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I was 16 years old in 1969, but oh, was I ever wise beyond my years.

Or so I liked to think.

Y’see, I’d been digging on comics since nearly the beginning of the decade, and by 1969, I figured that qualified me as a stone-cold expert. And not only had I been reading these not-so-funny books since Ike was in the White House, but I’d been amassing a pretty impressive collection of fanzines over the past two years, and the knowledge I’d garnered from these products of like-minded - and clearly impassioned - individuals only infused me with more confidence in my own considered opinions.

So when I sent in a letter to the leading adzine of the day, RBCC (Rocket’s Blast and Comic-Collector being two earlier zines that had, long before I came along, fused together to successfully - and regularly - serve as one of the main focal points of the fandom of the time), with my less than complimentary comments regarding the results of the 1968 Alley Awards (the Eisner/Harvey Awards of their day - and the originals, at that). Apparently, I had voted, and I WASN’T at all happy with the way things came out!…

The letter appeared in RBCC 68, which arrived in my mailbox early in 1970. This wasn’t my first epistle to wind up inside the pages of RBCC - I’d had at least two others appear previously, including one in which I chime in regarding my recent discovery that comics were no longer being sold in New York’s Penn Station, a bit of news I reported with such hysteria, one could’ve easily been convinced that the whole field was teetering on the brink of extinction based solely on the fact that commuter’s could no longer score a copy of Little Lotta to read on their suburban-bound train trip homewards!

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But that was nothing compared to my most controversial RBCC contribution. You won’t have to take my word for it, friends - you can judge for yourself. Below - sans a pair of short opening and closing paragraphs essentially saying, “Good job, RBCC” - are the thoughts regarding 1968’s comics crop courtesy of 16-year-old Fred. And yes, I winced on more than one occasion while retyping these “pearls” of wisdom, but hang with me - as we shall see, there’s MORE to the story than a know-it-all teenager making some typically clueless statements.

Ready? Here it comes…

Well, the results of the 1968 Alley Awards are in, and for a large part I’m disappointed. What happened was that too many Marvel fans answered the plug in the Bullpen pages. And, voting on a straight Marvel ticket, they slanted it unjustly. How else would Sgt. Fury beat Enemy Ace by 69 votes? How else would Stan Lee beat Dick Giordano by 185 votes? Granted, in a tally of strictly fandom, Lee still might have won (I voted for Giordano myself), but hardly by such a great margin. Lee also won by a tremendous (150 votes) amount in the best writer category. Of the fans I know, most agree Stan had an off year in 1968. Here’s another example: Joe Sinnott won by 118 votes over Wally Wood. Granted, Joe did some fine work with Steranko and on the FF, but 1968 was Wood’s year. His return to comics helped rejuvenate the whole DC line. Shouldn’t the voting have been a bit closer? That shuck from Lee about “King ” Kirby enabled Jack to finish second in the best artist category - ahead of Neal Adams! I have nothing against Jack - he’s a good artist, but not THAT great. Luckily, talent won out and Jim Steranko won almost everything in sight: best artist, Hall of Fame Award (for Nick Fury), numbers one, two, four and five of the best covers, numbers one and four in best short story, plus the fact that the character Nick Fury finished quite high in several categories due to Steranko. Real talent will out! Mark (Hanerfeld) says next year it will be a straight fandom vote, which is good. Like you say in the RB&CC: don’t be a Marvel fan, don’t be a DC fan, but be a comic fan. Look for quality, not Stan Lee’s name. I wish more people would think that way when they cast their Alley vote.

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Ouch.

That is WAY difficult to read - especially since, in subsequent years, three of the nicest folks I’ve had the privilege of meeting (and dare I say, befriending, however casually) go by the names of Lee, Kirby, and Sinnott? Clearly, I needed someone to - as the vernacular would have it - “tear me a new one”!

Don’t worry, gang - my comeuppance wasn’t long in coming…

Only a matter of days after fishing the latest RBCC out of the mailbox in our front yard, a neatly typed envelope turned up in that selfsame governmental canister. As I rifled through the day’s Lumpkinesque arrivals, I stopped dead in my tracks when I spied the letter’s return address.

It was from Roy Thomas.

Huh?…

Of course I knew who Roy was, but how would he know who I was - and WHY would in the world would he care?

Obviously I had forgotten about my tacky little tirade, so I hastily opened up this unexpected communiqué from Marvel’s number two man, and proceeded to absorb the contents.

(Roy apparently sent along a copy of his thoughts to the staff of RBCC as well, and the following letter - which I’ve reproduced in its entirety - ran in the very next issue, number 69…)

Dear Fred Hembeck and RB&CC,

Fred’s letter in the last RB&CC issue (just out as I write this) stated his disappointment with the topheavy Marvel vote in the 1968 Alley Award poll. His viewpoint has, I suppose, its merits; however, it was so steeped in misconceptions that I had to take typewriter in hand… in an unofficial capacity, of course. Why I do this, I’m not quite sure. Certainly Marvel - whether winning or losing - has nothing to do with the poll, and while we’re flattered to receive any award, we know - as surely as fandom must - that any award dispensed by only a few hundred fanzine readers (or even a larger group) is at worst meaningless, at best a pleasant ephemera. I say this, by the way, remembering that I NAMED the Alleys back in the early 60s, and counted the very first ballots - and knowing that I usually finish well in the running myself. But still, rather meaningless, more’s the pity. But onward…

One of Fred’s allegations, at least, is true. Marvel did probably benefit from straight-ticket voting by readers who read the Bullpen Bulletins item. But this in itself merely proves that fans (read “readers”) in 1968 preferred in general Marvel’s product to National’s, despite the undeniable improvement in quality wrought by Infantino and others. After all, DC itself plugged the Alleys (in larger type, yet) in a sizable number of magazines, and if anything more prominently than did Marvel - which used it merely as a bottom-of-the-page throwaway item. (In fact, this was only done as a favor to Mark, and after he had written a plug for it in the DC books which otherwise would have made it completely DC TOPHEAVY.) If Marvel readers responded with greater numbers and enthusiasm than anyone else, then it merely proves Marvel deserved the awards - that year.

It’s really all a matter, Fred, of semantics and one’s definition of a FAN. Unfortunately, that of the Academy has changed almost every year. In 1968 a fan was anyone who cared to vote - and who saw the poll advertised in a fanzine or a comic book. In 1969, a fan was anyone who cared enough to vote - but who saw the poll advertised only in a fanzine. Neither, I think, has much validity. No fannish poll is ever likely to gain any real respect until it is definitely tied to some fan group or event. The Academy doesn’t seem to be that group, as it’s moribund despite the best efforts of Mark Hanerfeld and Dave Kaler before him. My own choice, influenced by s-f fandom as I am, would be to have all the members of the New York Comicon each year be the voters - and the votes would both mean something AND help support the only real national event there is.

But nobody’s asked me to settle the anarchical state of comics fandom, and since I now consider comics fandom a nice place to visit but I wouldn’t want to live there, I’ll push my views no further… except to assure Fred et all, that I don’t SCORN the Alleys; indeed, I still own and treasure the one I won some years ago for my fan work. But that the awards should have any meaning to professionals - not until the fans can show that they can organize for something more constructive than a comic-trading session.

I meant for this letter to comment at length on some of the more asinine statements by Fred with regards to the 1968 awards, but the press of work beckons, so I’ll keep this part brief by quoting Fred’s statements and my own disagreements:

1) “In a tally of strictly fandom, Lee still might have won… but hardly by such a great margin.” Quite possibly true, and I yield to no one in my liking and admiration for Dick Giordano (among other editors). But Stan is editor over more than two dozen titles of undisputed fannish popularity, Dick over only a handful. Thus Stan has even more POTENTIAL fans than Dick, in the loosest sense of the word. Besides, nothing except actual voting can prove statements like Fred’s - and the voting just didn’t. And since it will never be 1968 again, Fred will never be able to prove his unsupported assertion.

2) “1968 was Wood’s year.” Not so’s anybody noticed. I like Wally’s work, especially his inking, as evinced by the fact that he and I are now at work on a Dr. Doom strip for Marvel. But he didn’t do enough significant work in 1968 to affect anyone but the most rabid fan. Wally’s winning an award made more sense several years ago, when he was doing Dynamo; don’t try giving him one every time he enters the list. (Now, in 1970, with quite a few Dr. Doom strips under his belt, it might be something else again - and it would make SENSE.)

3) “That shuck from Lee about ‘King’ Kirby enabled Jack to finish second.” If Jack never got a vote from the hordes of fandom, he would still be THE super hero artist; the “epitome”, as Gil Kane called him in A/E 10. I don’t vote for him each and every year myself for various reasons - but the thoughts of some fans that Jack is overrated by Stan and Marvel is ludicrous. I’m sure Neal Adams (who’ll do better in the future, never fear, Fred) would hardly mind finishing second or third to Jack Kirby, since he agrees with Gil’s statement - as do most other action artists.

4) Re: Steranko’s winning : “Real talent will out!” By this snide statement, Fred, waving a triumphant sword aloft, is saying that justice has won the day - or, to be more precise, that one of his choices won the poll. I’ve been a Steranko fan far longer than most people (since I saw his work long before any of it was printed), but Kirby is still the King, in the sense that his superhero art has set the standard for the field since the early 60s. Other styles are beginning to alter that somewhat today, including Steranko’s, Adam’s, even Buscema’s. But Jack will remain as the superhero artist par excellence of the 1960s - and a thousand Alleys to such great talents as Steranko, Adams, Williamson, Wood, et al, will hardly change that - any more than voting, say, Denny O’Neil or myself best writers would make us better that Stan. It wouldn’t.

Okay, I’ve had my say. Sorry to go at even greater length than Fred did in RB&CC, and I assure you that there’s nothing personal in my remarks - but I thought someone might like to hear the opinions of a comics fan who is also a working professional - and who, incidentally, DIDN’T vote a straight ticket in 1968 or any other year.

Roy Thomas
Editor, Alter Ego

Well, THAT was sure like a bucket of cold water applied directly to the face!

Not that it wasn’t warranted - and not that it could’ve been far less civil, cuz it certainly could’ve been! - but still. Whew…

As you might well imagine, Roy’s letter had a sobering effect on our young Mr. Know-It-All. After the initial shock of being singled out for a well-deserved verbal reprimand from one of my favorite funny book scribes finally wore off, I sat back and seriously considered what Mr. T had to say (not all that stuff about coming up with a better way of choosing the year’s best in the field - since that only peripherally concerned yours truly, it pretty much went in one ear and out the other. Fact is, I’d forgotten all about Roy’s various modest voting proposals until I sat down at the keyboard today to reproduce his letter. Things didn’t quite work out as he envisioned along those lines, huh?…).

Well, while he may’ve been off-base with his look into the future of comics’ award balloting, Roy was one hundred percent on the money regarding my aptly characterized “asinine statements”. Stan really DID deserve a tremendous amount of admiration for keeping his ever growing stable of titles heading inexorably towards the top, all the while maintaining an impressive level of quality across the entire line. And in all my years of going on record regarding matters four-color related, have I EVER uttered a STUPIDER sentence than “I have nothing against Jack - he’s a good artist, but not THAT great.”?

No.

No, I have not.

I may’ve come close at times, granted, but nothing quite approaches dismissing the immortal Jack Kirby as “a good artist, but not THAT great”! In my defense, what was going on in my addled teen-age head wasn’t so much disrespect for the mighty triumvirate of Lee, Kirby, and Sinnott, but a situation where I unconsciously began to take their always top-notch efforts for granted. After all, I’d been reading Stan and Jack’s books for a half-dozen years by then - and Joe, nearly as long. Good as they remained at their job, a certain surface sameness couldn’t help turn up each month. Neal Adams and Jim Steranko - not to mention some of the offbeat books DC assigned editor Giordano - were, in comparison, so fresh and different, they won my affection on those grounds alone! Hey, I was 16 - can you blame me for wanting something a little more flashy than what had been the norm up to that point?

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But still - “not THAT great”? Oy…

So I sat down, gathered my thoughts, and wrote back a fairly lengthy reply to Roy, pointing out essentially what I said above - the ol’ hypnotized-by-pretty-colors defense. But what I also said was that his letter had truly put Jack Kirby’s career in its proper place for me. I can honestly say that, since Roy set me straight all those years ago, I have NEVER again thought of Jack as anything less than great! While I may not have been completely taken with everything he did subsequently, I always maintained the utmost respect for the man, and what he managed to accomplish overall in the less than ideal circumstances afforded him by the not-always-friendly confines of the comics biz. Hopefully, I would’ve figured that out on my own eventually, but I’m eternally indebted to Roy Thomas for getting me there all the sooner!

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(Oh, and that phrase where I use the word “shuck” just makes me want to go crawl under a rock! I don’t think I’ve ever used that word in such a manner in all the years since, and lemme tell ya, I literally grimaced when I came upon it while reviewing my ill-advised comments! Bleh - I’m even gonna avoid the subject of corn just to make sure I never have to use that word ever again!…)

Happily, Roy accepted my sincere mea culpa, and the ever busy Marvel staffer kindly took a few minutes to dash off another note to tell me so (unhappily, for a guy who still has all his old fanzines - not to mention virtually every comic book he ever bought while he as a kid - my fannish correspondence from the late sixties, including Roy’s notes and an extensive collection of letters from my three primary pen-pals (a story onto it’s own, albeit one for another time), have all apparently disappeared over the years. A shame, really…). This time, our postal communications weren’t marked for RBCC eyes as well, so there’s no way for me to reproduce Mr. Thomas’s follow-up (the only thing I clearly recall - aside from him graciously letting me off the hook for being a big-mouthed teen-ager - was him plugging an upcoming issue of Iron Man written by Archie Goodwin featuring a new character named Firebrand that Roy figured might be a bit on the controversial side, since he was meant to reflect the social upheaval then occurring in the country. Guess he thought I’d dig something like that, punky little firebrand that I was myself!…)

I wrote yet another letter to Roy - hey, what 17 year old comics geek wouldn’t have wanted Roy Thomas as their pen-pal in 1970? - but that turned out to be the last of our correspondence, as I never heard back from Roy after that. Fair enough - the man had Kree/Skrull Wars to stage and Hyborian Ages to bring to life, after all.

He taught me at least two valuable lessons, the first regarding having a proper appreciation of Jack Kirby, and second being, don’t be such a blowhard, especially when it comes to negative stuff! SOMEONE clearly had to clue me into the fact that my opinions certainly aren’t the ONLY opinions, and I was lucky enough to have someone I admired as much as Roy Thomas be the one to straighten me out! Thanks, Roy - I remain forever grateful!

(That said, I STILL think Enemy Ace had a better year than Sgt. Fury!…)

The votes are in! Hembeck.com has been voted the website most likely to dredge up inconsequential old letters from quarter-century old fanzines - and proud of it, too!

-Copyright 2007 Fred Hembeck (save for Roy’s words, which are his own, now and forever)

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