The Alter Ego Collection, Volume One
by Roy Thomas, et. al.
One of the mainstays of TwoMorrows’ periodical offerings is Roy Thomas’s storied ‘zine Alter Ego. Started by comics enthusiast and professor Jerry Bails, with Thomas first coming on to assist and then gradually take the reins, Alter Ego‘s beginnings were perfectly timed with the “Silver Age” resurgence of superhero comics and was a valuable research tool/required reading material for comics fans until a slight problem occurred. Roy Thomas got his dream job at Marvel Comics, where he worked for the next several decades (along with stints at DC). Alter Ego resurfaced a few times in the intervening years but never for sustained periods, due to Thomas’s workload, if nothing else. It wasn’t until the very tail end of the 1990s, when TwoMorrows made Thomas an offer he couldn’t refuse, that the fanzine-writer-turned-comics-pro went back to his roots in a larger scale magazine than ever before. The enthusiasm and gusto with which Thomas and company threw themselves into this endeavor is apparent in the fact that this hefty (nearly) 200-page collection only manages to compile the first two (!) issues of the Alter Ego 3.0, albeit with some bonus material. Holy moley!
For the uninitiated, Alter Ego is dedicated to the Golden Age (roughly 1935-1955) and Silver Age (geez, maybe 1965-1975) of superhero comics. Heavy on primary sources, the Alter Ego writing staff cull original artwork and unpublished sketches from their own obviously considerable collections to really get the ol’ salivary glands going, or call in favors for missing panels or images from fellow collectors or classic creators only too happy to contribute. Because of the reputation of Alter Ego, and most likely the staff’s tenacity, they score dream interview after dream interview with titans of the 4-color funnies world — Gil Kane, Jack Burnley, Larry Lieber, Irwin Hasen — solicit writers or artists from the time to write articles on their experiences in comics, and write in-depth, measured historical pieces that trace everything from the mystery behind a Spirit piece running in the New Yorker, a Rashomon-like contention over the creation of the Silver Age Atom (whoda thunk it?), the genesis of Infinity Inc, or even the visual development of comics obscurity the Sky Wizard. There’s even a transcript of a Stan Lee Roast that’s more fun than it has any right to be. The zine’s regular contributors approach their work with the zeal of an archeologist, sociologist or academic (though still imbued with a childlike wonder) in bringing to light overlooked characters or creators who deserve as much retrospective attention as a Will Eisner or Jack Kirby receives. Thomas’s years of work in the comic field give him a certain authority in his interviews and articles, which makes him able to pull more insights out of his subjects, but it’s his genuine love for the Golden Age and Silver Age of comics that make Alter Ego what it is.
Half the fun of the interviews is the “road stories,” tales of long hours hunched over a drawing board, grinding out page after page for ungrateful bosses for miniscule wages, and how, somehow, there was often a real jovial team spirit among these kids (and that’s what they were at the time by and large, check out Richard Dean Taylor’s story of how he got drafted in the midst of his successful run) that makes it all the more affecting. Couple that with their genuine, honest surprise over work they perhaps considered throwaway now being hailed as classic and important 00 it’s good stuff, though tinged with an inescapable undercurrent of melancholy. Interesting to see how Michael Chabon’s novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay really was spot on in its depiction of the “golden” age of comics from the vantage points of the guys behind the inkpots.
My favorite parts include the lengthy conversation with an almost touchingly humble and melancholy Larry Leiber (that’s Stan Lee’s brother, yep) and anything to do with Fawcett comics, particularly the pointed (and puritan) opinions of the company’s famous figurehead, Captain Marvel creator CC Beck. Plus there’s Robert Kanigher being grumpy and sharp, though right-on, in a long letter written in to the staff, including the most interesting point about how it was incredible that a Jew could get away with creating (for a company, DC, run by a Jewish publisher) one of the most sympathetic and affecting wartime German characters in the Enemy Ace and have it run successfully for so long. Damn. And, by god, all the sketches and original art — yowza! Some of the articles even turn the “camera” around and focus on the nascent beginnings of comics fandom and the tight-knit community of fanzines that sprung up in the early 1960s. If you’re interested at all in comics history, are an older fan of superhero comics, a pop culture junkie or just someone who likes to hear artists tell their stories, then the Alter Ego Collection is a great place to start.