Friday, April 15, 2011

I-CON-ic Moments

I'll be among the guests at I-CON 30 this weekend at Stony Brook University, the annual comics and sci-fi convention. It's a family affair this year, with Laurie, Chuck and Rebecca also on the guest list. All of us will be appearing on a variety of panels; in fact, I believe there is one point on Saturday afternoon where each of us is on a different panel!

I've lost track of how many I-CONs I've attended over the years. I was a regular attendee in the 80s and 90s when I was still working at DC Comics, but I've been there less frequently over the past decade.

Perhaps my favorite was the year I got to chat with Scott Carpenter, one of the seven Mercury astronauts who made space-flight history back in the 1960s. I actually had a connection with Carpenter. My Uncle Jimmy had been a NASA engineer and for a number of years had worked at Langley Air Force Base in Virginia, where the astronauts were also based. As a result, my cousin Peter went to school and was friends with Carpenter's son Marc, as well as the sons of Gus Grissom and Wally Schirra.

Though it was more than two decades later, Carpenter remembered my uncle and that the community they all lived in was named, coincidentally, Stony Brook. We'd been talking for awhile when we realized that we each had to appear on panels. And both of us wanted the chance to go to the men's room before them. I mentioned that we referred to that as Schwartz's Law: "Never go anywhere without going first."

Carpenter countered with his own story. "After I made my space flight, I was in a ticker-tape parade with (then-Vice President Lyndon) Johnson and he said to me, 'Now that you're famous, there are two things that you should never pass up. One is a free lunch and the other is the chance to go to the bathroom.'"

And that is what we now refer to as Lyndon Johnson's Corollary to Schwartz's Law.


"Back in the day" one of my regular activities at I-CON was an interview by Howard Margolin for his "Destinies" program on the Stony Brook radio station. (It still airs Friday nights at 11:30 on WUSB 90.1 FM.) We would talk about what was going on in the comic book business and projects I was working on. Howard would edit the recording and air it a few weeks later.

The one we did in 1988 took place shortly after I had returned from my visit to Ireland to see the prototype computer program a company called Grafascan was using to do comic book color separations. I told Howard that while this program would initially be used only to translate the traditionally hand-colored guides into a form that could be used for printing, I foresaw a time in the future when colorists would be "painting" the pages right on the computer screen. At the time, it sounded like something out of a science fiction movie.

After each interview, Howard would ask me if I wanted a copy of the recording and I would say yes. But neither of us was in any particular rush for it, so there were times when a few years would pass before got them. In 1993 Howard gave me a collection of four or five interviews, including the one we had done in '88.
As we were driving home that evening, Chuck popped the tape in and there I am, talking about how computer coloring was going to change the look of comics forever.

Well, five years later, it had happened and Chuck was just staring at me, asking, "When did you record this?"

Now, of course, twenty-three years after that interview, I'm sure there are plenty of comics fans who can't remember when the books weren't colored on a computer.


For those of you who will be there and are interested in tracking me down, I'll be at the following:

Comic Book Trivia - Saturday from 11:00am - 12:00pm in SAC 308 (with Chuck)

Would You Mess with Forbush Man if You Saw Him Walking Down the Street? - Saturday from 12:00pm - 1:00pm in SAC 308

Comics We Wish Were Collected in Trade - Saturday from 2:00pm - 3:00pm in SAC 308 (with my pal Bob Greenberger)

The Haunted Journey into the Secret Vault of Suspense - Saturday from 3:00pm - 4:00pm in SAC 306

Dwayne McDuffie Tribute - Saturday from 5:00pm - 6:00pm in SAC 306 (also with Bob Greenberger)

1970-1985: An Age Undreamed Of! - Saturday from 6:00pm - 7:00pm in SAC 308

Monday, April 4, 2011

"Ducky Birthday!"

My sixth birthday might be the first that I have a specific memory of. That's because it snowed and the neighborhood kids who came to my party all showed up wearing boots. When the party ended and it was time for them to leave, none of them could remember whose boots were whose. (Well, they were a bunch of six-year-olds, after all!)

But the most memorable birthday was probably my 18th, back in the day when reaching that age meant you were old enough to drink but not old enough to vote. The events of that day back in 1969 were immortalized in a Hobart Pumpernickel story, one that contained very little variation from how it actually happened.
For your amusement, some excerpts from "Ducky Birthday, Dear Rob."

It was 6 PM on the first Friday during Easter vacation. It was also my birthday. To celebrate, I had spent most of the day sleeping.
The telephone rang. It was Peeved Matchklinger. "Hi, Rob," he said. "What are you planning on doing tonight?" "I don't know yet."
"Oh, well, Ellen and I are going to the drive-in and we wondered if you wanted to come along and take notes."
"I don't think so, Peeved. Janet asked me to come over and look at her brother's new goldfish."
"Oh, then do you want a lift?"
"That would be a nice thing for you to do," I replied.
"I'll be over at 8:00."
"Then I'll see you at about 9:30." "No, no. I'll be there on time as a special treat for your birthday."

At 8:15 I heard a car horn outside. I looked out the window but didn't see a car. Five minutes later, Peeved, having turned the car around, pulled up in front of the house. I walked out to the car.
Ellen Ribbonhouse handed me an already-opened bag of walnuts, some of which had been eaten. "Here's your birthday present," she said.
"Walnuts?" I asked.
"Why not?" asked Peeved.

"You're only fifteen minutes late," I said to Peeved.
"That means he's early," said Ellen. "When he's only fifteen minutes late, that means he's early."
Peeved smiled proudly and said, "Have a walnut."
I tried to crack the nut with my teeth. "It would have been nice if you had gotten me a nutcracker to go with them."
"George Washington could open walnuts with his hands," said Ellen.
I tried to open the walnut with my hands. It cracked open. Ellen and Peeved began to cheer about having a potential future President in the car with them.

A short time later we arrived at Janet Hoot's house. There were a number of cars parked nearby. "Looks like a lot of people came to see the new goldfish," said Peeved.
"No, Peeved," I said. "They all came because they think they're having a surprise party for me."
"It'll be a surprise," he said.
We walked into the house. I was surprised. I didn't know half the people there and they didn't seem to care that I had walked in.
Ginsy Alansberg walked up to me and started to laugh.
"What's the matter with you?" I asked. I handed him a walnut. "See what I got for my birthday? Walnuts! They gave me walnuts! Have a walnut."
I walked around the room giving everyone walnuts.
When I got back to Ginsy, he was still laughing. "Wait till you see what we got you."

I walked over to look at the birthday cakes. Ellen had baked one and had drawn a moose head on it with walnuts. Janet and Anita Gravel had baked the other one, a sponge cake they had cut in half to make two circles, each of which had "Rob" spelled on them with pecans. Janet had named the cakes "Mae West" because of their shape when they had come out of the oven. Somehow, I didn't think the two cakes looked at all like Mae West.

Ginsy came over and handed me a card. I read it. "Violets are blue, roses are red. They were out of primal chickens so we got you this instead."
Windy Malsh handed me a live duck. Harry Gerriton came down the stairs and handed me another duck.
"Two ducks?" I said.
"Not just two, said Ginsy, still laughing. "We had to buy six of them."
"Six ducks!!!!"
"Aren't they cute?" said Ginsy. Windy came down the stairs with the other four ducks in a box.
I looked at the duck in my right hand. "Oh, they're cute, all right. Do you know what this cute little duck just did in my hand?!?"
"Don't you just love them?"
"Ginsy, what am I going to do with six ducks?"
"Um... well, you don't know."
I put the two ducks into the box and went to wash my hands. Then I went to the phone and called home. When my father answered, I said, "Six ducks. They got me six ducks."
"Live ducks?"
"Yup, six honest-to-goodness-real-live-ducks!"
"Talk to your mother."
My mother got on the phone. "Tell Ginsy that he can take care of the ducks for you and you'll come to visit them at his house."
"Ginsy, my mother says you should take care of the ducks and I can come visit them."
"Doesn't your mother like ducks?" asked Ginsy.
I said goodbye and hang up the phone.
"Don't you even want to take two of them?" asked Ginsy.
"My dog would think they were delicious."
"Let's go over to your house and show you mother how cute the ducks are and convince her to let you keep them."
"You go! I'm not going."
With that, Ginsy, Harry, Windy, Harry's sister Beenie, Amly Coldspleen, and Dynne Ledofsky left with two of the ducks for my house. Peeved and Ellen left too, saying that they would be back soon.
I put on my coat and went to visit Frodo Shnyder, who was sick and unable to attend the party. I walked down the street muttering, "Six ducks! They got me six ducks."

I arrived at Frodo's house and rang the doorbell. He opened the door and said, "Come on in. There's a phone call for you."
We went up to his room and I picked up the phone. It was Janet Hoot. "Where are you?" she asked.
"Well, since you called Frodo's house and I'm talking to you on his phone, where do you think I am?"
"What did you leave for?"
"I came to visit a sick friend."
"It's your party, you know."
"I know that. But half of my party went to my house to sell my mother six ducks. The other half are people I don't even know!"
"Are you coming back?"
"Of course I'm coming back. I want a piece of cake!"

When I got back to Janet's house, the party had returned. Ginsy came over to me and said, "Your mother loved the ducks and said you could keep all six."
"Where? At your house?"
"Actually," said Amly, "your dog loved them. He gobbled them up."
"My dog always wanted a pet," I said.

Janet had been lighting the candles on the cakes. There were eighteen of them in the moose cake and one in each half of Mae West.
Everybody sang "Happy Birthday."
Before the song was done, Janet was telling me to hurry up and blow out the candles. I think she was afraid the cake would blow up if the flames got too close to it.
Somebody told me to make a wish. I did and blew out the candles. The wish didn't come true. The six ducks were still there.

The ducks did not come home with me, nor did they go to "Ginsy's" house. They spent the night with "Harry." The next day, with my friends finally convinced that the ducks could not live in my bedroom, we brought them to a local dairy farm, where they joined cows, chickens, and other ducks. And lived long, happy, pro-duck-tive lives.

As a matter of fact, so have I.