Excerpt from Founders of Comic Fandom

From Founders of Comic Fandom

© copyright 2010 by Bill Schelly

Jerry Bails (1933-2006)

Jerry Bails is sometimes referred to as “the father of comic fandom” because he laid the foundation for an ongoing comic fandom:  creating the fanzines Alter-Ego, The Comic Reader, The Comicollector, starting Capa-alpha, and spear-heading a drive to establish the Academy of Comic-Book Fans and Collectors, an organization that was formed in part to promote the idea that there was nothing inherently childish about the sequential art medium or comic books. In addition, Bails published some of the earliest indexes of comic book data, and hosted the first sizable gathering of comic fans, a sort of “proto-comicon”.

Jerry Gwin Bails was born in 1933 and grew up in Kansas City, Missouri, where his father ran a pool hall called “Bails Recreation”. Jerry saw his first copy of All-Star Comics with #6, which began his lifelong affection for the Justice Society of America. Jerry got polio at 10 years old during the epidemic of 1943, but recovered fully. He was a physically active youth who opted out of group activities like organized sports. From an early age, Bails not only enjoyed reading, but he loved story-telling and drawing. In school, he did layouts and artwork for the school newspaper and yearbook, and might have pursued a career along those lines if he didn’t have an equal or greater affinity for the sciences. Math came easy to him, and he ended up a high honors student at Westport High. Jerry graduated in 1951, a few months after his beloved JSA had died, with the metamorphosis of All-Star Comics into All-Star Western that spring.

Bails entered a period of minimal interest in comics during the 1950s, as he concentrated on college. He attended the University of Kansas City, and married his high school sweetheart Sondra in 1953 at age 20. After attaining a Bachelor of Science degree in Physics in 1955, he went on to attend the University of Chicago for a semester but returned to the University of Kansas City to finish his Master’s degree in Math, and then a Doctorate in Natural Science. By 1960, Jerry and Sondra had moved to Detroit, where he had accepted a position as an Assistant Professor of Natural Science at Montieth College, part of Wayne State University.

During the 1950s, Jerry’s avocation had become astronomy, but his love of comics hadn’t vanished. In 1953, he entered into a correspondence with Gardner Fox, writer of the Justice Society of America and many other features published at DC Comics. They discussed the JSA, and Jerry made it known that he was re-building his personal collection of All-Star. Some time in the late 1950s, Fox sold Bails his bound volumes of All-Star for a total of $75.00. Bails wrote, “Gardner Fox was a most generous and compassionate man and it is clear to me that he had influenced my basic values through the vehicle of the Justice Society. He made a big difference to me.” Attempting to elaborate on this in later life, Jerry said, “No group today is quite like the original JSA. The Justice Society was an egalitarian group of psychologically mature adults, not a pack of adolescent neurotics who needed a father-figure to keep them in line. While the JSA did elect a chairman, the chairman never bossed around the other members. In my youth, I didn’t fantasize about being a kid with super-powers who was able to get away with murder and mayhem. I fantasized about being an adult superhero capable of putting the world in right order.”

Bails kept an eye on the newsstands, and noticed the Flash revival in Showcase #13 which appeared around January 1958. The sight of that comic book on the stands excited him, for it raised the possibility of further revivals, including his beloved JSA. Two years later, after the Flash and Green Lantern had their own magazines, the Justice Society was back in its new incarnation: The Justice League of America. The team’s revival in Brave and Bold #28 hit the newsstands at the very end of 1959, and the JLA were given their own title shortly after Jerry had moved to Detroit. Immediately, Bails began thinking of ways to support and encourage this exciting development. Unexpectedly, the young professor received a letter in July 1960 from a comic book fan and JSA enthusiast finishing college in Missouri. That fan was Roy Thomas, who was given Jerry’s address by Gardner Fox. Though Jerry didn’t want to sell the All-Star comics that he had purchased from Gardner, he immediately wrote an enthusiastic response, enclosing dog-eared duplicate copies of All-Star #4 through 6, the first Roy had ever seen of those issues. This generosity on Bails’ part cemented their friendship.

Thomas and Bails began a long and voluminous correspondence, each writing two or three letters a week to each other, with queries and responses often crossing in the mail. Jerry penned numerous letters to DC letter columns, sometimes under pseudonyms. In August, Bails wrote to Fox suggesting a revival of the Atom, since Hawkman was slated to make his debut in December. He and Roy concocted an idea for a revived Atom in a letter to editor Julius Schwartz in early December. In January 1961, Schwartz responded that by sheer coincidence, he and his staff had been planning their own Atom revival. About this time, Jerry was thinking about publishing a JLA newsletter that he would distribute to contacts made through the letter pages in Julie’s comics. Schwartz had decided, toward the end of 1960, to begin running complete addresses in his letter columns. Fortunately, Jerry was asked to visit and lecture at Adelphi College on Long Island, which gave him the opportunity to visit Schwartz at the DC office in New York City. When Bails broached the subject of a JLA newsletter to Julie Schwartz, he received an entirely positive response, for such amateur publications were well-known to Julie. With his amateur publishing background, Schwartz may have seen Jerry and Roy as something of successors or counterparts to himself and Mort Weisinger, in terms of their fannish pursuits. It was Julie who told Jerry that amateur magazines and newsletters were called fanzines, and showed him copies of Richard and Pat Lupoff’s SF zine Xero. Bails also had lunch with Gardner Fox on this visit. When he returned to Detroit, Bails wrote to Roy: “I know now (for sure) that I want to bring out a ‘fanzine’ devoted to the Great Revival of the costumed heroes. I even have what I consider to be a brilliant title and format. It will be called Alter-ego (sic).”

Jerry began building up a mailing list of people who would receive Alter-Ego #1 free of charge. The first issue, twenty-two pages long, was printed on a desk-top spirit duplicator. The cover featured Roy’s parody of the JLA, known as the Bestest League of America. Inside the fanzine, after the contents page was “A Matter of Policy”, the brief editorial which announced, “This is the first issue of Alter-Ego, a new comic fanzine devoted to the revival of the costumed heroes.” From there, Bails launched into four pages of pro news in a feature called “On the Drawing Board”. It carried advance word of the forthcoming “Flash of Two Worlds” story (Flash #123) which brought back the Golden Age Flash. Next, was “The Wiles of the Wizard, Portrait of a Villain”, Jerry’s two-page JSA-related article. On pages 10 through 12, Roy Thomas presented the first part of his “Reincarnation of the Spectre”, which proposed a new version of the Spectre as a man divided into two characters representing good and evil, ego and id: the Spectre and Count Dis. Then came “Merciful Minerva: The Story of Wonder Woman”, followed by the first five-page chapter of “The Bestest League of America” by Thomas.  The members of the BLA were Wondrous Woman, the Cash, Aquariuman, S’amm S’mith, Lean Arrow and the Green Trashcan. By March 28, 1961, Alter-Ego #1 was completed, with copies mailed by the month’s end.

The response to Alter-Ego was immediate and explosive. Bails had clearly tapped into an un-met need of comic book fans and collectors, a magazine such enthusiasts could call their own. (The Thompsons’ Comic Art, published about this time or shortly thereafter, ignited similar interest among the mainly SF fans who received it.) Jerry sent out the entire print run (estimated at 200 copies) in short order, including a number of truncated copies which were missing the BLA comic strip. He and Roy (upon whom he’d conferred the equal status of “editor”) immediately launched into producing a second issue, which would appear in June, and then a third which saw print in the Fall of 1961.

It quickly became apparent that “Wanted” and “For Sale” advertisements would fit better in a separate publication which could see print more often than A-E. Thus was born The Comicollector, which Bails published beginning in September 1961. The “On the Drawing Board” segment of A-E would break out as a separate news sheet with #4 (October 7, 1961), and from there gradually add pages until it was a fanzine rather than a sheet. As for Alter-Ego itself, issues #2 and 3 offered the last two chapters of Roy’s Bestest League of America strip, as well as introducing a letter column called “Conversations”. Early letter writers were such fans as Steve Gerber, Dale Christman, Harry Thomas, Ted White, Larry Ivie, Bill Sarill, Ronnie Graham and Irving Glassman. A-E #3 featured Jerry’s only major article to ever appear in the fanzine, “The Light of the Green Lantern”.

Jerry Bails had a fiery urgency, an almost messianic fervor, in his effort to support the super hero revivals of the era he dubbed “The Second Heroic Age of Comics”. That support was, indeed, the avowed mission of Alter-Ego. Excitement crackled through its pages (and those of its spin-offs), a result of Jerry’s almost breathless “what’s next?” attitude about upcoming revivals. His enthusiasm was contagious, and helped his recruitment efforts catch fire across the country (and around the world) within a very short time. He produced a magazine that was decidedly down-to-earth (even a little “gosh-wow,” in Ted White’s words). Bails was on a crusade to bring as many people into fandom as possible, since it would further the goals of Alter-Ego. It was Bails who had the organizational skill, desire and vision to lay the groundwork for an ongoing comic fandom. Don and Maggie Thompson later wrote, “Alter-Ego’s editors were trying to get it distributed to the largest possible number of fans—thus earning its reputation as a seminal point in comics fandom. We tried [with Comic Art], as did Dick and Pat Lupoff with Xero, to keep our circulation as small as possible,” to save work. Had Jerry Bails not come along when he did, quite probably someone else would have come up with the idea of a comics fanzine devoted to the resurgence of the superheroes.  Jerry himself acknowledged, “Had there been no Jerry or Roy or Don or Maggie, someone else would surely have come up with the idea.” In the following years, one thing did become clear: fans with Bails’ vision and organizational ability were rare.

All the furious fanzine publishing of 1961 should not obscure the fact that at least 50 percent of Bails’ “mission” was to collect data on comics of the past. Jerry knew that information was the key to any collecting hobby; moreover, he was the type of person who felt the behind-the-scenes creators should be credited for their achievements, and be accorded commensurate appreciation. As early as 1945, he had set out to record artists on strips in a spiral notebook. He had learned to recognize such favorites as the work of Joe Kubert, Alex Toth and Lee Elias. While Jerry’s first published efforts along these lines were The Authoritative Index to All-Star Comics and The Authoritative Index to DC Comics (1963) co-authored with Howard Keltner, Bails was also busy behind the scenes researching the framework of all comic books published during what Dick Lupoff had called their “Golden Age”, a term that stuck. Toward that end, Jerry networked intensively with others of similar bent, such as Howard Keltner, Raymond Miller, Bill Thailing, Don and Maggie Thompson, Fred von Bernewitz and many others. This research became the basis of a truncated list of Golden Age comics that appeared in the Guidebook to Comic Fandom, and came to fruition in full form with Jerry’s self-published Collector’s Guide: The First Heroic Age in 1969. In turn, the Collector’s Guide provided a framework for Bob Overstreet who was then working on his comic book price guide. Later still, from 1973 to 1976, Bails would co-edit The Who’s Who of American Comic Books with Hames Ware, which appeared in four volumes. Jerry’s contributions to fandom as an indexer were immense, since he provided the foundation for so much additional information and research in later years.

In 1963, Jerry worked to write a charter for a fan organization, inspired by Roy’s mentioning in a letter (written on October 25, 1961) that an “academy” of fans could annually select nominees for an “Alter Ego Award”. Bails immediately envisioned something more ambitious, an Academy of Comics Arts and Sciences. As for the awards, Jerry carried the ball on that as well, and they were called the “Alley Awards” and Alley Oop was the mascot. The first nominating ballot was distributed in 1962 to the 20 original members of the Academy. They were Jerry Bails, Bob Barron, Len Brown, Dale Christman, Wendell Davis, Rick Durell, Don Foote, Ronn Foss, Irving Glassman, Ron Haydock, Howard Keltner, Ed Lahmann, Dick Lupoff, Douglas Marden, Raymond Miller, Frank Neussel, Fred Norwood, Roy Thomas, Don Thompson, and Biljo White. Bails wrote and published a proposed charter, after seeking input from others, and it was mailed to 92 active fans. In a cover letter, Bails announced that he had changed the name of the organization to “The Academy of Comic-Book Fans and Collectors”, which he felt was less pretentious and more accurate. The charter, which was resoundingly ratified, stated that the Academy would conduct the Alley Awards, publish The Comic Reader (formerly On the Drawing Board) endorse a Code of Fair Practice in the selling and trading of comic books, publish a directory of comic fans, encourage the formation of local chapters, endorse other fan organizations, assist in the effort to establish an annual comicon, and encourage participation in these functions by industry professionals. General membership in the Academy was free, and would be automatically conferred on those who voted in the annual Alley Awards poll. The charter established the position of Executive Secretary (which Jerry would hold, at first) and took steps toward setting up an elective Executive Board. Now, in its masthead, The Comic Reader was referred to as the “Official Newsletter of the Academy of Comic-Book Fans & Collectors”.

Jerry Bails was a visionary, but was willing to pass along his responsibilities as soon as someone came along who was capable of assuming them. He passed The Comicollector and Alter-Ego to Ronn Foss, and The Comic Reader to Glen Johnson. It wasn’t long before Paul Gambaccini became the Executive Secretary of the Academy. Meanwhile, Jerry was deeply involved in photographing old comic book covers and selling photo-sets, as well as microfilming entire Golden Age comics. He borrowed many comics from collectors just long enough to microfilm them, an activity that consumed much of his time in 1963 and 1964.

In March 1964, Jerry held what has come to be known as the Alley Tally Party, publishing an invitation in Dateline: Comicdom, the newszine Ronn Foss had established for fanzine editors and active contributors in 1963. Recipients of the fanzine (there were about 50) were “cordially invited to attend the Tally Party to count the votes in the Alley Poll. Date: March 21-22; place: home of JGBails, 22529 Karem Ct., Warren, Mich. RSVP. Particulars will be sent to those who can make it.” All told, 19 fans showed up for what is considered the first sizable gathering of comics fans. They were Alex Almaraz, Dick Andersen, Edwin Aprill Jr., Bob Butts, Ronn Foss, Don Glut, Grass Green, Keith Greene, Fred Jackson, Russ Keeler, Chuck Moss, Larry Raybourne, Jim Rossow, Gerry Sorek, Don Thompson and Maggie Thompson, Mike Tuohey, Mike Vosburg and Jerry himself. Chuck Moss had come from farthest away, hailing from Nebraska, and the Cleveland fans (Larry, Russ, Don and Maggie) had come a good distance as well. In addition to the tallying the awards for 1963, they showed each other original art, Golden Age comics and other rarities, passed around copies of their fanzines and solicited contributions for future issues, and discussed the future of fandom—including their desire for a regional or national comicon.

Also in 1964, Jerry was responsible for two more publications. The first was the Who’s Who in Comic Fandom, with the first edition typed by Larry Lattanzi; a supplement a few months later added to the list of fandom addresses considerably. A staggering 1,683 addresses were listed, mainly drawn from Bails’ personal mailing list. (See Appendix.) Then, in August, Bails launched the first comics apa (amateur press alliance) called Capa-alpha, which gathered together pre-printed contributions from its members and sent out the collated bundles to each of them. The concept, as with virtually everything else Jerry introduced, wasn’t new—apas had long been established in SF fandom—but it worked like a charm, and proved to be long-lasting. Capa-alpha continues many decades later to the present day in print form.

Toward the end of 1964, a few articles appeared (in The New York Times and elsewhere) talking about the high prices that were being commanded by “those old funny books”. This led to reporters hearing about a college professor in Detroit who was a ring-leader of the comic book collectors, and telephoning Bails for quotes and other information. In early 1965, Bails was contacted by Newsweek reporter Hugh McCann who wanted to interview him in Jerry’s Detroit home. Jerry invited fans to join in the interview, including Shel Dorf, Marvin Giles, Eugene Seger, Bob Brosch, Gary Crowdus, Dennis Kawicki and Carl Lundgren. To the reporter, no doubt curious as to why adults would be interested in something like comic books, Jerry explained, “They say that men in our society frequently make a total break from their childhood. I see no reason, if you enjoy something as a youngster, why you should ever lose that enjoyment.” The resulting article, “Superfans and Batmaniacs”, appeared in Newsweek on February 15, 1965. The tone of the article was, at times, snide and condescending, while the information it contained was basically accurate. Bails had mixed feelings about it, and avoided subsequent interviews by reporters who obviously had their own agenda.

In 1965, Bails was also on the organizing committee, along with those who had been in his living room for the Newsweek interview, for the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, a convention for fans of comic books and strips, fantasy literature and film. However, difficulties in his personal life were overtaking Bails, and for a time caused him to pull back almost entirely from fannish pursuits. His wife, Sondra, was deeply depressed after their son was born. Her problems increased over the next several years. Eventually, the two were divorced. This painful period meant that fandom heard little from Jerry after his appearance at the 1965 New York Comicon.

Gradually, Bails built a new life with the woman who became his second wife, Jean, and began publishing data in the form of a fanzine called The Panelologist. (Jerry was enamored with this term to describe a fan of comic art, but it was too awkward to pronounce to be widely accepted.) This activity represented the prelude to the publication of his Collector’s Guide: The First Heroic Age (1969), his most ambitious data project yet. This publication, which sported a cover by Richard Buckler, was greeted warmly by fandom. From there, he launched into compiling and publishing the Who’s Who in American Comic Books with Hames Ware.

In later life, Jerry adapted to the personal computer and Internet revolutions with alacrity, as one would expect of a science professor, and he became extremely active in newsgroups on various topics. His politics, which were generally on the far left, bespoke his deep concern for humanity, and for the obligations of citizens to each other and to their country (just like his heroes in the JSA). For him, environmentalism was one of the most important issues of all; he wrote a book on that subject called Coming Clean, which he used in his classrooms but never pursued getting published professionally.

Jerry Bails retired from teaching in 1996, and now was able to devote himself fully to his family and his avocations. Jerry attended the Fandom Reunion 1997 held in Chicago during the Chicago Comicon, meeting up again with Roy Thomas (whom he had seen sporadically over the years), as well as 31 others, such as Howard Keltner, Jay Lynch, Jerry Ordway, Maggie Thompson, Grass Green, Ken Tesar, Bob Butts, Bob Beerbohm, Jim Rossow and Bill Schelly. When Alter Ego was revived by Roy Thomas at TwoMorrows Publishing, Bails was pleased and read each issue avidly, and often wrote letters to Roy with corrections and thoughts on various articles and interviews. The magazine celebrated Jerry’s 70th birthday (AE #25, June 2003) with a series of articles about the uber-fan’s contributions to fandom over the years.

As Jerry and Jean passed their 35th wedding anniversary, his health was clearly deteriorating. He became more and more homebound in his last years, as he suffered a series of heart attacks and other ailments. Nevertheless, he remained very active on the Internet in both newsgroups and the volume of his email correspondence.

Then, on November 23, 2006 (Thanksgiving Day), Jerry Bails passed away in his sleep. Fandom had lost its key founder, and the larger world had lost an exceptional member of the human race and community. He was survived by his wife Jean, three children, and several grandchildren. A tribute to his passing appeared in Alter Ego #68 (May 2007).

Among comics-related things, Jerry would want to be remembered most for his efforts identifying and indexing comic book writers and artists, which became his massive life’s work, Who’s Who in American Comic Books. While the Who’s Who is unquestionably the centerpiece of his legacy, Jerry Bails will be remembered as far more than an inexhaustible indexer. He’ll be remembered as an instigator with vision whose energies and ideas on behalf of comic books and comic book fans in the early 1960s justify giving him the sobriquet “the father of comic fandom.”

— Bill Schelly