Moderating Stan and Harlan


Thursday, January 21, 2010

Conventions are a fixture of comic book culture (not to mention science fiction culture, and other related fandoms). Yet they rarely get analysed as an experience. What is the point of going to conventions? How do they reinforce a sense of sub-cultural identity? What do cartoonists and other artists get out of them?

The “Dimension Convention” that took place in New York in the summer of 1984 was an entirely typical and humdrum affair, a mixture of comics, science fiction and affiliated media junk. Isaac Asimov was there as a guest of honour. Stan Lee debated Harlan Ellison over gun ads in comics books (a clash of the titan memorialized in The Comics Journal #103). The usual New York crowd of the time – Chaykin, Wein, Wolfman, Simonson – could be seen loitering the halls.

Yet the very ordinariness of the event, its mundane typicality, makes it worthwhile as a specimen case, a stand-in for a larger set of experiences. We’re lucky to have an in-depth account of the Dimension Convention, written by novelist Samuel Delany, who took part in a panel and moderated the Lee/Ellison talk.

Delany’s report on the events comes in the form of a long letter he wrote on June 28th, 1984 to a friend, which can be found in the book 1984, which collects a large chunk of the writer’s correspondence for that year (with some spillage into 1983 and 1985). Delany is of course a marvelous writer, which is what makes his account of the convention worth reading. With a novelist’s eye for telling detail, he recaptures the hustle and bustle of the crowd, the quick psychological jolts that come from meeting old friends or encountering new fans, and the tawdriness of the commercial tables. Along the way, we get a quick sketch of Lee and Ellison as public performers. Reading Delany’s account, it’s easy to see why conventioneering is both exhaustive and addictive.

With the kind permission of Samuel R. Delany, I’ve pasted some pages from Delany’s letter below. I would recommend them to anyone who wants to think about conventions as an essential pillar of comics culture.

I should also add some words about Delany’s book as a whole. Writers don’t usually publish their letters while still alive (the task is usually left to widows, ex-lovers, and assistants) but Delany has never been one to follow the rules. (Oddly enough the only other writer I can think of who was so similarly bold with publishing his correspondence was E.B. White, who has nothing else in common with Delany). 1984 provides a remarkably intimate picture of Delany’s life during a crucial moment in time. Like Whitman or Melville, Delany is a New York democrat comfortable with all walks of life, as likely to go to hustle for sex in a movie theatre as to party hosted by a millionaire, equally at ease with Umberto Eco as with Stan Lee. 1983 and 1984 were the years that he (and many others) first became fully conscious of AIDS (the disease had only been named in 1982). The onset of this plague had a profound impact on Delany’s literary career: he became one of the first fiction writers to record the impact of AIDS. But aside from being a record of how the gay community in New York processed information about the new disease. Delany’s 1984 belongs to the small shelf of great literary letter writing, alongside Keats, Flaubert, Kafka, and D.H. Lawrence.

Here is Delany’s account of the convention:

And suddenly I had an insight that stopped me where I stood, one foot on one step and one on the step below. The content was not terribly profound. The intensity with which I felt it is a little hard to convey. But I was suddenly aware of the psychological mechanism by which a writer or an actor or a performer becomes addicted to this kind of public feedback. Such public attention is terribly pleasurable. The pleasure lasts for a few days, or even weeks. And under the pressure of such pleasure, even the most dedicated and conscientious artist can have his or her mind move into the configuration — without even realizing it — that connects writing (or anything else) in his or her mind with this kind of pleasure. And that’s a very different kind of pleasure from that which you get in front of the page when you put words on it to organize an intense picture of the universe around you and a self within it, from which, for moments here and there, if you’re doing it right, you can vanish as a pained personality into some universal cascade of order and accuracy. That pleasure you turn to the page again and again for, hoping to find it — and sometimes you do. But it is a rational pleasure, finally. This publicly mediated pleasure, however, you can become truly addicted to: It would be very easy to get yourself in a mental state where you honestly felt you couldn’t write without it. In fact, what I realized is that if you don’t put some conscious energy into fighting it — because finally, in psychological terms, it’s just a matter of following the path of least resistance — you will become addicted to it.

So many writers, on whatever level, already have. How many writers have I talked to over the years who’ve told me: “I can’t work without a contract”? Most of them are particularly high production writers, too: Brunner, Moorcock, Malzberg come to mind. I could probably name more if I thought about it. But this is just the poor man’s version of this addiction. They truly need that “shot” that comes from getting an idea, and having some editor say: “Hey, that’s a great one! I’ll buy it from you! Here’s a contract and a check! Go home and write it!” In fact, one of the weirdest things in the world to me has always been to sit around in some professional party and listen to these guys talk seriously and intently about how much this editor or that editor is crazy about some book or other — of which not a page has actually yet been written!

By the same token, editors learn very quickly that they have to supply this sort of enthusiasm. Lou Aronica, for example, if you went by what he says at lunch, is just as enthusiastic over the unwritten Splendor and Misery of Bodies, of Cities as he is over Stars in My Pocket,which he’s actually read three times now! It makes you kind of wonder.

But how often does a Malzberg or a Brunner or a Moorcock get a Sunday Times review? Once, twice, three times out of a lifetime production of 50 or 150 books or so. It’s not much. And so they become hooked on the editorial substitute. In a way, I’m lucky that I’ve had as much of the strong stuff as I have, if only to see how it works.

And the other source of feedback is, of course, the conventions. In a sense, the conventions are a lot more realistic: For one thing, there the feedback is for work written and published, not an editorial substitute for an addictive craving. And it’s not the inflated sort that comes with mechanical reproduction, i.e., knowing that a few hundred thousand readers, who, indeed, haven’t read your book, are sharing in the praise being heaped on you by the reviewer. The only place where, you realize, there is still a lot of room for misconstruing what is going on around you is an incident of the sort that happened to me at least once at last weekend’s convention: I had been chairing a panel on Visual Interpretation and the Written Word.The participants were (from right to left) Howard Chaykin, Kelly Freas, me in the middle, Walt Simonson, Harlan Ellison, and Richard (The Shattered Stars) McEnroe.

Richard was filling in for Alfred Bester, who hadn’t shown up. He’s young (29?), stocky, serious, and I don’t think he’s done very much of this sort of thing before. The rest of us are all old convention panel hacks, and Harlan is irrepressible and brilliant, and can make just about any audience glitter. And Howie is almost as good. Now we’re all smart. All of as have things to say on just about any topic. Really, our only difference is how much experience we’ve had with (and our personal style in) saying them. I felt the topic itself was a loser. But somehow everyone rose to the occasion, and the whole thing — as a performance — was among the better such I’ve been on . . . not a little because, as moderator, I’d done about fifteen minutes’ thinking before it got started, kept notes while it went along, and I simply wouldn’t let it die.

At any rate, afterwards, while Harlan fled somewhere else as fast as he could run, and the various other panel members dispersed (as friendly as we all are on the dais, a kind of immediate exhaustion sets in the moment the terminal applause is over, and rarely do even good friends speak to each other afterwards, as this one heads off to the bar, or another is beset by a dozen kids wanting autographs, or that one hurries off to take part in another program starting five minutes later, or this one wanders away toward the hucksters’ room, just to walk around in circles for fifteen minutes, to give himself or herself a chance to come down from the buzz of attention, applause, and even that much thinking and feeling in public, if it’s been a Good Show), as I was leaving the curtained-off area of Exhibition B (where we’d been exhibited), some guy about 25, blond, and wearing some light beige sports jacket, stopped me to say: “You know, Mr. Delany, I really enjoyed that panel. I thought you did a very good job moderating, and you really had a couple of very intelligent things to say yourself that I’d never thought about before. Tell me, what do you do? Do you ever write anything? Or do you just go around to the conventions and moderate these panels?” Clearly he only knew my name from the panel itself and, presumably, the “pocket program” where it was listed among those of the other participants.

The feeling was moderately like being kicked in the nuts. I don’t think my public smile wavered, and I probably said something like,“Yes, I write science fiction. Thank you for the comment. It was nice of you to take the time to tell me you enjoyed it.” (That’s my standard response to post-panel praise.) “You’ll have to excuse me, though. I have to get upstairs to another program . . .?”

And smiled.

And left.

But one really negotiates these entire affairs with the feeling that one is a known — even a well-known — personage. And somehow, all compliments, even all attention, are saturated with the fact (at least in your own head) that you are somehow being paid back, socially, for having sweated your ass off for 23 years, making, as best you can, in isolation, fine books; so that to receive a perfectly honest and sincere compliment for something perfectly real that you just actually did, followed by your praiser going on to say, in effect, “And what’s more, I don’t know you from Adam,” somehow leeches the entire narcotic charge; and your gut reaction, no matter how well you maintain your cool, is pretty much the same as an addict’s, who just pushed the plunger on the hypodermic, only to realize ten seconds later that what he’d thought was heroin was only a glassine envelope full of milk sugar.

Burned again.

And it is precisely that aspect of it that, I feel, is ultimately unhealthy — for me, as a writer.

The young man putting on this convention was John Estrin. Six years ago, he was a nineteen-year-old fan running the New York “Empiricons” that were sponsored by Columbia University’s fan group. Today he’s a 25-year-old junior executive at some public relations firm, which was the sponsor for this particular convention. Last summer, John ran “Empiricon” down at the Milford Plaza, on 8th Avenue (where I chaired at least one panel); and simultaneously there was the Forbidden Planet comics/SF con, where I interviewed Van Vogt and did a couple of programs as well.

A few months back I did a convention called “I-con” out on Long Island, at Stony Brook, where I moderated still another panel, also with Harlan Ellison. Harlan is certainly one of the SF community’s best public performers. And though, here and there, I have some minor disagreements with him, I deeply respect the man. Also, I’m just personally very fond of him. Harlan, on a panel, does require a bit of moderating. When you’re dancing that fast and furiously, it helps to have somebody who’ll remind you where the edge of the stage is, so that you don’t fall off into the lap of someone in the front row.

On that same panel, I had one complete public-presentation disaster case, Raymond Z. Gallun, who is in his late seventies or early eighties, is a terribly nice old man, but tends to mumble on unstoppably, for 40 minutes if you’ll let him, about, “How I wrote this, in 1933. And how I wrote that, in 1934. And how I wrote the other, in 1935.” Nor does it matter, particularly, what question you’ve happened to put to him. The answer is the same monologue. (I’m sure you’ve seen the odd aging professor caught up in the same syndrome.) Well, Ray needs another kind of guidance, i.e., every 20 minutes by the clock, you ask him a question to which some portion of his monologue is applicable, let him run on for 50 seconds by your watch (a minute thirty, if he’s actually being coherent), at which point you cut him off at the next comma. (Don’t try to wait for a full period. He doesn’t use them. And even with the microphone, beyond the third row, no one can hear him anyway.)

At any rate, Estrin was in the audience. And, as he called up to say, a few weeks later: “I figured, Chip, if you could keep Ray from looking like a total fool, could keep things from turning into Harlan’s one-man comedy show, and at the same time could keep the subject going and the energy up — well, I figured you could moderate anything! Would you like to moderate a Sunday afternoon debate for us, between Stan Lee and Harlan?”

“Okay,” I said.

On the first day of the convention I arrived at twelve. Stan Lee was doing a solo bit at that time in the Sheraton Center’s Imperial Ballroom, and though I’d had a pleasant talk with him on the phone, long distance, while he was in L.A., about possible topics for the coming debate between him and Harlan, I’d never met him in person, and I had no idea what kind of public self-presentation he had, though I’d heard from a few people that he was very good at it, spent a lot of time going around to colleges and speaking in public, and — from what he said on the phone — he was willing to field just about any kind of question.

The program was late getting started, so I walked into the vast Hucksters’ Room — acres of comic books, many less SF novels, and various SF-related toys and gizmos — which was kind of the social center of the convention. Saw Barry Malzberg for a few minutes. Then,I practically tripped over Ike (Asimov), with his fly-away muttonchops and western string-tie, the actual Guest of Honor, and we stood around and made “great-to-see-you” noises, while fans came up and thrust books between us for him, for me, to sign.

A moment later Harlan came up to me. “Hey, Chip,” he said. “You were supposed to call me, about this debate. Everybody said: ‘Chip’s going to call you!’”

So I cupped my hands to my mouth and called: “Harlan . . .!”

That got him to laugh. There was some odd encounter with a young, black fan whom Harlan managed to mistake for Marvel’s single black comic artist. “I know, I know,” said Harlan with his hand over his face in mock embarrassment, “all you black guys look alike.” People began to thrust books between us. Harlan said: “I’m sorry, but we are in the midst of a conversation, now.” Fans scurried away. And I took a couple of notes in my omniscient notebook (The Notebook That Knows More Than I) on the proposed debate. Then Harlan went off to hug a bunch of young women who seemed to be waiting for him, all in matching beige T-shirts.

When the Stan Lee program was announced over the loudspeaker, I escalatored upstairs again to the Imperial. The organizers were hanging about, clearly worried because only about 500 people had come upstairs for Stan’s “talk,” when they had been expecting a turn-out of close to a thousand. (There must have been another clear thousand down in the hucksters’ area. But inertia seemed to be keeping them below,and they weren’t surging up for the second floor programs as expected.) On my way in, I passed a tall, slender late-middle-aged man who, later, I realized was Stan (I’d never actually seen him before), lingering outside with a couple of people I recognized as among the con organizers. Back-reading a little, I’m pretty sure what they were talking about was some version of the following: Stan was politely suggesting that they let him go on now, since this was the time they’d announced him for; and they were saying, well, gee, no, maybe if they waited another ten minutes, another fifty or a hundred people might wander in.

I took a seat toward the back, and, indeed, in another ten minutes (after a wholly inept young man took the mike and tried, nervously, to keep the audience entertained and expectant, while they waited), Mr. Lee loped onto the stage, took the microphone, and began to present himself in a most personable and relaxed manner. Clearly what he was there for was to plug “Marvel Productions,” of which he is now the “Creative Vice President,” out on the coast. And with a host of funny stories and the dropped names of movie stars and comic book characters, that’s what he did. He was clearly as self-confident as Harlan. Very entertaining. And he obviously knew what he was doing.

No, I didn’t think there would be any problems with him and Harlan the next day.

I stayed for about 25 minutes of it.

Then, suddenly, I was hit by an overwhelming desire to be out of there. No fear or anxiety, mind you. Just a kind of: “What am I listening to this idiocy for . . .? I want a drink and some lunch!”What I’d come to see Stan for was to find out how well he did what he did, how comfortable he was doing it, what his style was, so that I would know how to integrate it with Harlan’s. I hadn’t come to learn anything having to do with the content of what he might have to say. And, really, after ten minutes I had what I needed. So fifteen minutes after that, I left in the middle, quit the hotel, wandered down and across town to 46th Street and Eighth Avenue, and went into Joe Allen’s, where I had a Tequila-Wallbanger and some sautéed chicken with capers, while I worked diligently in my notebook on the long prologue of Splendor and Misery.

Spilled some chocolate syrup from desert (a hot fudge eclair, filled with ice-cream) on my white shirt — which, as I quipped to the actor-cum-waiter who brought me some club soda to scrub it out — “This only happens when you have to perform in front of 300 people in an hour.” Then I wandered back to the Sheraton, in time for my four o’clock panel: the one I told you about, with McInroe, Harlan, Chaykin, Freas, and Simonson. And went home.

The next morning, Sunday, the second day of the convention, I woke up with knotted guts and watery shit. Somehow I’d come down with stomach flu. And there was yet another infirmity, which had plagued me the day before and was to produce unexpected agonies all that day as well —though, frankly, I’m almost embarrassed to mention it. Nevertheless: I’d had a hangnail on my right forefinger the previous day (fortunately I’m left-handed); while trying to bite it off, I’d pulled a sliver of nail loose from the quick. It had bled. It was now swollen and under the tiniest of scabs. And anything that touched it, from another finger to a piece of paper, to a comic book picked up at the wrong angle, sent a shooting pain through my hand and into my forearm.You may assume that, on top of all else I say, such shooting pains indeed shot, quite at random, about every 20 minutes all through the weekend, whether I was wandering by myself in the hucksters’ room, moderating a panel, signing a book, or talking to friend or fan. And I don’t think I acknowledged it once.

A hang-nail . . .?

Well, that’s the kind of pain, as we know, Real Men ignore (while not eating quiche) — especially if they have to run through another day of SF convention.

Frank wasn’t up, yet.

I wondered out to the Associated Supermarket over on Columbus Avenue to pick up a bagel and some yogurt. While I was at the back of the check-out line, a vaguely familiar voice passing by behind me said: “Chip . . .?” And I looked up to see a hefty, white-haired male in a pale blue shirt and silver sunglasses. How I recognized him, I’ll never know, because he’d lost at least 80 pounds since I’d last seen him, and that had been in East Lansing, Michigan, three or so years back at a Clarion. “A.-J. . . .?” I said.

“Yeah. It’s me.”

He smiled behind his shopping cart. (It was A.-J. Budrys!) “How’re you doing, Chip?”

“Fine!” I said, grinning in spite of my stomach; and my hand — which touched something just then. “What on earth are you doing here? Are you here for the convention? That’s where I’m going, as soon as I go home and eat a bagel.”

“Nope,” he said. “I didn’t even know there was a convention in New York this weekend. I’m visiting my mother. I’m just doing some shopping for her — she lives right around the corner from you,” which, by now, I’d actually remembered his telling me once, years ago. At onetime, this area of New York was a Ukrainian/Lithuanian neighborhood; there’s an old Ukrainian Church, a few buildings away from me on 82nd Street that I’d just walked past this morning on my way to the store. A.-J., who’s Lithuanian by nationality, had grown up here — though he’d lived in Chicago most of his adult life. “I’m leaving this evening,” he told me, “to go and see my wife’s family in Connecticut. So I won’t have time to drop down there.”

We enthused a bit more about the chances of just running into each other in the supermarket like this, hundreds of miles away from our last meeting, or indeed, any other of our ten or so meetings in the last twenty years. Then I walked out onto sunny Sunday Columbus Avenue.

I almost lost my very light breakfast three times on the way to the con.

Just before my first panel, I sat around in the art show area with Bob
Whitticker and Jonni Seri, two of the more civilized long-time fans, who seem to have been on the verge of getting married now for going on six years. Jonni gave me a back rub, which I truly appreciated. Between two panels, I had lunch with Denny O’Neil (across from the hotel at the Stage Deli, of all places) and his girlfriend whom I hadn’t met before, a red-headed dance therapist named Maggie. At the same lunch I learned that Larry O’Neil, Denny’s son by Anne, whom I remember as a perpetual six-year-old on East Sixth Street, was now eighteen, a senior at the High School of Music and Art, was still a vegetarian (twelve years ago I’d just assumed it was a passing phase), and was apparently determined to become a comic book artist, somewhat to his father’s chagrin!

Then we went up to the con’s hospitality suite, where the pros could, presumably, escape the fans. The clutch of rooms was dominated by Marvel Comics’ resident “Spider-Man,” a very nice, 26-year-old actor-cum-body-builder, a Peter Parker look-alike whom Marvel retain sat such functions to zip around in blue long-johns with a redhead-mask over his face, throwing nets and climbing things. He’s really quite bright, knows the character well, and sometimes even leads tours through the Marvel offices, here in the city. He’s personable, and good at answering questions. Most of the afternoon, however, he was bouncing about the Sheraton’s pale egg-shell 29th-floor suite, three-quarters naked (between costumes), combing his hair a lot, while his petite blonde girlfriend in designer jeans hung on his impressive biceps, and generally being friendly and decorative.

I can’t remember his name.

Denny, Maggie, and I were talking in the corner. I sipped a bit of ginger ale to settle my still-queasy stomach and ate a totally uncalled for chocolate cookie. Ray Gallun sat down to join us — and created that crashing lull that sometimes happens among even the most lively and witty conversationalists when someone interrupts the flow of repartee with an intensely mumbled account of something terribly important that occurred in (as best I could make out) 1932.

Quarter to five, and I took off downstairs for the Georgian Ballroom, with Ray still tagging along. In the ballroom (Imperial: read “modern.” Georgian: very “traditional,” with red drapes along the walls, much copper, hanging “crystal,” and gold) there were about 800 kids and lots of confusion. George (Mr. Sulu) Takei was just finishing up his program, plugging Star Trek III. (I’d ridden out with him to I-con a couple of months back. He’s a truly nice guy and as big-hearted as they come, if just a bit hyper in a perfectly understandable, actorly sort of way.) Harlan was swamped with fans at the front. No one quite knew where Stan was.

No one was announcing anything, so I went up on the stage, took up the microphone, and, well, created order.

Stan was just waiting out of sight, of course, for something to happen. There he came, loping up.

There was Harlan.

And we launched in.

I introduced them with cute anecdotes, to loud cheers. And we were off and flying. Both were in fine form. About a third of it was serious (a debate about gun advertising in comic books, which really got the audience hopping) and about two-thirds of it was tap-dancing (what’s wrong with movies; are comic books good for you) — which, it was clear, was just about the proper proportions such an audience could handle. And when it was over, just to be different, I managed not to go running off, but broke through the ring of autograph seekers to say thanks to both of them, while the applause was still going on: Harlan was fighting his way downstairs to get to the limo that was to take him to the airport. Stan was signing veritable mountains of comic books but, over the hubbub, shouted me a smiling invitation to visit him, next time I was in L.A.

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9 Responses to “Moderating Stan and Harlan”
  1. ULAND says:

    Really great stuff. How's that for feedback?

    I'm fascinated by this whole era, specifically the unrealized potential that "ground level" comics seemed to have at the time, and how all those good scifi writers flew in that orbit.
    I think it's also pretty ripe for parody too, so I like it on that level too. Have you guys seen Gareth Marenghis' Darkplace?

    Is there anything remotely like it going on today?

    One thing: I think it's probably more accurate to call Delaney a Marxist; not really liberal, in the classic sense..

  2. T. Hodler says:

    Thanks for this, Jeet. Delany is one of the great memoirists, aside from everything else.

    Also, to add to your list of writers who have published letters in their lifetime: Hunter S. Thompson published his correspondence in several volumes before his death. Funny, because he is a writer who also seems to have almost nothing in common with either White or Delany.

    @Uland– Garth Marenghi is a very funny show. Also, I haven't read it, and haven't heard anything good about it in any case, but Norman Spinrad wrote a notorious novel (never published, I believe) depicting the most distasteful aspects of convention life.

    Also, I'm not sure, but I don't think Delany would explicitly define himself as a Marxist — there's no question you're right that he isn't a conventional liberal, though!

  3. Heidi M. says:

    I as at that con. I didn't go to that panel though.

  4. Michael says:

    Not to compare the quality of expression or revelation to Delany or White, but Dave Sim has published two books (so far) of his correspondence.

  5. Captain Zorikh says:

    I was at that event, and I still have the program book, which had a great write-up on EC Comics and the whole Dr. Wertham thing. I was at a lot of conventions in those days, so some of them blend together, but I think I can isolate this one from all the Creation Conventions I went to.

    I don't have time to read the letter right now, but I just "followed" the blog and will be back.

  6. Frank Santoro says:

    "The feeling was moderately like being kicked in the nuts."


  7. Will Dinski says:

    Just fascinating. Great post. It seems like it would be impossible to be able to moderate all those strong personalities. Wish I could have seen it.

  8. lynn says:

    “spiderman” was probably Scott Leva, who has now won academy awards for rigging/stunts

  9. lynn says:

    one of my biggest regrets to this day, was to miss this convention… long story…. big big mistake


    (PS Its JON estrin)

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