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Today’s Mission: Save This Planet!

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Don’t worry; today’s entry has nothing to do with Al Gore. It’s all about something much more compelling, realistic and important: Comic-book covers!

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Mystery in Space, a DC-published comic that ran for 110 issues from 1951 to 1966, was one of my favorites. Edited by the amazing Julius Schwartz, it featured art by some of my favorite artists: Carmine Infantino, Gil Kane, and Murphy Anderson.

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When I tippytoed into the world of professional comic-book production for a couple of summers while in high school, the first thing I learned was that the covers sold the books. It was no accident that the covers of comic books were printed on glossy coated stock using high-resolution screens while the interiors were tossed off on newsprint with coarse screens and muted color reproduction. The art on the covers was almost always much better than what was found in the interiors of the book. So what? It was a stricture of the art form, and covers were what sold the books.

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One of the leitmotivs of DC-comics covers, along with purple gorillas, Jimmy Olsen turning into something weird and Lois Lane in trouble, was perils to Earth. In the Mystery in Space books, editor Schwartz took this to a high level in the early days of the series. For pre- and early-teen American boys, this had resonance: we were just beginning the American space program, and who knew whether this might set off some trip-wire arranged long ago by aliens? It was worth staying up at night to worry about!!! Also, and even more unsettling, these covers indicated that it was the Northern hemisphere that these evil aliens were focusing on. They could care less about Europe, Asia, Africa; their eyes were on the U.S.A!!!

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Were aliens watching our every move? Probably! Were they thinking “Hmm; the primitive Earthlings have now reached the stage where they have both atomic weapons and the ability to rocket into space. We’d better smush them like bugs before they prove troublesome to us!!!”? What a burner for our species, huh?

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So we kids would look for, buy, read and re-read these comics. So what if this clarion cry came from a funny book? The guys who wrote and drew them were obviously smart; look at all the scientific facts crammed into these stories!

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Here are, for your enjoyment and amusement and so you can prepare for our destruction, some of the great Mystery in Space covers showing Earth in peril.

BE WARNED! THE ALIENS ARE OUT THERE AND THEY’RE WATCHING US!!!

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John Buscema: Giant Artist, Giant Heart

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As a high-school kid, I’d fly up from Naples to New York City in the summers to do what I could at the comic-book publishers there. DC and Marvel were the biggies. DC was at 575 Lexington Avenue, and they wouldn’t give me the time of day; they were corporate. Marvel, over at 635 Madison Avenue, was more welcoming.

The wonderful man who took me under his wing, for some reason, was John Buscema. He was big, bearded and a bit scary at first to a green kid. And, man was I green. Within a few minutes, though, I realized that Mr. Buscema, in spite of his being a “real” comics artist– and one of the very best– was also a sweetheart and remembered what being green felt like. I worshiped him. I don’t know if he usually worked at the Marvel office, or was just there hanging out, but I was glad he was around!

He didn’t give me a lot to do and what I did do I probably did to excess. I bought an electric eraser and some various eraser sticks for it and reported in every day. I remember cringing whenever I saw a Jack Kirby page ready for erasing after being inked. Mr. Kirby drew with the softest pencil imaginable on a plate-finish board and it was all a smudgy grey-graphite mess for me to clean up!

The prime memory I have of that time was the day artist Gil Kane came to the “Marvel Bullpen,” which wasn’t a bullpen at all. I worked in a crowded closet using a cardboard box for a drawing table. Mr. Kane sat at one of the real drafting tables in the bigger room and started roughing out something in pencil. I sneaked over to watch, and was stunned. Kane could draw faster than I could think. It shattered me. I slunk back to my little closet and burst into tears. Here’s one of Kane’s rough sketches found on the Web:

Mr. Buscema found me and sat me down for a lecture: “Jimmy, we get paid by the page, not by the hour; no salary in this business. Gil’s fast and good because he’s smart and talented, but also because he’s been doing this for 25 years. Don’t over-react; you’ll get there.”

But I knew in my heart that no; I would never get there. I didn’t want it bad enough. As I went back to Newark that evening I knew my comic-book career was over before it really started. But I also knew that I had gained a friend who was a rare person; a giant with a giant heart.

John Buscema was called the Michelangelo of comics and take a look at some of his work to see why. His anatomy’s as good as Kubert’s and his ability to frame a scene is almost scary. He also had some of Jack Kirby’s ability to convey power and force:

A wonderful man; best known today, I guess, for his work on the early Silver Surfer and Conan the Barbarian.

The wonderful coloring on this Buscema Conan drawing is by a fellow in Morocco who goes by the name of bekkouri, and he did a stunning job:

And I still have my old electric eraser:

Big Camera and a Whirler!

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Here’s the business end of the largest camera I ever used on a regular basis. It was a two-room Robertson copy camera. The camera back and digital controls were in a small lightproof room behind this one. The camera could take 48″ x 48″ sheets of film on its vacuum film plate.

The front end of the camera, seen here, had a 10-foot bellows that extended on the overhead beams and the vertical image/copy holder (not shown because I was standing right in front of it) could hold a paper or film sheet between glass, vacuumed flat, up to 15 feet wide by six feet high. The halogen lights shown illuminated the copy. This camera was at Martel Labs in St. Pete, Florida, where I ran the 26-person photo lab for a few years. The camera operator is shown changing lenses.

If you needed to shoot onto a piece of film larger than 48″ x 48″, you could reverse the lens to turn the camera into “blowback” mode, but I personally never used the thing that way.

This was a super-expensive piece of gear; we used it for copying engineering or cartographic imagery. Our sister company, Chicago Aerial Survey, had a larger camera, believe it or not. Made by the Brown Camera company, it was vertical and two or three stories high. At the time I worked for Martel, my understanding was that the vertical camera at CAS was the largest camera in the world.

Here’s another piece of gear most folks have never seen: a vertical emulsion whirler. Because of the weird photographic stuff we did at Martel, much of which was classified, we often had to make our own film. You can’t imagine the exotic chemistry we cooked up in this room. The film emulsions were so sensitive that we couldn’t use red lights, as in most darkrooms; we had to use dim green lights to work in.

Anyway, this vertical whirler wasn’t completely vertical, but it replaced a horizontal one we had been using earlier. The sheet film shown is probably 80″ x 64″ and hasn’t been vacuumed totally flat yet; that took about 15 minutes to do.

Once the plastic sheet was absolutely flat, the operator could flow the custom emulsion onto the rotating sheet and the slow rotation of the film bed would flatten the emulsion on the substrate. The tubular arm shown would blow a gentle flow of heated air onto the gummy emulsion, baking it onto the sheet and, after 45 minutes or so, you’d have a piece of film ready for whatever you needed it for. Usually it was used in a giant contact frame for duping large images from negs or positive film.

The Pleasure Was All Mine

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When I was in high school, I was recruited from a two-week stint at Winn Dixie to Publix Supermarkets (Where Shopping is a Pleasure!) by Bob DeVille, who managed the Naples store and was one of the smartest men I’ve ever known. He came to our house and told my mom and dad I would be better off working for him. I ended up spending 14 years at Publix, though I often got frustrated and quit. Mr. DeVille would wait a month or so and then call me up to see if I’d calmed down and was ready to return. I usually did.

I got into the produce department because I had read that an agricultural job could keep you from being drafted and sent to Viet Nam. After I while, I was transferred to Tampa and eventually I got my own produce department in a tiny art-deco Publix on Nebraska Avenue. I loved that store and the staff and customers. Patty and I were just married, and I was happy to have a job during a tough recession.

I’d work hard to make creative displays, using hand-lettered signs and the contrasts in colors and shapes of the produce to create excitement and interest. Fresh produce wasn’t a big deal at that time, and most of the unusual stuff I tried to sell didn’t. I’d have recipe cards and samples available but folks didn’t want to know what a Kiwi fruit was or to give a carambola a try. I was lucky to sell half a case of romaine to every twenty cases of iceburg lettuce.

Working in a supermarket was a great way to learn what ads worked and what ads didn’t; what displays moved merchandise and what displays didn’t, and I was lucky enough to work for a store manager who let me try anything that I dreamed up. I’d draw little graphs of where people stopped in my little department, what they put in their shopping cart and what they didn’t.

On the side, I’d do freelance writing, photography and graphics, and when I made more money one year doing that than I did at Publix, I left for good. But I learned a lot and met Patty there, and consider myself most lucky for the experience.