From The Golden Age of Comic Fandom
By Bill Schelly
© copyright 1998 by Bill Schelly
Out of the Woodwork
Upon laying eyes on Alter-Ego … I was
joyously exuberant, amazed, and profoundly
pleased that such a publication existed!
An entire publication devoted to comic
heroes!! A whole new world was opening
up to me. A-E let me know that I wasn’t
the only individual in the world interested
enough in comics to collect them.
Ronn Foss, 1962
Ronn Foss was only one of the dozens of old-time comic fans who came out of the woodwork when they saw the early issues of Alter-Ego.
Some of them were the double-fans who were well-known in the ranks of sf fandom, but many more were unknown—unless they had a letter printed in a DC or ACG letter column. The US Postal Service reached enthusiasts from across the country and from far-flung continents. They came from all walks of life: mailmen, ambulance attendants, reporters, commercial artists, musicians, businessmen and college students.
Most of them had one thing in common: they weren’t the pre-adolescents who had so disappointed Ted White when Potrzebie had gotten its plug in the EC newsletter. Many were in high school, at least, if not considerably older. Some had been collecting since the 1940s. Those older fans brought a mature element into the ranks of this new comic fandom that steadied the ship during the year of its maiden voyage. And they brought special aptitudes and talents that were vital.
Alter-Ego #2 (June 1961) began with another cover by Roy Thomas, depicting a scene of the Spectre and Count Dis from “The Reincarnation of the Spectre – Part 2.” Bails contributed an article on the creators behind Hawkman, and Thomas wrote about the All-Winners Squad from Timely. Part II of “The Bestest League of America” strip by Roy, as well as an editorial, ads and letter column (“Conversations”), rounded out the issue. All but a Hawkman story synopsis by Douglas Marden was from the Bails/Thomas team.
The third issue of A-E (November 1961) was also mainly a dual-effort from the editors. This time, Jerry created a pastiche cover of the Golden Age Green Lantern facing his greatest foes (Solomon Grundy, the Harlequin, et al.) with Doiby Dickles by his side. The bulk of the text was devoted to GL in both his incarnations: Bails (with the help of George Paul) tackled the Alan Scott version, and Thomas handled the Hal Jordan version. A lengthy letter column and the conclusion of “The Bestest League of America” (introducing Wombatman and Superham) made up most of the remainder of the issue. Only a humor piece by Linda Rahm (Roy’s girlfriend) and an article on the Captain America movie serial of the 1940s by Ron Haydock were from “outside” contributors. After A-E #3 saw print, comicdom was growing at an astounding rate, and there were a host of potential contributors who were both knowledgeable and talented to help Jerry and Roy carry the ball.
Fans desperately needed information about comics of the past, and gave a warm welcome to the well-researched articles by be-spectacled Raymond Miller, a soft-spoken fan living in Vandergrift, Pennsylvania. He had been buying comics starting around 1943, and had saved a stack of about one hundred favorites from the late 1940s. In the early 1950s, he also bought and collected EC comics as they were published.
“Up until 1959, I knew no one else who collected comics,” Miller wrote recently. “I knew of no one, outside of newsstands and drugstores, who sold comic books, and they only sold new comics. As each year passed, my collection grew and grew with new issues, never any back issues.
“The first person I got into corresponding and trading on a regular basis with was Dean Newman in Bard, California. This was in late 1959 or early 1960. Then, in September 1960, Dean told me about Bill Thailing, and that’s when I really started adding old comics to my collection.”
By the time Miller caught up to him, Thailing’s selling prices generally ran from 25 cents to $1.50 for a Golden Age comic. Only the prime comics before 1943 commanded $1.75, $2.00 or higher.
In a letter to Miller dated July 18, 1961, Thailing wrote, “Keep your fingers crossed. Maybe that will help bring in some of the older comics. They sure are getting scarce!! The ones after 1943 are not so hard to find. It’s those toughies before 1943 that are the ones that never seem to show up.” In a list from that same year, he was charging $3.00 for a copy of Batman #1 and $5.00 for Dick Tracy Feature Book #4.
Miller and Thailing constantly traded data about Golden Age comics. “Thank you for the information on the old comic magazine costume characters that you supplied,” Bill wrote on December 2, 1960. “Any information that collectors like us can supply each other is indeed helpful. There is nowhere else we can obtain this … except from one another.” Out of his own personal interest, Miller began methodically collating his data, and sometimes sharing his lists with others. Ray tirelessly created features like “The Hall of Fame” and “The Information Corner” for early fanzines, producing hundreds of drawings of well-known and not-so-well-known Golden Age costumed heroes.
Two fans who were among the first to step forward were John and Tom McGeehan of Santa Ana, California. The McGeehans had been involved in Burroughs fandom in the late 1950s, and were among the earliest to hear about Alter-Ego. Shoe repairmen by trade, the brothers put their penchant for creating indexes and checklists to good use with their House of Info, a perennial source of data to early collectors. They were well-known to fanzine publishers, for they made it a policy to order multiple copies of every comic fanzine. They continued this practice through-out the decade.
One of the most colorful figures who flashed across the fannish landscape was Ron Haydock, a man who had been a rockabilly recording artist as the leader of a group called the Boppers in the late 1950s, best known for the song “99 Chicks.” Born in Chicago, he had fashioned himself after Gene Vincent, but broke up the band to get married and move to California. A movie and serial fanatic, he joined up with the WCZ (West Coast Zine) group and published a fanzine called Ape. Soon Haydock branched out with another zine mostly about serials called Skybird. He also wrote for Ackerman’s Famous Monsters of Filmland and edited his own Fantastic Monsters of the Films. But early comic fandom knew him best for his “Serialously Speaking” columns in Alter-Ego and elsewhere.
It was Ron Haydock who introduced an artist who would become for a time more admired than many of the pros whose work was being published out of New York: Ronn Foss. Foss was the first artist to gain widespread recognition in comicdom, and certainly one of the best.
Born in 1939 in Defiance, Ohio, and having grown up in various Midwestern cities, Ronald Eugene Foss had been drawing his own comics as early as 1949. His favorite artists were Mac Raboy, Al Williamson, Joe Simon and Jack Kirby, and of course Joe Kubert, who became his biggest influence. During high school in Ft. Wayne, Indiana, he created hundreds of characters and numerous complete strips, in many genres: costumed hero, western, science fiction and adventure. As a teenager, Foss won art awards and gained visibility doing various forms of art-for-hire in his local community.
Ronn joined the Air Force in 1957 and was sent to Saudi Arabia. There an incident occurred that might have ended his art career before it began. Foss and a roommate were fooling around with a home-made rocket. “I improvised an engine wrapping a lot of layers of aluminum foil around firecracker powder,” he recalled in a 1991 interview. “One night we stepped out on to the back porch. I held it in my hands, and my buddy lit a match to it. I felt a thrust of energy, and held on a moment too long … because the thing exploded in my hand. We were standing there for a microsecond in a ball of fire. There was a tremendous boom! The foil just ripped to shreds, and mildly cut our faces. We were a pretty bloody couple of guys when the Air Police came to investigate.” By an incredible stroke of luck, his hand escaped serious injury.
“In 1958 through 1960, I was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in Fairfield, California, which is forty-five miles from San Francisco,” Foss remembered. “I spent lots of my free time in the North Beach area, digging jazz and poetry and more expressive arts than cartooning. I was really caught up in the beatnik scene.” He wrote and published his own booklet of beat poetry entitled Like Lost and Looking Back.
Foss was introduced to comic fandom with Alter-Ego #2, which began his correspondence with Jerry Bails. Bails put him in touch with Ron Haydock, Roy Thomas and others.
“Ron [Haydock] sent me copies of his own fanzines,” Foss wrote in 1962. “Skybird #2 was to serve as my initiation as a fan artist. Ron, who had seen samples of my art, asked me to illustrate the cover. The issue featured a blast at DC’s Secret Origins annual and my cover illo pictured the characters in the annual standing around reading the comic itself and bitterly complaining about their so-called ‘origin’ stories.”
Two of the earliest writers to surface were Steve Perrin of Santa Barbara, California, and Steve Gerber of University City, Missouri. Both would play key roles in publishing and contributing to early fanzines. Steve Perrin, along with writer Rick Weingroff, was one of the best and most prolific writers in comicdom.
Well-known collectors like L. L. Simpson, Rick Durell, Ed Lahmann and many others also came to the fore, often teaming up with the indexers and data-nuts to help compile the early checklists. Before long, John Wright of South Africa and John Ryan of Australia were spreading the word around the globe.
Ever-supportive Julius Schwartz suggested that Roy compose a letter to plug Alter-Ego, and it was duly printed in JLA #8 (December-January 1962). The letter appeared just before A-E #3 was published, and garnered so many responses that demand for the fanzine now exceeded supply. (Remember, ditto masters would wear out after several hundred copies.) A high percentage of those who responded became “active fans”—too many to list here by name. Suffice it to say that as many as 500 fans were involved by the end of 1961. The development of a successful, varied comic fandom was a group effort.
If one thing was even more important than indexing the history of comics, it was the opportunity to advertise “wants, trades and sales.” Fans leapt at the opportunity to advertise in the pages of A-E, and soon Bails was being swamped with ads.
“My initial conception of Alter-Ego turned out to be unrealistic,” Jerry said recently. “I wanted well-researched articles and features, comic strips, news and ads. Each of these features demanded different deadlines. The Comicollector was the first spin-off in September 1961.” The premiere issue ran the tag line “The companion to Alter-Ego.”
In the first issue Bails announced, “The Comicollector is an advertising zine devoted to the swaps and sales announcements of comics collectors and dealers. It will go out free to the regular readers of Alter-Ego, and to 300 additional comics fans. How often The Comicollector is published will depend entirely on the rate at which advertising is received. Want ads, trade lists, and price lists will be published for $1.00 per quarter page (with a minimum of $1.00).” Thus was launched what would be one of the most enduring fanzines from 1960s fandom.
The first advertisement in CC #1, on page one, was from John McGeehan. The issue also contained ads from Frank H. Nuessel, Roy Thomas, Red’s Book Shop, Paul Seydor, Claude Held and Ronn Foss.
Also, the first issue set the precedent for running articles as well as ads, with a review of Fantastic Four #1 (“Four of a Kind”) by Roy Thomas. It had been submitted to Jerry for possible inclusion in A-E, with the cover note from Roy reading, “Yesterday I discovered a new comic called The Fantastic Four, which just might turn out to really be something. Have you seen it?”4 In his review, he writes (in part), “Despite its faults … The Fantastic Four holds promise of becoming one of the better comics now on the stands. One interesting aspect of this comic … is that the Thing is a rather rebellious creature who is often at the point of fighting to the death with the leader, Mr. Fantastic…. This feature alone, especially if and when the Torch begins to get in on this running feud, would make it well worth any super-hero fan’s dime.”
But Alter-Ego wasn’t finished sub-dividing. Timely news of what’s “On The Drawing Board” also didn’t fit into the schedule of an irregular article-zine, and so the OTDB feature gained an independent life with #4 dated October 7, 1961. The first few “issues” were merely one-page data sheets every few weeks; with #8, and the name change to The Comic Reader in March of the following year, it gradually grew into a multi-page fanzine. As time went on, Jerry began including news of fan events, as well as previews of what to expect in pro comics. Bails took on the role of being the fan with “the inside view,” due to his contacts in the industry. Cognizant of the need to maintain those sources, none of his fanzines (at first) contained strong criticism of comics, especially not those from the Schwartz stable. Jerry Bails was now editing and publishing three fanzines.
The first non-Bails fanzine devoted strictly to comics after A-E was Spotlite (November 1961) from young Parley Holman of Salt Lake City. Holman had seen his first zines when he was about twelve years old. “There were EC fanzines that I had discovered through the Adventures Into The Unknown letter column around 1959,” he remembered. “Some time in the spring of 1961 I got a truncated version of Alter-Ego #1. Jerry Bails was sending it out to people who had letters published in comics. I thought, gosh, I can do something just as good as this!” Par, who in later years would laugh at his youthful brashness, began writing people like Ronn Foss for contributions to his proposed fanzine.
“I had this idea for a character called Dimension Man,” Holman explained. “I told [Ronn] about my idea … and on his own he drew a little illustration at the bottom of one of his letters. The character’s visualization more or less came from that drawing of Ronn’s.”
Dimension Man is significant because he was the first super hero created and published especially for the new comic fandom movement. His battle against Dr. Demon, where he gained the ability to teleport his body from one location to another, was serialized over the first three issues of Spotlite, with segments written by Par Holman, Dean Newman and Steve Perrin, respectively.
After Dimension Man, Foss collaborated with another young writer on a strip featuring a character named Little Giant. The writer, who signed the strip S. G. Ross, was in reality Steve Gerber, and the fanzine it appeared in was Gerber’s own Headline #1 (May 1962). These strips provided an inspiration to dozens of fledgling writers and artists who would, in time, make the amateur comic strip a major part of fandom.
At first, Ronn seemed to be feeling his way, perhaps because this was the first time he had drawn on ditto masters. But he had a strong command of the syntax of comic strip construction, and soon the famous “Foss fluidity” emerged. His panels expressed his sophisticated design-sense, with figures springing into dynamic action. This was no legacy from Kubert or other influences; Foss brought to his strips an individuality that made his work instantly recognizable.
1961 was not yet over, and there was one more development with far-reaching implications to occur: The publication of a brief four-page “fanzine” called The Rocket’s Blast. Only six to eight copies of the first issue were produced, using carbon paper. There could have been no humbler beginning for this acorn which would one day grow into a mighty oak.
The Rocket’s Blast editor Gordon (G. B.) Love was born in 1939 in Atlanta, Georgia. He became a comic fan early with his love for the original Capt. Marvel comics in the 1940s. He dreamed of performing feats of derring-do, but, unlike other boys, even modest feats of physical prowess would remain outside his grasp.
- B. Love had cerebral palsy. He had had it since birth, when doctors found certain motor functions of his brain had been damaged.
“I was a little boy the first time I read comic books,” Love remembered. “And that is when comic books are magic. You’re young. You’re weak. You’re smaller than anyone else. The whole world is bigger and stronger than you are. You have to deal with the neighborhood bully and a lot of giant adults.
“You read about super heroes. You fantasize. They’re super-strong. They’re all-powerful. You name it and a super hero has the power to do it … to achieve all that man has thought of in his wildest moments.”
In a 1971 interview, his father (who worked at Royal Bakery in Miami) recounted, “We came down [to Miami] about twelve years ago. I took [Gordon] around to the rehabilitation people and they gave him tests. They said there was just nothing they could do for him. Goodwill offered him a job for $25 a week, but he wouldn’t take that.”
- B. Love had a great deal more to offer than charity make-work, even if his cerebral palsy made telephone communication an uphill battle, and he could only type by clutching a pencil in one hand and striking the keys of an electric typewriter with the eraser end, laboriously, one by one.
In a recent interview, Love remembered how he decided to publish a fanzine. “[In 1961] I was looking for something to occupy my time, and hoped to develop something that might eventually become profitable. My original idea was to combine sf and comics in a fanzine, but I quickly dropped the sf and concentrated on my first love, comic books. I picked the name The Rocket’s Blast myself but I really don’t remember how I came up with it.”
A letter from Love printed in Mystery in Space announced his intention to start a club and put out a newsletter. “At the time I produced the first issue of RB, I was unaware of anyone else trying it too. After I began publishing, I think the first fanzine I discovered was Alter-Ego.”
Love published under the aegis of the “SFCA.” This originally stood for Science Fiction and Comic Association, but was changed to South Florida Comic Association. In any case, it was merely the name of Love’s company.
The Rocket’s Blast was not, at first, primarily devoted to ads. The comics-oriented articles were generally brief and of variable quality. Some were profiles of Golden Age characters; others consisted of commentary on new comics. None of the first eight issues exceeded five legal-sized pages.
If 1961 had been a year for comicdom to take its first tentative steps, 1962 was a time when fandom took a number of confident strides forward. Many of the readers of Bails’ fanzines were preparing to take a more active role in the New Year, either with contributions to Jerry’s zines, or by publishing their own. Collectors were positively scintillating with excitement over the possibilities of making connections with their counterparts from around the country.
The Comicollector #2 (January 1962), which boasted a circulation of “over 500” announced a regular bi-monthly publishing schedule. While there were certainly many copies mailed out gratis, subscriptions were now “encouraged” at the rate of six issues for a dollar. The single copy price was 20 cents. The second issue ran twenty-six pages, some of them printed in hard-to-read green ditto, a practice soon discontinued. Obviously there was a pent-up need for a fanzine devoted to the buying, selling and trading of comic books and related material. The concept was an immediate hit.
Its impact on collectors’ consciousness was profound. Asking prices of one dealer would guide another. Strange as it seems in retrospect, the condition of a comic for sale was rarely noted, unless a cover was missing. People were so grateful to have any way to get their hands on a missing issue that condition was, at first, a secondary concern. If condition was noted, it was usually “mint,” “very good” or “poor.”
The term “mint” was used in these early days to describe comics in top shape, probably a carry-over from coin collecting or other collectibles, but it wasn’t clearly defined and probably included comics that by modern standards would rate as low as “fine” or “fine-plus.” Comics from the 1940s that had relatively tight bindings, fairly sharp corners and no major folds were candidates for “mint.” Comics that showed obvious wear, possibly even some tape or other repairs, but were complete and in solid condition were described as either “fine” or “very good,” with the terms being interchangeable. The “poor” grade of the 1950s and early 1960s would take in today’s “fair” to “poor.” But there was no agreed-upon standard. If a correspondent wasn’t happy with a trade or sale, they would simply return it (postage was cheap) and some form of satisfaction would be negotiated.
In 1962, pro comics jumped into the super hero and super hero revival business with both feet. DC was pushing Aquaman and the Atom … Dell came up with Brain Boy … Marvel brought back Sub-Mariner, launched Thor and Ant-Man, and introduced a new character named Spider-Man … Gold Key weighed in with Tarzan, the Phantom and Dr. Solar. The continued success of most of these creations further buoyed the new fan movement.
Hardly had the New Year passed when Bails unveiled a project that came straight from the heart: The All-Star Index, the first extensive Golden Age index to see print. He was also beginning to think about photographing Golden Age comic covers. Then there was the continual stream of “data sheets” that flowed from his headquarters. As the months went on, it became increasingly clear that, more than anything, Bails had a passion for gathering and disseminating data. After those early A-E issues, in fact, he wrote very few text pieces on comics.
Others were also deeply involved in indexing. Don and Maggie Thompson were already on the trail of Dell Four Color information, and Fred von Bernewitz made his Complete EC Checklist available again in a revised edition. Starting in 1953, Howard Keltner of Gainesville, Texas, began indexing the comics in his own collection. By the early 1960s, he was collecting data for an index on the contents of every Golden Age comic book, and received co-credit on Bails’ eventual DC Index in 1963.
Also on Jerry’s mind was a pair of projects that Roy had suggested the previous October (just before A-E #3). In a letter to Bails, Thomas wrote: “I just had a crazy idea and thought it might be worth something. Your self-appointed #1 idea man was just thinking that Alter-Ego … should add a new feature: The Alter-Ego Award, based on the Academy Award system. Maybe you could get prominent collectors … to form a committee to nominate the candidates for the award (which I suggest be called an ‘Alley’ after both Alter-Ego and Alley Oop, who, living in prehistoric times, is the earliest possible adventure hero.)” Thomas, who volunteered to do all the work on the first Alley poll, dubbed the proposed nominating committee “the Academy.”
Jerry was always receptive to new ways to add respectability to the hobby, and to unify and organize fandom. He took Roy’s kernel of an idea for an Academy and ran with it, expanding it into the Academy of Comic Arts and Sciences. During the weeks and months that followed, the idea captured his imagination. His vision for the future of comicdom was beginning to take shape.
Alter-Ego and The Comicollector took a back seat to all this, and the publication of The Comic Reader.
Thus, Jerry Bails made an announcement that summer that shocked members of comic fandom: he was stepping down as editor and publisher of both Alter-Ego and The Comicollector!