I’m endlessly fascinated by the paths to comics reading folks have taken. I delight in hearing those stories and I think, over time in this space, my story has been pretty clearly told: I lived in a college town with a daily newspaper and a real, honest-to-Pete newsstand. That meant I had regular access to a selection of comic strips—some I truly liked (Peanuts, Beetle Bailey, The Phantom, Red Eye), some I scanned with less enthusiasm (sorry, but Juliet Jones wasn’t going to appeal to me or very many other prepubescent boys)—and comic books, where I quickly settled in as a Marvel devotee.
Two of my boyhood comics staples: Gordon Bess’s Red Eye and Marvel’s Fantastic Four by Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and (later) John Buscema.
By the 1980s, when I was of legal age, had made a handful of comics-reading friends, and was willing to roam a bit further afield, I began attending conventions in Boston. That first convention, a two-day 1980s affair at The Park Plaza Hotel, broke on Saturday night with artist Dave Cockrum agreeing to join friends Tom Field, Lee Weeks, and myself for dinner—oh yes, and we also met Howard Chaykin, Keith Giffen, and Al Williamson (with whom Lee would later work once he became the regular penciler on Marvel’s Daredevil). At future conventions I’d meet a number of comics creators, and those meetings fell into two categories: those with whom I merely exchanged a fast handshake and a few words (Stan Lee, Scott McCloud, and Coleen Doran immediately spring to mind) and those with whom I got to speak at greater length (Gil Kane, Dauntless Don McGregor, and Mike Mignola, to cite three).
I’ve never been what you’d call a regular convention attendee, though over time I expanded my range. I have attended two San Diego Cons (and I have to admit, San Diego is such a sensory-overload experience I leave the Convention Center each day with a splitting headache, grateful to be able to unwind across the bridge at the Hotel Del Coronado, where I typically stay while in town), the 2010 NYCC, Ramapo’s final convention, the enormous 1999 White Plains show, and a few dozen others as the years have unfolded. I’ve met many of the major 1960s/’70s Marvel creators (Jack Kirby and Steve Gerber both passing away before I could cross their paths, alas), met and in some cases worked with major “classic” players from DC (met Julie Schwartz and Neal Adams, worked with Jim Aparo, met and subsequently worked for Denny O’Neal), and any number of independent comics creators from the ’80s, ’90s, and 21st Century, from Billy Tucci to Big John’s granddaughter, Stephanie Buscema. “There are,” as Lee Weeks just told me in early March, after coming back from a pleasant experience as a guest at a major show in Toronto, “many really nice people in this business.”
The point of this is that, while I’ve met scads of comic book creators, I’ve been able to shake hands with a far, far shorter list of comic strip talents. For reasons as many as varied as the strip creators themselves, those talents seem less inclined to attend conventions. That’s a shame, because who wouldn’t want to meet G.B. Trudeau or Bill Watterson?
It was a thrill for me at the 2010 NYCC when colleague Brian Walker brought his father, Mort, to the IDW booth. Spending a fistful of minutes chatting with the man behind Beetle Bailey, which I read almost every day growing up, was a great honor, easily one of my Top Ten Ever convention memories.
How much of a Mort Walker fan am I? When primo comics shop Million Year Picnic in Cambridge, MA stocked two European Beetle Bailey graphic novels, I unhesitatingly plunked down my coin, and they’re still on my shelf, almost thirty years later.
As I look over the LOAC bookshelf, there are so many talents I never got the opportunity to meet, and I wish it could have been otherwise. It would have been a pleasure to shake hands with George McManus and Zeke Zekley, Alex Raymond, or Noel Sickles (though Sickles might have felt otherwise as soon as I brought up Scorchy Smith). And who wouldn’t wish for the opportunity to have dinner with Milton Caniff, Jack Kent, Chester Gould, or Al Capp, the way I did with Dave Cockrum? These men were protean creative forces: as we have seen, they were not only influenced by the world in which they lived, through their work they in turn influenced that world. Their contribution to the truly American art form known as comics continues to endure and retain its vitality as it wins new readers during these early years of the 21st Century.
Time and chance have made it impossible for me to ever know McManus or Caniff, except for the picture that emerges while researching their lives at places like UCLA or the Ohio State University’s Billy Ireland Cartoon Museum & Library. I recently received advance copies ofBringing Up Father: Of Cabbages and Kings and Steve Canyon, Volume 3, and if I’ve done my job properly, you’ll feel you know both gentlemen just a bit better by the time you finish reading the books’ text features and dive into the comics themselves.
Meanwhile, in the past eighteen months or so, I’ve had occasional extremely-pleasant exchanges with current Dick Tracy artist Joe Staton and hope to cross paths with him again one of these fine days (“again” because I met him once many a moon ago at a show, in the days when he was inking for Marvel Comics).
And I admit—it would be mighty cool to meet Trudeau and Watterson somehow, some day, somewhere…