Excelsior, Musical Innertubers! Don here, channeling Stan the Man and his ever-lovin', always astonishing Bullpen Bulletins! For me they were often the highlight of those fantastic Marvel mags!
Talking comics with Gary Sassaman got John and I to thinking about our high school days. We were both budding writers, and we were both pretty silly -- and that led us to write our own comic book parodies. As you might imagine, they were crap.
I wrote about the heroics of Monkey Man! Bitten by a radioactive monkey, Monkey Man gained all the powers and abilities of a monkey. He ate bananas, picked fleas out of the police commissioner’s hair, and conquered his foes by flinging feces at them. That’s right: it was autobiographical!
Here's how John remembers his literary gem:
My high school stories followed the exploits of Terrific Torr and his Terrible Towel! Torr was a superhero who could bring bad guys to their knees with a lightning snap of his bath towel. These stories made up for their enormous stupidity by being incredibly immature.
But that's not all, True Believers! In 1971, I attended the second-ever San Diego Comic Con, which was spread out over the campus of the University of California in San Diego. My dad had quite coincidentally taken our family to a beach in San Diego for a quick vacation; I begged and pleaded to spend Saturday afternoon at the Con. My father was either the best dad ever, or just tired of my whining -- whatever the reason, he drove me to the campus, dropped me off and let me wander among the vendors and exhibits. I ran into Kirk Alyn, who played Superman in the movie serials; he signed an autobiography he was selling and talked to me for the better part of half an hour about the difficult stunts he used to perform in his movies. Then, walking down the hall, I ran into Ray Bradbury, who talked to a group of us for another half hour or so, mostly asking questions about what we thought the future should be. He cut the talk short because his ride was leaving. Ray Bradbury, the man whose imagination took us deep into space on rockets, didn’t drive and hated flying in airplanes.
My favorite encounter was running into Jack Kirby and his entourage in one of the exhibitor rooms. He must have had 50 high school and college-aged kids around him, and my impression was that about half of them worked for him. He was outgoing and gracious, shaking everybody’s hand and asking everybody’s name. He signed my program guide – to this day, that’s framed and on the wall in my bedroom.
Then the questions started coming, and that’s when I got in trouble. Right around that time, Jack had left Marvel for DC comics. Of course, I had no idea of the problems Jack was having at Marvel. They were over-working and under-paying him, and Stan Lee was getting all the press for the work Jack was doing. I was just an idiot high-schooler who saw the Lee-Kirby credits on most every comic I bought and figured that the two of them sat in a room every day, kicking around ideas and sketches, pounding out those Marvel masterworks. And, as a reader – and therefore, by rights a certified comics critic – I had complained to my other comic book friends that the last few issues of Fantastic Four that Jack had drawn before leaving Marvel had seemed sloppy in plot, dialogue and artwork. So my question to Jack, asked with the full-on snobbery that comes with being a certified comics critic, was:
“Did you get tired of drawing the Fantastic Four?”
I felt the room grow quiet, and I became the object of Kirby’s stare – and everybody else’s, for that matter. “No,” he snapped at me, “I never got tired of the Fantastic Four.” And that was that, and the entourage moved on. I felt terrible – my one and only chance to meet Jack Kirby and I seemed to have pissed him off.
Imagine my joy when, a while later, fellow collector Mark Hebert came to me with an address scratched on a piece of paper. Jack Kirby lived in Irvine, California, mere minutes from my house! Mark had called and been invited to visit! A second chance for me to talk with the King of Comics! Mark and I piled in to Mark’s car and made the pilgrimage to Kirby’s house. For reasons I can't remember -- maybe he was just hanging out that day -- Timpane was along for the ride.
I remember a ranch house, stucco, very southern California, with a little patio area out front. When Jack’s wife Roz opened the door, I remember the entryway being long and narrow, so that you almost walked into a wall when you came in. On that wall was a huge print of one of Jack’s drawings: one of the most intricate pieces of machinery imaginable. On the other side of the dividing wall was a comfortable living room where we all sat and talked. Here's how John remembers it:
Jack was a visiting teacher at UC Irvine, where I would later go to college. Jack was kind and patient and very generous. He talked about the comics he had collected himself when he was a kid, about how important comics were to kids during World War II, and about where he got his ideas.
We told Jack about our comic ideas -- not the stupid Monkey or Torr things, but a genuine, actual, honest-to-Marvel superhero comic book about an accident that turns an ordinary guy into a throbbing being of energy -- you know, the kind of stuff that happens in New York on a regular basis, at least in the comics. John and I took Latin in high school and wanted to call him “Novus,” which is Latin for “new man.” Jack corrected us. “Call him Nova,” he said. “Everybody knows Nova.” I explained to him that we used “Novus” because it was, under Latin conjugation, the male version – “Nova” was female. “Don’t get all hung up on that,” Jack said. “Use Nova. People will remember Nova.” Later, Marvel did indeed have a character called "Nova" -- but I don't think Jack had anything to do with that.
Roz served us lemonade and Jack took us into the room where his drawing board was set up. As we walked out to our car, Jack said goodbye to me and added, “Remember: Nova.”
Our artist buddy Mike Oprian drew pages and pages of our Novus/Nova comic but it didn’t go anywhere. But I do have the memories of not one, but TWO chances to meet and talk with the greatest comic book artist ever. And I sincerely apologize if I pissed him off at Comic-Con.