I know a lot of Al(l)isons. My wife is named Allison. My sister is named Alison. My friend Allison is named, well, Allison. My dad sometimes has to clarify which Al(l)ison he is talking about when he texts me. “Our Alison is getting ready for the new semester,” he’ll write to me every August as my sister prepares for a new school year. Other times, he’ll text a question: “How is Allison doing? Your Allison,” by which he also means our Allison, or our other Allison, his daughter-in-law, though it’s easy to tell the difference in print when we get the spellings right (one L versus two).

But this is not a story about those first two Al(l)isons, although my sister is a great lover of music (especially of U2 and James Taylor) and my wife is one of the most talented musicians I’ve ever had the chance to collaborate with (as one of my college bandmates once told me, always play with people who are better than you, and I’ve diligently followed that advice ever since). This is a rock and roll story about my friend with the same name as my sister and as my wife, an Allison who is one of the best guitar players I’ve learned from over the years. This is also a story about guitar pedals, so for those of you who are not musicians, or have only a passing interest in/knowledge of the little electronic devices we use to transform our electric guitar sounds into something otherworldly and strange, I should begin with a brief explanation of what these are and what they do:

Boss pedals

What you see in this photo are three sound processors for guitar—pedals, designed to be stepped on at gigs, in rehearsals, at recording sessions, in your basement or garage or living room or even on your back deck. Boss pedals—which have been manufactured by Roland, a Japanese music technology company, since the late 1970s—have a well-deserved reputation for being nearly indestructible. I’ve had the green one in the middle since 1992, the gray/silver one on the left since 1995, and the blue one on the right since 2008. Plug your guitar into them, then send a cable to an amplifier, and each box, colorful and easy to see on a dark stage, transforms the sound of your instrument in a different way.

The Blues Driver (BD-2) makes the guitar louder and more distorted, for example; it will not make you a blues master like B. B. King, Hound Dog Taylor, or Joanna Connor, but it will give you that overheated, piercing sound if you crank up the treble, close your eyes, and imagine you’re onstage at the Checkerboard Lounge or Rosa’s or Kingston Mines. In the middle, the green one—which has survived multiple beer spills and a long exile in my cousin’s basement (how it got there, I don’t remember, but he was kind enough to mail it back to me)—chops up your sound, almost like what a helicopter would sound like if you could plug your guitar into it (which sounds like fun, right?). You’ve heard this sound on a lot of recordings, especially ones from the 1960s, when tremolo was in vogue. Take a listen to Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Born on the Bayou” or to “Crimson and Clover” by Tommy James and the Shondells and you’ll know the sound instantly. It’s a warm, nostalgic pulse, an electronic heartbeat, the impossible sound of high school dances that probably were never that much fun in the first place, but sure seem that way when memory does its work. It’s amazing what a little green box like that can do.

The last one for me is the most special, since I’ve used it the most, from undergraduate voiceover recording sessions with actor David Harbour (long before he was David Harbour of Stranger Things and Black Widow, just another Dartmouth College undergrad, but a kind and tremendously talented one at that) to the stage at CBGBs to recent recording sessions in our living room. I think of the Boss RV-3 Reverb/Delay as the R2-D2 or C-3PO of my musical life, the little machine that’s been by my side for a very, very long time (I just used it to add a little echo when I was practicing this morning). Unlike the other two pedals, which I think of as the more grounded, earthy members of this little team, the RV-3, when turned up, will take you and your guitar into space, if space weren’t a silent vacuum. If you’re on your back deck but need your guitar to sound like you’re playing in a stadium—or maybe in the first rock and roll club on the moon—this is the pedal for you. And it’s the pedal for me too, I guess, since I’ve used it weekly since buying it at Manny’s Music on 48th Street during my spring break in March of ’95.

I got the idea to put these together on a little board like this from my friend Allison, another Boss player, who, when she was in her early 20s, toured and made a living in a wedding and party band. She and her bandmates—all young, talented women just like her—even managed at least one tour overseas. I was in my early 20s when I first met her and her husband Andy, the drummer in my band the Confessors. Not long after Andy and I started playing together in a power trio with our friend Tris on bass, I asked how he and Allison had met. He’d auditioned for her band, he said, not only because they were all phenomenal musicians, but also because he wanted to meet her. She looked cool. And she could play.

Having grown up mostly with other self-taught punk rock musicians, I discovered that Allison was a very different kind of musician, one unlike any other I’d met to that point (with the exception of my classically-trained friend and college bandmate Lawrence). She not only had a lot of technical skill but continued to learn and to develop her abilities by taking lessons with other highly trained musicians. For an inexperienced 22-year old like me, one who’d picked up the guitar age 16 and started playing in bands at 18, I didn’t understand why such a skilled, naturally gifted player needed to take more lessons. Today, after a few years of studying with Chicago jazz guitarist and master teacher John Moulder, I think I’m beginning to understand what Allison was searching for. But she got there long before I did.

By her early 30s, she was still playing, but also working full-time as a nurse and building a family with Andy and with their daughter. It’s only now, in my late 40s, that I understand the lessons she tried to teach me almost three decades ago. Watching her play her Telecaster through a 70s-era silverface Fender Twin (a very big, powerful, clean- sounding amplifier), I noticed she also had a board of six colorful Boss pedals on the floor, from an orange DS-1 (for more volume and distortion) to a pale blue Chorus, a sound that was essential for any working musician in the ’80s and early 1990s. You’ve heard that sound, too—just listen to Andy Summers on “Every Breath You Take.” One day at rehearsal, not long after visiting Andy and Allison for dinner and getting a chance to see and listen to  Allison play guitar for the first time, I remember what Andy said: I told you she was really, really good. I nodded in agreement. I should have known. Her record collection was all Van Halen, Joni Mitchell, Led Zeppelin, James Taylor.

One of the best parts of being a musician is learning from the oral tradition that one player passes on to another, especially musicians in a small community like the one I was lucky to find myself in during the mid-1990s. Use heavier strings, my friend Lawrence advised me. You’ll get more distortion and feedback that way. Always tune up to pitch, never down, especially on a Gibson guitar, Tris told me. Also, he said, keep your eye on Andy’s right hand when he’s on the hi-hat or the ride. That’s your metronome. From Allison, not only did I learn about how to use effects pedals and processors in a subtle, musical way—like I said, I was self-taught, and at 22 I just wanted to play as loudly as possible—but I also learned, as the cliché goes, how to keep on learning.

What pick do you use? Allison asked. Usually a Fender medium, I said (a light, thin piece of plastic marbled to look like an old tortoise shell). Try one of these, she replied, handing me the green one you’ll see in this photo, a Dava Control Pick, designed to give a different feel, weight, and attack…depending on how you hold it:


The idea that different guitar picks could create different sounds—especially when held carefully at different angles—was, as simple as it sounds, a life-changing moment for me. I was used to hitting the strings as hard as I could, as fast as I could, so that I wouldn’t lose my place in a song, or forget lyrics while I singing and playing at the same time. But suddenly I felt like Billy Batson meeting the wizard Shazam, or Arthur meeting Merlin and the Lady of the Lake for the first time. I didn’t even have to go to the local Daddy’s Junky Music to buy one of my own. Allison handed it to me. Just practice, she said.

The other picks in that photograph have stories, too, but I’ll save them for another time. After all these years, I’m still trying to master not only the instrument itself but also the amp and the pedals and that pick, which I’ve carried with me in a beat-up little Altoids tin since 1996. I’m still discovering new sounds with it, just like with those old Boss pedals. Some of those sounds come from technique, but others–the ones that mean the most–come from that room, and that little group of friends, and that jam session in the furnished basement of Andy and Allison’s home somewhere in Connecticut, sometime in the 1990s.


Over the last couple of years I got it into my head that I was going to re-create my Great Aunt Annie’s garden, just as I remember it from the 1970s and the 1980s. The small circle of flowers that faced Bamford Avenue gave only a hint of the majestic garden that sat behind her house. There, at the top of a gentle slope that rose to meet a line of trees leading to a dirt path, was a plot of land filled, at least in my memory, with geraniums. These weren’t the only flowers, of course, in that large, rectangular space, but they are the ones I remember best, especially as I tend to the red and white ones on our deck and in the small plot behind our building. The full-bodied, dry, and earthy scent of my geraniums instantly transports me back to Annie’s garden.

As a little boy, walking through those carefully tended flowers was like diving into an ocean of greens and reds. I walked carefully along the paths she’d made, the stalks towering over me. The only other childhood experience I can compare it to was the time I nearly drowned. Once, after a swimming lesson, and out of sight of my swimming instructor, I dove into the deep end of the Watertown High School swimming pool. Actually, dove is too elegant a word. I sort of tumbled into it, wondering what mysteries would be waiting for me. I was also a great fan of Aquaman. With my head under water, I opened my eyes, delighted to see a field of green and blue bubbles. For a moment, the water looked so still and otherworldly that I forgot to be scared. Once it occurred to me that I’d probably made a mistake—I was and remain a terrible swimmer—instinct took hold and I found myself again on the surface. Suddenly worried about being scolded, I pulled myself to the edge of the pool and back to the deck. I was alone. It was the late 1970s. Lawsuits and liability were not big concerns. Also, I was a quiet kid, with no friends from my Catholic grammar school in the class, so no one—including the teacher—noticed that I’d been missing from the locker room. I went in to change and no one said a word.

Navigating my way through the garden felt like falling into the deep end of the pool. It was a blur of colors and muffled sounds. Above my head, I could just about make out the shape of each flower. I found myself at the center of an intricate web of scents, each one brighter than the next. In this memory, the garden itself and the narrow path between each row are filled with sunlight.

Along the other edge of her property, to the right of her house, was another line of trees, this one filled with rhubarb and gooseberry bushes. She made jam from the sour rhubarb stalks and encouraged my sister and me to enjoy the fresh green and white berries, which fell in clusters from branches covered in small, sharp thorns. I now have a gooseberry bush on our back deck that is three years old and, for the last two summers, it’s yielded more and more berries. When I find the self-control not to pick them in June, they mellow into a deep, wine red by July and early August. As children, we never waited; we ate them still green and tart. I planted another gooseberry bush this summer. My rhubarb needs more space. I’ve written a note to remind myself to transplant this fall.

By the close of the 1990s, as she neared her 90th birthday, Annie was no longer able to live on her own. Moving to a nursing home and leaving behind her precious flowers must have been painful, but, in her final years, she kept her garden and her memories of it close on a series of vibrant canvases. Her brother Eddie was also a painter; in the narrow stairway that led to the second floor of her house was one of his paintings, a nearly abstract image of a table set for dinner. To me, it always looked like a blue ghost holding court over the table, its face shrouded but somehow friendly. Once on the clock radio in her room I heard “Me and My Shadow” playing on Waterbury station WWCO and even now when I recall that painting I hear the words of the song. Me and my shadow. Strolling down the avenue. Me and my shadow. Not a soul to tell our troubles to.


My Great Aunt Annie Grigoraitis’s painting of a rose from 2001, when she was 91 years old. 

My favorite of her paintings is the portrait of a rose. This is how I remember her garden, and I am thankful she took the time to paint from memory what I saw for myself, that ocean of white and green and yellow and red and pink and orange. The funny thing is that I don’t remember any roses in her garden. On her patio, maybe, alongside the pink fuchsia that sat shaded under the other trees that divided her house from the Carey’s two-family next door. When I look at this painting, I am seeing the garden again, but I smell germaniums and not roses. I adore roses, and just transplanted one that I’ve been tending on our deck, but geraniums have an earthiness and a toughness that I admire. Last winter, I took mine indoors, and though they struggled, they’ve flowered again in the last few weeks. They needed time to recover from five months of Chicago radiator heat.


I’m now reading Charles Dudley Warner’s My Summer in a Garden, his beloved 1871 account of his experiences as a New England gardener. In the introduction to the 2002 edition, Allan Gurganus explains that “[a]s with ‘live’ theater, the very impermanence of gardening makes its so fiercely and instructively present-tense. Gardens die when gardeners do. Cultivation, like living, cannot be relegated to a hired staff, alas. Happily, certain books reverse this trend” (xx). I don’t often visit the street where I grew up, my aunt’s house across Bamford Avenue from ours, because that circle of flowers in her front yard has been gone for years. I don’t want to know what happened to that other, ocean-like plot behind her house. But I don’t need it to be there. I have these digital images of her paintings which my sister recently emailed to me. And, like an aspiring painter studying the masters, I’ve tried to sketch my own version of her garden, one filled with geraniums. I’ve also added a few of my own flourishes, my beloved sunflowers and yarrow and lantana. A Chicago garden can only hold so many New England flowers.

For Bill Schelly

Schelly cover scan

For comics historian Bill Schelly (1951–2019), it began in a train station. In the revised, expanded edition of his 2001 memoir Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom–The Whole Story, he begins with a memory of a 1960 family trip. Before they set out with their parents, Bill and his two brothers each select a comic book from a newsstand. Schelly settles on Giant Superman Annual #1, a comic filled with stories by creators Otto Binder, Edmond Hamilton, Wayne Boring, Curt Swan, and Kurt Schaffenberger (in other words, a great choice). His father Carl spent his career as an employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad, whose offices in Pittsburgh would later provide Schelly and his friend Marshall Lanz the space and the tools needed to create their fanzines. As he recalls that comic, its cover filled with drawings of Krypto and Jimmy Olsen and Lana Lang and Superbaby, Schelly describes “the darkened interior” of the terminal, an “amplified metallic voice on the public address system,” the “sleek, state-of-the-art diesel train” and its “smell of oil and air brakes” (Schelly 7, 11). Over a decade later, having just graduated from the University of Idaho, Schelly finds himself on another train, this time on his way to the 1973 New York Comic Art Convention, where he hopes to secure a position as an apprentice at DC Comics. “Odd, I thought, how much trains were intertwined with my love of comics,” he writes (215). Schelly’s work, from comics fandom histories to biographies of Otto Binder, Harvey Kurtzman, and John Stanley, was an attempt, like his comic book hero the Assembled Man, to reconstruct this body of memory, a visceral response to that long-ago moment when he stood waiting for a train with his family.

Last year, the comics community in the United States also lost scholar Derek Parker Royal and journalist Tom Spurgeon, who, along with Schelly, were three of the medium’s most able and valued chroniclers. In comics studies, we spend so much time looking to the future—imagining what the medium might become—that we too often neglect what has come before us. Recently, one of my colleagues remarked that fanzine writers of the 1960s and 1970s long ago scooped most of us who do archival work on Golden and Silver Age comics. Although we’re just following their example, we’re sometimes doing so without complete knowledge of what they’ve already accomplished, since so much of their writing, like the comics they first researched, can be so difficult to access (for more thoughts on why and how we study what we do, read another one of my colleagues, Qiana Whitted, in this essay from 2014) . I think my friend is right. After all, the book of Ecclesiastes long ago reminded us that “there is no new thing under the sun” (1:9); we flatter ourselves to think otherwise. But we should take comfort in knowing that we are now in a position to continue the work that’s already been done. The true challenge is not so much to come up with original ideas—another flattering illusion taught to us in grad school—but to place the work of these earlier writers, who typically worked outside the confines of academia, into dialogue with the groundbreaking scholarship being written today. I can think of no better place to start than with Bill Schelly’s meticulous research.

His fanzines and books, along with over 300 episodes of Parker’s podcast The Comics Alternative and Spurgeon’s The Comics Reporter website, represent what Maaheen Ahmed and Benoît Crucifix, in the introduction to their recent edited collection Comics Memory (Palgrave, 2018), describe as “alternative archives” (3). At the heart of these archives, like the wizard sitting on his throne in Billy Batson’s abandoned subway tunnel, are different forms of memory, images of the past from various sources and vantage points: “This oscillation between individual and collective memories in early twentieth-century theories of memory is reflected in comics,” Ahmed and Crucifix write,

where different kinds of memories are in constant interaction, for instance, through the confluence of an individual reader’s memory, historical context, and the collective memories of comics, including the intertwined memories of the genres, styles, and series populating them. (1–2)

That “oscillation” is clear in Schelly’s, Royal’s, and Spurgeon’s work. Their more personal and idiosyncratic archives are worth considering in greater depth alongside the formal, well-funded, and traditional collections housed at “the Centre international de la bande dessinée et de l’image in Angoulême, the comic books collection of the Michigan State Library or the Billy Ireland Cartoon Library and Museum in Columbus, Ohio,” all of which provide, in Ahmed and Crucifix’s words, “a second life to archives amassed by collectors” (7).

I like to think of an archive as a kind of elegy, or maybe a series of elegies, jumbled together, calling our attention to the lives of those “collectors” who amassed these items over the course of their lives. An archive, like an elegy, is an expression of love. And the archive, like the elegy, should inspire in us a sense of humility, since these collections serve as reminders that one day we, too, will leave behind traces in the lives of our families, our students, and our communities. “In research libraries and collections,” Susan Howe writes in her 2014 book Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives, “we may capture the portrait of history in so-called insignificant verbal and visual textualities and textiles” (21). Sense of Wonder—named after Schelly’s twelve-issue fanzine of the same name (1967–1972)—is just such a living “alternative archive,” to borrow Ahmed and Crucifix’s phrase again. Most remarkable about the second and final edition of the book from 2018 is Schelly’s candor, his ability to weave together comic book history with details from his journey as a writer.

Reflecting on the Western elegiac tradition in Poetices Libri Septem from 1561 (itself, fittingly enough, published after his death), Julius Caesar Scaliger discusses the role that works of art played in classical times as mourners sought to recall and honor the dead. In honoring one who has come before, an elegist is seeking, he writes, “to inspire the minds of the citizens to emulate their deeds” (108). “Pictures” and “statues” of the dead, he admits, have their limits. Therefore, those “deeds which could not be represented by any art were proclaimed in public orations.” President Obama’s speech at Congressman John Lewis’s funeral on July 30th is an example of a stirring elegy that captures in word and gesture what images are simply incapable of recording. Just as words have their limits, so do pictures. As a master writer and archivist himself, Schelly understood the value of these “public orations,” which, in his case, took the form of carefully researched and compassionate biographies like Words of Wonder, his study of Captain Marvel writer Otto Binder’s life.

After he returned to comics in the 1990s, Schelly began documenting fandom’s role in the history of the medium. He was uniquely positioned to do so because he was there and witnessed fandom’s growth firsthand. As he began working on The Golden Age of Comic Fandom (2003), he “was determined that those enthusiastic, even visionary fans”—Ronn Foss, G. B. Love, Maggie Thompson, and Richard “Grass” Green—“should receive the recognition they richly deserved. Fandom needed to be reminded of its roots” (Sense of Wonder 311). Contemporary comics readers who weaponize knowledge and continuity in order to exclude others who do not look, speak, or feel like they do should study carefully the Introduction Schelly’s inspiring memoir. He makes clear that comics are indeed for everyone, and have been for decades—whether gatekeepers want to admit it or not.

Writing about his early experiences in fandom, Schelly remembers that “[w]hen you were corresponding with someone through that archaic method now known as snail mail, you didn’t know if the person on the other end was black, or in a wheelchair, or a stutterer, or anyone ostracized for a myriad of reasons in white-bread American of the 1960s” (1). As a gay man who came of age in the years before the Stonewall Rebellion of 1969, Schelly decided that this updated version of his most personal book had to tell the “complete story” of his life, including “being frank about [his] sexuality” (2). Fittingly, then, the first time I saw the new edition of Sense of Wonder, I was standing in the LGBTQIA+ section of Unabridged Bookstore here in Chicago. Copies of Schelly’s memoir sat not far from books by Quentin Crisp, Leslie Feinberg, David Trinidad, and David Wojnarowicz. Just as Sense of Wonder belongs on the shelf of anyone interested in the history of U. S. comics in the 20th and early 21st centuries, it also sits comfortably next to these classics of LGBTQIA+ autobiographical literature.

Schelly’s memoir, as he explains in his introduction, is also for those who feel they have failed, especially in a society that prizes fame and fortune over love, respect, mutual aid, and community:

One thing I know for sure: I wasn’t the only comics fan with a minority sexual identity. Fandom reflected the larger society, so every kind of human being was a part of that group. And aren’t all of us different anyway? Don’t all of us feel left out sometimes? Don’t a lot of us feel like our dreams might not come true? (Sense of Wonder 2)

One of Schelly’s goals was to encourage other aspiring writers, editors, artists, and fans—especially those who continue to be “ostracized for a myriad of reasons”—to continue their work, no matter the odds or the obstacles: “So if you’re among the frustrated, there’s a message here [in this book] for you—a message of hope—which is all I had for a long time” (3). Just as Schelly’s friend Grass Green is now receiving the attention his comics so richly deserve thanks to Rebecca Wanzo’s groundbreaking new book The Content of Our Caricature (see Chapter 5 for her brilliant analysis of Green, Larry Fuller, and R. Crumb), I look forward to reading the work of young scholars inspired by Schelly’s example. That’s the hope he was talking about, I think. It’s an invitation. Just as others made space for him, he’s made space for the rest of us.

For the last two decades, when he wasn’t busy writing books, Schelly served as one of the Associate Editors of Alter Ego, the fanzine started by Jerry Bails in the early 1960s and nurtured by comics writer and editor Roy Thomas for the last six decades (for Schelly’s history of Alter Ego, visit his website here). A few weeks after Bill’s passing, I asked Roy for his thoughts on his friend. Roy’s kind and detailed response takes us back to where we started, a miniature elegy for a man and a writer gone too soon. “Despite never having worked in comicbooks as a professional, Bill Schelly contributed to the history of the field in two important ways,” Roy noted in an email from November 2019:

The first was by becoming the historian and chronicler and archivist of the comics fandom movement that began in 1961 . . . the second was by becoming a major biographer of several major comics figures: Otto Binder, Joe Kubert, John Stanley, and most all, Harvey Kurtzman, the latter of which is surely Bill’s magnum opus.  When I said something similar to Bill a year or two ago, he said, not particularly ruefully, “Yeah, that’s probably the one I’ll be remembered for.” We should only all leave behind such a substantive body of work . . . not particularly large, but very, very impressive.

While it is likely that Schelly will be best remembered for his biographies, I hope that Sense of Wonder also finds its way into classes on U. S. comics history. In its pages, careful readers will no doubt find a glimmer of themselves, just as they might in books by James Baldwin and Audre Lorde and Gilbert Baker. Schelly has left us with an “impressive” body of scholarship, to borrow Roy’s phrase, a legacy built on curiosity and compassion. The books and articles best suited to withstand the wearing away of time and history are the ones written with love and, yes, with hope. That’s the kind of writing that Bill Schelly mastered. How lucky we are to have his books and to learn these lessons from him.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Maaheen and Benoît Crucifix. “Introduction: Untaming Comics Memory” in Ahmed, Maaheen and Benoît Crucifix (Eds), Comics Memory: Archives and Styles. Palgrave Macmillan, 2018: 1–12.

Howe, Susan. Spontaneous Particulars: The Telepathy of Archives. Christine Burgin/New Directions, 2014.

Scaliger, Julius Caesar. “from The Poetics.” Trans. Rita Carey Guerlac. In Scott Elledge (Ed.), “Lycidas”: Edited to Serve as an Introduction to Criticism. Harper & Row, 1966: 107–111.

Schelly, Bill. Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom–The Whole Story. North Atlantic Books, 2018.

Thank you to Roy Thomas and to P. C. Hamerlinck, my editor at the Fawcett Collectors of America section of Alter Ego, for sharing their thoughts and memories of their friend Bill Schelly with me.