Monday, March 31, 2008

I Was a Teenage Comic Book Writer

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House of Mystery #174, cover by Berni Wrightson
copyright (c) DC Comics, All Rights Reserved

Unlike most uptown boys in the ‘70s who had stacks of Marvel Comics, I was a DC kid who couldn’t get enough of creepy horror books. Indeed, it was the powerful pages drawn by Berni Wrightson, Alex Nino, Michael Wm. Kaluta, E.R. Cruz, Frank Robbins and others that kept me coming back.

Walking uptown to Washington Heights in the years when it was still a majority Jewish neighborhood, I had stumbled across a wonderful comic book store on 172nd and Broadway. Run by a cranky middle-aged dude who seemed to hate kids (though, the more I started hanging around there, the more he softened), the store was packed with comics.

Hardly the neatest place in the world, it was paradise to me.

Digging through the countless stacks of comics, which the dealer sold for a fraction of the cover price, I started experimenting with other comic brands including Harvey, Warren and Charlton.

Back home, lying in the middle of the living-room floor, I tumbled head first into those four-color wonderlands and escaped from the real world for hours. Since I had always thought of comics as a visual medium, I had never thought much about who wrote the blasted things until I saw an ad in a copy of Joe Staton’s wonderful E-Man comic. In bold letters, it proclaimed that Charlton had put together a booklet about how to draw and write comic books.

After mailing in postage stamps to an address in Derby, Connecticut and waiting for what seemed like forever, the booklet finally arrived. Written by my future pen-pal Nick Cuti (who had once worked as an assistant to Wally Wood and a few years later penned some great short pieces for Warren), the booklet reproduced comic book script pages.

Although there were credits on the splash pages (even I knew who Stan Lee was), Charlton’s guide made me realize just how important the writers were on a particular book.

Within the next few months guys like Denny O’Neil, Len Wein, Steve Englehart, Bruce Jones, Archie Goodwin and others became my new comic book heroes; hell, by that time I was even grooving to Marvel scribes like Steve Gerber and Roy Thomas. Tapping away on my little gray Olivetti typewriter, I was convinced (at the ripe old age of fourteen) that I was about to launch my career as a comic book writer.

Though I still don’t know where I got the nerve, one day called DC Comics from the rotary phone in the kitchen. Much to my surprise, I was turned over to a young editor named Paul Levitz. At some point in our conversation, I had confessed that my favorite books were House of Secrets and House of Mystery.

After giving me an appointment to visit the office, Levitz politely thanked me for calling and hung-up. “What now?” I thought, and spent the next two weeks knocking out plotlines (most ripped-off from too many viewings of Outer Limits, Twilight Zone and Creature Features) to present at our meeting.

A freshman at Rice High School, a famous Catholic school in Harlem, I was nervous all afternoon. I had gotten my mother to retype the plot pages, which she had put in a yellow envelope for me; two years before, she had Xeroxed my first student paper when I was in 7th grade. Between periods I kept checking my locker to make sure the plots hadn’t escaped from their chamber.

When the final bell rang at 2:45, I was out of there quicker than the Flash.

Arriving at DC Comics still wearing my Catholic school uniform (except, in midtown I thought it had transformed into a business suit), I was shown the reception area. Since this was over thirty-years ago I can’t remember much about the décor, but I did get into a long chat with artist Romeo Tanghal. He had recently arrived from the Philippines, and had just started drawing for the horror books.

“That’s the stuff I want to write,” I said excited. I remember him smiling warmly as he balanced a black portfolio case between his legs. “That would be nice,” he answered, his English not the best in those early years. In my mind, Romeo and I had already been partnered to produce the best horror comic since Swamp Thing. Years later, Tanghal inked George Perez for eight-years on Teen Titans.

After Romeo left, I remember watching cartoonist Sergio Aragonés limp into the office on crutches; I suppose I had recognized him from a comic book convention, because he reminded me of one of those “wild and crazy guys” from Saturday Night Live. I recall him joking with the receptionist, and laughing a lot.

When Paul Levitz came out to greet me, I was surprised by his youthful appearance. All of twenty at the time, he was a kid, but he was still older than I was. Escorting me into his small office (funny now, considering dude is now the President of the company), he was quite nice.

After listening to my fanboy chatter for a while, Levitz introduced me to former EC artist Joe Orlando. Since I had read a lot about the early days of EC and glanced at some of the reprints, I knew Joe’s work well. In addition, he was the editor on Swamp Thing, which made him a genius in my eyes. Joe looked at me, grunted something, and walked away.

Minutes later, Paul and I were interrupted by a jovial by Dick Giordano, who seemed like the coolest man in the world. “Nice to meet yaw,” he said in his heavy New York accent. Unlike the other old-school comic guys, Giordano looked like those sharp advertising guys in Doris Day movies.

Before leaving the DC offices high off fumes of India ink and what I assumed would be my destiny as a horror comic writer, Mr. Levitz (as I insisted on calling him) gave me a real life horror script by writer Bob Toomey and told me to study it. “Use it as a guide, and call me back when you have a few scripts.”

If I’m not mistaken, he also suggested that I start reading other types of books as well.

“All right,” I mumbled, still hardly believing I had made it through the door in the first place. We shook hands and I was gone. Walking out of the building that lovely fall afternoon in 1976, I wanted to twirl around like Mary Tyler Moore and throw by book-bag into the air.

While I never did sell DC Comics one of my brilliant scripts, I’ve always given props to a twenty-year-old comic book editor for giving me his time and encouraging my writing. Recently when I submitted the short story “The Whores of Onyx City” (featuring wild girl Sage Steele) to the upcoming collection The Darker Mask: Heroes From the Shadows, I knew without a doubt that it would be dedicated to a man named Levitz.

The Darker Mask:

Interview with Bob Toomey:

Nick Cuti:

The Darker Mask:

Interview with Bob Toomey:

Nick Cuti:


Invisible Woman Asks 7 Questions

Since I've started blogging, I've met some pretty interesting folks. The latest is a Cali lady who blogs about films and politics, and refers to herself as the Invisible Woman. What really attracted my attention was Invisible's statement that the negative reviews directed at the 2005 film "Shadowboxer," which my friend Lisa Cortes produced, was the reason she started the blog in the first place. Well, one thing led to another and next thing she's offering to interview me for the site. Below, you'll find a link to the site...thank you, Invisible Woman.

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