This must have been a challenging project for Bill Schelly as Jim Warren, the boss-emperor of Warren Publications, was a bit of a fabulist. The guy had so many versions of so many stories that it would be impossible to sort out which was true or even if many of the stories ever happened.
But if anyone could winkle out the truth, it’s Schelly. His excellent biography of John Stanley is proof of that.
Warren, for those of you not in the know, created Warren Publications and the Captain Company. The publishing end was home to Famous Monsters of Filmland, Creepy, Eerie and Vampirella along with other genre publications over the years. Captain Company was the mail order house specializing in horror and comic book tchotchkes. The ads occupied the back third of every Warren publication and were the source for all your fan-geek needs like action figures, masks, posters and vials of soil from Dracula’s grave. No lie!
The South Philly native’s first foray into publishing was a failed Playboy knock-off. Warren’s idol was Hugh Hefner and it showed in his publishing style as well as his private life. When the skin-book bit the dust, Warren decided to take advantage of the coming monster craze of the late 50s and, with the invaluable contribution of Forrest J Ackerman, jumped in with FMoF. When Marvel began a comic book renaissance, Warren expanded to comics that specialized in horror. He wisely printed them as magazines to avoid the comics code restrictions that would have strangled any effort to make scary comics in those days.
What followed began an amazing period in comics. The very best in the medium were let loose to strut their stuff in gorgeous black and white. Al Williamson, Frank Frazetta (his last comics work), Wally Wood, Angelo Torres, Alex Toth, Russ Heath, John Severin all scripted by young Archie Goodwin doing his first comics work and showing the rest of us how it’s done. This period features the career peaks of Gene Colan and Steve Ditko doing astounding work that is at once highly experimental as well as wildly entertaining.
The decades to come would bring lows and highs. Disastrous lows and giddy highs. He nearly went out of business more than once and spent years breaking even before the early 70s brought the kind of artistic and monetary success that remains unique in comic book publishing history. He would eventually tire of the business and retire himself and his publishing line to pursue other business opportunities.
I was witness to much of this history, albeit as a fan. Warren was a regular fixture, and often sponsor, of early comic book conventions. His booth was always the biggest and busiest with piles of back issues for sale and, often, scantily clad models hawking them. I met him many times. Usually when paying him personally for a stack of magazines. He would also present speakers at panels and be the face of comics for the media. For years he was a popular celebrity publisher and well-known for his brash opinions about the industry.
One of those opinions was his distrust of fandom. While he encouraged readers to join various fan clubs dedicated to his magazines, Warren preferred casual readers to dedicated fans. Unlike the other comics publishers at the time, Warren looked at circulation figures and returns rather than let the fans take control. When he hired Spanish artists to work on his books, fans objected. They didn’t like the lush, illustrative style of the Spaniards and preferred artists they were more familiar with. But sales began to climb for Uncle Creepy, Cousin Eerie and Vampi in a time when DC and Marvel were beginning to hemorrhage readers. The writing was on the wall, casual newsstand readers were attracted to these damned pretty books. Warren made an unusual decision for a comic book company, he decided to lean into quality. He raised his page rates and raided the other companies for talent and offered them a chance to do their very best work. Tom Sutton, Berni Wrightson, Richard Corben and Jeff Jones, young tyros with promise, could do the best comics work of their careers at Warren. Other artists returned from the early days of the company. In addition to writer Archie Goodwin, Neal Adams, Wally Wood, Alex Toth, John Severin and Russ Heath came back to create spectacular comics work that were often career highlights.
The result of this daring move to quality was even higher sales. Readers wanted good comics. Who knew? And Warren’s choice saw him through serious challenges from other publishers churning out horror comic magazines. That included even Marvel who released a wide range of monster mags that failed to catch on for the long haul. Warren remained and kept going even through the implosion of DC Comics and the “austerity programs” at Marvel.
Watching that happen informed my own opinions about the appeal of comics and helped me decide the direction of my own career. I was also suspicious of fandom and its obsession with legacy superhero characters. I loved the medium more than the characters. I was determined to do my best work and, whenever possible, work with editors and collaborators to create the highest quality work I could. But at the same time keep it accessible to even the most nonchalant lookie-loo. I would work hard to engage readers from page one panel one. I never aspired to be a fan favorite or flavor of the month. I preferred the longevity often awarded to the “invisible hand.” I would always trust my own instincts.
That’s what Jim Warren taught me. And that lesson is here in this portrait of a wild, enigmatic, ego-maniacal, inventive and infuriating genius who always found a way to keep moving forward.
A fun read about a true comics pioneer.
Find it here: