I’m glad to know that Comic Con is staying in San Diego. Although I’m new to the Comic Con scenario, I have come to love going out to San Diego. There’s just something about California—the sunshine, the palm trees, boats bobbing on the Pacific—the whole postcard setting that makes it so enticing. The first time I went in 2008, “the Major,” my grandfather, Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson received an Eisner Award, finally beginning to be recognized for his tremendous contribution to the industry—he basically started the whole thing in 1934 with New Fun, all original comics and scripts. It was thrilling to be set up for the royal treatment by the woman who could easily run a small country, Jackie Estrada and her highly competent staff. With Jackie’s assistance I was able to organize a group of family members to attend including my then 80-year old uncle, Douglas Wheeler-Nicholson, an enthusiastic cheerleader of the cause. We had an incredible time with all the glamour and glitz we could possibly want. But truth to tell, in hindsight, it was not so easy for me. I somehow ended up as the resident tour director and you can just use your imagination for the various happy and unhappy endings to that story. So it was with a certain giddiness that I accepted the invitation to go once again in 2010—on my own!
And now that we’ve got Comic Con New York coming up this Friday, October 8, I’m here to report that I had a fabulous time in San Diego in July. Since it took place right in the midst of the sci-fi horror show of the Gulf Oil Spill, it was an added incentive to get away. I had arrived “down south” from my home in Massachusetts to the languid heat of the Gulf Coast where my family has been for 7 generations. It was weird to see the bay and Gulf empty of all activity at the height of summer—no boats, no swimmers, no shrimpers—nothing except the Coast Guard boats moving boom against the dark tide of oil. So it was a welcome respite to see friends and fans at Comic Con and then visit my West Coast cousins.
The hotel I stayed in was about 7 blocks away and referred to as a European boutique hotel. It was lovely and everybody who worked there was under 30 and gorgeous. It is California after all. I suppose it was referred to as a European boutique hotel because of that and the fact that the bathroom and luxurious tub were surrounded by glass—no privacy there—you could imagine yourself with your very own Jean Paul Belmondo in various aquatic configurations. I was just happy to be able to sink into warm oblivion alone after walking miles each day and being bombarded with the stimulus of 150,000 or so people and all the attendant media. Next time Jean Paul, next time.
Knowing that several DC and Warner Brothers lawyers would be in attendance at the panel I was on entitled “More Fun with Siegel and Shuster” did give me pre-performance jitters. Gerard Jones, who would be Cary Grant if Cary Grant loved comics the way Gerard does, made it all as smooth as John Robie, Cary’s cat burglar in To Catch A Thief. Gerard in his easygoing erudite way was a great moderator and the other panelists were terrific.
I have no idea what I said, I think I did manage to talk about how “the Major” created Slam Bradley. The audience, including all the lawyers, seemed to enjoy it—whew. Brad Ricca, a professor at Case Western and a very talented documentary filmmaker among other things (Last Son) presented a short version of his bounty of information about Siegel and Shuster and their lives in Cleveland and spoke about how Siegel and Shuster made Slam Bradley their very own character. Lauren Agostino presented her fascinating tale of finding legal documents from the original lawsuits of the whole Dickensian Siegel and Shuster versus DC saga. Believe it or not they were on their way to the local landfill. I can’t possibly do justice to the story so let this pique your curiosity and catch Lauren the next time she appears.
I especially loved Mel Gordon’s talk on Siegmund Breitbart, a Polish Jew who toured the United States in the 1920’s and was billed as The Strongest Man in the World. Breitbart may well have been one of the important influences upon Siegel and Shuster for their original ideas about Superman. Mel is not only a smart guy professor at UC Berkeley but he’s a great raconteur and had us all spellbound. He and good friend, writer and professor Tom Andrae just completed a book, Funnyman about the later character created by Siegel and Shuster, the first Jewish Superhero.
Many thanks to David Armstrong fellow comics historian and a superb filmmaker for his photos of the event and to Jamie Coville, one of the nicest guys ever who is one of the unsung archivists at these events. Jamie recorded this panel among others and here is a link if you’ve a mind. It was great to see Mike Catron, who knows as much as anyone about the early comics and Super Collector, Mark Zaid, Esquire. Thanks also to Wayne Smith for his attention to detail and his help in making sure I get things right and Jay Kogan, who truly loves what he does and happens to be one of the nicest lawyers I know (and yes there is such a thing). How can you argue with that? I was especially grateful to see my good friend, Rod Welles who dropped in from one of the other worlds I inhabit. It was a special treat to have fellow southerner Randy Duncan supporting us all and whose book The Power of Comics co-authored with Matthew Smith, I’m now reading and highly recommend. There are the usual quibbles about the Major but hey, we’re all working on that, right?
Peter Coogan, our fearless leader from the Comics Arts Conference and The Institute for Comic Studies handled things as adroitly as ever and it was over before I knew it and I survived! From then on it was just fun and even more fun.
My long time friend and a great comics artist, Howard Cruse also happened to be at Comic Con. He was a special guest and in appearance everywhere. As much as I know about Howard, it was such a pleasure to see him interviewed in a panel by Blake Bell who did a superb job of drawing out all the many facets of Howard’s long career from his early beginnings in Alabama where Howard and I first met at Birmingham-Southern College to his creation of Barefootz, Wendel and the newly reissued Stuck Rubber Baby. Stuck Rubber Baby is in my humble opinion one of the best graphic novels ever. Howard knows how to tell a good story and his artwork is stunning. In one of those fortunate twists of fate, Howard and his spouse Ed Sedarbaum now live near me in the Berkshires. Yes, eat your hearts out because you know how great these two guys are.
One of my other favorite panels was a spotlight on Jerry Robinson, one of the great legends of comics—70 years, no less! Michael Uslan, the producer of the Batman movies and a top-notch comics writer himself, Archie Marries, interviewed Jerry and it was another fascinating glimpse into a long career from which came much of the Batman mythos. I especially enjoyed seeing some of Jerry’s artwork that was unfamiliar to me. This is clearly sacrilege but I like Jerry’s London series best. They are beautifully drawn and haunting. It was also a privilege to see some examples of Jerry’s fine artwork. Besides being a gentleman with a dry wit, Jerry Robinson is a very talented artist in many genres. I should also mention Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics, a new book written by N. Christopher Couch, professor at U Mass in Amherst. There are some great stories and lots of new material so if you love the history of comics this is a must read. I am especially grateful to Christopher because he not only introduced me to a fellow pulp heir but made it possible for me to meet the legendary Harvey Pekar just months before he passed away. More about that later.
The Big Picture
Friday night was the premiere of the documentary film on the 75 years of DC. Since my grandfather had a little something to do with the beginnings I was naturally curious. Sean Welch, the producer of Secret Origin: The Story of DC Comics and Mac Carter, the director are highly talented guys—Spellbound and the new doc—Lucky about lottery winners which is getting the same rave reviews as Spellbound did. However, there was a lot of skepticism among those who have experience in the film business as to whether they could pull it off in the short time they were given. Well, this is what separates the auteurs from the hypesters. Ladies and Gentlemen, I am here to report, they did it and they did it with style. I suspect neither of them had slept in a week or so but they were still standing when the film started and are about as nice as they can possibly be.
Given the tons of material and hundreds of people they were coordinating in telling the story they could not have been more solicitous and careful in the few moments of film time they gave to Major Malcolm Wheeler-Nicholson. They took the care to get it right and they didn’t trash the old guy, which in itself was thrilling for a change. Although we had talked about a little longer script by the time it got down to the wire there was simply not enough time to tell much. They used some of the evocative photographs Swedish cousin Finn Andreen took of Grandfather Nick when he was in Sweden in 1948-49 and Finn was a youth. Thanks guys so much. We all really appreciate it! The film will be screened again in New York during Comic Con on Saturday at 4pm.
This is always a treat with lots of surprise guests and great fun. This year the Eisners were in a new swell venue at the San Diego Hilton Bayfront and there is obviously a good chef there as we were provided with delicious food. Friend Howard Cruse was my date and we had a great time seeing lots of friends and oohing and aahing at all the tremendous talent presented. It was lovely to see Howard’s longtime friend Denis Kitchen win an Eisner for Best Comics-Related Book, The Art of Harvey Kurtzman: The Mad Genius of Comics, by Denis and Paul Buhle. Denis is a stalwart of the comics community having worn many creative hats over the years and has been a champion of Will Eisner’s for a very long time. Nice. I’m not at all surprised because I was fortunate to see an early version of the book while Denis was trying his best to steer me through the shoals. Remember, Denis, patience is a virtue. I have to admit one of my favorite moments of the evening was being able to astonish the unstoppably talented and unflappably soigné Chip Kidd. That was fun.
Out on the Floor
This is when it gets wild and wooly out on the floor of the exhibit hall tracking down friends and running into everyone and searching out someone you promised to meet. It is a cacophony of sound, lights, color and hordes of people thronging the aisles many in fantastic costumes and the ubiquitous nekid girls.
I always love seeing Jeff Vaughn of Gemstone Publishing who is not a nekid girl. He is such a good guy and has his pulse on the business end of things. It’s good to check in with him. He made sure that I got to meet Robert Overstreet, the man behind Overstreet’s Guide who has had an incredible career and is one of a handful of well-respected comics historians before there was such a thing. Robert has a 40th edition out now and it is spectacular for comics collectors and historians… Attorney sister Christine’s favorite comics creator Batton Lash was manning his booth featuring his outrageously original, Supernatural Law Comics in his usual debonair style… Robert Beerbohm, a comics dealer and comics historian who not only knows a thing or two about comics but has himself been part of some of the history of the last 40 years, showed me some amazing early comics. We could have talked for hours but he was way too much in demand in the midst of his booth crammed with comics… My dashing young friend Mario Van Buren of I Know Joe Kimpel comics gallantly came to my rescue at one point seeing me flailing in the throng and took me out for a coffee break in the sunshine. Speaking of Mario, his cooperative comics group came out of the Center for Cartoon Studies, the school co-founded by James Sturm who was in attendance with his stunningly beautiful graphic novel, Market Day… The Archie gang were all there with Nancy Silberkleit at the helm and of course, Michael Uslan who has generated many new fans and brought back old ones with his new stories about Archie and the roads taken. Michael is a fount of wisdom about comics and many other questions in life and happens to be one of the most generous people I know…
Jim Salicrup of PaperCutz entertained me in between customers. Since I adore Nancy Drew and Jim is such a lovely man, it wasn’t that difficult. Jim, who is on the board of The Museum of Cartoon and Comic Art founded by our pal Lawrence Klein is another generous soul. We were talking about Alex Simmons, Archie writer and creator of BlackJack Comics who tirelessly works on behalf of kids through his Kids Comic Con… There are a lot of good guys out there. This is one of the big reasons I love hanging out with this group besides the incredible array of talent. You would think that with all that many people there would be a lot of shoving, pushing and rudeness. I’ve not experienced that at all and I suspect it has something to do with the underlying shared communal ideals, you know, the fairness, justice doctrine… John Morrow of TwoMorrows publishing was there, of course. We’re fellow Mobilians, which doesn’t mean a thing to anybody except us, but to us it matters! John does a great job with AlterEgo among the other things he publishes and our family owes him a huge debt of gratitude for helping get the word out about grandfather Nick’s true history in the August 2009 issue ably helmed by the multi-talented and true blue gentleman, Roy Thomas and the irrepressible Jim Amash… I had a crazed fan moment—oh come on, everybody’s allowed at least one—when I happened upon Keith Knight. I have adored Keith’s comics for years. He is one of the funniest guys around, topically speaking, with sly irreverent wit. I managed to snare an original print from him and tried my best not to gush too much. I did not succeed. Sorry about that Keith…
Somehow I kept missing Craig Yoe, which seems crazy as it is almost impossible to miss the talented Mr. Yoe and somebody needs to make sure he’s nominated for an Eisner as he is not only prolific but does beautiful work. His book on Milt Gross is just one stellar example… At one point Mr. Jones and I took a stroll around the shrubbery, I mean, aisles and happened on a very interesting new graphic novel, the Strangler Brothers Automotive , a quirky story of two brothers who run an automotive shop. It was created and written by Judge Leverich and Josh Frankovich and drawn by Melinda Davidson. I really loved the style and the fact that the artist is a girl! That was nice. It is always so inspiring to see the work of so many talented people.
Gerard, another prolific writer—I swear I don’t know how he does it with all the tweets, thousands of Facebook fans, several blogs and oh, yeah, a couple of new books every time you turn around—has a new graphic novel with Mark Badger, Networked: Carabella on the Run. It’s about the whole social networking scene and all the issues around our ongoing reality show lives and besides being fascinating, it’s gorgeous… Of course, I ended up at the DC booth like a homing pigeon or maybe just a sitting duck—hard to know. But it was great to see Paul Levitz, smiling and thoroughly enjoying himself. He was on practically every panel about the history of comics that took place over the whole 4 days since he knows whereof he speaks and his new book by Taschen, 75 Years of DC Comics: The Art of Modern Mythmaking,
a hefty tome was the talk of the town. I’m a little skittish about reading it since he mentioned to me not too long ago that it’s easy to look at the same information and come out with different viewpoints. I’m hoping that doesn’t mean what I think it does. No matter, his book will be a classic, that’s for sure.
Finally, the best thing of all was seeing my dear friend Howard Cruse ensconced at the DC booth with his book Stuck Rubber Baby chatting away with fans. That was worth it all right there.
I think you get the picture. I left out all the carousing. If you made it this far, bless your heart. And Steve, as promised, this is for you!