At the halfway point of the year 2019 (what? already? how can that be possible?), we continue to celebrate the LOAC Road to 200 with our June spin of the LOAC Wheel of Fortune.
Our line of books feature a variety of sizes, shapes, and page counts — sometimes that’s determined by our own aesthetic senses, but often it is dictated by the format of the strips that are available for reprinting. “Tab” Sundays — so-called because they ran in “portrait-oriented” tabloid newspapers — require a different layout than do “halves,” which are structured in landscape mode.
Why is size on our minds? Because for our June spin we opted to load the LOAC Wheel of Fortune with most of our tallest books. Of course, this includes our Champagne Edition titles — Polly and Her Pals Sundays and Flash Gordon and Jungle Jim. Our Superman line of Sunday pages, the Alex Toth Genius series, and Alex’s Bravo for Adventure releases all qualify, as do Miss Fury, Beyond Mars, and King of the Comics. The roster of Big & Tall LOAC volumes looks like this:
The eagle-eyed amongst you will note that our nine Li’l Abner books all could be included here, but we chose not to list them since our April spin of the LOAC Wheel landed on Abner Volume 7. Much as we all admire Al Capp’s incredible series, we knew it wouldn’t be sporting to give the Dogpatch crew a solid chance to hog the “Wheel” spotlight — and even with the Abners not on this month’s list, we have nineteen big books ready to go for a spin!
Here they are, loaded into the LOAC Wheel of Fortune …
… And, after limbering up an arm and giving out with a sizable spin, the Wheel selected …
This book was special to me, personally, because it allowed me to converse for the second and final time with that larger-than-life author, Harlan Ellison. A lifelong comics fan, Ellison agreed to be interviewed to discuss the strip in general, and to provide first-hand anecdotes and observations about his friend and fellow Science Fiction Grandmaster, Jack Williamson. Jack wrote Beyond Mars, setting it in the “Seetee Universe” he had previously established in some of his prose fiction.
I’m sure I first became aware of Harlan Ellison through Marvel Comics — he received credit in a connected story that ran across Avengers # 88 and Hulk # 140 circa 1971 — but it was as a high schooler, buying his paperbacks off the shelves at my local bookstores and newsstand, when he made an indelible impression on me. I was there in 1974 when the “Signet” paperback house published The Beast That Shouted Love at the Heart of the World and Ellison Wonderland; also in that year, Pyramid did a third printing of H.E.’s earlier I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream collection. In 1975 Pyramid began two-year run that saw publication of twelve uniform-edition Ellison books, and I haunted the stores, snapping up each as it appeared. Ellison’s stories were always sharp and well-crafted, and they became more subtle and nuanced as he matured as a writer, but as much as I treasured his fiction, I found Harlan’s skill as an essayist equally compelling. I wasn’t alone on that front — my long-time friend (and Gene Colan biographer) Tom Field marks his Ellison connection to my recommending to him the 1982 collection Stalking the Nightmare, and particularly the essay “The Three Most Important Things in Life.”
It was the aforementioned Mr. Field who was responsible for my first encounter with Mr. Ellison. Not long after my Dad passed away, in the autumn of 1998, Tom contacted me to say, “Hey — Harlan Ellison is giving a talk in Boston. We should go!” There were not an abundance of forces that could have roused me out of the funk caused by my father’s death, but would I ever get another opportunity to be in the same room with Ellison? So we went, and Harlan gave a lively and engaging talk, and he signed autographs afterward, and when my turn in line came, I asked after his struggles against the City of Los Angeles. I remember him seeming pleased that I knew of the harangue, likely correctly concluding that I had seen him on The Late Late Show, hosted by Tom Snyder, discussing how he was wrangling against L.A.’s municipal fathers to protect his home and its compelling view. We passed a pleasant minute-plus, and then I made way for those behind me in the line.
As the 21st Century unfolded and LOAC launched and grew, IDW’s then-Publisher/now-President Chris Ryall had an acquaintanceship with Ellison, and through Chris Dean and I learned that Harlan was enthusiastic about The Library of American Comics line of books. It was welcome news — it’s never less than gratifying when a creator whose placed a stamp on your life says nice things about the work you’re doing — but I never expected my path to again cross H.E.’s.
Then we decided to reprint Beyond Mars … and Chris was planning a visit to Ellison Wonderland … circumstances unfolded in fortunate ways … and there I was, in 2015, conducting a phone interview with Harlan Ellison. He was eighty-one years old at the time, and had suffered a stroke during the prior year, but he was animated and charming and opinionated as he spoke with me. You’ll find much of what he had to say about Jack Williamson in the pages of Beyond Mars, but here are two thoughts he shared about Jack that failed to make my final editorial cuts for publication:
“We used to get together whenever he would come back East,” Ellison said. “If I was in New York and he was in New York we would go for lunch and have steaks together. He would have a T-bone, I’d have a T-bone, and we’d sit there and eat like a couple of cowboys. He was a tall, rangy, cowboy-like guy.” And, discussing Jack’s longtime role as an instructor at Eastern New Mexico University, Harlan said, “I think [Williamson] had a great tolerance for the arrogance and in-bred entitlement of young people. He smiled and said, ‘Yeah, been there, done that,’ and then he went ahead and taught them over and above their ability to absorb it. And I think that’s what Beyond Mars does, too – it’s got an intelligence to it that drags you along with it and uplifts you and makes you smarter.”
The comic featured more than Jack Williamson’s intelligence and gift for prose — Lee Elias’s Caniff-inspired artwork is as imaginative as it is eye-catching. I communicated with several comic book veterans who were effusive in their praise for Elias, none more so than John Romita Sr., who discussed the effect Beyond Mars had on him when it ran during his days a a neophyte comics professional. “… Having the full page, on the back [of the News], beautifully colored — to me, is it was like The Wizard of Oz when the color came on,” said Romita. “I remember mentioning to other comics freaks that I was so pleased to see how Lee Elias had progressed, because his work was even more polished than [it had been] when I was a kid, and that extra polish was very reassuring to me. It meant that you could expand your ability, and that was a big thing for me to know, since I’d just been in the business about two years when I saw Beyond Mars.”
The strip is a representative of the kind of science fiction no longer published, but which provided the foundation upon which Star Wars and cyberpunk and “The Singularity” (as discussed in the works of Vernor Vinge and others) was built. It’s also a late-in-its-heyday form of comics storytelling that can still teach lessons to today’s aspiring artists. Some books, however, are measured by more than their value as entertainment, instruction, or historical artifact — they are benchmarks that forever connect us to cherished times, places, persons, and events in our lives. For me, Beyond Mars is and always will be one of those books. And who knows? Maybe our July spin of the LOAC Wheel of Fortune will land on one of those books for you …