Tales of My Father #3
This is a Tale of My Father but it's also the story of how I broke into the profession which I've now been in for…well, it's 44 years, almost to the day.
I got out of high school in June of '69 and said to mine old self, "Okay, if you're going to become a professional writer, now's the time." I was 17 and I'd actually submitted a few things to comic book editors before then…but only because they'd asked me.
Previously, I'd written a lot of letters to comic book letter pages. This was back when comic books actually had letter pages and I've given up on my long-ago pledge that all of mine always would. But most of them had them then and I think about 90% of the letters I sent in were published…some rewritten a lot by the editors not because I hadn't said what I'd said well but because I hadn't said what they wanted the letters they published to say. Like, I wrote a letter in to Wonder Woman saying I hadn't liked the latest issue and someone — perhaps the book's editor, Robert Kanigher — had omitted a "not" here and there and completely rewritten one or two sentences so suddenly, I liked that issue. Heckuva thing to do to a 14-year-old kid who isn't being paid.
Still, I was proud to have so many of my letters published and my father, when I showed him the issues, acted like I'd just sold my first novels to Random House for a huge advance. You could see the faintest glimmer of hope in his eyes: Hey, maybe my son isn't destined for a life of poverty and heartbreak if he tries to become a professional writer. That kind of glimmer.
Little did either of us know. Getting into a comic book letter page back then wasn't as great a feat as it seemed. All you had to do was construct sentences with nouns and verbs in them and get the punctuation vaguely right. As I would learn when I got into the industry, very few letters were received and most of them weren't far removed from a Crayola® scrawling of "I LIKE YOUR COMIC" with the "E" backwards. Still, I felt a little closer to my beloved comic books since I was in them, albeit by a technicality…and my father had that glimmer. And my letters led to three separate editors — Mort Weisinger and Jack Miller at DC, Dick Giordano at Charlton — encouraging me to write and submit scripts for their books. That sure made all that letter-writing worthwhile…or looked like it might.
Weisinger had me write some Jimmy Olsen stories, rejected them all, then suggested I do a Krypto story for the back of Superboy. Miller had taken over Wonder Woman and wanted me to take a crack at that book. Not only would that have been a nice credit but I might have displaced Robert Kanigher as writer, thereby exacting some revenge for him rewriting my letters. Giordano needed ghost stories.
I had more or less written-off comic book writing as a job. Today, thanks to the Internet and Federal Express, folks who write comic books can and do live anywhere. Back then in every interview I read in fanzines, editors insisted you had to live in New York or reasonably near their offices. Born 'n' bred in Los Angeles, I had no intention of migrating, especially after I was accepted by U.C.L.A. So I just thought, "Okay, so comic books, as much as I love 'em, aren't something I'm destined to write." I could live with that but as it turned out, I didn't have to. The industry in its odd way came looking for me starting with those invites from editors.
They led to a lot of scripts being rejected but then in rapid succession, each of those three editors did the same two things in this order…
- He accepted a script I'd submitted and congratulated me on making my first sale and then…
- Before he processed the paperwork to pay me for that script, he got fired.
Well, to be technically accurate, Mr. Giordano wasn't fired. It's just funnier to say all three got fired. After telling me he wanted to buy a script I'd submitted for The Many Ghosts of Dr. Graves, Mr. Giordano quit Charlton to accept a position at DC where one of the editors he replaced was Jack Miller, who had just told me he was going to buy a script I'd written for Wonder Woman. But Giordano didn't get Wonder Woman and that writing assignment was filled, not by me.
I was not disappointed or discouraged at all. I'd written-off comic books, remember. This was all bonus stuff to the career I expected to have. It was like someone had told me, "You may have won the lottery" and then called back to say, "No, you didn't." I was back where I'd started and since I regarded the scripts as batting practice, I'd suffered no real loss, especially since I'd been wise enough to not tell my father what I was doing.
(I was not, however, wise enough to not tell my friends at the Comic Book Club. For months thereafter, every time a new issue of Wonder Woman, Superboy or Dr. Graves came out, a couple of members would heckle me, "Hey, when are these alleged scripts of yours coming out, liar boy?" If you are an aspiring writer and you learn no other lesson from me, learn to keep your mouth shut until you actually have the check. Even when it seems 99% certain, wait until you have the check…and to be real safe, wait until it clears.)
All of that happened before I'd graduated from University High (rah!). Once I did, I had to figure out what would be my next…really, my first step. I didn't like submitting to editors in far away cities. I decided that at least to start, I wanted to try and sell an editor in the L.A. area so I could go in, talk to the guy and learn more about what I'd done right or, more likely, wrong. I scanned the newsstands and discovered that Laugh-In magazine, based on the then-popular TV show, was published in Los Angeles. In fact, its offices were right up there on Highland Avenue in Hollywood, not far from the comic book shops I visited via bus about once a week. So I bought the current issue, went to the comic shops and found a few back issues to buy, and studied them that evening. Then I sat down and wrote six articles in the style of the magazine, which resembled a low-budget MAD more than it resembled the TV series.
The next day, I took the bus up to Hollywood and Highland with my six articles and walked a few blocks to the building that housed Laufer Publishing Company. I stood outside for a few minutes, steeling up my unsteeled courage to go in and try to sell my writing cold to a total stranger. That was the first time I'd ever done that and it was darn near the last.
Finally, I went up, found the receptionist, cleared a hot tub of phlegm from my throat and said, "Could you tell the editor there's a struggling young comedy writer here who'd like to see him?"
Without missing a beat, she picked up the phone, pressed a button and said, "George, there's a struggling young comedy writer out here who'd like to see you."
I could hear most of what he said through the receiver and then she repeated it for me: "He said if you come back in an hour, he'll give you all the time you need." I thanked her, went out and got a slice of pizza, then came back and sold the editor three of the six articles I'd written the night before. He said, "If you don't mind waiting about twenty minutes, I can have them cut you a check right now." I said I didn't mind waiting twenty minutes for that and I wondered to myself how he'd manage to get fired before those twenty minutes were up. Somehow, he did not…and I walked out with his urging to submit more and an impressively large check.
It was way more than my father was making per week and he didn't understand. He thought I was selling drugs or something. Was the check even real?
As it turned out, it was but it was the last money I'd make from Laugh-In magazine. The editor wasn't let go twenty minutes after deciding to buy something I'd written but he was, two weeks later. In fact, they not only fired him, they fired the whole magazine, shutting down production. It was so unexpected that the editor hadn't even gotten around to reading the second batch of material I handed in…so none of it was purchased and the material I'd sold him that first day never saw print.
Still, it was a definite step up in my career. This time, at least, I'd gotten a check before my editor was fired…and I did wind up writing other things for Laufer's ongoing publications which were mostly in the area of teenage fan stuff and movie star gossip.
My father couldn't understand my "salary" — and he kept using that term, which was part of the problem. I'd made a lot my first week working for this company. I made nothing the next week. I made something in-between the week after. He understood the concept of a freelance writer but he had a little trouble with the concept of freelance pay. I wrote things every week but I didn't get paid every week…so weren't they cheating me those weeks? It all averaged out to a decent income, a notch higher than his…but what the hell was my salary? And how come I was home so much instead of going into an office every day like he did?
I mean, that's how jobs worked, right? You went into the office all day, worked from 9-to-5 or 8-to-4 or some set hours…and then on payday, they gave you a check for a fixed amount, less deductions. My checks also didn't have any deductions. What was that all about? (He worked for the Internal Revenue Service, remember…) And when he asked me when payday was, I had to say, "I don't know. I think they pay me whenever they get around to it."
I was actually doing rather well as a professional writer. My first six months, I made more than he was making…but it all seemed very suspicious and unKosher to him. And unsteady. He was right about the unsteady part…but as I began to sell to more and more markets, I got fairly confident that I could keep it up for a while, maybe even the rest of my life. Now, I just had to convince my father. One of these days when I write one of these, I'll tell you how I did that.