Friday, December 11, 2020

A Crowded Life in Comics –

 Remembering a Comics Magazine That Never Was

by Rick Marschall

You see before you an issue of GROG, The International Comics Magazine.

Dated September of 1976, it is one the rarest items in the genre. Since it only existed as a prototype – and never published – there are but a handful of copies that ever existed. The preceding has been a tease. But the whole story of the Comics Magazine That Never Was is an episode in a Crowded Life that involved some of the unlikeliest figures in comics to collaborate. Up to a point.

In publishing, a successful venture usually happens at the ratio of 10 or 20 legitimately terrific other concepts that die stillborn; perhaps that is the case in all fields of endeavor. So GROG never went anywhere outside the long-term dreams and short-lived operations of memorable friends.

In 1975 I was hired as Comics Editor at Publishers Newspaper Syndicate in Chicago – the aggregation of other syndicate operations – Field Enterprises, the Sun-Times Syndicate, Hall Syndicate, Post-Hall, Publishers Syndicate Inc,  Adcox Associates, and possibly some others I have forgotten. Through wise stewardship and a manic acquisitive appetite, the outfit had become the second-largest syndicate in the… field.

Our stable of comics included BC, The Wizard of Id, Dennis the Menace, Steve Canyon, recently Pogo, Miss Peach, Momma, Grin and Bear It, Steve Roper, Mary Worth, Kerry Drake, Apartment 3-G, Rex Morgan, Judge Parker, Big George, and a passel of smaller quality strips and panels. Jules Feiffer, Bill Mauldin, and Herblock.

When I was offered this job, created for me (there had been no Comics Editor previously), I was also offered the job of Assistant Comics Editor at King Features Syndicate in New York, which also would have been a new position; but essentially to be understudy of Sylvan Byck, long-time Comics Editor there. An interesting and excruciating dilemma for me. But I headed to Chicago.

Dick Sherry was the president, a former Promotion Manager whose interest in foreign comics was marked by two qualities. One: he had wide-ranging tastes; he knew about comics and cartoonists in many countries; he was impressed that I had contributed major portions of Maurice Horn’s World Encyclopedia of Comics. His other motivation as a connoisseur of international comics and cartooning talent was – I soon became convinced – a cheap means of scratching his itch to travel, which he did, twice a year. He declared it necessary to his superiors in the Marshall Field hierarchy that he scout for talent; and that he visit foreign contributors on their turfs.

The result? No screaming successes. We tried making Asterix a daily strip. We ran a daily panel scribbled by England’s Mel Calman. We launched the Australian strip Fingers and Foes. We tried several creations of Denmark’s Werner Wejp-Olsen (I never let on that I know the “secret” that his strips were written, badly, by Sherry himself).

But a positive result of his semi-larcenous internationalism was the idea for an international comics magazine, an American version of Linus, Eureka, the first Charlie, and other Italian and French magazines. A magazine of native and imported content; reprints; interviews and features. I was familiar with the European magazines and that “scene” (many of my 60+ trips to Europe have been to comics festivals and book fairs); and frankly Sherry’s description of this proposed magazine was a major appeal of the job.

How the magazine would come together was, or would have been, unique. I would have been the Editor (I’m sure Sherry would have reserved the Foreign Correspondent duties for himself, at least partly). The other partners, or investors – such details are foggy after, gulp, 45 years, until I find my old files – were Johnny Hart and Stan Lee.

Yes, probably the only time their names appeared in the same sentence. The working title (appropriately random and only vaguely germane) was to be GROG after the strange beast in BC whose only word was a resounding “Grog!” He would have been the magazine’s “mascot.” Johnny loved this idea despite being largely clueless about foreign comics – he just loved the idea of spreading the gospel of comics.

Johnny Hart had serial enthusiasms, God bless his memory; and he was passionate about them all. Of course Wiz followed BC; and his buddy Brant Parker with Johnny over his shoulder launched Crock. Johnny once visited the office with someone with whom he wanted to collaborate on another strip – and this will be the first time you will see these two names in the same sentence: Johnny Hart and Henny Youngman. It never happened, of course, but Johnny’s interest (in, um, non-BC humor) is what made him the quintessence of Cool.

Marvel Comics would have been the co-producer and publisher/distributor. This is how I met Stan Lee – the many meetings in Chicago and New York; the brainstorming – and Stan of course was known as the human pinwheel, forever throwing off sparks of ideas, variations, spinoffs, new concepts, different themes, partners, and out-of-left-field projects. God bless his memory.

I share here the cover of the dummy issue, and some interiors. It was a true proposal; type was greeking; headlines were of generic titles to display the range of topics; runs of strips “foreign and domestic” were laid out; even ads were placed. I remember suggesting that we could maximize interest and profits by separating the magazine in blocs, with partner countries providing insert-sections for their own content.

On the basis of our contacts and discussions, I remained close to Stan and he hired me a year or two later to edit the magazine line at Marvel. He gifted me one day with his prototype of GROG, out of his files, and had earmarked my undiplomatic suggestion, among scores I trotted out, that the magazine could commission Joe Brancatelli to write an article criticizing contemporary superheroes. What was I thinking?

I cannot remember whether GROG came up in the early discussions with Stan when EPIC was conceived and planned. It was different, of course, but maybe not that different (Stan did send me to hunt talent in Europe, and early issues had international content). I was EPIC’s first Editor.

Through it all – what happened, did not happen, and what almost happened – I have one dummy issue, and a ton of memories. Remember that ratio, of 10 or 20 concepts for every one that happened. At least I can claim to be the “dummy,” so to speak, at the center of a unique dummy issue in comics history.








1 comment:

  1. Once again, I am left marveling at a fascinating read ...