It will have been some weeks after the San Diego comic convention by the time this sees print, but it hasn't happened yet as I write this. I'm hoping to avoid the thing if possible, but to my son, this is a vital yearly ritual. My sum experience with comics (barring underground comics in the '60s) consisted of sitting in barber shops as a kid, dreading the bizarre chopping I was surely in for and reading Sgt. Rock, I believe, and/or Superman.
I met Batman at Harry's Shop in River Forest, Illinois, a wealthy suburb my dad found our way into after a promotion in the advertising business in the late '50s, and I liked him just fine, but I did not think of him again until Tim Burton brought him back to mainstream consciousness. Sgt. Rock, though -- this was wonderful stuff. "Look out, kid! Potato masher!" or Nazis eating lead and expectorating, "Gott in Himmel!"
It was not until I had been in San Diego for a few years -- 1988, I think -- that it became clear to me that this town was goofy about comics, and that despite laboring in the cotton fields of science-fiction pulp magazines, comics were a closer neighbor to science fiction than I cared to admit to myself. Two people I got to know at Comic-Con dictated, in a way, the next several years; Jose Sinatra and the Troy Dante Inferno were performing that year. And though I had met Troy (Jan Tonneson) through Wahrenbrock's Books and had begun playing blues duets with him shortly after that convention, I certainly had not met Jose (Bill Richardson) Sinatra. I would have remembered. I joined the Inferno as a bass player and performed with them around town for several years afterward.
My son, who dyed his hair blue yesterday, has been a video- and role-playing-game fanatic since he was six years old, seated on my lap at my first computer, an Apple II monstrosity. He played a primitive game that came with the Apple called Starblaster. It was, basically, Son of Pong. Occasionally we would stop in at Comic Kingdom on University Avenue in the course of one our bicycle excursions. Some years earlier I had picked up copies of an anthology to which I had sold my first two short stories -- Weird Tales, edited by Lin Carter. Comic Kingdom, naturally, stocked the paperback series. Comic Kingdom was probably the first place my son ever glimpsed his future step-father, Dave, a longtime bookseller.
The point? The world of comics has been, unknowingly for the most part to me, a kind of undercurrent in my life as ineluctable as the pull of the moon. Still, had you asked me if I was into comics, my answer would have been, "No, no, of course not." They seemed, however, to have been into me.
In fact, and maybe this is putting too fine a point on it, I could draw a kind of literary family tree from roots in pulp fiction and comics to my early reading, the first nine years of my paid writing career, and even certain chapters of the mainstream (if commercial) novel that I am writing now. Weird Tales certainly is a famous old pulp mag, and its then-editor, Carter, was writing the Conan novels with L. Sprague De Camp from scraps left behind by Conan's creator, Robert E, Howard. Carter and De Camp had just cashed checks for the sale of one of their collaborations to the studio putting out the first Conan movie with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conan, of course, had been appearing in comic books for years. What I am driving at is that I am, in fact, very much related to Conan the Barbarian and, by extension, the governor of California. Some days, you can barely tell us apart.
I have now been staring at a blinking cursor for a good three minutes or so, convinced that I can cobble together a neat segue from those early haircuts at Harry's to my son dyeing his hair blue. (Stand by, it may come.) In the meantime I'm remembering how it was, after a long wait in the barbershop and having exhausted Sgt. Rock, Superman, Batman, having been grudgingly forced toward the bottom of the stack where Archie waited just on top of the Donald Duck stuff. At the very bottom were Scrooge McDuck and his adventures with Donald's nephews. The bottom of the proverbial barrel.
Still, I remain ignorant of much that has been done, including the field of graphic novels. The works of Philip K. Dick (whom I read much of with fascination in old Ace Doubles and the like) and that movie Perdition, with Tom Hanks, a very good story and based on a graphic novel. It seems I would have naturally gravitated to these forms, and yet I never did, for some reason.
One last observation on the coincidental nature of my relationship with comic books. Recently a friend of mine called me and said that he had come across an old greeting card he had picked up some years ago at Comic-Con. It was the cover illustration for a science-fiction novel of mine, painted by Michael Whelan, who was appearing at the Con. It was part of a series of greeting cards Whelan had introduced via his company (Glass Onion Graphics) and this one, a stunning painting, was signed on its back by Whelan with silver ink. I thanked my friend and bought it from him. I thought I might increase its theoretical collector's value one day by filling the blank interior of the card with the author's recollection of seeing, for the first time, the acrylic illustration from the book publisher. And so I did, describing, quite truthfully, how I wept when I saw my characters and my world so skillfully rendered by another.