A Note from Jim Hanley

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

It's strange, in the wake of the unspeakable tragedies in Burma (Myanmar) and China, to speak of having a bad week.

Nonetheless, it's a bad week in the comics field.

The loss of thousands -- possibly hundreds of thousands -- of human souls is a tragedy on a scale that's impossible to reconcile. Those of faith will find themselves, against their wills, questioning how disasters like this can happen. Others, struggling to see the world in purely rational terms, will do the same.

Still, when we get news of the passing of people we know either personally or through their work we can be forgiven for a bit of selfish anguish.

So, I will be selfish now.

Last Thursday, news came that Will Elder had died. He was one of the most influential men on the American culture of the 20th Century, but was little known outside of our community. His seminal work with his life-long friend and collaborator Harvey Kurtzman on MAD, when it was still a standard color comic book, was a milestone for humor in this country. Fifty six years ago, the form and structure of comedy was very different. When MAD hit the stands, everything changed.

Kurtzman and his collaborators, Elder foremost among them, took a jaundiced view of everything in American society and laid it all out in what was dubbed "Humor in a Jugular Vein." There's little room here to detail all of the innovations that Kurtzman's and Elder's MAD work brought (and others have done it better than I can,) but everyone who followed in their wake told stories differently, smarter, funnier because of their work. Their attitude changed comedy and, in the early days of the switch to its familiar magazine format, MAD could boast a "Who's Who" of mainstream comedians and humorists as additional contributors.

After leaving MAD shortly after, Kurtzman and Elder went to work for Hugh Hefner, whose Playboy had recently exploded on the scene. There, they created a more sophisticated, upscale humor magazine called Trump. Trump had all the attendant improvements in printing and production that Playboy was already famous for. Sadly, the still small Playboy empire was unable to stick with the magazine, and it folded after only two well-remembered issues. So prized are those two volumes, that I have only seen them once, as they passed through our hands and quickly found a new home with one of our old customers, never to be seen again.

Tired of being at the mercies of publishing houses, Kurtzman, Elder and several other comic geniuses (Jack Davis, Al Jaffee along with Arnold Roth) struck out on their own. They created Humbug, a comic-book-sized attempt at self-publishing. Their first issue's "Declaration of Editorial Principles" offered, "We won't write for morons. We won't do anything just to get laughs. We won't be dirty. We won't be grotesque. We won't be in bad taste. We won't sell magazines." Sadly, that last prediction came true.

Humbug lasted 11 issues from its inception in 1957. It was followed, in short order, by HELP!, yet another seminal humor magazine, published by Jim Warren, who had recently found success with Famous Monsters of Filmland. Lasting 16 issues, between 1960 and 1965. HELP! is famous for publishing early works by future underground cartooning stars Robert Crumb, Gilbert Shelton, and Jay Lynch, as well as being the place where John Cleese met Terry Gilliam in their pre-Monty Python days.

During their HELP! days, Kurtzman and Elder began what would be their longest running collaboration: the comic strip"Little Annie Fanny," in Playboy, working for Hugh Hefner again. They worked together on it for 22 years.

Anyway, last week, Will Elder passed away, at the age of 86. Born and raised in the Bronx. He was educated at the old High School of Music & Art in Harlem (now part of LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and Performing Arts at Lincoln Center.) That's where Elder met Harvey Kurtzman and as well as John Severin and Al Jaffee.

Losing a fellow New Yorker, who changed comics and the larger world of the arts, and who can be seen as having helped inspire Monty Python’s Flying Circus, Saturday Night Live, to say nothing of MAD TV and many other touchstones of English language comedy, hits close to home. So, I hope you can forgive this indulgence in selfish sorrow, during this terrible month.

And now, here's one that hits even closer.

Rory D. Root, a giant in the field of comics retailing -- and my closest friend, my brother -- died Monday at 4:19 PM PDT. As founding partner and, for over a decade, the sole owner of Comic Relief of Berkeley, CA, Rory pioneered the belief in the graphic novel form, not as a sideline, but as the focus of a bookstore devoted to comics. His vast knowledge of comics and many other literary subjects has been a constant benefit to his staff, his customers, and his friends retailing comics across the globe.

Visitors to his store and his huge displays at the San Diego Comic-Con, as well as similar setups at the Alternative Press Expo and WonderCon in San Francisco, have always been amazed at the incredible breadth of comics and books he and his staff offered (and, I'm happy to say, will continue to offer. Todd Martinez, Rory's long-time friend and store manager will be Comic Relief’s new owner, as per Rory's bequest.)

Knowing Rory for the last 21 years, I've been often challenged, sometimes frustrated, but always enriched. When I was child, my mother told me that if you tell someone that between you and one other person, you know everything, no one can prove you wrong, as long as the other person isn't nearby. Between Rory and me, we really did know everything. Sadly, no one will ever be able to dispute that again. And I’ll never get to ask him to cover my educational gaps, anymore. I'll never spend all night on the phone with him, only hanging up, reluctantly, when the sun would rise on the West Coast and he’d demand the right to go to sleep.

I won't be able to answer a ringing phone at 3 AM anymore with just "Hi, brother." Now, if the phone rings that late, I'll have to react that way everyone else does, "Do you know what time it is?"

When I come across some amazing bit of news or gossip, my reaction that I have to tell Rory will be followed with a choked sob.

When we met, in 1987, Jim Hanley's Universe had been around for just two years and Comic Relief only recently opened . In those days, new retailers looked up to old-timers in the field, like the late Bill Liebowitz (of Golden Apple Comics in Los Angeles), the late John Barrett (co-founder of Comics & Comix in the SF Bay Area), Gary Colabuono (of the lamented Moondog’s in the Chicago area,) Buddy Saunders (of Lone Star Comics in Dallas-Fort Worth,) and Mitch Cutler (of NY's St. Mark's Comics.) We hoped we would someday be spoken of in the same breath as those guys. For many years now, I've been immeasurably proud when someone has mentioned Jim Hanley's Universe in the same breath as Rory Root's Comic Relief.

For years, the first ring of the phone, when there was some news in the world of comics, signaled that it was Rory calling. Monday, there was no call. The phone didn't ring. I heard it from the web. Those who wrote about Rory, all spoke of his courtly manners, his generosity with his time and expertise to anyone who asked (and many who didn't,) and his impeccable taste.

I will remember those things, but also his quiet voice, choking back tears in a message on my answering machine a few years ago, telling me to call him, "It's about Bill." I knew what it had to be. Bill Liebowitz was gone. Bill Liebowitz! The Big Kahuna! The Yo-Yo champion! The older brother I never had. Bill Liebowitz, who had worried to me the year before about Rory’s health. Now, my best friend had called to tell me that our brother was dead.

Now, Rory's gone, too. It's just not fair! I want to talk to my co-conspirator. To resume our conversation from the other night about the greatness of reading Jerry Siegel's Legion of Super-Heroes stories, when we were ten; about re-reading Lee's and Ditko's Spider-Man issues; about the facsimile edition he just picked up of a favorite science-fiction story from his
childhood. (What was its name, Rory? What was its name?)

I want to ask him how to live in a world without Rory Root.

Those of you who have had the good fortune to visit Comic Relief, or the Comic Relief booths at San Diego Comic-Con, WonderCon, or APE know how wonderful they are. If you were doubly lucky, you may have met "the man in the hat" who made those places that way.

For those who haven't had those privileges, I should tell you that whenever you've come across something at Jim Hanley's Universe that surprised and thrilled you, something you were sure you'd never find anywhere else, the chances are that it was Rory Root who made us aware of it. I hope the few things we turned Rory on to were a tenth as well received by Comic Relief's customers.

For those of you who pray, I would request that after your prayers for the people, dead and surviving, in Burma and China, as well as your own intentions, that you say a prayer for the repose of the souls of Will Elder and Rory Root.

Sorrowfully,
Jim Hanley

PS When Bill Liebowitz died, I told you all a little about him. Rory honored me by distributing that note to his customers, too. As he liked it, I will quote something from if now:

"We at Jim Hanley's Universe, who knew and loved Bill, mourn his passing. His legacy will inspire us to be better retailers and better men and women. The world is the poorer for his loss, but the richer for his having passed our way.

"For many years, I have quoted something that Isaac Asimov wrote on the passing of Peg Campbell, John W. Campbell's widow. It has, for me, been the ultimate refutation of death's power over us. He said, 'Now she's gone, but I remember her.'

"I remember Bill Liebowitz."

And, I remember Rory Root.

PPS Rory would be furious with me, if I didn't point out that MAD Archives Volume 1 & 2 (from DC Comics) & the gorgeous Will Elder: The MAD Playboy of Art (from Fantagraphics) are still available, as are Dark Horse's two Little Annie Fanny collections. Fantagraphics will
also release Humbug as a two-volume, hardcover set this Summer, the first time it has ever been reprinted. Rory would surely have put it in the hands of some of you at the San Diego Comic-Con, this year, And the next. And the next.

{My apologies to those who originally saw the version of this sent out via email. It was a bit rougher, due to deadline pressure and the recent loss of my best editor. -JH}

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