Comic Fodder

The Best Part of ComiCon

I owe you a second part to my ComiCon article from last week, where I teased that I had left out the best part of the entire experience.

One of the reasons I was invited to my first ComiCon a few years back was for an event that was taking advantage of the Con. I had never been to any comic convention, so I was excited regardless. The owner of my comic store played it low-key, because that’s the kind of guy he is. “Hey, there’s a dinner where we’ll hang out with a few guys, I think you’ll enjoy it.” That was his sales pitch for the most part. At this point, I trusted his judgment, so it was easy to say yes.

The dinner was for the War Comics Collectors Group. DC had published five different titles relating to World War II, and they had successfully published them into the ‘80s: Our Army at War/Sgt. Rock, Our Fighting Forces, Star Spangled War Stories, All-American Men of War, and G.I. Combat. A group of like-minded individuals who really loved these titles had formed a fan club of sorts, as we comic people are wont to do, and at some point, a couple guys took advantage of the fact that many of the writers and artists headed to San Diego for the Con, and proposed that the creative teams join the fans for a dinner.

Several years had already gone by, with the group slowly growing in number until it seems we had a small army just with ourselves. Essentially what happened is this: imagine your favorite movie star. Now imagine you are sitting across the table from him for an entire evening, sharing dinner and stories. It was like that, only with comic guys! Plus, later on you find out they have donated artwork, and your small group of people are the only ones who can bid on it.
Where in the world could you get this kind of access to your favorite people? Only in comics! And it is hard to identify just how much more you want to bid on an item when you know one of your friends made it. The bidding wars for some of San Glanzman’s stuff was crazy, with several of us ransacking our checkbooks to see just how much we could afford to go into hock.

As if the Con wasn’t great enough by itself, this dinner instantly became the highlight of my annual vacation. The pop culture celebrity, such as only comic fans can give, gave way very fast to genuine friendship and camaraderie. These were all men from an earlier generation, who put in a lot of hours of hard work, striving for excellence and accuracy in their craft while always on a deadline, and for not as much money in those days as some of the superstar artists earn today. They were all incredibly humble, cheerful people, always gracious, and fun to talk to and just hang out. Let me tell you about some of my experiences with them. Only some stories, because otherwise this would have to turn into a book, instead of a web-editorial. (Please forgive the name-dropping, it’s impossible to tell this without mentioning them by name.)

When I got home from my first Con, I tackled my comic collection in yet another attempt to better organize it. Each time I get better, but this time I was pulling out my DCs, and as all of us have a tendency to do, one or another comic draws our eye, and we stop to flip through it, and there goes your whole evening. As luck would have it, I started stumbling across all sorts of titles with one name on it: Ric Estrada. Ric did not only war comics, but Karate Kid and Legion of Superheroes, Freedom Fighters, Wonder Woman… Just a couple nights after meeting him, I had his name popping out, and then I finally realized he also did the art duties on Amethyst! I could barely believe I had befriended the guy who had created such a large and enjoyable body of work. As a youngster, I did not spend my time looking at pesky details such as who did the art, but I had a veritable library of work done by him. More on Ric in a minute.

One time I had the honor of introducing a very cool guy to his first attendance at the dinner: Sergio Aragones. He was very gracious, and even donated a piece of art with color that my friend won at auction (I’m still jealous!). He was doodling even that night; it’s hard to ever catch the guy when he’s not drawing. He enjoyed himself so much that night, he tried to talk about it at the Quickdraw event the next day, but the crowd was so noisily happy to see him, they fairly well drowned him out. Only those of us who had been present the night before knew what he was trying to say, and we appreciated it silently.

I approached Carmine Infantino one year at the dinner and talked with him for a bit. I mentioned that in his Flash comics, the Flash is always zig-zagging through the cars on his way to the next emergency. Well, since the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, I suggested that Barry Allen was so fast, he played a little game for himself, weaving in and out of traffic just for fun as he ran. Carmine confessed that he was actually just trying to make each panel livelier, but he conceded my point about the straight line, and to my delight, adopted my reasoning on the spot as his favorite reason for Barry always doing the zig-zag! You can see we didn’t always stick to war comics…

Russ Heath didn’t stick to comics at all. I usually ended up right near him for a lot of the dinners, and he threw out one joke after another all night long. Some were corny, others were gold, but he didn’t stop. One of my first pieces of art was a Heath piece, a cool picture with a tank for the centerpiece that eventually saw printed in a magazine article about him. I held silent as the bids grew around me, then, just when it seemed the bidding was about to die off, I offered up a substantially higher price. People gasped, but it wasn’t too bad, I had just offered my highest possible budgeted price. It worked, though, and one of my friends came over and told me I had gotten the steal of the auction. Years later, that tank and a few other pieces from the assorted artists are framed and hanging on the walls around my house.

Not everything was bought at auction. After I had known Thomas Yeates for a couple years, I approached him the day after the dinner in Artist’s Alley, and commissioned a regular piece of art for my sketchbook. I couldn’t figure out what I wanted more by him: a dinosaur, or an Army character. Being the greedy (censored) that I am, I asked for both. That brought him up short! Nobody had ever asked him for something like that before now. He asked to take my sketchbook and work on it overnight, to which I hastily agreed. I picked it up the next day, and it is easily the best picture in the entire sketchbook, with a dinosaur bearing down on a G.I. whose gun has jammed. He liked the end product so much himself, he asked me to forward a copy of it to him later.

One of the organizers of the dinner (non-comic legends names have been withheld to protect the guilty... unless they want to come forward and identify themselves!) came to me once and claimed he had to beg off doing an interview panel, and would I like to be the host? Not that I had any experience with that sort of thing, but I said yes in a nanosecond. Heath and Yeates, and Gregg Pratt and Ron Randall. I got to introduce each of them and lead off with all of the interview questions. I didn’t feel like an objective reporter, I had spent last night hanging out with these guys! It felt more like some buddies continuing a conversation from last night, with tons of stories about Joe Kubert thrown in for good measure.

My initial fanboy thrill at meeting these people held not a candle to the respect I had for these guys the more I got to know them. I came to realize that these get-togethers were just as fun and important to them as they were to us. Several of these people had never been to a convention before they were invited to the War Comics dinner, and had not had a clue that they even had fans! Let me go back to Ric Estrada, literally the nicest man on the planet I know. Ric told a few of us one night that he had spent endless hours at the drawing board, toiling away to bring those comic pages to life. An artists’ life was a lonely one in his studio, and he hoped that people enjoyed his stories, but had never really experienced it. Coming to the Con was a pleasurable shock, as he learned that thousands more people than he had ever dreamed of loved his work and had been touched by his stories. The idea that there was a fan club full of people who had singled out his genre and his work was hard to believe. To have someone come up to him and just say “thanks” was always a joyous moment. That knowledge was worth more than gold to him.

Knowing them, and having the honor to call each one of them and the other members of the War Comics Collectors Group my friend, is worth more than gold to me.
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Tpull is Travis Pullen. He started reading comics at 5 years old, and he can't seem to stop. If you would like to read more stories about these war comics artists, let him know.