series. As my interest turned to studying the medium’s past, I spent less and less time keeping up on current comics, and that included gay comics.

On that front, was there talk about the lives of cartoonists among the pros you met in the 1960s and early '70s? Did any stories particularly stick out?

I had a life-changing conversation with an older fan named Howard Siegel at the 1973 New York comic convention, which touched on the lives of Jack Kirby and comics professionals in general. We met after a panel where it became clear that C. C. Beck was not happy with DC about their ham-handed revival of Captain Marvel that year. I had come to New York to compete for a spot in DC’s so-called “new talent program,” which was billed as an apprentice program for aspiring young artists. The day before, I was firmly rejected by DC, as represented by Vince Colletta.

I was bemoaning my fate to Howard, who told me I was probably lucky that I wasn’t accepted. He explained that nearly all comics artists were struggling financially, they were considered disposable by the publishers, that drawing comics involved endless repetition of the same faces and poses, long past the point where it was enjoyable or had any novelty. I countered by saying that he couldn’t tell me that Jack Kirby wasn’t doing well financially. Siegel explained that Kirby was doing “all right” but he was at the top of his game, and he had no ownership in the characters he had created for Marvel and DC. This conversation went along those lines for a while, and when I came away, I realized that being a comics pro at Marvel or DC at the time—and they were pretty much the only game in town, as undergrounds were dying—was far from the romanticized view of it that I’d developed as a teenager.

You mention Maggie Thompson a few times, but this was primarily a male world, right? How do you think that impacted what got written about and historicized?

Maggie’s interest in comics was less about the male superheroes and more about the works of Carl Barks, Walt Kelly, John Stanley, and cartoonists of that ilk. But fandom was made up largely of males, who were mainly interested in super heroes. The older fans collected and wrote articles about Golden Age heroes, and the teenage boys—by far the largest demographic in fandom—wrote about the spandex-clad characters who arose in greater numbers as the 1960s progressed. Hence, the history of those kinds of comics, as opposed to humorous, romance and funny animal comics, were the focus of the first wave of fandom. The appreciation of Pogo and Uncle Scrooge and the good romance comics came later, but even then there were few female members of comic fandom. For the most part, it wasn’t until the rise of alternative comics and manga that large numbers of women began finding comics that appealed to them. Also, Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. Once the numbers of women in fandom grew, the research into the history of female cartoonists and characters accelerated.

Did you, or do you ever, feel that fandom promoted the characters above the artists? That perhaps the intense focus on the characters allowed people to turn a blind eye to the explorations of the industry?

Fans have always been primarily interested in what’s “on the page,” whether it be the characters or the writing and artwork. Most were interested in the characters over the people who created them, but one of fandom’s missions from the beginning was to give credit where it was due. Artists and writers who had formerly worked in total anonymity began receiving requests for interviews. Eventually, some of them expressed dissatisfaction with their treatment by the publishers. The high profile case of Siegel and Shuster received a great deal of attention by fans, who were genuinely outraged by treatment of the men who had created Superman. It didn’t result in the boycotting of DC, but the voices from fandom did turn up the heat on the publisher. And fans and professionals worked together to get some sort of justice for those two men.

Have you ever looked further for Steve Ditko? What do you make of his choices?

As I describe in some detail in the book, Steve Ditko took great umbrage with the way I used some of his artwork in my fanzines in the mid-to-late 1960s. Mr. A’s theme was “you’re either bad or good, black or white, there’s no gray area.” Ditko was furious with me for printing his original, fully-inked Mr. A cover on pink paper, instead of white, which I realize was a pretty stupid thing to do. Nevertheless, he did allow me to publish “The Defenders”, one of his Mr. A stories, in 1972.

That was our last contact until I wanted to reprint a drawing he had done for the cover of the fanzine All-Stars on the back cover of my Comic Fandom Reader book in 2002. It’s the most impressive piece of art for the fanzines that Ditko ever did, and had never been printed in full color before. When I wrote to him and told him of my plan, he was fine with it – actually, pleased! I probably should have included this in my memoir, as it’s a really nice coda to the story of my rocky encounters with Ditko.

I’m not a fan of Mr. A, but I have tremendous respect for Steve Ditko and the positions he’s taken. Instead of drawing Spider-Man for the rest of his life, he went in a direction that was meaningful to him, and, despite the limited following that Mr. A and his subsequent comics have generated, seems to have no regrets. For someone to turn his back on money on principle is a pretty rare thing in our capitalist society. So, kudos to Steve Ditko for having the courage of his convictions. It’s inspiring!