Smash Pages Q&A: Bill Schelly’s ‘Sense of Wonder’

The writer and biographer discusses his latest book, which details his youth as a comic fan in the 1960s and beyond.

Bill Schelly is one of the great writers about comics. Currently the Associate Editor of Alter Ego, he’s written biographies of Harvey Kurtzman, Joe Kubert, Otto Binder and others in addition to writing and editing a number of art books and anthologies. Among his many awards are an Eisner Award and an Inkpot Award. Besides being one of the very best biographers who has taken on cartoonists and comics as a subject, Schelly is also one of the great writers about fandom in books like The Golden Age of Comic Fandom and Founders of Comic Fandom.

This year saw the publication of Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom–The Whole Story. Schelly had originally published an earlier version of the book, where he wrote about his youth in comics fandom. For this new edition he rewrite the original book and expanded it to nearly twice the length. Schelly has been involved since the 1960s, editing and contributing to various fanzines as a writer and artist. One aspect of this new edition of Sense of Wonder is Schelly talking openly about growing up gay in the 1960s and finding a place in fandom. He also talks about more recent decades, how he got back into reading comics, finding a creative outlet, and other aspects of his life, including the death of his son. I’ve read and admired Schelly for many years, though we’ve never met and I asked if we could talk about his new book.

Where did the original book Sense of Wonder start? What prompted you to start writing a memoir around fandom?

I guess you could say it started when I read my first comic book in 1960, or when I got involved in comic fandom in 1964. But the impetus for writing Sense of Wonder, A Life in Comic Fandom in 2001 came after I began researching the history of fandom. In 1990, I returned to the fold after fifteen or so years away. I wanted to do some sort of project that honored fandom’s founders, who I had greatly admired in the 1960s and early 1970s. I did a lot of research, and wrote the book The Golden Age of Comic Fandom, to tell the story of comic fandom’s beginnings. After that book came out, Roy Thomas asked me to become associate editor of Alter Ego magazine which was to be published by John Morrow of TwoMorrows Publishing. I wrote a column in each issue which expanded on my book. When I decided I wanted to write a personal memoir, TwoMorrows was the logical publisher. It did surprisingly well. People really seemed to enjoy it.

I never read the original Sense of Wonder. That original book was Part 1, or most of Part 1, of this new edition. Do I have that right?

Yes. The new edition, which has the slightly different title Sense of Wonder, My Life in Comic Fandom—The Whole Story, consists of two parts of about equal length. Part 1 was the text of the original book, stripped down to the studs and heavily re-written. There was a lot I wanted to add or revise.

As you were rewriting Part 1, was it obvious to you what you needed to add, the people and events you needed to talk about?

When I wrote the first edition 17 years ago, I hadn’t come out in fandom as gay. Now, because I wanted this expanded version to be franker, I added material about growing up as a gay fan of comic books, and as a gay member of fandom. Not like the whole book would be about that, but I would discuss it. I thought it would add an interesting perspective, and come into play when I decided to have kids later in life, which I also talk about.
Part 1 covers essentially until you were 21. And Part 2 covers, well, the past forty-something years. What did you want to be sure to cover in it?

I wanted to tell the story of how fandom gave me a creative outlet not only as a teenager, but later in life, as well. I wanted to become a writer, but what would I write about? I struggled with this in the 1970s and 1980s. When I returned to fandom, it suddenly became clear. I’d write about comic books. And the people who created them. The overall theme of Sense of Wonder is how fandom gave me a way to become the writer I was wanted to become. Part 2, which is totally new, and comprises half the book, tells the rest of the story. I also got to talk about briefly owning my own comic book store, meeting such people as Jack Kirby and Gil Kane, and a lot more.

You note that one person didn’t want their real name used. Were your friends and family and colleagues all pretty much okay with you sharing or writing about whatever?

Yes, I checked with most of them. My family members were fine with it. I had lost touch with some of my friends, but I wasn’t writing anything bad about them so I didn’t think it was a huge deal. My buddy Marshall Lanz, who was an enfant terrible and prankster back in the 1960s, loved what I wrote about him, despite the fact that it wasn’t exactly complimentary. His only objection to the first edition was that I said he was a high school dropout, when in reality he’d gotten a college degree. I corrected that in the new book. Unfortunately, he passed away before the new edition was published.

One thing I was curious about, because you have been in fandom on and off for so long, and it’s now a very different beast. It’s bigger and more mainstream and queerer – though as you point out, fandom and comics were queer then, too. Is it recognizable in a sense from how you remember back then?

It’s very different. Nowadays, I don’t find fans – even my friends – interested in corresponding. In the old days, when long distance phone calls were prohibitively expensive, I corresponded with a number of fans, writing letters that were often two or three pages long. Today, even with email, peoples’ attention spans are shorter. And they want to talk on the phone, not write. Of course, blogs have replaced the old printed fanzines. That’s cool. And fans still get together at comicons. It’s still a place that’s accepting of all kinds of people, whether they be queer, or physically challenged, or what-have-you. The main thing, which I’m sure will never change, is its ongoing appreciation of comic art itself, whether in the form of modern graphic novels, or comics of the past in all the reprint editions. I don’t know how much interest still exists for the comics being turned out by Marvel and DC, but if it’s waned, there are plenty of other comics to read and enjoy.

What do you think makes a good biographer? Or, at least, what do you think makes you a good biographer? And do those skills also make you a good memoirist?

For me, the point of biography is to try to discover how the person’s life affects their art, and their art affects their life. It’s telling a human story. It’s also placing the work in context, like how the times affected the work, whether it was World War II, the McCarthy Era, the Vietnam War period, or whatever. People don’t create in a vacuum. Talking about those influences, and how the business of publishing affected what they could accomplish, are all things that I try to bring to all my biographies. As you suggested in your question, those same things apply to a memoir. But of course, a memoir can explore things on a deeper, more personal way. I might speculate about what Harvey Kurtzman was thinking. I know what I was thinking!

How did Sense of Wonder end up at North Atlantic books?

I wanted to expand my biography of Otto Binder. As you may know, he wrote over half of the Marvel Family stories from 1942 to 1953, and co-created so much of the Superman mythos, including Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and Brainiac. But I couldn’t find a publisher who was interested. Then Philip Smith, an editor at North Atlantic Books at the time, saw me ranting about it on Facebook, and got in touch. They published a beautiful new, much revised edition, called Otto Binder, The Life and Work of a Comic Book and Science Fiction Visionary. Then they asked, “What else have you got?” That’s when I pitched the new Sense of Wonder, which came out in April.

I know that you have another book coming out later this year about James Warren. Do you want to say a little about the book and what else you’re working on?

James Warren is a fascinating figure, a one-of-a-kind individual. I grew up reading Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella. I even unsuccessfully applied for a job at Warren in 1973 when I was in New York. I had interviewed him about his working relationship with Harvey Kurtzman when they did Help magazine in the early 1960s. But he didn’t want to help me with a book about himself, ostensibly because he was working on his own memoir. Fortunately, I had a bunch of unpublished interviews with him, and I was able to talk to two of his best friends going back to the 1950s, who were very forthcoming. I found just a ton of information… unpublished interviews, original correspondence, anecdotes, photographs and so on. In the final analysis, I think the book benefits from not having his editorial control, because it’s not censored in any way. James Warren, Empire of Monsters will be out in December from Fantagraphics Books.

Has writing Sense of Wonder, your memoir, which now feels more complete, changed what you want to write next or write more of?

Maybe it has. It went deeper than any of my other books. Writing a memoir is almost like writing a non-fiction novel. I found that I enjoying writing about the “human experience” so to speak, and may do more of that kind of thing in the future. Maybe a novel, maybe another memoir of some sort. We’ll see.

Sense of Wonder ends on a triumphant note with you winning an Eisner award for your Harvey Kurtzman biography and you reconnecting with your first love. Real life is of course messy, but I hope the happy ending has continued.

It has. I’m busier than ever as a writer, and my relationship with Mario Vitale, my great love from the time we were teenagers, is stronger than ever. Of course, I’m older, but I’m healthy and hope to have many more good, creative years. My readership seems to be expanding, so everything is blue sky ahead.

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