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.
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.