Saturday, September 14, 2019

Bill Schelly: In Tribute

It will take a long time for me to get used to speaking about Bill Schelly in the past tense. His passion for comics took him on a journey throughout his life, from teenage publisher to author of countless books, chronicling both his experiences and shining a light on many important - and some often neglected - creative juggernauts. And it all began when a wide-eyed eight year old began reading a Superman Annual. 

When Schelly learned Richard Shields, a fellow classmate, also collected comics, a friendship began, which led to his discovery of fanzines, amateur publications that, for the price of a stamp and a few coins could be purchased through the mail. This opened a whole new world for him: as recounted in his book Sense of Wonder A Life in Comic Fandom (2001, revised in 2018).

"What's This?" I asked Richard, pointing to the sheet with the Eye character. "Some kind of comic book?" "Yeah." "Where do you buy it? I've never seen this character on the racks." I wondered if there were regional comic book companies that didn't distribute their wares in Pittsburgh. "Idiot!"  He said, laughing. "It's not like a regular comic book. You have to send away for it. It's probably printed like Rocket's Blast-Comiccollector." We looked through the copy of RB-CC which was duplicated by the same printing method our school teachers used for pop quizzes  and worksheets.  I didn't know the name of the process, but the print was purple.  We were captivated by page after page of advertisements for old comic books, some dating back to the 1940s. Shields let out a long whistle. "Look at this! Someone wants fifteen bucks for Captain America # 1!" "That's nuts!" I replied, shaking my head. "Who would pay that much?" "I don't know, but a lot of the other old stuff is only three or four bucks. I think I'll get some of 'em, if I can figure out which ones are the best." "That's too much for me, but here's a copy of Spider-Man # 1 for a buck-fifty. I think I'll send for that." Although the ads for much-sought-after back issues were fascinating, I was equally interested in the fanzines that promised information about comics of the past. Just the idea that you could buy a bunch of different magazines about comics fascinated me. What a momentous, mind-boggling development this was! My joy know no bounds!      
This soon led to the 12 year old Schelly crafting his own fanzine, in tandem with Shields, whose father had access to an early Xerox machine. The boys first effort was Super Heroes Anonymous. 

  Super Heroes Anonymous # 1, published in January 1965, was Schelly's crude but ambitious debut effort, which included a character he created: The Immortal Corpse. The cover was marred by a technical glitch; early Xerox machines were unable to reproduce solid blacks.

After the second edition Schelly devised a more impressive title, Incognito, which ran for two more issues (# 4 and Incognito Extra # 1). In this period he became friends with fellow fan/collector Marshall Lanz and produced two issues of a new fanzine, Fantasy Forum.  

Schelly's next endeavor was a concerted effort to up his game. He achieved that goal with the publication of Sense of Wonder # 1 (May 1967), which had better quality printing and a more impressive presentation. He and other talented fans wrote prose stories, comic strips and articles. Contributors included Ron Foss, Dick Trageser, Alan Hanley, D. Bruce Berry, Larry Herndon and John Fantuccio.  

 Steve Ditko's cover art to Sense of Wonder # 6, 1968. In his editorial Bill wrote: "Steve Ditko's Mr. A frontal piece is no doubt our finest cover; hope you enjoy it as much as we do. Thanks for taking time out from your various projects, Steve." When Ditko saw the published cover he wrote Schelly, sternly criticizing him for using color on a drawing he expected to be reproduced in black and white. Schelly felt Ditko had a valid point, and his words stung all the more deeply because a few years earlier he used, without Ditko's permission, a drawing of Dr. Strange in Super Heroes Anonymous # 2.          

A sign of things to come, Schelly wrote a six page overview of Alfred Hitchcock's career in Sense of Wonder # 6. Ditko and Hitchcock in the same issue. Quite a combination!  

SOW # 6 also included biographical info on the 17 year old Schelly.* It reveals a self-deprecating sense of humor ("Bill is 'known' for his advertising of fanzines that never come out") and quite a bit of wisdom. One of his ambitions was achieved with impressive results: writing books.  

* (An historical aside for those born in the past few decades. Technology in the early 1960s was limited. Making multiple copies of an original typed manuscript often meant using a spirit duplicating machine, a device that had a drum and ink which one put paper through. Schools and churches employed this device, and while the first few dozen  copies were usually clear, repeated use led to blurry, smudged and often unreadable results. For some kids producing fanzines on a limited budget it was their only option).        

As noted in his bio piece, Schelly was a huge Batman fan/collector, as evidenced by the above letter that appeared in Batman # 222, June 1970.  
                         Robert Sanborn's cover to Sense of Wonder # 11, Spring 1972

Larry Herndon's long-running fanzine Star-Studded Comics was scheduled to publish Ditko's Mr. A strip, but as recounted in Sense of Wonder, A Life in Comic Fandom, Herndon was going to discontinue his fanzine and asked Schelly if he had an interest in publishing it, noting that Ditko wanted to see it in print as soon as possible. Schelly was enthused and asked if Herndon had the original art. He replied: "No, and he won't send it either. He said he's had a problem with some fanzine editors keeping his originals, so he said to tell him when and where to send the original art when you're submitting the remainder of the issue to the printer, and he'll send it to him directly. " Schelly added: "I have Larry Herndon to thank for giving me the opportunity to debut the six-page Mr. A strip titled "The Defenders." Sense of Wonder # 11, Spring 1972. 

Schelly's review of the EC hardcover reprint Horror Comics of  the 1950s also appeared in Sense of Wonder # 11 

Fan artist Don Newton, who soon graduated to professional comic illustrator, crafted the cover to Sense of Wonder # 12, Summer/Fall 1972. 

  This impressive profile of Jack Kirby, photographed by Vincent Davis, accompanied Bob Cosgrove's essay: Jack Kirby, Modern Mythologist, in Sense of Wonder # 12. 

 Will Eisner, another master in the field of comic art, was featured in Sense of Wonder # 12. "Eisner and Co. by John T. Ryan, corrected and added information on Eisner's career following Raymond Miller's earlier essay on the artist. 

Sense of Wonder # 12 was to be Schelly's last issue. After a failed attempt to get a job as a professional artist in comics Schelly dropped out of fandom and comic collecting for a period of time. In 1982 his first book was published, a biography of silent film comedian Harry Langdon. He briefly became part-owner of a comic book specialty store, and rejoined CAPA-alpha (a publication which included contributions from each member which were then collated and mailed out to participants) in 1991. Schelly's first exploration of fanzines occurred in The Golden Age of Comic Fandom (1995) followed by an array of related books, most notable being his personal experiences in Sense of Wonder A Life in Comic Fandom. Schelly then turned his attention to crafting a superb series of scholarly tomes covering an eclectic assortment of creative personnel, from the revered (Joe Kubert, Harvey Kurtzman) to the more obscure (Otto Binder, James Warren, John Stanley). Bill Schelly's attention went beyond artists, and included writers, editors and publishers, whose contributions to comics are all too often glossed over. His body of work will stand the test of time and be a valuable resource for future historians. 

Bill's memoir first appeared in 2001 and was greatly revised and expanded in 2018. Cover art by Schelly and Dick Giordano.  

On a personal note I was proud to have corresponded with Bill these past few years, discussing his many extraordinary books. I was honored when he asked if I could transcribe the Point of View discussions on Marvel and DC from the 1963 fanzine Hero which I had scanned and posted on my blog for publication in his Alter Ego column. He was a complete pleasure to work with and a true gentleman. Bill Schelly was an important part of comic book fandom, a true historian and a class act. Rest in Peace, Bill.