Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.
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BAKER'S DOZEN for 07/25/2007
Occasionally I've been asked how I found out about a relatively obscure book or creator, and, more often than not, the only answer I can supply is, "I walk the floor--the whole floor, including the dealers area--of every show I attend." That's because I've learned over the past decade and a half of attending conventions that sometimes the most interesting people and projects are found well outside of the boundaries of the major publishing booths, hidden in plain sight in those nooks and crannies well away from even the Small Press and Artist Alley tables.
Case in point: Charles Pelto, Classic Comics Press and the surprise comic strip reprint hit of the past year, Mary Perkins On Stage by Leonard Starr.
I found Charles at an extremely small table squirreled away in the Dealer's Area of last year's Wizard World-Chicago show. I distinctly remember being impressed with both Charles and his offerings, which consisted of an upbeat, unpretentious attitude combined with the first volume of On Stage. We talked a bit, found out we had a number of things in common, and then, as we parted company, he handed a review copy of that first book to me. Little did I know at that point that I had lucked into one of the true "overnight sensation" success stories of the season, and--even better--had made a good friend.
Today, with two critically acclaimed volumes of Mary Perkins On Stage and an Eisner Award nomination to his credit, Charles is readying himself for his first trip to San Diego's famed Comic Con so that he can appear on his very first panel as a guest at that show. He's also going so that he can attend the Eisner Awards ceremony on Friday night to see if his recent efforts have resulted in a win.
All of which means that both Classic Comics Press and Mary Perkins On Stage are now...
In the Limelight
Charles Pelto on Classic Comics Press
[In the interest of full disclosure, it should be noted that Bill Baker's interview with Irwin Hasen will be appearing in the forthcoming Dondi Volume One, which will be published by Classic Comic Press later this year. -- BB]
Bill Baker: How does it feel to be nominated for an Eisner with your first two books?
Charles Pelto: I'm very pleased. The reception on the first two volumes has been fantastic and both Leonard [Starr] and I are thrilled from all the support the project has received so far. When I approached Leonard about reprinting the entire run of Mary Perkins On Stage he said, "You sure you want to do this? It's all super-heroes today. No one's interested in Mary Perkins." Boy, did I prove him wrong! The support I've received from the comics community that knows about the books has been amazing. Guys like Walt Simonson, Kurt Busiek, Eddie Campbell, Joe Jusko, have become champions of the series and have really helped to spread the word about Leonard's work and what I'm trying to do with the series.
BB: So, how is the series doing? I ask because a major concern a lot of people have with reprint projects like this is that they tend to disappear after a couple of volumes. Or the releases become erratic, with a volume being released here, maybe another in six months, then we don't see anything for over a year.
CP: Yes, I'm aware of that. I've even gotten a few emails and letters asking the same thing. The best I can say at this time is that sales are picking up.
I started this project on a shoestring, not knowing exactly what I was getting myself into. But with no advertising to speak of I've managed to publish two volumes in less than a year, and the third is now at the printer, with plans to publish Volume 4 sometime before spring of 2008. Up to this point I've pretty much relied on word of mouth, web reviews and the like. Tony Shenton, an independent sales rep in the East, has been selling quite a few copies to his list of clients, and Bud Plant has been a real godsend when it comes to getting the books out there. And I've just been signed on as a Diamond vendor. The first three Mary Perkins On Stage volumes and the upcoming Dondi book will be featured in the September  issue of Previews so I'll be getting a lot wider exposure. But the competition is growing and the comic strip reprint market is a niche market at best right now. If sales from Diamond help me to break even, I'll be happy. Anything over that will help to fund future volumes and other projects.
There are an awful lot of other great comic strips out there that are being totally ignored. But many of them are just not commercially viable for the bigger guys like Fantagraphics or IDW, so maybe I can help pick up the slack. From a business standpoint it doesn't make sense for the big guys to do a book that might sell 1,000 to 2,000 copies. There's no profit in it for them. If I can get the rights and the materials needed to bring back a strip like, say, Kevin the Bold or Dateline: Danger, I'll do it.
I grew up in Detroit, reading the funnies in the mid-fifties to late-seventies. At that time, both the Detroit News and the Detroit Free Press had fantastic comics pages. Along with some suburban papers I was lucky enough to read Dick Tracy, Flash Gordon, Corrigan, Dateline: Danger, Rip Kirby, and Kerry Drake, Tarzan, The Phantom, Mandrake the Magician, and a host of others. I sort of drifted away from it all in the early eighties. A couple of years ago my interest was rekindled and it was a bit unsettling to see all the things that are being ignored by today's comics fan. Reprints of Flash Gordon and Peanuts are nice, but where the hell's a complete reprinting of Al Williamson's Corrigan? Or Russ Manning's Tarzan? At one point I thought it might be fun to put a book together of a favorite comic strip. I had been receiving binders of On Stage from Jim Gauthier, a friend of Leonard's and, living in Chicago, I contacted Tribune Media Services about the possibility of acquiring the rights to reprint the entire run of the series. And they said yes! A year and a half later, I've just finished up Volume 3, am working on the Dondi book, and leave for San Diego next week to see if I win the Eisner. Nice ride so far.
BB: Yeah, it really is amazing, the success you had so far. Especially coming out of nowhere like you did, with no advance promotion, that was a bit of a surprise for a lot of us.
CP: Well, it's the best I could do at the time. Thank god On Stage is such a strong strip. I don't think the books would have had the success they've garnered so far if it were not for Leonard Starr.
BB: So what were the specific events that lead to your decision to establish Classic Comics Press?
CP: In my early teens to early twenties I was what would today be called a "fan-boy." Growing up in Detroit I attended the first Detroit Triple Fan Fair, put together by people like Jerry Bails, Ed April, Marvin Giles and Jack Promo--all local comics guys at the time. This was in the mid to late sixties or so. I was in my early to mid-teens when I went to the first meeting. The meetings were small, but it was great for a kid like me to meet "adults" like Jerry Bails, Ed April, and Shel Dorf, who held a great deal of love for comic art, science fiction, pulp magazines and the like. I was involved in fandom up to my late teens, when I discovered girls and I started to drift away. Another big factor in my getting out of collecting had to do with the fact that in 1969 I was 18 years old and facing the possibility of getting drafted and carted off to Viet Nam. So, to keep myself out of the armed services, I sold my collection to help pay for my first year of college. It saddens me today to see how the value of many of the books I once owned has increased. If I had that collection today I would be one rich person. On the other hand, if I had held on to the collection, I might have been drafted and died in some god-forsaken rice paddy, thousands of miles from home. So the trade-off was worth it.
Throughout the years I still held an interest in all things related to comics' fandom, science fiction, and the like, but I really never seriously collected or followed anything consistently. Every once in awhile I'd pick up a comic book, or read some science fiction, but on the whole I pretty much missed the eighties and nineties.
Then a couple of years ago I was in a bookstore and happened to come across one of the Frank Frazetta Icon books and was totally hooked again.. Leafing through the book was a revelation to me and it unleashed the "fan-boy" in me in a big way. I started reading comic books, Science Fiction, Sword and Sorcery again, went back to favorites like Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert E. Howard, Asimov, Silverberg, Ellison and the like, and was totally hooked. The problem is that a lot of the stuff that is being produced today just doesn't interest me. Perhaps it's my age, but for some reason most of the current work being done I find somewhat boring. There's an awful lot to choose from and I'll try things, but on the whole I stick to the tried and true--the stuff that turned me on as a kid: Alex Raymond, Frazetta, Al Williamson, the DC Comics of the sixties and early seventies, Marvel, Captain Easy, Kerry Drake, Dateline: Danger, Rip Kirby, the works of E.C. Tubb, Thomas Burnett Swann, etc.
As far as contemporary material, I really enjoy [Terry] Moore's Strangers In Paradise, Busiek's Astro City, Neil Gaiman, Eddie Campbell and the like. I'll try an occasional Science Fiction/Fantasy book, but mostly it seems to be battling vampires, or books about elves and fairies, things that really don't interest me. I still love reading the likes of Asimov, Moorcock, Heinlein, and other writers of that ilk.
So I started getting my feet wet again and I was horrified to find that a lot of the things I really truly loved seemed to have disappeared. Where the hell was Captain Easy, Secret Agent Corrigan, Buck Rogers and the like? They all seemed to have disappeared. So I started digging deeper, discovered eBay, and found it was a great way to find the stuff I had either owned, or had a passing familiarity with and began to build a collection of favorites.
While searching the Web one day I came across Professor Mendez's site The Rules of Attraction and found the great write-up he's done on not only On Stage, but Rip Kirby, The Heart of Juliet Jones, and Apartment 3-G. Hidden on one of the pages I found a link to a guy by the name of Jim Gauthier. Jim had provided many of the On Stage strips that populate the site and I dropped him an email asking if he could help me find On Stage strips. I had started buying copies of the Dragon Lady books done in the eighties, was buying dailies and Sunday's off eBay and wanted more! Much to my surprise and delight, Jim let on that he possessed an almost complete run of the strip and was willing to give me access to the book. I was in heaven. I started getting the books from Jim and one day after reading the first Maximus storyline, which appears in Volume 2 of the series I got to thinking that. "Someone has to bring this strip back. It's too damned good to let disappear!" So living in Chicago, I called Tribune Media Services and asked how I could go about acquiring the rights to reprint the entire run of the strip.
After a couple of months of negotiations I signed the contract, established Classic Comics Press, launched the website, and the rest is, as they say, history.
BB: For all those who might be unfamiliar with it, and for those of us who might need to be reminded, how would you describe Mary Perkins On Stage?
CP: The strip started out as On Stage, first appearing in American newspapers on February 10, 1957. It began as the tale of a young girl, former Strawberry Queen from Homesfield, who travels to New York City to become an actress, but it quickly evolved into a high sophisticated, extremely well-drawn and wonderfully written series of adventures involving Mary, her husband Pete Fletcher, and an incredible cast of supporting characters, most notably Maximus and Johnny Q.
Each storyline ran 10 to 12 weeks and were written in such a way that when you read them in sequence the stories read like a graphic novel. Leonard had this amazing ability to almost never repeat himself from one day to the next, which is unusual for a continuity strip. Kurt Busiek covers this aspect in his introduction for Volume 2 and it's one of the things I really love about the strip. For his dailies, Leonard almost always worked with 3 panels, sometimes four. In dailies, the first panel is used to recap the previous day's action, the second to push the story forward, and the third to set up the next day's strip.
Along with the great storytelling, Leonard is an amazing artist and draftsman. He started out in comics, working at a number of the comic [production] shops that populated New York in the forties and fifties, and, except for maybe EC, probably worked for every comic book publisher of the time. One of the things he did was a number of Pow Wow Smith stories for DC in the fifties. He spent a number of years making a living doing comics, but what he really wanted to do was a comic strip.
I've talked to Leonard a lot in the past couple of years and one of the things that always amazed me was the artistic leap his drawing took from his early comic book work to his work on On Stage. When I asked him about this his comment was, "The comic book shops wanted quantity, not quality, and when I tried to really take the drawing to the next level they would get upset and chastise me for not getting the work in on time."
So Leonard left the comic book business for a while and worked in advertising, doing spot ads, illustrations for various magazines, paperback covers and the like for a couple of years while he attended classes at the Art Students League under the direction of Frank Reilly. Reilly focused on the fundamental principles of drawing, painting, picture making and color. Reilly was known as a perfectionist and I'm sure that is where Leonard's own high level of perfectionism was, if not born, definitely augmented. While working in advertising and attending classes Leonard spent all the free time he could in developing comic strip ideas. After assembling a number of strip ideas, Leonard started hitting the syndicates and managed to land On Stage at the then Chicago Tribune-New York News Syndicate.
BB: What brought this feature to an end? Did it just run its natural course, or were there some other, larger forces--be they economic, cultural or even a creative choice--at work?
CP: I'm sure there were a number of factors that contributed to the end of the strip in 1979, but its end can really be attributed to two things: First the American comic strip was changing. As the years passed, paper costs rose, while television and movies became more prevalent in American pop culture; as a result, the American comic strip began to go though changes in both size and substance. The Adventure strips such as Captain Easy, Buzz Sawyer, Terry and the Pirates, Flash Gordon and the like, began disappearing from American newspapers. And the page space allotted to comic strips began to dwindle as the overall page size of newspapers began to change due to the high cost of paper, demands by advertising, etc. Comic strips stopped selling papers. As Leonard continued to work on the comic strip he found himself working with an increasingly smaller canvas [until it reached the] point that near the end, as Leonard says, it became nothing more than a series of headshots.
For anyone who has seen a large body of Leonard's work on On Stage, you'll know that Leonard's panels are full of interesting atmosphere. Throughout the life of the strip, Leonard placed Mary and company firmly in reality--city streets, realistic theatre settings, movie and television studios, etc. Leonard's panels are, at times, very complex in their layouts, giving the strips a sense of reality that, in my mind, is surpassed rarely. One strip that comes close is the work that Neal Adams did on Ben Casey. In fact, I believe Adams is quoted as saying, "When I first started out I wanted to do Leonard Starr better than Leonard Starr."
So, as the years passed, Leonard was faced with a smaller and smaller canvas on which to work and he was becoming more and more frustrated with the lack of artistic freedom he had enjoyed when he first started the strip. Then in the mid-seventies, Tribune Media Services, the syndicate which owned the rights to Mary Perkins On Stage, asked him to end the strip and take over the artistic chores on Harold Gray's Little Orphan Annie. Gray had died a number of years earlier, and though the strip had had a number of artists who had tried their hand on keeping Annie alive, none had been able to spur much interest in the strip and TMS had resorted to reprinting classic Grey storylines. When the Broadway musical Annie came along, the syndicate began looking for a new artist to breathe new life into the strip and they approached Leonard. Already a bit dissatisfied with the work he was doing on On Stage, Leonard started working on his own take on Annie as he began to wind down On Stage, ending the strip in 1979.
BB: What are some of the qualities, in your opinion, which distinguished Starr's work from that of his compatriots and fellow travelers of the period?
CP: Throughout the years Leonard became a consummate perfectionist. His work on On Stage is, to my mind, some of the best comic work ever done as it relates to the continuity strip and I feel that in many ways he surpassed Caniff in both story-telling and panel construction. Leonard loves the work of Caniff and wanted nothing more than to emulate Caniff's work on Terry and the Pirates. In fact, it was Milton Caniff who suggested to Leonard that he change the name of On Stage to Mary Perkins On Stage in the mid-sixties.
BB: Did he do all of the work on the strip, or did he have some helpers who might not have gotten their names on the marquee, so to speak?
CP: An overlooked factor on not only Leonard's On Stage, but also Caniff's Steve Canyon and a multitude of other strips, is that all of these guys had help. There is no way many of these artists could have kept up, what with having to provide 6 dailies and a Sunday each and every week, for an entire year. So there was Ben Oda on lettering, a number of artists helping out on backgrounds, etc. I've talked to Leonard about this, and he's told me that he always thought of himself as the director of On Stage. But he was also the writer, set designer, producer, and camera man. On Stage is Leonard's vision. And all of the figures are his - most of the work done by assistants were on backgrounds and lettering.
And here's a funny story about getting help. In Volume 1 of the On Stage series, in his introduction, Walt Simonson mentions a strip that appeared in On Stage that realistically portrayed a couple of Spitfires. Walt says that it is this realism that drew him to the strip. Right after the publication of Volume 1, I was visiting Leonard and we were going through the book. When we got to that page Leonard laughed and said, "That strip wasn't actually done by me. I needed someone to help me with the planes, so I called Al Williamson for some help and he sent George Evans over. That daily is all George." Of course, when he said "George Evans" I could see it immediately, but I feel it's a testament to the strength of the strip that it all looked so seamless. Throughout the years Leonard worked with a number of people on the strip, but like I said, it's Leonard's vision.
BB: If memory serves, aside from running Classic Comics Press, you also work a full time job. Just for the record, what is that day job, and what does it entail?
CP: I work for one of the big three College Textbook publishers in a suburb of Chicago. Every morning I drive out of the city while everyone else is driving in and spend the day in front of a computer looking at software and websites that are either sold or given away as supplements to various College textbooks. I and my staff get to spend the day looking at things like how to dissect a human cadaver, basic accounting principles, or speak perfect French. We look at almost anything and everything that is created in a digital format from websites about World Religions to sophisticated software that teaches thermal dynamics. It's a nice job and fits my rather across-the-board skills very well. I've got a degree in English and Film Studies, and have always been somewhat of a generalist. I know a little about a lot. One of the last Liberal Arts Majors in America.
BB: What happens when you've reprinted the entire run of On Stage? Have you given any thought to what direction CCP might take at that point?
CP: I continue. There are an awful lot of comic strips out there that are rapidly being forgotten, growing a bit fainter each day as those of us who know of such things start to die off. I'm one of those aging baby boomers who still thrill at looking at the stuff that shaped me as a kid. On Stage, Russ Manning's Tarzan, Al Williamson's Corrigan, Dan Flagg, and Apartment 3-G, The Phantom, and Rip Kirby.
Like I said earlier, one of the reasons I starting Classic Comics Press is because I got to looking at all the reprint books out there and started asking myself, "Where's Rip Kirby? Where's On Stage? Where's The Heart of Juliet Jones? Ben Casey?" I mean how many times can they reprint Flash Gordon? How about a complete reprinting of Rip Kirby from [Alex] Raymond to [John] Prentice? And where's the hell's Ben Casey? I know that Neal Adams has been saying he was going to do it, but it's been years he's been talking about it, and still no Ben Casey book.
Ben Casey daily - 10/22/1964 - Copyright NEA Inc. - Courtesty of Jim Gauthier
And that is one strip that the fans out there need to discover or rediscover. It is one of the most beautifully rendered strips ever done, and few people know what they're missing. But then, that's the kind of books you have to do right and acquiring source material that is usable is getting harder and harder as the years go by. I was fortunate in that Leonard and Jim Gauthier had an almost complete set of original proofs of On Stage. In fact, if it weren't for Jim, the On Stage books that I'm able to do would not be possible. Jim spent years replacing missing strips, finding originals, and cleaning up damaged proofs. As far as we know, this is the only set of proofs around. There was another set of proofs out there, but they somehow disappeared. So, if it weren't for the work that Jim did on putting the missing pieces together, I would have had a hell of a time putting together the books the way I wanted, from the beginning.
BB: What would you say to help convince those readers who might be intrigued by all you've said about Mary Perkins On Stage, and all they've seen and read about the strip here, but aren't entirely convinced that they'd truly enjoy these books?
CP: Try it, you'll like it. It's damned good reading and beautifully drawn. And you'll have the rare pleasure of discovering a true master of the craft. Leonard could write circles around many of the comic book writers of today. I defy you to name one character in an On Stage storyline, from Mary to the smallest "walk on" role, who is not completely, 100% spot on. There is more diversity and creativity in some of Leonard's Sunday pages than much of the stuff I see today being done in comic books and graphic novels.
BB: How can they buy the books?
CP: Online, they can buy them from me, off the website at www.classiccomicspress.com, Bud Plant at www.budplant.com, www.mycomicshop.com, and from Stuart Ng at www.stuartngbooks.com. And stores like Forbidden Planet, Jim Hanley's Universe, Cosmic Comics in New York now carry the books. I'm open to dealer sales so any dealers out there who want to give the books a try can contact me through the website.
They'll also be featured in the September ['07] issue of Diamond's Previews. All three volumes of the On Stage books and the Dondi book will be offered in the Green Section under the Classic Comics Press heading. I'll continue to sell copies off the website but I'm hoping for sales from Diamond are good. I'd prefer to leave the distribution to them so I can concentrate of putting together a good product.
Doing it all, from page prep to shipping, is a bit time-consuming. A year and a half ago I thought it would be nice to see On Stage in print. A nice little side project to keep me occupied, you know? What I didn't know was that it would start to take over my life, get the juices flowing, and make we want to do more. [Laughter] The biggest thrill I get out of this whole thing is the email I get from people who have purchased the books, read them, and tell me how much they enjoyed the ride and now where's more?
BB: Speaking of more, how's the Dondi book going, and what lead to your decision to do that reprint now?
CP: I'm putting the strip pages together now. When I first started thinking about doing Dondi I thought I would just do a collection of the best storylines. But when I got the material from Tribune Media Services and started reading, I quickly realized that I just had to publish the first 19 months of the strip. It's an amazing run and really helps to establish the character of Dondi. And it's surprisingly topical with the current situation in America, as it's related to the status of illegal aliens. What a lot of people forget is that Dondi is a stowaway, a foreigner who came to this country at a time when, as with today, the status of those entering our shores illegally was being questioned. At the same time the strip is very patriotic. You have to understand that this strip was being done by two ex-Army vets--Gus Edson and Irwin Hasen. Both had only just recently left the Army, it was the early to mid-fifties, and America was beginning the long transition towards change; much of what we see in the world today was shaped by attitudes and actions of the fifties and sixties. I'll be the first to agree that Dondi can get a bit juvenile, but when it's good, it stands up to some of the best comic strips out there. It's a different strip than On Stage, but that's the beauty of it--it's like comparing a Picasso to a Lichtenstein. You can't. Each piece of work should be judged and enjoyed on its own merits.
Putting these books together is interesting. I spend a lot of time scanning and cleaning up strips and become fairly intimate with the artwork. Doing this with Leonard's work has been an inspiration. Working with Irwin's work on Dondi has been just as enjoyable. I've always been a fan of Irwin's Golden Age work, and working so closely now with the stuff he did on Dondi, I've begun to recognize that it's some of the best work he's done. There's an awful lot of the Golden Age spirit in the early months as Irwin and Gus Edson begin to develop the strip. I think people are going to really enjoy it.
Along with the first 19 months of the strip, there'll be an introduction from Jules Feiffer, and an interview with Irwin done by *gasp!* Bill Baker. [General laughter]
BB: Yeah. It was a great thrill to interview Irwin, as it was done right at the start of my own career as a journalist. And I'm looking forward to seeing that piece--which has only appeared online previously--finally appear in print.
Well, is there anything else you'd like to add before I let you get back to work?
CP: I'd just like to thank all the people who have bought the books and the support you've shown for the series. You have no idea what a thrill it is to get an email from someone like Dick Giordano, letting me know how much he enjoyed the books. From the beginning, people have taken the books to heart and are helping to promote them. Maggie Thompson reviewed both volumes [for Comic Buyers' Guide magazine] and gave them "Trade Paperback Picks of the Month" for January and May of 2007. And online reviews by Dirk Deppey for The Comics Journal, and Eddie Campbell on his blog, have really helped to get the word out. I'm looking forward to attending the San Diego con next week. Until Wizard World-Chicago, where I met you last year, I had not been to a comic convention since the mid 70's. From what I hear, San Diego is the mother of all cons, and it's going to be interesting.
[One last time, in the interest of full disclosure, it must be noted that Bill Baker's interview with Irwin Hasen will be appearing in the forthcoming Dondi Volume One, which will be published by Classic Comic Press later this year. -- BB]
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