From Graphic Story Magazine number 15, summer 1973 -
Born in Stamford, Connecticut in 1925, Harry Harrison lived in New York City until 1943 when he joined the army where he was a power-operated turret and computing-gunsight specialist turned machine-gun instructor during the war, returning to his art studies upon his discharge in 1946.
After a ten year career as commercial illustrator for magazines and comic books, and later as art director for the news magazine PICTURE WEEK, he turned to editing and writing. Among the magazines he's edited are SCIENCE FICTION ADVENTURES, SPACE SCIENCE FICTION, ROCKET STORIES, FANTASY FICTION, AMAZING STORIES, FANTASTIC STORIES and SF IMPULSE -- this last magazine published in Great Britain.
Harrison is also editor of the annual BEST SCIENCE FICTION anthologies, as well as the NOVA anthology series of original science fiction stories. His many novels include the DEATHWORLD series, PLANET OF THE DAMNED, THE TECHNICOLOR TIME MACHINE, the STAINLESS STEEL RAT series, and MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM!, from which the recently released MGM film SOYLENT GREEN was adapted.
In addition to his writing he teaches a course in science fiction at San Diego State University, and has been a speaker at the summer Stamford University Institute for Science Fiction and Fantasy in 1970 and 1972. He has been guest of honor at conventions in England and the United States, three times a judge at the Science Fiction Film Festival in Trieste, and invited guest of the Science Fiction Film Festival in Rio de Janeiro, and the first International science Fiction Conference in Tokyo.
When he began to write freelance fiction and articles he found it impossible to work in New York, so he took his family-- wife Joan, and children Todd and Moira -- to Cuautla, Mexico, a small farming town in the plains below the snow-capped volcano Popocatepetl. It was ten years before they returned to the United States, living in Europe for the most part, Denmark, Italy and England. During this time he learned to speak Spanish, Italian, Danish and Esperanto. He now makes his home in San Diego, California, where the following interview was conducted in December of 1972, with updated material added in May of 1973.
-- Bill Spicer and Pete Serniuk
When did you first get into comics?
Pretty early, around 1946 or '47, about the same time I was going to art school. Burne Hogarth had a drawing class at a little school in New York City, and I entered on one of those GI Bill things that sprang up after the war. It was a regular accredited art school, but with dumbhead instructors -- only Burne had a good class there and everyone with any real interest or talent ended up in it. We were all just a lot of ex-GIs riding the GI Bill. He transferred us to this one little room first and then started his own school called the Cartoonists and Illustrators School. I think they've changed the name now to something a little more elegant. But Burne got the money and a partner and the GI backing and moved into an old Bell Telephone building, opened his own school, and bit by bit everyone came to it. The first guy I met was Ernie Bache, and we wound up working together for a few ears after that. Then Al Williamson appeared, the only guy who wasn't an ex-GI, just in from South America, a kid of sixteen or seventeen who spoke fluent Spanish. Grew up in South America, came back to New York, and was just a kid hanging around trying to get into the art field. He was a copier then, Alex Raymond mainly, and at the time I didn't think he could draw as much as an original line. Then, a name that might ring a bell, Joe Pena, who was pretty good, came up about the same time. Then Wally Wood, Ross Andru, Mike Esposito, Roy Krenkel, John Severin and Jerry Kolden, whose real name was Jerry Goldenberg. Other names will come to mind as we start talking.
At this time you were going to school, not yet professionally doing comics?
We were still just all living on the GI Bill, seventy-five bucks a month for a single guy, fifteen more for art supplies. We mostly bought art books and sold them for cash, keeping just one pencil and one brush. But very quickly the guys who were going to make it made it. Ross Andru started pencilling the Sunday TARZAN pages right in class. I guess you could say he was paid by both Burne Hogarth and the government to pencil the Sunday pages. It was a night class, seven to ten or six to ten, something like that, five nights a week. Another guy showed up who'd done some work at the Disney Studio, Tex Blaisdell, who was very, very good. I started working with Wally Wood at this time, a very facile guy who really had a natural talent. At that time comics were going great guns, and we started selling art to Victor Fox, our first professional comics work. Anybody could work at Fox, whether they could draw well or not. We worked together because neither of us could hack it alone. We were a complete team, we did everything together. In the beginning I think he pencilled and I inked, and then he got very good with inking and did the heads and hands. He'd break down the pages very tight with the figures, and we'd pass the pages back and forth each handling certain kinds of swipes.
You weren't doing any comics writing at this time?
Not for Fox at the beginning. We were illustrating a lot of romance titles, which were big then. Very badly written things, with nine-panel pages and five hundred words in captions and dialogue. Wally lettered so thick we'd have only about one square inch per panel for the drawings.
Were you part of the shop Victor Fox got all his material from?
Yes, but he would always farm it out. No one worked in an actual shop, all of it was done at home. Fox had an endless stream of art directors, and all of these jokers would take kickbacks. Guys would come in to show them their material, the stuff with all the swipes. The art director would say, "Well, yeah, this is great stuff, but we don't pay very much... know what I mean?" I think the rate at Fox was about twenty-three dollars per page for ten-page stories. And while he was talking he'd slip you a note saying something to the effect that they also expected kickbacks of five dollars a page. This made a big difference to us in the rates, of course. But all these guys took kick-backs, and if you didn't go along with it you wouldn't get any work.
You were responsible to this art director, who'd pay you?
He didn't actually pay us, the checks would come from Fox. We would slide in this ten-page pile of crap with a real good splash page for the first page on top. He would look at only the first page and count the other nine, flipping through 'em fast. Nobody really cared about the quality, nobody looked at these books, no one read the things very carefully. So he'd count the pages, we would give him the fifty dollars or whatever it came to -- five bucks a page in kickbacks -- and then we'd get our check in the mail from Fox, not necessarily in a week or two but in a month or so, sometimes slower than that. The money owed would add up, and you'd almost literally have to go in and beat up on the guy to get your dough out of him. Sometimes we'd get some of the bigger guys in the school to go in our place. Fox himself was hardly ever around -- I once saw him go by, ZOOM, like that. The vice-president was someone by the name of Ganz, I think, a real milquetoast kind of guy, so one time when they were behind in paying we said we were going to go in there and threaten to beat him up and get our money. We set up an act. Wally was a very quiet guy, smoked a lot, and he had this ugly black fedora hat we'd use is a prop. I said I'd give him a nudge in Ganz's office and then he was to take the cigarette out of his south and crush it out in the ash tray at the right moment and we'd act like we were going to beat him up unless he came across. So, all right in we went. Now Ganz ... Ganz was about six-foot-five, but he really was a coward. We threatened to beat the hell out of him. I gave Wally the nudge, he leaned over and put his cigarette out right in the middle of Ganz's desk blotter, missing the ash ray. Great effect, you know, like something out of a George Raft gangster movie. This really upset the guy. But we got the check from him. Then we took it to the bank, only to find out later it had bounced off the face of the moon. But the second time we got it, and it was for about six hundred dollars, it went through okay. We needed the dough badly. Six hundred in those days was an awful lot of money.
Did you work for any other companies besides Fox at that time?
Yeah, we did, we took our samples around town and tried them all. We pencilled a story for Fawcett, too much work for the money. Can't remember the name of the comic. We also worked on BLACKHAWK for Quality, pencilling the thing for eighteen dollars a page, which turned out to be more work than pencilling and inking for others at twenty-six.
Quality also bought everything from a shop?
They did go through an agent, who skimmed some off the top. We didn't do that much work for Quality. There were a lot of single jobs here and there. You could take on this kind of stuff and help each other out, spreading the work around. One guy got a package deal from Fox, some Bible story, SAMSON AND DELILAH I think it was, when the official movie version was done by Dell or some outfit like that. Fox commissioned this comic and wanted the whole thing into a book in a day and a half or two days. He would give us these packages, getting the thing on Monday, wanting it back on Wednesday morning. We had a guy writing the script in another room. We would bring it into one room and six of us at once worked on it, pencilling, inking, passing the pages around like a treadmill. We'd race each other to see who could bang out a page the fastest. I inked one page in seventeen minutes. When packages like this turned up we'd usually have to work fast as hell to get them out. This book was to take advantage of one of those Bible movies that came out in the late forties or early fifties when there was a whole bunch of 'em going around. I think it was from MGM, and while Dell had the official movie version in their comic, Fox wanted to issue his own version with the same title as the movie. And got away with it because he was stealing from the Bible, not MGM. A lot of this was going on at the time. Guys would get a package and have someone else help them out with it, mostly incompetent artists who needed the work. We'd just split the money up. You'd take whatever jobs you could get. I was also doing lettering for CRIME DOES NOT PAY, nine panels a page with eight thousand words, but they paid a pretty good rate, something like three-fifty or four dollars, when others were paying only two. With Charlie Biro you really earned it, but it was still too much work for the money. We kept shuffling around, doing a lot of nonsense -- one job here, one job there, whoever would buy it, until we went down one day to EC and Bill Gaines, the first time we got any kind of really decent publisher. He wasn't paying much either, about twenty-six or twenty-eight a page.
When was this?
Around 1948, somewhere in there. His old man had just died, leaving him the publishing business. Bill was the playboy of the western world. He had Al Feldstein and Johnny Craig in the outer office, acting as art directors. Gave them free room and board, gave them free office space, just to keep their eyes on the office and tell him if artists coming in looking for work were any good or not. The first time we saw Gaines we gave our samples to Feldstein. It was a couple of months later when Harvey Kurtzman brought in his first story. He was doing a serialized thing, HEY LOOK or SILVER LININGS or something. I don't know what other credits he had, but he came in with a whole story, broken down and lettered. He wanted to write and draw both. I think Gaines and Feldstein were a little uptight about that, since they wanted writer and artist separate. But Bill called Wally and I in to look at Kurtzman's story and we really liked it. It was good stuff. He started editing war books later and then went on to MAD, as you know.
What did you and Wood do for Gaines when you started at EC?
A lot of popular romances, mostly western romances. We had a carload of romance credits in those days at Fox, it was about all you could get. Some crime, but Feldstein and Craig had the crime sewed up, doing most of it themselves. I think we did only one story, "A Bed of Murder," for WAR AGAINST CRIME around 1949 or '50. For EC it was chiefly bad western romances, and then somewhere along the line we talked Bill into trying to start a science fiction comic, only instead of doing real science fiction he copped out and called it WEIRD SCIENCE.
You suggested the format?
We just pressured him into trying something along those lines. I was always a science fiction fan, and Wally was interested in science fiction, too. I gave Gaines a lot of it to read. We just wanted to do a science fiction comic, since there was none of that kind at all at the time. We kept working on Bill, and he finally took a flyer at it. I don't think it sold very well, no better or worse than anything else. Nothing at EC sold well then. You broke even at about 45% or 50%, so with a minimum print order of 200,000 copies you could sell only 125,000 and still get by. He never told me the sales figures, but I'd guess most of his comics just did get into the black.
We had no control over the titles of the two science fiction comics or their exact formats. We just kept nudging Bill every once in a while to try them out. EC was kind of a small family, only four or five guys there doing all the work. Bill was a very friendly guy whose presence encouraged mad things to go on in the office, footprints on the ceiling, that kind of thing. He was always open to suggestions, so Wally and I just kept pushing and pushing. I'm sure WEIRD SCIENCE and WEIRD FANTASY didn't do very well. Nothing ever happened well there until MAD. By the time MAD #1 came out I was front man for a publisher who'd gone bankrupt four or five times, putting together books for him at a hundred dollars a package. But the deep, dark secret was how well MAD was doing. When it finally came out how well it was selling we jumped in with an imitation called NUTS, which lasted only a few issues. But MAD really made EC. Up until then it was just one more comic house, staggering along. The artwork was great. Wally was incredibly good, and those war comics of Kurtzman's were sensational with Jack Davis, Severin & Elder, George Evans and the others. They were paid beans for it, but they were all very good. Kurtzman nearly killed himself with the war stories, getting good artists who were poor at the time, hiring them for peanuts, and staying on their backs constantly to keep them doing their best work.
Didn't the horror books sell well?
I guess all horror did do all right. And Bill's horror was more horrible than the rest of them, so I think they made some money on those for a while. But where they really made it was on MAD, which took off. Then horror killed the comics, and what came after the horror, when sales dropped, was MAD magazine which saved Gaines' hide. Other firms folded. That's when I left comics, shortly thereafter. There were six hundred titles one month, and after the investigation it went to two hundred. Four out of five artists were walking the streets. There was a big run on artists before, with the horror, when you could get work if you could just draw your name. Anything went. They'd package the stuff with real nice covers, garbage inside.
With your interest in science fiction why didn't you write more stories for the early EC?
I hadn't even thought much about writing then, staying busy with doing artwork. I smuggled some stories in and someone else would put their names on them. I never had my name on the stories, nobody knew I was doing them. My first wife, Evelyn, had ambitions to be a writer, and she managed to get story assignments from EC because Wally and I worked there -- but she was not a script writer. I did the stories and she put her name on them. She turned in a good number of them as I remember. The high point of this was a time when Al Feldstein kept me out of a story conference because only the writers were to be admitted, no low-life artists. I don't think he ever found out that all her stories were done by me.
But in those days I was more interested in the art. By this time Wally and I had broken up, he'd become a much better artist than me by then. What with the typical personality conflicts of artists we went our separate ways, and he turned over the EC account to me. Jules Feiffer I'd met when I'd gone to Will Eisner's office looking for work, and I had Jules pencil one or two stories for me which I inked. "Werewolf" in a VAULT OF HORROR was one, I think. He might also have written it, I don't remember for sure. He was writing THE SPIRIT then also. He wasn't a very good penciller for the kind of thing EC was doing in their horror books, and without Wally I wasn't a very good inker. I lost the account. For a while I had the account when he went off to work for other people -- I believe he was drawing THE SPIRIT for Eisner -- then I lost it, went away, and he came back to work on his own for Gaines.
How good was your working relationship with Wood?
Just like me, very hard to work with. We all had big egos in comics. We got into a lot of fights, one of the reasons we broke up. We'd work for two or three days straight, almost around the clock, always late trying to meet a deadline. About nine or ten at night we'd have to take a few bennies to stay awake. We did this about once a week, and would get pretty tired. Wally would fall asleep at the drawing board, pencil poised over a panel, then wake up a few minutes later and start drawing where held left off. Sometimes we'd get so tired and behind schedule weld just ink in whole panels from scratch, not even using a pencil. I knew very few guys who worked together more than a couple of years. There was always some friction going on. Wally worked with Joe Orlando probably better than with me.
After Wally and I broke up I was working mostly for Fawcett, and I had a friend by the name of Warren Broderick, who was also in school with me, doing my pencilling. He was a black guy who didn't want to get in there and push, didn't want to face whitey in the office. We developed a nice clear style, no great shakes, but it worked.
And I was packaging comics and magazines. Somewhere along the line I put together an imitation of CONFIDENTIAL called GRAPEVINE for Perrin Publications. To be a publisher then as now all you had to do was have a distributor's contract. That's all you needed to do business. With the contract you went to the printer. The distributor paid the printer's bill. So all you had to do was lay out a thirty-two page magazine at twenty-five dollars a page, a thousand bucks of your own cash, and you could be a package publisher. I packaged for Billy Friedman and Lou Strickof, with four or five titles. I edited, wrote what I could, drew and inked some of it. NUTS was one, and there were a couple of horror and weird titles. CAPTAIN ROCKET, science fiction comics that lasted only one or two issues. TRUE STORIES OF STAMPS was another. That's when I got into editing, packaging these things for Friedman and Strickof. When comics went under I was already writing and editing, so I slipped sideways into editing and writing for science fiction magazines.
You didn't do any comics after the Comics Code came in?
I did some Code titles, yes. Christ yes. Judge Murphy or Kelly, whatever his name was, was in charge of the Code as a figurehead, and they had a lot of decayed old virgins going over the art panel by panel. When the pages came back we'd be armed with a tube of white and bottle of ink, flattening the girls' chests down. We had to do ridiculous revisions, really heavy-handed nonsense. Then I got out.
Before that there was a lot of fun in doing comics. We did two or three stories which gave us some laughs monkeying around with the artwork, mainly to relieve us from the boredom of having to illustrate lousy scripts. One was on a story called "Playtime Cowgirl" for an EC western romance, where we brought the thing in originally with a big dong in the horse's crotch, about four feet long, circumcised, with crabs, real crabs and lobsters hanging from it, spider webs, bandaids all over it. Turned it in to Gaines, who loved it and kept it to show his advertising man, Lyle Stuart. They showed it around, then forgot about it. Finally it went to the engraver where they took black plates of it, then proofs, which got as far as the colorist who was the one who caught it. "Mr. Gaines, isn't this kind of a funny looking horse?" Gaines screamed to think it could get so close to going through. We just painted it out. They reshot the black plate, but it almost got by.
Another one was also in the romance comics. They always had some title like "She Married A Man Who Gave Her No Love," which we changed to "She Married A Man With No Balls At All," and pasted it over the real title. Stuck a lot of baseballs and foot-balls around the artwork, which could be peeled off. We'd sit around in the studio and think of ways to liven up the stories this way.
I had my own studio at one point, a loft on Sixth Avenue. Ernie Bache, Roy Krenkel, Al Williamson, and part of the time Frank Frazetta, a lot of guys came through the office, mid-town drunks, everyone. Ernie, Roy and I did a lot of comics together. Roy and I did some science fiction illustrations, book jackets, magazine illustrations, advertising. Meanwhile all the other guys from our art class were doing well, Mike Esposito, Ross Andru, John Severin, a lot of guys whose names you see around.
I'm told Sol Cohen, who now publishes AMAZING and FANTASTIC, was once with EC, but I've never heard anyone at EC mention him. Just where does he fit into the early EC?
Not into EC at all to my knowledge, unless it was before my time. Maybe he was there, but I never saw him around. He was at Avon when I met him, where he was doing everything. Avon was on the rocks, going bankrupt, all the editors had quit because they couldn't afford to pay them, and only Sol hung on for a share of the corporation. He was the only editor left. He was the whole corporation, in fact. I don't know what his connection with EC might have been.
EC was a quality firm in the sense that they were established and they paid their bills. Earlier we'd worked for all the schlock houses. EC was a good solid outfit. Only a few artists there, but if you worked there you worked steady. You worked at your own speed. They saw to it that when you turned one story in, you got another, and they didn't ask how long it took to draw it. If you worked faster, kept the quality up, everything was fine. Gaines took care of his own people. It was a great way to work with a publisher. Perhaps Sol was with Gaines senior, I don't know. I wasn't into the business end at all. We were just hack artists barely out of school, good at one or two things, not too good overall. Krenkel did a lot of backgrounds for Ernie Bache and I, pencilled some pages and things. He was great with machinery. And he did a lot of crowd scenes, half naked girls in the backgrounds, but a very slow worker and a constant complainer about his lack of speed. Later on he did some illustrations for me in science fiction magazines. I was acting as his agent for a while trying to get him work. A good friend but a guy who never got out much in public, seemed completely antisocial, went barefoot on New York streets in the summer, and so on. I worked with him quite a bit, but at that time he wasn't doing too much on his own.
At one point when comics were going good we formed an organization called SOCBI -- Society of Comic Book Illustrators. Bernard Krigstein, who helped organize it, was our first president. Gil Kane came to the meetings. I was treasurer as I remember, we were trying to get bylaws for payment and such, but many of the bigger artists wouldn't join. We were a guild and we thought it would do some good for comics. Then, once four out of five comics folded, the organization also folded. We had some good meetings. I think it was the first time comic book artists got together for something like this.
I got out of art completely around the middle fifties, and the closest I got back into comics again was when I was living in Europe in 1959 and met Dan Barry. I started writing the FLASH GORDON daily and Sunday newspaper strip for him. I didn't do any drawing, just a lot of sketches of machinery, robots and rockets. Dan's a fantastic draftsman, but he didn't know a thing about science fiction so he followed my designs on the nuts and bolts things for the strip. I wrote the whole damn thing, ten years of it.
And I wrote what I thought was a good newspaper strip which never sold, drawn by Ric Estrada, a Cuban artist. He lived in Denmark when we were there around 1960 or '61. Nice loose style, a very good artist. But for the life of me, sorry, I can't remember what we'd called the feature. Then when I was living in England I wrote a few English black & white comics like RICK RANDOM, SPACE DETECTIVE, a nicely done science fiction comic with good artwork.
Who are some of your favorite artists in the pulp and comics field?
Henry Sharp is one. Worked in Chicago, was a great advertising artist doing work for a big firm that paid very well for advertising comics, a couple of hundred bucks for just two or three panels. Then he came to New York and did GI JOE COMICS for a while when Howard Brown was editing for Ziff-Davis. Ziff-Davis jumped into comics from pulp magazines and they lost a bundle, and one of their biggest losses was on GI JOE. They were badly advised on page rates, they wanted to do good work but they paid too much for it -- fifty to sixty dollars a page when everyone else was paying twenty-five or thirty -- and it got to be very uneconomical for them. I think Henry did almost all the GI JOES. When he first came to New York he was very uptight about doing comics. When he did an original he made a sketch and if he didn't like a part of it he cut it out, pasted in a piece of paper, and redid it. He was trying to do comics that way, and I had to convince him you had to go about it differently to make any money at it. Finally he did, and got to doing GI JOE by just pencilling in the head and hands with the rest just stick-figured, then drawing directly with a brush everything else. Like Krenkel, he was a very facile artist. Later he got out of art entirely. If you saw the tv series WILD WILD WEST, he was the production director and script editor on it, also designing the fancy machines and gadgets they used in the show.
Who wrote the GI JOES?
I think it was somebody who was nobody, very bad scripts like all the others at the time. It was a crime to be a writer in the late forties and early fifties. I did an article for WRITERS DIGEST during that period about how the artists were proud to sign their work, while the writers were always ashamed, feeling they were prostituting their talents. A few good ones like Bruce Elliott and Alfred Bester would go through comics on the sly. The people who stayed with comics were terrible, creepy hacks, most all basically low level writers who couldn't make it anywhere else.
How would you rate Al Feldstein as a comics writer?
Adequate. Comics are very hard to write well. You have to be visual. Al was good at it because he was also an artist. Most of the writing is incredibly bad because not enough of the people who write them know anything about drawing and staging. We used to have these problems in romance comics where all that ever happened was car accidents, that's the most action you ever got. They were always driving around in cars and talking. I had one script where it was a nine-panel page and a couple in the car for the whole nine panels and the guy was talking first in every single panel. I made it an English sports car so I could reverse it and get him on the left, looking at the couple in a front view, otherwise the balloons' tails would have to be crossed with him talking first.
Then I had one war comic, a perfect example of crummy writing. An American in a tank firing a machine gun at a Nazi plane diving at him, both with facial features described in detail, the German yelling "DIE, AMERICAN SCHWEINHUNDT!" while the GI in the tank was answering back "TRY IT, KRAUT, I'LL BLOW YOU OUT OF THE AIR!" What do you do with that? According to the writer you'd have to make it a full size tank and a full size plane, two feet apart, shouting at each other.
Romance was the worst. Depending on how much we wanted to draw, or maybe if we wanted to do some real good artwork for a sample, Wally and I would cut out three-fourths of the captions and dialogue and no one ever missed it. The daughter of the publisher would write these scripts with endless dialogue, others were written by secretaries in the office, very bad, with no reality, no motion. We would change anything and no one would know it. We'd letter very big to fill up panels, showing only faces. One of the curses of comics until recently was that kind of bad writing. And Bill Gaines, though he pretended not to be in on the writing, really was a very shrewd guy who had some limited success with his comics because he had good scripts to begin with, and good editors working their artists very hard. Except for EC, all those comics had art a hundred times better than the writing all the time.
Did you do any art or writing for pulp magazines in the late forties?
Not until the fifties. I did some illustrating for a magazine Damon Knight was editing, WORLDS BEYOND, and MARVEL STORIES as well. As a writer I sold my first story to WORLDS BEYOND, appearing in its third issue. I knew all the writers as friends because I was a big fan of science fiction. They knew me as Harry the artist. I would go to parties, get around a lot, that was how I first got into illustrating and writing for science fiction magazines. I started writing more and more after that. It overlapped a little with comics.
Would you say you liked working in comics?
Well, I enjoyed the art. The best example of who really liked it was Wally, whose ambition was to be the best artist in comics, and in a way maybe he made that. He wanted to be in comics, and stayed in comics. The only good part of comics in those days was the artists, while the writer had the bum's job for the most part.
Did you ever think of comics as offering a certain amount of challenge?
In the beginning, as a twenty-year old meathead right out of the army, I wanted to be an artist, this was my ambition. I studied easel painting and wasn't very good at it. Maybe I would have gotten better, but I never went along that far with it. I studied comic art in school and needed money, so I started doing comics. I made money at it, I got to be a fast hack in comics. But eventually I saw what was happening with comics, and I'm glad I got out when I did because most of the artists who stayed got trapped in it. The manual labor is intense. They all have furnished basements almost like dungeons. They work twelve or fourteen hours a day, seven days a week. And the thing in comics is, after a certain time, one or two years you're using about ten percent of your mind, no more. The radio is playing and you pay more attention to it than what you're doing on the drawing board. Working with four others in the same room one guy always played classical music, so a fringe benefit of being a comic artist was that I got a great grounding in classical music by sitting there and listening to it ten or twelve hours a day. But working in comics themselves offered a small return intellectually after a while. There was no real challenge.
Did you ever try to convince any of the editors or publishers to improve their product?
Only with Gaines on the science fiction comics because he'd never heard of science fiction. We kept bringing in magazines and making him read stories. For us there was more fun in the artwork, when we were young, enthusiastic and hard working, always trying to change our style, using new techniques that were coming in. Razor scratching for white highlights was some new, fantastic thing for us. We kept changing from brush to pen and experimenting. I should have done writing right away, but I'm glad I did so much artwork because the visual part of it is an important part of writing. I'm a far better writer than I ever was an artist. I was just one more guy turning out bad stuff. I got to be a very fast inker, using a number five brush, taking good care of it, washing it in soap and water. Mixed my own ink. Most of us got to a point where we wouldn't even need a ruler. During one period I was doing only inking, and after a while I couldn't draw at all. Everybody had a style and they did it over and over again, same as me. The best thing that happened to me was when most comics folded because I was editing at the time and I found I got much more satisfaction from it and writing. The goals were always there, only they switched from art to writing.
Bernard Krigstein was one of the few who tried to break away from the established way of doing comics.
Yeah, a very bright guy. But he ran into a problem in starting to resist the standard way of doing things. EC's format was strict, with very little leeway for an artist to do anything different except for staging inside panels. We worked from house layouts. Krigstein was a frustrated writer and editor who wanted to overhaul his assignments to fit the image he'd constructed for them, which was not the way EC worked. He didn't like pre-set layouts or drawing only one picture where it was called for. He should have been an editor, or better yet, a publisher. Then he could have arranged things his way. It was unfortunate for him that he became interested in experimenting at a time when comic book publishers were least receptive to it. The last thing publishers wanted to do in 1955 was rock the boat any more than they already had. Krigstein was probably too good for comics. You shouldn't have to think too much when you're drawing. Comics are a very repetitive art. They have to be, graphically, to be turned out in quantity.
Jack Kirby, for instance, is a perfect guy for the field. Traditional, but with an explosive quality. He pioneered with Joe Simon the forced perspective technique, I'm sure the first guy in comics to do it. Now he's writing his own stuff, really believing in it, is very sincere about it, but I have to say his intellectual competence, his knowledge of science and mythology, is absolutely zero.
I'm told he invents his own mythology.
Great, but does he ever read anyone else's? I just can't see anything intellectually stimulating, interesting or arousing about his writing. His art does generate a sense of movement and adventure. In a sense Kirby is his own younger reader, minus any intellectual content. I only say this because I heard him talk. A grand draftsman, but everything he said about the content, ideas and theories in his work seemed to send me up the wall. By the time I left his lecture I was hanging from the ceiling. He doesn't know much of anything about anything, and more than that I cannot say. The greatest strength of Kirby is his visual technique. On a more interesting plane is Bob Clampett, who also spoke at the convention, a sweet, gentle guy who believes in the stuff he was doing with his Warners cartoons of the forties. He was his own reader, or audience, but a cut above Kirby because Clampett has no pretensions about some supposed high level of intellectual content. Great animation, stories, sound effects -- it all worked, because he controlled it. It's the same with comics, where one man works as both writer and artist. Milton Caniff's early TERRY and MALE CALL got the idea across, and did it well. Alex Raymond was a drop-out intellectually, but he did extraordinarily well with his drawing in FLASH GORDON. The quality stuff in comics appears when authors are their own artists, one-man strips. Jules Feiffer is at his best when he's doing his own thing today, or when he did his one-page CLIFFORD strip in the SPIRIT sections, at his worst when he was trying to do typical comic book art like his one or two things for us at EC. Some artists just can't and shouldn't fit into a factory situation.
I watched the new factory come into existence. I watched DC destroy it. They would take good artists. DC was changing its style in the middle fifties and they would have artists with unique styles work on an assembly line basis to remove the uniqueness. One pencilled, one inked. Mechanical art, anyone could do it, it always looked the same. DC worked very hard to get this, it's what they wanted to fit the corporate image of their books. The publishers made the money, never passed it on to the artists.
One great thing about EC was they never tried to change artists' styles around. Kurtzman and Feldstein encouraged artists to develop their own styles, then whipped their asses well to keep them doing their best work within EC's house continuity. When the Code came in there were no more big comics, no more big money. Publishers like DC were getting greedy, sales were going down. Maybe it's now over the point of no return, a hunk of salami turned out by sausage factories.
Yet I think Kirby's work is still a one-man product.
It's a basic, simple strip and I guess basic, simple kids can like it. And I'm sure some adults like it as well. It's like Edgar Rice Burroughs, who's admired, loved and adored by twelve year olds and forty-eight year olds with twelve year old minds, and that's just about where Kirby is. The Burroughs "Dum Dum" is a good name for it. Once past thirteen or so I don't think you can really like Burroughs.
I've read only one or two of Burroughs' short stories, so I don't know much about him.
Well, don't read him now, because it's too late for you. He's tremendous for the first-reader of science fiction and fantasy, but it's pretty simple stuff. Good sense of color, action and motion. PRINCESS OF MARS is terrific in that area, but you have to grow up sometime. I was charmed to hear Kirby talk, interested in what he had to say about his work, but every statement he made was wrong, not a bit of his science was right.
I don't think he claims to be a science fiction writer.
He doesn't, but everything that made reference to the real world was in error. If in science fiction you change reality then you must plot from that point afterward, which Kirby doesn't do. His basic errors put his stuff into the area of pure fantasy, but that's all right because kids and adults with limited ambition like it. It's not my dish, though, and it's not the dish of a lot of people. I've read plenty of Kirby. A love-hate relationship. I heard him talk, so I can truthfully say the intellectual content of his work is zero, fodder for twelve year olds, and that's it. But you can get conned by the beauty of the art, like going to a movie where something strongly visual is always happening and diverting your attention from the story. Science fiction it's not.
What do you think of science fiction comics as a field in itself? Why has it apparently never sold well?
The ECs never did but of course they tried a little bit different type of science fiction from the rest of the field. They weren't as pulp magazine adventure slanted. Probably they were too good. Things like PLANET COMICS, blood and thunder stuff, sold much better. The kind of modified science fiction that sells well in comics is Superman, Captain Marvel and The Flash. Action rather than ideas, like Kirby. And whatever ideas there are in them are usually physical basics. Zip, bang, boppo. The average comic book reader -- not the fan, not the serious student of the medium, not my mother -- but the average reader is either age eight or an adult with the IQ of a kid age eight. To have a big sale means they have to appeal mostly to those people, which EC never could do with their science fiction comics because they had little appeal to readers' baser instincts. Horror went to the basic instincts of almost everybody, so EC and others sold lots of horror. You need a broad, base market for almost anything. When the kid goes out there to buy, the super hero is what grabs him, the colorful action, images of lightning hitting Thor's hammer and. such.
Charles Biro was probably the first to try breaking out of the kid's comic book market with his TOPS comic magazine in 1949.
Yeah, TOPS, the large size adult comic. I have it around here somewhere. It flopped after a couple of issues because the publisher, Lev Gleason, was running scared and didn't give it a chance. When returns on the first issue came in it was amazing how badly it sold, fifteen or eighteen percent at a time when the average comic was selling fifty to seventy-five percent of its press run. TOPS set a record for non-selling. Maybe it eventually would have gone, I have no idea. I doubt it. TOPS didn't have a mass basis for support, it was too radical a departure. Underground comics show how you can make a moderate success appealing to the base instincts in older readers, you get something dirty and nasty, pornographic, and you can sell some comics. Put a higher price on it with small distribution, enough to cover costs, and maybe you can make it there. I've seen some good creative stuff in undergrounds, too. Otherwise the field is left to the kids who support super heroes.
Then you don't think there's a mass market for adult science fiction in comic book form?
I really don't think so. I know Bantam Books tried it with some beautiful artwork in BLACKMARK, by Gil Kane, and it bombed. It was more fantasy adventure than science fiction, but the point was it was an attempt to make a quality adult comic.
It was in paperback format, though, and I'm talking about comic book or magazine format.
Same thing, isn't it? Pictures on a page, telling a story. But look at the comics all over the world and see what sells everywhere. The most popular comic in the world is probably THE PHANTOM. It's the type that really makes it, a guy with no eyeballs wearing a purple suit. Italian and Spanish comics are terrible stuff, fumettis, soap operas, romances like the ones we were doing in the forties, good art only occasionally, but they sell. Geographic logistics also enter into it. England is so small geographically that all the weekly and monthly newspapers sell all over England, where they don't need advertising so much, they make it on circulation alone. The same is true with comics there. Boys weeklies -- color and quality for the middle class, working class comics in black & white sold only in working class districts. Great stuff for the market. But here there's a distribution problem. There are maybe two thousand magazines published each month, while the average newsstand holds two or three hundred maximum, so they're competing for space and attention, just like paperbacks. People read less. If LIFE magazine goes under, you can't talk about comics carrying on in the same format. You're lucky if you can keep any magazine going today.
If it's true people want to read less, if they're becoming more visually oriented, maybe a good science fiction comic magazine could be successful.
It's still a form of reading where you have to go out and buy it, carry it home with you and turn the pages. The visually minded won't do that, they're home looking at the tube or going to movies. Plenty of time and money has been invested in it, and so far it hasn't been done. Story-telling action and humor is what goes in comics. In the early forties they were escapist fun, and everybody in the army would read them. Comics were built by the army. Every PX was loaded with comics. And ex-GIs were in the habit of reading them when the war was over, so you had some bone-head adults still buying them along with the kids. Comics were killed on television. They had an investigation on tv with Bill Gaines talking about the famous CRIME SUSPENSTORIES cover showing a severed head and an axe, very graphic and detailed, and they asked him if it wasn't in bad taste. They said it was terrible undermining American youth, but Gaines answered that it was in good taste and that it could be worse. How could it be worse? "Well, it could show tendons and bone on the cut end." That was the end of that. And now you can watch Saturday morning stuff and find the same characters as in comic books except you don't have to turn pages, the characters move around, you get some color and action, really the same kind of thing only with less effort to be entertained. I watch it once in a while if I have a hangover or something. Some are quite good. But there's the difference. All magazines are dying now for that reason, less effort needed by audiences to absorb entertainment and information. Science fiction magazines are just about dead. In the forties and fifties there were fifty or sixty titles, now there are four or five. And they're all on the rocks except for ANALOG, which has a lot of readers who are engineers. Hardcover books underwrite magazine sales and paperbacks underwrite book sales. They're fighting a losing battle.
Once intellectuals start appreciating something, like comics, it's usually dead. I don't think you'll ever see anything as good in the future as you saw in the past. So maybe the collectors are right in going back and getting the old stuff because that's where the action was, the gay, happy, carefree stuff. When it was cheap to publish comics, and everyone was doing it. When Wally and I talked Gaines into doing really good science fiction comics we stole only the best stories, went to the classics and lifted plots and put them into comic format. The great stuff stays great. I'm afraid those days are never coming again. Now I see Marvel Comics is trying adaptations of stories by name science fiction writers, but I think it's too late. They're trying to do today what EC was doing over twenty years ago, and I doubt if it'll work out for them. It didn't go then, and I don't believe it can go now.
I wonder if the post-war and early fifties McCarthy era had anything to do with EC and the other horror comics being killed off, since the rise and fall of EC parallels almost exactly the rise and fall of McCarthy himself if you take his career from when he and EC started in the late forties to the middle fifties when they both ran out of gas. Chart the two on a graph, and they follow the same arc.
Come to think of it, if it had anything to do with it, it was the feeling of oppression of those times generated by McCarthy. People were running frightened. The investigations brought on by old Doc Wertham, a really way-out nut. I debated him on a platform one time when he'd gone to lecture at a women's society. A friend of mine, Hans Santesson, took me along. There were questions from the floor, and I had a few for him that got us into a big argument. Some really mad stuff, the general timbre of the lecture being to suppress comic books. It was during this era of oppressive thinking that distributors started running scared. They just tore the covers off every single horror and crime comic and sent them back. Print two hundred thousand and get two hundred thousand back and you won't publish the next month. This is what happened. Distributors themselves are the life and death of any magazine in this country, particularly comics which don't get much mail order sales. Distributors were responsible for it, they killed comics out of fright. There was no real national legislation ever, just fear.
I think McCarthy's career my have had some bearing on it. The political atmosphere of the times does affect the arts very much. For instance, I was a comedian in the early sixties and doing pretty well until Kennedy got elected, when all of a sudden comedians couldn't get work. Mort Sahl started to go crazy and couldn't get gigs, Lenny Bruce started on his way to death, and other comedians of that type were out of work. Now with Nixon we've got a lot of the stuff I saw in the Eisenhower times, getting back into folk singers and balladeers. And science fiction movies are back, which we haven't seen a lot of since the Eisenhower fifties.
The times echo the times. Presidents are elected for certain reasons. Right now we're shut in from the rest of the world by our own narrow minded, closed-in way. There's a Socialist president in Germany, a Socialist just got elected in New Zealand and Australia. We'll go on for the next four years being exploited by big capitalism. But most people like it because they voted Dicky in by a big majority which means they like that kind of action. They don't care how much the public is being cheated as long as they have their own bag going. Two items touching each other in the paper today: "Second Week in Vietnam, No Americans Killed" and underneath it, "Heaviest Raids on North Vietnam." Who cares who kills slopes? We have our own little thing going. I'm sure it's reflected in the underground press and the way it's reacting. Ninety-five percent of the press is for Nixon, but ninety-five percent of the people aren't if you count all the groups like Chicanos, blacks, artists and young people who don't want to support the military. These people don't have a mouthpiece so they go with the underground press.
Maybe that's where you can sell comics too if you're talking about problems of distribution and limited runs, since you're making a small comic if you're in undergrounds and have a tighter idea of what a market could be. For instance, black movies are making money. They've got a group that's very definable and they're telling that group what it wants to hear and see. If there's a hope for comics to make a comeback on a quality level it's going to be because there's a very well chosen target for it.
It's like the hippies and would-be hippies reacting to EASY RIDER, which isn't a particularly great picture but it came along at the right time with the right message for a certain audience and it hit a lot of truths about the kind of things that go on year after year.
Even it seems dated now, though it's only three or four years old.
It's already a nostalgia piece, like flower power and Haight-Ashbury. But it spoke in public for a lot of people in this country where a good number feel disenfranchised. The whole new life style can't get through, so it comes out in many different ways in cinema, books, underground comics and underground press.
I wonder if the average underground comic could be serious competition to establishment comics if they could get that same kind of good national distribution.
Maybe, but that's where the problem comes in. Today you couldn't get the distribution. Mr. White has to win, clear and clean, and if you do get it out there they'd just close it down and send it back. They don't want it now. People want it all censured, tied up neat and tight. There's nothing at all democratic about it, it's the same as with the death of horror and crime comics.
Even PLAYBOY, a sure seller, had some trouble with distribution at one point. When they first started showing pubic hair distributors said they weren't going to touch the magazine. PLAYBOY had the right to do everything it fought for and then for a while couldn't use it.
Then PENTHOUSE came along and got PLAYBOY to loosen up. Also some loosening up of distributors. PLAYBOY is now sold in some supermarkets along with TIME and COSMOPOLITAN. But then when you look at PLAYBOY and its editorial stance, it's very establishment most of the way. All the real interest is in titillation, fellatio gags and nude girls. Its "Heard Any Good Ones Lately?" joke page goes over big with the navy mentality here in San Diego, who'd be the first ones to crunch a longhair over the head for wearing a Viet Cong patch on his shirt.
PLAYBOY has to keep its buyers from the class of '57.
Yeah. And it's not so different with establishment comics which have to keep their buyers from the class of '67, 1970s comics getting by on lines of thought that grew out of the '60s. Look at DC's PREZ, about a teenage president of the USA -- right out of WILD IN THE STREETS, a 1960s movie. Comics are always several years behind the times. Especially at DC.
Most people think of the ECs as growing out of the early fifties, but they were really a post-war forties development. The atom bomb mushroom cloud over Hiroshima could aptly have been shaped like EC's logo as a vision of things to come.
It's hard to argue the point of what would have gone and what would not have gone at that time. Some hit it wrong, some hit it right, like a shot in the dark. Biro failed with TOPS which tried to uplift the medium to adult level. The world always wants crap. Once you got into the EC horror thing, each comic was more vulgar than the one before it. The nastier it got the better it sold. At first a lot of it was underground in a way, distributors didn't look at the stuff that much in the beginning, neither did parents and civic groups. It sneaked in. But as soon as attention was drawn to it in the media, people screamed their heads off. As long as you're doing it quietly in your own little corner you can get away with it. I don't think it was so much the times that gave birth to EC and the others but the times did tie in with it in the ease with which it was killed -- the era of restriction, seeing Commies under every bed. Even today, going to Britain and passing through customs, they question you about bringing alcohol, tobacco and horror comics into the country. Among all the awful, poisonous things in the world are horror comics.
With only a few exceptions science fiction movies have basically been along the lines of science fiction comic books and pulp magazines.
The movies have been bad because movie people will not recognize the fact that science fiction is a different field altogether. They get the same dumb script writer who does mysteries and westerns to write science fiction. If you get the right people on it you'll get a good movie. H.G. Wells wrote his own script from his book on THINGS TO COME, and it was a great picture. Or you get Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke together. 2001 for all its faults had a lot going for it. Kubrick got a great education in science fiction with 2001, so when he did CLOCKWORK ORANGE on his own it was a masterpiece where everything worked fine. I just went through this recently myself, with MGM making a movie from one of my books, MAKE ROOM! MAKE ROOM! They've changed almost everything, the title to SOYLENT GREEN, the story, and have put about two and a half million dollars into it, and I've fought them tooth and nail on it. They wouldn't let me do anything on the script. I don't think they've got the world's greatest script, changing a lot and losing some of the point of the book. The picture has a separate identity of its own, but the book is basically sound -- about the year 2000 in New York, a population theme, an over-filled world. They've used a script written by the guy who did SKYJACKED, and a good director in Richard Fleischer who did TORA TORA TORA, THE BOSTON STRANGLER, COMPULSION and 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA. The lead is Charlton Heston, who's very fond of science fiction himself, Leigh Taylor-Young, Joseph Cotten, the late Edward G. Robinson, Chuck Connors and Steven Young. Some good people in it, and it really works as a fine action picture that gets my basic themes across on its own terms.
But the story is not your original story?
It is and it isn't. They did take my New York City and set the story there. They followed my lead characters for the most part, knocked out a lot, added a lot to it. The basic structure of this terribly depressing world is there. Everyone involved in the film was soon to be depressed by the story's premise and conditions, as they should be. It's true in that sense to the book. It's the first well-filmed picture to get into the world overpopulation and pollution theme, which is quite current now. People are thinking about it. The topical nature of the theme has over-ridden any weaknesses in the script. They've got about eight hundred extras at one point rushing around in the streets with riots and a lot of things happening, strong visual material, action and crowd scenes. And all the actors were really involved in the story. They thought it was an important thing, they put a lot of energy and feeling into it. But I still think the weakest link is having it written by a script writer who doesn't know anything about science fiction. One perfect example is where I set the book in the year 2000, well aware that popular language changes and that slang today will change in just two or three years. I'd invented about forty different new slang words. Out of these forty words they ended up using exactly none in the film, after I pointed this out. They missed that element of science fiction. But there it is, so what can you do? Science fiction is a very special field of endeavor, but movie people always want to hedge their bets. Some people can write it and some can't. You can see this in many of the so-called science fiction books. The good stuff has a special smell and feel to it, while the other stuff is dumb, faked writing. Maybe ten or fifteen people are writing ninety percent of the good science fiction nowadays, and they get all the work they need. If you're a well accepted name in science fiction a new book will have the writer's name bigger than the title. People buy by author. It's hard for a new writer to break in, but once you start selling you're home free. Some people, not many, can almost make a living at it now.
Hollywood has never used the science fiction writer much whether his book was the basis of the picture or not.
Very few, if any. DESTINATION MOON was a pretty solid picture, a nuts and bolts movie with a simplistic plot, but hoked up from the Robert Heinlein novel they based it on. He hated everything about it. I think they paid him four or five hundred dollars outright fee for it, and that's all he got. The same thing happened with Harry Bates' FAREWELL TO THE MASTER, which they made into THE DAY THE EARTH STOOD STILL -- a flat fee of four hundred dollars for movie rights. It didn't turn out badly, but it was a different picture altogether from the book.
Ray Bradbury's stories especially have always suffered in their movie versions.
Talk to Ray and he'll give you a horror story about every picture. I think he hates them all, how badly they've been done, including one that's been on the shelf for a couple of years waiting for release called PICASSO SUMMER. The one he dislikes the least is FAHRENHEIT 451. Of all the movies they've done I'd say it's the one closest to the book.
I think Kurt Vonnegut got a fair shake with SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE.
It's bar none the closest to the novel of any of the movies taken from novels. I hear he's satisfied with it. This class I have with thirteen students, who are all teachers, we saw it not long ago and agreed it was a good translation. I hope there's a trend coming up there. SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE is not hard core or classic science fiction, but as fringe science fiction it was well done insofar as mood and feeling of the book goes. That's where they run into trouble with Bradbury's stuff. FAHRENHEIT 451 was true to the book in its basic plot, except they failed to generate any of the Bradbury feeling. Maybe his prose can't be transferred intact to a visual medium.
Those EC comic book adaptations of his stories, I don't think even one was a complete success. Most of them missed by a mile -- nice try, but no cigar.
You either read his stuff or have him read it aloud. If he reads it aloud it has the added edge of his voice in the word inflection, and there it comes off great. But I don't think it can be easily translated to stage plays or the screen in dramatized form. It's a particular type that you have to read or hear as a poetic reading, narrated by an actor or the author. That's its strength. But when you show it, you can lose it. When you read, it's all internal -- a pleasure that people who watch only tv have lost, and to an extent, people who read comics have lost. Writing forces you to generate your fictional images internally, where the reader must supply the missing ingredient. If a writer can trick you into doing that, you have bigger and better pictures than you would get if visually translated for you by someone else. With tv and comic books it's all done for you, often missing the mark. Then if you read a movie review before seeing a picture, the process reverses itself and goes full circle -- reading one critic's description of something visual, where it's turned back from one medium into another. I've seen a movie after reading a review and thought the critic must have seen some entirely different picture. And, of course, he did. The only way to get around it would be to have a half million different versions of the same movie for everybody's mind. The pleasure of a screen play is revealed in the visuals when you get a genius type like Orson Welles who can create whole imagery that forms its own story content. A tremendous talent can take a book and make it work even better as a movie.
Mentioning THINGS TO COME, the director on that was William Cameron Menzies who was the production designer on GONE WITH THE WIND. There's a guy who knew his pictures.
I'm sure the design on THINGS TO COME wasn't H.G. Wells' own. It was pure visual, a little dated now but the visual effects are still good. Half the success of the thing was its design, but it also started with a good script, Wells' own, with top British actors like Ralph Richardson and Cedric Hardwick to give it dramatic presence. You have to have a well written script apart from hot-shot direction, and Hollywood has not faced that fact yet.
What about some other science fiction movies?
THE DAY THE EARTH CAUGHT FIRE was a very good one, a nice, realistic picture. Some of George Pal's were fine, made on a different level as popular B pictures. His films were done on a lower budget than they should have been, perhaps, cheating a little on the writing and acting end in favor of using most of the money on special effects. THE OMEGA MAN had some good direction, and the visual stuff was nice, but they took a fairly good book and made a dumb movie. The original story is about vampires, classic ones, and in the whole picture the idea of vampires is never mentioned. They never told you what the thing was about.
The better science fiction films are stuck in between true science fiction and fringe, like THE WAR GAME where the Germans win the war in England. British television commissioned Peter Watkins to do it, then they wouldn't allow it to be released on British tv because it was too strong for them. BATTLE OF CULLODEN was a fantastic job, a YOU ARE THERE sort of thing, one man's idea done in perfectly realized terms. And a Czech picture called IKARIUS - XB with a lovely concept, very funny and well done, where they invented some way-out dance number a bit like medieval court dance. That showed some really good thinking.
But most of the stuff at Trieste is junk, especially from the west, while from the east, where they have so few outlets, they get better stuff because they have to do better in order to survive. Fine Czech, Russian and Polish films. I went a couple of times as a judge. You see bits and pieces here and there, but for an exceptional film you need overall continuity. You have to have someone like Kubrick overseeing everything, as in CLOCKWORK ORANGE, to keep a tight hold on it. We do great westerns in this country, SHANE, BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK, RED RIVER, GIANT. And things like DIRTY HARRY, THE FRENCH CONNECTION, Sam Peckinpah's movies, STRAW DOGS, action and suspense, violence, done in this country so well for so many years, where all the pieces meet. But we have no history or continuity whatsoever in decent science fiction. The milieu isn't there to produce it. Hopefully we're getting it now. The good thing about 2001 is that it made a lot of money, so it loosened things up a bit in trying more science fiction themes. Unfortunately, producers then start running around talking about CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON again as their idea of science fiction. They missed the message in 2001's success. We've got to get good science fiction writers involved somewhere along the line to even things up.
Seems like all the older science fiction movies had more horror and serial action than anything else.
The action and horror elements were always there. Yeah. Hollywood had a feel for it, part of it is a reflection of the culture, it's what sold it. Short on ideas, long on horror action, traditionally the difference between what goes and what doesn't. In Britain and Russia you can be good and be a science fiction writer. Here you can't be good and be a science fiction writer. On SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE's book jacket -- "This is Not Science Fiction," as though the publisher wants to get himself off the hook. No book labeled science fiction ever got on the best seller list in this country. By and large it's been the same with movies. They've never been the avant garde intellectual thought in this country before, and I don't think they're going to be now until qualified writers are brought in. Producers are still basically following the same Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers formula.
Don't get me wrong, I love Flash Gordon and Buck Rogers. The things had terrific life to them, colorful action, motion and imagery. The Clay Men sequences were great. As serials made for kids they seem amateurish to us today, but people really loved them, with the rocket ships coasting along on wires, exhaust floating straight up like a cigarette butt. And the old Gene Autry serial, PHANTOM EMPIRE, had some great stuff in it, strong imagery. We were so naive then they could get away with it and sneak in the feeling of quality through visuals and motion with only a pulp magazine story to string everything along on.
INVASION OF THE BODY SNATCHERS was a good one, a nice tight horror plot, very cheaply done but making a strong impact, definitely one of the best things Hollywood did in science fiction ...
... with no monsters or rocket ships in it, just bits of horror like when they killed the pod people in the greenhouse with pitchforks...
... really a good wholesome, juicy, sordid science fiction idea projected into an action plot with a social theme underneath, a great example of not compromising an idea for the horror and action elements.
What organized Hollywood can't face is that the good stuff nowadays is being done by independents, where a couple of guys can borrow a few hundred thousand dollars and gross several million, as NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD has done. Science fiction films should take a tip from musicals like CABARET and integrate their themes with stronger character development, less emphasis on nuts and bolts aspects. With musicals you can't just have a couple of people tap dancing out and singing today, you've got to do something with it. Science fiction pictures must also do something more with their themes. Just using a big name won't work, and certain pictures that try it are doomed to fail before they start. Science fiction people with good production talent and great effects could make exceptional films, but basic errors on science in a script can ruin the whole thing. These clowns who've been writing science fiction movies just don't have a clue on what they should do, where they should begin. You get talented people in special effects, as in SILENT RUNNING, and you make the world's dumbest picture. They never bothered to have so much as a graduate chemistry student review their script. A physics student in high school could correct that script and make it better, since its plot now turns on a basic error of science. In that sense SILENT RUNNING is not so very different from the Flash Gordon serials.
There's a class of movie coming out now I call Big TV...
... made for quick theatrical release then going directly to television a couple of years later. Basically made-for-tv movies which hit theaters first, made by producers hedging their bets again by making them for theatrical and television consumption at the same time. When you talk about movies or tv the first word you mention is budget, before script, actors and director. It's all that counts. You're talking about making an artwork out of a commercial medium. Go twenty minutes over schedule and you're sweating your job. Watching them shoot SOYLENT GREEN, they worked every bit they could get from this one outdoor set because it was costing them twelve thousand dollars a day. You don't mess around, you follow the goal to make a certain level of picture within a certain budget. The only way art gets back in is through the director, cameraman and writer if they get the right ones and stay with them all the way. Sometimes art creeps in between the layers of collaboration. But ninety-nine percent of any movie made has to be mechanical because commerce still runs too much of the show, with very few original movies breaking through. Producers still follow each other around in circles, looking no further than whatever trend is going on at the time. Right now it's violence and sex. Black movies. A few years ago it was dope and bikers, in the fifties monster and flying saucer pictures. Anyone remember flying saucers?
What fascinates me about flying saucers isn't whether they exist or not, but saucer mania of the late forties and early fifties when it was a national fad. I think the flying saucer craze was nothing more than another reflection of the McCarthy era.
If you had a bad case of pimples in 1952 would you blame that on McCarthy too?
I'm just saying there seems to be more than a coincidental connection between the two, since saucer mania has never been as strong as it was during that period. Visually it was stated perfectly in those scenes of saucers over the White House, symbolizing foreigners out to take us over.
Well, the times gave saucer people a job, like McCarthy. There were two kinds, the contactees and the reporters. The contactee is the way-out looney who's talked to Venusian space men. The reporters did all the hard work, and what they got out of it, I guess, is that there are unexplained phenomena in our atmosphere, unidentified flying objects. Period. The contactees, though, were always on our side. They were better than us, they were going to show us the way to peace and salvation, save us from the atom bomb and self-annihilation.
I was in grammar school then and I can remember every week having to get under my desk, covering the back of my neck and closing my eyes tightly, putting my elbows a certain way to keep the shattering glass from getting up under me. We were drilled on how we were going to die.
We tried to forget about that. We forced it out of our minds because of this national paranoia we have that started with the cold war, Commies under our beds who were going to eat us alive. Saucer stories and civil defense drills were means to our salvation. It was expressed in many different ways. You could see it at the same time in Dianetics, coming up during the late forties, since changed to Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard's invention. And it was the time when Reich orgone therapy was big. Pat theories, one big ball of wax, and boom, we're all cured. We've lost church going. The church no longer has any viable use in the world. We may have hell on earth, but we're going to be saved in heaven -- it doesn't work any more. We're running in eight different directions here. This country is so damn big we find it hard to get national unity, that's what it amounts to, it's not a matter of class but a matter of geography. We're not just one country, we're a lot of different countries. We're united by some things. Kill the slopes, vote for Dicky, get high on grass, go to movies, football. We have a set of rules that work differently from the rest of the world.