Do you remember the name of the first comic book you ever experienced? I do. It was a copy of DC Comics’ Mutt and Jeff, one of the very first daily newspaper comic strips and purportedly the first to be anthologized in what we today consider the comic book format. It was made as a subscription inducement giveaway.
This happened to me sometime around late 1953 or early 1954, when I was three years old. Okay, I was precocious (a synonym for “obnoxious”) but hardly anybody was that precocious. No, the comic book was read to me by my sister. Being almost seven years older, and much to her understandable chagrin, she was pressed into service as my babysitter. That certainly pegs her as precocious as well.
Marcia picked up a comic book from her stack, Mutt & Jeff #34, March 1952, and proceeded to read it to me. My sister had taste: that issue sported a cover by the legendary Shelly Mayer. Being only slightly out of toddlerhood, I learned how to recognize the shapes of the word “Mutt” and the word “Jeff.” DC ran the daily strips in two-page spreads, each one carrying the “Mutt and Jeff” logo. Page after page of them.
Proud of my achievement, I pointed to each logo and shouted, “Mutt and Jeff” over and over and over. For some reason, my sister/babysitter did not murder me on the spot.
What Marcia couldn’t have known at the time was that she had opened Pandora’s Box.
That initial experience led me to discover the comics in the newspapers, and over the next two years, those comic strips taught me how to read. This is actually quite bizarre as our paper of choice carried Pogo, Li’l Abner and Abbie ‘n’ Slats, and they didn’t quite speak English, at least not as we spoke it in the Midwest.
The newspaper strips led to my discovering comic books on my own – initially by finding Marcia’s own four-color stash, later by coercing my parents to buy me a comic book or two at the neighborhood drug store.
Of course, my love of comics led to many friendships and, ultimately, to comics fandom. A piece in the paper led me to fanzines, which led me to the conventions and then to advising comic shop retailers and organizing comic book conventions, and then to the first of two tenures at DC Comics, the co-creation of First Comics with Rick Obadiah … and to ComicMix with Glenn Hauman. With a whole lotta other stuff thrown in; allow me some modesty, okay?
Last weekend, I left the Chicago Wizard World show a day early to go to Detroit. Marcia Judith Gold Bashara had died at the age of 73, due to heart problems. I was fortunate enough to see her one last time on my way to the convention, spending a day with Marcia, her husband and my friend of 53 years Salem, and my wonderful nieces Heidi and Cheri.
Yeah, it’s really tough to type these words.
I used to tell people – usually, people writing articles about comics – that we comics people who were born during the baby boom and Fred Wertham’s anti-comics crusade decided to get into the racket as revenge for our parents’ tossing out our comics sometime in the mid-1960s.
And there’s some truth to that, but if not for my sister Marcia’s sharing her enjoyment of the comic book medium, I might not have had any comic books for my parents to toss.
For the record: about 15 years ago, I returned the favor by introducing Marcia to Will Eisner’s graphic novels. She absolutely loved them.
• • • • •
A tip of the hat to the many, many people who consoled me at Wizard World and to my fellow ComicMixers who helped pick up my load. And, most of all, to Maggie Thompson for consistently being there with her advice, her intelligence, her wit, and her charm. Which actually means “to Maggie Thompson for being Maggie Thompson.”
When I stop to think about it – and, obviously, I just did – it’s a miracle I’ve learned how to write and speak American English… at least to the extent that I have.
Like a great many comic book fans, I was a precocious reader. This was long before The Simpsons’ Comic Book Guy was revealed to be in Mensa – an organization that could double as ground zero for Geek Culture. I learned how to read because my sister is almost seven years older than me and she got stuck with the chore of babysitting. Marcia would read me her comic books and I quickly discovered the comics page in the old (and deeply missed) Chicago Daily News. Between the newspaper and my sister’s comic books, I became an incessant reader.
The problem was, that newspaper carried such brilliant strips as Pogo, Li’l Abner, and Abbie an’ Slats. Many of the characters in those strips didn’t speak American English or British English or any other recognizable form of our mother tongue. Pogo and Albert and friends spoke Okefenokee Swamp English, a dialect so thick it would baffle Tennessee Williams. Abner, Daisy Mae, “Bathless” Groggins, and Slats Scrapple spoke a particularly cloistered version of hillbilly. Both Li’l Abner and Abbie an’ Slats were created and written by Al Capp, although Capp gave the A&S writing chores over to his brother Eliot Chaplin after World War II.
As you can see from the art scattered around these words, they simply did not have United Nations translators for these features.
The Daily News carried other strips, of course, but those three were among the truly brilliant. I also enjoyed Louie – a pantomime strip that, by definition, was bereft of dialogue.
I suspect my love of Golden Books was the counter-influence that put me on the straight-and-narrow. I graduated to biographies, which I love, and then to science-fiction and heroic fantasy and history. All of this happened because my sister read me her copies of Superman,Katy Keene and Mutt and Jeff.
So it is no surprise that I am a huge supporter of early reading programs. I’ve done a great deal of youth social service work in my life, and I’ve taken every opportunity to help such programs as Head Start, Reading is Fundamental, and Literacy Volunteers.
These programs work.
I remember when, back before Coggia’s Comet was discovered, the legendary Maggie Thompson wrote about how she and her husband Don used comic books as reading tools in raising their family. Damn, that worked out fine. It was difficult for me to convince some that comics would be useful in this endeavor back in my earliest days, but with great movie box office comes great acceptance. Drop a copy of Ultimate Spider-Man Magazine or Scooby-Doo Magazine in a kid’s lap and help the child read it. Discuss the stories afterwards. Watch their sense of wonder grow right before your very eyes.
Not only will you be forging the next generation of readers, but you will be keeping the sundry literary markets alive. That includes comic books, which easily could be replaced by superhero movies and television if we don’t get circulations boosted up.
This, in turn, will inspire the next generation of comics creators. It will be wonderful to see where the post-Millennials can take us.
My wife (now ex) came home to find me wailing like a wounded animal. Seeing this started her crying also, convinced yet another tragedy had taken yet another member of my family.
She was right.
Lots Of Years Earlier…
That was my first day on my first job and I was looking forward to my first paycheck. I’d never had that kind of bank all at once. This was to be a day of firsts, after I’d gotten my scratch; I was going to shop at my first bookstore. The 8th Street Bookstore in New York City to be exact. My visit there would see me purchase my first hard cover book as this was the first time I saw value in one thing as opposed to many things.
My first paycheck, my first visit to a bookstore to buy my first hardcover book and the first time I saw value in one thing as opposed to many things?
You’re thinking I was either:
An illiterate adult
A really stupid illiterate adult
All of the above
It’s E, none of the above. Why is E not listed? Why’d you think it had to be one of those? Yeah, right.
I was 10. I said it was a lot of year’s earlier, sheesh.
This was the first day I was going to work in my cousin’s studio. My cousin, William T. Williams, is one of the 20th and now 21st century finest artists. Don’t take my word for it; Goggle him or check out the Janson History Of Art for the last 20 years or so.
I was going to work every Saturday at my cousin’s studio because I’d shown an interest in art. But the real reason is my mother and cousin had cooked this up to keep my ass off the mean streets of Rockaway Queens during the weekends and summer.
I was told I would get paid at the end of my day, a day I spent learning how to carry a painting. Trust me, it not as easy as you think, especially when some of the paintings were twice as big as me.
My cousin handed me my day’s wages and I made a huge mistake when I took the money. It taught me one of many lessons I’ve learned from him – but that’s another story. The moment I had that $10 bucks in my greedy little hands, visions of dozens of new comic books danced in my head.
That was the most money I’ve ever had at one time and nothing was going to stop me from overdosing on candy which I’m sure would include Black Cows, Now & Laters, Mike & Ike’s, Red Hots and Blow Pops. Yeah, back in the day they knew how to name the stuff that one day we would regret ever eating…not!
My plan was to binge on all that sugar love while reading my 50 or so new comics I was sure I could now afford. My cousin suggested we visit a bookstore with my newfound wealth.
“They got comic books?”
“I’m sure they do.”
That’s all I needed to know. On the way he asked if comics were the only books I buy. Nope, in fact I’d just brought my first paperback, 101 Elephant Jokes, a paperback costing an entire 25 cents, so there.
The 8th Street Bookstore did have comics but they were unlike any I’d ever seen before. The Furry Freak Brothers and Fritz The Cat captured my attention because there were a lot of naked people (and cats) having sex in black and white. For a moment I couldn’t care less that there was no Batman, Avengers, Spider-Man and the like. When I was told I was too young to buy them, all I wanted was to get the hell out of dodge, quick, fast and in a hurry.
Then I saw it!
I saw it and after finding the color section within this hard cover goldmine, I had to buy it, but there was wee bit of a problem. All In Color For A Dime cost $11.95, which was more than the $10 bucks my cousin had paid me for working in his studio. There was another problem, if I somehow managed to get the other $1.95 that left no comic book or Black Cow money. When my cousin handed me the two bucks I completely forgot about the candy and the comics, I can’t explain it but I just had to have that book.
Imagine what kind of impact that must have had on me. 10 years old giving up comics & candy for a book costing all the money I had in the world.
Almost Two Decades Later:
Yet another first, I find my “dad” when Don Thompson comes into my life.
It was also the first time I totally lost it upon meeting someone. I squealed like a little girl when I met Don at the old Chicago Comicon with his wonderful wife Maggie.
Maggie, bless her heart, reassured me it’s all right as I could not stop apologizing for my enthusiasm and downright giddiness. Don, along with Dick Lupoff, were the masterminds behind All In Color For a Dime, so to me, he was a god.
I’d spent countless hours reading All In Color and it became and still is one of my most prized possessions. Somehow, at 10 years of age I knew that book would change my life. When I met Don and Maggie, who at the time were the editors of the weekly The Comics Buyer’s Guide (CBG), I knew they would also. CBG was their baby, they were more than the editors and the face of the publication, they were its the heart and soul.
Those two wonderful people became two of my most cherished friends, valued advisors and are directly responsible for my writing career, which has lead to my own imprint among other things. Picture This was the name of the weekly column I wrote for CBG starting way back in 1989 or 90 (I think) don’t quote me on that but I know I started before Peter David.
Peter’s column, But I Digress, went on to become a must read for the entire industry and is considered the gold standard of weekly comic book opinion columns. Nobody even remembers Picture This (PT) and even I can’t recall what the other column name I wrote under before or after PT at CBG.
Forget This, does seem really close.
But I digress…
Don & Maggie, along with their kids Steven and Valerie became like a family I never knew I had. Every big move I made in comics I’d seek council from Don and Maggie. When they met me I had just began working in comics. Before comics I was a full time illustrator, my comics industry involvement was pretty much hanging around with Denys Cowan at conventions and comic book stores.
Someone must have spiked Mark Nevelow’s Diet Coke or had blackmail photos of him because Mark, the editor and supreme overlord at DC’s groundbreaking new imprint Piranha Press, gave me the assignment to illustrate ETC, the first offering from Piranha.
I had hit the big time and just knew after ETC, the comics’ world would bow at my feet. I would show these ‘artists’ just how to do a painted comic book!
Err, nope. Did not work out that way. The reviews were mixed; when they were good they were great. One reviewer wrote that ETC was ‘”one of few books which deserved the deluxe format and the price.” Like I said, when they were good they were great. When they were bad, ouch. Well, I knew CBG would have a positive review.
Don Thompson wrote a review handing me my ass.
That broke my heart and he knew it. He spent a couple of hours on the phone with me explaining what was right (very little) and what was wrong (that took the two hours) with the book. After talking to him I was a much better artist.
Maggie on the other hands dismissed ETC entirely. That dismissal was not a grueling review but a personal insight she shared with me. “Michael, there will be other comics, that’s not what’s needed in this industry. What’s needed is your mentor program. What’s needed is what you’re doing there.” Don co-signed soon after, adding to a growing library of wonderful advice I’ll never forget.
If not for those two, my Bad Boys Studio (before Diddy) Mentor program may have ceased to exist. I was looking for more time to do comics and cutting that was looking pretty smart until Maggie and Don set me straight.
Before I accepted the position of President/CEO of Motown Animation & Filmworks I once again sort council from Don and Maggie. I flew to Iola Wisconsin (population 0 black folk) and spent a wonderful day with my “mom & dad.” It would be the last time I’d see my adoptive father.
May 23, 1994.
My wife (still now ex) came home to find me wailing like a wounded animal. Seeing this, started her crying also, convinced yet another tragedy had taken yet another member of my family.
She was right; the news that Don had died destroyed me for a few days. I’ve seen a lot of death in my life and when it happens I cry. Sometimes I sob so uncontrollably I’m amazed it ever stops. There are those who think men crying are a sign of weakness. Where I’m from, any black man crying is branded a little bitch or worse.
I cry for those I love. I cry for those I need but lose or leave. I cry when people I love hurt me. The day I had to leave Milestone 2.0 I cried. Like a little bitch I cried. I have no pride when it comes to pain in my life so I cry. If I didn’t cry I’d be the crazy motherbadsword some people think I am. Don’t get me wrong; I am a crazy motherbadword but only to those who come at me with malice and cruelty.
There was no malice and cruelty intended by M2.0. Yes, I was hurt and I cried over the lost of a dream. A dream I worked towards only to see it realized then fade away then vanish. People all over the industry are still waiting for the war I’m going to bring. News flash: I don’t live a life where I have to avoid something or someone for fear of a lawsuit or fear of losing face.
When things go south in my life I always (after pricing hit men) reach out to those whom I’m having the problem with. Especially if there was once love there. That’s a lesson many in the black entertainment space should learn. Often when I’ve reached out, I’m ignored.
What have I done when ignored? If for whatever reason those at odds with me refuse to even acknowledge me, then I move on, I leave it alone. Those who have squandered their chance to be kind and civil will one-day regret it. That’s not bravado, that’s the truth. The truth is those who create but don’t face the problem are always, always the worse for it.
Karma, my dear friends, Karma can be a real badword.
Don Thompson broke my heart with that review. It really wasn’t even the review, it was my hero, my ‘dad’ crushing me, that is what hurt most of all. I can’t comprehend on any level reaching out to Don after that heartbreak and Don ignoring me. He wouldn’t and neither would Maggie. I was thinking just that about Don on the eve of the 21st anniversary of his death.
March 23, 1994, that’s when I wanted my article on Don to run but couldn’t finish it. Thinking about him with all the badword I’m dealing with brought a new wave of sadness followed by a torrent of tears. Then, I was just angry. Angry at the last two years of my life, angry at Don for leaving but most of all angry with myself.
Indeed, I felt the most anger towards myself. Considering a final solution to my world of pain that I’m sure Don would find deplorable made me angrier and once I had that thought about Don an abundance of fury was undone as I imagined disappointing the rest of my departed family.
I was ashamed and my humiliation fueled my anger and I certainly couldn’t write about my “dad” angry. So I waited and wrote other things where my anger would be better served. I returned to this remembrance in the middle of the night weeks later, hoping I’d be able to finish my tribute and pay my respect to Don’s memory.
And I will. Don is still helping me. His light is still guiding me, his council easing some of my pain and some of my anger. I knew this for sure when Maggie tweeted me at the exact time I’d just written her name.
My regular readers will notice “badwords” instead of my usual bad words. That’s because there’s a pretty good chance Maggie may show this to some people who don’t know me. Like any good son I’d like to make mom proud. The knowledge she has a black son will likely be shock enough profanity would be too much. ;)
I love you, mom, more than any words I can say. I miss Don more than any words I could write.