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Panel by Panel: Early Days

Updated: Jun 8

We've all got to start somewhere!

An excerpt from my comic book career memoir, Panel by Panel: My Comic Book Life, coming to Kickstarter on June 14 (my birthday!). CLICK HERE TO BE NOTIFIED WHEN PANEL TO PANEL LAUNCHES ON KICKSTARTER!

Paul (Levitz) and I continued to fiddle around with fanzines, none of them successful, but we were learning from our experiences and from the zines we were ordering through the mail. One of those was Newfangles, a mimeographed monthly fanzine by Ohio husband and wife fans, Don and Maggie Thompson. Newfangles was probably the dominant news and review zine of the time.

When the Thompsons announced in a 1970 issue of Newfangles that they would shortly be ending the zine to devote time to their growing family and work, Paul and I had a eureka moment. While Newfangles devoted a lot of its space to coverage of the fan community, its “Beautiful Balloons” column offered up a regular dose of news about the comics industry and professionals. I don’t know what possessed us to think a 14 and 15 year old with no experience could replace two grown-ups, one a working journalist, but we didn’t think about it beyond the opportunity itself.

Paul was in his sophomore year at Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan, another New York special admissions high school; when we met, Paul’s ambition was to go into the sciences, but would get sidetracked by a career in publishing. We reasoned that since he was already in the city, he could visit the DC and Marvel offices after school a few times a month to gather news and information, and how hard could the rest of it be? (Answer: In the olden days of typewriters, scissors, t-squares, rubber cement, non-repro blue pencils, and layout boards, a lot harder than we thought.)

Marvel Comics wasn’t particularly receptive to sharing news with us at the beginning, and DC shuffled us over to assistant editor, E. Nelson Bridwell. We had been up to the offices of DC Comics before becoming amateur journalists. In the 1960s the company offered regular weekly tours for visitors, an amazing walk through the offices, pointing out the editorial staff, showing the production facilities and explaining the process of coloring, engraving, and printing, letting them catch glimpses of artists bent over art boards actually drawing or inking comic book pages, answering questions, and, unbelievably, on their way out the door, handing the already dazzled fan a piece of original comic book art.

I took my first tour in 1968, accompanying my brother Alan, whose high school was only a couple of blocks away from the publisher’s offices, and who was already a regular. There were half a dozen other fans in the waiting room at 575 Lexington Avenue, including Len Wein and Marv Wolfman, both only months away from turning professional. The tour was usually conducted by a DC staffer named Eddie Eisenberg, but for my first tromp through wonderland, production manager Sol Harrison was filling in.

Sol was a comic book veteran who quite literally had a hand in the production of Action Comics #1, the comic book that introduced Superman and served as the igniter of the 1940s comic book boom. Employed by a New York color separator, Sol worked on the colors and preparations of that historic comic and eventually found his way onto the staff of one of the predecessors of what would become DC Comics.

The tour got us farther inside DC than did our initial appointment in search of the news for our fledging fanzine. Assistant editor Bridwell met us in the lobby where he spoke to us for 15 or 20 minutes and gave us a couple of the latest slick broadsheets that Independent News (distributors of, among many publications, DC Comics) sent out to its clients from which we could clip black and white images of upcoming comic covers and sent us on our way.

The rest of the news we lifted (with credit) from Newfangles, and we included a “coming comics” section that listed the comics to be published that month. Paul and I wrote some commentaries, reviews, and features to pump up the page count to six 7-inch by 8.5-inch pages. Paul came up with the title Etcetera, and we scraped together $16 to have it printed by the outrageously upscale (for the fandom of the day) photo-offset process. Even Don and Maggie, the king and queen of zines, used mimeograph for Newfangles, a process involving typing and drawing on — or “cutting” — stencils through which ink was forced onto paper, using either an electric or hand cranked duplicating machine. When it was being published, The Comic Reader was also offset, but it had been about a year since Mark Hanerfeld, now working part time for DC, had come out with an issue.

We picked up the two hundred copy print run of Etcetera #1 on February 9, 1971. We had to assemble, fold the 8.5-inch by 14-inch legal sized pages, label, and stamp them ourselves. Paul’s welcoming statement neatly summed up our mission statement: “TCR is dead. In a few months, the comic world will mourn the passing of Newfangles. That leaves fandom without a major, regular newszine. Etcetera is here to fill that gap.” Later, he would refine that to the succinct “TV Guide of comic books.”

A small ad in a large circulation advertising ‘zine brought us a few requests for sample copies (25¢ plus a 6¢ postage stamp) or subscriptions (“subs up to six issues accepted”), and with the comp and review copies we sent out to the different publishers and zines, our circulation for that first issue was maybe 75 copies.

It was a small step, but we were on our way.

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