Ever wonder what comics professionals talk about when they’re not talking comics? Me neither. But I experienced it over lunch at New York City’s Second Avenue Deli. Maggie Thompson, EIC of The Comics Buyer’s Guide, left the Eisner Memorial with us and hopped in the back of my Toyota next to Susan Ellison. Harlan rode shotgun, affording him a bird’s-eye view of the various people he needed to insult as we raced from Soho to mid-town. I can’t remember who he was cursing hardest or why, but he called one guy a bag of runny monkey nuts. That’s the kind of appellation you can still summon up on little sleep?
Oh yes! I remember now. He was cursing Jim Warren.
As legend has it, James Warren Taubman (he dropped the Taubman at age 21) took the grand sum of $9,000 in 1958 and turned it into the multi-million dollar publishing enterprise Warren Publishing. His good fortune was built largely on the success of Famous Monsters of Filmland, a magazine he started with Forest Ackerman, which packaged photos of classic movie monsters (Dracula, The Wolf Man, Frankenstein’s monster) with creepy makeup tips. The same legend tells us that Famous Monsters infected key members of the baby boomer generation, from Stephen King to Alice Cooper, seeding the scary industry that followed. Believe what you want?that’s what legends are for. Either way, Warren’s varied titles?which included Creepy, Eerie, Vampirella and The Spirit (after Denis Kitchen dropped out)?and their companion products propelled Warren into the high life in the 1960s and 70s: celebrity-packed parties, European jaunts, a beach house in the West Hamptons (yes, those Hamptons) complete with a replica Sopwith Camel airplane parked out front. Warren was famous for his summer parties, complete with a fireworks displays that Newsday called “summer’s flashiest event.” Show-biz friends like Howard Cosell and Mel Brooks showed up to drink his liquor. It seemed Old Jim was having a pretty good life until he was forced into bankruptcy in 1981.
Harlan takes a profound pleasure in having participated in Warren’s fall.
“I’d known him since 1961,” Harlan later told me when I pressed him for the details. “Warren introduced me to my second wife, Billie. He was a very charming guy and he got me to do my story ‘Rock God’ around a Frazetta cover. The art for that story was by Neal Adams and I said I wanted to buy it from Neal. That was part of the deal. But later, Warren said, ‘It all belongs to me,’ and I said, ‘No, it belongs to Neal.’ So that was it. I said, ‘Screw you?I’ll never do anything for you again.’ Years later, he wanted to use ‘A Boy & His Dog’ for one of his magazines and he tried to get it from my then agent Robert Mills, who is now dead. He called Mills and Mills called me and I said, ‘Absolutely not! He goes back on his promises.’ What I didn’t know was that he’d already commissioned Alex Nino on the sly and hired Gerry Boudreaux to adapt the story. He did this without permission and when he was turned down by me, he had Alex change it at his own expense! ” The result was Mondo Megillah. And the next result was Harlan suing Warren’s ass off.
Knowing a bit of that history already, I wasn’t surprised to see Harlan vibrating when Warren took the microphone to speak at the Eisner memorial earlier that morning. “Watching Jim Warren do the crocodile tears for Will Eisner was odious in every extreme,” said Harlan. “He stiffed a lot of people including Will.”
Okay?let’s get back in the car. Harlan is barking at various drivers and pedestrians for just being there, but we all know it’s Warren’s performance that’s really bugging him. “You’ll feel better after you eat,” I suggest at 76 m.p.h.
“I’d feel better if you learned how to drive,” he replied.
We arrived at the Second Avenue Deli ahead of the crowd and our party was ushered into the back room where DC Comics had reserved a dozen tables. I was already deep into the pickles when our waitress came over and told us we had a choice between the fillet of flounder and hot pastrami.
“Same,” said Jerry Robinson.
“Flounder, please,” I said.
“I can’t believe I have to eat lunch while staring at this rogues gallery,” said Harlan. Coincidentally enough, he was facing Jim Warren, who had just walked in and chosen the table adjacent to ours and kitty-corner from John Byrne.
I was having cross-conversations with Jerry and Peter David when the atmosphere suddenly turned from awkward to dangerous. Directly across the table from me, Harlan began to seethe, boil, and bubble. Warren had decided to join us.
No. Not us. He’d decided to join Harlan. He wanted a few words.
Everyone at our table?Susan, Peter, Jerry, Maggie, and myself?fell silent as Harlan slowly stood up. You could hear the spurs jangling. It was a scene right out of “Shane.”
“You don’t want to talk to me,” Harlan warned. He glared at Jim Warren out of the corner of his eye. There was all of six inches between them. “You really don’t want to talk to me.”
The tension was so thick, you could hardly breathe. A century ago, they’d have slapped leather. And Harlan would have taken him. You should’ve seen those eyes.
And my money says he still would have gone with the pastrami.
So what do comics professionals talk about when they’re not talking comics?
“I’m not going to eat this chicken leg,” said Peter. “Anyone want it?”
“I’ll take it,” said Harlan. He bit into it then sent it back.
“The return of the leg,” Peter quipped. “Cliff, do you think we could sell it on Ebay?”
“Only if we get a picture of Harlan taking a bite,” I suggested.
“Doesn’t anyone want to try my potato pancake?” asked Harlan.
“I’ll take a piece,” said Jerry.
And so forth.
© 2004, Clifford Meth