James Warren, Empire of Monsters Preface
© copyright 2018 by Bill Schelly
JAMES WARREN SUBSTANTIALLY contributed to the history of comics in America, even though he didn’t write or draw them. He fostered appreciation of horror and science fiction cinema, although he wasn’t a film critic, historian or news reporter. Instead, he made it possible for others to exercise their craft in those areas. He was a publisher. A plaque on his office wall proclaimed, “Someone has to make it happen.” Over a span of twenty-five years (1958–1982), Warren fielded such immensely popular and fondly regarded horror-related magazines as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella, as well as Screen Thrills Illustrated, Blazing Combat, 1984 and others. He published magazines edited by giants of the comics and satire field: The Spirit by Will Eisner, popularizer of the graphic novel, and Help!, by Harvey Kurtzman, creator of Mad. None of these titles would have existed had Warren not had the vision, the resourcefulness and the sheer scrappiness to survive in the tough New York City publishing business.
He was more than merely the man who gave Gloria Steinem her first job in publishing, who put early work by Diane Arbus into print and who gave Robert Crumb’s cartoons their first national exposure. He had creative abilities of his own, as an art director, cartoonist and designer, as well as the capacity to understand what fans of comics and cinema wanted to read. He was also a highly controversial figure: a bombastic, self-confessed provocateur loved by some and hated by others. Who was the “real” James Warren? Samuel L. Sherman, a Warren protégé who went on to produce horror cinema, recently observed, “Jim was always a great enigma. I guess he wanted to be mysterious. He didn’t ever want his whole gestalt, his whole persona, laid out there on a table.”
Not only did he keep the world at arm’s length, building a wall around his personal life and inner self, but he promoted an image that was more mythmaking than revealing. Barton Banks, his longtime friend, said, “Half of everything Jim Warren says is absolutely true.”
As a biographer, my job is to penetrate that mystery. Therefore, while this book includes a great deal of material gleaned from the relatively small number of interviews with Warren—including two long, previously unpublished interviews, as well as a talk I had with him in 2014—it goes beyond that. In the past two years, I interviewed many of Warren’s friends, enemies and colleagues. In addition, my editor and publisher gave me access to a cornucopia of unpublished interviews with Warren personnel and freelancers from twenty years ago—people who have, in many cases, passed away. Among them are Bill DuBay, Archie Goodwin, Al Williamson and Bernie Wrightson. These voices from beyond the grave help convey an unvarnished picture of the man and his operation.
This book isn’t a complete history of Warren Publishing, but it does talk about the company in some depth. What he published says a lot about him. Without an examination of the magazines and highlights of individual comics stories, this book would be incomplete. A publisher’s legacy is found in the pages of his publications. Attention must be paid to the work itself, and what fine work it is! Consider: Warren published stories and art by more than thirty creative individuals now in the Comic-Con International: Hall of Fame, including Frank Frazetta, the supreme painter of fantasy imagery; Alex Toth, a true genius of comic art; and Wallace Wood, brilliant humorist and the premier SF comics artist. Add to the list top talents such as Neal Adams, Richard Corben, Jack Davis, Steve Ditko, Will Elder, Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, Al Williamson and Bernie Wrightson, among others. And he gave both Archie Goodwin and Louise Simonson their first jobs in comics.
Warren provided a showcase that DC Comics, Marvel Comics or the other mainstream comic book publishers of the era couldn’t, because he chose a format which was outside the purview of the repressive Comics Code Authority. He provided an alternative to super heroes and an island of creative freedom. Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella consisted of uncensored comics before and after the unbridled underground comics movement was born, briefly flourished and essentially died. Warren Publishing filled the gap between the birth of the Code in late 1954 and the 1980s, when the Code was in substantial eclipse, comic book stores were proliferating coast to coast and Eisner’s A Contract with God was able to make it onto bookstore shelves.
The crumbling of his operation, ending in the firm’s filing for bankruptcy in 1983, is a saga in itself, capped by Warren’s Houdini-like vanishing act from public view. Tracing its cause is an important part of this book, as is chronicling his reemergence a decade later. Return he did, to launch a lawsuit to regain control of his literary properties. In the center of the maelstrom was Warren himself, contradictions and all: a feisty man of enormous charm, colossal arrogance, surprising kindness and explosive anger, a man whose career rose to impressive heights, and ended in sudden, shocking collapse. It’s the story of a man who survived two major health traumas, one as a young man, and another which brought him low as he reached middle age. But it’s more than a tale of a complicated man to love-hate. At its heart, it’s the story of a David who took on more than one publishing Goliath, the tale of a determined, talented entrepreneur whose ability to innovate, solve problems and confront threats on a daily basis commanded respect from his employees and competitors alike. Like his music idol, Frank Sinatra, he did it “his way.” He was less a maverick than he was an empire builder. Indeed, Warren built an empire of monsters. And who doesn’t love monsters?