Updated: Aug 5
I made Marty Pasko (August 4, 1954 - May 10, 2020) my comedy bitch one night at a comic book convention in the late-1970s or early-1980s. I could always make Marty laugh; I’m a fairly funny guy and he was a fairly easy audience, but I didn’t own him until that night when a bunch of us were gathered in somebody’s hotel room where some drinking might have been taking place, and I announced, likely apropos of nothing, that I could crack Marty up in just three random phrases. The challenge was accepted.
I opened with, “Yellow pages.”
Like I said, Marty was an easy audience, but he managed to keep his reaction down to a tight little smile.
“Direct dialing.” I added. That quick, Marty started to lose it.
“Wankel rotary engine,” I said, stretching out each syllable until Marty exploded, literally falling to the floor in hysterical laughter.
That did it. I owned him. I could make Marty laugh whenever I wanted, and I usually wanted. It was that much fun.
I’ve known Marty Pasko since I was a kid. We met way back in our early-1970 days of comic book fandom when we were still teens (I can’t for the life of me remember the circumstances of our first meeting) and were friends from the start. He preceded me into the comic book business by only a couple of years, but Marty’s abilities began at a level that I was still trying to reach several years into my career. His credits in comics and animation and television are well established and his reputation as a writer hard-earned and wholly deserved and covered elsewhere—Marty, who once told me that Turner Classic Movie channel host Ben Mankiewicz had his dream job, would be thrilled to know his obit made Variety—but my favorite memories of Marty aren’t professional.
Not that I wasn’t a fan. I read everything Marty wrote, not just for enjoyment but to learn a thing or two about making comic books. One of the earliest and best lessons I received in comics writing from Marty was in 1976 when he hired me to help him break down the script for what was to become the unpublished tenth issue of DC’s The Joker. I had a handful of five-, six-, eight-, and ten-page scripts for Charlton Comics and DC’s anthology titles under my belt and had never worked on a book-length story before, let alone one populated with established characters. I don’t know if I was of any help or if my presence saved Marty any time because he spent a lot of it explaining to me the why of everything he was doing in the story and how the pieces connected to the whole. Maybe he just needed someone to bounce ideas off of, but in the end, I believe I got a lot more out of that afternoon with Marty than he got from me. Forty-plus years later, when I wrote a book on writing for comics, Marty’s name was included in the dedication and acknowledgement page. (Our only other “collaboration” came in 1983 when I was asked to dialog three issues of First Comics’ E-Man over Marty’s plots. The next time I saw Marty after they had been published, he gave me a nod, accompanied by the comedy writer’s straight faced, “Funny.”)
The Joker plotting session took place in the loft in the West 20s in New York where Marty rented space from the owner, a friend of his who produced low budget porn films. It wasn’t unusual for Marty to wake up in the morning and have to pass through an active “sound stage” on his way from his room to the kitchen for coffee.
At his 1975 New Year’s Eve party at the loft, he told us all the story of being awoken one morning several months earlier by a man in a bloody butcher’s apron who mistook his room for the bathroom. Going to investigate, Marty discovered filming was in full swing for a special effects heavy scene involving the murder and dismemberment of a young woman tied to a bed. As Marty recalled, “The chicken blood was flowing like wine.” In January of 1976, the film Snuff was released in America to great controversary as it allegedly depicted an actual murder on film. Only the “murder” had been committed by a special effects crew in 1975 against the very interior backdrop we had been sitting in front of when Marty told us the story and then edited into the 1971 grindhouse movie Slaughter, filmed in Argentina. I was twenty years old, still living with my parents in Brooklyn, and I wanted Marty’s life. (That insider knowledge got me and my friends thrown out of the packed Manhattan movie theater we’d gone to see Snuff at when, in a stoned frenzy and to the shocked horror of the rest of the audience, we started laughing hysterically at the otherwise poorly executed execution.)
Marty gave me a good lesson in writing funny in 1976 when he and I were part of a group of comic professionals who had gathered at Paul Levitz’s Brooklyn office (former home to The Comic Reader fan publishing empire) to write the material for an auction catalogue for something called the Narrative Arts Alliance, proceeds from which were to stage “The Great American Comic Book Arts Exposition.” I don’t remember who else was there (Steve Gerber, perhaps?), or whether or not the auction ever occurred (I’m certain The Great American Comic Book Arts Exposition never happened), but I do remember us having too much fun as we tried to top each other’s jokes. My tendency was to go big and broad; Marty showed me how to sneak a joke up on the reader instead of slapping them in the face with a wet flounder. He also provided the cover art for the auction catalogue.
Around 1980, Pocket Books published a series of eleven novels based on the Marvel comics characters. Number nine was an anthology, Stan Lee Presents the Marvel Super-Heroes, and one of the stories was Daredevil in “Blind Justice” by Kyle Christopher, aka Martin Pasko. I’m still not quite clear why he chose to use a pseudonym on that story because he had nothing to be ashamed of. On the contrary! Not only was it well written and conceived, but Marty used the opportunity offered him by prose to delve far deeper into the character than writers are usually able to reach on the comics page. He took the time to put himself quite literally in the character’s head and show us the world the way the blind Matt Murdoch would “see” it.
As far as I know, that was the only piece of prose fiction Marty ever published. I regularly praised him for the story (I had done two Spider-Man novels in that series, neither anywhere as well written), and some twenty years later, I tried to get him to have another go at it when I was an editor in DC’s Licensed Publishing department. I offered him several prose fiction projects, but he always turned them down, citing time as the factor. But I think his creative heart was really in the “script,” whether it was for an issue of Superman, or an episode of Simon and Simon or Batman Adventures.
Elsewhere, others have mentioned Marty’s meticulous attention to detail in his writing. The truth is, Marty was neurotically meticulous. He quite literally could not relinquish a job until it was as good as he could make it. That sensibility extended to the work he oversaw as an editor, as I learned when I worked under him in DC’s licensing department. We worked on high profile campaigns with DC’s characters for the United Nations, General Motors, the U.S. Postal Service, NASCAR, Six Flags, and others, and Marty’s eye for the minute was impressive. And often exhausting for those of us who worked for him. When I showed him the final revisions for a particularly troublesome double-page spread for an issue of the Celebrate the Century Superhero Stamp Albums we created for the USPS, he sighed and said, “I guess it’s as good as it’s gonna get. Not as good as I wish I could make it, but…” and signed off on it. Another time when we were talking about writing, I said I never felt like I could get much more than 60% or 70% of what I thought a piece should be successfully down on the page. Marty ruefully responded, “I envy you your high percentage.”
I ate a lot of meals with Marty Pasko. For years, he was part of the regular lunch crew at DC, with Bob Greenberger, Brian Augustyn, and others. But the best meals were the ones Marty and I shared with our families, at our homes, in the mid-1990s. Marty and his (then) wife Judith and daughter Laura Kate (now Simcha) lived in Secaucus, New Jersey and my (then) wife Robin and son Max lived in Stamford, Connecticut, and we would take turns entertaining. Marty wasn’t exactly equipped for suburban Connecticut though; he came to our backyard barbecues in slacks and dress shoes. Once, when we took the kids apple picking at an orchard in a neighboring town, we had to leave Marty behind in the car because he refused to hike up the hill in the rain.
The last time I saw Marty was in 2017 when we were both guests at Connecticut’s Terrificon. Marty had flown in from L.A. for the weekend show and stayed with me Sunday night before his return flight the next day. I had recently completed writing a memoir about my abusive childhood, and that night, Marty was one of the first people I told about my experiences. We sat in my living room talking until 3 a.m., and it was Marty’s loving and empathetic reaction to my story that convinced me, finally, to try to get the book published.
Looking back over it, this remembrance rambles all over the place. As an editor, Marty would probably toss it back and tell me to find a narrative thread and try again, but I think I’ll leave it the way it is. I will, however, employ a narrative device to end it that I learned from him: the “comedy callback,” or a joke that refers to an earlier joke in a routine.
“Hey, Marty… Wankel rotary engine.”
I love you, old friend. Rest in peace.