This is a transcript from a Diamond Comics Dialogue magazine of
a speech Harlan Ellison gave at the Diamond Comics Seminar 1993 in Atlanta and
appears courtesy Mr. Ellison and
- Copyright(c) 1993 by the Kilimanjaro Corporation.
At first I was going to begin like this: Had I not been interviewed by a group of
documentary filmmakers in Stockholm last September. . .
Then I thought better of it, and decided this worked better:
A recent Roper poll conveys the horrifying statistic that one point something out of every
five Americans either knows nothing about the Holocaust or is absolutely convinced it never
happened, that between eight and twelve million people were not butchered by the Nazis; were
never gassed, shot, clubbed to death, strangled in cribs, impaled by spring-loaded needles
driven into their eyes, machine gunned and (still alive, as other waves of bodies fell in on
them) thrown into pits of quick lime . . .
But I figured I'd let that one pass, too being--I felt--a bit too tense for comments
about the comic book industry. Form follows function. Keep it sprightly. Don't alarm anyone
till you've led them much deeper into the forest. It's always harder to find your way home
if you haven't had the foresight to bring along a pocket full of crumbled graham crackers.
So I decided, at last, to begin these observations like so:
The legendary ex-mayor of Boston (from 1914 to 1946, off and on, sporadically, with
substantial breaks in his four terms for a Governorship, service in the Massachusetts House
of Representatives, and a piece of time in a federal prison), the grand old boss of the
Democratic machine, the real life character who inspired Edwin O'Connor's glorious novel The
Last Hurrah in 1956--played by Spencer Tracy in the 1958 movie--same year the real-life
mayor died, so he got to see himself totemized and romanticized before he croaked--that
world class bunkum artist, Hizzoner the late James Michael Curley, practitioner of pork
barrel cronyism and nepotism raised to the level of a fine art, in one of his most famous
expanses of chicanery as oratory, condemned "clubs of female faddists, old gentlemen with
disordered livers and--" (here's where I get to the point) "--pessimists croaking over the
imaginary good old days and ignoring the sunlit present."
Boss Jim Curley's phrase lodges in my mind as I launch into these observations of
one troubling aspect of the comic industry, because I bought my first comic in 1939, when I
was five years old. Now some of you may have seen a black and white photo of that comic in
the Overstreet Guide. It was New York World's Fair Comics, a 96 page squareback cardboard
cover, full color comic for 25¢ (and in 1940 DC did a follow up, another dynamite 96 pages.
. .for 15 cents!) and it is notable for having, on its cover, the only portrait of Superman
in which he has blond hair. But it wasn't Superman that I liked best in that issue, it was
the Sandman. Not Neil Gaiman's Sandman-- hell, Neil's mother hadn't even reached puberty in
1939, much less met Neil's father--but the original Sandman, the one with the sleep gas gun.
Where was I?
(I'd say, "But I digress ..." except that Peter David appropriated the phrase from
my film columns in The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction and it has now become common
knowledge that he created the phrase in much the same way that Jim Shooter created the
graphic novel and invented radium and freed the slaves and several other things...which of
course is my attempt at irony; but it ties straight into the point of the essay, which I'll
get to either when I'm good and ready, or when driven by whips.)
Where I was, for those of you who think linearly and not circumloquaciously, was
sharing my trepidation at making rude remarks about
the world of comics today, delivered in six ballrooms jammed full of two
thousand people who make their greedy, amoral living off it; a world dominated by the Image
lads, DC and Marvel editorial staffs for the most part only recently able to shave,
superannuated teenagers, MTV babies, kiddies dressed up in their parents' clothes, refuges
from the imploded greed market of sports cards, youth-oriented entrepreneurs, and baby
boomers who actually think the world began with Wings--the group, not the TV sitcom--at the
risk of having to read in the ink smudged pages of CBG or Groth's redolent rag sometime
hence, the affronted remarks of striplings and boneheads and, well, to be cranky about it,
arrogant and essentially ignorant youths (or as Joe Pesci calls them, 'yewts') who think
that their state of age is not only the most desirable, but borders on being holy.
Three people applauded. Charming, bloody charming! The rest of you, already breaking
out the coal oil and rags and tree limbs to make flambeau to set my ass on fire, are looking
at one another and demanding to know, "Exactly what the hell does this wiseguy mean by such
remarks? Have we been insulted?"
Let me pause for a moment.
What I mean by those remarks, about my trepidation at speaking exactly what's on my
mind here in this conclave of businessfolk gathered to slap one another's backs and tell
each other how great business was last year, how much better it'll be next year, is this:
If I had a morality machine, something like a Geiger counter or a dowsing rod that
would estimate he level of Ethical Behavior in a person, and I turned it on the two thousand
of you, one by one, as I walked back through this audience, I could pick out those among you
who actually did charge some dumb kid ten bucks for a "Death of Superman" issue. I could
tell, because you'd glow green like swamp gas, like rotting fruit, like a swollen bruise,
like a gangrenous leg.
What's that I hear? One of you out there said, "I did that!" I heard you. Wow, this
is just like a Perry Mason mystery, where the killer leaps up in court, in defiance of all
common sense, and blurts out, "I did it! I did it!" Well, I thank that retailer, whoever he
or she was, for feeling a pang of conscience. May I have a group "Amen!" for that poor
devil, who will certainly burn either in Hell or in Jesse Helms's bad breath, whichever comes first.
But, I digress. Or blather. Or ramble. Or something.
Though I bought my first comic in 1939--or more likely had it bought for me--I have
been a comics kid for the following 54 years. As I stand here tonight, in early June of
1993, I am slightly more than a week past my 59th birthday, which puts me one year shy of a
figure my seven-year-old mind refuses even to consider. Nonetheless, age notwithstanding, I
have been without lapse of more than a few months, a guy who bought comics, read comics,
saved comics and extolled the virtues of comics through decades when this noble American
born art form was looked on as trash at best, and dangerously demented evil at worst. I'd
toss around credentials with names like Estes Kefauver and Dr. Fred Wertham passim their
profundity, but since the screech I'm about to let loose concerns "not remembering" and its
only slightly more malevolent twin "never having known in the first goddamn place,"
mentioning the names of two men whose place in history was more than 40 years ago, is not
merely pointless, it'd be brain dead stupid, about as efficient as a fart in a wind tunnel.
And over the tumult I hear James Curley carp "pessimists croaking over imaginary good old
days, and ignoring the sunlit present."
The sunlit present. Ah, what a mellifluous phrase. Todd McFarlane's sunlit present,
for instance. Make no mistake--I have nothing against Todd McFarlane. Met him once, seemed
to be a nice young man. Happy as hell he's become a millionaire; only wish it had happened
to Siegel and Shuster and Jack Kirby and poor Joe McNeely and all the other artists and
writers who spent their lives growing haggard meeting endless deadlines for corporations
that treated them like pig fodder. Happy as hell that McFarlane and others have finally
broken loose from the bonds of menial servitude that keep the parent conglomerates of DC and
Marvel obese and jolly as Jabba the Hutt.
But Todd McFarlane's sunlit present is shadowed by the illiteracy of much of what he and his
partners proffer as "what the audience wants." There is, also, that emblematic story which
may be what Brunvand calls an "urban myth" but which may also be hideously, horribly
true--in which Mr. McFarlane invites a group of his admirers over to his mansion, or his
duchy, or wherever it is he lives with his alabaster grand piano, and he's got all the pages
of Spawn laid out, glowing and glistening in the overhead arc lights like Tiffany goodies on
black velvet, and he says jubilantly, "Looka this!" and he takes the pages-- like a William
Burroughs manuscript or the sections of a Dadaist puzzle--and he rearranges them willy
nilly. "Look!" he says, capering about, "you can rearrange them any way you want. . .and
they still make sense!"
Yeah, the way the first issue of Harris Publications' Cain makes sense, if you
happen to speak in tongues and never heard of logical progression, not just from page to
page, but at least from panel to panel.
Do you now begin to perceive what I'm carping about?
What I'm saying is no more, no less, than the same shit that I've heard you saying to one another at the parties, when you didn't think anyone was eavesdropping. And because I'm virtually the only person in this room who fears no retribution, who is above being punished for saying these things aloud... I can stand up here and not worry about my store being closed down because the publishers are boycotting me.
I don't have to worry what Groth spleen is vented, because I know that self-important, hypocritical little fleshbag of suppurating monkey genitalia has already trashed me in his editorial...before I even stepped to this microphone to speak. He may even understand several of the sesquipedalian words he's thrown into the editorial. Ectothermic little poseur.
But, I digress.
I was advising you that I can appear fearless up here, because I don't rely for my living on any of you in this room, even though I do business from time to time with some of you. I can point out that industry shows of this sort are precisely the same the world over,
Whether you're in the toxic waste recycling industry, or you're selling electrical appliances, or you're all members of the Law Officers' Benevolent and Storm Window Association. Everybody comes together, and you smile in one another's wine bright eyes, and you congratulate the hell out of yourselves about what a great year last year was, and you break your arms patting yourselves on the back about how the sky is the limit for next year, and how you're gonna fleece the suckers even better this coming year. . . and everything is a sensation. An event. A breakthrough.
Nine million new universes every three minutes. Egomania run amuck. Not enough to create just one good character, with one reasonably fresh superpower. Oh no, now the big thing is everyone has to create a new universe, one dopier and crazier and more complex than the one preceding. And of course there are cards and multiple covers and gold logos and other useless come-ons that accompany each new universe. You've all been infected with Shooter's Syndrome, the demented need to play God. To create a whole universe. Well, I wish most of you as much luck as Shooter had with his "New Universe" when he was with Marvel, or as much success as DC has had with its "Impact Universe." I wish you bad cess, because you're greedy. You fight over market shares like selfish children in a sandbox, like monkeys with their hands in a jar, too greedy to let go of the nut, and unable to get your hand out of the jar because you won't let go.
Every month a hot item. Hot item here, hot item there! Hoopla and foofaraw, razzmatazz and superhype, outright lies and late shipments. Gentlefolk, there can't be that many truly important events. Not even in the world of comics.
And all it does for you is force you to spend more and more money on bigger and splashier ads, on useless gimmicks like spot varnish and embossing and cutouts and holograms. And the feeding frenzy goes on and on, till you tear each other to shreds for minuscule pie wedges of the market, and you leave no space for those rare, few specialty items that need succoring and support. But no one questions your right to "do business."
Good for business.
That's the song. "It's good for business."
What's good for General Motors is good for America.
What's good for General Bullmoose is good for America.
Calvin Coolidge thunk it up: "The business of America. . .is business!" and it was parroted by that senile old fart Reagan and you all believe it; we all believe it; and here I stand, before a business conference of two thousand men and women, some of whom sold a "Death of Superman" comic to a dumb kid for twenty bucks, or fifty bucks, or more...
And I'm telling you that there may be something else, something more important, in this life...than business!
But first, because I digress, let me embarrass myself with a sort of footnote aside. . .
There was a lot of self-congratulating going on the last couple of days and a lot of disingenuousness, to boot. But in fact I met one of my actual gigantic, authentic heroes. There need be no applause on this, but sitting down here at Steve Geppi's table is a man named Marty Nodell, and he created the original Green Lantern and I was going to tell...I want to tell you how deeply runs my love of comics and my anger at what I see happening in comics. It runs this deep. . .
When I was a little kid--and I was an even bigger pain in the ass when I was a little kid folks--with the exception of my wife Susan, in my entire life, and we're including my mother and father who were lovely people, there has never been anyone in my life who could spend more than an hour and twenty minutes in my company without running shrieking into the streets. And every summer in Ohio, which is where I'm from, my parents would say in a kind of state of restrained hysteria, "We got to get rid of him for a couple of weeks!" And they would send me to camp. I hated camp! I was a little scrawny kid who liked to read, and I couldn't make a lanyard, and I didn't know how woodcraft should go, or any of that shit and I didn't want to know from it; and they would send me to some doofus camp where all they would do for three months or two weeks or eight years or however the hell long it went on, was beat the shit out of me regularly. Thereby producing the well ordered human being who stands before you today. And one year, this turns into one of those horrible Horatio Alger stories, you're going to be weeping in about three seconds, Jack Kirby could really do a job on this, Will Eisner would do this as one of those terrible slum stories. We lived in Painesville, about thirty miles northeast of Cleveland, they sent me to a camp called Bellfair. Well, Bellfair was not, in fact, a camp. What Bellfair was was an orphanage, for chrissakes. For four weeks or something like that in the summer, time to make enough money to run this thing so they could whup these children all the rest of the year, they would turn it into a camp. And it was just these stone buildings, and I spent most of my time mouthing off to somebody so that I wound up washing down stairs with that black soap they had in those days, I mean it wasn't even Lava. I mean Lava was already high class shit, this was one of those terrible black soaps like Rokeach you find underneath the sink you know, and a horsehair scrub brush rubbing it down like that. And I would run away, every night like clockwork--over the wall. Like Burt Lancaster in Brute Force, Jack, I was gone. I was out on the street, I had no idea where the hell I was, nowhere, we're talking maybe 1942 maybe 1943, and I had no idea where I was. I wandered and wandered and wandered till they finally caught me and brought me back. And one day, I wandered and wandered and wandered and it started to rain. I'm walking in the rain, this pathetic little figure, walking in the rain, trying to get the hell away
from--you know--someone like Mrs. Meany, who used to beat the crap out of Little Annie Rooney in the comic strips. Now, get this: Iying on the sidewalk-- somebody must have dropped it from a bag or something--was a cover of All American Comics with a cover by Martin Nodell, with Green Lantern and Doiby Dickles on it. I picked it up. I loved comics, even then. And I went and I sat under a tree with the rain and I read that comic, and it was the only thing I had in the world that day. I've never forgotten that day, or that comic book. The treasure it was, the calm and succor it gave me. So when they said, "Martin Nodell is going to be sitting at your table"...I started to cry.
Comic books are very important. Very important. Where do you think kids learn about good and evil? Where do you think they learn about right and wrong? Where do you think they learn ethics for pity's sake? And with all due respect to my friends at Marvel, they ain't going to learn it from the Punisher, gang!
All of that maudlin memory sentimentality aside, disabuse yourself of the image of your faithful servant as one who longs for those golden days of yesteryear. I can still go back and re read something from the Forties out of my collection (yes, you little twerps, I'm one of those smartasses who saved all his comics...hundreds of thousands of dollars worth, maybe millions, who the hell knows, listen to me cackle with lunatic delight...excuse me, I've always identified with Victor Von Doom). but I wince at how awful the stories are. If it's Mac Raboy or Jack Cole or Lou Fine or Win Mortimer or Charles Biro art, I can get off on how talented those poor deadline slaves were; if it's early Eisner or Reed Crandall or even C.C. Beck, not to mention Alex Schomburg or Craig Flessel or that sanctified madman Basil Wolverton, I can glow with a small sun in my chest at how much fun those comics were. But apart from The Spirit and a few, very few actual comic book features like Captain Marvel or The Barker or Funny Man --which had consistently strong plots and were a kick to read-- the best writing was in the newspaper strips. And even as a kid I knew the difference in quality between the run-of-the-script comic book and the toney work being done by Hammett and Raymond and Calkins and Foster in the Sunday funnies.
I know the difference. I croak not over the imaginary good old days. Those were days of my youth and I loved comics and they sustained me and they were my friends when I had no friends...because I may not have deserved any friends, being such a smartass...but I wouldn't want to return to those days, in terms of quality writing, for a full mint run or Jingle Jangle Comics (in which the grand master George Carlson plied his trade more brilliantly than any two dozen of today's wunderkinder put together with Renoir tutoring them). No, the comics of today, for all their awfulness and shallowness and brutality and ineptitude and self mimicry...for the most part, are better than they were when I was a kid.
They didn't have Concrete back then. Or Neil Gaiman's Sandman. Or anyone as weirdly wonderful as Grant Morrison on The Doom Patrol (till he went mean and ended his run of yarns with bile and stupidity) . They didn't haveJohn Byrne's NextMen or Chuck Dixon's Alias--which the market couldn't support, so it vanished--or Jaime Delgado's run on Hellblazer or Chuck Pfarrer's Virus or Doug Wildey's Rio or Kyle Baker's Why I Hate Saturn or Alan and Steve's Bojeffries Saga or Sergio and Mark's Groo the Wanderer...or even Jack Harris and Joe Quesada's great run on The Ray miniseries.
Oh, there was wonderful stuff when I was a kid; but ounce for ounce the material is better today than when I needed to wipe the snot from my snout.
So what is my beef?
Well, had I not been interviewed by a group of documentary filmmakers in Stockholm last September...
Hit the big time in Sweden . Hundreds of thousands of copies of a large collection of my stories had been sold. Got an invitation to be an honored guest of the Goteborg Book Fair, which is one of the two largest such annual events in Europe. (Brussels is the other). Got inducted into the Swedish National Encyclopedia, which (I'm told) is one step closer to the Nobel (yeah, sure, and pandas will fly out of my nose), and was generally treated like a serious author, something that sticks in the craw of the American publishing industry that seems hellbent on labeling me a "science fiction writer" and relegating me to the ghetto those words identify.
Attendant on all of this hokey pokey was the media attention. So, after endless interviews and rampant newspaper coverage that made me sound like the Second Coming, I got this request to do a long dialogue on camera, to be integrated in some sort of a thrash-punk, new wave, cutting-edge, rave-style documentary being made by a gaggle of au courant terribly infra-hip, cutting-edge, disenchanted young filmmakers of an international bent. That is to say: the cameraman was English, the interviewer was a Black American expatriate, the producer was Swedish, the gaffer was German, and the kid they treated like shit and sent out for sandwiches seemed to be from Finland.
And I'm sitting there, with this group of "totally with it" guys (not one woman in the pack, both my wife Susan and I noted), and the interviewer, who was maybe twenty two at max, starts asking me some of the dopiest questions I've ever heard. I'm not even talking about the usual moronic "Where do you get your ideas" crap. This guy kept asking
me questions about television shows theythoughtwere significant, like Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea and The Invaders, one of which I'd written for and the other of which I'd been an occasional viewer. And the traditional airhead Star Trek questions. Well, this went on for a great length of time, till finally in reaction to my having been born with a very low boredom threshold, I stopped this yotz in the middle of one of his numb-brain queries, and I said something like, "Why are you asking me such adolescent, transient boring questions, pal? I assume you wanted to talk to me because you labor under the misapprehension that I'm smart or I'm a celeb or you ain't got nothing better to do this evening, but frankly, you aren't even scratching the surface of all of the wonderful stuff that I can talk about."
And at that moment, for no reason that I can explain, save that I get puckish when pressed by boredom, I begin doing my imitation of Walter Huston as the old prospector in Treasure of the Sierra Madre. It's the scene where he starts dancing around and telling Bogart and Tim Holt they're so gahdamned dumb they don't even know they're stand'n on gold! Gold! You dummies! Gold! A mountain's gold! Right under your feet and you're too dumb to know it. See, the connection was--I was this golden fount of interesting data, and they were so gahdamned dumb they could only ask me jerkoff questions.
Well, this imitation is near letterperfect, phonographically exact; and it goes over very well at most gatherings of smartassed friends like mine. But I realized in about 3 seconds, all of these clowns are looking at me as if I've fallen off the moon. "What are you doing?" the interviewer, this African American way cool and with it expatriate in black leather, asks me.
"Walter Huston," I says to him, startled.
"Walter Huston, for chrissakes! Treasure of the Sierra Madre!"
I looked at him. I looked at all of them. It wasn't only that he didn't know what the hell I was talking about, but not one of these international, cooler-than-thou cutting-edge dippos exhibited any surprise that he didn't know the film. And I realized that none of them knew the film!
"What's the greatest film you've ever seen?" I asked the black guy, still staring at me like I had two heads.
I thought he might've said Citizen Kane, or maybe Lost Horizon, or Gone With the Wind, or Greed, or La Strada.
He looks at me, and he says, with a look of beatitude on his handsome young face, "Blade Runner."
"Of all time???" I ask him. "The greatest film of all time, by you, is BladefugginRunner?!?"
For this guy, a young guy in his early twenties, the world began this morning.
Like many people currently working in comics, puffed up with adolescent arrogance, nothing ever happened before.
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. " Santayana. You've heard it before. Maybe. My luck, most of you dumb fucks never heard of Santayana, either.
And now, for ybur patience, here's the point:
I was going to begin these ramblings with the film crew, or the Roper poll that validates skinheads, or the warning that Jim Curley's words left with me, but they were all false starts.
All that has preceded in this Keynote Address has been preamble.
Because here's the beginning:
The day the great Harvey Kurtzman died, I learned of his passing within a hour. And like hundreds of others, I cried for an old friend, for a lost friend, for a fine man, a terrific artist, a great innovator, and for the closing off a bit tighter of that channel to the past that practitioners in this art form seem determined to wipe away.
The next day I had occasion to call one of the Big Five comic companies. Had some business to transact. Got a young man who'd been in the field for about five years. Took care of my business, and then, as an afterthought I said, "Oh, by the way, don't know if the word has gotten to your offices yet, but Harvey Kurtzman died yesterday. Maybe you ought to spread the word around, in case someone hasn't heard."
"Oh. Yeah, yeah," he said. "That's terrible. "
"Yes," I said, "terrible. A great, great man, a great wit and a real creator of consequence for comics."
"Oh. Yeah, yeah," this kid said. "I'll spread the word around here. Now, what was his name again ...?"
"Kurtzman," I said. Astonished. My voice suddenly low and caught in my throat. "Harvey Kurtzman. You know ... Mad magazine ..." I couldn't say any more.
"Oh. Yeah, yeah, sure, Mad," he said. "Wasn't there some writer who was associated with Mad who died recently?"
My spine froze. I managed to say, "Bill Gaines?"
"Yeah! Yeah, that's the name."
Softly, so softly, I said, "Yeah, kid, yeah, he was 'associated' with Mad." And Harve is safe from your ignorance, dancing nekkid with the angels. Bill they'd make put on a muu muu.
Say it ain't so!
Say that the arrogance of the young has not so deeply infected this art form-- as it has infected general literature, science fiction, music, dining, ethical behavior, television, the soul and what passes for the mind in the Common Man and Woman--that the wannabe and the parvenu, the Johnny-come-lately and the know nothing, the arrogant imbecile and the bumptious speculator who buys Neil's Sandman not for the pleasure but "for investment" have not so taken over this art form--that we validate the thinking of some twelve year old who thinks that
when we mention the creator of The X-Men as Lee, that we mean Jim.
Harvey Kurtzman is dead. His like never comes again.
So few remain with us. Eisner still works, as does Mart Nodell a little, as does Alex Schomburg, as does Al Williamson, as does Dan Barry, as does Alex Toth and Carl Barks and a handful more. For most of them, their Days of Glory are past. But what they created still shines. It still lights the way for twenty year olds to live like millionaires. Like Willy Loman, they must not be permitted to spend their final days in obscurity. Attention! Attention must be paid to these men and women.
There is history in every page of every comic.
You may not see it in the endless gang bashings and pin up drawings that bear no more relation to "story" than Imelda Marcos does to philanthropy; but they are the children of Mac Raboy and Lev Gleason and William Moulton Marston.
We have been somewhere. We come from somewhere. There is a road that stretches out behind us. We are something greater than merely tools of Business, greater than hustlers, more than just people who sell comics in stores. We are part of a great American art form that has been denied legitimacy by greedy business people and the terrible erasure of our past.
Tell me that it ain't so, that you have no idea why we cry at the passing of Harvey Kurtzman. Hey, look! I need to know. say it ain't so.
Copyright(c) 1993 by the Kilimanjaro Corporation
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