Bill Schelly was an important figure in comics fandom and an author of biographies on Joe Kubert, Harvey Kurtzman, John Stanley, Otto Binder among others books and as a researcher and historian wrote on the history of the comics industry during a tumultuous period in American Comic Book Chronicles: 1950 – 1959. He also served as associate editor of Twomorrow’s Alter Ego, a magazine that documents the familiar and forgotten characters, people, and publishers in comics. The original 2001 edition of Schelly’s autobiography focused on his time in comics fandom. The book quickly sold out and Schelly often heard from its readers how relatable his story was to them. I’m both very pleased and grateful that Schelly decided to revisit and expand his autobiography because I too found Schelly’s story relatable and engaging on several levels which quite often intertwined in my reading.
The first and obvious level is Schelly’s telling of how his fascination with the comics medium stayed with him thoughout his life. It was Schelly’s father who introduced he and his two brothers to comics as a way to entertain them as the family set off on a cross country train trip in 1960. While his brothers quickly made their choices eight year old Schelly wouldn’t settle for just any comic; it had to be a copy of Superman Annual #1, the first of DC’s 80 paged giants. In the time it took for the train to reach Chicago from Pittsburgh Schelly had read the comic a handful of times and was hooked by, to use his phrase, a sense of wonder. Schelly soon found a grade school friend, Richard Shields, who shared that same sense of wonder which quite serendipitously led them to discover a new wave of comics fandom where fans were creating and contributing to fanzines such as The Rocket’s Blast Comicollector (their gateway) and the original Alter Ego, among others.
Schelly’s accounts from this period in his life were a delight to read. He conveys a real feeling of the convivial spirit operating throughout the fandom community of the time and the DIY attitude he and Richard embraced, in putting together a fanzine fittingly named Sense of Wonder, as it seemed everyone did with their own work and contributions to various fanzines. The two boys parted amicably and Schelly continued on with his zine work and other comic related activities – informal meetups, attending an early New York Comic convention, trying out for DC, and starting a pen pal relationship with another fan who Schelly connected with in a different way. Which brings me to other reason I was eager to read the autobiography.
In his revised volume Schelly shares what he held back in his first edition: being a closeted youth hiding his fear and isolation during the 1960s. I wanted to know how comics intersected with his coming out process (hint: Spider-Man, his fanzine art, and searching for subtext when comics were overshadowed by the prohibitive Comics Code Authority) and throughout his life and his decisions that led him to becoming a father, all of which Schelly talks extensively while framing the stories in the context of gradually changing attitudes in America toward the LGBTQ community. As for the penpal relationship I mentioned in the previous paragraph, Schelly had connected with another gay nerd and they met after exchanging letters a number of times. No spoilers here so you’ll have to read the book to learn what happened!
Peppered throughout are many anecdotes about the closely knitted group of people working on various fanzines and the synergy between fans and pros. Imagine the thrill of writing to Steve Ditko or Jack Kirby and receiving an original piece of art in the mail to include in your next issue! As an informal history of fandom and fanzines from one man’s perspective I was struck by the ways fandom has remained consistent as well as changed since its glory days.
It’s only fitting that Sense of Wonder’s cover design by Jasmine Hromjak pays homage to the Superman comic that put Schelly on his path in life. By today’s standards the split panel design featuring a Curt Swan barrel chested Superman is quaint. For its time though the look was fresh and coupled with being the first comic in the 80 page giant format would have made for exciting reading.
Though left unmentioned in this review Schelly had his share of disappointment and loss to face yet he never seemed to give into despair. I recommend Sense of Wonder if you’re looking for an inspiring and upbeat story about staying true to your dreams. Sadly the comics world lost a very good and kind person with Bill Schelly’s passing in September of 2019.
Look for Sense Of Wonder at your local comic shop or book store or ask them to order a copy with this ISBN 978-1-62317-151-3. You may also buy paperback or Kindle copies from Amazon.