Jack C. Harris is a many of many skills in comics. He worked as a writer, editor and production manager for many years in comics and has some great stories to share.
Bryan Stroud for Comics Bulletin: It looks like you were right in the thick of things during the infamous DC Implosion. Several of your titles succumbed.
Jack C. Harris Harris: Oh, yes. The most tragic one was Kamandi, because that was the cutoff. Kamandi just missed the sales quota. A little more and he would have made it. But it was just the cutoff. That was a very sad thing. It was nobody’s fault. It was actually upstairs. DC was expanding and the corporate people upstairs said, “No, you can’t keep expanding. That was all last year. “If I remember right we had a bad winter with a lot of snow and a lot of people didn’t buy things.
A number of factors were in play that made it so we couldn’t really afford to expand the way we wanted to expand, so it just all collapsed and it was really bad because it impacted lots of people. We had all these work plans and all of a sudden we had to let a lot of artists and writers know, hey, we don’t have any work for you. It only lasted about three months, but we had material for six months. There were tons of stories that ended up as backup features and stuff like that. I think most of the stuff we produced later on was published, but not in the formats originally planned.
CB: More inventory than you knew what to do with.
Harris: Exactly, so there were people not getting regular work. “We have a monthly book, but we have three months worth of work already, so we’re not going to talk to you for three months while we publish this stuff. “It was upsetting.
CB: Did any careers end over that to your knowledge?
Harris: I don’t know that any out and out ended, but a lot of them were altered. Most people went off and did other things for other people. There were other companies and other things they could do.
CB: I don’t know that it was the same timeframe, but I recall hearing about people like Mike Sekowsky and Alex Toth taking off for California to do animation work.
Harris: Yeah, but overall I think it was more career altering than career ending.
CB: One of the titles you were editing was rather groundbreaking: Black Lightning.
Harris: Did that one die in the implosion? I can’t remember.
CB: I think so. I seem to recall seeing it on the cover of one of the Canceled Comics Cavalcade issues. Not to mention Firestorm and Shade the Changing Man.
Harris: You’re right. Black Lightning was fun. I liked working on Black Lightning. I liked working with Trevor (Von Eeden). Trevor was actually my discovery. As a kid of maybe 13 or 14 years old he sent in some drawings done in ballpoint pen and they were like the best thing we’d ever seen. (Chuckle. )He came in with his father, I think it was, and we gave him work almost right away. When Black Lightning came out we said, “Hey, let’s have Trevor do it. ”
CB: What was the response to the book at the time?
Harris: It was popular. People liked it. I got a lot of good mail on it and people thought it was great. It was not quite as edgy as I wanted it to be, but I think it was the times. We were trying to tread very carefully because I didn’t want the racial thing to be the main point of the story. I wanted it to be incorporated into it, but not to be the main focus of the story.
For instance, when we were first discussing it, we had the name first, and I asked the question: “Do we really want “Black” to be referring to his race?Couldn’t it be something else that’s black? Maybe he shoots black lightning out of his hands or something?”It didn’t work out that way, so it does look like the name “Black Lightning” was because he was black and I didn’t necessarily think that was the best idea in the world. But the best part about that was introducing Trevor to everybody. I thought he was terrific and that it was a great beginning to his career. Later on he did some Green Arrow work for me and he really did a great Green Arrow, too.
CB: I note that you’ve done work on humor, horror, superheroes and adventure. Any preferences?
Harris: The thing I had the most fun with, strangely enough, was Kamandi because it was unique. He wasn’t a superhero and it was sort of science fiction, but it was sort of this primitive thing, too. It was weird. Almost unclassifiable. So I could do just about anything I wanted to, and what I did, based on a lot of what Kirby had already done, I remember in one of the early issues he had drawn a map of Earth after disaster and noted a number of different things along it and I picked up on all of those.
I said, “As Kamandi moves across this world, we’re going to talk about every one of those things on that map that Kirby mentioned. “The one that sticks in my mind was in Africa and it was called The Valley of the Screamers. I said, “What the heck is that?What could he have been thinking about?” I had no idea what he was thinking about, but here’s what it’s going to be…we never got to write this story, but this is what it was going to be:It was going to be evolved elephants. Evolved elephants that had gained human intelligence, but the problem was that they didn’t evolve physically. They never developed opposing thumbs and so they couldn’t pick anything up. They still had the flat elephant feet. So they could think of all these great ideas and use their trunks, but it wasn’t enough. They didn’t have enough articulation to create the things they were thinking about, so they all went mad and they would scream a lot. (Mutual laughter. )Something like that. Just something bizarre and out there.
I had a lot of fun with that book because those are the sorts of things you could do with that format. The most outrageous stuff you could think of would not be out of the realm. Kirby had such a wealth of stuff going that I had that ammunition along with my own wacky sense of adventure and I could get anything I wanted.
CB: I was kind of impressed, speaking of maps, that you produced a map of Rann in one of the issues of Amazing World of DC Comics.
Harris: Oh, yeah. I did that back in college. We were doing the science fiction issue and I said, “Hey, I’ve got a map of Rann. “”Really?” “Yeah, let me show you. “I redid it for that issue of Amazing World. I’d done it for fun on my own. I think I’d actually gone back and gone through the stories where there were segments of maps in Adam Strange. It seems like in one of the Showcase issues you could find one and I incorporated that exactly into the map that I drew. That little segment of the map is accurately reproduced into the Rann map. I drew that and pasted the whole thing up. That whole two-page thing I did all by myself. I got the artwork out of the library and did up some stats and got the lettering and everything. It was great. I think John Workman did the lettering, but the rest of it was mine. I’ve still got that paste-up somewhere in my storage unit.
CB: When you were picking up on a long running series like Wonder Woman, how did you go about tackling something with such a long history? Did you pay much attention?
Harris: Yeah, I was very interested in that. Strangely enough, I went back and thought; “Now when did I start buying Wonder Woman?” Because when I was a kid that was a “girl’s comic. “Why did I start buying it?” So I tracked it back and found the first issue I’d bought. What else was going on at the time? Well, the Justice League had just come out, and of course Wonder Woman was in the Justice League. So that had to have been the reason I started buying it. Because of the affiliation with the Justice League.
So I remembered reading it and I thought, “This is the strangest book I’ve ever read.” Because it was Bob Kanigher doing some really bizarre stuff. If you read some of those early issues he was doing that were coinciding with the Justice League’s debut, that year Wonder Woman was full of just really, really bizarre stuff. Crazy stuff. I just thought it was a little too much. (Chuckle.)
But what I liked about it for instance was, and I know some later editors sort of disagreed with this, but I liked the fact that the Amazons were technically advanced along with everything else. They had great advanced science. They had time machines and all kinds of advanced weapons and I really liked that technological aspect. My other things was that since if you remember at the time it was the Woman’s Movement, Wonder Woman had sort of been tapped as a spokeswoman for the feminist movement, which I thought was a great idea. My take on it was this. Let’s treat it like this:L et’s treat it that she’s already totally accepted in everything she does. Which basically is part of the fantasy.
But that’s how I worked it. She never really ran into any problems because she’s a woman. Everything was just accepted. And it worked out very well. Then I wanted to play around with the Amazon legend. My favorite time was when she was challenged in her role of Wonder Woman. To give it up. I think it was in issue #250 when they had a big tournament and she lost the right to be Wonder Woman. That was one of my favorite stories. The other one came from the notion that she never teams up with anybody. She never had any guest stars. So I had a story where she met Hawkgirl. A Hawkgirl team-up with Wonder Woman. So those are my two favorite Wonder Woman stories that I wrote. One where she loses the right to be Wonder Woman and then the one where she teams up with Hawkgirl.
CB: Julie would be proud. Those were original ideas.
Harris: I think the cover of the one where she’s with Wonder Woman was by Rich Buckler and Dick Giordano where they did this really nice full figured shot of Wonder Woman which I think has been used innumerable times for different licensing things, that particular drawing. I think maybe in Les Daniel’s book one of the end papers is that picture of Wonder Woman.
CB: So an iconic image was created.
Harris: Exactly. I was very proud of the fact that that cover has seen a lot of action after the fact. I loved the fact that I was able to do that story with the tournament. It was just pure fantasy. It all takes place on Paradise Island and the gods are involved. Neptune is involved and then it gets technological when they actually go into space for the final part of it and then Hawkgirl, which was cool because at the time the only two female members of the Justice League were getting together in an adventure of their own.
CB: You served as editor for the Legion for a while and based on the popularity of that book and the passion of their fans did that set you back at all?
Harris: A couple of times. I got people hating me and people loving me. (Mutual laughter.) For instance, I had Ditko do a couple of issues, and boy, did they hate those. They didn’t like those at all. But the real reason I did it was that Steve worked so fast. So in a deadline pinch if I had him do a story he could do it really quickly. I kind of liked his take on the Legion. I thought he had a nice feel for the characters and everything, but a lot of fans really had a problem with it.
It was funny. It was the opposite ends of the spectrum. Some of the fans loved it and some hated it. Nobody was lukewarm about it. It was a very Ditko type of feeling. You hated it or you loved it and there was nothing in between. So it was kind of tough on me.
The Legion fans were kind of tough on me, but I don’t blame them. When I was growing up, one of the things that I noticed, and you had to experience this for yourself, was that there was a generation gap when the Justice League was out. The older fans, and I’m talking about the ones in high school or older were Justice League fans, but the kids just getting into comics were Legion fans. I think three was a big difference in the complexity of the stories. The Justice League stories were very complex and you had to sort of be up on all the characters in their own books in order to properly follow the Justice League. You had to know what Green Lantern was all about, for example, because they didn’t go into a whole lot of characterization and background on the characters in the Justice League. They just assumed you, as a reader knew the characters. But in the Legion, everything was in the Legion. Anything you wanted to know about the characters was in that story. You didn’t need to read three other books to know what those characters were all about and the stories were rather straightforward and easy to follow compared to the more complex Justice League.
So you had this generation gap and I, of course, was in the Justice League camp and I just sort of looked down on the Legion. I just didn’t read the Legion a lot when I was into comics. It was only later that I started reading it. When I became the editor of it I had that thing where, “Oh, what do I know about this?I don’t know that much about it. “Even though I was the assistant editor on it when I was working with Murray. So in going back, if I had to do it over again, I remember Gerry Conway was writing it for me and Gerry knew about as much about it as I did, so we had this sort of feel our way along going on and I don’t think we quite hit on what the fans wanted as often as we should have. If I had to do it over again I’d have had Paul Levitz write it from the beginning. I would have said, “Paul, you write this. “Then we’d have been okay, because no one knows the Legion better than Paul.
CB: Well, he is at the helm again.
Harris: As a matter of fact I’m sitting here looking at this Legion #1 that Paul autographed for me, which I’m happy to have. Anyway, that was kind of a tough period for me. I think of all the Legions I did I think the only one I was really happy with was when we did a mini-series called Secrets of the Legion and that’s where we established that R. J. Brand was Chameleon Boy’s father. I thought that was a wonderful surprise and that, I think was the best moment I did in the Legion. Otherwise I wasn’t too happy with what I did with it. Although some of the covers I thought were kind of nice.
CB: Yes, in fact, it looks like you worked with Mike Grell not only there but on his Warlord series, too.
Harris: Yes. Warlord and he did some Green Lantern covers for me, too.
Grell and I had a great relationship. We had a wonderful time. I enjoyed the Warlord. It was just so different. We gave him sort of carte blanche on that. The only time I ever did anything with that was we did a story once where the Warlord goes into a sort of parallel world where it’s like a Dungeons and Dragons game and at the end of the story we pull back and the two guys playing Dungeons and Dragons are me and Grell. Which I thought was great and as we’re playing the game this other guy comes in to scold us for not doing our work and it’s Joe Orlando. That part of the story idea came from me and I remember that I actually dreamed it and I called Grell up and told him about the dream and he wrote that story based on my dream and then wrote that part in at the end of the story. I forget what issue it was, but the Warlord is on the cover fighting I think with Tweedledum who has a chainsaw. It was just a really wacky story.
CB: I used to get the biggest kick out of Gardner Fox’s stories where he’d incorporate himself or Julie into them.
Harris: Remember when I said I used to correspond with Sid Greene?When Sid Greene did his pencils and inks, he had Julie in every story he ever drew. I used to have fun going through the old Star Rovers stories trying to find Julie. He’s in every one of them. He always characterized Julie somewhere in the story. Therefore I knew Julie years before I knew who he was. “This guy always appears in every one of these stories. This guy is always there. Who the hell is he?”
CB: It sounds like you were kind of the go-to guy for TV series adaptations. You did Shazam and Isis at least.
Harris: Isis was my first assignment. Actually it was the first series that I had. I remember that Steve Skeates had plotted a story that I then dialogued and the other book I did myself. That was the first assignment they gave me, was Isis. That was a lot of fun. At one point, and I don’t know why this happened, I was doing every DC super heroine at the time. I was writing Isis, I was writing Batgirl, I was writing Supergirl, I was writing Wonder Woman and I was editing Starfire. Those five female characters I was doing. Plus Hawkgirl and Hawkman that I was writing. All at the same time. For some reason I was the guy who writes the female characters. I don’t know how it happened. I thought it was kind of cool.
CB: Between your two primary assignments is it safe to say you got the most satisfaction out of being a writer?
Harris: Yeah. When you’re totally in control of something like that it is more satisfying. When editing you had to let people do their own thing. You didn’t want to get too heavy handed on them. So they came up with the ideas and they presented them to you. Writing was a lot more completely satisfying, and the best surprise was when you wrote something and you envisioned it in your mind’s eye and then the art comes back and it’s either exactly what you envisioned or better than what you’d visualized. That was always the greatest thrill. The one guy that used to do that with me most was when Dick Ayers was drawing Kamandi. I would think up something and I would write it and then he’d come back and the artwork would be better than I had envisioned. That just blew me away. It was amazing. He would do that all the time. I would go, “My god, that’s better than I imagined. ”
CB: Someone had told me that Dick Giordano was a beloved editor because sometimes things would come back not exactly as he’d expected, but he liked it as much or more than what he’d had in mind.
Harris: He did one or two of my Batgirl stories and no one could draw women better than Dick Giordano. So I’d have these scenes and Dick would turn in his artwork and it was always just astounding. The other one was when I did a series of Robin stories that Kurt Schaffenberger drew. I was a big Kurt Schaffenberger fan and when he turned artwork in it was like, “Holy Moses!”
Although the best one might have been when I did the Batman graphic novel, “Castle of the Bat” that Bo Hampton painted. He took a sabbatical from his teaching job to paint that book. I remember at the time I was laid up with a broken leg. I’m sitting there in my living room and my kids are bringing the mail in to me and what Bo would do is that he would color Xerox the pages for me and send me the pages that way. As he’d finish them I’d get two or three of the pages to see what they’d look like. So I remember sitting there one day with my leg up in a cast and I got a package from Bo and it had a few pages in it and I pulled them out and looked at them and I thought, “These are great. Hey, wait a minute. I think he already sent me this one. This looks really familiar. “I looked at the pile I had and he hadn’t sent it to me. It was my mind’s eye vision of the page. He had nailed it so exactly, that I actually thought I’d seen the page before. Either he was really good about painting the pictures or I was really good at describing it, but it was exactly what I’d envisioned. It was truly amazing.
CB: I was a little surprised to see you’ve done a little bit of work for Marvel.
Harris: Oh, yeah. I did a couple of things for them. I created the Annex character for one of the Spider-Man annuals. It was Spider-Man Annual #27 from 1993. During that year they decided they were going to introduce a new character in all the annuals. Either a villain or a superhero in every one of the annuals, and of all the ones that they did, Annex was the only one that got his own mini-series later. I did a four-issue mini-series of Annex as well. So I was very happy with that. Plus I did a Spider-Man mini-series called Spider-Man, Web of Doom. Then I did a couple of other short stories. I did a Cat story that was published and I also did a couple of stories that weren’t published. I did a Marvel Team-Up that Ditko drew that was The Hulk and Human Torch team-up that never saw the light of day. I also did another story where the guy who drew it murdered his girlfriend or something and of course that particular story was never published.
CB: Oh, boy. Did you use the Marvel Method on those stories?
Harris: Yeah, that’s how I did them all. I like doing full scripts, though, because you have more control. I like to write in such a way that I describe the scene and sometimes also explain what not to do. “This, by the way, is the most important thing on the page. ” I felt like I had to emphasize things or invariably they’d pick the wrong thing. I tell my students that any mistake you make as a writer will be accentuated by the artist’s mistake. And they’ll always pick up on that one thing that you don’t want them to pick up on. You have to be very specific and tell them exactly what to do, otherwise…
Well, here’s my worst experience: It wasn’t a comic book, so I can tell the story. It was a children’s book. In fact, it was a He-Man and the Masters of the Universe story. The scene is that this character, a bad guy, is trying to convince He-Man and his friends that he’s a good guy. So they’re walking through the jungle and suddenly these two jungle cats run out. I’m envisioning a tiger and a lion. While they don’t exist in the same jungle, in the fantasy world, they do. So the scene was that the hero was holding these two jungle cats by the scruff of their necks, holding them back so that the heroes can go by without being attacked, which I think is a very exciting, dramatic scene. You can picture it in your mind, can’t you?
Harris: The hero holding the lion and the tiger back. So that’s what I wrote and I remember what I described. I said, “Jungle cats. “Now the guy who painted this was an awful, awful artist. Just dreadful. And the editor was just as bad because he’d let him get away with it. The scene depicted in the book ended up being the character holding two house cats.
CB: (Laughter. )
Harris: And that’s how it went through!They’re in the middle of the jungle being attacked by two housecats. The guy’s holding them by the scruff of their necks.
CB: What a disaster.
Harris: It was a total disaster. And the whole artwork in the entire story is awful. The story opens after a battle and they’re all supposed to be bandaging their wounds and recovering and this scene of carnage after the battle. The way it was drawn the scene looks more like a cocktail party. They’re all standing around and one guy has a bandage on his arm. That’s it. The rest of them look like they’re having a cocktail party. It was the most awful, worst piece of crap I’ve ever seen in my life. And of course my name is attached to it.
CB: The last thing I wanted to mention before I let you go is that one of the reasons I was particularly interested in talking with you is that you unknowingly brought some joy into my childhood. Our Comics Club back in grade school, (membership:three) once wrote a letter to DC and we were thrilled beyond all words to get a reply in the form of a postcard that showed Superman flying with a mail sack and it was signed by Jack C. Harris. So it’s something we’ve treasured ever since.