Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: I’ve found there are numerous interesting paths to becoming a writer. What’s your “origin?”
Steve Skeates: “A dreamer” is how my parents tended to describe me. The way I seemed to prefer to play by myself rather than interacting with other children. The manner in which while in the midst of one chore or another (like raking, a continual horror, cleaning up after what, even as a kid, I referred to as “the dirtiest tree in existence,” the Catalpa.
It’s an ugly monstrosity that was forever dropping something or other all over the lawn; during one season it’d be large white flowers so malodorous that one’s stomach would start churning within but a few moments of raking; at another time it’d be long cigar-shaped seed pods that were particularly adept at avoiding the effects of the rake, while of course in the Fall, looking not unlike an avalanche of pukey-green elephant ears, mounds of large ugly leaves would be everywhere.
It was only somehow during the winter when in fact I’d be busy anyway, busy shoveling snow, that this evil entity would refrain from providing me with one or another of something or other decidedly off-putting that I had to dispose of, but to get back to what would happen even as I was doing so) I’d suddenly space out, stop working and go all glassy-eyed as abruptly I’d obviously get lost within the recesses of my mind — not particularly dark recesses, not back when I was a kid, though only too soon (thanks to Val Lewton and William M. Gaines, amongst others) such as that would become a significant aspect of the inner-workings of this particular correspondent.
Anyway, was my suddenly obvious being somewhere other than where in fact I was actually standing an indication that I was somehow an intellectual? Or was it conversely that I was much more autistic than the artistic that I (to this day) tend to conclude as being the exact nature of where it was I was at? I suppose, being totally logical, my reaction to both of those inquiries should be a resounding “Nah.” It was instead merely just as my parents had said it was – I was a dreamer.
And often those dreams of mine would have a definite silly aspect to them. Like my wanting to become a writer — a rather romantic notion especially in that it made the scene despite the easily discernable reality that I was far from being particularly adept at reading. I was (as a matter of fact) one of the world’s slowest readers and that combined with the aforementioned spacey-ness I possessed would often mean that by the time I reached the end of a not even particularly long sentence I’d have long since forgotten what had been said at the beginning of the darn thing.
To elaborate, were there among the questions that comprise this very interview one concerning the comic book or comic strip character I most closely identify with, my answer (at least at this particular point) would undoubtedly be Albert (the alligator in Walt Kelly’s Pogo) who fancied himself a writer even though he didn’t know how to read. He was forever typing something up, and then asking Pogo to read it to him so he could find out what he had written. As a kid I enjoyed the utter silliness of all of this, whereas these days, as I glance backwards, I see it more as but a slight exaggeration of my own youthful plight.
Obviously, then, the big question is, why would someone as utterly ill-suited as all of that ever want to become a writer? Had I at too early an age seen the movie “My Dear Secretary” (a definite favorite of mine) featuring Kirk Douglas as the fictional iconic irresponsible fun-loving best-selling romantic novelist Owen Waterbury? Quite likely. In any event, by the time I got to junior high and especially while in high school itself, I was already at least masquerading as an intellectual, bookish, hanging out at the local library, searching for some particular form of literature (if it even existed) that I could understand and follow well enough to perhaps even one day be able to write. What I found was humor. Blissfully short pieces by the likes of James Thurber, Wolcott Gibbs, Frank Sullivan, Donald Ogden Stewart, S.J. Perelman, Ira Wallach, and the great Robert Benchley.
Parody, satire, cynical observations – nothing of all that much depth, yet entities just snarky enough to appeal to a dreamy loner’s disappointment with reality, a potential Utopian’s overly critical nature. And, although Perelman would often offer long hulking sentences which I’d get totally lost within, most of the others had a tendency toward simplicity, toward getting straight to the point, mainly due to the fact, I easily surmised, that confusion is hardly helpful when what one is doing is setting up for a joke.
I read as much of this stuff as I could, perused them over and over again, analyzed them, got into exactly how they worked, and then finally noticed the dates on most of them, and, with a bit more research, realized that humor-writing was basically and rapidly becoming a thing of the past, a twenties and thirties and forties phenomenon that in the fifties was being done in by that new one-eyed monster that was taking up space in everyone’s living room and by the fact that the American public (traditionally far removed from any sort of intellectualism to begin with and damn proud of it too) preferred watching Milton Berle to trying to sound out the words in even the simplest of laugh-inducing literature. In other words, to employ a familiar phrase of those times, I had been born too late.
And so it was that I abandoned those dreams in which I in some beautiful future became a popular American humorist and fell back on my other forte, the fact that I had been rather a math whiz in both grade school and high school. Thus, in 1961, I entered Alfred University as a mathematics major. It wasn’t long, though, before the collegiate scene itself (fraternity parties, available co-eds, all the booze, etc.) began to take its toll, especially for someone carrying such a heavy load of courses within such an exacting field as math. I was on the cusp of flunking out, but then I remembered how in high school, though I was such a slow reader, too slow to ever finish any of my reading assignments, I was able (at least in English class) to fake it enough to even get high grades.
Perhaps I could do the same thing in college. So, I became an English major, something I probably should have done from the get-go, considering my dream and all, although now I had no idea what I was gonna do once I hopefully got my degree. Most of the other Alfredian English majors were on the road to becoming high school teachers, but I certainly didn’t want to go that route. Then, suddenly, down at the pool hall where they sold the more lurid magazines, there was an influx of comic books featuring such heroes as Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, and Iron Man, all written by someone named Stan Lee, who possessed a nifty over-the-top style and was able to infuse his stories with lots of comedy, and, since comics had pictures which made them easier to read than straight prose, I saw this as yet another something that I might be able to do.
Therefore, I wrote to Marvel Comics, asking about employment possibilities (on a whim constructing my letter as though it were a bunch of comic book captions) and (believe it or not) received a phone call from Stan Lee himself, offering me the position of assistant editor. Truth be told, I didn’t last long in that position, my incompetence causing me to almost immediately get demoted to being a western writer, while Roy Thomas was called in to take my place as assistant editor. But still, there I was, in New York City, working for Marvel, living my dream of being a CBessional writer.
CB: You wrote quite a few scripts for Charlton back in the day in numerous genres to include humor, mystery and superhero adventures. Which do you think suited you best?
SKEATES: Wow. That’s quite some leap, jumping from Marvel all the way on up to Charlton, and in the process bypassing all sorts of desperation, those heavy labor jobs I procured in order to put food on the table even as I was trying to get myself established as a reliable freelancer, plus there was even another comic book company in there as well, one I worked for on a regular basis in-between Marvel and Charlton. Far from a well-established firm, a brand-new entity is what this baby was, something that seemingly just suddenly popped up from out of nowhere (then, unfortunately, but a few years later, once I had really truly gotten into the swing of writing for these people, this upstart of a company bit the dust in what I can only describe as an equally spontaneous fashion).
Still, I don’t wanna make too big a deal out of the work I did for Tower Comics (yep, ’tis indeed that particular concern helmed by Harry Shorten, Sam Schwartz, and Wallace Wood that I am indeed talking about here), seeing as, back in that particular day, I was still learning the ropes, still groping my way around, and, more often than not while attempting what I usually figured was a clever-to-the-max bit of business I would resoundingly fall flat on my literary face. Oh sure, there are (as a matter of fact) pieces I produced for Tower that I’m actually proud of (like what in my estimation is the very best collaboration I ever performed with the great Gil Kane, an Undersea Agent tale entitled “To Save A Monster”), yet, all in all, I was there basically honing skills that I would put to far far better use once I made the scene at Charlton and got involved in all that variety you just now spoke of.
That is to say, although I had already worked on four fairly interesting westerns at Marvel (the most controversial of which – if, that is, you can swallow abject silliness, a pervasive too-far-over-the-top flavoring, and a storyline that comes off more like a superhero adventure than any sort of actual western drama as somehow being “controversial” — was a Kid Colt sagebrush saga that Roy Thomas helped me plot; as a matter of fact, Roy ultimately, once said comic had hit the stands, got called in on the carpet by his boss, none other than the aforementioned Stan Lee, concerning this particularly crazed collaboration of ours, whereas by then I had already left Marvel and moved over to working for Tower, making for Roy being the only one who got dressed down for all those silly plot twists and unwarranted far too bizarre character developments that had essentially sprung forth from my so-called mind rather than from anything of a similar ilk that Roy possessed.
As for my other three Marvel westerns, they were all beautifully drawn by the great Dick Ayers and starred that ever-popular masked do-gooder known as “The Two-Gun Kid” — one even featured Two-Gun bumping into that real-life legendary outlaw known as Billy the Kid), and although I had (at that aforementioned place I subsequently moved on to) also provided scripts for a number of short, punchy, ten-page mini-epics detailing the adventures of various superheroes of a decidedly secret agent sort (thirteen Lightning stories, six No Man episodes, a couple of tales chronicling the antics of just about all the Thunder Agents – and quite the cumbersome, multi-powered, getting-in-each-other’s-way crew that was, lemme tell ya.
Plus six or seven Undersea Agent yarns), it wasn’t until I made the scene at Charlton that I was given what can best be described as a vast variety of genres in which to immerse myself. Superheroes, however, had very little to do with my experience at what turned out to be my all-time favorite company to work for. In fact, there were only two stories I worked on during all my years at Charlton that could properly be referred to as superhero sagas. The first was something I created as well as doing both the plotting and the scripting, a ten-page tale introducing the heroic efforts of three college students who just happened to possess the power to telepathically communicate with one another (this was their only superpower, as a matter of fact) and who called themselves The Tyro Team, a crime-fighting tale sandwiched in-between a couple of other superhero try-outs (by other authors, of course).
There within the very first issue of something called Charlton Premiere – the idea being that the series idea that received the most favorable fan mail would be awarded its own book, but, unfortunately, by the time that mail arrived the entire Charlton action hero line had been unceremoniously cancelled due to slumping sales and just about everyone who had worked on Premiere had left that company and was now working over at DC. But I don’t wanna get ahead of myself here, so let’s jump back to Charlton, as I point out that the other superhero piece I worked on there had been merely a dialoging job that (in fact) I even did under a pen name.
What there were, though, there at Charlton, were westerns — sagebrush scenarios that seemed more adult in their attempts to capture the pathos of life in the old west, far far more adult than anything that had been going on years earlier (in fact, it was still going on, though I of course was no longer an active participant) over at Marvel. Kid Montana, Captain Doom, Outlaws of the West, Gunfighters – characters and comics that had a dark and brooding edge going on in there. And, speaking of all the various genres, there was more, much more, happening here.
For but one example, there was the chance I got to develop that caption-heavy Prince-Valiant-like seemingly endless historical pastiche known as “The Thane of Bagarth” (based, in fact, upon what little I could remember from my college days concerning the legend of Beowulf), which, as it turned out, became the initial series that was produced by those who in the not too distant future would become best known as the late sixties/early seventies creative personnel behind Aquaman, i.e.: Dick Giordano, Jim Aparo, and myself. Still, let us not forget the ghostly stuff (The Many Ghosts of Doctor Graves, Strange Suspense Stories), nor the humor (something called Go-Go as well as Abbott and Costello). Plus, there was even a private eye in there (Sarge Steel, both as a back-up series in the Judo-Master book and in his own book which rather enigmatically sported the title Secret Agent.). Like I said, quite a nifty variety.
Dick seemed to think that humor was my long suit, but that might merely be because there were so few people in the comic book industry who knew how to write humor (a situation which unfortunately still has an insistent grip upon a definite majority of those who work within the comic book biz); thus humor became the most valuable commodity I possessed, while nevertheless not necessarily being my forte.
Meanwhile, fellow Charlton scribe (who soon would be joining me and a number of others in our giant leap on over to DC) Dennis J. O’Neil somehow came to the conclusion that “The Thane of Bagarth” was the best thing I was producing. As for me, back in the day, I personally felt that the westerns (which incidentally rarely carried any by-lines) were the best that I had to offer. Nowadays, however, it suddenly appears (to me, at least, having just now once again perused much of what I did way-back-when) that it’s actually my ghostly output that has deftly grabbed the coveted brass ring within that ratings game known as the proverbial test of time.
What strikes me as being an especially interesting aspect here is how much work (especially considering how little I was getting paid back in those days), how much thought and intensive creative energy I obviously poured into such tales as “The Best of All Possible Worlds,” “The Ghost of Man,” and “One Last Chance.” I was definitely giving these things my all, and that does indeed show. Of course it doesn’t hurt that these three tales (as well as so many of my others) were drawn by Jim Aparo, Pat Boyette, and Steve Ditko, respectively.
CB: Do the names Warren Savin and D.C. Glanzman mean anything to you? When Denny O’Neil told me about his Sergius O’Shaugnessy alias he said it was to make sure he was free of the stain of being a comics writer. Was that your modus operandi as well?
SKEATES: Sounds more like a gag line on the part of O’Neil than anything even partially resembling a full disclosure of actual factual details, especially considering that Denny’s real name was right out there in plain sight on a number of comics that were being published at the same time as those that bore his bizarre Sergius O’Shaugnessy moniker.
The former were Marvel comics; the latter were Charlton products. And, instead of trying to hide from the ignominy of writing for anything as overwhelmingly salacious, as utterly in the gutter, as comic books, what Denny was really up to was attempting to work for two companies at the same time back at a time when Stan Lee demanded total exclusivity from anyone and everyone who worked at Marvel.
Not that it was a bad gag, mind you – you know, something that has no connection whatsoever with reality. After all, when Denny and I first got involved in comics there were still a number of people involved in that industry who flat-out didn’t want to publicly admit that comic books was what they did for a living. Mainly writers and editors, many of who (for whatever reason) were currently working at DC – people who had been producing stuff for one or another of the comic book companies back when Dr. Frederic Wertham, The Reader’s Digest, and the United States Congress placed that big fat stain upon the entire industry.
Writers and editors who in the fifties couldn’t help but react to what was being said about their means of feeding their families (that comics were some sort of pornography of violence, that they warped children’s mind, that they were the direct cause of a number of childhood suicides) with oodles of shame, and still, in effect, as late as the seventies, carried the stain of that shame around with them, even though pretty much the whole rest of the world had long since come to see the comic book witch hunts of the fifties as having been but another instance of a paranoid Puritanical overreaction typical of that era (seasoned, in this case, with a unhealthy dash of parental buck-passing); thus the lingering effects of that insanity, I would venture to guess, is mainly what O’Neil was making fun of.
But enough of that. Let’s quickly now move along to my heartfelt desire to totally disown that silly D.C. Glanzman appellation. I am of course well acquainted with the fact that there has been for years a rumor extant that I’m the one who wrote under that name, but, as I’ve said before and will undoubtedly be forced to say again, that simply is not true. I furthermore have no idea what the actual reality of this situation was, yet there’s another rumor that I feel makes a lot more sense than that one about me. The way this one goes is, first of all there really was (and maybe still is) someone named D.C. Glanzman, someone who worked in the main office of Charlton Comics up there in Derby, Connecticut.
From what I was told, he was a relative of that popular war story and western artist (and all-around nifty individual) Sam Glanzman. Also, good ol’ D.C. may have even helped polish some of Steve Ditko’s dialogue for both the Blue Beetle and The Question. In any event, D.C. allowed his name to be put upon those stories, whereas something like 98% of the scripting work on those tales was actually performed by Ditko himself.
I will, however, own up to the fact that Warren Savin was indeed a pen name of mine. What I find most fascinating here is that quite a few people seem to think I wrote a fairly large number of stories in which I employed that pseudonym, whereas, in all actuality, there was a sum-total of but one story that I slapped that particular moniker upon. Yep, only one. And, within that one I was essentially doing what I just now speculated as to being the major contribution to the scripting process provided by D.C. Glanzman, although (being a bit of an egomaniac) I would like to stress that there (within that story generally referred to as “Kill Vic Sage”) I performed a bit more than a mere 2% of the labor involved in making this particular eight-page story such a memorable (if I do say so myself) reading experience.
The plot was all Ditko’s, as was the first draft of the dialogue. What I mainly tried to do was soften the shrillness of that dialogue, make it a little less like everyone was overreacting to everything. Make those demonstrating against Vic Sage seem a bit more reasonable, a bit less like a mere parody of an actual demonstration. Even tried to make The Question a bit less of a stiff, and, in the latter, I may have gone a bit too far, seeing as I received a six-page letter from Ditko detailing why The Question would never say what I had him saying. You can even see (in panel five on page five) where some of my dialogue that Ditko found particularly offensive was just before publication hastily removed. After that, I’m still surprised that Ditko didn’t vehemently object to my being chosen to do the dialogue for The Hawk and The Dove.
But, to actually answer your question, it was mainly due to some misplaced modesty that I wrote The Question under my Savin pen name. Since I was slated to take over the scripting chores on both of the series in the Blue Beetle book (a deal that fell through due to the aforementioned cancellation of the entire Charlton action-hero line and the fact that that led to a large portion of the talent at Charlton leaving that company and moving over to DC), I had strangely decided that it would be somehow unseemly to have my name on both stories in that book, that it would come off as too egomaniacal or something like that.
Therefore, I had decided to do the main series (The Blue Beetle) under my real name, and to employ a pseudonym on the back-up feature. As things turned out, as I just now indicated, I never did get to write the Blue Beetle, but at least I got to work on “Kill Vic Sage,” a story so compelling that it is still (after four decades) continually discussed and argued about on-line and within various fan publications.
CB: I’ve heard a couple of slightly differing stories about the move of the old Charlton alumni to DC. How do you recall the time?
SKEATES: My most vivid memory of that particular period is all about a certain quantity of inwardly-focused recriminations, each laced with a hefty layer of both fear and neurotic self-loathing, balls of blame and self-doubt that started bouncing around in my brain as soon as I had somehow (for some unfathomable reason) forced myself to say over the phone to Dick Giordano: “Sounds like a good idea to me.”
Obviously what I’m speaking of here is Dick back there in 1968 having just informed me of his reaction to the higher-ups at Charlton abruptly canceling that company’s entire action-hero line, of how he now planned to move from Charlton over to DC, while, within the midst of that recitation of his determination, even making mention of his hopes of being accompanied there (if we were agreeable) by Aparo, Boyette, Ditko, O’Neil, and myself, whereas I (clearly in a moment of idiocy) had just voiced my approval, my acceptance of my role in what Dick was planning, making for what had almost instantly begun to bounce about up there within that squishy gray slop at the top of my head to ultimately manifest itself as a batch of inquiries, plaintively shouted, frantically growing louder and louder — questions like “What have I done?” and “What have I gotten myself into?” repeated over and over again.
After all, in that attempt of mine in the mid-sixties to pick up as much freelance comic book work as I could possibly get my hands on, I had visited DC on several occasions, and I had found it to be a very unfriendly place – snotty, snooty, stiffs in suits and ties with no indication within those offices that this was where comic books were put together (editorially-speaking) – no pictures of superheroes on the walls, no stacks of what they produced anywhere to be seen. It all came off like I was visiting a bunch of CPAs. Or a bunch of pallbearers. And, since I was more casually dressed than these people, looking more like a comic book person than did any of the stiffs who actually worked there, what I mainly received from those folks was a collection of uptight self-righteous superior-being sneers.
And then, there was what they actually produced. Comic books that were nearly as stiff as they were, stories at least twenty years out of date, employing slang even older than that. Like still using the word “hep” – how utterly ancient can anyone get? Sure, I knew (as we all did) that we were set to get plunked down within this surreal variation upon the mummy’s tomb (or something like that) in order to give that half-dead company an infusion of new blood, but would that work? Or, since we’d be outnumbered, would it all get turned around, with the six of us ultimately being forced to produce typical DC stuff? – stiff, boring, lackluster, with those usual big blocky unnecessary captions, ones that would heavy-handedly inform the reader of what he had already figured out for himself simply by looking at the art.
Arrgh. Luckily, my fears were far from realized. Having made judgments based on fairly superficial data (rarely a particularly wise or even slightly accurate means of predicting much of anything at all), I had severely underestimated the desire on the part of just about everyone who worked in those sterile and stogy DC offices to have that institution become once again a viable company, an actual money-making concern, worthy competition for that seemingly both in-the-know and in-the-now cross-town rival of theirs known as Marvel. After all, it had been DC that had started the sixties superhero revival, testing the waters via tentatively reintroducing characters like Green Lantern and the Flash (i.e.: doing so within their Showcase title) and thus discovering that there was indeed a new crop of kids out there who wanted to read about superheroes.
However, once Stan Lee tumbled to what it was that DC had just discovered, he lost no time in veritably flooding the market with his own brand of superdudes — characters with a sixties edge to their psyches, flaws that endangered their heroic stature, actual infirmities that made their choice of occupation seem even further over-the-top within the realm of the utterly outlandish, past mistakes and disconcerting transgressions discoloring their view of the future, a truly unruly crew of angst-ridden guilt-ridden infirm tortured neurotic misfits — and, in doing so, had whipped the sales right out from under DC.
For nearly a decade DC had been essentially merely going through the motions, publishing as few comics as it could get away with while still keeping the company somehow alive, just barely alive, comics that had hardly changed at all story-wise character-wise in well over ten years, just the sort of tired lackluster fare you’d figure would flow forth from those who were basically sleep-walking through their jobs, and do let us not forget that many of these people had had their souls virtually shattered and were still uncomfortably numb from the effects of the aforementioned witch hunts of the fifties.
Then suddenly these people discovered a new burgeoning ripening interest in the antics of superheroes, and they’d be damned if they were gonna let those self-satisfied self-congratulatory cretins over at Marvel steal what they had stumbled onto.. Then again, though, it had just become quite obvious that the sorts of comics these people were used to producing were simply not gonna cut it anymore, especially if they wanted to wrest back what Marvel had grabbed away from them. In other words, what was needed here were characters more like the ones that Stan was already busy as hell constructing all sorts of adventures around, characters that actually had a modicum of personality in there, plus stories that not only possessed some oomph to them but also actually spoke to the times, to current reality.
In short, then, what these people needed (and even wanted) was someone (or, more accurately, a bunch of someones) who could wake them up and drag their half-dead carcasses into the second half of the twentieth century. And, that’s why the six of us were there – to take the point, to lead these injured souls out of that morgue of their own making and into a place where they could honestly be productive.