A couple nights ago, a few civilian friends (non-comics people) and I were sitting around playing the 'WayBack Game". You know, what would you do, where would you go if you had a time machine, a 'wayback' machine of your very own.
One friend wanted to go back and see Jesus being born (she wanted to see what 'myrrh' was), another wanted to prevent WW2, (kill Hitler, of course) still another wanted to buy up the San Fernando Valley before Bob Hope and Bing Crosby beat him to it. All good things, which made mine seem… a tad small. To others. Not to me.
Me? I opened my mouth wide and showed myself to be an incurable, insufferable comics geek. I wanted to go back to the summer of 1938, and hang out in the offices at National Periodical Publications, sit on the corner of Sheldon Mayers' desk, shoot the breeze with Shelly and those new kids, Siegel and Shuster, while checking out the hot-off-the-presses Action Comics #1. Ask Jerry and Joe what it's like to see their hero in print, to see the culmination of five years of work and rejection finally between two slick covers with their names boldly printed next to the bright 'Superman' logo. 1938, before the long nightmare and bitterness started for the two kids from Cleveland.
Or maybe I'd head to the summer of 1940 (see, there IS something magical about summer) and drop in unannounced on the Will Eisner shop. Eisner would be there, hunched over his drawing table, working late into the night, racing a deadline to a photo finish, putting everything he'd learned in the last four years of comics into his chance, his strip, The Spirit. Maybe Bob Powell would be there, turning in his latest Mr. Mystic pages, badgering Eisner for the chance to write a Spirit script, Bob Kane stopping by to show the time-pressed artists the latest sales figures (along with a wad of a bonus) on his new 'costume character', The Batman. I wouldn't stay long. I'd probably be in the way, besides, there's the all night news stand at the corner, and Kane says the new Batman is out today, not that he brought any free copies for anyone...
There are other stops to make. I'll drop by the Timely offices, and see what the wiz kids Joe Simon and Jack Kirby have in store for the Summer of 1941. They've been contracted to provide a whole book for Martin Goodman's publishing company and I want to be there when Captain America #1 arrives, with Cap smacking one to Hitler on the cover. (Joe and Jack would have killed Hitler if they had the chance) I'll see Joe and Jack setting the pages down on the editors desk and saying "There it is, the next Superman!" And the editor snorts, thanks the 'boys', tells them to pick up their checks from the cashier, and where is the next book?
Back at National, a kid named Joe Kubert drops by to get some encouraging words from Sheldon Mayer, and ends up with a script to draw. Alex Toth is told to keep on working at it, is handed a stack of Irwin Hasen stats to study, and is told to come back later, and keep drawing. So is Carmine Infantino, and Frank Giacoia, both are given a few pointers and a list of lessons to sharpen their skills. They'll be back. And I'll stand there, in the waiting room, in the corner of Shelly's office, any place where I'll be out of the way, and I'll watch it all, happening right in front of me.
If I hang out long enough, maybe I'll see Bill Finger drop off the latest Batman script, or Gardner Fox come in to discuss with Julie Schwartz what the Justice Society Of America will do in the next issue. I'd look around to see if Dick Sprang had sent over a batch of Batman originals, or if Jack Burnley had dropped by a new Starman story.
I tell my friends this, this is what I'd do with my WayBack Machine, this is what occupies my thoughts and curiosity.
Of course, they suppose that I'll try to bring old comics back with me, stuff a few Action #1's in my shorts, and auction those suckers off to the highest bidder. I'll let them think that, why not? That way they won't suspect what I'd really be doing.
You see, I'll be grabbing my portfolio, and my typewriter. I think I might have a shot with Shelly Mayer. If not there, at National? Well, there's a lot of comics being published in New York in the 1940's...
Then, maybe, I'll drop by Liverpool, circa 1961-62. I hear there's a great band playing in a little cellar there.
I wrote this piece originally in the late 1990s, for a column I had on AOL. I was very proud of it, not sure why, but I printed out a copy and sent it to Alex Toth. Toth was an artistic hero of mine ince I was a boy and got a hold of a copy of the story ‘Ghost of the Killer Skies’ by him and the great Archie Goodwin, and since I mentioned him (I might have included it to have an excuse to send it to him, lords knows I was tricky back then) I just knew he’s like it. So, I sent it off to his address in Hollywood, never thinking he’d answer.
He sent me one of his famous postcards, with his recognizable-from-space printing. “Tommy!” He wrote, “Enjoyed your way-back machinations! Keep it up!” and he signed it ‘Alex Toth’.
I considered this the most successful column I ever wrote.