Saturday, August 8, 2009

See You in the Funny Papers

Writer Gerry Conway has made a name for himself, scripting and producing a number of successful television shows, such as the Tom Bosley divine detective vehicle Father Dowling Mysteries; the Dick Van Dyke medical whodunit, Diagnosis Murder; and Law & Order. In 1969 he began his career as a comic book writer while still in his teens with a short story for DC’s House of Secrets #81. For the next two decades thereafter he wrote for many of both Marvel’s and DC’s most prominent titles, such as Superman, The Avengers, Justice League of America and Amazing Spider-Man.

In fact, Conway had the dubious distinction of taking up the mantle of writing the Amazing Spider-Man from creator and decade-long scribe Stan Lee with issue #111 in 1972 at the tender age of nineteen. Less than a year into penning the Web-Slinger’s adventures, Conway wrote off one of the series’ most beloved characters, Gwen Stacy, a move for which some Spidey-o-philes have never forgiven him. Whether the original idea to kill Peter Parker’s paramour came from Conway or elsewhere within the hierarchy of Marvel at the time has been debated, but the impact of the story continues to resonate more than three decades later, which is a testament to the power of Conway’s craft especially at such a young age.

Conway had yet begun his television career and was still writing the Web-Slinger’s adventures—albeit within the pages of one of the hero’s spin-off titles, The Spectacular Spider-Man—when I met him at a shopping mall in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The mall was celebrating comic books with a myriad of tables and displays in the main concourse. Area dealers sold books and related merchandise and Marvel promoted themselves as well as sponsoring the appearance of some the company’s current writers and artists. Besides Conway, artists Mark Bagley and Wayne Vansant were also in attendance.

In 1983, Marvel released the Marvel Try-Out Book. Packaged the size of comic art boards, the book featured instructions, and included blank pages and ones delineated with blue pencils of an actual Spider-Man comic’s page, on which aspiring comic-book artists could practice penciling and inking, respectively. To promote the release of the book, the company held a contest with the Grand Prize being an assignment on one of its titles. Bagley won, thus kicking off his career. Bagley had just begun his first regular assignment as penciler on a soon-to-be-released teen superhero comic, entitled New Warriors, which Marvel was promoting with his appearance in Chattanooga. The success of New Warriors later led to Bagley becoming the regular penciler on Amazing Spider-Man, which in turn would lead to his greatest claim to fame, penciling Ultimate Spider-Man, the flagship title of Marvel’s reboot of its entire line in 2000. Vansant penciled the critically acclaimed war drama The ’Nam, which was based on actual accounts from veterans of the Vietnam War. Then promotions guru for the big M, Steve Saffel, was there to host the company’s guests.

Marvel also made my appearance possible. In order to get the most bang for their costumed-character buck, they arranged for me to perform double duty as both Spider-Man and Dr. Doom, comicbookdom’s maniacal monarch of fictional Latveria and arch-villain of the Fantastic Four. I hadn’t performed as Doom before and looked forward to doing so, though my enthusiasm was immediately tempered by the realities in transporting his higness’s attire.

The Doom “armor” consisted of a pair knee joints and combination arm/elbow pieces both pulled on with elastic straps; a pair each of boots and gauntlets, the latter connected to circular-molded wrist and forearm coverings; and a custom mask. Under the armor was worn a shiny silver stretch bodysuit. It differed from the Spider-Man suit in that it was less giving and thicker, which made it warmer. There were snaps sewn into the under garment at the shoulders, to which the arm/elbow pieces were attached. A forest green tunic covered the torso, hiding the shoulder snaps, and was accessorized with a deep brown belt with golden, antique-finish buckle. A heavy, long hooded cape of the same color as the tunic completed the picture. It fastened around the mask with Velcro, creating a snug and secure fit that ensured the hood’s perfect symmetry about the mask, and featured two gold ornamental medallions betwixt hung a chain below the neck. For such a complicated ensemble, the look was spot-on.

Though not nearly as cumbersome as the huge crates in which the Hulk costume was stored and freighted, the Doom suit fit snugly in an over-the-shoulder, khaki green canvas bag, which made the carrier appear as though they were on leave from the army. Still, the bag was still too big not to go unchecked when flying. Checking baggage was not something I had ever had to do with the Spider-Man suit and I didn’t care for the additional time tacked onto my trip or the concern of waiting for Doom to appear on the luggage carousel.

(This photo from a later gig shows the original Dr. Doom costume with open eye slits)

That minor inconvenience was balanced with the relative ease of wearing the costume and opportunity to portray a character well removed from the Web-Spinner’s. Far from the crouching and gymnastic leaping that wearing the Spidey costume entailed, Doctor Doom regally strode about, cape dramatically flowing, arrogantly debasing everyone around him à la Darth Vader. It was freeing and fun not having to play “nice” and, unlike the Green Goblin, which demanded a demented high-pitched cackle and laugh, I could orate in my natural basso voice. Whenever I got bored or tired bouncing about, I’d don the Doom suit. Whenever it was no longer great to be king, I’d crawl into the humbler, more playful threads of Spider-Man.

The Doctor Doom costume would have been perfectly comfortable if not for the fumes of the industrial glue within the mask that made my eyes water. I suspect that the Dr. Doom costume and that of the Green Goblin were constructed as part of the same order, as the unpleasant industrial-glue “bouquet” of both masks was the same. And their construction could only have occurred at a time when the adverse effects of “sniffing” glue were relatively unknown and thus their use in the creation of costume masks was more lenient. Making my eyes water was one thing. God knows what inhaling this stuff was doing to my lungs. No wonder Doom and Goblin were so cranky all the time.

My vision was equally as limited when portraying the evil monarch of Latveria as it was when playing Spidey’s arch- nemesis. Though the occipital region of the latter was larger, each of it’s openings was covered with a painted screen to emulate the pupils and whites of eyes. The Doom mask may have sported unobstructed eye apertures, but they were smaller, thin rectangular cut-outs to the Goblin’s wide orbs. I could cheat peeks through the mouth opening of the Doom mask, which prevented my having to continually bend over, like one of those drinking-water-from-a-glass-rocking-bird toys, to prevent me from stumbling over small children, strollers, chairs and mewling fanboy. A later revision to the Doom mask sported larger eye openings, but added black screens within to hide the wearer’s actual orbs, thus negating any increased visibility that the wider openings may have effected. I preferred the original. The evil would-be world vanquisher was ever drawn in the comics with his eyes peeking out from behind the iron mask. It was off-putting, more so in person.

Both Bagley and Vansant were good ole boys from the south, immensely talented, yet humble, and open-hearted. I learned that Bagley’s favorite character was Spider-Man and he yearned to draw his adventures someday (He got that wish in the mid-nineties). Each provided sketches to everyone who visited their tables. And not the usual hurried headshot scribbled in marker—nowadays you’d be lucky to get that. No, these were full-figure drawings of any hero you wanted. Vansant was going so far as rendering his art in color, using a variety of colored markers that he had brought with him. Not to be outdone, Bagley asked to borrow Vansant’s instruments to bolster his black-marker sketches with shading. Unfortunately the number of fans was modest. The mall was uncharacteristically quiet for a spring weekend. The only reason that I could see being the beautiful weather; it was sunny, dry and cool. Altruistic soul that I am, I couldn’t bear the thought of these professional artists’ magnanimous donation of time and skill go to waste, so I asked monsieurs Bagley and Vansant to do sketches for me. When asked what I wanted, I replied, “I don’t know. Whatever you feel like drawing.” They were doing me a favor, after all (Altruistic and compassionate, what can I say?).

I had no idea what kind of ghoul Gerry Conway was. I hadn’t even read the original issues of Spider-Man wherein Gwen Stacy appeared and eventually was “knocked off,” but I knew about the man who “killed” her and the controversy her death caused in the comic book field. More than a few mark Gwen’s termination as the end of comics’ Silver Age, which began in the late 50s with the reinvention of DC’s Golden Age heroes, like the Flash in Showcase #4, the commonly acknowledged start of the Silver Age; and the debut of the Justice League of America, which inspired The Fantastic Four at Marvel and that company’s subsequent creation of Spider-Man, Incredible Hulk, X-Men, et al.

I envisioned a dark, gaunt, brooding figure clad in black with the look of a serial killer, who plucked off the wings of butterflies in the downtime between autographing comic books with his own blood. In actuality, Conway was a congenial, friendly sort with a good sense of humor and clad in an unremarkable light-colored shirt and worn blue jeans.

As a longtime scribe of Spider-Man, he got a kick out of seeing the Web-Slinger come to life. Contrary to his taking offense at my haranguing him (as Spidey) for killing my girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, he enjoyed the ribbing and returned the jabs in kind, faulting Gwen as being a boring character long overdue to meet her maker. Out of costume, our chemistry continued as we discussed his writing career and my less-than-stellar acting one, in which he inexplicably took great interest, including my continuing stint as waiter, the cliché vocation of aspiring actors across the country. At the time of our meeting, I was working at a steak and seafood restaurant, Publicans-On-The-Pier, on the upper level of Pier 14 at New York City’s fabricated tourist destination, the South Street Seaport.

I had recently had a new photo montage of myself printed, one side featuring two abutting portrait headshots with greatly differing looks, and the other presenting a jigsaw puzzle of action shots of me posing in a variety of staged situations, along with my contact information. Upon my showing it to Conway, he asked if he could keep it. I only had about a gazillion of the things, more than enough for mailings to agents, production companies, directors, networks, studios, family, friends and the entire populations of several provinces in China, so immediately acceded to Conway’s outrageous demand.

Normally, once a gig is done, I have to rush to the nearest airport to catch a flight. At the very least, I spend a final night in the hotel and awaken at the crack of dawn to take the first flight out. But during the Chattanooga appearance, after two days at the mall, there was an additional day before everyone’s departure, on which Saffel scheduled a field trip to a place called Rock City.

Rock City?!! What is Rock City? Is it near Bedrock?

This ignorant Yankee’s knowledge of Chattanooga consisted of the “Choo-Choo” song, so brilliantly parodied in Young Frankenstein, and an obscure 1969–1971 Hanna-Barbera cartoon, The Cattanooga Cats, which I often mistook as “The Chattanooga Cats,” even though when I was young I had a coloring book based on the show with the title plainly visible on the cover. I also believed the name of the height-challenged cowboy with the enormous, red handle-bar mustache that often fell victim to Bugs Bunny’s playful shenanigans was pronounced “YO-zeh-mite Sam,” though he clearly introduced himself otherwise at the start of most every cartoon in which he appeared. So I have a history of ignorant bliss when it comes to the obvious.

On the route to Rock City, farmhouses, silos and barns dotted the countryside the way Starbucks cafés do today, and on nearly every one was an ad for Rock City. “Come to Rock City.” “Rock City, 9 mi.” “See Historic Rock City, Route 58.” Rooftops of weathered barns that looked as if they hadn’t been touched since Roosevelt’s New Deal alerted passing travelers to Rock City. They looked like something from the opening credits of Green Acres. I half expected the occasional clapboard structure to read “Eddie Albert” or “Eva Gabor.” These signs are apparently so renowned that best-selling author Neil Gaiman—Coraline, Stardust, Sandman—mentions them at the climax of his 2001 novel, American Gods, which takes place at a Rock City vista, Lookout Mountain. Neil Gaiman is a Brit and even he knew of Rock City. Where the hell was I when the Rock City memo went around?!!

There were also sequential billboards along the highway’s shoulder, too, spaced approximately several hundred feet apart; “Wholesome Family Fun…” “Legendary Rock City…” “TN Hwy 58 Up Lookout Mountain Ramp…” This was virile marketing long before it was guerrilla marketing. Before the trip, I had as much interest in this historic sight as I had in a recipe for haggis. But after a few miles of ubiquitous signage and endless billboards, I was King Arthur and Rock City was the Holy Grail; nothing was going to stop me.

Rock City opened in 1932, but few were eager to trek up to its mountaintop location until owner and sign painter Clark Byers loaded up his pick-up with the intention of persuading any farmer he could to use their barns or other buildings for advertising. At its peak during the 50s and 60s, as many as 900 structures featured Rock City advertising from Florida to the Canadian Border, Texas to the Carolinas. Byers was a marketing genius, way ahead of his time. One has to wonder how he would promote Rock City today, what with the endless possibilities of the internet.

Taking full advantage of ancient rock formations, breathtaking panoramic views, beautiful waterfalls and awesome caverns, Rock City is a theme park created as if by Mother Nature. Byers designed walkways, stone walls, rustic bridges and arches around the natural formations, interweaving these constructs as the mountain’s terrain dictated. The result is a testament of nature’s power and grandeur. Suffice it to say the build-up of endless barn and roadside signage en route was still insufficient in hailing this great park. The greatest wordsmiths of history could not adequately describe its wonders. The fact that I was spending an afternoon with one of the comic world’s most famous writers and two of its most promising stars was lost to me as I took in the sights, including one vista point where you can see seven states at one time.

As mentioned, the weather couldn’t have been nicer. Yet, the park was even quieter than the mall; we were evidently there off peak, though oddly on peak all at once (Thank you. I’ll be here through the week. Try the veal.). The brochure features photos of walking dwarf mascots —one named Rocky— various fairy-tale notables, such as Snow White and Humpty Dumpty; and even a clown creating balloon sculptures; entertaining guests. Thankfully, they were all absent during our visit. There were such fantasy characters throughout the park nonetheless; garishly painted statues sitting atop walls; lawn-gnomes amidst the stalagmites in the caverns; even a mechanical, singing and banjo-playing dwarf! Ugh! I found these artificial “sweeteners” a slap in Mother Nature’s face, needlessly deflecting attention from her beauty. But I’m sure the park’s marketing wizards felt the need to take such arguably dim-witted moves in order to better lure families to Rock City. Perhaps it was Byers himself who started the campaign, proving that nobody is perfect.

It was a lovely way to wrap-up a gig. Ninety-percent of the time, I’d be hustling out the door of the venue at which I was appearing to catch a flight at the area airport, leaving the echo of Pleasure meeting yous and Let’s keep in touches in my wake. Unfortunately, I never did see Vansant again, but would see Bagley on various occasions thereafter. Gerry and I exchanged phone numbers. He had planned to visit the Big Apple in the near future and promised to call. I wasn’t holding my breath.

Less than a year later, I was doing researching for my job, i.e. reading the latest batch of comics sent to me by Marvel, specifically The Spectacular Spider-Man #158. The adventure opens with our erstwhile hero being attacked by the Trapster—née Paste-Pot Pete as his weapon of choice was a gun that fired quick-hardening superglue—while web-swinging to the South Street Seaport to meet his then wife Mary-Jane for lunch. As luck would have it, Spidey’s paste-coated self plummets into the restaurant where he was to meet his beloved. And who should be waiting on Mrs. Parker? Why her good friend and fellow actor, Stephan the Waiter, that’s who. Conway had written me into the storyline, complete with a job in food service at the locale where I worked in real life. Rendering my countenance was comics legend Sal Buscema, to whom Conway had sent my photo collage and info.

Conway made one alteration in naming the character Stephan as opposed to Stephen, which was either a typo or his way of defending himself should I not like the way my character was written and subsequently threaten to sue (No chance!). More likely, he wanted my character to sound snooty, to fit with the upscale establishment in which he erroneously envisioned my working. In any case, I was gobsmacked as only a comic-book nerd could be. I was in Spider-Man; not simply a cameo, but a fully-realized character and friend of the hero! The issue went on to be a sellout. Jealous types will argue that the reason for the book’s popularity was its being the first episode in the “Cosmic Spider-Man” story arc, in which Spidey receives the Captain Universe power (Don’t ask.). But it also happens to feature the inaugural appearance of Stephan the Waiter. Coincidence? I think not!


Jonathan Baylis said...

Did you try to buy that page from Sal?

Vroom! said...

I met Sal for the first time years after the book came out at a Comic Con in Gettysburg. He only vaguely remembered me from the photo and had no idea if he still had those pages or not. But considering they contain the first appearance of Stephan the Waiter, I'm sure they were snapped up for top dollar very quickly :-)


John III said...

Steve, you ARE a comic book legend! LOL Now we just need to get you a super power and name. Lets see, Yo-ze-mite Vrattos. Super power? Vrooms coffee faster than anyone!

Vroom! said...


I think "Captain Oblivious" fits the bill...


P.S. I was also a fan of the Sub-Ma-REEN-er!

Terry O said...

Hi Stephen, Elaina sent me a link to this blog and now it looks like I've got a new way to fill time at work! I am also an official Spider-Man. I'm Brenda's man in Massachusetts. I've also been the Hulk and was Wolverine in a parade in RI on July 4. (Lost much sweat that day!) Not only do I love reading of your adventures, I think there may be many overlaps in our comics collections. Yes, I'm another geek living the fantasy in costume. Keep up the good work.

John III said...

Another Spidey? WHOA!! lol