The Ray Bradbury-Julius Schwartz-Al Feldstein Story – Part 4
In case you're just joining us: Where ya been? You'll want to catch up by reading Part 1 and then Part 2 and if you get that far, you might as well read Part 3. We resume at the Ray Bradbury-Julius Schwartz panel at the 2002 Comic-Con International in San Diego, California…
So I'm on stage with Ray and Julie. Al Feldstein, who Julie did not want on stage, is in the third row. My job? Get him up there with us, at least for a few minutes so the audience can witness the first-ever meeting of Ray with Al, the man who so lovingly adapted his work for EC Comics. Here is how Al would describe in a later interview, that event and the circumstances that led up to it…
So I called my contact in San Diego and I said, you know I adapted these stories, we've never met and I'd be interested in speaking at the panel, and he said, "No, I don't think that Schwartz will allow that but I'll think about it," and I get a call back from Mark Evanier and he says, "I am hosting that panel," and he says, "Get into the audience and we'll see what we can do." (laughter) So I'm sitting in the audience and Bradbury comes hobbling up with a walker and oh God he's gotten so old, 'cause I remember when he was young, and Evanier steered the conversation into the comics and into EC's adaptations, and asked Bradbury, did he ever meet the guy who did them all, and of course Bradbury said no. And so he called me up and well, I was so touched that I cried, I really couldn't help it, tears came to my eyes. And we embraced, and he was very sweet…
When I started writing this account, I did not have a recording or transcript of the event and didn't know if one existed so I was going to paraphrase from memory. I still don't know about a recording but a friend of mine named James Van Hise wrote last night to say he had a typed transcript and that's the reason this last part wasn't up sooner. I was waiting to get that text from him, and now that I have it, what follows is not a paraphrase. Here I am, as Al would note, steering the conversation into comics…
ME: Ray, you were an attendee at one of the very first San Diego conventions, and at that point they had 300 or 400 people at the whole convention. Coming back here now, how do you feel seeing this convention all filled with science-fiction and comic book fans, people who are like your children; your offspring, inspired by your works?
RAY BRADBURY: It's wonderful, but I want to explain why I'm here to begin with. When I was nine years old, Buck Rogers came into the world. October, 1929. I was immediately in love with that comic strip and I started to collect it every day of my life for three months. I stopped collecting that because the kids in the fifth grade made fun of me. That was 1929, the beginning of the Depression. I listened to these kids and I tore up the comic strips. It's the worst thing I ever did because three days later I broke into tears and I said to myself, why I am crying? Who died? And the answer was me. I killed myself. I'd torn up the future. I listened to these stupid people. So I said, how do I cure this? I went back and collected Buck Rogers strips for the next seven years, every day, and never listened to one more stupid sonofabitch after that. And that's why I'm here. I collected Prince Valiant and all the various comic strips, and Tarzan drawn by Harold Foster in 1932. Incredible work. And when I published my first book in 1947, I sent a copy of the book to Harold Foster with a note saying, "You're one of the greatest artists of the 20th century, and I love your work and I love you." He sent me back two incredibly huge original Prince Valiant comic strips, which I still have at home. They're priceless! And I stayed in touch with Harold Foster to the end of his life twenty years ago. So you see, I'm a dedicated collector and I know what I'm looking at. And when I came to this group here, thirty odd years ago, I didn't realize it was going to grow so big. There were very few people here thirty years ago, and the exhibits were very poor. Very fragmentary. But now you've got this amazing display downstairs. I've been here two years, and I can't believe what's happened. So I'm very happy for all of us, and we're going to be here today, and we're all going to be crazy together.
ME: Now a lot of people probably first saw your work when they saw the EC Comics. I know you're told this story before, but I'd like to hear it again. How did they wind up adapting your stories into their science-fiction comics?
BRADBURY: They stole them. Like the Russians. The Russians steal everything. The Russians have been stealing my books for fifty years and I haven't gotten one ruble for it. They laugh about it. Well, the same thing happened with EC Comics. A friend of mine told me, "They're adapting your stories in the comic magazines but they're not giving you credit." And I didn't believe this person, but I finally looked up the magazines, and I was outraged. I said, "My God! This is incredible!" What am I going to do about it? Should I write them a nasty letter? And I said, no, what would Jesus do? Well, Jesus would have turned the other cheek. So I'll write a turn the other cheek letter to EC Comics and congratulate them on their brilliant adaptation, and their wonderful drawings, and what have you. And at the end of my letter I said, incidentally, you're very busy, but you forgot to send me an adaptation check. And the next week I received an adaptation check in the mail.
As Ray is telling this tale, I have a chilling thought. He is predictable by being predictable in his unpredictability. He is, after all, a man who likes to shock his readers a little, occasionally leading them this way and then shoving them that way. What if I move the discussion even closer to Al Feldstein and the following happens?
ME: So…what did you think of those adaptations that EC did of your stories? And did you ever meet the man who wrote and edited those comics, Al Feldstein?
RAY: Well, I used to say all the time that I liked them and I guess I did at one point. But over the last few years, I've had the occasion to read some of them again and I don't know what I was thinking. They crammed my stories into these little seven-page holes and left out the guts and…well, no. I never met this Al Feldstein but if I ever do, I'll probably punch his lights out or something.
Well, that would certainly make for a memorable panel. Fortunately, the above is not how it goes. How it really goes is like this…
ME: But you liked the job they did adapting them.
BRADBURY: There was some wonderful work. Krigstein did some great stuff. Elder. Williamson.
ME: The editor who adapted all these was a man named Al Feldstein, who adapted your stories and crammed them into these tiny spaces. How many times did you consult him or meet with him to do this?
BRADBURY: Never. After the first few adaptations I knew they weren't going to change the stories. They were going to use my words and they would be faithful. So I never met him.
ME: So you never met Al Feldstein?
ME: I think it's about time that happened. Ladies and gentlemen, the genius behind EC Comics, Mr. Al Feldstein!
Al Feldstein sprints to the stage — and I mean sprints. The audience erupts in applause and excitement, and everyone in the hall is thrilled. Everyone, that is, but a man named Julius Schwartz who is staring stilettos at me. At that moment, he does not like me a whole lot. Al settles into the extra chair I had them put onstage…and of course I realize Julie is going to take the presence of that chair as prima facie evidence that this was not a spur-o'-the-moment summoning to the stage of Feldstein, who just "happens" to be in the third row. That will be the proof I planned the whole thing. Which, of course, I did.
But I'll worry about that later. Right now, Al Feldstein is about to speak…and you need to know this about Al: He is not the warmest, friendliest guy in the world. Or at least when he was editing MAD, he had something of the opposite rep. He was All Business, doing much of his work behind the only closed door in the office. Everywhere else in the place, doors were open, jokes were told and it was like an ongoing party that somehow managed to accidentally put out this silly magazine every six weeks. Feldstein didn't socialize much and he told interviewers he was a mercenary who just did what he did for the paycheck. I am thus a bit surprised but not at all displeased by what he says when he sits down next to me…
ME: Al, I hope you brought a check.
AL FELDSTEIN: I have to tell you a story. We didn't really adapt his stuff without paying him. At least I didn't know about it. You have to understand how we worked, Bill Gaines and I. Bill Gaines was taking Dexedrine pills to lose weight, only he used to take them at night before dinner, so he was up all night wired. And he used to read, and he'd read things, and we used to have story ideas four times a week, and he brought in some story ideas, and I said those two combined would be great, and that's the two stories into one that I wrote as an original story that he caught me with. And it was the start, I want to tell you Ray, of the most inspiring period of my life…
At about this point, Al begins crying. Actual tears.
AL FELDSTEIN: To have the privilege to take this guy's work, which was spectacular, and adapt it into the comic format, and try to be faithful to it, all of it, because every word is precious. It was a great pleasure and also a great tutorial for me as a writer. And I was really just a part-time writer. I wasn't really a professional writer. I was an artist, and you're an inspiration to me as an artist, because the way you wrote. You wrote like a painting. You took words that were colors and phrases that were brushstrokes, and you painted a visual picture that everyone in their own minds saw. The limitation to your stuff was that I'd give it to an artist and they would delineate the image that I think was a detriment, in a way, but it was the first virtual reality for comics. This guy was writing virtual reality!
By the time he's halfway through, Al isn't the only one on stage crying. Ray Bradbury is, as well. He can tell, and it's obvious to all, that Al is not a demonstrative man. This is not easy for him but it's something he feels he has to do. In later years as I get to know Al better, I will discover what a lovely, sensitive human being he is…and a contrast like that with his old reputation doesn't mean that that the old rep was misreported.
Some people get nicer as they get older, especially when they stop being The Boss. Julius Schwartz got nicer as he got older and a lot nicer once he was no longer the senior editor at his company…
Though as I'm sitting on that stage, I'm thinking he wants to strangle me for double-crossing him and bringing Al Feldstein into the Ray Bradbury/Julius Schwartz Panel over his objections. I'm thinking he'll never speak to me again…or worse, he'll speak to me constantly to tell me how I betrayed him.
But then again, maybe not…
Because as I look over at him, I see Julie remove his glasses to wipe his eyes. They're damp. So up there on that stage, we've got Al crying and Ray crying and now Julie's crying and I suddenly feel something moist on my cheek.
This could go on but I decide if we do, it'll be sheer anti-climax and it will indeed become the Bradbury/Feldstein Panel and Julie will indeed throttle me. So I wrap it up and Al and Ray hug and after Al exits, Ray whispers a pronounced "Thank you" in my direction and we start talking about him and Julie. The rest of the panel — Julie and Ray swapping anecdotes — is pure gold and I am so utterly unnecessary that I actually leave before it's over. The convention, forgetting that I can't be in two places at the same time, has me moderating another panel across the hall then and I regret not being able to hear Ray and Julie through to the end. On the other hand, I'm still not sure Julie doesn't want to slap me silly so perhaps an early exit is prudent. He will later say to me, "You shouldn't have done it. But I'm glad you did" and we will be even closer friends than before.
So will Al Feldstein and Ray Bradbury for the years Ray has left. They spend more time together at the con and subsequently there are other meetings, other chances to discuss their glorious remote collaborations as well as, I'm sure, other topics. These men were two heroes of mine and it's great that the two of them got together.
Any one of you could have and probably would have engineered that first meeting if you'd been the moderator of that panel. That's why I don't deserve any special credit and I didn't tell you this long story to try and get any. I told it because it's one of my favorite memories of Ray, of Julie, of Al (Al's still with us, happily) and of Comic-Con, and I often relive great moments by sharing them with others. That's kind of what great moments are there for.