by Peter Sanderson
While WonderCon, one of the nation’s largest comics/multimedia conventions was going on in Anaheim, last Saturday New York and New Jersey area comics fans were listening to comics greats speak in the more intimate setting of the Wonder Bar at the Asbury Park Comicon, now in its third year.
The convention took place in Asbury Park, New Jersey, along the celebrated Jersey Shore. Founded in the 1870s, the town still has picturesque Victorian architecture. But the town is now most famous for its prominence in popular music history from the 1970s on, most notably the early career of Bruce Springsteen and the E-Street Band.
Only a year ago founders Cliff Galbraith and Robert Bruce held the Asbury Park Comicon in Asbury Lanes, a combination music club and bowling alley. But this year the main venue for the con was the grand old Asbury Park Convention Hall, part of an enormous complex that includes the Paramount Theatre and was constructed in the 1920s on the boardwalk along the beach. Exhibitors filled two floors of the Convention Hall. The theatre and arcade are connected by an arcade, where a 1960s style Batmobile and a Back to the Future DeLorean were displayed; the arcade was also the site of the Comicon’s cosplay competition. If anyone wanted to take a break from con activities, they could gaze out the windows to see the light glittering on the Atlantic Ocean on a beautifully sunlit day.
Panels were held across the street at the Wonder Bar, decorated with images of Tillie, a grinning cartoon figure who is an icon of Asbury Park history. Starting roughly forty-five minutes after the Comicon opened at 10 AM, the remarkable line-up of panels ran until closing time, with the Beat’s own Torsten Adair as master of ceremonies. This was a pleasant venue, with a stage on one end, but food and drinks were being served at the other end of the tavern, and the noise from people talking down there rose in volume during the course of the day, becoming a problem by late afternoon.
First up was “Of Clerks and Comic Book Men.” Asbury Park is not far from Red Hook, New Jersey, the location of Kevin Smith’s comic book store Jay and Bob’s Secret Stash, the setting of AMC’s reality television series Comic Book Men. Present on this first panel of the day were Ming Chen, Bryan Johnson, and Mike Zapcic, all regulars on the show, and Brian O’Halloran, the lead actor in Smith’s films Clerks, Clerks II, and the forthcoming Clerks III. The panelists bantered entertainingly, sometimes aiming funny but affectionate insults at one another, while reminiscing about how they first met Kevin Smith. It came as something of a shock when it was pointed out that the original Clerks is now nearly twenty years old. Asked how he got the role of Dante in Smith’s film, O’Halloran started by claiming he “had some provocative pictures of his [Smith's] mom,” but then told the story seriously, how he auditioned to be an extra and unexpectedly ended up getting a lead role. As for Clerks III, which Smith is now writing, O’Halloran said that from what he knows about it, “I think it will be one of his best written pieces.” Johnson pronounced it “pretty amazing” and “really funny.”
Asked about Stan Lee’s appearance on Comic Book Men, Johnson noted “how nice” and “cool” Stan is. Then he recalled how when he was riding in a limousine with Lee during the making of the episode, he asked Stan “if he was that excited about always getting comic book questions.” After getting an unexpected response, Johnson said, “I swore to him I would not tell his answer.” Was it “shocking,” he was asked. “A little bit,” Johnson replied.
Then came the Comicon’s keynote address by Michael Uslan, an executive producer on all the Batman live action movies from director Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman onwards and author of the memoir The Boy Who Loved Batman. This keynote was a variation on Uslan’s familiar, well-crafted presentation, recounting his life starting with being a young boy engaged in the then lonely hobby of collecting comics, who saw the debut of the 1960s Batman TV show, was appalled that it was a comedy, and vowed (not unlike the young Bruce Wayne, as he says) to devote his life to showing the world that Batman could be done as a serious hero. And then Uslan recounts how he achieved his dream, teaching the first academic course on superhero comics, becoming a writer at DC Comics, and after ten years of struggle to make a serious live action Batman film, finally triumphing with the Burton blockbuster.
What made this version of his speech different were his many references to the Jersey Shore. As a boy Uslan lived in nearby Ocean Township, but regularly came to Asbury Park. “It is so cool to be back home,” Uslan declared. It was in “a place twelve miles from here,” a flea market called Collingwood Auction, that Uslan said he began amassing his colossal collection of Golden Age comics, paying only a nickel for each. He also recalled driving around “the Circuit” in Asbury Park in the late 1960s, trying to pick up girls; unfortunately, Uslan said he wore a Batman helmet to try to look cool, and “it didn’t work.” Uslan said that the last time he had been in the Wonder Bar, where he was giving his speech, was when he had his very first drink!
At noon comics historian and publisher Craig Yoe, introduced by Torsten Adair as “the Indiana Jones of comics archaeology,” interviewed cartoonist Bob Camp. “I have him up on a pedestal,” Yoe said about Camp. “And I’m afraid of heights,” replied Camp, setting the tone for this witty look back at his lengthy career in comics and animation.
As for just when he started cartooning, Camp said, “I don’t remember not drawing. It’s all I ever did,” joking, “It’s why I have no other skills.” He was fascinated by animated cartoons as a boy, especially Warner Brothers cartoons, but also “any cartoon I could watch,” singling out Famous Studios’ Herman and Katnip series and Terrytoons’ Gandy Goose and Sourpuss. Camp likened Gandy and Sourpuss to two famous characters he later worked on, Ren and Stimpy., “One mean guy, one happy-go-lucky guy, and they’re both gay.”
Camp talked about learning his craft by drawing caricatures in Provincetown on Cape Cod. He said he knew nothing about comic books when he started working at Marvel. “Blame Larry Hama,” he said, since Hama hired him, and Camp began cartooning for Marvel’s humor magazine Crazy. He also did art corrections in Marvel’s Bullpen, where, he said, he learned to imitate the styles of every 1980s Marvel artist, including John Byrne and Bill Sienkiewicz. Camp also confessed that editor in chief “Jim Shooter scared me,” and reminisced about the stories inker Vince Colletta would tell about crime.
Camp then segued into recounting his career in animation, talking about working with animator Bruce Timm on The Real Ghostbusters, working alongside “the greatest guys in animation” on Tiny Toon Adventures, and meeting animator John Kricfalusi, leading to their collaboration on Ren & Stimpy. But, quoting Charles Dickens, Camp referred to his time on that show as “the best of times, the worst of times,” describing what he saw as Kricfalusi’s self-destructive relationship with the Nickelodeon network and his own falling out with Kricfalusi.
Camp ended by talking about his current work, including a Kickstarter project that he and Larry Hama have launched for an animated cartoon called “Hard Heart an Strong Arm.”
Next, at 1 PM, came “Al Jaffee: 57 Years of Going Mad.” Jaffee, now 92 but as sharp as ever, provided his characteristic snappy answers to the far from stupid questions put to him by comics writer and editor Danny Fingeroth. “I have never hosted a panel in a bar before,” Fingeroth began, adding, “Is everyone drunk?”
Fingeroth and Jaffee explored Jaffee’s life going back to his childhood in Savannah, Georgia. “I think I started cartooning a day after I was born,” Jaffee said. His mother took him to live for years in what Jaffee called “the Siberia of Lithuania.” There comics proved to be “critical” to his survival, Jafgfee said, explaining that “It was like the 18th century where I lived in Lithuania,” but his father sent him a collection of Sunday and daily newspaper comic strips from America every six months. “My brother and I spent hours copying all the cartoons.”
Returning to America “in the depths of the Depression,” in 1936 Jaffee entered the High School of Music and Art, newly founded by New York’s legendary (and comics-loving) Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia. “I think he saved all our lives,” Jaffee said, whose best friend there was future Mad co-worker Will Elder.
Unable to get work from advertising agencies, Jaffee and other artists turned to comic books instead, and Jaffee started by selling his idea Inferiorman, which he called “a shameless takeoff on Superman,” to Will Eisner, who put him to work in his studio.
Then Jaffee started a long relationship working for Stan Lee at Timely Comics, the company we now know as Marvel. “Stan was 19. I was 20. I immediately saw what a firebrand Stan was. He had just taken over from Simon & Kirby” as editor of Timely Comics. For Timely Jaffee wrote and drew Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal, and later took over Patsy Walker. Under Fingeroth’s questioning, Jaffee also recounted how he took over another Timely funny animal series, Super Rabbit, and gave the character believable problems, even “fits of depression,” and Fingeroth pointed out this prefigured Spider-Man. Jaffee said his “relationship with Stan Lee was not close, but it was warm,” and Lee never edited him, giving him a free hand.
Referring to the Senate hearings condemning comic books as causes of juvenile delinquency, Jaffee declared “In my opinion the U. S. Senate was causing juvenile delinquency,” to applause from the audience.
Jaffee began discussed his work with Harvey Kurtzman, whom he called a “strange genius,” on the short-lived magazines Trump and Humbug, and then his going to work for editor Al Feldstein on Mad. Fingeroth and Jaffee went through the familiar and surefire stories of how Jaffee created his best-known Mad features, “Snappy Answers to Stupid Questions” and the Mad Fold-Ins. Jaffee had thought his first Fold-In “was a one-shot gag,” and believes that if Kurtzman had still been editing Mad, there never would have been a second one, since Kurtzman was always looking for new ideas. But Feldstein directed Jaffee to come up with a second one. “And that was 49 years ago,” concluded Jaffee, who has been doing Fold-Ins all during those years, and teased the audience by telling them the set-up for the one he is woking on now—but not the punch line.
At 2 PM one of the Comicon’s organizers, Cliff Galbraith, interviewed underground cartoonist John Holmstrom, who in 1975 co-founded the magazine Punk, which chronicled the punk rock movement in its heyday.
Then at 3 PM it was back to the Golden Age of Comics, with Fingeroth back onstage, this time interviewing another of the few survivors of that period, artist Allen Bellman. In 1942, when he was a teenager, Bellman started working for Timely Comics, as Marvel was known in the 1940s, drawing backgrounds for artist Syd Shores’ work on Captain America. Bellman was hired by artist Don Rico and did not meet Stan Lee until two weeks later. His initial image of Stan was as a young man following around his uncle Robert Solomon, the brother-in-law of Timely publisher Martin Goodman. Bellman recalled that the Timely Bullpen was divided into two separate rooms, one for “the animators,” his name for the funny animal artists, and the other for “the illustrators,” the superhero artists such as himself. The first series that Bellman drew on his own was The Patriot, but he also worked on Marvel’s trinity of stars, The Human Torch, Sub-Mariner, and Captain America.
Perhaps surprisingly, Bellman never met Jack Kirby and never met Joe Simon until 2007. At the Comicon earlier that day Bellman was reunited with Al Jaffee. “I was so happy to see him.”
Bellman was one of the hundreds of comic book professionals who were forced to leave the business thanks to the outcry against comics in the 1950s. Referring to Dr. Fredric Wertham’s Seduction of the Innocent, Bellman said, “That book put me out of commission.”
Bellman is well aware that he is one of the few survivors left from the Golden Age of Comics. After reminiscing about the late Gene Colan, Bellman commented, “There’s not many of us left.” And at the end of the panel, asked about his former colleagues, Bellman said simply, “They’re all gone but me.”
Following at 4 PM was “Marvel Days,” a panel surveying the history of Marvel Comics from the 1960s onward. Moderated by Christopher Irving, the author of Leaping Tall Buildings, a book of interviews with comics creators, the panel also included Sean Howe, author of the recent history Marvel Comics: The Untold Story. However, the discussion was dominated by Herb Trimpe, longtime Marvel artist who started collaborating with Stan Lee on The Incredible Hulk back in the Silver Age of the 1960s, and Papercutz editor Jim Salicrup, who rose from messenger to editor at Marvel, where he became best known for editing the Spider-Man titles.
Oddly, both Trimpe and Salicrup had anecdotes about Stan Lee’s hair. Trimpe said that when he first worked at Marvel, Stan, who was in the process of undergoing a hair transplant, “hated” Trimpe’s thick hair. In recalling his early days at Marvel as a messenger, Salicrup recalled going on a mysterious mission to an East Side town house to pick up an equally mysterious package, which turned out to be Stan’s toupee!
Salicrup got his foot in the door at Marvel by sending in a postcard and getting hired by Roy Thomas, just as Marvel was starting a massive expansion in the early 1970s; as Salicrup observed, it is hard to believe that anyone could get hired this way by today’s corporate Marvel. “I loved it when Stan was there, for the first ten years I was there,” before Lee moved out to California to promote Marvel properties as potential TV shows and movies.
Trimpe explained that the “problem he had at Marvel” was that he considered himself a artist more in the cartoon-like style of Jack Davis, who instead had to try for a “classic look” like that of Marvel mainstay John Buscema. Trimpe turned to the work of Jack Kirby. “As far as I know, Stan never ordered anyone to copy Kirby’s stuff,” Trimpe said. “Kirby’s stuff had a language to it” that was “very powerful stuff. He is the central comic book artist.”
Asked about office politics at Marvel, Salicrup said that he was aware of it at the time, but preferred to avoid it. “Marvel was big enough that I could easily get lost in it,” he said. “I was just enamored about being a kid from the Bronx who was in this Oz-like place like Marvel Comics in the 1970s.”
Questioned by Irving, Salicrup gave his take on the now familiar tale of how Chris Claremont and John Byrne’s “The Dark Phoenix Saga” evolved, and how editor in chief Jim Shooter ordered that the ending be changed so Jean Grey would die, thereby, in Salicrup’s view, transforming the saga into a classic.
Salicrup also spoke of Shooter’s emphasis on “clarity of storytelling” and noted that nowadays “some DC and Marvel books can be very hard to read” for newcomers to the medium, such as the kids who read Salicrup’s Papercutz comics. Hence, Salicrup said, “Sometimes I feel like I’m deprogramming” artists from Marvel and DC, by “having to explain the real basics of storytelling” in comics, like leaving enough room for the word balloons!
Finally, from shortly after 5 PM till the convention’s closing time, Jon B. Cooke, editor of the magazine Comic Book Artist, interviewed Jay Lynch, a leading member of the original generation of underground comix creators. In 1968 in Chicago Lynch launched and edited Bijou Funnies, one of the pioneering underground comix. He was also one of the principal artists for Topps’ Garbage Pail Kids and Wacky Packages.
Lynch recounted how he first saw Harvey Kurtzman’s original version of Mad in 1953. “When I saw Mad, I decided to be a cartoonist.” But Lynch said he initially did one-panel gag cartoons. “I didn’t start doing comix until Zap came out,” Robert Crumb’s landmark underground comic. Lynch likened underground comix to other cultural phenomena of the 1960s, including the Free Speech movement and the taboo-breaking comedy of Lenny Bruce. Lynch recalled how he, Crumb, and another underground comix pioneer, Gilbert Shelton, would trade their comic books, with each other. Thus enabling them to keep in touch with each other’s work. Lynch also explained that President Richard Nixon launched a pornography investigation that made publishers nervous about possible prosecution, thereby sending sales of underground comix into decline.
Turning to Lynch’s work for Topps, Cooke asked, “Is that what you’re best known for—Garbage Pail Kids?”
“No,” replied Lynch, “I think my performance of Swan Lake.”
Nowadays, Lynch said, he is doing paintings which he sells on eBay.
Lynch wound up the panel by recounting an anecdote which captured some of a sense of the good and bad sides of the 1960s. It was the day that the Beatles’ White Album came out, Lynch was working for Topps, and “everyone on the subway has a copy of the White Album.” Lynch went to see fellow underground cartoonist Spain Rodriguez, who was living in a building in an area ridden with crime and drug addicts. Lynch went out and bought pizza for both of them, but on his way back was accosted by thugs, who asked him what he was carrying. Lynch lied and said it was the Beatles’ White Album, whereupon one of the thugs, impressed, said, “Okay, we’ll let you go.”
Photo © Danny CenturyMany more photos of the con in the link.