The 50th Anniversary of Comic Fandom

September 5, 2010

Fifty years ago this weekend, the 18th World Science Fiction Convention was held in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. Author James Blish was the guest of honor and Isaac Asimov was toastmaster. Robert Heinlein received the best-novel Hugo award for Starship Troopers. Rod Serling’s Twilight Zone won a Hugo for best dramatic presentation. There were 568 people in attendance.

Back then, in September of 1960, science fiction fandom had existed for decades. However, strange as it may seem today, there was no organized comic fandom. That was about to change.

Two Worldcon attendees that year were science-fiction fans Dick and Pat Lupoff. At the convention, they distributed 90 copies of their new fanzine, Xero. Though it was a science-fiction fanzine, that first issue included the initial installment of what would prove their most popular, recurring feature: “All in Color for a Dime.” The inaugural column, titled “The Big Red Cheese”, was about Fawcett comics superhero Captain Marvel. As an early “media tie-in”, Dick and Pat dressed as Captain and Mary Marvel for the Worldcon masquerade.

According to Bill Schelly’s terrific book Founders of Comic Fandom, “the reaction to their appearance and ‘The Big Red Cheese’ was volcanic, and the editors soon had volunteers lining up to write subsequent entries in the ‘All in Color for a Dime’ series.” One of those volunteers was Don Thompson.

Don, a science-fiction fan, attended the 1960 Worldcon with his fiancée (soon to be wife) Maggie Curtis, who was also a fan. At the convention banquet, Don spoke to others about comics. Not having seen Xero yet, he said there should be a comics fanzine. He also said he wanted to start an organized comics fandom. Xero and the interest shown comics at the 1960 Worldcon encouraged Don and Maggie to pursue those dreams. In the fall of that year, they issued a single sheet flyer titled Harbinger to announce their intention to publish a comic-oriented fanzine to be named Comic Art.

Now at the same time, unbeknownst to Don and Maggie, those dreams were shared by a Detroit college professor named Jerry Bails. Science-fiction fans had long had an expression that applied to comic-fans even more than it did to them: “It is a proud and lonely thing to be a fan.” The lonely part was so true in Jerry’s case.

Jerry had loved superhero comics since he was seven years old. That’s when the first Justice Society of America story had appeared in All Star Comics #3 in the winter of 1940/41. Unlike most comic readers of the day, he had held fast to that love into adulthood. In 1953 he began a correspondence with former Justice Society writer Gardner Fox. Working to complete his collection of All Star Comics, Jerry was thrilled in 1959 to be able to purchase Fox’s personal bound run of All Star Comics #1-24.

When the Flash was reborn in Showcase #4 in 1956, Jerry was pretty excited. His excitement grew as another Golden Age character, the Green Lantern, was revived and revamped in 1959, also in the pages of Showcase. Then when his precious Justice Society was reborn as the Justice League of America in The Brave and the Bold #28 in early 1960, he really began to feel the urge to do something to encourage this superhero revival, to keep it going strong.

But what to do and why so lonely? In the post-Wertham period of the late fifties, comics were looked upon, at best, as trashy kids’ stuff of no lasting value. For an adult college professor – with a Ph. D. in Natural Science, no less – to read and collect comics, well, it’s difficult for a fan of today to imagine how isolated he must have felt. In those days it would have been highly embarrassing for an adult to be seen reading a comic. He would have been laughed at, his emotional health questioned. And he had no fellow societal outcasts to commiserate with, to share his illicit love. As far as Jerry knew, no other comic fans existed. That changed for him in 1960.

In November 1960, Jerry received a letter from Roy Thomas. Roy had written to DC editor Julius “Julie” Schwartz looking for All Star Comics back issues. Julie forwarded the letter to Gardner Fox who in turn referred Roy to Jerry. Each thrilled to find a fellow fan, they exchanged a hundred pages worth of letters within five months.

Jerry and Roy began to kick around ideas for other superhero revivals and began writing letters to DC with their suggestions. In January 1961, Jerry wrote to Roy that he was thinking of publishing a Justice League newsletter that he would send to anyone having a letter published in DC Comics. (Around that time, Julie Schwartz had decided to start printing the full addresses of the writers of letters to the editor appearing in the comics he edited. Julie knew that when the science-fiction pulps had done this back in the 1920’s and 1930’s, it had allowed isolated fans to contact one another and create organized fandom.)

Jerry took advantage of an invitation to lecture at Adelphi College on Long Island to visit Julie Schwartz at the DC offices in February of 1961. He learned from Julie that his proposed JLA newsletter was something that science-fiction fans called a “fanzine.” (In 1932, Julie had co-published one of the most important early fanzines, The Time Traveller, along with Mort Weisinger – also a DC editor in 1961 – and number-one fan Forry Ackerman, who later became Guest of Honor at the March 1970 San Diego’s Golden State Comic-Minicon.) Julie told Jerry about science-fiction fandom and gave him copies of Xero #1-3.

Encouraged by his meeting with Julie Schwartz and reading Xero and with science-fiction fandom as a model, Jerry decided to set his sights higher. Instead of a JLA newsletter, he decided to publish a fanzine dedicated to superhero comics and their revival. Named Alter-Ego, the first issue appeared in March 1961 with Roy Thomas listed as co-editor. Bill Schelly writes in Founders of Comic Fandom that the “response to Alter-Ego was immediate and explosive. Bails had clearly tapped into an un-met need of comic book fans and collectors, a magazine such enthusiasts could call their own.” In part using the addresses in the DC letter pages, Jerry worked hard at building a list of fans and potential fans he could send a free copy to and managed to distribute his entire first print run of around 200 copies.

About the same time, in March or April of 1961, publication began for Don and Maggie Thompson’s Comic Art. According to their editorial “The Word” on page twelve of its first issue, Comic Art was “not meant in any way to be a science fiction fanzine — although the bulk of the circulation will be among SF fans because most of our friends are fans. It is to be a comic art fanzine.” That inaugural issue featured a Dick Lupoff article titled “Re-Birth” about the increasing interest in comics and the plans that some fans were making in the direction of creating a comic fandom.

Jerry next decided to serve the needs of back-issue collectors by publishing a comics adzine. Thus, The Comicollector was born in September 1961. (The first issue featured Roy Thomas’ review of Fantastic Four #1. Roy’s prophetic assessment was, “Fantastic Four holds promise of becoming one of the better comics now on the stands.”)

In October 1961, Roy wrote Jerry to suggest creating the Alter-Ego Award, which would be like an Academy Award for comics. Jerry thought the idea was a good one and an Academy of Comic-Book Fans and Collectors was created and in 1962 gave out the renamed Alley Awards for comics published in 1961.

Closing out that notable year, in December 1961, a Florida fan named G.B. Love started a fanzine named The Rocket’s Blast, which featured ads and articles. Especially after it merged, under G.B.’s editorship, with The Comicollector to become The Rocket’s Blast Comicollector, or RBCC as it was commonly known, it became the premier adzine of comic fandom’s first decade. G.B.’s fanzine was a huge boon to developing comic fandom in those formative years. (G.B.’s story, how he succeeded despite suffering from the effects of cerebral palsy, is inspiring. You can read about him in Founders of Comic Fandom.)

So, if 1960 was the year that comic fandom became a gleam in its parents’ eyes, 1961 was the year it was born. Jerry Bails and Roy Thomas appear to have been the dynamic duo most active in bringing that to fruition. Bill Schelly writes, “The appearance of A-E #1 in March 1961 is often cited as the moment modern comic fandom was born, because it was sent free to the readers in DC letter columns, as well as to addresses Jerry found in Xero and other fanzines, in a concerted effort to instigate such a movement.” Bill also reports, “Don and Maggie Thompson later wrote, ‘Alter-Ego’s editors were trying to get it distributed to the largest possible number of fans – thus earning its reputation as a seminal point in comics fandom. We tried [with Comic Art], as did Dick and Pat Lupoff with Xero, to keep our circulation as small as possible,’ to save work.”

Jerry’s mission of establishing comic fandom continued beyond 1961. As already mentioned, in 1962 there were the establishment of the Academy and the first Alley Awards. In 1964, Jerry published the first comprehensive comic-fan directory, Who’s Who in Comic Fandom, which listed 1683 names and addresses. That same year, following a model long established in science-fiction fandom, he started the first comics-devoted amateur publishing alliance or “apa”. Called Capa-alpha, this fan-publishing cooperative continues to the present day.

And more directly connected to this web-site’s purpose, Jerry played an important part in the establishment of comic conventions. In 1962 he stated, “Comics fandom will not be a fandom in its own right until it holds its own convention.” In March 1964 he hosted the Alley Tally Party, the first sizable comic-fan assemblage, when 19 fans gathered at his home to count votes for the Alley Awards. Later that year, Jerry helped teenage Detroit fans Dave Szurek and Bob Brosch put on a mini-con attended by around 70 fans, which some consider the first comic convention. In 1965, Jerry teamed up with Shel Dorf to produce a larger convention, which they named the Detroit Triple Fan Fair, for which Shel served as Chairman. The “Triple” refers to comics, science-fiction, and films. Though they were primarily comic fans, they felt that presenting programming and dealers in related areas enjoyed by comic fans would make for a better, more successful convention. (This convention provided the multi-media/multi-genre template that Shel Dorf used in founding the San Diego Comic-Con after moving to San Diego in 1969.)

Meanwhile, Roy Thomas took over the full editorship of Alter Ego (the hyphen had been dropped by then) in 1964. Then in 1965 Roy began “living the dream” by transitioning from fan to pro. This was commonplace for science-fiction professionals but not in the comics realm. Roy sold a script to Charlton and then went to work writing for D.C. under Mort Weisinger. Soon he transitioned to writing for Stan Lee at Marvel. In 1972 he became the first person to succeed Stan Lee as Editor-in-Chief of Marvel Comics. That same year he was a guest at the 1972 San Diego Comic-Con, which was the first one held at the legendary El Cortez Hotel. That was the first time a big-name-pro had made the trip out from New York – where the comics companies were headquartered – to be a guest in San Diego. It was really a big deal and it helped give the San Diego convention some much-needed attention and credibility. And as for Alter Ego, in 1998 it was revived by Roy Thomas and Bill Schelly with TwoMorrows as publisher and Roy has continued as editor to this day.

Anyway, since this web site is about comic conventions, the point I’m getting to in a slightly rambling way is that if a year were to be chosen for the founding of comic fandom, 1961 is the best choice, that 2011 will be the 50th anniversary of that founding – without which there would be no comic cons – and that this would make a great and appropriate theme for Comic-Con International 2011. Now I know that with Comic-Con International 2010 little more than a month in the past and the APE and Wondercon conventions looming ahead, the Comic-Con staff and board members are probably not particularly anxious to start programming for CCI 2011, but I think the best possible guest of honor to invite would be Roy Thomas and that Jerry Bails – who passed away in 2006 – should receive recognition as a posthumous guest of honor in spirit. I think it would also be very cool if Dick and Pat Lupoff and Maggie Thompson were invited as special guests in connection with the anniversary theme. Anyone else agree?

You can order Bill Schelly’s Founders of Comic Fandom here. Also, Bill Schelly has a web site here.

You can order The Best of Xero collection here. It features an introduction by Roger Ebert. (Yes, that’s Roger Ebert the film critic. He was once a teenage science-fiction fan who contributed to Xero and published his own fanzine.)

The book All in Color for a Dime by Dick Lupoff and Don Thompson is here.

Maggie Thompson’s official website is here. If you scroll down a bit on Maggie’s homepage, in the second column from the right, you’ll see, under the heading “FANZINE LIBRARY” links to scans of the first issue of Comic Art and of Harbinger, which announced its intended publication.

Find Alter Ego (as well as other great publications such as The Kirby Collector) at the TwoMorrows Publishing web site.

If you’re interested in Julie Schwartz and the early days of science fiction fandom, Harry Warner’s All Our Yesterdays (which focuses mainly on the 1940’s) is back in print and available here.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Jackie Estrada October 18, 2010 at 12:10 pm

Just wanted to let everyone know that CCI is indeed planning a 50th anniversary of comics fandom theme in 2011. We’ve already received acceptances from Maggie Thompson, Roy Thomas, Richard Kyle, and Bill Schelly. Other invitations are awaiting replies.


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