Jerry Bails passed away at the age of 73 in Thanksgiving 2006. It might not be an overstatement to say that without Bails there might be no modern comics fandom. He was legendary for bringing comics fans from around the world together through fandom. Through the early 1960s, Bails was a kind of pied piper of comics fandom, creating one fanzine after another and, through his incredible energy and enthusiasm, bringing fans alive to the joys of having others with whom they could share their love of comic books.
Especially in that era, comics were seen by the vast majority of people as a medium for children, an artform no more mature than puppet theatre. And yet Bails by his mere presence seemed to counteract that stereotype. The man was a full-fledged college professor, for goodness sake, with a degree in the sciences. The fact that this well-educated and respected man loved comics so passionately must have warmed the hearts of many fans at that time. And Bails’s enthusiasm was sincere, too. He wasn’t a man slumming in order to dispassionately explore a subculture or something. No, as Bails reveals in a rare interview reprinted in this issue, he had a genuine and full-fledged passion for comic books, especially those of the Justice Society. Bails’s passion was an obsession in his younger years, an obsession that grew into a profoundly important escape from the stresses of his daily life when Bails was an adult.
There were motivations for Bails’s passion that fans simply didn’t know about at the time. Much of Alter Ego #68 is taken up by a long email interview with Prof. Bails, an interview that reveals the man behind the legend, and shows readers the true complexity of the man. It’s deeply moving to read Bails’s comments: “Quite honestly, I became more active as a fan to save my sanity. My first wife was deeply depressed after our son was born. She attempted suicide three times and was hospitalized for many months…. I was active in the anti-war movement, had two kids to raise, and used fandom as a break from the heavy stuff. Actually, it got much worse for me and my kids. The details are of no import to your readers, but emotional illness rips apart the lives of kids.”
It’s hard to escape the image of Bails, in his late 20s and early 30s, desperately trying to keep his family life under control and escaping his daily stress by wandering into the beckoning arms of his beloved Justice Society and his work on the Comicollector, On the Drawing Board, Kapa-alpha and the original Alter-Ego. Fandom filled a void in Bails’s life that was aching and vast. It’s no wonder he invested so much passion into his hobby; the work Jerry Bails put into fandom seems to be proportional to the stress he felt in his daily life.
What emerges from Bails’s story, and the emotional and heartfelt tributes from his second wife Jean and his longtime friends Roy Thomas, Dave Gibbons, Jim Amash, Bill Schelley, Hames Ward and many more, is a portrait of a passionate, intelligent, generous man. Bails seems so modest in his interview, so grounded in the real world and so aware of his life, that he seems a kindly old uncle you wish you had. Oddly for a man so involved with communications, Bails seems shy, almost reticent of human contact. He seldom spoke on the phone but wrote letters with great passion and indefatigable enthusiasm. He often had friends to his house but seldom attended conventions. He was a man who liked facts and information but also liked people and had many people who liked and admired him.
Trust Roy Thomas to turn out a loving tribute to one of his oldest and dearest friends. The special Jerry Bails tribute issue of Alter Ego makes me wish I’d known the Professor. Jerry Bails seemed like a very unique and special person. This issue of the revived Alter Ego is must reading for any longtime comics fan. Without the Professor, comics might have been very, very different.