Today would have been legendary DC Comics editor Julius Schwartz’s 108th birthday. Like most comic book fans growing up in the 1960s, Julie’s books had a profound effect on me as a reader. Unlike most comic book fans growing up in the 1960s, I made the move into the professional arena in 1975 and, by the early 1980s, I was writing regularly for Julie’s office on various titles. But even better than working with the man I consider the greatest editor in the history of this business was getting to know him as a friend.
In his memoir, Man of Two Worlds, Julie wrote about his first life-changing exposure to science fiction in the pages of Amazing Stories when he was a kid. I took those few lines from his life and added a little Schwartzian Multiverse spin of my own.
Happy birthday, Schwartz!
Late in the afternoon, after his homework was done and his chores completed, eleven year old Julius climbed the stairs from the third floor tenement apartment he shared with his mother, father, and baby sister to the tar-paper covered roof. In one hand he held a rare treat, an ice-cold nickel bottle of Pepsi-Cola. In the other was an issue of Amazing Stories, a magazine with a shiny, brightly colored cover and thick with coarse, off-white pulp pages.
The moment he had seen the magazine in his friend Charlie’s hands, with its painting of a monstrous serpent-necked sea creature about to swamp the crude raft on which were perched three frightened men, his curiosity was piqued. It was so unlike any of the books and magazines he read, the sporting adventures of brothers Dick and Frank Merriwell, the detective stories about Nick Carter, the light-hearted fantasy and fairy tales of the Blue Fairy books he borrowed from the hushed stacks of the New York Public Library, but his was something so utterly different.
He pushed open the rooftop door on its squeaking hinges and stepped into the warm, late spring air, just as quickly closing it behind him. It had cost Julius a Merriwell boys and a Nick Carter book in trade, but he just had to find out what made these stories amazing. Besides, he had read those other books, cover to cover, numerous times. He already knew how Dick and Frank won the big game, how Nick Carter tricked the murderer into confessing to his crime. The sea monster, on the other hand, was something altogether new. Where had it come from? Who were those men? And, there, in the lower right hand corner of the illustration, was that the head of a giant turtle poking up out of the water? What was going on here?
Julius had made the trade, then begged off the game of stickball forming outside the apartment building on Caldwell Avenue. He couldn’t wait to get up here to the roof, to his special, private place where he could always find the peace and quiet to read. His fingers twitched in anticipation of peeling open the brilliant red and blue cover of this special magazine and then to dive into the secrets the stories would reveal to him.
He was pretty sure his parents wouldn’t approve of this afternoon’s choice of reading material. They loved that he was a reader, that he had an entire world of books and learning open to him here that he might never have known even existed had they stayed in the Old Country, a world as foreign and fantastic as any he had read about in a book. But they treated reading as a finite resource that had to be doled out only for good books, the classics and serious volumes with lessons to teach. He felt guilty about hiding away up here with what might prove to be contraband reading material, but his itch to learn the secrets hidden between these gaudy paper covers gave him the courage to take this first, small step of adolescent defiance.
Amazing Stories, it said, in large white letters that splashed dramatically across the background red sky. June, 1926. 25 Cents. A whole quarter for a magazine! Imagine that. He could buy so much for so large a sum, penny candy enough to feed the entire block! An entire day at the movie theater...five trips to anywhere in the whole city, the Bronx, Manhattan, all the way into Brooklyn even, on the trolley or the subway! Even the month printed on the cover was special. His birthday was in June.
And, then, just under the title, in small, neat type, were these mysterious words:
The name was unknown to him, but being the "editor" must have been important if it got his name featured so prominently on the cover. Maybe Mr. Gernsback owned the magazine? Julius knew what an author was. They were the people who wrote the stories, for which their names were displayed on the cover, like Burt L. Standish, who wrote the Merriwell boys stories. On the magazine’s lower right corner, “Stories by H.G. Welles, Jules Verne, Ellis Parker Butler” were announced. He had seen books by some of these names in the library. But “editor.” That was new to him. Maybe papa would be able to explain it, or he would look it up in the dictionary at school tomorrow.
He settled on the overturned wooden cheese crate that served as his seat up here in his quiet retreat, his back against the brick chimney stack. He set the Pepsi carefully on the ground, then, wiping the moisture on his hand from the bottle on his trousers, opened the cover of Amazing Stories. The stories were all listed on the contents page, all featuring titles that were, as promised, amazing: “A Trip to the Center of the Earth,” “The Coming of the Ice,” “The Scientific Adventures of Mr. Fosdick: Mr. Fosdick Invents the ‘Seidlitzmobile’,” “The Star,” “Whispering Ether,” “An Experiment in Gyro-Hats,” “The Malignant Entity,” “Doctor Hackensaw's Secrets: Some Minor Inventions,” and “The Runaway Skyscraper.”
A runaway skyscraper?
Julius couldn't imagine what a “Seidlitzmobile” might be, and, frankly, “Gyro-Hats” sounded downright silly, but a runaway skyscraper? How in the world could a skyscraper, one of those impossibly tall buildings that filled Manhattan, go anywhere? Blinking rapidly behind the lenses of his wire frame glasses, Julius flipped through the pages in search of this intriguing title.
“The Runaway Skyscraper.” By Murray Leinster.
“The whole thing started when the clock on the Metropolitan Tower began to run backwards,” Julius read and, sucking in a deep breath that he only remembered to release a few paragraphs later, he didn’t look up from the pages of Amazing Stories until he had read through that story and two others.
He closed the magazine and stared at the cover.
Julius didn’t know what he had expected, but, really, they were just stories, make believe that could never be believed because, unlike even the often seemingly implausible Merriwell sporting victories or Nick Carter deduction, the events in these amazing stories could never be. People didn’t fly in rocket ships through outer space to other planets. Skyscrapers didn’t walk. Men couldn’t descend through the Earth’s crust and visit the center of the world. Nothing about these stories was even remotely possible.
But that hadn’t stopped these writers from weaving tales out of equal parts imagination, science, and speculation that were every bit as unlikely as the stories in the Blue Fairy books. At least you knew you there was no such things as elves and fairies, but this was mixing up the real world with the same kind of fantasy, only instead of calling it “magic,” they called it “science,” and even Julius could tell how outrageously phony most of their “science” was.
Men on the moon?
“It just isn’t possible,” Julius said, only half aloud.
From inside the stairwell came a loud pop, like the noise a light bulb made when it smashed. But it would have to be a pretty big bulb to account for so loud a sound, and a bulb would not explain what made the door blow open with a strong gust of wind that sent dust and debris blasting out onto the roof.
Followed by an older, bald man who came stumbling through the door, coughing and blinking in the late afternoon light.
Julius leapt to his feet, keeping a tight hold on his magazine so it wasn’t swept away by the wind.
“I...I’m not in the office anymore,” the man said in a hushed, shocked tone. “It’s...yes, it is! The roof. It worked. Son of a gun, it really worked!”
The man looked around, the eyes behind his thick, wire-frame glasses wide with awe. He hadn’t yet spotted Julius in the shadow of the chimneystack, but the boy wasn’t frightened. Despite the slightly off-kilter style of his clothing—a simple short-sleeve white shirt, a blue knit tie, and dark blue trousers—the man was comfortably familiar. He might have been a new neighbor, or someone visiting another of the tenants. He could even have been one of Julius’s great uncles, cursed with the same large Romanian nose and protruding teeth that ran through his family like, as one aunt so afflicted liked to bemoan, a punishment from god.
“Hello,” Julius said, stepping out from the shadows. “Whose apartment are you looking for?”
The man spun around, his face breaking out in a big, bucktoothed smile.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” he chuckled, pointing in surprise at him. “It’s you...and the June ‘26 issue of Amazing.”
Now it was Julius’s turn to be surprised.
“You’ve read this?”
“You kidding? I read that one and every issue of it and the rest of them since.”
“There are others?” Julius said.
“Well, there will be, but that’s another story.”
“Are you kidding with me? How do you know all this?” the boy said, suddenly suspicious.
“I’m friends with some of the writers. They tell me there’s a big future for these science fiction pulp magazines. What did you think of it?”
Julius looked at the painting of the sea monster on the cover and shrugged. “It was alright I suppose, but...”
The man seemed surprised. “But what? Boy oh boy, I remember the first time I read a science fiction story. I was hooked.”
“Well,” Julius said slowly, “it’s kind of like arithmetic, I guess. There are all these numbers and symbols that you can use in equations, but you’re not allowed to make up new ones any time you want, right?”
The man nodded in agreement.
“So why are the writers of these stories allowed to make up new science and facts? Science is what’s real, but they use it like, like...fairy dust in a kids story.”
“An excellent observation, young man,” the man cried happily. “But just like in mathematics, science is always changing and advancing. Did you know there was once a time when mankind didn’t have algebra? Or calculus? Someone had to discover them. It’s the same thing with science. Fifty years ago, no one ever dreamed of the light bulb or the phonograph or the radio or the automobile, but we have them today and they’re as common as dandelions. Why, just about the whole world believed the airplane was an impossible idea before Orville and Wilbur Wright figured out how to make one fly in 1903.”
“I guess,” Julius said. “I just don’t see why they’ve got to make these stories so hard to believe. I couldn’t think up all that crazy stuff.”
“I’ll bet you could,” the man said with a smile.
“No, not me. I’m real good at arithmetic. But I can’t imagine ever making up something like a walking skyscraper, can you?”
He shrugged. “Why not? I believe a man can fly.”
Julius grinned. “Sure. In an airplane.”
“That too, and right this minute. And one day, they’ll fly faster, farther, and higher than you can dream. Did you know that earlier this spring, a scientist named Robert Goddard launched the world’s very first liquid fuel rocket in Massachusetts?”
“Yep. And that’s just the beginning. I also believe we’ll send rocket ships into outer space and people to the moon and maybe even farther, and we’ll watch as it’s done on television, which is like radio but with pictures too. I believe we’ll discover medicines that will be able to cure with a few pills things that kill us today, and that in not too many years to come, nobody will have to be afraid of catching TB, polio, measles, mumps, and dozens other diseases anymore. We’ll find ways to live longer and how to make things smaller and better and cheaper, and how to build buildings taller and more beautiful than ever.”
Julius wanted to believe. The man was so sure and so excited, and he seemed to so want him to be excited too.
“But somebody has to have the idea before the scientists and engineers can build something, and that’s where the science fiction writers come in. See, what they’re doing isn’t just writing adventure stories. They’re asking questions, using known science to extrapolate...do you know what that word means?”
“I think so. It means to figure out something from something you already know, right?”
“You get a gold star. So, they’re extrapolating, like Jules Verne did in his story, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, which he wrote in 1869.”
Julie excitedly held up the magazine. “Jules Verne. He wrote the story in here about going down into the center of the Earth.”
“Right again. Well, submarines, or submersible vessels, had already been invented by then. They were used in the Civil War, you know, but Verne took the idea of these little underwater boats that used hand-cranked propellers to move them under the water and extrapolated it into the Nautilus, a giant submarine with a large crew, comfortable quarters, and that ran on electricity. And now, what do you suppose the Navy now has for real? Electrical submarines.”
“But he just thought of it. He couldn’t make one for real.”
“Ah, but he could do the next best thing to building it himself...inspire the imaginations of his readers, one of whom might one day grow up and ask himself, ‘If Jules Verne can imagine it, I can make it real.’
“Who knows? If you keep reading these stories, maybe you’ll be inspired to invent something. Or you might even become a writer who comes up with stories themselves.”
“I like to read, but composition isn’t my best subject,” Julius said dubiously.
“There are lots of ways to be inspire. You could even be an editor.”
“Like Hugo Gernsback?”
“There’ll never be another editor like Gernsback, but something tells me if that’s where you land, you’ll make your own mark on the profession.”
The boy looked at the magazine cover. “I still don’t think skyscrapers will ever walk.”
“Probably not,” the man said with a chuckle. “But not all ideas have to lead to great inventions. Some of them are just for fun. I think the world would be a pretty dull place if everything had to be serious all the time, don’t you?”
“I guess,” Julius said, but he didn’t sound convinced, even to his own ears.
“I’ll tell you what,” the man said, reaching into his pocket. He brought out an old, tattered black leather change purse and undid the snap with a deft twist of his thumb and forefinger.
“Hey,” Julius said, reaching into his own pocket. “I’ve got one just like that, only new, see? Aunt Sadie gave it to me for Chanukah last year.”
“What a coinkydink,” he said, his eyes flashing with a mysterious twinkle. He produced a bright, new coin from the purse and held it up for the boy to see. “I’ll bet you this brand new silver dollar that by the time you get to be my age, so many of the things you’ll read about in the pulps will have come true, and the things we haven’t figured out how to do yet, we’ll keep working on until we do. Mankind’s going to be embarking on some strange adventures ahead, facing mysteries in space the writers of today can’t even begin to imagine.”
Julius stared at the gleaming coin with awe. He had seen silver dollars, of course, but had never held one in his hand. But...
“Poppa says I’m not supposed to bet,” he said sadly. “Besides, even if I could, I don’t have a dollar to bet you back with.”
“That’s okay, my boy. Let’s just make this a one-sided bet. My silver dollar against your future.”
“If you win, you get the dollar. If I win, you don’t owe me anything.”
“Yes, but...if I do win, how are you going to know so you can find me and pay me?”
“A logical question,” the man said. “Open your purse.”
Julius obeyed and held it up to the man, who dropped the silver dollar into it.
“There. You hold the wager. If you win, you can pay yourself off.”
“But what if I don’t? Won’t I have to give you back your dollar?”
“Don’t worry, Julius,” the man said. “I won’t be hard for you to find at all.”
The boy wasn’t sure he got any of what was happening. Not the bet, and certainly not how he was supposed to find this stranger a half a century from now when he didn’t even know his name.
“Maybe a story will help you understand,” the man said. “Once upon a time in the future, a man who had lived his life helping others tell their impossible stories learned that something he had always believed to be fiction was, in fact, true. What he discovered was that there wasn’t just one universe but a whole universe of universes. Some of them were almost exactly like the one he lived in, while others were as different from his world as night was from day. And in at least one of them, the impossible heroes his writers wrote impossible tales about were real, including a man who ran so fast, he could leave time behind him.
“He helped the hero build a machine that would take him home to his own universe, and as a reward, the hero offered him one, brief visit to any time on any world of his choosing. He chose to visit the hero’s world and to talk to a young man, very much like himself when he was a boy, but who would grow up to become a mathematics teacher because one Autumn afternoon, somebody didn’t come along to awaken his imagination with an impossible story. So he did, opening the boy’s eyes to a future that could be instead of the one that he thought had been set for him, and everybody lived happily ever after.”
The man looked at his wristwatch and said, “I’ve got to be going. It’s been very nice meeting you. And I hope you’ll think about what we talked about.”
Julius could only nod. Who was this man...?
The stranger turned, reaching for the doorknob.
“Wait,” Julius called out.
The man looked back at him and waited, smiling.
“You’re...I mean, you’re not really...?” Julius stammered, his thought too impossible to even put into words.
“Look at the date on the silver dollar,” the man said, and then he was gone, the door closing behind him.
Julius dumped the coin from his change purse into his sweating palm, the American eagle on the reverse side showing. He turned it over, revealing the image of Lady Liberty on the front, and the date stamped beneath her feet.
Sixty years in the future.
Impossible! And yet...!
He closed his fingers around the coin and ran towards the stairwell door, shouting, “Wait, don’t go!” But before he got there, there was another pop that blew the door open with a blast of air. And when he looked, the man was gone, not even the echo of his footsteps on the stairs left behind.
Julius smiled and closed the door. He carefully slid the impossible silver dollar back into the black leather change purse and tucked it into his trouser pocket. Then he sat back down with his back to the chimney stack, and picking up his copy of Amazing Stories, began reading again.
And speaking of the Cosmic Treadmill (and we were, even if you didn't know it)...
Julie told the story of a middle school class that came through DC one day on a tour. After he had waved hello to the kids and made small talk, the class moved on. Except for one boy, who lingered in his office door. Julie told him to hurry along or he’d miss the rest of the tour, but the kid wanted to ask a question.
“You’re Julie Schwartz, editor of The Flash, right?”
Julie admitted that he was.
“So that means you’ve got Flash’s Cosmic Treadmill in your closet, right?” the boy asked hopefully, referring to a recent story in which Julie had appeared as his Earth-Prime self meeting the Earth-One Flash, who built the time-travelling Treadmill in order to return to his own world (The Flash #179, May 1968, written by Cary Bates, art by Ross Andru and Mike Esposito).
Julie explained that that had just been fiction, that the Cosmic Treadmill was an imaginary device in a make-believe story. He couldn’t understand why the little boy looked so crushed by this news, so Julie asked.
“Because,” the boy said, “my dad died last year and I wanted to use the Cosmic Treadmill to go back and tell him I love him.”