My Favorite L.O.A.F.er

Not to slight Bill Peckmann and Bill Chadbourne, the two inaugural recipients of our Library OwesA Favor (L.O.A.F.) citation—I hope you can tell from our prior entries in this series that Bill and Bill have provided invaluable resources and terrific, pleasant personal contact as well—but of course I have to use the “My Favorite” title on our next designee. After all, he’s my oldest friend, for nigh unto *mumble-mumble* years.

I’m talking about Mike Dudley, our third L.O.A.F. recipient, and the best way to explain why he’s being fitted for a L.O.A.F. crown is to tell you a little bit about him, and me, and the two of us.

Mike was born a “military brat” in the greater New York area, though his father eventually retired from the service and settled in northern New England. Mike lived “in town,” as it was known within the very tiny rural community where I spent my teenaged years. My family went “in town” to each week to buy groceries; I double-timed it down the main street from the supermarket to the newsstand, general store, and statewide-chain drugstore to buy the new comics while my parents and sibling shopped for vittles. Mike was buying his comics in many of the same venues I was, though I didn’t know it at the time.

Mike located me through the letters pages in 1970s-era Marvel Comics, where (like Dean himself) I was a “letterhack.” My name and address appeared under my commentaries in many a Marvel title, and when Mike spotted them he pulled out the phone book, found my dad’s name—the only “Canwell” listed, so it wasn’t a difficult search—and one day he dialed the phone and asked to speak with me.

The rest, as they say, is personal history.

Even in our earliest phone conversations, Mike displayed the inquisitive nature that has been his lifelong hallmark. He was delving into the fan experience of the day far more deeply than I was—he subscribed to Alan Light’s Buyer’s Guide, he had contact with fans who had bought original art, and his own orientation was directed at the artistic side of comics, where I came at them as a story-focused guy. Mike read war comics (war comics? To me, those were what you bought only if none of the “good” books had come in on a given week, and you had to feed your new-comics jones…) and sang the praises of Joe Kubert and Russ Heath before I’d seen a line of either of those gentlemen’s work.

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Joe Kubert’s unmistakable treatment of Tarzan, Jane, and a regal La of Opar. The Kubert treatment of ERB’s ape-man is easily as distinctive as Foster’s, Hogarth’s, or Russ Manning’s.

Mike also had a variety of personal projects in mind, as well. He was working on his own artwork (Monster Joe, Mike’s early attempt at creating comics, was the time I’d seen artwork in black-&-white, done on Bristol board); additionally, he had found a number of comics fans based in our area and was organizing a state-wide comics club. I attended that first meeting, in the latter 1970s, and Mike’s club flourished throughout the 1980s, as the comics industry itself moved from newsstand to direct sales retailing and “independent” publishers began popping up throughout the nation. The club continued without Mike for over a year when he moved to New Jersey and attended the Joe Kubert School within the first handful of years of its existence. Financial considerations prevented him from completing the School’s full curriculum, but Mike’s first-hand knowledge of the Kubert School allowed him to play a valuable role in convincing another young man of our acquaintance to follow Mike’s footsteps to the School. Today that “young man” is Marvel Comics artist Lee Weeks (who gut his first start doing artwork for Dean’s Eclipse Comics—it really is a small world!).

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My old friend Lee and I have always shared a love of The Fantastic Four—I was on hand the day Lee showed this piece to FF inker extraordinaire Joe Sinnott.

Life has a way of taking us in directions we could never imagine in our youth, so Mike never got the comics job he wanted, and in many ways deserved. In some ways, I suspect Mike wishes it had turned out differently; in other ways, I suspect he feels it all worked out for the best. No matter what, I’ve never heard him grouse about What Might Have Been—I’m not sure he could always say the same about me.

From time to time life put Mike and me on different paths, causing us to fall out of touch for a year or two at a stretch, but one way or another we end up getting back together. On one hand it’s as if no time has passed and we pick up right where we left off; on the other hand I’m always amazed at the new interests Mike has developed along the way. Whether he’s studying up on NASCAR or exploring the history of film noir, Mike always maintains his interest in the worlds of comics and illustration; his library of comics reference books and “journalistic/historical” periodicals is both extensive and impressive.

That’s why, whenever I start on a new project, I ask Mike what he may have in his library on the artist or work in question. Mike provided me with the source material that informed much of the first chapter in my Noel Sickles biography; he found a person who had rare perspective to offer on Alex Toth while also delivering more than a half-dozen magazines and articles that benefitted our Genius series; he’s performed similar yeoman service to the betterment of a handful of our other efforts, some of which are already on your bookshelves, some of which are still “under construction.”

Mike’s natural modesty prevents him from seeing how important his contributions are, and have been all along. It was his efforts that created a statewide network of comics fans in the pre-cyber days of yore, creating a web of friendships and acquaintanceships that have literally stood for decades—it was his willingness to leave home for New Jersey that made a contribution to establishing the Kubert School during its earlier years, before it became an institution within the industry—it was his thirst for knowledge and willingness to share the sources he’s accumulated that have played a role in the overall success of The Library of American Comics.

And he’s one helluva friend, besides. He agreed to join me on the trek down to NYCC in 2010, the last year I attended that convention. Since we were going to be immersed in comics during the show, I wanted to spend our pre-con hours doing some of the touristy things I’d never done on all my prior trips to Manhattan and Mike agreed to indulge my whims. So off we went to see the Statue of Liberty, to head to Little Italy for a meal, and to go inside the Empire State Building. You’ll see a picture below of Mike on the observation platform at the 86th floor of the ESB. It was a big deal to me—any pulp-hero fan can put two-and-two together to realize author Lester Dent designated the 86th floor as the headquarters of Doc Savage and his five iron assistants – but it was only after we were up high, looking down on the New York cityscape, that Mike admitted, “Ireally don’t like heights, you know!”

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Thanks, Mike—for coming along on that New York adventure, for your help on past/current/future Library of American Comics projects, and for being my friend through good times and bad. You join distinguished company with Messrs. Peckmann and Chadbourne in the L.O.A.F. inner circle, old buddy!

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