|Steve Ditko image copyright Amber Stanton|
I'm honored and delighted to present this special post, written by Bernie Bubnis, who orchestrated the first New York Comic Book Convention in 1964. Much like Steve Ditko's Spider-Man, the teenaged Bernie struggled against insurmountable odds and turned his dream of a fan gathering into reality. Its historical context relates to artist Steve Ditko, who made his first - and only - appearance at such an event. What follows is Bernie's heartfelt look back on his encounters with the inimitable Ditko.
Mr. Tough Guy
Article © Bernie Bubnis 2022
"...Mr. Tough Guy...? I assume meaning me." Those words are from a letter Steve Ditko sent me. I had written to him when I was in an angry mood and his return note quoted every word I penned, along with his angry reaction to my remarks. Neither of us was very sensitive that day. Let me give you some background first and then I will discuss those letters.
The year was 1962 and I was a fourteen year old chasing a dream. I wanted to draw comic books and made a pest of myself interviewing comic book artists at their work place, home or even at a private studio located in the Hell's Kitchen section of New York City. It was that year and that place when I first met Steve Ditko.
His studio was located at 276 West 43rd Street in NYC, right next to the Dixie Hotel. The street and hotel had seen better times. The Dixie Hotel became the center of numerous exchanges between Steve and visitors. He once said: "You wouldn't want to be buried there." At least nine people were murdered or committed suicide at the Dixie.
The largest bus depot in NYC once occupied the basement and ground floor. The bus fumes infiltrated most of the hotel's rooms above. Steve seemed to enjoy the Dixie's eerie presence next to his work place. He added a sketch of it to one of his reference books.
Steve's studio was the size of a single car garage, maybe 20 feet wide by 10 feet deep. On my first visit I could not believe the amount of paper that seemed to cover anything flat…. including the floor. He had dueling drawing tables at each end and enough glass to light 8th Avenue on a sunny day.
Steve shared the studio with a fellow student from the Cartoonist and Illustrator's School. Born Ernesto Stanzoni, Jr. and later changed to simply Eric Stanton, they shared art projects since at least 1953. I’m not sure if it was a joint lease they signed in 1958, but the two were quickly establishing themselves as working artists. Steve's comic book art could be found at the corner drug store. Eric's fetish art was usually found under the counter at various Times Square bookstores or through the mail. It was never much of a secret that they worked together on a number of projects that were available both above and below the counters.
When I visited their studio in the 1960s I always called Eric " Mr. Stanton." Steve called him "Ernie" but I never used his first name. It was clear that Eric wanted to be called "Eric" and not "Ernie". I could tell by his facial expressions when Steve continued to not call him Eric. It was the only discord I ever noticed between these two companions who shared in each other's art and writing. I knew they not only respected each other but also were true friends. When I visited their studio Steve could be introverted and quiet until Eric would say something loudly and they would share the same laugh. I was always happy when Eric was there.
Years later, when I noticed Eric Stanton at a 1970s NY Comicon I rushed over to say hello.
"Mr. Stanton, wow, what are you doing here ?"
"Why do I think I know you?"
I was no longer the kid who practically lived in his studio. I gained a few pounds, had more hair on my head and a lengthy beard, but my voice still had the same staccato delivery from my younger days. On the other hand Stanton did not seem to have changed at all. He was about 5' 7", but his confident stance made him seem taller. He had the same quick smile that looked like he was about to laugh. I always felt comfortable around him, like at this moment. I tried to explain who I was and suddenly he grabbed my arm:
"You're the kid who drove Steve crazy !"
I did not expect that. My mouth must have fallen open. I felt very embarrassed at that moment and he quickly added:
"You know... We had secrets. "
Yes, he said "we".
From my very first visit to their studio Steve knew I was trying to write an article about him. He made sure to tell me more than once to "not write about Ernie." He would say it loud enough that Eric could also hear him. Once I remember Eric chiming in with:
"The invisible Man is sitting right here."
Steve made me promise to show him the finished article before I submitted it for publication. Unlike Eric, Steve never looked like he was about to laugh at anything, so I sure did not want to disappoint him.
At that time I had no idea what "Mr. Stanton" was doing there. I originally had the impression he was just Steve's assistant. I saw more Marvel work in that office than anything else. It was easy not to include him in the article. As I spent more time there I had a better understanding of their “partnership ".
(For many more details on these "secrets" I recommend the fantastic book by Richard Perez Seves Eric Stanton & the History of the Bizarre Underground, available above the counter).
We talked a bit about me being the proverbial fly on the wall more than once. One instance had Eric joking around shortly after Steve was politely turned down for a lunch date by Stan Lee's secretary Flo Steinberg. The kidding was funny in a locker room type way, but Eric told me he later tried to intercede for his friend:
" I called her up..."
I did not know that part of the story and was surprised to hear he would get involved.
At the time of the incident I was maybe fifteen and did ask her about Steve's lunch proposal. At fifteen you could ask a dumb question and get a serious answer. I remember being put in my place and the sound of her squeaky, sandpaper voice saying:
"It's none of your business. This is my personal life. Don't ever ask me again."
Case closed at the time, but now and I wanted to hear Eric's version.
"Wow ! What'd you say to her ? She never told me anything about it."
" I called, told her who I was and tried to explain why I was calling and she F*****G hung up on me !"
He immediately started laughing loud, long and hard. I started to recall all the times he would make Steve laugh. Steve would smile often, but a real laugh only came after Eric's laugh was so loud you could not ignore it. They were the perfect studio-mates.
Eric had one more "secret" to share. When he finished laughing he said:
" Ahh, he did ok. He was seeing one of my models for a while."
I visited their studio many times between 1962 and 1964 and I never saw any "models." I assumed I just showed up on the wrong days. Years later Stanton's biographer told me that IF this story is true it would have been one of the cheesecake models who posed for Eric when he worked at Satellite Publishing in 1961. Fetish fans would take their own photos of posed models in lingerie with ropes that bound their arms... or legs... or both. Satellite offered this service to fans of this genre for a fee. I never verified the validity of Eric's words.
I noticed Eric's absence from "their" studio by early 1964 and it sure seemed quiet without him. Another fan who visited during that time period was Ron Fradkin, organizer of the 1964 NY Comicon. He never saw Eric either. Years later, at my final meeting with Steve in 2017, I asked him exactly when Eric moved out of the studio. He said simply:
"I don't keep track of those things."
It was Steve's way of saying: "None of your business." It was not the first time he came straight to the point with me. As a kid I once asked for his opinion on something and I got a very blunt response. Gordon Love, editor/publisher of the fanzine Rocket's Blast had asked me to contribute to another fanzine he was planning which would be devoted to fan created art and stories. He named it Fighting Heroes and I wanted to participate. I created and named my super hero "Helios, the Sun God" and built a story around that name. It wasn’t too creative, but it was earnest. This would be my first "strip" effort and I was excited enough to show Steve my work. I must have picked the wrong day.
"Do you think I did okay ?"
He flipped through the pages, looked at me, grinned and nodded his head. He then handed them back to me. As he reached for his pencil I continued to stand next to his desk. I stood there speechless long enough to insure I would get an answer.
“I'm not your critic. You're good, you're not so good, you're bad-decide for yourself."
At that moment I wished Eric was there. He would have leveled the tension with a wisecrack. I stood there and just stared. Steve turned his head to face me and said:
" If you want to make a living doing this...," he motioned to the mounds of paper and cardboard laying around the studio, "be prepared to work long and hard and then work harder."
He went back to drawing. As much as I enjoyed visiting him and Eric at their studio...I had the feeling I may have stayed too long.
My almost final visit with Steve was in August, 1964. My father died in May, 1963. My love affair with comic book fandom and chasing a dream was about to end. I had to start bringing in more money to help my mother pay bills and keep a roof over our heads. I had to stop acting like a kid. We may not be certain when Eric moved out, but that August visit with Steve was the month I moved on.
We sort of kept in touch after that encounter. A phone call here or a letter there, but It got to the point where I felt I had to introduce myself every time. That much time would accumulate between calls. After a while it was mail contact only. Sporadic New York convention trips always ended with me feeling I should pay Steve a visit. I feared facing him because I owed him so much more than fear.
Every lecture or advice he ever gave me was etched in my memory. I repeated his words to so many others that they soon became my words. One incident involved my father bouncing my head off a wall so hard that I could not hide the bruises. Steve was incensed, wanting to confront him and put him in his place. I never gave him the chance, fearing the outcome. Steve was willing to stand up to him and the realization of my fear to do so stayed with me forever. I swore I would never be afraid of anyone again. I'm sure he did not know it at the time, but Steve Ditko taught me to finally stand up...for myself.
I should have made more of an effort to visit him. That was my mistake and I still regret it.
By 1964 organized comic book fandom thought it was time to establish a permanent yearly gathering of fans. All these years later and the relationship between that first attempt and today's mega-circus conventions are difficult to equate.
Originally, around 50-60 people were stuffed into an overheated room in downtown New York City. Fans were content to meet like-minded kids, dealers were ready to meet new customers and professionals were wading into unchartered waters. It was simple compared to today's conventions, and if not for one individual's attendance it may have been entirely forgotten.
Steve Ditko remembered that day well:
"Stan did NOT send me to the convention. I was surprised to see Flo there, that Stan even knew about the convention. I sat with Flo, watched, listened to what went on up front--remember Tom Gill, a pile of original art pages given by DC editors, my talking with questioning fans about other artists I never met, about companies I had no information about."
Not everyone was there to ask questions that could not be answered. One youngster (and future author) named George R.R. Martin from New Jersey just wanted to meet him . My wife Lucille asked George if he got to speak with Steve at the convention. He replied on his blog in June, 2017:
"Yes, I spoke with Steve Ditko at that convention, and even got his autograph (I just wish I could find it). I recall him being a very quiet man, shy...and since I was a pretty shy kid, I'm afraid we didn't have much of a conversation. I just told him how much I love Spider-Man and Doctor Strange and he thanked me, and said that Doc Strange was a favorite of his as well. "
Steve spent quite a bit of time surrounded by those "questioning fans". Every time I looked over to see if he was still in the room he was talking and actually smiling. He drew sketches for some, signed autographs, granted interviews for others and promised to send two fans art for their fanzines. He stayed the entire five hours at the convention.
I'm not a mind reader or a psychologist but I think he found himself enjoying the attention. An incident would soon take place that soured his memory of the day and fifty-one years later he finally told me.
Well, not just me...he told a lot of people. Ditko's The Four-Page Series # 7, March 2015, is titled: The 1st New York City Comic Book Convention, copyright S. Ditko, and when he calls himself "S." you know he’s serious!
"DC editors had given the con stacks of ORIGINAL story/art pages by various writers and artists.
Some CBFs (abbreviation for Comic Book Fans) took art pages and laughingly TOSSED then UP into the air and over their heads.
It IS the mindless, valueless, purposelessness of a GROUP'S pseudo-values and ENJOYMENT.
They are free to mindlessly, laughingly, abusively, reject , toss all real life values, facts and truth, claim that "all is gray", NO A is always A, there is NO true/false, etc."
He continues for another twenty seven paragraphs, but he had me at "TOSSED." No one paid more attention to what was going right or wrong at that first convention than me. I would give a fan a piece of original art as a "door prize" and it was as if I gave them a piece of Tiffany jewelry. J. Ballmann interviewed every surviving attendee of that 1964 Comicon for his 300 page book devoted to it. No one recalled anything about the throwing of original art into the air.
I think I know the incident that Steve "remembers" with such clarity, but keeping this to himself for fifty one years multiplied the gravity.
This brings us directly back to the start of my article. I shot off a letter to Steve quickly and this was his reply:
"So" fans tossing art pages into the air is just fiction and fantasy like the comic book stories I write and draw ? ...so one can see how you now choose to defend the can do no wrong comic book fans."
I never weighed the venom in my words. Why did it matter a half century later to me...or him? The explanation is so simple I almost overlooked it. Steve remembered it as if it were yesterday, and told me in his return letter:
"The art pages were piled on a front desk. An art page I saw was a Joe Kubert Viking Prince."
The only Viking Prince art was one I owned. I brought it along IN CASE so many fans attended that we would run out of the DC "door prize" contributions (We didn't.) It was the same Kubert original art I gave to fan/pro Larry Ivie when he "returned" the Tom Gill art I gave him. Larry rightfully thought of himself as a professional comic book artist and preferred to not accept a "door prize" as if he were just a fan. I'm sure Larry never realized when he looked at me and shook his head as if to say "not necessary" what would happen next. He flipped it towards the table and this air-less oven we were in somehow allowed it to sail past the table and nearly land on the floor.
Fan/Author/Artist and creator of Monsters and Heroes magazine Larry Ivie
Steve never forgot that original Tom Gill cardboard airplane flying by. This was coupled with the fact that he listed the Viking Prince art in his letter and I'm sure he never forgot that dopey grin on Larry’s face for 51 years. I think I’ve solved the mystery. (By the way, Larry reverted to being just a fan for that moment and kept the Kubert art.)
When I read Steve's essay years later and saw my name attached to the "event" I shot that letter off to him so quickly that I never even read it before sending it out. At the same time I wrote another letter to Robin Snyder for publication in his fanzine, The Comics, a publication Robin shared with Steve...it seemed. That one contained my "Mr. Tough Guy" remark, so Steve was answering both letters. I thought better of my place in this craziness and asked Robin to not print my letter. I believe my request was honored, but I was challenged to verify this. My "subscription" to The Comics was immediately terminated.
This is NOT the letter mentioned above but another missive Bernie wrote as requested by SD so he could present a first-hand account of the 64' con. Robin Snyder's The Comics, Vol 25, # 10, October 2014.
I don't know why I called him "Mr. Tough Guy". My father was that and Steve bore no resemblance to him in any way. When my father's unexpected death threw my life into a downspin Steve coached me through my depression. He did the same when I doubted my ability to complete a fanzine celebrating the '64 Comicon. He always had the patience to let a lost kid steal his time. No wonder I tried to keep in touch with him all these years.
Months later I sent Steve another letter where I included a few personal notes to him about things we never discussed before and I reminded him of the Ivie incident. His hand written reply was polite and the "Mr. Tough Guy" letters were ignored. One of his responses to that "update" letter from me:
I always tried to keep my letters personal and purposely side-stepped any political discussions.
My wife was with me when I visited him for the last time in October, 2017. We were attending the New York Comic Con and his studio at 1650 Broadway was close by. We called and I felt like I time-traveled back to my first meeting with him in 1962. My knees were shaking. We entered his studio and he immediately looked at her and said:
"So how are your daughters doing ?"
My wife had no idea that I told him anything about our family in that letter from two years before, and this was just moments after he loudly told her to not take photos in his studio. Stunned briefly, she thanked him for asking and then filled him in our children's history. He politely listened to her every word, just like he always did for me when I was a kid visiting him at his studio next to the Dixie Hotel. I'm sure he did the same for dozens of others who knew him. He was a man of many moods, but always respectful and concerned.
Perhaps "many moods " is an understatement. This last visit with Steve covered a wide range of subjects and I gave him a few chances to show those moods. We both laughed when I reminded him of the day I showed him original art Joe Kubert had given me. Before I finished explaining that Joe and other comic book artists would give fans art as a token after visiting with them Steve said:
"I'm not giving you anything."
He said it SO matter of fact that Eric quickly banged his fist on the table and yelled:
"NOTHING...YOU GET NOTHING !! "
The laughter started immediately and was so intense that my eye glasses slid off the bridge of my nose to the floor. Steve started to laugh just as hard and Eric continued to pound the table.
It is a fun memory and even though Steve said he remembered "something" like that happening it was a bittersweet moment. That is why we celebrate memories. Enjoy others while you can.
Part of Ditko's letter to Bernie, dated October 26, 2014, expressing his thoughts on modern Comic Book Conventions.
Steve Ditko passed away eight months later and I never did get another chance to share a laugh with him. I am grateful for the time as a young man I did get to spend with Steve. He was both a guide to me in my lowest moments and a hero that I will always admire and love. A "tough guy" with a heart. I will miss him.