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Panel by Panel: Comicon Fever

A fan's journey from a mere 50 years ago...

An excerpt from Panel by Panel: My Comic Book Life, coming soon from me and Crazy 8 Press!

A Carl Gafford illustration commemorating a 1974 New York Comic Art Convention encounter between fan Scott Paauw and artist Barry Smith. From my 1974 ditto apazine, DEADMEAT.

My friends Paul Levitz and Steve Gilary commuted back and forth to the city from Brooklyn in 1971 for Phil Seuling’s New York Comic Art Convention, but we started early and ended late, not wanting to miss a single moment. There was a grand ballroom full of dealers’ tables and displays, and everywhere you looked, comic book professionals, out in the wild, unprotected from their fans by the rules of the DC tour. We were free to approach guests like writer/artist Jim Steranko, DC Comics writer Gardner Fox, publisher James Warren, the legendary creator of Mad Magazine Harvey Kurtzman, or actor Kirk Alyn, who had played the Man of Steel in the 1948 live action serial Superman and the 1950 sequel, Atom Man Vs. Superman, as well as in a 1952 Blackhawk serial.

The convention hosted continuous movie showings—mostly horror, fantasy, science fiction, and serials, programmed by fans and collectors who brought in their personal 16mm prints of Freaks or Forbidden Planet or Fantasia to share—deep into the night, through to morning. The darkened small event room was also a great place for those who had come too far to go home every night but couldn’t afford a hotel room to catch a few hours’ sleep.

Mostly we spent the day cruising the dealers’ room, flipping through endless stacks of old comics, sitting in on panel discussions with the pro guests, and hanging out with a succession of fan friends and acquaintances. After only six months of publishing [the fanzine] Etcetera and despite the fact that I was no longer one of the publishers, Paul and I were known fans. I spent every dollar I had saved for the occasion on comics, swelling my collection and plugging a lot of the holes in favorite titles, including The Doom Patrol and Showcase. We ate cheap fast food, pizza, New York dirty water hot dogs, or sometimes we would splurge on Tad’s Steak Pub, a chain that served a slab of meat purporting to be steak, a baked potato, garlic bread, and a soda for $1.98.

As much of a big mouth as I was with my peers, I was too shy and awkward at that first show to approach very many pros, no matter how much I would have loved to ask Gardner Fox about his work on one of my favorite titles, Justice League of America, or gush to Steranko how much I loved his work.

While waiting in line to buy a copy of Kirk Alyn’s autobiography, I looked over my shoulder and saw I was standing in front of Bob McAllister, the host of the syndicated WNEW-TV Sunday kids show, Wonderama (1967 – 1977). I had outgrown Wonderama but was still amazed to meet a “real world” celebrity in the middle of a comic convention. Seeing I recognized him, McAllister initiated a conversation, and when I asked him if he was a comic book fan, I learned that he collected vintage premium pins of comic strip and radio show characters like Little Orphan Annie and Dick Tracy and was also a fan of the 1940s movie serials. I suppose as interviewing kids was his job, he turned the conversation around to my interests and, by the time we reached the table, he introduced himself and me as “my friend, Paul” to Alyn and made me a part of their show biz conversation. I’d never thought of celebrities in any context but the image they projected or the part they played. I couldn’t have imagined they were just people, just like me.

I got drunk on beer for the first time at the 1972 NYCC at a Friday night party in Phil Seuling’s suite. I went to the overnight movies room to sleep it off but instead sobered up quick watching the screening of Tod Browning’s 1932 horror classic, Freaks. That year, thanks to the exposure of Etcetera and The Comic Reader, I got over my shyness and had my first serious interactions with professionals beyond “Gee whiz, Mr. Kubert, I really like your pictures!”  . . .  not that I still didn’t have a few of those, especially with the older generation, like Gil Kane and Will Eisner, although in 1972, “old pros” Kane and Eisner were forty-six and fifty-five respectively, each with thirty years or more experience and mastery of the field. More approachable were the new generation of creators, guys not that much older than me, then seventeen, like Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Howard Chaykin, Bernie Wrightson, Don McGregor, Gerry Conway, and Walter Simonson.

One new generation creator who didn’t prove easy to get along with was the pre-hyphenate Barry Windsor-Smith, the British artist who sprang to stardom on Marvel’s Conan the Barbarian #1 (October 1970). For the 1974 show, fellow Brooklyn fan Jeffrey Wasserman had taken a table to sell mylar comic book bags. A dedicated fan and prolific apazine producer, Jeffrey brought a portable typewriter with him to chronicle the convention experience for CAPA-Alpha, which he published as Nostrand Nausea: De gustibus nos disputandum est (“Of taste there is no disputing”), containing running commentary from twenty-two other fans and newly turned professionals, including Tony Isabella, Carl Gafford, Anthony Tollin, Neal Pozner, Joel Thingvall, and myself. Jeff had a small alcove behind his table which quickly turned into a raucous gathering spot for friends and contributors as everybody took turns at the typewriter. To add to the chaos, Jeffrey and his partner Bob Zimmerman were continuously shouting at the top of their lungs, “Comic bags, one hundred for $1.25!”

It all became too much for Smith and the artist started shouting angrily for the table of fans to shut up because it was interfering with his “bloody business.” When he came over to complain, we referred him to Liam O’Connor, our six foot-plus, 300 pound New York City cop wannabe, an Irishman with no love for anything or anyone British, and Scott Paauw, a Detroit fan even less inhibited than me. Smith strategically withdrew and, and, as I recall, asked Phil Seuling to intercede on his behalf instead.

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