Dancing With the Squirrels: Tales From Comics Fandom and Beyond by Dwight R. Decker (Vesper Press, 2015)

The Crackpot And Other Twisted Tales of Greedy Fans and Collectors, Written and Illustrated by John E. Stockman, with a Foreword by Richard A. Lupoff. Edited by Dwight R. Decker (Surinam Turtle Press, 2015)

Dance2When I was a boy, we took our fanac (fan activity) seriously, by gum! F.I.A.W.O.L. (Fandom Is A Way Of Life) all the way! Why, if you had an ounce of pride, you’d never dog it by contributing the minac (minimum activity) to your a.p.a. (amateur press alliance) zine, no sireebob! If you couldn’t take the heat of long evenings cranking on mimeo or ditto (easy and inexpensive printing methods) machine, then it was time you just gafiated (or G.A.F.I.A., Get Away From It All) and be done with it!

Most fanzines of the the late 1960s and early 1970s were small circulation things (usually under one hundred copies, the upper limit of legible copies off a ditto machine) and were mainly fans talking to other fans about their different areas of interest through articles and letters. Some published fan fiction, or stories written by fans about their favorite characters from existing comics, film, TV, and literature. A very few wrote faan fiction, or fiction by fans about fans, a niche genre carried over (as were fanzines in general) from the several decades older science fiction fan community.

There wasn’t a lot of faan fiction being written, but my favorite were Dwight R. Decker’s stories about “The PRIME Movers,” a group of fans living in the fictional Shetland, Illinois (PRIME being the name of the a.p.a. to which they belonged, a fictionalized version of CAPA-alpha, the first comic book a.p.a. started by the father of comic book fandom Jerry Bails in 1964). The stories featured serious comic book fan and scholar Robert Trent and his best friend, the less fanatical Ernie Volney, and the true star of the series, the lovely Pamela Collins. Pam, a talented artist, was a newcomer to comics, turned practically overnight from high school homecoming queen and cheerleader to fan artist when she read her first comics in order to draw an emergency cover for Trent’s fanzine.

Dwight published his stories in the seven issues of his fanzine, True Fan Adventure Theater, also known as True F.A.T. between 1969 and 1971. Not all his faan fiction was about the PRIME Movers, but those are probably the most fondly remembered of his creations. Dancing With the Squirrels’ six stories include three starring Bob, Ernie, and/or Pam, the first two serving as great snapshots of the fandom of the day and are about every collectors’ wet dream, the discovery of hidden stashes of valuable old comic books purchased for a song.

TrueFannishDwight knew the world of fandom as well as anybody. As he writes in his introduction to Dancing With the Squirrels, “I had been an active comic fan for two years, collecting comic books, writing articles about them for fanzines, and even publishing an issue or two of my own fanzine.” Like Trent and Volney, he was part of the local fan scene and, through CAPA-alpha and other activities, in touch with fans across the country. Dwight’s acknowledgements in Dancing With the Squirrels reads like a circa-1970 fannish all-star line-up, the guys whose fanzines I read that made me want to do fanzines of my own, iincluding as a member for a while of CAPA-alpha and, later NYapa, where I published, on ditto, my one piece of completed faan fiction, “Divine Decadence” in a zine called True Fannish Love Tales.

The author freely admits, “I had tried my hand at writing stories, but never with much success since I didn’t know what cowboys, detectives, spies, or starship captains did in real life….The answer seemed to be that old writer’s dictum—Write what you know. And what did I know? Comic book fans! It seemed only natural to write stories about fictionalized versions of the kind of people I knew best and the scrapes they got into.” Dwight thought he had invented a new kind of fan fiction; it was only after writing a few faan tales that he learned others had gotten there first, including the elusive John E. Stockman, who wrote about a very different sort of fan in his Tales of Torment.

In “TV Comics,” Pam’s insurance agent dad stumbles across one such horde of Golden Age comics and buys them for his daughter for the princely sum of one hundred dollars. Thanks to Pam’s newfound interest in comics, Mr. Collins had some idea what his find was worth and plans to sell the comics to finance his daughter’s college education. Trent and Volney are jealous of Pam’s “collection” (especially since her tastes run to fantasy and she doesn’t even appreciate the comics they way they would), Bob because of his scholarly interest in the comics history—he hopes to borrow the complete Golden Age run of Captain America from her in order to write an in-depth article for his zine—and Ernie because of the fortune these rare old books will fetch on the open market. Later, the fan friends’ quest for a four color newsprint windfall of their own leads them to “The Old Abandoned Warehouse” filled from floor to ceiling with boxes of the surplus from a World War II era paper drive, including, most likely, a bonanza of pre-1945 comics and pulp magazines. While the beautiful and talented Pam seems destined to have a wonderful life, the hapless Bob and Ernie aren’t as lucky.

The third PRIME Mover story takes Pam Collins to the 1972 World Science Fiction Convention in L.A. in “Letters From the Future” for a solo adventure. A chance encounter leads Pam to track down and meet a favorite fantasy author of hers whose work had been long forgotten, helping to bring the author’s work back into print as well as discovering the secret behind a fabled lost fantasy novel by a deceased writer. This is a charming tale which plays, like the unearthing of a stash of valuable old comics, into our fannish fantasies. What fan hasn’t dreamed of finding a lost or unpublished work by a favorite author?

These are fun and surprisingly well drawn characters and their escapades, while sometimes edging into farce, don’t feel the least bit forced. Perhaps some of this is due to my familiarity with the material. But even though there’s nothing fancy about Decker’s prose, he’s a clear and direct writer who tells his stories with a no-frills efficiency.  Full disclosure: I have known Dwight since about 1972 and, until recently, was still in possession of my complete set of True F.A.T.s from the time. Dwight would probably be the first to tell you that I’m not just being kind (last thing I ever was to Dwight was kind; I was a surly, smart-ass Jewish kid from Brooklyn and Dwight was this Methodist-looking dude from Ohio who studied and spoke fluent German. You do the math.) when I say nice things about his book. His portrayal of fans and their fandom is one that I recognize from my own experiences…except, perhaps, for one member of the cast. As Dwight writes, “There were thought to be around 2000 active fans in comics fandom in the late ‘60s (“active” defined as people who got fanzines, basically the subscription list of the Rocket’s Blast/Comicollector, the one fanzine almost everybody got…), and of them, maybe four were known to be female.” There was no Pam Collins in our reality. Not even close.

Dancing With the Squirrels also features two non-PRIME stories, including the title story, where a middle-age wannabe comic book creator attends a comic book convention for his last ditch attempt at breaking into the business. Things don’t quite go Arthur D. Claymore way, but he finds inspiration in the success of another artist in which he played a major role. It’s a lovely little story that makes the reader hope they would do the same as Arthur in a similar situation.

Crackpot315The final long piece (aside from “Short History of Comic Books and Comics Fandom,” a brief primer for the non-fannishly informed reader) is also by Decker, but it’s the non-fiction “The Greatest of Them All,” about fellow faan fiction author John E. Stockman. Stockman was something of an enigma, an older fan and World War II vet who apparently lived in a trailer stuffed with his comics and Edgar Rice Burroughs collections and worked in warehouses and as a night watchman. Stockman’s Tales of Torment told of a very different fan and fandom than was featured in True F.A.T.; his collectors and dealers and fanzine editors were greedy, selfish, egotistical, venal, disgusting people, twisted men and teens whose first thoughts went to thievery and violence to get what they wanted, and who were prone to animalistic frenzies and destructive rampages. The mere sight of a copy of the rare and desirable Tarzan #20 (worth $20 or $30 depending on condition and a collectible of that day that shows up in several Stockman stories) set these lunatics off on grandiose schemes that invariably ended in disaster for the poor slob.

Stockman’s characters were, in short, horribly wonderful losers. They lived in squalor and were always broke and endlessly scheming to get money, usually through theft, if not plotting to direct steal the object of their desire, or seeking revenge for slights real and imagined., They slobber and spit when they talk, they eat “slop” and “greedily guzzle” cups of thick, syrupy coffee. They dress like bums and you know if you found yourself standing next to one of them at a con he’d smell like two weeks of unwashed butt. They howl in anger and out of despair and madness and plot against their own families to satisfy their uncontrollable urge to possess and not leave a single, selfish desire unfulfilled. Stockman wrote and published over two dozen of his tales between 1962 and 1979 that appeared in sixteen issues of Tales of Torment, a mimeo’ed fanzine that also featured Stockman’s own illustrations, drawings as crudely effective as his quirky and unique prose style, one, Decker notes, which would make a high school English teacher winch but which seemed a perfect fit for its dysfunctional subject matter.

Decker has also edited a collection of eight of these crude and brutal masterpieces, The Crackpot And Other Twisted Tales of Greedy Fans and Collectors (which also features a Foreword by founding fan, fanzine publisher, author Richard A. Lupoff, whose Surinam Turtle Press published this compilation). “The Tragic Case of Harry Orland” is almost a blueprint for Stockman melodrama, in this case a man who would rather spend his meager $35 a week salary on comics or other collectibles than support his wife and two children. When his wife begins picking up his paycheck directly from the boss, Harry doesn’t even have a quarter to spend at his favorite restaurant slop house much less for a $30 or more copy of the omnipresent Tarzan #20. Harry’s attempt to steal the valuable comic from the gloating, greedy dealer (which includes a hilarious sword fight in the dealer’s shop) ends in failure and Harry having to hand over his entire collection to the dealer to avoid arrest. True insanity shortly follows and Harry is sent away to the madhouse, a victim of his own greed. But Harry would be back in the later and aptly titled, “The Return of Harry Orland.” Suffice to say, his four year “cure” in the looney bin doesn’t hold for long.

There’s more reality in Dwight Decker’s stories of everyday fans than in John Stockman’s crazed collectors, but if you strip away the madness and the violence, Stockman was parodying the attitudes and morals of his fellow fans, reducing their fanaticism to its most raw and base emotions. There are many who believe that fans collect obsessively to fill emotional voids in their lives. If that’s true, John Stockman didn’t bother to disguise the anger and frustration, instead giving vent to it in a torrent of words and illustrations. It’s actually scary stuff if you bother to take it seriously.

Dancing With the Squirrels and The Crackpot represent the yin and yang of old time comic book fandom, the good, the bad, the ugly, and the weird. In other words, classic fanac at its finest. The only thing missing is the heady aroma of ditto spirit fluid.


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1 Comment on Tales From the Golden Age of Fandom

  1. Jeff Anderson says:

    Jeff Anderson here.
    As Archie Bunker sings, “….those were the days”
    I grew up a fan who lived on the other side of Columbus, Ohio from Dwight R. Decker, and I did contribute some “faan fiction” to Dwight’s True Fan Adventure Theater. I ended up the owner (and still caretaker of) one of Dwight’s sets of his TrueFAT and Freon fanzines, as well as those wild John Stockman’s TALES OF TORMENT ‘zines; I still have those, the yin and yang of fandom as you categorize them.
    I am still amazed at all the work that went in to making ditto or mimeo stencils for fanzines, printing them, stapling, mailing, and the obvious delay in response by readers. Now it’s a bit of tapping on the keyboard and hit enter, and that thought is immediately delivered to all.

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