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.

“Surrender on Demand”: The Pernice Brothers and Studio .45

This essay originally appeared in the now-defunct Maura Magazine on March 15, 2015 (issue #44), along with Allison’s Felus’s essay on The Lilys’ Eccsame the Photon Band, another classic album recorded at Studio .45.  

I’m reading the liner notes of a promo copy of Overcome by Happiness, the Pernice Brothers album released by Sub Pop in the spring of 1998. On “Crestfallen,” the album’s first song, Joe Pernice sings, “Oh, I need some time to make sense of something I lost along on the ride” as Aaron Sperske’s drums fill the space behind his voice. A few bars later, a string section enters on the left side of the stereo picture just before the band—Thom Monahan on bass, Peyton Pinkerton on guitar, Bob Pernice on guitar and vocals—hits the chorus. About two minutes later, I think the song might be over, but the guitar returns, followed by the bass and drums, only this time Michael Deming’s string arrangement takes the place of Joe Pernice’s lead vocal. When the song is over, I read the back cover of the CD, which I found about a year ago in the bins at Reckless Records here in Chicago. The cardboard sleeve is now yellow and faded, and, just beneath the copyright notice, I read a warning from Sub Pop. Or maybe it’s a suggestion: “Not for Sale,” it reads. “Surrender on demand.”

I know Joe Pernice and his brother Bob had nothing to do with those last two lines. They’re not part of the liner notes, and they have nothing to do with the songs. But I read those two lines of legalese in the same spirit as I hear the first line of “Crestfallen”: a voice from the past that I recognize only when I surrender to it. When I listen to Overcome by Happiness—a record I didn’t own in 1998 and didn’t hear until 2014 when Allison suggested I listen to it—I hear the other records and songs produced by Mike Deming at Studio .45 in Hartford, Connecticut. Seattle and Chicago produced some of the most popular bands of the 1990s, but Connecticut and Western Massachusetts produced some of the decade’s best music, and a lot of it came from Deming’s studio: listen to Monsterland’s “Jane Wiedlin Used to Be a Go-Go As Far As We Know” from the Danbury, Connecticut band’s 1994 EP At One with Time, or “High Writer at Home” from the Lilys’ Eccsame the Photon Band. Thom Monahan, incidentally, co-producer and bassist for Overcome by Happiness, was also the bassist and co-vocalist for Monsterland. While you’d never confuse Joe Pernice’s mellifluous voice and sparkling melodies for Monsterland’s aggressive, often dissonant, Mission of Burma meets My Bloody Valentine sensibility, and while Eccsame the Photon Band at times sound like Lush covering The Dark Side of the Moon, what all three share in common is a specific sense of motion.

Records made at Studio .45 have an openness, not just in the words but also in the sounds. There’s space to move in these records, but it’s the slow, circular movement of a drive through New England, past the rusted, abandoned factories of Bridgeport and Waterbury, Connecticut through the poverty of New Haven and Hartford and onward to the opulence of their rich suburbs. It’s the sound of poet Wallace Stevens, walking to his office at the Hartford Accident and Indemnity Company, but it’s also the voice of Taj Mahal, who was born in New York but spent his early years in Springfield, Massachusetts, just a few miles south of Northampton, where Joe Pernice formed his other band, the Scud Mountain Boys. In New England, especially, Connecticut, we love the blues. The Scuds, as we used to call them, released an album with Sub Pop, too, just two years before Overcome by Happiness. It was called Massachusetts.

I’m glad I only heard Overcome by Happiness a year ago. If I’d heard it in 1998, I’d be locked into specific memories of that year, when I was living just outside of Storrs, Connecticut. I’d remember driving from Storrs to Northampton, or I’d think about the gigs my band was playing at The Bay State or The Russian Lady or Gronion’s. Back then, when I listened to Lilys and Monsterland, I’d wonder what other magic might be happening at Studio .45, a suite of rooms in the old Colt Armory building in Hartford. The studio, like the three clubs I just mentioned, is gone now, too, but Mike Deming is still in the music business, designing and marketing a line of studio compressors and preamps with his new company, CharterOak Acoustic Devices. A good Connecticut name.

When I listen to “Crestfallen” and “Dimmest Star” and other favorite tracks from Overcome by Happiness, I think I remember specific places and friends from twenty years ago, but then I realize that the memories I have of this album will eventually be locked, here and now, in this present, in Chicago, in 2015. But I can’t resist the pull of that other time, the time I think I remember, when Tris, my basisist, and I ran into Bruce Tull and the rest of the Scuds outside T. T. the Bear’s in Cambridge in 1997. They were playing the Middle East. They’d pulled up in a van. Tris knew Bruce from grad school at UMass Amherst. They looked surprised but happy to see each other. Bruce, I remember, looked tired. Joe Pernice might have been there, too, but I don’t know if I met him. Maybe he was still in the van, or getting a falafel sandwich at the Middle East. Or maybe we said hello.

Not for sale. Surrender on demand. I keep repeating those lines to myself like they have some kind of meaning, like magic. I’d love to be dramatic, tell you that the Connecticut/Western Mass. scene in those days wasn’t for sale, wouldn’t surrender anything, was too punk for you, so that’s why you don’t remember these bands as fondly as you remember Nirvana or Smashing Pumpkins or Liz Phair. But that wouldn’t be true either. Mostly, I miss my friends, and I miss the curve of 91 north as it follows the Connecticut River through the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts. And I wish Mike Deming were still making records, and I hope someone someday puts together a collection called The Best of Studio .45. I think that’s what I’m hearing when I’m hearing “Crestfallen” and the other lovely songs on Overcome By Happiness: not Connecticut in the 1990s, but the stillness of my apartment, now, as I write this. And what I think I’ll remember of these songs in another 20 years. And those string arrangements. Those strings.

New Interview with the Comics Alternative

I mentioned in my post from earlier this week that I’d be talking with Derek Parker Royal, Andy Kunka, and Gene Kannenberg, Jr., on their long-running podcast the Comics Alternative. The show is already online right here.

While you’re visiting their website, take a listen to some of the other shows they’ve done. From artist interviews to reviews and discussions with other writers and scholars, the Comics Alternative offers up an eclectic mix of conversation about all kinds of graphic narratives. In this episode, we talk in more detail about the research, writing, and editing process, and Gene points out the tribute to the Dr. Manhattan chapter of Watchmen that appears at the end of the book (Watchmen? Really?! Yep. It’s there.) This one was just as much fun to record as the talk with Emmet O’Cuana for Deconstructing Comics a couple of weeks ago.

Meanwhile, frequent Comics Alternative contributor Sean Kleefeld writes about Steamboat and his response to the character on his website. He raises some good points about issues of representation in comics of the 1940s and 1950s and urges readers and scholars to study these images and their consequences more fully.

I hope you enjoy the interviews. In discussing the book, I’ve started thinking about how long it took me to write it. I usually say five years, which is about right, from my first outlines for it to the final, proofread version that UP of Mississippi sent to the printer last fall. But on a recent trip to visit my family, I found this Little Golden Book written by Bob Ottum and drawn by Fawcett veteran Kurt Schaffenberger:

When I opened the front cover, I discovered this. That’s my mom’s handwriting:

So does this mean I got started on May 4, 1978 with this 47 cent book from Bradlees?! No wonder it took me so long. I couldn’t even read in 1978!

“I Belong Here”: In Tribute to Bernie Wrightson, 1948–2017

In a segment from Ken Viola’s 1987 documentary The Masters of Comic Book Art, artist Bernie Wrightson sits in his studio. There’s an easel to his left and a picture window behind him. It must be late autumn. The trees outside the window are bare except for a solitary one in the foreground that still has its leaves. Beneath the white birch trees the earth looks brown and barren. In fact, it looks like a landscape from one of Wrightson’s drawings or paintings, filled with intricate details that announce their presence slowly and only to those who look carefully. At the end of the interview, Wrightson, the much beloved comics artist who passed away this weekend at the age of 68, describes an image of true and complete terror.

By the time of this interview, Wrightson had co-created Swamp Thing with writer Len Wein, collaborated on projects with Stephen King, and illustrated Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. In this conversation with Viola, he offered this explanation of his grotesque but always illuminating work:

Horror is different things to different people, I think. To me–in spite of my drawings of monsters and the creeping dead crawling out of their graves and vampires and Frankenstein’s monster and whatnot–horror to me is an image of a well-dressed man standing on a corner waiting for a bus. And everything about him is absolutely perfect except there’s a spot of blood on his shoe.

Here, Wrightson speaks with the same meticulousness you’ll find in his drawings. Every line is just right, filled not simply with horror or dread but also with humor and with the honesty his friend and colleague Bruce Jones describes in the introduction to the first issue of Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre, published by Pacific Comics in June 1983 (early on, Wrightson signed his name Berni, without the e at the end): “. . . in the best of Berni’s work, there is something hideously missing in the art of most others: sincerity.”

The first story that appears in the issue is “The Muck Monster,” first published in Eerie #68 in September 1975 and recently reprinted as an Artist’s Edition by IDW Publishing. In the story, a mad doctor tries to create a Frankenstein-like being, but the monster resists. Although he is now awake, the creature, in a caption on the story’s second page, explains, “I resented his presumption upon a higher power. I resisted his attempts on my being!” In fact, he continues, he “did not want life!” Only at the end of the story, after a confrontation with his creator, does Wrightson’s monster embrace what he is. But what is he, anyway? That’s what he’s been trying to figure out since the first page of the story.

At times, the Muck Monster (you’ll have the read the story yourself to find out why Wrightson calls him by that name) distantly echoes the voice of poet John Clare, or of just about any kid, I think, first coming to terms with the world’s cruelty and indifference: “I am!” he insists in the first line of the story. After a journey that takes him from the doctor’s lab to a graveyard and then back to his birthplace, the monster assures the reader, “No. I was not . . . am not mad!” What is he then? The answer he provides isn’t much comfort. For now, like some high school kid hearing Black Sabbath for the first time, all the creature can say is, “I just . . . am . . . !” He has fewer words at his disposal than Clare, a nineteenth-century British poet who, in “Sonnet: ‘I Am,’” defines himself as

. . . a being created in the race

Of men disdaining bounds of place and time–

A spirit that could travel o’er the space

Of earth and heaven like a thought sublime [ . . . ] (Clare 114)

But Clare’s speaker–no doubt Clare himself–concludes his poem certain only of his existence, of his body and its small place in the universe: “But now I only know I am–that’s all.”

Wrightson’s Muck Monster, of course, is the hero of a comic book story, so he gets a second chance. Remove the creature itself from each scene and this final page could be an illustration for one of Emerson’s essays or, for that matter, a book of Clare’s nature poems. In the first panel, a sunrise, then mountains, trees, a river, a rocky ledge. It’s an image of transcendence, of wholeness, as each line works in tandem with the one next to it in order to create a unified image. Unable to find any completeness in himself, or in the arms of his creator, the monster finds peace in nature which, like him, just is. Look carefully, in fact, and you’ll have a difficult time telling the difference between the Muck Monster and the tree to his right in the first panel: “My thoughts are lost in the vastness that surrounds me . . . .” he explains (you can click on the page below to enlarge it):

Three images later, in another rectangular panel that echoes the first one, he understands: “I belong here . . . I am accepted!” Time passes. Leaves fall, then snow. Has one day passed? Two? A decade or more? I lose myself in these last four panels, as day turns to night and stars fill a black sky. In a career filled with terrifying and sublime images, this one, I think, is Wrightson’s most beautiful, as lyrical and strange as that “image” of the “well-dressed” man with the “spot of blood on his shoe.”

I suggested earlier that Wrightson is a master of the grotesque, but the monsters in his world are descendants not just of Poe and of the stories in EC Comics but also of Sherwood Anderson’s characters in his 1919 collection Winesburg, Ohio. You won’t find Anderson’s short stories–which had a tremendous impact on a young Ernest Hemingway–in the reading list for a course on horror fiction. Nonetheless, Anderson opens his collection with a framing device in which an elderly writer offers a definition of the grotesque that might apply to Wrightson’s work. At the dawn of myth and history, the writer suggests, “were the truths and they were all beautiful.” But humanity didn’t quite know what to do with all of that beauty. The old man, after years of carefully observing his friends and neighbors, developed a “notion that the moment one of the people took one of these truths to himself, called it his truth, and tried to live his life by it, he became a grotesque and the truth he embraced became a falsehood” (Anderson 23-24). Wrightson’s vision of the world is closer to Anderson’s or to Mary Shelley’s than, say, to Stephen King’s. Only in surrender is it possible to find that original truth and the beauty that defined it. Wrightson understood that a grotesque must always remind us of the wonder of just living in the world, of asking questions, of being. “Does that which is go on forever?” asks the Muck Monster before he surrenders to time and nature. Maybe. Or, as he asserts, “Perhaps!” I’d like to think that it does. And, when I revisit Wrightson’s comics, and read them with the same delight I did the first time, I get a sense that the “celebration” the monster longs for is never too far away.

For more about Bernie Wrightson’s work, and his passing, visit his website at

Works Cited

Anderson, Sherwood. Winesburg, Ohio. New York: Penguin Books, 1983. Print.

Clare, John. John Clare: Poems Selected by Paul Farley. London: Faber & Faber, 2007. Print.

Viola, Ken. The Masters of Comic Book Art. Ken Viola Productions, 1987. Video.

Wrightson, Bernie. Berni Wrightson: Master of the Macabre no. 1 (June 1983). San Diego, CA: Pacific Comics. Print.

Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia…on the radio, online, and on (a very small but meaningful cross-country) tour!

If you’ve read Captain Marvel’s adventures from the 1940s, you might remember the many stories in which he visited cities across the country. While I won’t be traveling as much as Billy and his alter ego did 70 years ago, I do have a couple of lectures coming up at the end of March.

And although Captain Marvel never visited Waterbury, Connecticut, he did spend some time in my home state in Captain Marvel Adventures no. 67, published in November 1946. Here’s the first page of “Captain Marvel and the Key of Crime,” which the Grand Comics Database attributes to Otto Binder and to C. C. Beck, though it looks to me like Beck was working with Costanza and a few other assistants on this one. You can read the whole thing for yourself at the Digital Comic Museum, where I found this scan:

I’ve been joking that the week of March 27th will be my book tour–two dates only, so be there! I’ll start on my home campus of Harper College where I’ll be doing a lecture in our Drama Lab (Building L, Room 219), right down the hall from our Picasso sculpture. I’ve told you we have a Picasso on campus, right? If you haven’t seen it, you can visit it after we do a raffle for a copy of my book and for a couple of issues of DC’s Shazam! from the 1970s. Since at least two classes of English 102 students will attend, I’ll focus on my research process and on the writing and editing of the book. This event is free and open to the public, so tell your friends. You can also read this recent article about the book at Harper’s Academy for Teaching Excellence website.

A few days later, I’ll be presenting another lecture called “Comic Books, Captain Marvel, and the Art of Nostalgia” in my hometown of Waterbury, Connecticut at the UConn-Waterbury campus, where I worked in the late ’90s and early 2000s as an Admissions Counselor and Writing Center coordinator/tutor. The campus’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute is sponsoring the event.

I got my start writing for online venues at UConn-Waterbury thanks to my friend Stu Brown, the campus’s Director of Student Services. I was a columnist for his website for five years or so, around the same time I was finishing my dissertation and writing articles for John Lent’s International Journal of Comic Art and The Jack Kirby Collector in the early 2000s. I’m looking forward to going home and talking about my work, which has its starting point in my visits to Jim’s Comic Book Shop on East Main Street in the 1980s. Jim’s is long gone, but the building that housed Eastern Color Printing, where the comic book as we know it got its start in the 1930s, still stands in Waterbury near the corner of West Main and Thomaston Avenue. Here’s a picture of the building from last summer. It’s less than a mile from the UConn campus:

I should mention that technically I grew up in Oakville, CT, but we were pretty close to the border with Waterbury. And I was born at Waterbury Hospital and graduated from Sacred Heart High School. And, since the city appears in Death of a Salesman and in “The Secret Life of Water Mitty,” there’s a better chance you’ve heard of Waterbury and might even know where it is. Email the OLLI office at UConn or contact me directly if you need more information on the lecture.

Meanwhile, I’ve recorded a couple of interviews about the book. I spoke with Larry Corley at WQNA radio early in January. I don’t think his shows are archived, but here’s a link to the station’s Facebook page if you want to take a look. WQNA is based in Springfield, Illinois.

Two weeks ago I spoke with Emmet O’Cuana for the Deconstructing Comics Podcast. As he mentions in the description for the show, just posted this morning, we had a great conversation on everything from Beck and Binder’s aesthetics to Svetlana Boym’s theories of nostalgia and our mutual admiration for W. G. Sebald and his writing. I also admitted my affection for Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and my hope that, one day, he and I will meet so I can give him a copy of the book. And, for the record, I want him to play Black Adam and Captain Marvel!

Tonight I’ll be speaking with Andy Kunka, Derek Royal, and Gene Kannenberg, Jr., for the Comics Alternative podcast. I’m sure we’ll all have plenty to say about Beck and Binder, but I hope Gene and I also get to talk about our time as graduate students at UConn in the 1990s and early 2000s. As I’ve mentioned many times, I don’t know if I would have started writing about comics if I hadn’t met Gene and Charles Hatfield in the second year of my graduate program. Though I’d written letters to the Comics Buyer’s Guide in the 1980s, and turned in a couple of papers on comics in high school and again in college, their friendship and support made Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia possible.

Here we are just a few nights ago at dinner with Trina Robbins, the heroine of my book and another early inspiration of mine when I was searching for comics with my dad at Jim’s on East Main Street. Trina was in town last week to give lectures at the School of the Art Institute and at UIC. Allison and I are to Trina’s right while Gene and Sean Kleefeld are to her left. Dinner conversation ranged from Wonder Woman and Robert Kanigher to Beck and Binder. But, mostly, we talked about Bob Dylan, Leonard Cohen, the magic of cat yronwode, and our cats:

More updates to come, but for now I’ve got to get back to work on these lectures!


It’s here!


As you can see from this image, our cat Rosie carefully inspected the author copies of Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia that arrived from the University Press of Mississippi last week. After she determined that each copy was ready for the public, I began mailing them out on Christmas Eve. Once I get over the holiday bug that struck me down over the weekend, I’ll begin adding regular updates and new material to this site about the book.

In the meantime, here are a few quick updates:

My fellow Irishman Emmet O’Cuana has the book’s first review up at the site Hopscotch Friday.

I wrote an article for the new issue of Alter Ego/Fawcett Collectors of America about Steamboat. The article is based on Chapter 4 of the book. You can read a short preview here or order a copy from the TwoMorrows website.

Meanwhile, you can order the book from Barnes and Noble or directly from the UPM website. Amazon should have it in stock by the first week of January. Please also support your local bookstore! Here in Chicago, places like Unabridged Books and the Seminary Co-Op, two of my favorite shops, would be happy to order a copy for you. Or why not try Quimby’s or Chicago Comics or Third Coast Comics? Diamond should have it in the next couple of weeks two–despite the fact that there’s an error on their site listing it for June 28, 2017! (I am a perfectionist, believe me, but I have my limits). And, of course, if you’re here in Chicago, I will be happy to sign your copy. I might even draw something in it.

Like Alan Moore, I believe very strongly that, as he puts is, writing “is literally magic.” One of my goals, especially in the second half of the book, is to conjure the Utopian spaces that filmmaker Jack Smith imagined in his work. Those radical, welcoming, open, and loving spaces, like the ones Smith imagined at the center of his ideal city, might, especially now, seem as distant and strange as Billy’s subway tunnel or the legends that Bill Parker and C. C. Beck had in mind when they came up with the idea for Captain Thunder in 1939. But I believe that the kind of world Smith describes here is necessary, possible, and inevitable:

” . . . I can think of other types of societies . . . Like in the middle of the city should be a repository of objects that people don’t want anymore, which they would take to this giant junkyard. That would form an organization, a way that the city would be organized . . . the city organized around that. I think this center of unused objects and unwanted objects would become a center of intellectual activity. Things would grow up around it.” –from Jack Smith, Meet Me at the Bottom of the Pool (Eds. J. Hoberman and Edward Leffingwell, New York: High Risk Books, 1997)

Thanks for reading. More updates to come.



So, it’s almost here! I started working on what would become Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia, from the University Press of Mississippi, in the spring of 2011. I wanted to write a book modeled after Paul Schrader’s Transcendental Style in Film, one of my favorites. I thought I’d select four or five artists (or writer/artist teams) and study the spiritual dimension of their work. In that original outline, I included chapters devoted to John Porcellino, Carrie McNinch, James Sturm, Edie Fake, and C. C. Beck and Otto Binder’s Captain Marvel. Then I wondered, will anyone but me want to read this?!

I ended up writing the essays on King-Cat, The Revival, and Gaylord Phoenix, three of my all-time favorite comics. Then, as I started my research on Beck, I thought, should I write a whole book on Fawcett’s Captain Marvel? I wasn’t much of a fan as a kid. I knew the character mostly from the Saturday morning live action TV show, which I always dreaded, because, on our local CBS affiliate in Connecticut, it followed the cartoons, which meant that Saturday morning was coming to a close. The only upside? My dad would probably make a grilled cheese sandwich for me.

But sometime in the late 1990s I found a stack of DC’s Shazam! revival from the 1970s at one of Hal Kinney’s comic book shows at the Elks Hall in East Hartford, Connecticut. I started to pay attention: I adored Beck’s clean, simple drawing style, and the reprints of Fawcett’s Golden Age stories introduced me to Otto Binder’s witty, strange, and charming scripts. Soon, I began to notice affinities between that research and other work I’d been doing on my maternal grandfather, Nunzio Stango. Born in 1913, he was a World War II vet who joined the Army around the same time that Billy Batson, Captain Marvel’s alter ego, signed up in the summer of 1942. My grandfather and his Army War Show buddies show up in Chapter 3.

While working on the Epilogue, I realized that I wasn’t writing about Captain Marvel so much as I was writing about one of his biggest fans, essayist and science fiction writer Harlan Ellison, who graciously consented to an interview in the winter of 2014. He then edited and expanded on that interview for a recent issue of Alter Ego. Recently, I told my students that I learned to write from a series of amazing teachers (more on them in another post) but also from two books: John E. Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition (the Franklin Edition from the 1980s) and Ellison’s short story collection Shatterday, first published in 1980. I hadn’t read Ellison’s book in years, but perhaps I should not have been surprised when I opened it this summer and noticed this passage from the introduction to “Jeffty Is Five,” a short story about a little boy who finds himself locked in the past:

This is not one of those embalmed adorations of nostalgic sentimentality. It merely suggests for your consideration that there are treasures of the Past that we seem too quickly [and] brutally ready to dump down the incinerator of Progress. At what cost, it suggests, do we pursue the goal of being au courant? (Ellison 10)

In writing my first book, I’d found my way back to the very first collection of stories I’d fallen in love with as a young reader. But that’s how nostalgia works, right? That process, as a friend recently reminded me, is what Mircea Eliade called the “eternal return,” a series of rituals that (if we’re lucky) lead us back to Saturday morning, to the Zenith TV, to the ghosts in the hydrangea tree, to the plastic toy soldiers buried in the garden, to the Andrews Sisters and the clock radio, to the toy box filled with comic books.

You know what? Music does the work better then words, sometimes. I wish I’d found a footnote for Return to Forever’s great tune “Captain Marvel.” But since I didn’t have space for it, you can listen to it right here as you take a look at Keiler Roberts’ drawing for the book’s cover.

Meanwhile, over the next several months, I’ll post regular updates about the book, including more material and ideas that didn’t make the final cut. I hope you’ll find something you like.

Or, you know, if you need a soundtrack that matches the title for this post, here’s “Soon” by My Bloody Valentine.

ICAF 2016!

In a few hours, I’ll be headed to Columbia, South Carolina for the 2016 International Comic Arts Forum at the University of South Carolina. On Saturday I’ll be presenting a paper on a panel called “Comics Readers” with three amazing friends and scholars: Qiana Whitted, Carol Tilley and Chris Pizzino! Can’t be there? Here’s a little preview of my paper, which is based on some material from my upcoming book from the UP of Mississippi, Captain Marvel and the Art of Nostalgia. I’ll also be moderating a panel on Thursday and giving out official Comics Studies Society buttons and bookmarks at the ICAF info table over the next couple of days (haven’t joined the CSS yet? You should before the founding membership drive closes tomorrow, April 14th!). Come by and say hello!

My paper features a big cast of supporting characters: Billy Batson, Captain Marvel, Mr. Tawny, Harlan Ellison, Roy Thomas (who’ll be at ICAF on Saturday, I hope with one of his capybaras), Isaac Asimov, C. C. Beck & Pete Costanza, Henry Kuttner, and Hoagy Carmichael (to name just a few). Email if you’d like to read the rest of it (or for the Works Cited).

Now I better go feed the cats and finish packing.

from “‘Tiny Flashes of Light’: Otto Binder and Nostalgia in the Comic Book Fanzines of the 1960s”

Even a talking tiger gets writer’s block sometimes. For Billy Batson’s best friend Mr. Tawny, it happened often, first in “Captain Marvel Battles the Plot Against the Universe” from September, 1949. Hard at work on his memoirs, Tawny realized that his story would not be complete without the facts on Captain Marvel. Billy, acting as a kind of magical research assistant, offered a first-person account of the stranger, the subway tunnel, and the mysterious train ride.


Then, a few years later, Mr. Tawny undertook a new project, a book called Homing Habits of Hibernating Animals. In this three-panel sequence from Captain Marvel Adventures 126 (November 1951), written by Otto Binder and drawn by C. C. Beck (most likely in collaboration with Pete Costanza), Tawny, a pencil clasped in his right paw, struggles to finish his masterpiece. Most of all, he is afraid of being alone: “Night after night I scribble away in my study, writing this dry old book!” he admits. “ I live in obscurity! Nobody ever hears of me!”

Scan 1

In the yellow light cast by his desk lamp, we see his manuscript, almost complete, along with two more sheets of paper and a couple of extra pencils. His shelves are lined with books, and he wears a green and purple dressing gown. In the next panel, after lamenting the fact that he’ll never “make the headlines,” “win an Oscar,” or find himself in a “a hall of fame,” he looks up from his work, his reading glasses perched on the bridge of his furry nose, and exclaims, “I’m getting nowhere in life! I’ve to make a change!” Billy arrives just in time to comfort his friend. “Holy moley!” he exclaims. “What’s wrong, Mr. Tawny?”

In an essay about the real-life counterparts of Captain Marvel’s cast of characters, Beck, Binder’s friend and long-time collaborator, revealed that “Mr. Tawny, the talking tiger, was actually . . . who else? Otto Binder!” (“The Human Quality” 29). The writer, he added, “had a lot of fun laughing at himself in the Mr. Tawny stories” (29). Binder filled Tawny’s adventures with autobiographical traces that offer insights into the complex relationship between comic books and nostalgia. Perhaps this was because the character, as Binder noted in a 1964 letter to Roy Thomas published in the fanzine Alter Ego, “lent himself more to orthodox concepts” (“Special!” 111). That is, Tawny struggled with an adversary Captain Marvel never had to face: time itself, and an inevitable descent into middle age.

In that remarkable Alter Ego letter, Binder provided comics historians with a portrait of his long career, including his memories of the popular Monster Society of Evil serial and his opinion on the outcome of the National v. Fawcett copyright infringement case. By 1953, when Fawcett settled with National and discontinued most of its comic book line, including all of its Marvel Family titles, Binder had written, by his own count, “a total of 529 stories about the Big Red Cheese alone, for earnings of $37, 358” (“Special!” 111). He was proud of his success and grateful for the stable, middle-class life it provided for him and his family: “My present-day home in Englewood, New Jersey,” he noted, “was dedicated at a Fawcett party as being ‘The House That Captain Marvel Built.’ Truer words were never spoken. He paid for it twice over” (112). At the close of this letter, however, Binder, always generous and kind to his readers, offers a gentle word of warning. Here, he actively resists what the late theorist Svetlana Boym has called that “romance with one’s own fantasy” that often characterizes nostalgic reflection (xiii). Binder, who’d spent so much of his career imagining the future, offers some advice to those who would study the past. “The above reminiscences,” he begins,

disjointed and seemingly narcissistic, are offered only with the thought of shedding some insight on those days of yore when comics were in flower. To attempt any sweeping, definitive picture is madness. Only in the tiny flashes of light given by individual anecdotes and recollections of those of us in the field as pros at the time can come any rational picture of what to me is still an incomprehensible rise-and-fall of a great empire—the world of picture-story heroes whose peers will never again be seen. (Binder, “Special!” 112)

Binder anticipates one of the challenges scholars continue to face: how does one tell this story? And what role has nostalgia played in shaping the history of comics? In Comics Versus Art, Bart Beaty reminds us that key members of what he calls “the second wave of organized comic book fandom” in the United States often “wrote nostalgically” and with great affection about comics from the 1940s and 1950s (154). These fans, many of whom admired and corresponded with Binder, also, as Beaty points out, were instrumental in the development of “comic book specialty stores, comic book conventions, fan magazines, comic book price guides, and even publishing houses” (154). At the close of the Binder biography Words of Wonder, Bill Schelly claims the writer as a father figure whose “nurturing and supportive actions” (234) inspired several important figures in this “second wave” including Richard and Pat Lupoff, Jerry Bails, Bill Spicer, and Roy Thomas. In the early 1970s, Binder and his wife Ione, still grieving the tragic loss of their daughter Mary, continued to welcome fans, including a young Frank Miller, to their home in upstate New York (Schelly 218-219).

When he died in 1974, Binder also left behind an archive of material—letters, scripts, unpublished essays—some of which are now housed at the Cushing Memorial Library at Texas A&M University. That wealth of material on comics history, however, is only part of Binder’s legacy. For Binder, those conversations with fans in the 1960s no doubt brought back fond memories of his old friends and colleagues at Fawcett. By sharing his memories with this new generation of amateur historians and aspiring writers and cartoonists, Binder introduced this “second wave” to a critical discourse on comics that had its roots in the close-knit community of editors, writers, and artists with whom he’d worked in the 1940s and early 1950s.

In an account included in Jim Steranko’s History of Comics, Binder enthusiastically recalled those spirited conversations: “All of us lived, ate, and dreamed comics in the Golden Era,” he said. “No sooner did two of us get together (or one, if he liked to talk to himself) than off we went on which characters were best—that crazy Jack Kirby’s layouts—Eisner, who can beat him—hey did [Jack Binder’s] shop do 2,000 or 3,000 pages last month—I think I’ll be glad when I’m drafted and get a ‘rest’” (Binder qtd. in Steranko 17). In a 1977 interview with Chris Padovano, Beck also remembered those years with great affection (and with his trademark sarcasm): “The parties we had during the forties are my fondest memories,” Beck told Padovano. “We had no pot or rock music, but plenty of booze and old-time [accordion] and guitar music” (Beck qtd. in Padovano; Binder played accordion and Beck sang and played guitar with his wife Hildur). Although Binder never wrote a sustained work of comics criticism, Beck wrote numerous articles on the theory and practice of making comics for The Comics Journal and for his Critical Circle, a small group of fans and comics professionals with whom he shared his unpublished work in the two years before his death in 1989. In addition to their work on some of the best-selling comics of the Golden Age, then, Binder and Beck were instrumental in shaping the discourse on comics that we, as scholars, have inherited from that “second wave” of fans in the 1960s and from the fanzines and books in which they documented the early years of what Binder called “a great empire.”

In the introduction to The Future of Nostalgia, Boym argues that “[t]he nostalgic desires to obliterate history and turn it into private or collective mythology, to revisit time like space, refusing to surrender to the irreversibility of time that plagues the human condition” (xv). In his Alter Ego letter, Binder cautions against any idealization of the past. The “second wave,” however, set out to preserve and celebrate what it could of that “collective mythology,” to borrow Boym’s phrase. In the introduction to the first issue of The Golden Age of Comics from 1982, for example, Don Thompson and Maggie Thompson describe their vision for “an ideal world” where “nothing would ever go out of print. It should be possible for fans and casual readers alike to obtain the complete Action Comics, the complete works of Milton Caniff, and the entire run of any comic book, comic strip, or magazine at libraries” (4). What they call a “Utopian dream” is now coming true, not only because of websites like The Digital Comics Museum but also because of institutions such as the Billy Ireland at Ohio State and Randall Scott’s Comic Art Collection at Michigan State. Binder and his alter ego Mr. Tawny, however, pose a challenge to these “utopian” visions. If, as Alan Moore once said as he outlined his ideas for his version of Marvelman (Mick Anglo’s British variation on Captain Marvel), “the central appeal of nostalgia is that all this stuff in the past has gone” and is “finished” (Moore 24), then what pleasure is left to us once the past, and all its mysteries, have been revealed to us? Some ghosts are best left alone. Or, as Binder himself wrote in another letter to his old friend Julius Schwartz published in Shazam! No. 4 in 1973, a little over a year before his death, “The comics seem like some long-ago dream and I have no slightest hankering to go back to them, in case you’re wondering” (“Shazamail!”). That “long-ago dream” might provide just the illumination Binder believed necessary for any “rational picture” of comics and their history. It has all the elements of a lost Binder and Beck classic: time, memory, loss, redemption. A little humor. Just imagine: “Captain Marvel, Mr. Tawny, and the Long-Ago Dream.” I like it.