This article by Rick Cusick originally appeared in Gauntlet
magazine, issue number 9, volume II, 1995. It is archived
here with permission of the author, who was at the time associate editor of
Gauntlet.. The cartoon strip appears courtesy Pat
Many thanks to Mr. Cusick and to Gauntlet Press for production of the edited version which appears here and for allowing the piece to appear, with images, as it originally did in GAUNTLET. This article would also never be online without the hard work of Jonathan Dresner, who took on the onerous task of scanning and proofing 30,000 words. View text-only article
Step right up, Ladies and Germs! Take a seat and get comfortable. Pass the popcorn and break out the Twizzlers. It's a nasty little story you're going to hear: big money & small minds, lawyers & lawsuits, fistfights & lies, and even a scantily-clad woman sobbing in the cool California night. It's just the kind of sordid squalid tale we all love to hear and it has a moral, too: People with big sticks shouldn't throw stones; or walk softly if you're going to carry a big mouth. Something like that. In any case, this is the glass house that Gary built. C'mon. Let's take a look inside . . .
The July, 1994 edition of The Comics Journal ran the following headline in its Newswatch section: "Ellison Attempts to Suppress Upcoming Book." One month later, The Journal followed that story with another under the banner "Book About Harlan Ellison Suppressed In Chicago with Ellison's Approval."
Harlan Ellison, the award winning writer and unrepentant smartass, has long been a vocal champion of the First Amendment as much out of necessity as conviction. Ellison writes dangerous pushing-the-envelope prose and cut-to-the-bone criticism compounding his enemies with each complex sentence. He has written or edited more than 60 books, in the neighborhood of 1700 short stories, essays, articles and newspaper columns, two dozen teleplays and a dozen motion pictures. He has won the Hugo Award 8 ½ times, the Nebula Award three times, the Edgar Allan Poe Award of the Mystery Writers of America twice, the George Melies Fantasy Film Award twice. Most germane to this story, however, Ellison is the recipient of PEN's Silver Pen for An Edge In My Voice: In Defense of the First Amendment, a 1986 collection of his aggressive columns first published in The LA Weekly and in 1990 he received PEN's prestigious Award for Continuing Commitment to Artistic Freedom and the Battle Against Censorship.
The Comics Journal in contrast, is one of two or three essential publications covering the comics industry. It is the only organ among those two or three which invites (and often achieves) serious insight and critical analysis. The Comics Journal is elitist. The Comics Journal has a niche; "A niche that nobody wants," said editor and co-publisher Gary Groth with more than a dollop of satisfaction. The comics industry as a whole suffers a great amount of censorship and suppression, and The Comics Journal has made it their business to cover that beat. The Comics Journal trucks in controversy and does not shy from dispute, and sometimes it publishes the best interviews and the most thoughtful criticism in the field. Most germane to this story is that The Journal seeks to be the high-standard for news reporting in the comics industry. There is much to admire in The Comics Journal. So when The Journal associates Harlan Ellison with suppression, a closer look is warranted.
Regular readers of The Journal would have noticed that these two news articles were only the latest in a series of items which ran throughout the winter of 1993/94 featuring Ellison in the pejorative. Seven months earlier, in December, 1993, The Journal's Newswatch section reported "Ellison Attacks Enemies in Speech at Comicfest." Three months afterward, a Newswatch item declared "Victims of Ellison Forms; LA Times Buries Story." A sidebar announced that Fantagraphics planned to publish The Book On The Edge of Forever, the retitling of a critical pamphlet written ten years ago by British author Christopher Priest on Ellison's reported chronic inability to finish the last volume of his classic Dangerous Visions anthologies. Priest had privately printed the polemic in Great Britain, and now Gary Groth was going to publish it in the U.S. through Fantagraphics (Fantagraphics is the parent company to The Comics Journal and is also co-owned by Groth.) Elsewhere in that issue there was a paid advertisement for an organization calling themselves "Victims of Ellison." Comics Journal editor Gary Groth told Gauntlet, "There was a flurry of Ellisonian activity."
It can be shown that "the flurry" was hardly coincidental as each Newswatch article led directly to the inception of the next event, which was then the focus of the next news article. These articles were written by journal news editor Eric Reynolds, assigned and edited by Gary Groth. Highly selective syntax and facts not reported are just as telling as any bits of information actually contained in the articles. Concurrent public behavior by Groth includes computer postings ("Ellison=Censorship"), habitually long letters to the editor of a rival publication, (the Comics Buyers Guide=Censorship), a highly misinformed editorial and subsequent retraction (Peter David=?) and a widely discussed and curious role in the commencement of an infantile and (at first anonymous) boys club called Enemies of Ellison (EOE) which was quickly recast to the more politically correct Victims of Ellison (VOE) "a support group." In private Groth was not idle either.
This is a deceptively important story, at first scatological and rude. In this business of reporting on the First Amendment it is often too easy to focus on the charge of suppression and not see what might lie behind it. Complexity rules this world and journalism is too often far too simplistic. So this will be a long story not because the feud between Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison deserves many thousands of words -- It doesn't -- but the retooling of the First Amendment into a weapon is probably more common than we'd like to think and certainly deserves a more comprehensive inspection. When there is a hidden agenda, knee-jerk accusations of "suppression" can be just as abusive as suppression itself, and we should learn to look closely.
This is a complicated little story built like an onion: each layer brings you closer to a center so pungent it can make you cry. "It's a silly story" said Fantagraphics co-owner Kim Thompson and so it is, but there is a more important issue lurking just beneath this superficial tale of friendships-gone-sour and frivolous litigation. There is a story of the misuse of the power of the press, of using a newsgathering organization not to inform but to attack, of arranging the information not to enlighten the many but to enrage the one. Journalism as Ballbusting 101. There's a vendetta lurking behind The First Amendment as vendettas are allowed to do, but let's drag this one into the light, look it squarely in its bloodshot eye and call it by its real name.
And remember, Harlan Ellison is no saint. Even the most casual investigation into the root and reason of Ellison's dilemma finds him culpable, certainly more sinned against than sinner but a sinner nonetheless. Like Woody Allan's character Alvy Singer, he is a social bigot "but for the left!" and he has no doubt garnered as many enemies as awards. But to the objective eye with the benefit of context it seems plain that, in this situation, Ellison is often reacting to a preponderance of earlier broadsides and cheap-shot editorial policies. In all instances some deeply personal sub rosa history motivates these "professional criticisms." (A lot of this story comes down to women and money.) But Harlan Ellison is no saint. Casual investigation throws light upon a few basic facts, and one fundamental truth rings clear as a bell:
Harlan Ellison has a big mouth.
Harlan Ellison has a penchant for exaggeration and drama and hyperbole which at its best gives us stories like "Deathbird" and at its worst gives him and those around him grief. As the late and quintessentially great science fiction author Isaac Asimov once remarked, "Harlan has no sense of tact whatsoever."
No doubt about it, boys and girls, the gentleman is bugfuck. You know, certifiable.
This makes for a very entertaining public speaker. Ellison has been making speeches almost as long as he has been writing words. He has a very distinct, oddly polished and obviously inflated delivery more akin to stand-up comedy than literary lecture. He insults people on a grand scale, riffing details that are obviously beyond the pale and untrue. His is a stream-of-consciousness gonzo performance. Some say it is Ellison's shtick; Ellison would say it is his nature. Small-minded people take him literally while the rest of us are entertained.
Gary Groth was certainly entertained by Ellison in the past. In 1980 Groth wrote, "If Ellison's trenchant convictions are a flaw in his fiction, they are also the source of his strength as a critic and pundit. It is in the realm of dialectics that his ferocity of mind becomes a virtue. His is the voice of high-minded conviction and intelligence. He is occasionally unfair, capricious, even contradictory, but I suggest that these are not intellectual imperfections, but rather proof that he is a thinker and not a dogmatist, that his is an intellectual world of impulses and growth, not of ideology and petrification. . ."
What was a "virtue" in 1980 had become "vicious" by the end of 1993. It seems obvious that somewhere along the line Gary Groth changed his mind about Harlan Ellison. Such is his prerogative.
Six months before any talk of suppression in The Comics Journal, Ellison shot his mouth off at Philadelphia's Comicfest when it would have been prudent to have done otherwise. This was October 9, 1993 and he tore into Gary Groth, calling the publisher "one of the most evil, mean-spirited, rotten little human beings I've ever met. He's a cockroach. He's a bum. . ." Ellison tore into Charles Platt, (a former friend and writer whom Ellison physically assaulted at a post-Nebula Awards party in 1984), he opined that Gene Roddenberry was "a scumbag" and he said that William Shatner "would screw a sheep in the window of Bloomingdales if you gave him the chance."
"Did you get your six dollars worth yet?!" Ellison barks at the audience and the audience roars.
Now to the uninitiated getting their information solely from The Comics Journal or from the paragraphs above, it might seem as if Ellison is the real scumbag, but the record does not bear out that assumption. In addition to having a first-class literary reputation, Ellison enjoys a large cadre of fiercely loyal defenders. (When the adversarial Enemies of Ellison reared its ugly head, The Incredible Hulk writer Peter David announced his own counter-organization, Friends of Ellison. Responses to FOE apparently outdistanced replies to EOE/VOE by a margin of ten to one.)
But in Philly in 93, no doubt about it, Ellison shot his mouth off. And the video cameras were rolling and the tape recorders were running. His wife even tried to warn him before he addressed the subject of Gary Groth. Groth says that he did not have a reporter at that event to ask provocative questions but many, including Mr. Ellison, believe otherwise.
"Apparently someone in the audience -- not a shill of mine -- asked him about me and sent him off," asserts Groth. "No we didn't have anybody there, unfortunately. I tracked it down afterward . . . I kept hearing he said this about me, he said that about me, I wanted to find exactly what he said. And you know, there were actually a couple of friends of mine who were in the audience."
Journal news editor Eric Reynolds expressed serious doubts at the suggestion of a Fantagraphics plant. "If that's true then I've been completely misled." he said.
Reynolds had interned at Fantagraphics during the summer before his final year at The University of California at Irvine. When he returned to the U of C for his senior year at school he continued to work for The Comics Journal.
"The first story that I wrote, I freelanced," Reynolds told Gauntlet. "They sent me the tape. I watched the tape and read the transcript along with it and highlighted passages which I felt needed to be followed up on in terms of facts or anecdotes that he was presenting as factual that I suspected might not be . . . I called people. I called Todd McFarlane. I called Charles Platt."
Reynolds insists that the editorial input from the home office was negligible. "They sent me a video and they sent me a transcript to read along to. That was pretty much all the instruction I got."
Did you know of the feud between Groth and Ellison?
"I was peripherally familiar with it. I didn't know the specifics of it at all. They were friends at one point and had some sort of falling out. But when they assigned the story to me, you know, they didn't give me a sort of angle to take that I can remember. They just sort of said, 'Cover the speech. He said some incendiary things. Try and verify anecdotes that he gave.'
"I didn't know anything about him personally other than he was a science-fiction writer . . . I guess I just tried to present what Ellison said."
Ellison performed that day for the benefit of the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, and the audience of almost 1000 sci fi and comics fans paid six bucks a pop to watch his routine. Over $4000 was raised for the CBLDF that day. Four months before there was any talk of suppression, The Comics Journal's Newswatch article ("Ellison Attacks Enemies in Speech at Comicfest") regularly referred to Ellison's appearance as a "lecture" or "speech", but it was from the outset a question and answer session with Ellison mostly providing long stream-of-conscious replies to frequent audience inquiries. Often those replies were tangential and, like a stand-up performer, Ellison fell back on stock renditions of popular anecdotes. Reynolds' report gave the erroneous impression that Ellison generated most of the subject matter. Only once in the three page report was it made clear that Ellison was "asked" anything by an audience member.
Reynolds downplayed the oversight. "That the Platt (anecdote) came about as a result of a question? I'm not too sure I'd think that's significant." Reynolds said that it surely "was not a conscious lack of information on my part."
Groth defended Reynolds's interpretation of the event. "I've re-read the story and I don't know if I would have felt differently knowing there were questions and answers," he said. "I don't know if that represents bias, that he forgot to do that . . . Do you think that's an important distinction? I mean, I couldn't say that I even knew that."
To this reporter, that seems to be the point. Why don't we know there were questions and answers?
Reynolds wrote "One of the most provocative anecdotes Ellison told was an incident in which he allegedly beat up the science fiction writer, Charles Platt. 'You know the Charles Platt story?' Ellison asked the audience. 'He was a friend of mine for years'."
The implication that Ellison eagerly volunteered these stories is obvious and incorrect. A videotape of the event clearly shows Ellison taking suggestions from the audience. During a lull in the action, between anecdotes, a member of the audience throws out a request:
"Tell the Charles Platt story!"
"Jesus! God!" groaned Ellison. "Tell the Charles Platt story! You know the Charles Platt story?!"
"No! No!" The words rose from the crowd.
Ellison mimicked an old Jewish man: "Tell the Charles Platt story!" and then in normal voice said, "There was this guy . . . There was this guy named Charles Platt. . ."
The way the quote is presented in The Comics Journal conveys a preference: that Ellison's comments are unsolicited. The singular mention of an audience member's question (even though many questions were asked) supports this view. Even the headline insufficiently characterizes Ellison's appearance as a "Speech."
Ellison was in rare form that afternoon. He was obviously working the room with stories that were clearly larger than life and everybody in the room knew it. At one point he said that Spawn creator Todd McFarlane purchased a private island: "He's got this Xanadu there . . . where he's got these experiments of turning animals into people." But The Journal, not reporting Ellison's tongue firmly planted in cheek, tried to contact McFarlane for comment (McFarlane was unavailable). In fact, Eric Reynolds went to great pains to contact as many persons as possible to elicit response to Ellison's hyperbole. Reynolds called writer Michael Fleisher (who unsuccessfully sued both Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison in the 1980s). Michael Fleisher refused comment. The Journal had no trouble getting a quote out of Gary Groth and then -- and this is the watershed event -- Eric Reynolds called Charles Platt.
Harlan Ellison first met Charles Platt in England in the 1960s when Platt was an associate of Michael Moorcock at the new wave sci fi journal New Worlds. Ellison told the crowd in Philadelphia, "Mike Moorcock told me 'Do not trust Charles. Charles will betray you.'"
Platt succeeded Moorcock as the editor of New Worlds in 1970, and he also wrote novels. In 1967 Garbage World was little more than the title implied and Planet of The Voles was not much better. Twilight of the City in 1977 (a heavily revised version of Platt's 1970 novel City Dwellers) is certainly among Platt's best science fiction, and in 1980 Platt published a book of interviews called Who Writes Science Fiction? which featured an interview with Ellison. Mr. Platt's 1991 sf novel Silicon Man was nominated for a Campbell Award, and currently he writes romance fiction under the feminine pseudonym, Charlotte Prentiss.
Charles Platt and Harlan Ellison became friends. Platt divided his time between a London flat in the Kensington district and a New York City apartment on Patchin Place. When Ellison stayed in those cities he often stayed at these homes. Similarly, Platt used Ellison's legendary California residence -- Ellison Wonderland -- as a pied a terre when he occasioned the West Coast two or three times a year. In fact, it was Ellison who introduced Platt to his first wife.
Years later these two former friends wound up in a flamewar in cyberspace, the relentless pressure of the public pounding had finally snapped the one-sided silence and these two old comrades exploded in public on the Internet about something so private as yesterday's women. The following dialogue is edited for brevity:
"I tossed your butt out of my home. . . because you were hitting on the woman I was living with." Ellison charged. "Deny it all you like, Chazz, but Jane McKenzie remembers it very well."
Platt sniffed, "Can you please quote Jane McKenzie (who seems to be the woman in question) . . . The fact is, I never made so much as a suggestive remark to this woman while I was a guest at your house. On one occasion, while I was sitting reading in the kitchen at 1:30 am, she came into the kitchen in tears, because (she said) you weren't interested in having sex with her. . . Since Jane was wearing a short-night dress and not much else at the time, it put me in an embarrassing position . . . I responded with impeccable manners and restraint, but your imagination has, of course, embellished the whole story over time."
Mr. Platt expanded on this theme in an interview with Gauntlet. At the mention of Ms. McKenzie, Platt first asked if she had also spoken to this reporter.
"Not yet," I said.
"(Ellison) won't divulge where she is; so it's impossible to verify this," he cautioned. "The short version is simply that I was an absolutely honorable houseguest. Ellison's paranoid fantasies about my behavior emerged years later after he was on bad terms with me."
Subsequent to that interview, Gauntlet was able to locate Jane McKenzie, and Ellison's ex-lover surprisingly agreed to an interview.
"I seem to remember the night in question," she said referring to Platt's Internet recollection, "Charles was always a weasely sort. I'm English basically, and I know the sort when I see it. That Public School mentality. Either they didn't masturbate soon enough or they got too fond of it, kind of mentality. You know what I mean?
"I remember not a night in the kitchen but rather a night in the living room, and (Charles) was in his thirties and I was, I believe twenty . . . twenty-one, very confused, and he definitely came on to me.
"I mean even if you look at it from the fact that they were two older men, supposedly friends for years, and here I was. The gentlemanly thing to do would have been to get out a pocket hanky and read me a bedtime story. We never had sex of any kind."
RC: You and Charles?
McKenzie: Right. I recall him being interested in me, and I would say that he did not act in a gentlemanly way at all.
RC: Did that become a point of contention between the two men?
McKenzie: I don't know. I was sheltered from a lot.
Jane McKenzie wanted to add that she is "very happy now living in the real world with a real human being" leading this reporter to believe that her current sympathies do not lie with Ellison, either. The last thing she said was "Charles Platt is not a gentleman. I know that from many other episodes in New York too. He really doesn't have a leg to stand on there."
Gauntlet contacted Mr. Platt and apprised him of Ms. McKenzie's comments. "It's unfortunate," he said, "She's putting two different events together." Mr. Platt insisted that the event that McKenzie describes took place years later "when Ellison was already not speaking to me." He described it as a "five minute flirtation out of years!" and he placed the blame for that flirtation on Ms. McKenzie. "She was always a sexually flirtatious person," he said. He insists that there were "lots of men. . . and I was not among them," said Charles Platt. "Why did I miss the opportunity? I think because I chose not to. I think she was kind of offended actually."
That's not a very gentlemanly thing to say.
"Well, you're asking me questions!" Mr. Platt rationalized with a note of exasperation.
"That's her opinion," he said finally, "She's entitled to it."
Back at the flamewar Ellison roared at Platt, "You never carried your weight here at my home. What you did do is use my own car to take my ex-wife to meet her lover. You bragged about doing so doing in a recent interview."
"Your then-wife wanted to leave you," Platt said flatly, "She had no means of transportation, and no money for a taxi. Probably against my better judgment, I drove her where she wanted to go. She was in tears and asking for help. I felt sorry for her."
"That part is absolutely true," Charles Platt confirmed in an interview with Gauntlet. "She had no car. She was stranded. I drove her wherever she wanted to go. I don't even remember where that was . . . That evening he returned, and I told him and he sort of shrugged because he clearly had been expecting her to move out sometime soon . . . It didn't affect our friendship in the slightest at the time."
These are very personal waters we are wading in. Who can say what is an acceptable level of anger toward a friend whom you believe has betrayed you? He drove your wife away forever to be at the side of her new lover: I think that would strain any friendship. And if Platt believes that he was nothing but a gentleman with the girlfriend in the nightie; well, Ellison and the girlfriend in the nightie believe him to be a cad. We don't need to know any more about this. We need only know that these sordid events certainly informed the future behavior of both men. When actions become unreasonable, here lies the reason.
Around the same time Platt began publishing The Patchin Review, a small sci fi fanzine. For the first issue Platt suggested that Ellison answer the criticisms of writer John Shirley. Shirley, who had been a student of Ellison's at the Clarion Writer's Workshop and who had a story rejected by Ellison for The Last Dangerous Visions anthology, had made some disparaging remarks about the authenticity concerning the research for some of Ellison's early work. In a move eerily similar to Groth's action years later, Platt brought Shirley's comments to Ellison's attention and suggested a rebuttal in The Patchin Review. Ellison wrote the rebuttal but objected when Platt wanted to offer Shirley the opportunity to respond to Ellison in the same issue. Ellison objected because he felt that Shirley had the first volley in this exchange and that Shirley's rebuttal should run in a subsequent issue. The two men quarreled and Ellison threatened to pull his contribution. Platt backed off and printed John Shirley's reply in a subsequent issue, but the incident left a bad taste in his mouth.
That was the first and last time Ellison contributed to The Patchin Review and, according to reports, Platt frequently savaged Ellison in that publication and elsewhere for years afterward. He did so using his own name and that of his pseudonym "Gabby Snitch."
In 1984 Ellison arranged for a special presentation honoring the achievements of editor Larry Shaw who was then dying of cancer. Shaw had bought Ellison's first story and was much-beloved by the professional community and largely forgotten by the fans. Shaw was pretty far gone by that point and was brought to the World Science Fiction Convention in Anaheim, Ca. in a wheelchair with breathing tubes up his nose. He had no idea that he was scheduled to be honored and, in an unprecedented move, the awards ceremony was interrupted for the special presentation. Ellison and author Robert Silverberg participated in a Greek chorus-style dramatic tribute, heavy handed perhaps but heartfelt and sincere. When Shaw was presented with his special award he received a standing ovation.
In the November, 1984 issue of Science Fiction Chronicle, published and edited by Andrew Porter, Platt wrote a column as "Gabby Snitch" in which he excoriated Ellison and Silverberg for their parts in a surprise tribute at Anaheim. Platt wrote, "Silverberg and Ellison did an 'Obituary Preview' for the unlucky Shaw. E & S method acted a speech (mainly written by Ellison) with so much MELODRAMATIC HYPERBOLE some people thought it was a joke -- till Ellison grimaced and wiped his forehead to signify the emotional trauma. Then poor Mr. Shaw accepted his BRASS PLAQUE and croaked, 'I bought this fella's first story, and I hope to be around to buy his last!' Too late, Larry -- as I understand it, Harlan wrote his last story sometime during 1981."
It should be noted that bad blood also exists between the Science Fiction Chronicle's Andrew Porter and Ellison. Ellison contributed to Science Fiction Chronicle until 1978 when Porter published an allegedly unauthorized edition of Ellison's early work. Shortly thereafter Science Fiction Chronicle began publishing occasional negative items concerning Ellison. Some years afterward Ellison called Porter concerning one of these items and threatened to fly to the east coast and settle this matter mano-a-mano. Presently, a mutual friend interceded, and Porter and Ellison agreed to refrain from writing or speaking about each other publicly or privately. According to reports Porter told Ellison he would not write about him again "until I publish your obituary."
In 1990 the "Ask Uncle Harlan" Q&A column in the magazine Short Form received a postcard that asked the following qualified question:
"I suspect you have chosen a question-and-answer format for your column in Short Form because
"1. It saves you from having to think up your own ideas.
"2. You can waste space making jibes at your questioners instead of having to find constructive things to say.
"3. In short, it's the easy, lazy way out.
"My question is: Am I right?"
The postcard was signed "Andrew Porter."
Ellison responded to the insult in kind, in detail, in vivid description, at length. The only problem was that Andrew Porter claimed not to have written the postcard. An apology was demanded and apparently promised. The "Ask Uncle Harlan" columns in aggregate were set to be reprinted elsewhere and the apology was promised with the reprint. When the series reprint fell through, so did the apology. Andrew Porter is still waiting for his apology. Ellison should have apologized elsewhere. That being said and Porter's denial notwithstanding, it still smelled like a setup.
But back in 1984, Andrew Porter published the tasteless column by Charles Platt which reviled and berated Ellison and Silverberg for their tribute to Larry Shaw. Noreen Shaw, the wife of Shaw and one of Harlan Ellison's oldest friends, saw Platt's "Gabby Snitch" column in Science Fiction Chronicle and called Ellison in tears. She would keep the item away from Shaw who was sinking fast, and Ellison would brood on Platt's comments against his better judgment.
Larry Shaw died on April 1, 1985 and the Nebula Awards were to be given out a month later in New York. The Nebula, sponsored by the Science Fiction Writers Association of America, is one of the two major awards given in the field, and although Ellison was no longer a member of that organization he knew that Charles Platt was going to be at the festivities. Ellison flew to New York for the express and stated purpose of punching Charles Platt in the nose. Ellison sidled up to the bar at the Pennsylvania Hotel (some say The Warwick) and told several people, including writer Jerry Pournelle, that he was there "to punch the shit out of Charles Platt." Pournelle told Platt who was at a reception in an upper room at the hotel. Shortly thereafter, Ellison went upstairs as well.
What followed has been widely reported, variously recounted, the silly stuff of celebrity myth. Not quite the draw card that Vidal vs. Mailer was twenty years ago, but certainly this is a literary myth with legs. Just as certainly the notorious version that Ellison told at Comicfest was exaggerated in the extreme and played for laughs. Platt has told a few variations of the story himself, the common thread of which center around his Gandhi-like non-aggression. Platt maintains that he chose to sit passively on the floor in silent protest the moment after Ellison decked him. This sounds suspiciously like the fighting optimist who revealed that his strategy was to slam his face as many times as possible against his opponents fist.
Ellison approached Platt who was apparently just outside a doorway in the hospitality suite. Platt reportedly said, "You wouldn't dare hit me in front of all these people," at which point Ellison exclaimed, "This is for Larry Shaw, motherfucker, who's dead!" and got off one clean shot to the jaw.
Gauntlet tracked down a witness to The Main Event. Comic strip writer Bob Morales was in the catbird seat.
"I'd gone in to get a drink for some friends of mine," Morales recalled, "And I went in, got two screwdrivers, turned around and I just happened to be looking perfectly. I just happened to see Harlan's hand shoot up and punch Charles, you know. Harlan's left handed so he punched him on the right side of the jaw. Charles bounced back against the doorframe and kind of sank. And Harlan grabs him by the shirt collar and like lowers him down -- really gentle -- like haranguing him the whole time. I couldn't figure out what he was saying but he was giving him this long lecture. He just sits him down, Harlan stands up, brushes himself off and leaves Charles there. I was just totally stunned."
How far away were you?
"Fifteen, twenty feet. Something like that."
Both Ellison and Platt have agreed that Ellison continued to say his piece but Platt maintains "I can't remember the details." Ellison continues to maintain that he had Platt bump his head against the floor; Platt denies this -- sort of. Actually what Platt said, for the record, was highly qualified. "Ellison claims he got me to bump my head on the floor," he wrote in the Victims Of Ellison newsletter, "My head never touched the floor." Witnesses who have come forward cannot (or will not) clarify this point (At least one witness posted testimony in cyberspace to the effect that Ellison swung, Platt ducked, lost his balance and fell on a bed. Apparently the incident took place nowhere near a bed.) The VOE newsletter claims and names witnesses on Platt's behalf but does not quote them.
"I have no idea what they were saying," said Bob Morales. A moment after the incident someone tapped Morales on the shoulder and briefly took his attention. "By the time I got back, maybe three or four minutes later, Charles was there standing up outside the room at the end of the corridor, leaning up against the wall, just kind of, like, dazed. You know, if it was an animated cartoon Tweety Birds and stars would be spinning around his head.
"I felt kind of bad for him -You gotta pass the guy! -- I'm like looking; he's all dazed. I'm like, "Oh, hi Charles!' and he doesn't even see me. So . . . He was really kind of hurt."
He got hit a good shot?
"Well, yeah. He really got it."
Morales's eyewitness account is in direct contradiction with Platt's own account in the VOE newsletter. The only point the writers agree on is that Ellison is left handed. Under the heading "The Killer Punch" Platt recalled, "The knuckles of his left hand caught me on the side of my jaw. . . I stood staring at him. I felt like saying, 'Was that it?' His 'killer punch' was no more painful than the casual knocks that I experienced routinely when I do carpentry."
"I heard about what he wrote later," Mr. Morales countered, "and all I can say is that sometimes you can get hit so hard that you don't even feel it and you just kind of blank out. A blow to the head will really knock you for a loop. You don't register it.
"It was really bizarre. I also know several people who were looking who saw Charles lay there for awhile. Apparently Charles seems to remember bouncing back up or something and that's really not the case."
In the Victims of Ellison newsletter Platt wrote, "He looked as if he might try to hit me again, so I grabbed his wrist. We stood there for maybe twenty seconds, staring at each other. He was spouting some sort of macho invective; I can't remember the details. Finally, I decided to do what I originally planned to do. Slowly, still staring at him, I sat down and waited for him to let go of me."
"That's total bullshit," said Bob Morales. "I mean the thing is, I don't think Charles is necessarily lying. I think that's basically how Charles remembers it but that's not what happened, and I can see why he wouldn't want to go to Harlan to compare notes."
Platt did not sue although he undoubtedly could have. Platt's lawyers told him that it wasn't worth suing over because Ellison "wasn't famous enough" as if fame were a necessary element to motivate a lawsuit. Ellison's bank balance would seem more to the point and that is a figure that only God, Ellison and the IRS are privy to (but the odds are pretty good that the man is farting through silk). One suspects that the history preceding the punch and Platt's written words would not have augured favorably in a court of law.
After the incident Platt reportedly continued to publish his short swipes at Ellison with renewed vigor. Several years went by and Platt did not relent. Finally, he commissioned an essay by another Ellisonian antagonist, Greg Feeley.
Greg Feeley is a science fiction writer and reviewer of some note whose work regularly appears in the Washington Post's Book World and the prestigious English science fiction journal, Foundation.
According to sources close to Harlan Ellison, Feeley had approached Ellison more than ten years ago with an offer to help finish the editorial work on The Last Dangerous Visions. According to these reports, Ellison at first declined but Feeley was insistent and wanted to come out to the West Coast and stay with Ellison. Ellison, as is his wont, became less than tactful. By this time The Last Deadloss Visions had appeared in England (The Last Deadloss Visions is the title of the original privately-printed version of Christopher Priest's critical pamphlet The Book On The Edge of Forever) and it obviously inspired Feeley's next move. Feeley compiled a list of writers who had died while waiting for their work to appear in The Last Dangerous Visions. The list was printed in Thrust, a semi-professional nonfiction magazine covering sci fi. Ellison called Feeley and, in a fit of pique, threatened "to flatten" Feeley for his spiteful turnaround. Thus Feeley became an "enemy of Ellison", in good standing, long before there was ever a membership drive.
With such credentials to Feeley's credit, Platt "commissioned" Feeley to write another essay, this time compiling the list of books that Ellison had claimed to have been writing that have never appeared. Platt planned to print this essay when Ellison threatened to sue.
Platt wrote to Ellison and suggested a truce, and he defined the terms of that truce in his letter. Ellison may have expanded on those terms (According to Platt, it was Ellison's idea to limit Ellison's future comments but when asked to produce his original draft Platt said that he had long ago "thrown it away"). The letter, dated April 19, 1988, is unmistakably Ellison's and in it Ellison offers an apology for hitting Platt apropos "your published remarks about the late Larry T. Shaw." He promises not to hit him again and he promises not to sue for unnamed grievances. Ellison states that "if your reticence in private and in public and in print about me is maintained . . . I will punctiliously refrain from making any comments of any kind about you."
Platt maintains that Ellison's words at Comicfest were a violation of the terms of this agreement. Actually, Platt maintains that Ellison had resurrected this story and had repeated it several times before Comicfest and claims to have acquired a tape and transcript of another such event. It is worth noting that the Statute of Limitations on the infamous punch ran out right around the time that Ellison started publicly speaking about Charles Platt.
Also, it seems germane that Gauntlet found a witness that claims that Charles Platt discussed Ellison in the negative, at length and in private in November, 1988, seven months after the agreement was struck.
Roberta Lannes lived with Charles Platt during this period, and she recalls this November episode specifically because she was irritated that science fiction critic Sheldon Teitelbaum knocked off a bottle of her best scotch during the discussion. Ms. Lannes said that Platt had "No less than three conversations" concerning Ellison "at parties" during the fourteen months that she lived with Charles Platt.
Nonetheless, Ellison's words at Comicfest are sufficient to make Platt's point. In response to a question, Ellison gave a vivid and obviously excessive version of events with lots of testosterone in the telling which The Comics Journal reported with equally obvious relish. "'I hit him so fuckin' hard I didn't hit at him.'"
The Journal reported Ellison said. "'I hit through him. I hit behind that motherfucker. . .'"
The Journal stated that "Ellison alleged that he told Platt, 'If you don't do exactly as I tell you, I'm going to put every fucking tooth in your mouth back into your head, embedded in the back of your skull. Do you understand? Bump your head against the floor.'
"According to Ellison, Platt bumped his head on the floor 'for a while.'" The Comics Journal reported.
The Journal used quotations selectively, as all journalism must, but a complete review of the Comicfest appearance shows that substantial quotes which would have put Mr. Ellison's words in context were omitted. What The Journal did not report included Ellison's comments prior to telling the "Platt story": "If you are a member of any sexual, religious or cultural group, and you feel you have not been properly insulted, please raise your hand and I'll get to you as best I can!"
Many such comments were made to show the excessive posture of a comedian and many such comments were ignored by Reynolds.
To its credit, The Comics Journal did report the stated reason Ellison had flown 3000 miles to tag Platt on the jaw. And printed Platt's slam on Larry Shaw's World Con tribute in its entirety.
In preparation for his article on Ellison's comments at Comicfest Eric Reynolds contacted Charles Platt and informed him of Ellison's statements in Philadelphia. "The thing that stands out about that story the most is the anecdote about Charles Platt . . ." Reynolds recalled. "(Platt had) a significantly different version of events."
Gary Groth recalled for Gauntlet the first time he spoke with Platt in seven
RC: So you barely knew him?
Groth: Yeah, I can't say that I knew him well. We were sort of acquaintances. I suppose most of what we have in common is a mutual distrust of Harlan Ellison . . . After Eric contacted him I guess Platt just asked to talk to me and got back in touch.
Gauntlet asked Reynolds if Platt expressed to him an interest in speaking with Groth.
"Not that I can recall." said the journalist. "I know that they did subsequently talk after the article. I don't remember that they spoke during the course of the writing because the whole Victims Of Ellison thing, if I remember correctly, that came about sort of as a result of the article."
Platt told Reynolds of the 1988 no aggression agreement between Platt and Ellison, and The Journal article demonstrated high dudgeon at Platt's assertion of Ellison's alleged breach of the letter of apology from Ellison to Platt. Gauntlet asked Platt specifically if being informed of Ellison's comments at Comicfest by The Comics Journal was directly responsible for the formation of Enemies of Ellison. I reminded Platt that The Journal reported "Platt claims that Ellison's comments at Comicfest were in violation of the agreement, but did not specify how he would address the situation."
"A month later," I said, implying the connection, "there was the creation of Enemies of Ellison."
"Oh, absolutely!" said Platt. "I never made any secret of the fact that this was my (response). I don't like using the law. It's slow and stupid and expensive . . . I made no secret that it was a response.
"(Ellison) had definitely told that anecdote about me -- which I considered probably slanderous -- He definitely told it three times during that year -- 1993 -- and probably more often. Reports kept filtering in to me and I just kept ignoring them. And finally Gary Groth gave me sort of the hardest evidence yet which was the transcript and I thought 'All right. This is enough.'"
Remember this point: Enemies of Ellison would not have come into existence had not Gary Groth provided Charles Platt with a transcript of Ellison's comment. According to Platt, the transcript did not come from the reporter from The Comics Journal. According to Eric Reynolds, he read Platt quotes over the phone. Gary Groth provided Charles Platt with the transcript.
Charles Platt founded Enemies of Ellison in late November, 1993. An earlier incarnation of the idea was the Ellison Information Library which Platt announced in the December, 1993 issue of Ansible, a British SF and fantasy newsletter. This was to be an on-line "clearing house for anyone who has a story to tell about Mr. Ellison." In Ansible, Platt gave a brief subjective history of his quarrel with Ellison. "As of 1988 I stopped making any references to Harlan Ellison," he claimed. "Finally, in November, I received a call from The Comics Journal which plans to print verbatim, a speech which Ellison gave at a large comics event." According to Platt, Ellison's Comicfest appearance was the straw which broke the camels back.
Needless to say, The Comics Journal never printed a "verbatim" text of Ellison's appearance at Comicfest. The appearance was over two hours long and, although the substance of The Journal's report would have been more accurate with a complete transcript, it would have been nearly impossible to have run the entire text. Charles Platt was either mistaken or misled.
The Ellison Information Library never materialized but shortly afterward, its invention gave way to the new and Improved Enemies of Ellison, the flyers for which were first circulated in early December, 1993. The EOE was, from its inception, a paper tiger hobbled by anonymity and hampered by a $14.00 price tag; and one of the first persons Platt called was Gary Groth. Platt sent an announcement over the faxlines but once again, ala "Gabby Snitch", neglected to sign his name to this mean-spirited little venture. Thus he founded EOE with the same squalid reflex that caused him to dance unnamed and nasty on Larry Shaw's undug grave. This time, however, the man who had surely hammered the nerve and made Platt's pissy little reflex kick at all was Gary Groth. Groth poked at Platt like a ten year old. In schoolyard parlance it goes like this: "He said, 'Your Mother!' Whutchya gonna do, huh?!! Ya gotta do sumptin'!!" And Platt, looking ever so much like the bully's little sidekick, took a sucker punch at Ellison's reputation.
It is interesting to note that many of Ellison's friends in addition to his so-called enemies also received the importunate fax. This leads to the inescapable conclusion that it was meant to generate a negative emotional response as well as positive support. Remember, this flyer was sent before the December 1993 edition of The Comics Journal hit the stands with its "Ellison Attacks Enemies . . . " report so many people who received the flyer were puzzled. Unsigned, lacking context, it seemed to have no purpose other than to annoy Harlan Ellison.
Enemies of Ellison began a flamewar on the Internet as soon as it was announced. Cyberspace was rife with "Ellison sycophants" and "Platt apologists". No mere fan babble, the participants were science fiction professionals, friends of both Ellison and Platt; champions for Ellison included in their number Babylon 5 creator and producer Joe Straczynski, and Platt's defenders counted among their own the aforementioned writer and critic Greg Feeley. There were guest appearances by Charles Platt and, on three occasions, Harlan Ellison. A very literate and emotional exchange, this; it lasted for months and took up thousands of kilobytes before it flamed out.
On December 22, 1993 Greg Feeley opened Category 45, Topic 17 on the GEnie computer net. The subject was "Ellison vs. Platt" and Feeley began by downloading the text of "My Love Affair With Harlan Ellison" by Charles Platt, a long essay espousing Platt's view. The category proved popular. On January 1, 1994 at 9:02 am EST Greg Feeley posted a comment stating that he had recently met with Charles Platt in New York. Not being on the net at that time, Platt asked what was going on in the Ellison topic these days? (The Ellison topic is an ongoing Internet discussion concerning the work of Harlan Ellison). Feeley told him that there was some controversy about whether Ellison would publicly apologize to Poul Anderson for an allegedly crude remark Ellison made at the World Fantasy Convention. (Briefly, the remark was misrepresented and no apology was needed. Poul Anderson would be the first to agree.) According to Feeley, the conversation turned around to apologies that Ellison owes extant and a controversy regarding the "Ask Uncle Harlan" column in Short Form was recalled. Readers were asked to send in post cards with questions. Feeley reported that Platt had said, "Ah, yes, I remember. I sent one in myself." Finally the imbroglio involving the forged post card from an Andrew Porter impostor was mentioned.
"'Oh, I wrote that one.' said Charles mildly."
Later on, after Platt was forced to crawl into the light and put his name to Enemies of Ellison, Platt made heavy weather of the fact that "Ellison solemnly promised never to mention my name in public, ever again . . . This was a written promise . . . My part of the bargain, back in 1988, was to refrain from writing or publishing anything that might upset Harlan Ellison's sensibilities. For more than five years, I kept my promise. In fact, I pretty much forgot about him. . . "
Apparently Mr. Platt did not forget entirely about Mr. Ellison, and equally apparent is that perhaps Harlan Ellison was not the first person to violate the terms of their agreement (factor in Roberta Lannes testimony concerning private conversations and this becomes a certainty. The agreement specifically forbids both public and private comments.).
The writer Bill Warren apprised Ellison of Feeley's posting within hours of its New Years Day appearance. Warren reported, "(Ellison's) reaction was mild." Andrew Porter jumped on the Internet, also within hours, and said that he was "stunned" and offered his own pet theory that the forged postcard was sent by a disgruntled subscriber to Science Fiction Chronicle (although why he should doubt, at that moment, Feeley's account of Platt's confession is a puzzle). Porter claimed that Ellison called him on that very day but that he refused to take the call. "I will entertain faxes and letters from Mr. Ellison," Porter wrote. "but not phone calls. They are too traumatic . . . " Porter signed off but came back online two hours later to report that Charles Platt was in a state of denial. "He says that he did say it but denies actually writing the postcard. Said he told that to Greg to stir things up. . ."
Greg Feeley came home from a New Year's Day party to find a "vexed" phone call and an e-mail message from Charles Platt. Scrambling for spin control, Platt insisted that his reply be posted on the Internet as soon as possible "for those who care." Platt said Feeley recalled the phony postcard and "Feeley then looked at me expectantly.
"'Sure,' I said, straight-faced. 'I did that. In fact, I did it in collaboration with Andrew Porter himself. At least, I think I did. I have trouble remembering these things . . .' I'm somewhat annoyed that Gregory should have taken this tongue-in-cheek remark intended for a couple of friends and spewed it all over the net . . . I did not, incidentally, suggest that I'd written that postcard in order to stir up more trouble . . . Rather than question my motives for saying something to a couple of friends, we might question Feeley's motives for publishing it. As I have pointed out to Andrew, a forged postcard isn't my style. I've always written under my own name, or pseudonyms that are an open secret (e.g. Gabby Snitch). I'm not modest enough to use a pseudonym (unless a publisher insists on it and pays for it). . ."
It is interesting to note that sources close to Harlan Ellison contend that Platt has sent a number of letters and postcards to the Ellison household since this brouhaha began. Some signed, some otherwise. And, as mentioned, Charles Platt currently makes his living (no doubt at his publisher's request) as Charlotte Prentiss. Far from an open secret, Gauntlet had a great deal of trouble confirming Platt's current professional pseudonym, and Mr. Platt tried to dissuade this reporter from printing that pen name.
Feeley followed Platt immediately on the net and said that although he "would quibble with one or two of Charles's details" . . . "I am sorry if Charles feels that his admission (or jape) was made in confidence."
Gauntlet broached the subject of the so-called "Porter postcard" with Charles Platt.
"I have no information on the Porter postcard," Platt was quick to reply.
Did you write the postcard Mr. Platt?
A full five seconds of silence followed and then Charles Platt said, "Does anyone care?"
He tried to play down any significance. "This is on the level, assuming that Andy didn't write it -- I mean I don't know whether he did or he didn't -- but if he didn't write it, it's sort of on the level of a college prank."
Three months before there was any talk of suppression in The Comics Journal, Peter David, "writer of stuff", featured EOE as the subject of his regular column, "But I Digress", in the January 15 edition of the Comics Buyer's Guide. The Comics Buyer's Guide is another of those two or three essential industry newssheets covering the comics industry and is a rival of The Comics Journal. David unequivocally stated his friendship with Ellison and properly categorized the anonymous organization as "amazing in its presumption, amazing in its arrogance and, most important, amazing in its cowardice."
"They were sending around flyers and that sort of thing that were done anonymously. There were no names attached to it." Peter David told Gauntlet. "They were hiding, you know, under rocks or in shadows, that sort of thing, and that infuriated me, that absolutely infuriated me. In any event I wrote an article about this and just kind of tore them to itsy-bitsy pieces. I didn't name names because they didn't name names. Although I was reasonably sure that Groth was one of them."
Platt contends that EOE grew from something small.
"You mean like a fungus." David chides, "I basically put them between a rock and a hard place because I did a couple of things: #1) I tore into the concept that they were anonymous and #2) -- and this I absolutely love -- that people were invited to join Enemies of Ellison and that for $10 or $15 bucks or something like that they could then send in anecdotes about all kinds of horrible things that Harlan had allegedly done to them which the Enemies of Ellison were then going to collect into a slam-book and sell which members could then purchase at a princely discount of like 20% or 30%, something like that. This gets major points for chutzpah! What an organization! You can pay them money to give them material for a book that they will then sell to you at a nominal discount! What princes! What really swell guys! . . . Subsequently they were forced to go public."
David went on to announce the foundation of a counter organization called FOE (Friends of Ellison). FOE would exist, said David, "for the purpose of disseminating stories about kindnesses that Harlan Ellison has displayed."
"When I turned around and did Friends of Ellison," David recalls, "I made it completely free. You got a button which didn't cost anything. There was absolutely no charge for it, and I laid out a little bit of money for that."
David's column caused a sea change in the less-than-hallowed halls of EOE. "Enemies of Ellison had a nice ring," said the revised newsletter dated January, 1994, "but unfortunately a few perverse persons decided to ignore our explanation that we are mere victims whom Mr. Ellison has chosen to classify as his enemies. This is a cheerful, feel-good support group . . . Consequently, a name change was necessary."
The organization redubbed itself Victims of Ellison (VOE) and, having learned from their mistake, this time the principals decided to reveal themselves:
"Principal personnel are Charles Platt (Managing Victim), Gary Groth (Senior Victim), Andrew Porter (Associate Victim) and Gregory Feeley (Consulting Victim)".
"Not only in their subsequent flyers did they start announcing their membership but they also immediately recanted and said you can join for free" David said with an unmistakable satisfaction.
The Victims of Ellison Newsletter #1 January 1994; $2.00) is a twenty three page computer generated zine which shows some industry, some creativity and a fannish nerdishness which could only have sprung up from the science fiction or comics community. It would be unfair to give Mr. Ellison the benefit of the doubt apropos his comments at Comicfest without extending the same courtesy to Mr. Platt. It seems as if he is trying to be witty and cut the rank air of his endeavor with a humorous note. I have to admit that a smile did tug at my lips from time to time as I read the pamphlet, but Mr. Platt's kneejerk reactions cannot help but accent the word 'jerk' and ultimately, to paraphrase my second grade schoolteacher, "We are not laughing with you, Mr. Platt, We are laughing at you."
The VOE Newsletter includes an announcement that Fantagraphics will be putting out a perfectbound edition of The Last Deadloss Visions, free membership for qualified victims and a qualified price for those less fortunate ($9.00). It promises that the next issue will feature the "experiences of John Shirley" which Platt should certainly be in a position to relate, and VOE "will investigate the probable victimization of Sheldon Teitelbaum" (The probabilities of which we shall investigate in a moment). Platt counters a few pro-Ellison letters (discounting the correspondent's concerns about Ellison's health in the process) and, for the most part, the newsletter is made up of an abridged version of Platt's "My Love Affair With Harlan Ellison" retitled "The Pugilistic Prima-Donna." Platt illustrates his essay with reproductions of Ellison's 1988 letter of agreement to Platt and reprints verbatim that portion of Ellison's appearance at Comicfest relating to Charles Platt (The latter being, of course, more than The Comics Journal was willing to do). Platt acknowledgments included "Thanks to Gary Groth for providing a transcript."
In a postscript, Platt recalled a recent conversation with an unnamed journalist who had contacted him concerning FOE. "The journalist also asked if it was true that during one of my visits to Ellison's home, I had had an affair with a woman who was living with him at the time," Platt wrote. "Does he truly believe I cuckolded him? Then let him come right out and say so. Let's see his evidence."
Platt's indignation is certainly in evidence. He spends a half-page being incredulous at the very suggestion that he has ever acted in any way other than that of a born gentleman. The reporter in question was Clifford Meth, and he was working on an article at the time for Wizard, a mainstream comics magazine. Meth interviewed Ellison, Groth and Platt, and what he said to Platt was, "This has nothing to do with a woman?"
Platt said, "No."
"No truth to that rumor?"
Platt said that he didn't know what rumor the reporter was talking about.
Meth said that he had heard a rumor that came from a time when Platt was staying at Ellison's home. "There had been some exchange of words between you and the woman and that you, uh . . . To the effect of you coming on to her and this infuriated (Ellison)."
"Interesting," said Platt.
The two men continued to speak about the incident that sparked the story but at no time did Meth suggest that Platt had cuckolded Ellison. But by the time Platt translated this conversation onto the pages of the VOE Newsletter it had grown into yet another unfounded Ellisonian accusation demanding a show of proof.
Meth also asked Platt if Groth had a plant at Comicfest to ask provocative questions and Platt says he didn't know. Platt tackled a related question at the close of the VOE Newsletter: "But let's suppose someone did actually ask him to talk about me," Platt offers, "Is it really so hard for him to say, 'I don't talk about Charles Platt because I promised not to'? Maybe he should practice that line in front of the mirror a few times, till he has it right."
Three months before there was any talk of suppression, The Comics Journal ran another piece in its January, 1994 issue; this time an editorial by Gary Groth and this time the subject was the celebrated Ellisonista, Peter David.
According to Gary Groth, The Comics Journal received a letter in November, 1993 apparently from Peter David in which David tore into The Journal's inflated coverage of another bit of industry scuttlebutt. Essentially, a dissatisfied employee, Journal managing editor Carol Sobocinski, anticipating the day she would leave Fantagraphics, may have engaged in a series of betrayals and mischiefs. Groth and his magazine preferred to categorize these "mischiefs" as newsworthy acts of industrial espionage, but few people who read the five page investigative piece in The Journal's Newswatch section agreed. Celebrated comic book author Neil Gaiman once observed that "The Comics Journal sometimes employs competent journalists and editors and sometimes doesn't (also sometimes is an excellent source of news), and sometimes spends far too many thousands of words doing an overkill piece on a disgruntled Fantagraphics employee's departure, combined with someone sending The Comics Journal a rubber penis -- type articles."
The Journal's coverage of Sobocinski's alleged intrigues featured reportage of yet another forged letter to Groth purporting, among other things, to have documented the actual size of Mr. Groth's penis. (Since this sarcastic "documentation" casts a rather diminutive light on the penis in question, one may assume that Mr. Groth did not send that letter to himself.)
Accurate in spirit if not in detail, "The Letter From Peter David" also gave voice to the growing perception of The Comics Journal's biased over-amplified reporting (although The Letter also contained personal invective referring to Groth's reputation as a misogynist). Groth ran The Letter and "a more extensive rebuttal" in an editorial called "Peter's (Lack of) Principle."
Groth's editorial sought to diminish David's letter by logical argumentation (a subtle reference to David's tactics during the much publicized debate between David and Image Comics founder, Todd McFarlane). Groth sought to lambaste not only David's alleged opinion regarding The Journal's coverage of the Carol Sobocinski affair but also David's career choices and direction: "The Peter Davids of the world are a dying breed," Groth wrote. "Mainstream hacks who despise The Journal and must contrive any reason, however outlandish, to discredit it. This sort of no-nothing busybody has, in recent years, been relegated to the computer networks where he is able to indulge his paranoid gossip-mongering with like-minded ignoramuses."
Groth concluded that "Over the years, such professionals have been whining and complaining about (and occasionally suing) The Journal over all kinds of alleged moral transgressions (most of which boil down to a personal animosity toward our elitist editorial point of view)."
Ellison did not escape Groth's wrath in this editorial (which ostensibly had nothing to do with Ellison). Speaking of his own enemies, Groth wrote, "Some coward operating under the name Vastator (widely rumored to be the well-known sociopath, Harlan Ellison) took an ad out in the June 1, 1990 Comics Buyer's Guide requesting dirt on me, The Journal, et al., for an alleged 'work of investigative journalism commissioned by a national magazine.'" Groth reported that "nothing came of it -- in a national magazine or anywhere else."
The Letter which spurred Groth's editorial was not written by Peter David, was indeed a forgery. Peter David told The Comics Journal that the now infamous letter was a forgery, and David told Gauntlet that he was far from satisfied with Groth's response to that information.
"The first news I had about this letter was somebody on a computer net -- the type of people who Groth is very quick to call morons, and idiots and fools -- sent me a note that said, 'Was this lame-ass letter in The Comics Journal really from you?!'" David notes with some amusement that, "Apparently the morons and fools of the computer net were able to spot very quickly what Groth was unable even to entertain the notion of: namely that this letter is not from me . . .
"I called up Comics Journal, absolutely livid. I shouted at some poor hapless woman on the phone, which I feel badly about to this day. Got Kim Thompson on the phone, tore him apart, which I did not feel badly about, pointed out the many, many aspects of this letter which virtually screamed that it was not legitimate, and they promised that they would run a retraction and you wonder what it is they're going to retract! 'Oh, sorry, Peter David is not a hack writer and all that stuff about people on the CompuServe? Well, that's not true either!' That's the difficulty in trying to issue a retraction to such a scattershot attack.
"If they had just run it in the letters column with a terse response that said, 'Well Peter David doesn't know what the hell he's talking about,' I would have been satisfied by the notion of 'Okay, they screwed up.' I would have accepted their retraction and that would have been that. It would have been over as far as I was concerned. But if they were going to use this letter to give Gary Groth -- the journalist who compared his ethical standards to those of The Washington Post -- if Groth is going to turn around and use this letter as a soapbox to trash every aspect of my career, every company, virtually that I've been associated with, then he has that much more of an obligation to make damn sure that all of his ducks are in a row! And the first order of business is to pick up the phone and say, 'Peter David? This is Fantagraphics. We received a letter from you and we want to verify it.' That, to my mind, is the most minimal -- Minimal! -- journalist practice that should be adhered to and they didn't even do that.
"What subsequently happened is that they sent me a fax of the original letter, which by the way was dated on a day when I was out of the country in Rumania, which I wrote about in my column. So if they bothered to check that they would have seen that it was specious. And what was very curious was that in order to prove that they had no reason to doubt the letter's legitimacy they sent me a fax of their Rolodex card for me that had my address on it to indicate, 'See! See! Even the address was correct! We had no reason to doubt it!'
"Curiously enough, there was a typo in the town that I live in on the Rolodex card. And, lo and behold, there was a typo that was identical in the letter -- meaning absolutely, completely and indisputably that the Fantagraphics Rolodex was used to fabricate this letter!
"Now, that is incontrovertible!" David said.
"There are two possibilities: one is they have alleged that this woman who used to work for them (Sobocinski) stole their Rolodex, and therefore they naturally contend that (the forged letter) must have come from her and she must have used the Rolodex to fake it.
"The other possibility is that they at Fantagraphics fabricated the letter -- either Groth or someone who works for him -- and they used it as an excuse to tee off on me and make me look like a fool.
"The thing is, I don't care!" David's voice rose in anger.
"Even if it did come from the outside, their lack of follow-up is absolutely inexcusable! I don't care if somebody did send him a fake letter. Even if somebody did; so there's an idiot out there. There's always going to be an idiot out there. This is pretty much a standard in our society. The obligation for people who profess to be journalists is to weed out the idiots and make sure that forums like Comics Journal are not victimized, so to speak, by people such as that."
The next issue of The Comics Journal featured an editorial retraction titled "Peter David Letter A Hoax." This editorial retraction was much shorter than the invective which gave it spawn, and, instead of having the by-line of Gary Groth, the retraction was signed "The Editors:" "The Journal received a letter in early November, 1993 . . ." the editorial began. "The forgery was an extremely clever one . . . giving it a verisimilitude that precluded any suspicion on our part . . . Although this may make our error in printing a falsified letter comprehensible, the fact remains, we fucked up." "The Editors" go on to apologize to David not once but twice ("one for printing the forged letter, and one for the response to it."). "The Editors" state that "the entire contents of that editorial should be considered fully retracted." The retraction goes on to strongly imply that Carol Sobocinski had both motive and method.
"I thought the damn apology bent over backwards," said Gary Groth. "We apologized on like two or three fronts."
Why was the retraction of Gary Groth's editorial signed by an anonymous qualification called 'Editors'?
"If you look over the last, say, two years," Groth estimates, "any apology or retraction that we've run, we've always signed it 'The Editors' despite the fact that it's someone's fault or several someone's fault.
"It was a group decision to run David's letter," Groth insists. "It was a group decision to, basically, assume it was from David. There were at least three people involved, and it's as simple as that."
I asked Groth if he thought he owed Peter David a personal apology.
"I thought (the retraction) was adequate," he said.
Peter David offered his own viewpoint, "The original letter itself was maybe five or six graphs long and his response took (the) better part of a page and a half and attacked not only me but everyone and everything that I've been associated with. It was kind of like The Comics Journal's equivalent of that moment in The Unforgiven when Clint Eastwood says, 'Any man takes a shot at me, I'll not only kill him, I'll kill his wife and his kids and burn his damn house down!' That's what it pretty much was like.
"In their retraction they even stated that they have been victimized by practical jokes in the past so they should have been even more on their guard. They did not pick up the phone and call me and ask if I had written this letter. They did not approach me at any time. Even if they had gotten it as a fake letter, people who are supposed to be journalists should have followed-up on it.
"He didn't want to take the chance that I hadn't sent it, and that's not how you operate."
Peter David is warmed up now and is filled with indignation. "The thing that I felt was wonderfully ironic is that in the very same issue they did a story about a comic book store in California that claimed that they had sold some large numbers of Wizard magazine, like 2500 copies, something like that . . . And in the article in Comics Journal, in which they made it clear that they believe that this is a false claim, they called that store over half a dozen times to try and get a verification of this."
David's ire and irony are self-evident. "I was somewhat appalled that they had the time to call this store in California over and over and over again for this article . . . but by the same token they did not have time to make one phone call to me that might possibly have repudiated an article that was intended to make me look bad."
RC:. You say "intended to make me look bad." What's the difference between covering that comic store and Peter David? Why would The Comics Journal want to make Peter David look bad?
David: Well, I was wondering about that and the only thing that I was
able to come up with, off the top of my head, was the timing of it all . . . This came out
within about a month and a half or so after the article in which I wrote about the Enemies
Peter David admits that he has no idea who sent The Letter and does not believe that the mystery will ever be solved. When the controversy began David was hard-pressed to remember if he had ever met Carol Sobocinski.
"You gotta understand, I meet lots of people," David explains.
"In point of fact, I did not know her at all . . . I did meet Carol Sobocinski. I met her at last year's Chicago Comicon. What I had been doing is trying to rack my brains and try to figure out if I had ever met her . . . I was trying to allow for the possibility that maybe I had encountered her somewhere so that if, all of a sudden, somebody pulls out a photograph of me standing next to Carol Sobocinski they could say, 'Ah, ah, See! See! He's a liar!', you know? She confirmed my hazy memory and she said, 'No, I've never met you.' She comes up to me at the Chicago Comicon and grabs my hand to shake it and she said, 'I'm Carol Sobocinski -- I didn't do it!'"
David responded to the entire matter in his "But I Digress" column in the Comics Buyer's Guide. "Quite possibly one of the nastiest columns I've ever written," he admitted.
"The way that I put it in my column was that either Gary Groth is a slovenly journalist or he's a con-artist. There's no upside here. There's no possible way to look at this fake letter thing and find any merit whatsoever in the way that he handled his response to it. He abrogated his responsibility as a journalist, and that is something you can't apologize for. And they even tried to explain why. They said that it was a clever forgery that was very much like my own writing style . . . We get this weasely editorial that's not even signed by him in which they try and rationalize or explain why they got fooled. And they tried to say it's because its such a clever forgery. What is this? Blackadder! Oh, it was so clever!
"The thing is their approach and their attitude has been (that) due to Peter David's vilification of us -- because, of course, they always have to be the victims! They cannot possibly be the perpetrators! They must be victimized at all times! -- Due to the vilification by me they will now never find out who sent the fake letter.
"My feeling is if Groth purports to be a journalist and this is an instance of slovenly journalism that I know about, how many instances of slovenly journalism are there that I don't know about?"
In his column David said the Groth was a "founding member" of Enemies of Ellison.
Left handed retractions notwithstanding, Gary Groth wrote a long letter to the Editor of the Comics Buyer's Guide taking David to task for having the temerity to have acted offended in his CBG column. The letter appeared -- "edited for length and language inappropriate for many of our readers" according to an editorial disclaimer -- six weeks after David's column. Groth's letter ran with another, much shorter letter from Charles Platt. Platt's letter ran slightly more than two column inches and requested a correction as "Gary Groth is not in fact a 'founding member' of Victims of Ellison" (Peter David did not oblige). Groth's letter (after being "edited for length") ran over forty three column inches! Eleven of those inches were spent denying that he was a founding member of Victims of Ellison. Groth spent eight inches denying David's strong (and accurate) implication that Groth's editorial concerning the death of Marvel Comics executive Carol Kalish exceeded the bounds of civilized behavior. And Groth spent the rest of this letter slamming at the indignation of the man to whom "The Editors" of The Comics Journal proffered not one but two apologies, the man whom they admitted deserved a full retraction. Groth's letter was followed by an attempt at editorial "perspective" from CBG, and CBG came down firmly in favor of its columnist. "A very large portion of your letter was cut for irrelevance," the editor said. "For example when you excoriated Harlan Ellison for criticizing dead people (in defense of your position about Carol Kalish), you overlooked one significant aspect: Harlan's criticism's were echoes of remarks he had made repeatedly about the same people when they were alive. It's not like, for instance, being a guest in someone's home and then, after the person has died, criticizing the person's friend's for the way they mourn. . ."
Another long letter from Groth appeared in the August 12, 1994 edition of the CBG taking issue with the statement, among others, that his previous letter was "cut for irrelevance." "In fact the portion you cut out was absolutely relevant to my argument" Groth asserted, "Your truncating it and thereby weakening my argument was, I believe, purposeful and had nothing whatsoever to do with its lack of relevance . . . Although I'm sure Peter David appreciates the editing of my letter and that Harlan Ellison is even more appreciative, it should come as no surprise to you that I would like to protest your careful, selective censorship of large portions of it." The editorial perspective following this letter recounts the CBG policy of editing letters and argues that all of the deletions fell within the parameters of these well established, well known guidelines. Gary Groth may not agree with CBG's policy of not printing the word "fuck" but he certainly knew that policy existed before he wrote that letter to its editor. Additionally his claims of "censorship" -- a serious word, not to be used lightly -- seem disingenuous. The forty three lines that the CBG did print were certainly filled with acid and addressed the ostensible subject -- Peter David's column. David could properly wonder if his involvement in FOE had anything to do with someone forging a letter in his name and sending it to Ellison's most infamous enemy; that Groth, in his reply in CBG, tried to haul into the conversation Ellison's alleged sins seems to be entirely off-point and looks pretty irrelevant to this reporter. And it is germane to point out that The Comics Journal has also, for years, edited letters for length if not for language. Of course, when Gary Groth does it he doesn't call it censorship.
Harlan Ellison wrote a letter to the CBG in response to Groth's latest tirade. It stands as one of the few public comments Harlan Ellison has made on these matters since the inception of VOE. It is, to say the least, Ellisonesque: "Emergency! National emergency! No, make that a worldwide top-priority emergency! Nay, a universal, trans-galactic, definitely Cosmotellurian, eye-popping doomsday-is-upon-us E-mer-gency! Gary Groth has been censored again!
"Oh no, dear God, no, not Gary Groth, not censored, not again!"
Ellison goes on to wonder if there has ever been "in the history of Western Civilization, anyone more censored than Gary Groth? Not even Galileo, who recanted, or Giordano Bruno, who didn't and was burned alive for his rectitude; not D.H. Lawrence, James Joyce, or Henry Miller; not Emile Zola or Margaret Sanger, not even the very icon of The Outcast Censored, John Peter Zenger (1697-1746), has been more muffled than Li'l Gary . . .
"The First Amendment -- treasured above all else by some of us, and misused as sourly as the Fifth by thugs, by some others of us -- does not guarantee the right of extortion. And it is nothing but extortion when one blabbery gas-bag threatens all and sundry with tantrum and lawsuits and vilification and yellow journalism, if he isn't permitted to rant and rave and stomp his widdle feet at whatever length he decides he needs to balm his aching soul.
"Freedom of speech means letting someone else talk once in a while.
"Yours in holy suppression,
As interesting a diversion as "The Peter David Letter" is, it is a diversion. During these months other, more ominous, events took place which moved this story to a darker place.
In the same issue in which The Comics Journal printed its full retraction concerning The Peter David Letter (February, 1994), The Journal also ran the following story in its Newswatch section: "Victims of Ellison Forms, L.A. Times Buries Story". The article, by the now ubiquitous Journal news editor Eric Reynolds, is a masterpiece of studied myopia. At no point does Reynolds, in the interests of full disclosure, report that Gary Groth is a member -- "founding" or otherwise -- of VOE. That's Gary Groth, the publisher of the magazine reporting the story and, not incidentally, the employer of the person writing the story. Groth is quoted in the story only in response to statements that Ellison allegedly said to The Journal when Reynolds reached the writer for comment. The article continues to report that an article for the Los Angeles Times on VOE by freelance reporter Sheldon Teitelbaum was "buried" after a letter from Ellison's lawyer was received alleging harassment. Teitelbaum admitted that he hadn't seen the letter from Ellison's lawyer.
The Journal Newswatch article from February, 1994 claimed that Ellison issued a statement to The Comics Journal, (a claim which Ellison has privately denied): The Journal reported Ellison saying, in part, that "I received an extortionary letter from Sheldon Teitelbaum and I immediately sent it to my attorney and let him take care of it." The Journal reported that Teitelbaum denied that there is anything "extortionary about the letter and welcomes Ellison to prove otherwise". Teitelbaum refused to provide a copy of his original letter claiming his professional relationship with the Los Angeles Times as a reason. "'If Harlan wants to issue the letter to The Journal, that's fine'" The Journal reported that Teitelbaum said, "'And you can judge for yourself whether I am an extortionist.'"
Gauntlet reviewed a copy of Teitelbaum's letter obtained from sources who prefer to remain anonymous. The letter, dated December 31, 1993, begins with an unmistakable flavor of sarcasm ("I am preparing a series of articles on your latest fan group, 'Victims of Ellison'" the writer admits. He goes on to say this "series" will be for the Los Angeles Times as well as for "several other front-ranking national and international publications now clamoring for the story." Teitelbaum offers that he is "required" to give Ellison an opportunity to respond to "this apparent backlash." Teitelbaum then bizarrely goes on to conclude that a phone interview or a letter would not be sufficient response "because of your unprovoked abuse in past letters and phone calls to me and my editors . . . Letters will be returned to you, calls refused, messages unheeded . . . I can only agree to a face-to-face interview." (Although The Journal did not see this letter, its substance was reported during an interview with Teitelbaum and The Journal unquestioningly reported Teitelbaum's reasoning and strongly implied that it makes sense. As a professional journalist I can imagine no circumstance where I would need to insist that an interview take place under Teitelbaum's conditions. Why would you not speak on the phone with a perspective interview? Because he might yell at you? Because he might hang up? In a face to face interview he might yell also. Or walk away. Or beat you up. How is Mr. Teitelbaum more secure by insisting on a face to face encounter? The idea, Mr. Teitelbaum, is to get them to speak with you, not to get them to speak with you under the most difficult conditions imaginable. It seems obvious that Teitelbaum was making an offer with conditions attached that the journalist knew would be unacceptable.) Teitelbaum presumes Ellison's various responses, rejects them out of hand and states that he is not a "cripple" nor does he have Charles Platt's equanimity. If this writer had received this letter as a request for an interview I would not only have sent it to my lawyer, as Ellison understandably did, but I would have made sure that a copy was on file with the local police department as well. Far from "courteous," Mr. Teitelbaum's letter to Mr. Ellison is unprofessional, awkward, tacitly threatening and ultimately spooky. If Teitelbaum had any real intention of interviewing Ellison, in my opinion, the word "extortionary" certainly applies.
Of course, there is obviously some history implied by Teitelbaum when he recalls "unprovoked abuse in past letters and phone calls." Details may be interesting but ultimately insignificant because it is Mr. Teitelbaum's professional approach as a journalist that is in question. He does not have the right to make a personal response out of a professional circumstance. On the other hand, he could probably get a job at The Comics Journal.
Ellison's lawyer, Steven Kramer, sent a letter to three editors at the Los Angeles Times. In this letter Kramer asks that each editor be aware of Teitelbaum's correspondence to Ellison which Kramer said, "is a patent attempt to improperly coerce a personal interview with Mr. Ellison. It further reveals a predisposition on Mr. Teitelbaum's part to publish a biased article. . . "
Kramer's letters to The Times editors informs the editors that Ellison "cannot recall any communications with Mr. Teitelbaum within the last several years. However he is aware of a small clique of people within the fantasy and science fiction community who are attempting to gain notoriety by attacking him . . . It is believed by Mr. Ellison," the attorney concludes, "that Sheldon Teitelbaum is either a member of this clique or seeks to grab onto its receding coattail." The lawyer's letter ends with the following paragraph: "By this letter, we do not request anything of you other than to abide by and give effect to the ethics and responsibilities of the Fourth Estate."
The Los Angeles Times elected not to run a story on Victims of Ellison -- by Sheldon Teitelbaum or by anyone else.
It is interesting to note that this article contains the first implication that Ellison had another writer's work suppressed. Journal editor Reynolds stops short of the accusation but frames the reportage in such a way as to make it clear that Ellison got the story "buried." In truth, it was Teitelbaum himself who dug this story's grave. It was Teitelbaum's insipid letter which pushed the story into that grave and Ellison and Steve Kramer merely kicked the dirt on top of it.
The Journal also reported that Teitelbaum was assigned to do "an unrelated story" by another magazine on the syndicated television series, Babylon 5, on which Ellison is a conceptual consultant. Because of both his friendship with Ellison as well as his presence on CompuServe, Babylon 5 producer J. Michael Straczynski had been familiar with the VOE controversy. When Ellison showed Teitelbaum's letter to Straczynski, the producer decided to ask the magazine to assign another writer. The Journal reported that Teitelbaum said, "Straczynski told them that I had a conflict of interest which is ridiculous because I've always been courteous to Ellison." The magazine felt the request was reasonable and complied.
Teitelbaum then fired off a letter to Straczynski complaining with wide-eyed innocence that the "opprobrium" is on Ellison's part. Straczynski did not buy it and says so in a letter back at Teitelbaum: "In your letter, you make it clear that you align yourself with the so-called Enemies of Ellison or whatever new name they are hiding behind, that you have a personal agenda, but that you nonetheless intend to write articles about that. From my perspective, that is an absolute and unquestionable conflict of interest, and a betrayal of the principles of decent, fair journalism." Straczynski concludes, "If you genuinely feel that your letter has been misrepresented, then I suppose that you would have no difficulty in letting (Teitelbaum's editor) see that letter, unaltered. If you would have some hesitation there, then you recognize the problem you deny in your note to me."
The Comics Journal's coverage of these two incidents in the same Newswatch article that announced the formation of VOE and (to a much lesser extent) the counter-formation of FOE betrays a preference of material. In a sidebar to this story The Journal ran Fantagraphics' announcement (that is to say that The Journal ran its own announcement) of its intention to republish the Christopher Priest pamphlet The Last Deadloss Visions in a new edition under the title The Book On The Edge of Forever. Elsewhere in this same issue there was a one-third page ad for the Victims of Ellison.
Around this time a bizarre facet to this jewel of a story flashed in the pages of Big Mouth #3, a comic book of cartoon strips by Pat Moriarity from Starhead Comix. A two page strip included in this issue titled "How Pat Moriarity Became Rich & Successful" was written by Gary Groth with pencils by Mr. Moriarity and inks by J R Williams. The cartoon shows Gary Groth, feet upon his desk, fingers clasped behind his head. "The most high minded comics publisher in the world" is thinking "Who should we fuck over today?" In the next panel he asks "Kim, who should we fuck over today?" And Kim suggests "Ed Brubaker!" Not good enough! Gary breaks out his convenient enemies list which prominently lists "Harlan Ellison" and "Peter David". Three others are listed also including Cerebus creator Dave Sim and Geraldo Rivera. The cartoon goes on for two pages doing a riff on Groth's bad boy reputation as he promises Moriarity untold riches if Pat will only sell out a friend for an exposé. It ends with the decision to fuck over Ed Brubaker who, not incidentally, I'm sure, is revealed at the end to have lettered the strip. It is a strange riff, not so much amusing as immanently bizarre. Not funny "Ha Ha" -- Funny "peculiar."
"I was playing off of the most misguided perception of my reputation," Groth said. "I was being somewhat self-deprecating.
"You know people think I sit around all day and think of who I can fuck over this week. I just put everybody on there with whom I've had public disagreements . . . There is this perception of me among a certain faction of the comics community, you know, and I confront it at conventions and at parties and so on. And people think I'm just this out of control slobbering maniac who spends most of his time writing vitriolic comments in The Comics Journal and deciding who will be put on the enemies list this week. And it's just a function of how our public sphere works. Reputations inevitably become caricature."
Do you think you encourage that reputation beyond your normal editorial functions?
"No, I don't think I do," said the publisher. His critics, he contends, "are mostly people who don't read what I write, who just get my reputation from this . . . vague buzz. So I really wish people would read what I write rather than accept the third or fourth or fifth generation perception of me."
Which brings us full circle. As reported long ago at the beginning of this article, the July, 1994 edition of The Comics Journal ran the following headline in its Newswatch section: "Ellison Attempts to Suppress Upcoming Book".
"The science-fiction writer Harlan Ellison is attempting to halt the publication of Christopher Priest's The Book On The Edge of Forever." wrote news editor Eric Reynolds.
"Basically, Gary handed over all of the lawyers' correspondence and said, 'Do a story about this,'" Reynolds told Gauntlet. "And on that story, you know, basically the angle from my point of view was: Ellison, by and large, has been a big First Amendment advocate throughout his career and I had read Book on the Edge of Forever . . . and, you know, honestly I thought that it was a pretty good book and I thought it's certainly interesting that he would be willing to halt its publication."
Gauntlet asked Gary Groth how he came to publish the Priest essay and Groth offered this account without a shred of hesitation.
According to Gary Groth, his staff writer contacted Charles Platt back in November and,
at that time, Platt asked to speak with Groth: "That, of course, got us talking about
Ellison because that's what the story was about." said the publisher. Groth knew that
Christopher Priest, the author of the pamphlet The Last Deadloss Visions, was also
Charles Platt's agent in England. "And I mentioned to him that I was still interested
in doing this book and Christopher wasn't interested and so Platt. .. put in a good word
for me and, you know, basically encouraged him to let me publish it. I got back in touch
with Priest and he was quite amenable to the proposition."
RC: What changed his mind now?
Groth: Umm . . . You know, I'm not entirely sure. In the late eighties when I talked to him he was simply skittish about having it published over here. You know, talking about threats from Ellison. He thought that everyone who knew Ellison in science fiction had probably already read it so he didn't see any reason to -- which I happen to disagree with -- but he was pretty adamant about not having it published and I really don't exactly know what changed his mind unless it was Platt.
"Yes, I put the two people in contact with each other," Platt recalled.
"They had been in contact but they hadn't liked each other. I said, 'Calm down. Be sensible.'
"Chris and I have been friends since 1964," Platt explained. He says that when he informed his long-time friend of Ellison's public comments at Comicfest, "Chris got sort of angry all over again . . . and he said, 'Maybe it's time to get this book published in the United States.' So I said, 'Well, I'm sure Gary Groth would like to publish it.' And he said, 'Oh, can't deal with him! Can't deal with him!' So I said, 'Look. I'll put you guys in touch with each other and then do whatever.'
"So yes," Mr. Platt summed up, "I was instrumental and, to that degree, if Ellison wants to see it as a conspiracy, I mean I can see his point of view."
Gary Groth was in fact not a founding member of EOE but he surely was midwife to the squealing little inbred bastard. Just as there would have been no Enemies of Ellison if Groth had not provided Platt with a transcript of Comicfest, so too there would have been no Book On The Edge of Forever from Fantagraphics had not Charles Platt intervened on Gary Groth's behalf.
The Fantagraphics solicitation for The Book On The Edge of Forever ran in the March, 1994 distributors catalogs. It promised a "literary autopsy," a "Swiftian account of 150 authors, all held hostage to the whims of a Napoleonic petty dictator of letters."
It is assumed that when Harlan Ellison read that solicitation he called Steve Kramer. It is assumed because shortly thereafter, on April 13, 1994 to be precise, Steve Kramer sent the following letter to Fantagraphics:
"We are attorneys for Harlan Ellison. According to facts presently available, you are preparing to publish, print, sell, distribute and/or otherwise disseminate a pamphlet entitled The Book On The Edge of Forever (a.k.a. The Last Deadloss Vision by Christopher Priest) which bears a cover drawing of our client.
"The aforesaid pamphlet contains material which our client finds offensive and incomplete. This material constitutes an invasion of his privacy and an overt effort to cast true facts in a false light. . ." The letter threatens legal action if the book is published and ends with a declaration that the publication rights relating to this or any other correspondence is retained.
According to Mr. Groth, "His lawyer sent letters to our printer and our distributors threatened to sue all of us if we published or printed or distributed (the Priest book)."
RC: What was your initial reaction to that?
Groth: Well, my initial reaction was to tell him to 'Fuck off!' I got in touch with my lawyer . . . and my lawyer knew Ellison and (heh heh) knew him well enough so that this tactic didn't surprise him. And my lawyer sent, you know, a reply to his lawyer's letter.
RC: The first one Ellison sent plus your reply.
Groth: Yeah, plus Ellison's lawyer's reply to our reply and that was the end of it . . .The end of the dialogue.
RC: And they never sued or anything like that?
Groth: No, they didn't And I knew they wouldn't. I spent the better part of a day talking to our printer and persuading them not to cow-tow.
RC: You never considered not publishing?
Groth: Oh, no. If our distributors simply refused to take it which I thought was a possibility -- The distributors are the weak link -- I would have published it anyway and sold it directly to retail stores. I mean, the book was going to be published no matter what.
RC: One way or the other, huh? How's the book doing?
Groth: The book is actually selling well. The book sold about fifteen hundred copies (in the initial offering). We printed 3500 copies. I mean -- and it's a real specialty book of course. I mean for a specialty book like that --
RC: Nice format.
Groth: It's beautifully designed.
RC: Yeah. It's a beautifully designed book.
Groth: Nice cover portrait.
RC: Yeah. Drew Friedman! (Ellison) objected particularly to the cover portrait.
Groth: Yeah. He claimed that we were printing his likeness (for commercial purposes) without his permission. Which of course we wouldn't do . . . I mean he actually invoked a law . . . that my lawyer said was basically intended to prevent likenesses to be used on beachballs.
RC: For commercial purposes as opposed to journalistic purposes . . .
Groth: Precisely. I mean it's a work of journalism and scholarship.
Long-time Fantagraphics counsel Kenneth Norwick responded two weeks after Kramer's initial letter: "I have practiced (indeed, specialized) in this area of law for over thirty years, and I am utterly unaware of any legal authority that could even arguably support such a claim . . . This will confirm that we not only consider this claim to be legally meritless but frivolous in the extreme . . .
"As I advised you over the telephone, and as you explicitly agreed, it will be impossible for my client and me to evaluate this claim without a detailed statement from you setting forth the specific passages in the publication that your client and you assert violate his legal rights . . . You agreed to provide such a statement to me.
"Finally, I will repeat here that my client has authorized me to advise you, and through you your client, that it is prepared to consider carefully including in the publication in question any germane response your client may wish to make . . . My client and I believe that -- as an alternative to threats of legal action such as those contained in your letter -- the publication of such a response from your client would be in the truest spirit of the First Amendment, of which your client has in the past been an outspoken champion."
This is ballbusting at the Graduate level -- the agenda is clear to anyone who knows the score -- This is a trap into which Ellison and his lawyer walked whistling. Both of them should have known better.
Was there ever any doubt that after a six month campaign to annoy Harlan Ellison -- two "Newswatch" articles (so far), a related editorial, a retraction to that editorial, mid-wiving VOE by poking at Platt and personally providing the transcript, membership in the Gang of Four which is all VOE really is, letter writing campaigns and a smug and adolescent comic strip; now -- his piece d'resistance -- The Book On The Edge of Forever written by Christopher Priest and published by Gary Groth -- Was there ever any doubt in Steve Kramer's mind or in Ellison's gut that sending this letter to Groth would only give him another "Newswatch" article? Now Groth can wave the First Amendment (with the appearance of some justification) in front of his nasty little campaign (which has no justification) to seek revenge in dribs and drabs from the soul of Harlan Ellison. If there were ever any doubts that this was a mug's game then those doubts should have been put to fitful sleep with the last lines in Norwick's letter:
"P.S. For your information, my client reserves the right to include your letter, this letter, and any further communications concerning the publication in question in that publication."
Kramer sent a reply but the game was over. By that point Groth had what he wanted which was a visceral reaction from Ellison in the person of his attorney. Now the focus was no longer the petty churlishness of Victims of Ellison nor even would the focus be the posturing over-reaching polemic that was about to become The Book on the Edge of Forever. By sending that lawyer letter -- It's only purpose to intimidate Groth -- Ellison moved the conversation from Groth's behavior, which has no defense, to Ellison's whose actions, in my opinion, can be understood (if not always excused).
Harlan Ellison was wrong to attempt to control the publication of The Book On The Edge of Forever. He was not wrong because he is a hypocrite who gives lip service to free expression only to muzzle it at the first signs of convenience. That is the spin that Gary Groth would like you to believe and it is a simplistic and inaccurate view that does not account for the facts. Let's say it again. Harlan Ellison was wrong to have his lawyer send that letter. No doubt, he acted viscerally to a situation few people were aware of. Groth had been using every advantage at his disposal (and as the editor of The Comics Journal and as the publisher of Fantagraphics he had much at his disposal) to annoy, cajole, incite and otherwise inflame Harlan Ellison. Gary Groth went gunning for Ellison and when Ellison sent that lawyer's letter he may as well have said, "Shoot me now! Shoot me now!" And Gary Groth, sort of a vicious Elmer Fudd, took aim and fired.
Purists, I'm sure, will disagree and I must acknowledge this is a tough call. We teach ourselves to intuitively rebel against any form of prior restraint and a letter threatening legal action against someone about to publish makes a good case for leveling a charge of prior restraint (We can't stop someone from printing a allegedly libelous statement; we can only sue after that statement is published). When we factor in the incessant activities that Groth engaged in, when we tally those activities in the aggregate, we begin to understand the temptation Ellison must have felt to do something -- anything! -- to make this stop, to make this go away. He should not have sent that letter, but I don't think we can charge him with attempted suppression. I don't think we can charge Charles Platt with attempted suppression (A digression which will be addressed momentarily). Purists are free to disagree. Purists like Gary Groth:
RC: Do you consider the lawyer letters and stuff like that attempts at suppression?
Groth: Oh, sure. It was an attempt at prior restraint which even the government can rarely do. They couldn't do it to the Pentagon Papers. And Ellison, of course, has vocally been opposed to such tactics throughout most of his career.
So has Gary Groth. A digression on the notion of suppression:
Gary Groth spoke with Wizard reporter Cliff Meth during a phone interview in the beginning of 1994. Meth properly identified himself and stated that the conversation was being recorded. Undoubtedly, Groth was on the record. However, when CBG editor Maggie Thompson sent Groth quotes for a copy check the maverick publisher and self-styled champion of the First Amendment sent his own letter to the editor. On February 16, Groth wrote, "In general, I think the bias evident in the portion of the news story you sent me is a bit ham-fisted and that the internal contradictions, at the very least, should be smoothed over . . . " Groth goes on to list six objections. The fifth of these emphasizes that Meth said he was working for Wizard and that "he never informed me that he was writing for CBG, and that he therefore misrepresented himself."
Objection number five must have particularly stuck in Mr. Groth's craw for he addressed it again on August 16, 1994 on the Internet tangential to a conversation about journalists quoting from the net: "You really have to take responsibility for what you say and write here," Groth opined. "That it could be taken out of context by a scurrilous journalist is part of the price you pay for being a part of a public forum. I have been mis-quoted, quoted out of context, and dicked over by journalists myself. (The most recent episode was a journalist who professed to be writing a story for Hero, but was in fact writing for both Hero and CBG, and whose CBG article . . . was so flawed that it hasn't run to this day three months after it was written. I was outraged and expressed same to CBG's editors. But, again, this is the price one pays for being a professional, being a public figure, or functioning in a public space."
The fact that Mr. Groth confuses Wizard with Hero should not be taken as anything more ominous than inattention to detail (which in a journalist is not so much ominous as sad).
"I listened to the interview," Maggie Thompson told Gauntlet, "and indeed he identified himself as the Wizard reporter but that's because he was writing the article for Wizard. And when he contacted us he was very frank that he had done it for Wizard, that Wizard could not take the full material and would we be interested in the full material and we said sure."
Ms. Thompson said she was aware of the computer posting in which Groth characterized Meth's piece as "so flawed that it hasn't run to this day."
"That is absolutely not true," she said. "Because of hesitations on the part of two of the people interviewed I have had to take an extreme amount of time to sit down, go over the tapes of what the interviews consisted of and comparing them with the written piece. I also have a follow-up contentious letter from one of the parties so I actually had to go over it, compare the contentious letter with the interview as I have it on tape. So it is more complicated than simply slapping something into print . . ."
Were those two parties Charles Platt and Gary Groth?
"Yes, they were," said Ms. Thompson.
How did they know that you were going to do a piece?
"I sent them their quoted portions in the interview for a copy check. It's something that I try to do on something that's going to be controversial."
The odds are very good that Clifford Meth's article will have appeared in the Comics Buyer's Guide before this issue of Gauntlet hits the stands. Ms. Thompson has just completed an in-depth interview with Ellison in connection with the debut of Ellison's new comic book, Harlan Ellison's Dream Corridor. Different portions of that interview will run in three magazines including the CBG.
"It is my deep hope that (Meth's article) will run as a sidebar discussing Victims of Ellison," Thompson said. "Clifford styles himself intriguingly as a victim. It puts a spin on it."
Now it should be said that this reporter does not mean to directly compare Mr. Groth's letter to the Comics Buyer's Guide with the lawyer's letter Ellison had sent to The Comics Journal. Mr. Groth cannily stops short of the threat of legal action ("I wouldn't do that and I didn't do that," Mr. Groth told Gauntlet. "It was a clumsy inept and immature hatchet job and I just pointed out the ineptitudes.") To make a more direct comparison we would have to go to the letter that Charles Platt sent to the Comics Buyers Guide after he received his copy check.
Platt wrote that Clifford Meth "has shown clear evidence of malice . . . omitting words and phrases that I spoke during the telephone interview." Elsewhere in the letter Platt warns that "I consider the necessary ingredients for libel to be present in this sleazy and incompetent piece of journalism."
Of course every reporter omits words and phrases from interviews, and it would be naive to assume otherwise (and remember, Mr. Platt is a professional writer). "Everybody obviously does that," Ms. Thompson agreed.
"There were errors of fact, and I reminded him that the first step in a libel action is to find an error of fact." Mr. Platt told Gauntlet.
Isn't that a legal threat, Mr. Platt?
"No. It depends. It was obviously written in such a way to get him to think about legal action. I mean clearly that's the intent. It doesn't say, 'I'm going to speak with my attorney.' It doesn't say, 'If you publish this I will sue you.' It doesn't say what I'm going to do.
"I don't sue people," said Charles Platt, "I just indicated that they were on shaky ground legally."
"It was silly on Platt's part. He's not going to sue." said Gary Groth. "It's not sueable and he wouldn't win. I think it was just bluster on his part."
I asked Mr. Groth if Charles Platt's letter to the CBG was comparable to Ellison's response to Fantagraphics concerning The Book On The Edge of Forever, "On one level it's similar to what Ellison did," he admits but then qualifies his response. "On another level I don't think Platt has won a First Amendment award from PEN, and I don't think he's gone on record as being a First Amendment advocate."
For the record, Mr. Platt told Gauntlet that he supports the First Amendment.
I told Mr. Groth that Maggie Thompson denied his Internet assertion that the Meth article was "so flawed that it hadn't run to this day."
"All I know is I sent a letter and the article was never printed. My guess is that Maggie Thompson got my letter and probably acknowledged grudgingly that they couldn't run the piece as is."
Do you think that that's a suppression of the press by way of legal intimidation?
"That would be cowardice on her part," opined the publisher.
Unless she found something wrong with the article.
"Well, sure," he concurred. "Then it would be prudence."
The Clifford Meth piece on the Victims of Ellison will not make it into print totally unscathed. Cautioning that she has yet to complete her review of the material Maggie Thompson said that, "My suspicion, at this point, is that I will, according to Platt's request, remove Platt's material . . . One of the reasons you give someone the right to do a copy check is so that you represent that person the way he wishes to be represented."
Ms. Thompson hastens to add that this decision does not reflect upon the overall quality of the piece. "I want to be fair to everyone concerned," she says, "I think the article is outstanding. I think Meth did a wonderful job."
At the moment, she has no plans to excise the material relating to Groth, and she does plan to quote Gary Groth's letter to the Comics Buyer's Guide.
End of digression. Back to The Inquisition.
Eric Reynold's Newswatch article "Ellison Attempts to Suppress Upcoming Book" (The Comics Journal #170, August 1994) is a short half-page piece which quotes from each of the three lawyer letters. It is a fairly straightforward and ultimately superficial version of events until the final paragraphs. In those paragraphs, while quoting Ellison's attorney's last letter in the dialogue, Reynolds quite properly reports Kramer's concerns about VOE: "I suggest you discuss your clients activities in regard to EOE and VOE and how they relate to this publication."
The reader is given background on EOE and VOE and the writer goes on to say that "Groth has been named 'senior victim' of the group but has denied any involvement with the group's founding, a claim Platt confirms."
What is missing from this report of course is Platt's involvement in the Fantagraphics publication of The Book on the Edge of Forever. That is, after all, the ostensible subject of this article.
We have previously established that Charles Platt made successful overtures to Christopher Priest on Fantagraphics' behalf. Without Charles Platt there would be no Fantagraphics edition of The Book on the Edge of Forever. This is a small but salient sin of omission, something that either Eric Reynolds didn't report or didn't know because his boss, Gary Groth, didn't tell him.
Gauntlet asked Reynolds if he was aware that Charles Platt mid-wived the publication of The Book On The Edge of Forever for Gary Groth.
"No, I can't say that I was. I can't say that I do know the exact trail that got The Book On The Edge of Forever published," admitted The Journal's Newswatch editor. "I know that once I did that story that somehow Platt and Groth had spoken, but it's certainly my understanding that Gary had no hand or input into exactly what Victims of Ellison was."
Presented with a encapsulation of connections among Charles Platt, Christopher Priest and Gary Groth, Reynolds replied, "I don't really know that."
Shouldn't you have asked? I mean you're writing about the publication of The Book on The Edge of Forever and Platt is involved in the story because you included EOE/VOE at the end of the article. Events that Groth called "Ellisonian activity" were in the air at that point. The publication of the book had something to do with these events. I think it's a sin of omission don't you?
"Umm . . . Boy that's a difficult question," Reynolds twisted a bit. "Well, all I can really say is I wasn't familiar with the exact turn of events that brought Forever to publication. I knew that it had been written years before, had been widely circulated throughout the science-fiction community. That's what I think Gary told me."
You never asked Gary Groth how he came to publish The Book on the Edge of Forever?
"I don't remember, to be honest." he said plainly. "I know it sounds incredibly illogical that I wouldn't have known that Platt was responsible for getting The Edge of Forever published. But I could maybe chalk it up to my own -- you know, just sort of -- naiveté as a young journalist that I didn't think to ask the question. Or maybe even that it occurred to me, that I didn't think to pursue it. I just don't remember."
Reynolds does remember that he wrote the news item, "under pretty serious deadline pressure . . . I have to write about a thirty page -- I mean basically I put this thing once a month, and I write the whole section myself, so -- "
I reminded Mr. Reynolds that doesn't excuse what we're talking about.
"It doesn't excuse what we're talking about," he agreed, "but errors happen."
In this reporter's opinion, the word "Suppress" in the articles title would have had less impact if Reynolds had reported Platt's involvement in the publication of the book. Opening that snakepit would certainly have raised additional questions in the reader's mind.
Gary Groth disagrees. "It's kind of a picayune point," he suggested. Groth feels that because Platt had not yet created EOE when Reynolds first contacted him, any discussion of EOE in regard to the publication of The Book On The Edge of Forever is specious.
"Platt is not VOE," he said, and "Platt didn't call up Chris as the founder of VOE, so VOE is completely irrelevant."
I told him that I felt there was not a full disclosure of how these events are connected.
"We disclosed how they related in that I'm the 'Senior Victim'," he insisted.
And that getting in touch with Platt led to you being able to publish The Book On The Edge of Forever.
"Right," said Groth. "Getting in touch with Platt. Not getting in touch with Victims of Ellison, which is separate. Platt contacted Priest before (he started EOE). That's significant. The organization didn't exist, and the organization isn't contacting Priest."
I thought to remind Mr. Groth that Platt had started an earlier incarnation of EOE, the Ellison Information Library which was announced in Ansible. Mr. Groth did not know what I was talking about. As I explained to Mr. Groth the genesis of events which led Mr. Groth to publish The Book On The Edge of Forever I realized that, in addition to painting known facts in a biased light, The Journal's predisposition toward that bias also engendered a highly selective viewpoint. This myopia, it seems to this reporter, kept Eric Reynolds and Gary Groth from inquiring too deeply into the root of the story.
"Platt's antipathy towards Ellison has been reported in The Journal." Groth reiterated. "I don't know what the reader would come away with, knowing that Platt intervened."
This reporter believes that readers should have been given the opportunity to decide the relevance of that fact for themselves. It seems to me that the Platt-Priest-Groth connection weakens the thesis that Ellison "suppressed" the publication. Apparently Ellison's lawyer thought so too. It was Steve Kramer who first suggested in his letter to Groth's attorney, Ken Norwick, that Norwick discuss with his client his involvement in VOE as it relates to the publication of The Book on the Edge of Forever. That fact alone makes the question of the relationship an obvious and legitimate direction of inquiry.
Mr. Groth, certainly these events are connected?
"Well, there's an implication of something nefarious there." He is indignant. "There isn't . . . And I guess my point is even if it occurred to us, which it didn't, it's probable we would have said, 'That's irrelevant.'
"Whether or not Platt telling Chris I was okay is decisive?" Groth wonders aloud. "I don't know."
(The reader will recall that earlier I had asked Groth why Priest changed his mind "He was pretty adamant about not having it published," Groth said, "and I really don't exactly know what changed his mind unless it was Platt.")
With no small irony, Fantagraphics scheduled The Book On The Edge of Forever to ship on the fourth of July but made arrangements to have a special shipment brought by July 1 to the 19th annual Chicago Comicon. The Guest of Honor that year was Harlan Ellison.
"We wanted to get it out in time for the Chicago Comic Convention." Fantagraphics vice president Kim Thompson told Gauntlet. Thompson denied that there was anything unusual or suspect in having the book specially shipped to Chicago in time for the convention.
Word that the Fantagraphics pamphlet was going to be debuted at a convention at which Ellison was guest of honor filtered to the producers of the Comicon. Comicon president Gary Colabuono recalled how he was made aware of that fact.
"I got a call from Bob Weinberg and Nancy Ford, my partners, and I guess . . . they had heard from two or three places that the book was going to be out there, and it was something to embarrass Harlan."
Did you inform Ellison as to what you intended to do about the situation?
"Yes, I did." said Colabuono, "I told him at dinner that I was never going to allow him to be embarrassed."
Did he approve of your decision?
"Harlan never said the words that I think Gary wanted him to say and that is, 'If you don't ban this book, I'm not showing up.' . . . But it was clear that he was going to be very upset (by the appearance of the book). Very, very upset."
So you took it upon yourself to stipulate that the book not be sold? It was your idea?
"There's no question about it," Colabuono is firm on this point. "My partners and I had made that decision early on . . . I look at this as good manners." he explained. "We had a situation where Harlan Ellison was asked to be our guest of honor, he graciously accepted, and it was our intention to make this a Harlan Ellison love-fest.
"I was very upset and angry when I heard that Fantagraphics wanted to release this book (at the Chicago Comicon) which was -- after looking at it after the fact -- a book that was basically an attack on him and his character. So I saw no reason for the book to be displayed there in an obvious attempt to embarrass our guest of honor. It was good manners to put this off to another time and another place."
And you apparently approached Kim Thompson with that provision?
"Yes, I did," said Colabuono.
Kim Thompson arrived in Chicago at the last minute and came to the Comicon on the morning of the convention. "I went in there to set up our table, and I looked at the map of the convention that indicates where everybody's table is. I went to where my table was, and it was occupied by someone else.
"I went back to the convention promoters and said someone is sitting in my space . . . Colabuono comes to me and says, 'Yeah, well, we have different tables for you, but before I take you there, there is something we have to discuss.' And the discussion turned out to be basically an intractable request that you may not display sell or give away the book. 'If you do not promise to do this, you will not get your table.'"
I asked Gary Colabuono if he considered what he did in Chicago to be suppression?
"No," he said slowly. "I want to say 'No' right off the bat . . . Because this book would have been out for sale at the Comicon any year (during) the first eighteen years, and it will probably be allowed to be out for sale in every year after 1994. It only became an issue because Harlan was our guest of honor. Had Harlan simply been a guest, I doubt whether we'd even had an issue there."
In fact, Colabuono determined that The Book on The Edge of Forever had been ordered by fourteen of twenty one Moondog/Dream Factory stores (Colabuono is the president of Moondog/Dream Factory.). "I did not call anyone and ask them not to put the book out in any of our stores," said Colabuono. "No. There was no suppression here. What it simply was was a three day event celebrating someone, and let's just not embarrass him. I think it would be akin to dismissing a heckler who would be obviously out of place . . . It just wouldn't be appropriate. That is how we looked at it. It was the wrong place at the wrong time."
Colabuono further claims that "The table mix-up really wasn't a mix-up. They had not paid in advance for their booth. There was nobody there on Friday morning and we had sold out (the table space), and we had people who were anxious to take that spot and as businessmen we said, 'Well, maybe they're not coming.' So we took it and we sold it to someone else which is our right".
Several times during our interview Colabuono reiterated his support for Fantagraphics and The Comics Journal. Colabuono is chagrined at the notion that he tried to make it difficult for Fantagraphics to display. "In this particular case I had gone out of my way to solicit (Fantagraphics sales manager) Larry Reid and to offer them a discount to come because of the importance, I think, that Fantagraphics has within the industry."
You went out of your way to invite Fantagraphics and gave them a discount?
"Here's the funny thing." Kim Thompson offered, "I was never quite sure whether we paid for that table or it was given to us. I think we got it basically at a good discount.
"What I did eventually was say, 'We don't want your table,' and then refused to pay for it." Thompson recalled. "At that point I had already realized that I was shuffled off to a bad table, and I was sort of stewing over that and was trying to decide what to do about it. Basically when Colabuono did that, that sort of sent me over the top, and I just sort of decided, 'Well, the hell with it. I don't want the table and I don't want the restraint. And then what did I do? . . . That evening I wrote a note to Colabuono saying basically, 'The deal is off. I'm returning the table and I now assume I'm free to go off and do what I want with the book.'
"One thing I did do all through the convention was I gave away copies . . ." Thompson admits. "You know, partly it was provocative. I just wanted to see if anyone would actually throw me out of the convention for just sort of giving it away, but no one bothered me at all."
Is Fantagraphics going back to Chicago next year?
"We have no plans to do so," said vice president and co-owner Kim Thompson.
It should be pointed out that Mr. Colabuono had not read the Christopher Priest pamphlet when he made the decision to remove it from the Comicon. Also, Mr. Colabuono and his partners had the legal right to restrict sale since this was sponsored by a private corporation, and just as one private enterprise (Fantagraphics) can decide to publish a piece of material so, too, can another private enterprise (the Chicago Comicon) decide not to display or sell it. These decisions are made frequently at conventions with regard to the display of adult comic materials. It is perhaps a necessary practice that seems to violate the spirit if not the letter of the First Amendment. Mr. Groth is, of course, claiming a journalistic dispensation for Mr. Priest's polemic, and Eric Reynolds, in his Newswatch article "Book About Harlan Ellison Suppressed in Chicago with Ellison's Approval" described Colabuono's move as "unprecedented."
Eric Reynolds' article ran in the August, 1994 edition of The Comics Journal. He claims in the first paragraphs that "The unprecedented move was made with the approval of Ellison." which gives the reader the impression that Mr. Ellison was somehow controlling events. A more accurate way of expressing the same facts would be to say that "Ellison was made aware of Colabuono's decision and did not express disapproval." The active voice gives the erroneous impression of activity and leaves the reader with the impression of Ellison as a participant. For Ellison to disapprove of a clearly legal act which sought to mitigate the latest volley in an ongoing vendetta against him, for Ellison to have invoked the sanctity of the First Amendment, at that point, would have required the sagacity and disposition of a saint, and we have previously established that Harlan Ellison is not wise nor wondrous in the way of the saint.
The San Diego Convention was scheduled to be held several months after Chicago Comicon. Reynolds reported that "San Diego Comic Convention representative Jackie Estrada verified to The Journal that Ellison had taken steps to see that The Book On The Edge of Forever would not be distributed at the San Diego Convention . . ."
Reynolds quoted Estrada:
"'. . . Ellison asked me if Fantagraphics was going to be exhibiting at San Diego,' Estrada said. 'I said, 'Yeah,' and he said, 'Well if they're going to be carrying the book, then I'm not going to be coming down then,' (italics mine. R.C.). He said, 'If I came down there and the book was there, I would have to be restrained because I would commit mayhem on these people.'"
Gauntlet contacted Jackie Estrada and questioned her about this report. "It was more like (Ellison said), 'If they're going to be there, I'm not going to be there.' she corrected.
Ms. Estrada recalled that the conversation took place in front of several people including publisher Deni Loubert. The subject of conversation was Fantagraphics, and Ellison asked if the company was coming to San Diego. When Ms. Estrada said that Fantagraphics planned to attend, Deni Loubert chimed in not to worry. Maybe something could be done. "We've got a lawsuit against these people," Ellison barked and Estrada said, 'Well, maybe if you got an injunction . . ." But Estrada insisted that she couldn't (and wouldn't) do anything to stop the book from being sold at San Diego. And at that point Ellison said, "Well, if they're going to be there; I'm not going to be there."
"Then I guess you're not going to be there," said Jackie Estrada.
Reynolds certainly cannot be faulted for printing a direct quote which said "If they're going to be carrying the book" Ellison would not attend; yet this reporter was able to get a more accurate version of events with just a few basic questions.
Perhaps more to the point, Ms. Estrada recalled that Eric Reynolds identified himself as a Fantagraphics employee who was trying to find out what happened in Chicago. According to Ms. Estrada "Eric Reynolds didn't represent that he was writing an article" for The Comics Journal, and Estrada had no idea that her comments were being made for the record. Ms. Estrada said that she would have assumed that the comments were for the record but "because he said he was from a party involved" in the controversy, she felt that he was simply trying to find out how his company was involved. Apparently, Mr. Reynolds did nothing to discourage this impression.
Reynolds reported that Kim Thompson reluctantly agreed not to sell or otherwise disseminate the pamphlet in Chicago but added that he would refrain from doing so only as long as Ellison did not bad-mouth Fantagraphics during his stay in the Windy City. Reynolds quoted his employer Kim Thompson as saying, "After I'd told Colabuono I'd refrain from distributing or displaying the book if Ellison exercised comparable restraint, not only did Ellison go out of his way to attack us at every public showing, but apparently Colabuono didn't even suggest to him that he lay off."
Technically, Gary Colabuono's demand that Fantagraphics not sell The Book On The Edge of Forever falls within the letter of the First Amendment but violates its spirit; Thompson's request that Ellison restrict his extemporaneous speech as a condition to Fantagraphics compliance with Colabuono's demand is much closer to a violation of the letter of the law. (The former gives consideration to commercial restrictions; the latter is, pure and simple, a contract to restrict speech). But if Harlan Ellison can be forgiven for a kneejerk lawerly reaction to the publication of The Book On The Edge of Forever, so too must Kim Thompson be excused for this equally visceral lapse into the murky realm of prior restraint.
It is much more difficult to forgive Eric Reynolds for another undeniable journalistic lapse in "Book about Harlan Ellison Suppressed in Chicago." Reynolds reported that "Several convention attendees related other Ellison jabs at Fantagraphics. J. Michael Straczynski, creator and co-executive producer of the television series Babylon 5, boasted on the computer network CompuServe that Ellison threatened Kim Thompson during the Chicago Convention banquet. 'I sat beside Harlan at the banquet . . . he did speak longingly of how wonderful it would be to stick his thumbs 1.2 inches into Kim Thompson's eyeballs,' he wrote in the Comics Forum on CompuServe."
That's what Reynolds reported in The Comics Journal. This is what Straczynski wrote on the Internet: ". . . Granted he did speak longingly of how wonderful it would be to stick his thumbs 1.2 inches into Kim Thompson's eyes, but this was followed by the statement that obviously he couldn't and didn't intend to, and wasn't going to; this was his emotional response, and his feelings about this latest annoyance from Groth."
In fact, Mr Straczynski's comments on CompuServe sought to give the exact opposite impression than was reported in The Comics Journal.
"Straczynski went ballistic!" said Peter David. "Because that's where they cut it. That's all they said. They didn't say that Joe had put it in context. They didn't say that Joe had explained the entire statement. They didn't mention that Joe had made it clear that Harlan was kidding! . . . They made it so Joe Straczynski confirmed (their view)."
Straczynski told Gauntlet that Ellison was speaking about his knack for hyperbole and offered, for example, his feelings about Kim Thompson.
"Clearly the context was this is like he would not do." said Straczynski, "And what came up in The Journal was J. Michael said that Harlan threatened to stick his thumbs in Kim Thompson's eyes.
"And the only way you can do that.. The only way you can take a sentence on the screen and make it mean something contrary to what it clearly means is to deliberately misquote it! If the second half of the sentence contradicts the first half (and you only print the first half) it's just deliberate!" Prior to creating Babylon 5, Mr. Straczynski was a journalist who worked for the Los Angeles Herald Examiner, the Los Angeles Times and Time, Inc.. He finds it incredible that such an error could have been made by mistake.
"'Well, it was an accident.' Well, no it wasn't You can't do that by accident!" he said.
Peter David was well-positioned for these events. He was at the banquet in Chicago. He has written for Babylon 5, and he is a frequent contributor to the CompuServe Comics & Animation Forum. "Joe absolutely went through the roof about it!" David explains. "He was livid! And he just tore them a new asshole on CompuServe. Even though he has calmed down since then, you barely ever see him on the comics board anymore . . . Another dazzling display of journalism."
"I have resigned from the Comics Forum on CompuServe", Straczynski confirmed, "I don't go there anymore. I just don't post. I don't want any more taken out of context. And that hurt other pros who said they won't go there either because (Groth) is there."
Gauntlet asked news editor Eric Reynolds how the misquote occurred.
"Well I'm not really sure to be honest . . . I had no idea who Joseph Straczynski was other than I'd seen him on CompuServe typing in," said Reynolds. "It's certainly not my intention to misquote people.
"I felt bad about it because it caused me a lot of grief when it happened. I was still relatively new here and it was really the first big mistake I'd made, and I got grilled on the Internet. . . I felt really bad because, you know, even though I work for Fantagraphics and although Fantagraphics may have -- although Gary may have some sort of personal problems or relationship with Harlan Ellison -- I'm still so young in my career I'm not about to jeopardize my entire career. You know, that's not really -- "
How old are you, Eric?
"Twenty-three . . . It would be foolish of me, for someone who hopes to have a long career in the comic book industry to do an egregious error purposefully, you know, and jeopardize any future standing that I might have as a journalist or as an editor."
The way the quote is truncated, it does reverse the meaning.
And the appearance that The Comics Journal would love nothing more than to reverse the meaning of that quote and print what was printed raises an obvious question.
"Right. Well, I don't discount that, you know." Mr. Reynolds is contrite. "Like I said, I screwed up, man. I printed a retraction in the next issue, you know?
A correction. It wasn't a retraction.
"A correction. Excuse me."
The same August, 1994 issue of The Journal which carried Reynold's "Book About Harlan Ellison Suppressed in Chicago with Ellison's Approval" also ran "19th Annual Chicago Comicon: A Personal View" by Greg Cwiklik. Cwiklik's by-line is familiar to Journal readers as he is a regular free-lance contributor. Cwiklik's "personal view" is a balanced, competent report of the convention activities (He does not mention the "suppression" controversy), and he does report on an "Interview With Harlan Ellison" which was a public event.
"He seemed in fine spirits, joking and taking remarks made at his expense with good humor. . . " Cwiklik wrote of Ellison. "To show that he didn't take himself too seriously, he opened with an anecdote concerning how his private parts had frozen and fallen off the previous winter. Jocular, intelligent and amusing, Ellison is possessed of an undeniable charm. . ." Cwiklik wrote.
As Ellison was asked about and subsequently launched into a tirade about Fantagraphics Cwiklik squirmed in his seat, hoping that Ellison would not spot his Fantagraphics nametag. Cwiklik admitted that he only knew what little he knew about the Ellison/Groth feud from reading The Comics Journal and distanced himself accordingly.
"I was unprepared for the vehemence of Ellison's response when he was asked to give his version of the controversy," Cwiklik reported. "After a moment of silence, Ellison flew into a rage and said that he was being 'hounded' by Groth and others." The reporter said that he felt, "handicapped by the fact that I hadn't the foggiest notion of what this controversy is about. I don't even know the exact details of Ellison's and Groth's falling out, which occurred years ago."
Eric Reynolds told Gauntlet that Cwiklik was a free-lancer and that, "I can guarantee you he wrote that without any editorial input at all from (the editors at The Comics Journal)."
Cwiklik's "Personal View" is a fair and reasoned report and its few paragraphs on Ellison are a model of objectivity. It would have been a good argument that the editorial staff at The Journal is more objective than it appears to be, but the fact that the editors ran "Personal View" in the same issue with Reynolds' exaggerated claim of "Suppression" makes that argument seem disingenuous.
"I stand by what I've done," said Eric Reynolds.
The September, 1994 issue of The Comics Journal ran the following correction without highlight following its "Blood & Thunder" letters column: "In another news story that ran in the last issue, "Book About Harlan Ellison Suppressed in Chicago," J. Michael Straczynski was quoted from a message he posted on the CompuServe Comics & Animation Forum. The quotation was inadvertently truncated, which may have distorted its meaning. The quote should have read (with the omitted text in italics), 'I sat beside Harlan at the banquet . . . he did speak longingly of how wonderful it would be to stick his thumbs 1.2 inches into Kim Thompson's eyes but this was followed by a statement that obviously he couldn't or didn't intend to; this was his emotional response . . .' The editors apologize if the abbreviated quotation distorted Straczynski's meaning."
Straczynski's ill-reported remarks were part of an Internet conversation that was commenced on July 2, 1994 at 4:10 am (within eighteen hours of Colabuono's speaking with Thompson in Chicago) when Gary Groth signed on and began a topic thread on CompuServe. "I started a thread," Groth told Gauntlet, "The title of it was "Ellison=Censorship" which was the most provocative title I could come up with. I just basically stated the facts as I understood them about Ellison suppressing. . ." the book in Chicago. Groth hastens to add that, "I didn't actually say Ellison suppressed it" but he said it looked as if Ellison had prior knowledge.
Six weeks later, news of the Straczynski quote taken out of context from a CompuServe posting sparked many many kilobytes of conversation on the Comics & Animation Forum. Eric Reynolds jumped on to explain (or rationalize) his mistake and opened himself up to charges that he was "falling on the sword" for Gary Groth. Straczynski jumped on, possessed by a demon of righteous holy indignation. Groth was a late comer to the cyberspace party, this time, reportedly, because he was busy with the San Diego Comic Convention. When he did finally comment it was to take responsibility for everything printed in The Journal, to promise a retraction, to say that (unusually) he hadn't reviewed this news story before publication and that if he had seen it he believes he would have caught the error. "I'm sorry this occurred," he wrote, "but the fact is, this is a relatively minor error, that these kinds of errors do occur in a discipline such as journalism. . ." Groth continued to defend his right to continue to quote comments from a public forum. He wrote that "Our official policy is that we will try to contact anyone we quote from here as a professional courtesy, but that what is said here is being said in comment and that fair usage dictates that allegations of copyright are irrelevant."
In the same September, 1994 issue which ran the Straczynski correction, The Journal included a story unrelated to Ellison in which another writer used unattributed quotes from the Internet. As a combined result of these events Gary Groth and Eric Reynolds were locked out of Section 0, a pros-only offshoot of the Comics & Animation Forum on CompuServe. It was felt that a number of professional writers and artists were not logging on for fear of finding their comments quoted in The Comics Journal. Groth and Reynolds continue to have access to all the other CompuServe forums relating to the comics industry.
And lastly, the same edition of The Comics Journal which featured the Strasczyski correction also included a short Newswatch item written by Reynolds: "Victims of Ellison Suspended Indefinitely". The Journal reported that Charles Platt had returned all of the cash sent to him and tore up all the checks. He claimed a lack of time. "This was never a high priority for me." The Journal quoted Platt, "It was just something I had to do to defend myself, but I never really wanted to do it." Platt said cryptically that if there was a need for Victims of Ellison in the future that he could always revive it.
That is the story of the feud between Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison. All questions, obvious and otherwise, have been addressed except one. Why do Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison hate each other so much?
The answer is Michael Fleisher.
In 1979 Ellison and Groth (who barely knew each other at the time) sat down late one evening for a long interview. Ellison had just come from a wedding and was exhausted but nevertheless spoke for hours on every subject that came to mind. (It is interesting to note that many of the stock stories that Ellison told at Comicfest at the end of 1993 and that The Comics Journal found newsworthy in early 1994 were actually previously reported in this interview which ran in 1980.)
In this now-infamous interview, Ellison did not prevaricate nor did he restrain. It was a good interview; long, insightful and illuminating. It is very interesting, in light of Fantagraphics publication on The Book On The Edge of Forever, that very early in his interview with Groth, Ellison addressed his procrastination.
"When I was much younger," he said, "When I was just starting to write, I had a lot of respect for writers who could get it in on time, and then suddenly I realized, 'Wait a minute, what the hell is this, 'Get it in on time?' I owe no allegiance to publishers or producers or networks. Even if they paid me staggering sums of money, I owe allegiance only to the work. Only to the work. And if I give them shit on time, then I have cheated them. If I take six months longer than they expected, or five years longer, or ten years longer, and give them something that no one else had given them, then I've honored the obligation to them. Whether they see it that way or not, that's the way I see it. I've become totally irresponsible in that respect.
"People say, 'When is The Last Dangerous Visions coming out?' and I give them the same answer that Michelangelo gave to the pope: 'It'll be done when it's done.' And of course they scream and they yell . . ."
The conversation went all over the place as befits a raconteur of Ellison's stripe and
a reporter of Groth's ambition. From comic books to carpet beetles, the worst artists and
the best writers; eventually the conversation touched upon "Howard The Duck" and
its creator, Steve Gerber:
Ellison: . . . 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.
In 1979, Michael Fleisher was a writer for DC Comics who had worked on The Spectre and Jonah Hex. Fleisher specialized in dark, violent misogynistic stories which, fifteen years later, seem to have been slightly and sadly ahead of their time. There is much that is dark, and violent and sexist in the current mainstream comics fare, but, in 1979, Mike Fleisher's well written horrific stories stood out like a broken toe. Ellison admired Fleisher's writing and offered his praise in classic Ellisonian hyperbole and digression: "Fleisher, I think he's certifiable. That's 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 and in Giger's work . . . I mean Giger's clearly deranged.
"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 schlobos 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 fucking bone-chilling, which is what 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!"
Mr. Fleisher did not feel complimented. Indeed, Mr. Fleisher felt libeled and launched a two million dollar suit against Harlan Ellison and The Comics Journal. The complaint took seven years to work its way through the court and a very nasty affair it was. It would do well to recall just how nasty it was.
Inside the court it took almost two years to get to deposition, and when they did the judge appointed a Special Master -- a retired magistrate with certain powers of the court -- to referee an ugly litigation. Matters were particularly heated between Fleisher's lawyer and Groth's attorney (the same Ken Norwick who wrote Ellison's attorney, Steve Kramer). Outside the court, at the New York Comic Art Convention in 1981, a table full of cartoonists, including Frank Miller, Howard Chaykin, Peter Kuper and others, sold sketches in support of Michael Fleisher. When Fantagraphics found out, it demanded and received table space in the same room at the same time. A tense scene ensued with artists Art Speigelman, Gil Kane and Burne Hogarth in support of Fantagraphics.
Following lengthy depositions (Fleisher's deposition alone comprised 1,100 pages!) defendant's motion for Summary Judgment was denied and the case was held over for a jury trial. The trial lasted four weeks with Ellison, Groth and Fleisher each spending significant time on the stand. Jim Shooter, who was then president of Marvel Comics, testified on Fleisher's behalf. After seven years and a month-long trial, the eight member jury deliberated an hour and a half and returned with a verdict that declared that Fleisher had not established legal qualifications to demonstrate libel. Gary Groth and Harlan Ellison had won the case.
Throughout the case Groth and Ellison put up a unified front that was, in actuality, fragmented and splintered beyond repair. I asked Gary Groth what was the root of his quarrel with Ellison?
"Basically Ellison behaved unethically throughout the entire lawsuit," Groth claimed.
Can you be more specific?
"Yeah, well one instance, for example, was trying to get me to pay his legal bills."
Groth maintains that at the beginning of the trial he didn't have any money and he thought he didn't have any insurance. He claims to have borrowed $5000 from his parents which was his contribution to a war chest needed to mount the defense. Ellison put in five grand also. Bills were received; money was paid out. Monies were left over; more bills were received. Groth felt that Ellison tried to stiff him with the tab.
"Now I was under the false impression that I had achieved the status of a friend of Ellison's," he continued. "Now this was completely false. I just didn't know. I was like twenty-four at the time and I had some experience under my belt, but getting sued for two million dollars was something I had never coped with. And there were like two or three or four specific incidents during the lawsuit where Ellison acted so unethically and just tried to fuck me over so treacherously that it caused us to break ranks."
Afterwards, under different circumstances, both men found out that they both were, in fact, insured but according to Groth's version of events, the rift was irreparable.
"Before I knew we were being sued and we're certainly negotiating with Fleisher on how to resolve this thing -- and I repeatedly called Ellison and I said, 'Look, this guy's really pissed off! Is there anything we can do to placate him? You know, apologize or something.' And Ellison's position was, 'Fuck him! He's not going to sue anybody!' And from my point of view this was like the voice of authority; you know, like, if Ellison said he's not going to sue, he's probably not going to sue. You know, I really admired him.
"And then he told me that -- and this is a direct quote -- 'If he sues, I'm behind you a hundred percent, a hundred percent.' I had no money, and also it was also right after he had won like $300,000 from Paramount, a case that he was involved in. I knew he had money. And so my understanding was that he was going to help us out financially.
"So the first inkling I got it was bad news -- it was all bad news -- We were finally served. And I called him up one night after I was served and I said, 'You know, Harlan, we're being sued and I don't have any money. And I wonder if, you know, if you could help me out and I could borrow some money' and he said, 'No.' He said, 'Look, I'm watching TV and I don't have time to talk with you right now. I'm tapped out. I don't have any money.' Click. Buzz. And that was it. That was the conversation. And it was just sort of -- that he could have been so cavalier about it. Completely at odds with everything he said before that, how supportive he was going to be. That was the first inkling that I got that he wasn't going to follow through on what he said."
Mr. Groth goes on to say that "There were just lots and lots of incidents, y'know, just examples of swinish or unethical behavior, you know, and I just didn't want to put up with it. Y'know, a lot of Ellison's friends have literally seen this, just put up with it. They just do for some reason and I don't know why but they do. And I just refused to do it."
This modern day Rashomon can also be seen from the view of Harlan Ellison's attorney during the Fleisher case, Patrick Lyons. Lyons is an attorney of twenty seven years experience. He sings snatches of show tunes at the drop of a hat and can quote Emily Dickinson and Stan Lee with equal confidence. He firmly believes that "lawyers cause more problems than they solve" and that "Litigation is no place for an author." Nevertheless, Lyons found himself coming into the case when Ellison's insurance company decided to pick up some bills.
"What occurred was that after the interview that gave rise to the complaint on Fleisher's behalf, Groth continued to publish an almost running commentary on the activities of Michael Fleisher," Mr Lyons recalled. "For instance, he would announce in the magazine during the pending of the lawsuit, 'We're having a big party at our central headquarters. Come and help us make fun of Michael Fleisher!' Things of that nature would appear from time to time within the pages of The Comics Journal . . . Fleisher continued to be a target in Gary's magazine."
Lyons recalled that Fleisher's attorney submitted subsequent issues of The Journal as evidence of actual malice. He claimed that when Fantagraphics counsel Ken Norwick objected to the submission of this evidence the Special Master said, "I'm quite sure that Judge Broderick will join me in my thinking that these subsequent publications can be offered as proof of actual malice in the making of the original comments." Actual malice is often the most difficult aspect to prove in a libel case, and it is reported that in Ellison's view this recklessness was at the center of the rift.
"That's putting much too much of a rational spin on it," Groth said. "I think Harlan mentioned that to me once, but other than that I think basically it's bullshit.
"There were just so many other things. . ." said the publisher.
Both Groth and Lyons point out that Harlan Ellison could not have been held accountable for The Comic Journal's subsequent behavior, however Pat Lyons felt that these actions could reflect badly on the entire defense. "There was always the prospect that had that weighed heavily on the jurors mind, it could have washed over on to us as well."
There is evidence which was reported in a special issue of The Comics Journal that was published after the trial was over that the jurors were not amused by Mr. Groth's antics. The incomparable artist/journalist Joe Sacco took a look at several aspects of the trial in a series of short features and in his interview with three jurors some common perceptions emerged. "'I don't think anyone (on the jury) felt that Ellison was remotely guilty. . .'" Sacco quoted one jury member and shortly thereafter reported "All three jurors interviewed felt Groth and The Comics Journal might have handled certain events more prudently." One juror felt that Groth might have encouraged Ellison to "be a little more spectacular than he would have been" during the original interview. Sacco wrote that another juror found "certain post-publication incidents including a Journal party invitation that referred to Fleisher and a particular letter from Groth to Ellison showed a 'serious lack of respect.'"
"There was some intention to make (Fleisher) feel bad," said the juror. That same citizen concluded that "a more seasoned publisher might have handled it differently." And another juror found The Journal's running comments "immature."
"Now I suspect that Ken Norwick didn't attempt to exercise control over what Gary was publishing," said Ellison's attorney. "You know, that was Gary's business. Had Gary been my client I would have said, 'Look, for Christ's sake, lay off! You can say whatever you want after the thing is over but keep a very low profile now!' But no. . . That was an unnecessary burden that would have to be carried by the defense in the action simply because Gary decided the whole thing was very very funny. Harlan resented Gary's attitude because he thought this was frivolous." Gary Groth admits, "We were by no means ever sure that we were going to win. When the jury went out to deliberate and came back in, we were like holding our breath."
Ellison contributed to the special issue of The Comics Journal after the trial, but long before that relations between the publisher and the author had dissolved into bitterness. "We were pretty much at sword's point," Groth recalled. "I mean, even during the trial, we put up a bit of a front that there was a certain amount of solidarity -- Maybe on the most pragmatic level there was -- but we were barely talking to each other at the trial."
So all this is about money?
Mr. Groth found that to be simplistic and it probably is, but peel away the onion and you're left with this:
Mr. Groth objected to Mr. Ellison's alleged lack of ethical behavior.
Mr. Ellison objected to Mr. Groth's demonstrable lack of professional behavior.
And so do I.
Going through the wringer of legal jurisprudence can squeeze any good friendship dry much less the casual acquaintance. Is Harlan Ellison justified in feeling victimized by Gary Groth's published antics? Perhaps. Is Gary Groth justified in feeling betrayed by a once-respected role model who left him hanging out to dry? Could be.
Under no circumstances does Gary Groth have the right to use the news and editorial functions of his publication to settle old scores and private matters. In my opinion that is what Groth is doing.
Let's consider the score. From December, 1993 to August, 1994 The Comics Journal ran six major pieces and sundry items directly concerning or peripheral to Harlan Ellison. These include four Newswatch articles by Eric Reynolds, a freelanced personal view of the Chicago Convention by Greg Cwiklik and an editorial by Gary Groth pertaining to the phony Peter David letter. Of these six pieces, one needed a substantial correction and another needed a full retraction. That's two out of six pieces of journalism that needed fixing. Now that is probably an unfair statistic. By itself it shows nothing. But we have shown also that The Journal's reports were slanted, directions were ignored, views were skewered. The very decision to cover Ellison's activities so closely in so brief a period reveals an obsessive element that makes that very coverage questionable. Factor in the publishing activities, the EOE and VOE affiliations, the letters of the editor, the Internet activity and, not least at all, the pattern of occasional but consistent, over-amplified forays into tacky sensationalism (the names Kalish and Sobocinski come to mind) and, in the opinion of this writer, the question of biased reporting dissolves into a certainty.
"This is such a complicated can of worms," Groth said wearily, "I guess that what I object to was throwing in our retraction of the David letter. Adding it in the ratio you've established -- five news stories and two corrections (sic) -- I mean we got that letter before Peter David wrote that piece about Victims of Ellison, and we were planning on running it . . . Ellison was the furthest thing from my mind."
Mr. Groth was reminded that in the Peter David editorial he referred to Mr. Ellison as a "well-known sociopath."
"Yeah, but it mentions a lot," he said. "It mentions the Buyer's Guide. It mentions Ellison, CompuServe . . .
"It doesn't sound to me as if you've established a pattern of deliberate distortion," Groth concluded. "It's all so vague."
Mr. Groth, Do you think that your coverage in 1994 of Harlan Ellison was not informed by your personal opinion?
"Well, I don't think there's anything I do that's not informed by my personal knowledge," he equivocates. "What I do when I'm covering Ellison is try to be as truthful as possible. And I try to paint Ellison as anyone whose position I didn't know. Now I think it's almost impossible to take yourself out of the position you're in and put yourself in some sort of mythically controlled position. But what I can say is that I try to do that."
Groth asked which of the articles would I not have published were I were in his position? "That seems to me to be the determining criteria," he expressed, "Should they or should they not have been written?"
It's a good question. The events certainly seem newsworthy to a degree, but the question is also simplistic. Two of those news stories dealt with the publication of The Book On The Edge of Forever and were thus generated by Fantagraphics. In the case of the alleged "suppression" in Chicago, Fantagraphics had their printers make a special last minute shipment to make sure that the book would be available to irritate and embarrass Ellison. To answer Groth's question: I might have covered each story but I would have covered it much differently. There are questions of full disclosure. Actions by Fantagraphics are questionable and those questions were not asked. Also the preponderance of the coverage seems to indicate a bias.
"There appears to be a question of bias," Groth agreed. "You know, is The Journal biased? And The Journal is certainly biased. Yeah. We're an iconoclastic magazine, a muckraking magazine . . . I'll go on record and say that The Journal is biased against habitual liars.
"You know, last time you said something to the effect that Ellison and I had some similarities between the two of us. And, you know, I thought about that and I finally came to the conclusion that there are some similarities between Simon Weisenthal and Adolf Eichman but more were their differences.
"Some people think there's a similarity," said Mr. Groth, but he thinks that whatever similarities may exist are "shallow" and "superficial."
Beyond the obvious (and, I believe, intentional) distaste in comparing a Jew with a Nazi (and in that equation Mr. Groth equates himself with the Nazi hunter), Groth seems to feel that the broader intentions of The Comics Journal mitigates an occasional lapse into irresponsibility.
"I'm certainly not infallible, but I guess the question that I would think is most important, most relevant is, does what we publish in The Journal address the broader issues and inform the public of something they're not going to get anywhere else? Are they better informed and more enlightened after they've read that issue of The Journal or did, because one sentence was biased or because that bit of information wasn't clear, which may or may not affect what someone came away with -- How important is that?
"Is it better to stick your head in the sand when you know that you're the only one who's going to write about it?" Groth asks rhetorically. "Because someone out there is going to perceive bias? That's a difficult call.''
Gauntlet spoke with news editor Eric Reynolds at Groth's suggestion.
"There's a perception that Gary Groth dictates every inch of editorial space in The Journal and he doesn't," Reynolds insisted. "I can honestly say that Gary's never instructed me to put a slant on a story. I can say that unequivocally.
"He has come to me and said -- Look, he told me what happened in Chicago: 'Harlan Ellison, a First Amendment advocate, is trying to keep us from publishing the book. Go and find out what you can.' I mean just by virtue of the fact that he's running a publishing company, his hands-on involvement in The Journal, I'm certain, is a lot less than most people suspect. And you know, I think we do a lot of good journalism. We cover a lot of stories that no one else would cover. If somebody reads one story that takes The Journal to task for something, that they're going to apply that to every story. Does that make sense?"
Reynolds admits that he isn't entirely comfortable with covering Harlan Ellison.
"I have a difficult time writing these Ellison stories," he told Gauntlet. "I pray to God I never have to write another one because I certainly can see the potential for bias on our part. I've tried to do my best to do good investigative coverage of the industry, and the Ellison ones are probably the ones that have been the most uncomfortable for me to write because of the sort of public knowledge of Gary and Ellison's feud.
"Yeah, it's tough," Reynolds admitted. "And unfortunately, you know, there's not a lot of room for upward mobility at Fantagraphics. Like I told you, I'm real conscious of the fact that you can ostracize yourself in the comics industry by working for Fantagraphics. And I really have no intention of doing that because I'm going to have to go to work somewhere else.
I know you're stuck between a rock and a hard place.
"Yeah, you're right. I am. Not only just because of the personal vendetta but because of the public perception of that personal vendetta. It's a public feud. And the one thing I'm worried about with this Gauntlet article that if there is a legitimate criticism to be made -- and I'm not saying there is -- If there is, there's a lot of people who will use one specific criticism to legitimize lots of other illegitimate criticisms of The Comics Journal . . . I call people every day about a story in The Comics Journal and as soon as I say I'm from The Comics Journal I get a cold tone, you know.
Why do you think that is?
"I think it's several factors. One of which just has to do with the sincere lack of interest on the part of the comic book industry to rock the boat or do anything that's going to upset the status quo. I think the comic book industry is a small club that doesn't want to be held accountable for certain things. And part of it has to do with that Gary is a sort of severe figure. He says a lot of things that piss people off. I don't know. I'm having a hard time . . .
"I think it goes both ways. . ." said the young editor, "I think you have to keep aware, you have to put in context Harlan Ellison's reputation in the industry. And I do think that Gary has a legitimate beef with Ellison in that Ellison is virtually unassailable. You know, I mean, it's just like he could literally get on stage somewhere and say something completely outrageous, and I honestly think that The Comics Journal is the only industry publication who would take him to task for spreading lies. He's a yarnspinner, you know. I think he does say some things that he needs to be accountable for."
By all means, let's us look at what Ellison says. He is indeed a yarnspinner. During one sitting in the late seventies Harlan Ellison said that Truman Capote was "a burnt out case. He's bullshit time." and that Gore Vidal was "even bigger bullshit time." He said that comics publisher Jim Warren was "A card carrying righteous nutcase who ought to be put away. . . He is so loathsome. He's so fucking loathsome. He is like a pimple that keeps coming back again and again . . . He's like a Polish bowling league idea of a lower case Hugh Hefner . . . " Ellison described the fantasy artist, Giger: "There's a genuine twisted mentality at work here. Giger's clearly deranged."
During the same session he said that the late Robert E. Howard and the very much alive Steve Gerber each "was crazy as a bedbug," and that comic book creator Gerry Conway "ought to be nailed to a cross somewhere." Ellison said "Adrian Samish, who was at the time the head of ABC Network continuity which is the censors -- He was a gibbering gargoyle who was a failed advertising man, a failed college man, a failed homosexual -- he couldn't even make it in that area -- and they put him in charge of censors. . . "
The careful reader will notice I am repeating myself. Each of those statements were made to Gary Groth and was printed in The Comics Journal in 1980, in the same interview which gave rise to the Fleisher lawsuit. Years later when The Comics Journal quoted Ellison in Philadelphia as saying that Adrian Samish was "a failed college student, a failed advertising man, and a failed homosexual" it was reported as news, and Eric Reynolds told Gauntlet that he made many calls trying to find Samish to elicit a response. It's a pity that he didn't spend some of that energy researching The Comics Journal's previous coverage of his subject.
Gary Groth did not try to elicit responses from Capote, Vidal, Warren, Giger or Samish in 1980 even though Ellison told him during the interview, "There are certainly enough people I've attacked viciously here to satisfy the most bloodthirsty." Apparently Groth needed some kind of personal experience with Ellison to motivate that level of investigation. Groth would no doubt say that he was younger then and that he knows better now, but I strenuously disagree. In fact, I think that this point is central to my thesis.
There is a type of person who is a known quantity in the immanent worlds of science fiction and comic books. It is a type of person forged from too many hours in adolescence spent turning too many pages of fantastic literature. It hooks you in at an early age, and some kids become obsessed. They develop a deep abiding knowledge of the form at the expense of social skills, fashion sense and the ability to talk to girls. Invariably, they are called nerds.
Sometimes these very well-read social misfits grow up to be professionals in their area of obsessive expertise. They thrive, they prosper, but they remain socially retarded. They grow to be editors, publishers, big fish in a small pond; and with no social skills to speak of, they wield power and influence without maturity or restraint. A little Napoleon. A Napoleonic Nerd.
They demand equity, these "Victims of Ellison." Charles Platt wants Ellison to restrain himself from speaking about Charles Platt (although he is not reluctant to talk trash to this reporter) and Gary Groth wants Ellison revealed to be a "sociopath" and a "habitual liar." They demand equity but they forget that the concept of "equity" rests upon the presumption of "clean hands." Your hands have to be "clean" before you can demand equity from an individual. And Groth's hands are dirty, and Platt's hands are filthy. And the idea that these two men assume themselves up to be so morally superior as to be in a position to demand equity is laughable.
I am acquainted with neither Gary Groth nor Harlan Ellison. I have had phone conversations with both men while working on this story, but beyond that I have no connection, and I have no ax to grind. I have read both Groth and Ellison's work with interest and anticipation. I find Ellison, at his best, to be a master storyteller, and I find Groth to be a fine if somewhat overly verbose writer. I read both The Comics Journal and the Comics Buyer's Guide regularly, and in the pages of those magazines I happened upon this tale. My initial interest was based in an image of two grown men sniping at each other like two mad children in a sandbox.
But then I took a closer look and some things became plain: Groth hounded Ellison, manipulated Charles Platt and used his position as the co-owner and editor of The Comics Journal to maintain a verbal vendetta for purely personal reasons. And that makes Gary Groth a poor journalist. The Comics Journal seeks to raise the level of criticism of comics to a higher standard, and in that admirable search it often succeeds. That The Journal should be used to further the goals of petty diatribe and vicious assault is truly shameful and genuinely sad. The Comics Journal could be a great rag, but it never will be as long as Gary Groth uses the lack of ideal objectivity to be an excuse for having no objectivity at all.
Mr. Groth once wrote, "A good journalist's methodology always demands a non-partisan skepticism; once he collects all the information he needs, skepticism has to give way to judgment. Above all, good journalism demands that the criteria used for determining the public good be applied equally to everyone who is the subject of press scrutiny." I approached this story with all those things in mind, and what I discovered was this pitiful story of a victimizer and his victim, and no matter what the button on his lapel may say, that victim clearly is not Gary Groth.
But don't take my word for it. Opinions are like assholes and Charles Platt is no exception. As my research came to a close, I called Mr. Platt to check a few facts, and we spoke briefly about the direction of this article.
"I come down pretty hard on The Comics Journal," I said.
"Oh, really," said the pamphleteer.
"Yeah, well, because I think their coverage is biased."
"Yes, it is," agreed Mr. Platt.
"Gary Groth says his personal opinion doesn't matter but I think it does matter more than he allows."
"Yeah, I'll go along with that," he said. "I mean, he's right, of course! (Laughter) On the other hand he does have an obligation to be more objective."
On that very last point, Mr. Platt, I couldn't agree more.
And what about Harlan Ellison
Mr. Ellison refused to comment for this article. He saw no percentage in it. He did, however, offer this reporter one quote for the record:
"It is my hope and my intention," said Mr. Ellison, "to do the work that remains on The Last Dangerous Visions in 1995 -- that is if the creek don't rise. And if it doesn't happen I would appreciate if people would not come to my door with a knotted hemp rope. I am, in fact, dancing as fast as I can."
No doubt about it. The guy's bugfuck. You know -- certifiable.
Richard Cusick is associate editor of Gauntlet.
The following appeared inside the original Gauntlet article on pages 138 & 139:
HERO NIXES ELLISONTOON
After Kim Thompson was told by Chicago Comicon president Gary Colabuono that he could not sell or otherwise distribute copies of The Book on the Edge of Forever at the convention, he gave away more than a dozen copies to friends and professionals "just to see if anyone would stop me."
One of the pros he gave the essay to was Don Simpson, the creator of Megaton Man, a humor strip which lampoons the comics industry in the pages of Hero Illustrated. After reading the polemic, Simpson wrote and drew a Megaton Man installment called, "The Comicon on The Edge of Forever."
"The cartoon takes some of the assumptions made in the BOTEOF as a satirical starting point," Simpson later explained on the Internet. "I am by no means a Groth sympathizer."
When Simpson submitted the cartoon to Hero editors Frank Kurtz and Steve Darnell, Simpson said, they "felt it was one of my best, but ultimately declined to run it due to orders from 'higher ups'." In fact, Hero had previously decided to extend an invitation to Ellison to write a column on a regular basis and the editors did not want to queer their chances. In a letter to Ellison, Frank Kurtz stated that "We have taken a stance at Hero to stay out of the tempest in a teapot that is this Friends of Ellison or Enemies of Ellison stuff going on in the CBG and the Journal. For that matter," Kurtz concluded, "I don't want to compromise any possibility of having your work in Hero."
Upon rejection, Simpson uploaded the cartoon on the Internet. In an accompanying comment, Simpson said, "My purpose in posting this announcement and uploading the cartoon on the library is not to cry 'censorship', but to merely give this timely cartoon a timely public view." The strip was also published in Don Simpson's Bizarre Heroes #5 (Fiasco Comics, September 1994).
The strip lampoons several of the points brought out in The Book on the Edge of Forever such as the suggestion that The Last Dangerous Visions, should it ever appear, might best be relegated to a CD ROM format given the known heft of the anthology as well as Ellison's telegenic persona. "I think it's one of my better efforts," said Simpson, "and feel it's unfortunate that Hero felt it politically impossible to run.
"Furthermore, I'd like to state that I have nothing against Harlan Ellison whatsoever." Nor should he since the dating of the letters that went back and forth between the parties involved clearly shows that Ellison had nothing to do with the decision to reject the cartoon.
Simpson's maturity and restraint in not making a public issue over an unfortunate circumstance is admirable. While he certainly could have brought some attention to himself and his strip by decrying Hero's decision, Mr. Simpson apparently chose to take the high road and simply made sure that his work had a forum. In a story filled with humorless individuals and petty opinions, Mr. Simpson stands out as a class act. I want to be just like him when I grow up.