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Possibly the pithiest thing ever said on THE SIMPSONS was Homer’s observation, “Here’s to alcohol: the source of, and answer to, all of life’s problems.” We as a species that tends not to acknowledge the double-edged swords of our existence – especially on network TV. As a culture, we tend to prefer that whole good/evil viewpoint, when really most things have their good points and bad points. Guns, videogames, talk radio, Baskin-Robbins ice cream, you name it. Mostly we like to demand perfection in anything we’re confronted with to distract us from our inability to achieve perfection ourselves. (Or, as someone – Adam Carolla? – said recently, “Some people ask if the glass is half full or if it’s half empty, but I’m the sort of guy who says, ‘Wow! I have a glass!'”)

One of the edgiest of the double-edged swords in comics was the original version of the fanzine ALTER EGO, now anthologized in TwoMorrowsALTER EGO: THE BEST OF THE LEGENDARY COMICS FANZINE edited by Roy Thomas and Bill Schelly ($21.95), reprinting an obscure title from the ’90s.

Of course, TwoMorrows also publishes the “Earth-1” version of ALTER EGO, now basically the Roy Thomas fanzine (that’s just an observation, not a criticism) and a completely different cat from the original. ALTER EGO started back in the days when ditto was the main means of reproduction – I suspect most people reading this have never seen a ditto machine; the look was generally, um, fuzzy, to say the least – and while it wasn’t the first fanzine by any stretch (longtime DC editors Julie Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, among others, were involved with science fiction fanzines in the ’30s, and EC Comics fans produced excellent EC fanzines in the ’50s and ’60s, including SQUA TRONT, which only got more excellent with age and is still published today by Fantagraphics) it’s the most important fanzine there ever was. Neither you nor I would likely be here now without it.

Not that important necessarily translates to good. But it pretty much laid down the principles of comics, hitherto unknown, that were accepted with blind faith for many years, and many still accept with similar blind faith today. ALTER EGO not only set the pace for most fanzines to come (not to mention a bar somehow too high for most of them to match) but for the whole American comics industry.

Created by Jerry Bails, a grown superhero fan who began reading comics in the ’40, then edited in succession by fan writer-artist Ron Foss, who as far as I know never managed to make it to The Show, Roy Thomas and Mike Friedrich, the fanzine was the first venue to semi-officially put forth the notion that the proper subject of comic books was superheroes. Not surprising, considering it was the result of old-time superhero fans turning their eyes back to DC Comics as Julie Schwartz’s office revived The Flash, Green Lantern, The Atom, Hawkman and the Justice (Society) League Of America, which seems to have always been sort of the Holy Grail of ’40s superhero fans. To encourage letter writers – he had a pretty good sense of how to build a fan base for his books, though other factors (read: Stan Lee) would eventually mitigate his efforts – Julie had taken to encouraging correspondents by doling out original art for the best letters, and printing names and addresses so readers could contact each other. Obviously it was the Flash, Justice League, etc. fans who’d be getting in touch with each other, not the Little Dot fans. At that intersection of Bails, Thomas and the Schwartz letter columns (if you troll early issues of Green Lantern and other late ’50s Schwarz columns, there are their letters) arose ALTER EGO in 1961.

I’ve never seen the early issues before. My own exposure to ALTER EGO came in the late ’60s, second hand via reverential mentions in other fanzines like ROCKET’S BLAST-COMIC COLLECTOR (which advertised in the classified in Marvel Comics – DC was too classy for such things – and was mostly an adzine where people could sell or offer to buy old comics, other fanzines and similar items, mixed with a smattering of articles and art; I think Mike Zeck had his first art published there), but by then Roy Thomas was Marvel’s #2 writer and the fanzine was in limbo. But they’re fascinating reading, not because they’re especially good (they have their moments) but because they’re such a template of fandom to come. From these tiny roots you can see the whole of the modern San Diego Comic-Con sprawled before you, if you know where to look.

There’s the obsession with superheroes, though at time of publication superheroes made up maybe 5% of the total comics output in America. Though Thomas made something of a career out of Golden Age superheroes for awhile there (arguably still is, since they’re still the major focus of ALTER EGO‘s current incarnation) it’s pretty obvious that for Bails they were close to a religion, and he and the fanzine are probably more responsible than anyone for giving ALL-STAR COMICS and the Justice Society their inflated reputations. (While JSA stories probably kicked ass in the ’40s, they read appallingly stupid and primitive now, with decent art only coming into vogue on them until the late ’40s, and good stories never really coming into vogue; I mean, the whole JSA being taken down by a guy who masquerades as various villains of history but otherwise demonstrates no powers, or by Billy The Kid? Who thinks of this stuff? And those stories were way better than most that came before them.) EC fans trying to lionize that company’s great art and scripts by Harvey Kurtzman and Al Feldstein at the same time must have been incredulous. But there’s an article on the JSA villain The Wizard. On the Golden Age Green Lantern. On the original Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family. All of them pretty much recitations of plot points (though the GL article has some interesting background material on editors and publishing decisions that affected the strip) that accept as given that these characters are interested without bothering to indicate why.

There’s the obvious desire of most involved with the fanzine to write comics, especially JSA-derived DC superhero comics, themselves. Thomas uses the first issue to pitch an Earth-1 revamp of the Spectre, and later Foss tells how he derived his character The Eclipse, one of the first on-going fan superhero strips, from a failed attempt to reinvent Dr. Mid-Nite for DC. There’s the strange adjective-centric fan diction; they never merely apologize but “humbly apologize,” and are always beaten to the “proverbial” punch, while heroes can never face adversaries, it has to be “worthy” adversaries.

Then there’s the strange ability to be obsequious and supercilious almost in the same breath, which pops up infrequently in ALTER EGO (“Roy’s version of the Spectre was surprisingly fine.”) but which has since evolved into something of a fine art in fandom. While there’s a vague sense throughout, especially when the writers refer to heroes they want revived in the early DC Silver Age, that the fans know better what would make good comic than comics pros do (another notion still in vogue today), the whole thing reaches its fullest flower in a letter from EC fan/professional artist, and eventual magazine editor and comics writer Larry Ivie describing his attempts to get work from Julie Schwarz:

“An enthusiastic youngster in my early days of art school, I immediately phoned National” [after they reintroduced The Flash] to see if they had plans for revival of any of the other old characters. (I had an intense desire to do Hawkman.)… When the Green Lantern hit the stands… I ran immediately to the National offices, and… an interview with Julius Schwartz… I’d actually done comic book work at this time… and I knew that the samples, as far as comic book drawing went, were far above average… Mr. Schwartz looked at these and said… it resembled too much the work on the last EC comics group, which had ‘failed to reach an audience because it was too complicated for the age level of the comic book buyers.’… He commented that he… wouldn’t be able to tell what I could do unless I bought in a complete story, from first page to last.”

So what does Ivey do? He delivers four pages of a story (“the first two and the last two, as close as possible to what I sensed to be the National way.”) to Schwartz, who doesn’t outright discourage him but doesn’t offer him work either. Ivie and Ted White then work up another revamp pitch:

“We knew if things were left in National’s hands, Starman would be a super-being from another planet;” [amusingly, when DC got around to creating a new Starman in the ’70s, that’s what he became] “Sandman would be a being made of sand… the Atom would explode like a bomb, or turn into an Atom, etc. This we didn’t want. We chose the Atom and, as in the original version, made him slightly smaller in size than ordinary men.”

When Ivie discovers DC already has a new Atom in the works, he refers to the development as a fiasco, then has “a long talk with Schwartz” about the deficiencies of Julie’s comics line “based on my own feelings as a reader during the old days.”

Man, this is textbook stuff. I didn’t even include the part where he polled neighborhood kids on whether his original art or the art in GREEN LANTERN #1 is better. (His won. What a shocker.) Tellingly, while Ivie did turn into a pretty decent artist, the Atom sample, done for his proposed revival and reproduced alongside his letter, is pretty ordinary (let’s give him the benefit of the doubt and assume the ditto process didn’t treat it well) while the look is virtually indistinguishable from the original version of the Golden Age Atom. As far as I know, Larry Ivie’s a pretty decent guy, and I’m hardly the one to be lecturing anyone on arrogance, but, wow. The level of sheer sustained arrogance in that one letter that’s breathtaking. And today I still go to conventions and hear fans try to become professionals by telling editors everything that’s wrong with their comics. It’s practically a legacy.

But the ALTER EGO letters are great – reprinted are early letters from Steve Gerber, Don Thompson, Mike Vosburg, Bill Spicer, and Phil Seuling, and tons from working and retired professionals of the day – as well as earnest but amusingly godawful original comics stories and a lot of pro art, from Steve Ditko, Carmine Infantino, Curt Swan, Marie Severin and Russ Manning (the Ditko stuff is especially good) you’re unlikely to find anywhere else). Whatever else you can say about these guys, they really loved what they were doing. But it’s also clear what they were doing burned them out. Bails lasted a handful of issues as editor, and after that his presence vanishes but for an occasional letter; Foss lasts two issues before pursuing his dream of creating comic books, but years later I heard Al Milgrom lament that Foss got a lot of guys in his part of Michigan into drawing comics but never cracked the field himself; Roy Thomas didn’t burn out so much as got all his time burned up by turning pro.

But what they did in a brief nine issues is set pretty much the whole mold for comics fandom, and for comics. By the time the fan version of ALTER EGO is done, only Thomas has turned pro but ALTER EGO‘s precept that comic books should be about superheroes is the new gospel of the business, and certainly the semi-organized and widespread fandom that arose by the end of the decade prominently thought so. Thomas’ first attempted revival of the fanzine, as a professional magazine ala CARTOONISTS PROFILES or GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE, which had evolved out of the fanzine FANTASY ILLUSTRATED and is still close to the perfect model of what both fanzines and prozines should be, also set standards. Its main feature was a lengthy, and very influential interview with Gil Kane (with a splash page that mimicked the design of a PLAYBOY interview, and art from numerous sources placed to illustrate Gil’s specific points) by John Benson, still one of the best critics the comics field has seen. Even there, the ALTER EGO approach stood out, if only in contrast. The “pro interview” was obviously a key feature to the magazine’s reimagining, and when the final issue finally appeared almost ten years later it spotlit a nearly decade old interview by Thomas with Sub-Mariner creator Bill Everett which, while entertaining in its own right, marked a schism in comics fandom that also continues to this day. Benson’s Kane interview was intellectual and introspective, pursuing the mechanics and philosophy of comics art and story that clearly fascinated them both, and it blazed trails almost no one in comics fandom had even considered at that point; the Thomas-Everett was more anecdotal, running through the events of Everett’s career without much focus besides relating historical detail. It’s a focus Thomas still pursues in most of his current ALTER EGO interviews, and I’ve got nothing against historical detail, but the difference between that and Benson’s focus is that you came out of the Everett interview knowing you’d learned something more but you came out of the Kane interview feeling like you’d learned something you could use.

But the Benson focus (GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE is one of the rare publications that consistently had the same focus, in interviews with artists like Alex Toth and John Severin) is difficult; you really have to know what you’re talking about, and be able to articulate it. I would suggest that the Benson-Kane interview is what THE COMICS JOURNAL has always tried to emulate, and has occasionally equaled, but that effort has never been common in fandom, which still tends to prefer the trademark ALTER EGO focus on history, plot and personality.

And that’s where we still mostly are today, on a broader scale: 1961, when a few sheets of ditto-reproduced paper pitched new versions of old characters, wrote up character histories and teased coming events in forthcoming comics. (The Bails style in his “On The Drawing Board” news page now sounds strangely like a more deferential Rich Johnston, without the snark.) ALTER EGO: THE BEST OF THE LEGENDARY COMICS FANZINE is fascinating in its own right, as a cultural document, but it’s a must read because it’s where we came from, the source of the tenets of our faith, and what it was is what we are; this is the abyss we need to stare into now.

Or get it for the Gil Kane interview if you need a better reason. It’ll rock your world.

So anyone want to contact Bill Spicer and publish a FANTASY ILLUSTRATED/GRAPHIC STORY MAGAZINE collection? The time’s right…

Got caught up with a few things this week – a lot of work suddenly – so sorry for the relatively short column, though I guess in most cases they’re relatively long so this one’s closer to Internet standard. Anyway, in lieu of much else this week, here’s a classic Alex Toth horror story from Standard Comics of the 1950s:

For more great Toth comics, drop over to The Official Alex Toth Website now run by his family.

A fistful of reviews:

Also from TwoMorrows: Mike Manley’s DRAW! #15. While it’s generally a pretty good magazine, here’s my main gripe with DRAW!: it’s just not technical enough. Lots of good art, and this issue’s a nice summary of various schools teaching comics art around the country, like The Kubert School and the Savannah College Of Art & Design, but then we get to the Bill Reinhold interview. Which is good, but too anecdotal and general for a magazine that calls itself “The Professional ‘How-To’ Magazine On Comics & Cartooning.” Seriously, any interview that could just as easily go in ALTER EGO or BACK ISSUE shouldn’t be here. Anyone coming to DRAW! this issue looking for tips on how to draw will be hard pressed to find them, unless drawing feet is your special fetis. (And unless your idea of a tip is “spend $16,000 a year on an art school.”) If you’re not looking for drawing tips, it’s not bad.

I really like the guys over at IDW, I liked working with them, and I really hate to crap on their output, but: Seriously? I know these guys put out good books but ROGUE ANGEL #2, a tedious recitation of gobbledygook involving Joan of Arc and the titular archeologist heroine who becomes heir to her sword and supposedly mystical power, ain’t one of them. It’s as dull and pokey as the first issue. The art doesn’t help; it’s okay but can’t anybody draw hands or maintain anatomical proportions from panel to panel anymore? And does anybody actually make it to the end of an issue of GENE SIMMONS’ ZIPPER. Aside from seeming just like a billion other better superhero-thinly-disguised-as-science-fiction epics out there, most of them written by Keith Giffen, it’s… well… not really anything but familiarity after familiarity, no matter how writer/artist team Tom Waltz & Casey Maloney try to tart it up. Waltz does somewhat better on SILENT HILL: SNIPER’S REWARD #2, where at least he gets to apply a little originality to his story of a renegade hitman trying to escape his past and rescue his mafia princess lover from the horror videogame setting, but the videogame’s story was built for cheap thrills instead of story logic and trying to adhere to the mold and get a fairly serious story across at the same time is a losing proposition since any stab at drawing us in the moment they hit someone we’ve never seen before being crucified by putty monsters, and, like ROGUE ANGEL, there’s just not enough meat on the bones – these are like comics for crypto-vegetarians. Like I said, I know IDW puts out good comics. So where are they? ($3.99.)

ELEPHANTMEN: WAR TOYS #2, from Image Comics, borders on experimental, with a graytone flashback to the war that unleashed the Elephantmen on the world. The style suits artist Moritat’s work better than Active Images’ usual lush full color, as it turns out; it comes out a bit sketchier but more lively, reminiscent of Steve Bissette’s work and gives Richard Starkings’ gruesome battlefield tale of a woman trapped behind Elephantman lines additional horrific weight. Nice touch setting the story in Angouleme (so’s the faint nod to DC’s war heroine Mademoiselle Marie), and nice job, but it’s always nice to see a decent story well and straightforwardly told. (Nice little featurette on England’s UFO comic strip, too.)

The Villiard Books imprint at Random House continues its cherrypicking of independent comics (again, not a criticism, just an observation) with the paperback release of Archaia Studio PressMOUSE GUARD 1152 ($17.95), David Peterson’s award-winning WATERSHIP DOWN-esque heroic fantasy of brave warrior mice on a quest to stop conspiracy and treason threatening their land. A few new illustrations are thrown in to sweeten the pot. The story’s a fairly traditional heroic fantasy but the characters, intrigues and Peterson’s original art style give it a nice oomph and the new package works just fine. Villiard also publishes the latest FLIGHT anthology, FLIGHT EXPLORER Vol 1 ($10) which is slighter than the others but shares their usual strengths (an appealing variety of talent, and overall very good art) and weaknesses (generally superficial stories that obscure the notion of a collective theme as often as not). Kind of cute, but I can’t imagine any of these pieces will stick with anyone for long.

Notes from under the floorboards:

Speaking of cute, two of my books will be debuting within the next six weeks or so (given the new vagaries of comics printing, specifically uncertain delivery times from cheap overseas printers) (got to love that Chinese deforestation): the TWO GUNS collection from Boom! Studios – yes, despite earlier ambiguous plans, they’ve decided to put the whole miniseries under one cover for those of you what no longer buy mini-series but pick up the trades instead – sometime in April, and, from Image/12 Gauge, THE SAFEST PLACE, an original action-suspense graphic novel from a story by Victor Riches, with art by Tom Mandrake. More on both next week. Also, Mike Zeck mentioned the other day Marvel’s apparently doing some deluxe format hardcover reprinting our now legendary PUNISHER: CIRCLE OF BLOOD mini-series that launched the whole original Punisher craze back in the day. Nobody tells me anything anymore…

A sad farewell to reggae artist/producer Mikey Dredd, whose work was a huge influence on the reggaefication of ’70s English punk, among other things. A genuinely great loss to music… And I see Arthur Clarke, technology visionary and author of sf classic CHILDHOOD’S END, 2001 and many other books, also died. Clarke’s arguable one of the ten most influential science fiction writers ever, and, if we go by 2001 and how the film alone undermined many negative attitudes about science fiction and helped usher in our current sci-fi drenched civilization, possibly the most influential sf author ever. (Next to L. Ron Hubbard, of course. Don’t want the Church of Scientology suing me for launching a campaign of silence against L. Ron Hubbard.)

Ohio’s current secretary of state really declared the state’s voting machines a crime scene awaiting investigation? Huh. Even if it were found that the 2004 vote was hacked and John Kerry is the real president of the USA, kind of late to do anything about it now, isn’t it?

Wow. Seems absolutely nothing else caught my interest in the last week. Too much work. Could be worse. (For me, anyway. Not for you.)

Would you believe nobody got last week’s Comics Cover Challenge theme? And it was right there in front of your nose, too. The clues you should have spotted were: “feel entitled” (had to do with the titles of the comics) and “it’s not me.” If it’s not me, it’s you. Every title last week had a “u” in it. Okay, you had to work at that one a little, so this week’s will be a bit easier.

For those who came in late, almost every week I run a Comics Cover Challenge: the covers of seven seemingly unrelated comics (thanks to The Grand Comic Book Database for the covers) from throughout comics history are spread, usually not in any particular order, down the column. But a secret theme – it could be a word, a design element, an artist… anything, really – binds them together, and the first one to e-mail me with the correct solution can promote the website of their choice, subject to my approval. IMPORTANT NEW RULE: PLEASE INCLUDE WITH YOUR GUESS THE WEBSITE YOU’D LIKE TO PROMOTE IF YOU WIN. (You never know; I might just go on a mass linking spree one of these days, if I can ever find the Internet’s answer to a water tower.) As in most weeks, I’ve hidden a special secret clue to the answer somewhere in the column, and you don’t even have to find your way to it this time. Good luck.

Available in pdf e-book form at Paper Movies and The Paper Movies Store:

TOTALLY OBVIOUS. Collecting all my “Master Of The Obvious” columns from 1998-2000, with still relevant commentary on comics, culture, creativity and the freelance life, revealing many previously unvoiced secrets behind all those things.

IMPOLITIC: A JOURNAL OF THE PLAGUE YEARS VOL 1. Collecting my political commentary of the early terror years, from Sept. 2001 through April 2005, revealing the terror behind the War On Terror.

HEAD CASES. A collection of comics scripts from work done c. 1992-1995 for various companies, including an unused script. Annotated.

Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read.

IMPORTANT PUBLIC NOTICE OF COLUMN POLICY: any email received in response to a piece run in this column is considered a letter of comment available for printing in the column unless the author specifically indicates it is not intended for public consumption. Unless I check with you or the contents of your e-mail make your identity unavoidably obvious, all letters are run anonymously.

Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

The WHISPER NEWSLETTER is now up and running via the Yahoo groups. If you want to subscribe, click here.

I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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