Wednesday, January 14, 2015
Four-Color Sci-Fi: Science Fiction Writers Who Wrote Comics [Guest Post]
When radio became big across America in the late 1920s, there were those who worried it would kill pulp magazines. The magazines quickly adapted though and the two mediums complemented each other. In one case, radio even created one of the biggest selling Pulps. The Shadow began as nothing more than a narrator's voice and an evil laugh by Orson Welles. The voice was fleshed out into a fantastic character and that hero became Street and Smith's top title, selling out every two weeks. Other radio shows such as Suspense and X-Minus 1 adapted stories from magazines.
No, it wasn't radio that killed the Pulps. It was three other media enemies that came about in the late 1940s and early 1950s. The first of these was the paperback. For the soldiers fighting in World War II and Korea, the smaller size made more sense than larger magazines, and after the war was over, well, people just kept reading them.
Television was another very powerful enemy. Unlike radio, the TV networks weren't interested in adapting Pulp fiction. They were producing their own style of stories, largely based on earlier radio titles, and besides, it was free. All you had to do was buy a TV.
This change in market affected many writers. Some of Science Fiction's writers had no choice but to write both kinds of stories. But before we look at these writers, it is important to mention two SF alumni who had a profound effect on comics. These were Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger. The duo began as editors and SF fans. They were involved in creating the first SF literary agency, and for helping to launch the first World SF Convention in 1939. As rabid fans, they knew everybody, though they did not write stories or draw pictures.
In 1944, Schwartz started AA Comics, the company that one day would become DC, where he would work until 1986. Weisinger became the editor of the Superman line, a post he held until 1970. Schwartz headed the changes in 1956 that would see comics move away from the methods of the comic strip packagers of the 1930s toward more modern approaches to superhero story-telling. And to do this he needed good writers. One of these was Gardner Fox who would give us Hawkman, as well as Batman's utility belt. He eventually worked on every major DC title during the Golden Age. Fox is best known for comics, but he also wrote for a few Pulps like Weird Tales and Planet Stories. Another unlikely comic star was Harry Harrison who started as an artist for EC (pencilling for Wally Wood) and even wrote the Flash Gordon comic strip for a decade. Unlike today, being a comic book writer was not something to brag about (possibly even lower than being a Pulp writer) and so Harrison used many pseudonyms before breaking into SF publishing as the creator of The Stainless Steel Rat.
Manly Wade Wellman is best known today for his occult detectives, John Thunstone (Weird Tales) and Silver John (Fantasy & Science Fiction) but he wrote all kinds of SF pulp as well as receiving a Pulitzer nomination for his historical work on the Old South. He started in comics with Captain Marvel Adventures #1 in March 1941 and ten years later would find himself testifying against his employer in court when DC comics sued Fawcett for plagiarizing Superman. (Mad Magazine would parody this case in 1953 as "Superdooperman vs. Captain Marbles".) Wellman also wrote for Blackhawk and ghosted for Wil Eisner's The Spirit while Eisner did a tour in the army in 1941. Wellman also wrote for DC's Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space in the 1950s.
Frank Belknap Long was a close friend of HP Lovecraft and began his career writing horror stories for Weird Tales. He wrote Science Fiction in the years after Lovecraft's death, appearing in John W Campbell's prestigious Astounding Science Fiction. Between 1941 and 1948 he wrote for Captain Marvel, Superman, the "Congo Bill" stories in Action Comics, Green Lantern, Planet Comics and DC's horror comic Adventures into the Unknown. During his comic writing decade, Long lived in California.
Henry Kuttner was a prolific writer in many genres, producing horror and Sword & Sorcery for Weird Tales, Shudder Pulps, hard-boiled Mysteries, as well as Science Fiction. He would marry writer CL Moore in 1940 and the two would write under a number of pseudonyms including Lewis Pagdett and Lawrence O'Donnell as well as under their own names. Kuttner would try his hand at comics in Green Lantern between 1944-46 but would return to magazine writing.
Sam Merwin Jr, like Fredric Brown and Robert Bloch, wrote in both the SF and Mystery genres. He began as an influential editor at Startling Stories, Thrilling Wonder and other Pulps. He gave up editing and became a freelance writer in 1951. One of his first jobs was writing for DC's Strange Adventures and Mystery in Space until 1953. He wrote a number of SF novels and stories before returning to editing and writing for Mike Shayne Mystery Magazine.
Only Gardner Fox hung on longer. He left comics in 1968 when DC refused to give him benefits or royalties on his long canon of work. He turned to writing Sword & Sorcery and adventure novels for Tower paperbacks. Of all these Science Fiction writers, Fox has most often been garnered with awards and accolades, such as the Bill Finger Award, the Eisner Hall of Fame, and the Jack Kirby Hall of Fame, having worked in comics for thirty-one years.
What this infusion of SF talent did was add a dimension of imagination to comics that was lacking in the 1930s. The first comics featured a fantastic character, but once beyond the strange gimmick the story was pretty pedestrian, with the hero punching out a bunch of crooks. The Science Fiction writers expanded the possibilities of what comic stories could be until anything was possible. So while I'm watching Ryan Reynolds in Green Lantern say those famous words, or Iron Man and the rest of the Avengers fight aliens from another dimension, or Batman use his weirdly dark gadgets, I think of my favorite Pulp writers and smile. Comics may have helped kill off the Pulps, but nowhere else does the flame of SF Pulps burn as brightly today.
GW Thomas has appeared in over 400 different books, magazines and ezines including The Writer, Writer's Digest, Black October Magazine and Contact. His website is gwthomas.org. He is editor of Dark Worlds magazine.