Bill Schelly has produced a revised version of his authoritative Otto Binder: the Life and Work of a Comic Book and Science Fiction Visionary. The first edition of the book was already a wonderful biography of an amazingly creative man. This edition makes that material even more thorough and compelling.
This revised version is a must-read for anyone interested in the history of comics, pulp magazines, early science fiction, or the minutia of a writer’s life. Life and Work chronicles an age that is dramatically lost to us these days, delivering anecdotes and history that illuminate the “golden age of science fiction” and the early days of comics.
Binder was part of a cohort of writers in the 1920s and ‘30s that included H.P. Lovecraft, Otis Adelbert Kline, L. Sprague de Camp and future comics legends Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger. His work appeared often in the zines and pulps of that era, first in Time Traveler, which was edited by Schwartz, then later in such magazines as Amazing Stories. There, his “I, Robot” stories (co-written with brother Earl Binder and no relation to Isaac Asimov’s famous stories of the same name) became a sensation, driving massive fan attention to the tale of a robot with the emotions of a human being.
Binder became involved in comic books from their early days in the medium, since many of the publishers who produced pulps also worked on early comics. Schelly does a wonderful job of laying out how the comics medium came to gain momentum worldwide and evolve into a commercial and critical success. I love the anecdotes that show how quickly the medium gained sophistication. Binder noted that in 1940 “the comics I saw looked shoddy, and I didn’t think they would last.” Within just a couple of years, though, the pay increased as dramatically as comics’ sophistication.
Binder found as much work as he wanted at Fawcett Comics, where he was a main writer for the legendary Captain Marvel. I have to admit that one of the blind spots in my comics history is around Fawcett Comics and the Marvel Family. There have been precious few collections of old Fawcett material published over the years, and none capture the delightful magic those old stories had on their readers. The Fawcett Marvel stories had a delightful innocent whimsy that hasn’t lasted well in our time. Schelly captures some of the magic of those stories in this book while also talking about the often frustrating world behind the scenes.
He spends a lot of time discussing the feverish pace in which Binder produced his comics work, as if everyone knew the good times would end and thus he had to grab everything possible to keep them going as long as they could. Of course, Fawcett closed down their comics line and the good times did end. After a few months delivering dozens of stories to E.C. Comics, Binder found himself in the mid-1950s as a man with twenty years writing experience facing hard times ahead.
Binder had no idea how hard the second half of his life would be. The years between the end of E.C. and Binder’s death in 1974 were filled with tragedy. A son was born with Down’s Syndrome and sent away from his family to live in a care home. His vibrant daughter Mary was tragically struck and killed by a car one day while walking outside her school. Binder and his once vivacious wife Ione were devastated by that news. Neither was ever the same after Mary was killed, and Ione spent substantial time in asylums while Otto fought alcoholism. Binder found some work at DC Comics in the 1960s, delivering some of the most iconic Superman stories of the era, but he never seemed completely happy there and instead dreamed of working for Marvel (Stan Lee felt Binder’s writing was poor, a fact borne out by his subpar writing on a novel featuring the Avengers). He invested all his money into a magazine about space travel, but the magazine never took off and his money problems became unsustainable. With all that in mind, it’s no surprise Binder fell into mysticism and Ufology as ways of dealing with his loss and pain.
Thus the latter half of Binder’s life is a slow, sad trudge into decline. A writer with a more prurient eye than Schelly would dwell on the negative, pulling the reader into the turgid life of his subject. Instead we see these events chronicled in ways that illuminate the life of Binder and his family, providing insight into his subject and through him into our own lives.
Schelly’s scrupulous research delivers many easter eggs for readers in the dozens of images that accompany the book: vintage photos of young Otto Binder and his family through all eras of his life, images from old fanzines, pulps and comics; book covers from works Binder produced during his latter years.
Bill Schelly has delivered a massively well-research look into the life of an outstanding writer whose career is nearly forgotten today. The life of Otto Binder interesting as a chronicle of one man in the midst of now legendary events. After all, Binder worked as a talent agent in the early days of science fiction, and was a key member of the Fawcett Comics staff. He worked for the legendary William M. Gaines and was deeply involved in the early days of comics fandom. He was pals with Mort Weisinger and Julius Schwartz, and is one of the few people who has good things to say about Weisinger.
But more than that, this new book reminds readers of the transience of life. It reminds us that when good times come, they can often be tempered by bad. It reminds us that we can be on top of our industry one day and at the bottom the next. It reminds us that calamity can strike at any time, and that those disasters can destroy lives. In the end, the story told in this book is a bit of a tragedy: a once promising author fails to truly achieve his potential due to his own personal weaknesses. Of course, all of our lives are tragedies in some small ways. Like all the best biographies, Bill Schelly’s biography of Otto Binder is, in the end, a reflection of our own lives and weaknesses.