I Coulda Had Dinner with the ShadowA column article, Riding Shotgun by: Don McGregor
Sometimes, no matter what choice you make, you just can’t win.
You might do the right thing, for the right reason, but not without a measure of regret that will come back unbidden, and still haunt you.
In the mid 1970s I was writing two regular comic book series for Marvel Comics at the rate ofv$12.00 a page, “Panther’s Rage” and “Killraven”. I would write many of those pages at night after working on staff in the Hallowed Halls for $125.00 a week. If I was at a stage of writing finished copy to copies of artwork -- I never took original art home, only xeroxes. I was so afraid I’d lose it somehow -- I was good for maybe one, and on good night, maybe two finished pages. Maybe.
Forget it if I was in research stages of putting together the next issue for the artist to draw. Those are nights without any $12.00 -- or whatever page rate it rose to after a couple of years work: $17.00 a page, I think.
The actual voucher I handed to John Verpoorten for writing Jungle Action #6, the first chapter of “Panther’s Rage”, before anyone else knew there was going to be a “Panther’s Rage”.
I worked with a lot of talented people who were also friends. I cannot recall Billy Graham or Craig Russell or Rich Buckler and I ever having an argument. We were all committed to creating the best comic book we could.
By the time “Panther’s Rage” was moving into its last half of storytelling, I’d met a number of people through the books who would become lifelong friends: Dean Mullaney, Frank Lovece, Peter B. Gillis, among others, were names that I came to know intimately.
In that time period, before the Internet and Facebook, instant posts and comments, all the social networks where people can love or hate a project as soon as it surfaces, at time before it appears, you had to wait to see what response, if any, there would be.
In the case of “Black Panther” and “Killraven”, because they were published so close to deadline, I actually had a pretty fast turnaround of mail from the readers. As the letters increased, and the analysis of the books became more detailed, it was an exciting time. People were reading these books and they were examining the different levels I’d hope the books would achieve.
On the other hand, it also had the effect of climbing a challenging mountain, that the next book would come out, and everyone would hate it, and you would go hurtling over the cliff.
You were doing fine, Don. And then you had to go fuck it up! Plunge straight down into the ravine into the jagged rocks below.
The first time I met Jim Steranko at a Phil Seuling Comic Convention, I could not figure out how Jim knew who the hell I was.
I so loved Jim’s S.H.I.E.L.D books that I had all of them from Strange Tales #135 -#158 hardbound. I had Strange Tales #159 - #168 separately bound. And I bound the seven issues of S.H.I.E.L.D from 1968 that had work by Steranko in its own hardcover I had done in maroon red with black with gold lettering.
This gives you an idea of how much I loved those comics.
I wonder how much that cost me to do this book up that way. It’s been on my bookshelves wherever I’ve lived over the decades.
I wrote to every issue of S.H.I.E.L.D, swept up into everything Jim was seeking to do as an artist and as a writer. When I approached him to ask him to sign his stories encased in book form, and he asked me my name, when I said it, he stopped, looked up, and seriously looked at me for the first time.
“You’re Don McGregor?” Jim asked.
And that is when I was surprised that he knew my name.
Jim drew me aside after signing the book, and talked quietly into my ear. He gave me his room number and said he was having a gathering later that night and that I should come. But that to keep it quiet, it was by invitation only, and he did not want his room inundated with half the people from the convention hall.
It was really exciting!
Steranko’s inscription on that comic convention day before I’d even written my 1969 version of Detectives Inc. that Alex Simmons drew. I was only hours away from meeting Alex at Jim’s party. By the next year, though I had created Denning and Rainier originally for Alex and me to play on film, I would have my own comic ready to go. I just didn’t want to have to stay behind a table trying to sell it. Alex and I paid someone who sold other people’s books at one of the tables, and that’s when I first met Jim Warren and Billy Graham. When I became a pro (although I’m slightly suspicious of that title upon occasion) success apparently meant having to sit behind the table.)
I met Alex Simmons for the first time in Jim’s hotel room that night and we became fast buddies. We came from different backgrounds, but had many of the same loves and passions.
Jim told stories that night and even did some magic tricks when someone asked. I still recall Jim improvising with a deck of cards. Someone had brought a paper bag that had a soda or something in it, and Jim cut the bag up with a knife so that he could wrap it about the card deck. He picked someone in the room out and had him or her take a number, but not say what it was, went through the entire deck, and whatever number the person had picked was their card. Jim wrapped the cards in the paper lunch bag. He took the knife and rubbed it over the paper bag atop the edge of the deck, as if feeling through the paper. And stabbed the knife into the side of the cards!
He asked the person what their card was; they answered; Jim sliced the paper open; and you know what happened, there was the card.
At dinner with Jim in later times he would actually show me how he did a trick, and even showing me, damn, it was still magic to me. But Jim knows I would never give any of that away without his permission.
The point of recounting this story, though, comes back to the rising awareness of the books I was writing, of people taking time to do long and in-depth letters pages. I was told by other writers and by editorial that too many typewritten letters were a death-knell for a comic book. Really, no one was expecting Jungle Action to be a seller, or garner that kind of attention from the fans. Another writer wanted to know why his books did not get those kind of letters. How the hell should I know? Ask the people writing the letters.
Here is the thing. In those days, the one thing that got read by editorial and by the creators was the letters. If there were names that appeared book after book for over a year, you damn well knew their names.
I still have Jim’s large S.H.I.E.L.D. card with his response to my critique of #5. I should have tried to scan the page with Fury and Val from S.H.I.E.L.D. #2, where Jim penciled in the cleavage on Val in their lovemaking scene. Space between breasts was too much for someone in the Marvel bullpen. Jim also had to change the final panel, because it was too suggestive of sex. Jim substituted a blowup of Fury’s holstered gun from the first panel. Editorial didn’t get it. Jim felt that it even more effectively made the sexual statement.
I began ending my letters pages with “Hang in there!” although there were times when I was going through divorce and into court to fight to keep seeing my daughter and people would tell me to “Hang in there,” I’d often reply, “Ah, man, I hate it when you use my own words on me.”
Later, I would extend that sign off piece with “Hang in there! Be kind to each other. Be kind to yourselves.”
It was a way of letting the readers know I had read and answered the letters on that page.
And that’s why Jim knew who I was, then, back before I was a known writer in comics, and that’s when I finally realized it, when it was happening to me.
“You’re Dean Mullaney?”
For all I knew, Dean wondered, “How did Don know my name? We’ve never met.”
By this time, I was going to comic conventions (this was when they were still about comic books and comic strips and comic creators). When I was writing the comics, it was always about the story, the characters, the next page, the next panel sometimes, so when you suddenly find this strange comic book celebrity I certainly wasn’t quite prepared for it.
Strangers knew me intimately through the books, though I’d just met them seconds ago. It is an alien approach to the way people normally meet, two strangers who slowly come to know one another. Sometimes, in life, there can be an instant attraction, but it is a rarity.
People would confide in me with moments of the most personal, heartfelt parts of their lives. I often tried to tell them not to confuse the writer with the human being. “The writer tries to take out all the mistakes and false starts. The human being trips over his own shoelaces.” Their confidences, though, had a tremendous impact on me, and I had – and have - a tremendous respect for those that trusted me. I just hoped I deserved the trust.
I was guest of honor at the London Comic Con of 1978. The table was surrounded by so many people for so long, it was an impenetrable wall of human beings asking questions. It was an unexpected side effect of writing the stories. I hoped I could have the same amount of energy at 4 in the afternoon as I did for fans at 10 in the morning.
I love so many different forms of media.
Obviously, I loved comics. I loved books. My heroes often were writers like Evan Hunter, Stirling Silliphant, Ian Fleming, John D. MacDonald. I loved movies. I loved television series. I could not imagine who I would be if I hadn’t seen William Boyd as Hopalong Cassidy or Robert Culp and Bill Cosby in I Spy.
The kid from Rhode Island would never have believed it if you told him that one day he and Robert Culp would stand and sit side by side on stage on the Queen Mary, watching scenes from Bob’s script for I Spy, “Home To Judgment,” where his character Kelly Robinson fondly remembers the comic strips of his youth.
For those who have enjoyed photos of Marsha in garters and nylons or lingerie, why wouldn’t I love all those images of her, her warmth and beauty captured forever.
After ads with .357 Magnums pointed at my head or machete’s threateningly aimed at me as I tore up the comics Work for Hire contract, I decided it was time for a different type of ad. Marsha was the one people were looking at, not me. A fire in the fireplace. The feel of her nyloned leg. Seriously, every once in awhile you can bring Pop Culture to life!
I’m someone who grew up on Pop Culture.
Sure, Pop Culture lied to me. That’s another story.
There’s always another story.
At one of the conventions, Jim Steranko came up to me and told me he was having dinner with Walter Gibson. I didn’t mention that I loved the pulp magazines. That’s my problem, I’m a Jack of all media, master of none.
Jim said I should join him and Walter, the creator of the Shadow. This is where I started. Sometimes, no matter what choice you make, you just can’t win. You might do the right thing, for the right reason, but not without a measure of regret that will come back unbidden, and still haunt you.
I was somewhere in the middle of writing both “Panther’s Rage” and “Killraven”, maybe even doing “Morbius, The Living Vampire” or Luke Cage, Power Man at the time. The Friday before the Con, John Verpoorten, the man who ran the bullpen, said he needed pages by Monday. I don’t recall for which book. It was one of them. When you are doing a series, it is always there, always waiting. You live with it daily. Hell, you live with it nightly.
Dean Mullaney told me recently that I must have seemed like an alien to many of the people inhabiting the Hallowed Halls of Marvel. I wasn’t angling for editor-in-chief. Or if I was I was doing it in the oddest way, staying close to those I was working with, trying to maintain whatever notion that had governed me all my life to tell stories. I really didn’t want to do anything but write my books, and let others write their stories.
I was disenchanted, because of my naiveté. I could never understand why a Watergate would surprise anyone. It’s politicians. It’s business as usual, except this time the light got turned on to what was happening behind the scenes.
But I wanted the Bullpen to be what it claimed to be in comics. I wasn’t prepared for writers screwing other writers, acting like politicians. I wasn’t prepared for writers jumping ship if they thought sales were dropping on a book so that when the suits caught on some other writer would be on the title and get the blame.
I realized any talent, so matter how talented, was a target if their backs were turned, if they were not in a room to defend themselves. But I was not disappointed in people like John Verpoorten, who was a giant of man, who loved comics, would go out of his way to help people he knew also had that same love, even if it wasn’t the way he might done it.
I gave John my word that I would get him some pages on Monday. It is Saturday night. Jim is asking me to have dinner with him and Walter Gibson, with the Shadow. If I go to this dinner, I will remember it forever. It will probably turn into an allnighter. I will not get back to Queens until early morning hours on Sunday.
Being honest with myself, I know I will not have any pages for John Verpoorten if I go.
I told Jim I couldn’t do it.
I can still hear Jim saying, “Don, Walter’s in his 80s. How long do you think he’s going to be around? It will be you and me and him and you can ask him any question you want about the Shadow.”
I want to do this so bad.
I recall stories of Walter Gibson having more than one typewriter to write the monthly Shadow novels. The story goes that when the keys got sticky with blood from pounding on them all day long, Walter would switch to the second and keep on writing. Wow!
I argued with myself in my head. How many pages would I actually get done? One page? Two? I finally just told Jim how much I wanted to be there, I would treasure it, it meant a lot to me that he considered me friend enough to invite me.
But I could not do it.
Don’t ask me what pages I wrote. I don’t remember. I kept my word to John Verpoorten.
But every once in awhile I still have a touch of melancholy about missing dinner with the Shadow.
Copyright © 2014 by Don McGregor
I've written the Introduction for Leonard Starr's On Stage – Vol. 12, one of my all-time favorite comics. You can find it here.
And here's just a bit of the Intro:
In Leonard Starr's world people clash in sometimes subtle, sometimes cruelly violent ways, much the way it is in real life. The people in Starr's strip not only had different personalities, but came into conflict with different ways of seeing life, and of living. The exchange of ideas were as important as any physical action, and Starr by the 1960s managed to carry a philosophical discussion of opposites for days on end, without losing sight of his story or the people. He also kept On Stage visually stimulating throughout. Starr's ability to show subtle changes of facial expression or body language were lovely to behold.
Leonard Starr's writing was unique in comics.
He could be as evocative as Milton Caniff.
He could be as startling as Chester Gould.
On Stage was often drama with figures in physical as well as ethical collision.
The hardcover edition of Detectives Inc. is still available. Continued sales on the series can help make the new Detectives Inc.: A Fear of Perverse Photos/A Repercussion of Violent Reprisal a reality. You can order Detectives Inc. from Amazon.
And new things are about to happen at donmcgregor.com.
Don McGregor is coming to Asbury Park Comicon April 12 & 13! Creator of one of the first American graphic novels, Detectives Inc. Tickets at http://www.asburyparkcomicon.com/ You may not have realized it; it's been a little bit buried. But bring your copies of Detectives Inc. and Sabre and Ragamuffins and I'll personalize and autograph them for you. And we'll talk about comics.