FOREWORD BILL AND ME by RUSS COCHRAN
“… Nine–tenths of the American towns are so alike that it is the completest boredom to wander from one to another. There is the same lumber yard, the same railroad station, the same Ford garage, the same creamery, the same box–like houses and two–story shops. The shops show the same standardized, nationally advertised wares; the newspapers of sections three thousand miles apart have the same “syndicated features.” He would go down apparently the same Main Street … in the same drug store he would see the same young man serving the same ice–cream soda to the same young woman with the same magazines and phonograph records under her arm.”
from Main Street by Sinclair Lewis, written in 1919
Now jump ahead a quarter of a century to 1944. All the Main Streets across America have not changed much. Boys ride their Schwinn or Western Flyer bicycles to their neighborhood movie houses, and all of them see the very same movies. They frequent the neighborhood drugstores on and around Main Street to pore over the large selection of comic books on display there. In those halcyon evenings, before television, they all listened to the same radio programs, read the same Sunday funnies, and caught lightning bugs in a jar. It is a happy thought for me to think about the thousands of men I know now but didn’t know then, all of us sharing the same experiences and cultural influences.
West Plains, Missouri, is a small, sleepy town similar to thousands of small towns all across the country. In 1937, when I was born there, the population was around 4,000, which in the past seventy-five years has increased to around 12,000. Nothing of great importance ever happened there, except in April 1928, when a dance hall explosion killed over thirty people. This event made national headlines, and the cause of the great explosion, which snuffed out the brightest and most popular young people in the town, was never discovered.
The Cottage Hospital was located in a house about two blocks from my home at 914 Cass Avenue when I made my appearance on July 3, 1937, the first child of Van and Dulcie Cochran. Van Cochran, my dad, worked at a filling station and later worked his way up to co-ownership of the local Ford agency. My mother, Dulcie, was born on a farm in Ozark County, Missouri, and moved to the “big city” of West Plains to attend high school.
Two events of 1941 are vivid in my memory; the birth of my younger brother Rick on July 24, and the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7. Because of that, my dad had to report for military service along with hundreds of thousands of other Americans, and I remember my mother crying as he left for the physical.
Although I lived in a small town with a Main Street, I was also a country boy who went to the river every weekend with my family, where my dad would fish and I would explore and play Tarzan. I was obsessed with Tarzan. He was my favorite fictional character by far. This came from seeing the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies. I loved Tarzan, and I learned to throw a knife and stick it into a board almost every time. I started shooting with the longbow and when I would see white hunters with big game rifles I would want to smash them against a tree (the rifles, not the hunters.)
This was also the year I learned to read, from reading comic books. The only escapes from West Plains were the movie theaters and comic books, and I enjoyed a large diet of both of these. It cost ten cents to get into the movies and ten cents for a comic book, and I did chores to earn dimes and quarters by carrying firewood for the kitchen stove for my Grandmother Cochran. Every time I would fill her woodbox next to the cooking stove she would give me a few dimes or a couple of quarters, and I would beat it to the nearest drugstore to buy comic books. I loved them all; the superhero comics, Walt Disney’s Comics and Stories, Daredevil, Boy, and Crime Does Not Pay … There were no comics that didn’t interest me and lead me into the wonderful world of reading.
I was very aware that my own hometown West Plains took care of me. My home was four or five blocks from the center square, where all the movie houses and comic book racks were located. At a very early age I was permitted to roam this area freely, and there was never a thought that someone might harm me or kidnap me. I was sure that if some “bad guys” tried to haul me into their car and whisk me away, there would immediately be a throng of townsfolk coming to my rescue. It would have been like “The Ransom of Red Chief”; it wouldn’t take long for the kidnappers to be ready to give me back.
By the time I was nine or ten years old I had accumulated hundreds of comic books, which I stashed and guarded fiercely from my brothers Rick and Mike (who was born in 1944). My comic books were everywhere, until my mother threatened to throw them all away if I didn’t pick them up and put them away in a safe place, which of course I did. Nobody was going to get my precious comic books. Today, in the age of television, it is hard for people to realize how important comic books were to kids of my generation. I divided my comic books into two groups; ones I wanted to keep because maybe I wanted to read them again, or I just liked them a lot, and ones that I read one time and then went into my trading stock.
Every kid in West Plains had comic books, and one way to get more of them was to trade, so periodically I would take my stack of tradable comics over to David Galloway’s or Charles Phelps’s house and we would each go through the other’s stack and pick out the ones we wanted to trade. We always traded one for one. If I picked out thirty comic books from David’s stack, he got to pick thirty from my stack. This ensured a constant flow of new (to me) comics to enjoy. My favorite thing to do on a rainy Saturday (besides go to the movies) was to hole up in my room with my comic books and a Dr. Pepper. I treasure those days.
From day one, I was always encouraged to do the best I could do. When I received my grade card in third grade, in the space reserved for the teacher’s comments to parents is written, in the handwriting of an eight-year-old, “Russell is doing better than the others.” I must have needed for my parents to know that, and all through school, from kindergarten through graduate school, my grades were always at the top of the class. That idea was drilled into me, and to this day, when I write something or publish something, I am conscious of the need I have to “do better than the others.”
By 1951, two things had happened: I was fourteen years old and losing interest in comic books … burnout, I suppose … and by chance I came upon a copy of Haunt of Fear #8. It was the first EC comic I had ever seen. And it jolted me. In one flash of lightning, I lost interest in all the other comic books I had been reading for the past ten years, and fell in love EC comics. I wanted more! I started trading for any back issues I could find and buying new issues off the newsstand as soon as they came out. These ECs were so important to me that I built a wooden box with a padlock on it, to keep them safe. I went to the hardware store and got a wooden box that shotgun shells came in, purchased two hinges and a hasp, and made the EC box, painted it green, and put several decals on it. Although this was designed to keep my sacred ECs safe, there was one time when my cousin Davey came to visit and I wasn’t at home. He wanted to read the ECs and couldn’t get into the padlocked box, so he broke into the EC box by taking off the wooden bottom. It was a big deal at the time. That was the only time the EC box was violated.
In 1953, one of the new ECs I got off the newsstand announced that there would be an “EC Fan Addict Club”, a nationwide … nay, a worldwide club for all of us who were addicted to EC comics. For twenty-five cents you could join the club and get a certificate, a sewn shoulder patch with the EC insignia, a metal EC pin, and a membership card. And, to top it off, EC encouraged readers to form local chapters of the club. My brothers and friends sent off immediately and became Chapter #3 of the club. We held regular meetings and collected dues, which we used to subscribe to all the EC titles. At each meeting of Chapter #3 of the EC Fan-Addict club, the padlocked EC box would be opened and we would all sit around and read and reread ECs.
It was obvious to us that there was something very special, something different, about EC comics. The art was better, and the artists signed their work and got fan mail. The writing was several levels above the comic book stories that we used to read, before we discovered ECs. Of course, we didn’t know at that time that virtually all of this great writing was done by Al Feldstein, and to a lesser degree by Johnny Craig and Harvey Kurtzman. The stories were so well written; they expanded our vocabulary and always had that “twist” ending that ECs were famous for.
This continued until 1955, when two things happened: I graduated from West Plains High School and we received the horrible news that our favorite EC comics were all being discontinued. Aaargh!!
So in the fall of 1955, I locked the EC box and hid it away in my parents’ attic, and forgot about it. That was the end of my comic book reading. I never bought another comic book; I was a college boy now. I had to grow up.
I was a good student at the Rolla campus of the University of Missouri, making top grades in my classes. I decided to major in physics because everyone thought it was a tough major but it seemed relatively easy for me. I didn’t enjoy physics as much as I enjoyed being “better than the others,” being the “brain” who breezed through all the physics and mathematics classes.
Then in 1957, Sputnik happened. The Soviet Union put the very first satellite in orbit and this blew the lid off the academic community. New scholarships were sponsored by the government to encourage students to further their studies in physics. We had to keep up, or catch up, with the Russians. From that point on my college education did not cost me a penny. Because of my good grades, I got scholarships and fellowships to continue my education all the way to my doctorate in physics in 1964. I was a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and received NDEA (National Defense Education Act) fellowships to keep me going. And I didn’t have anything better to do, so I kept at it until I received my PhD and had to go out into the world. I had been a professional student for nine years and it was the only thing I knew about. I’d had a summer job during these years at Rocketdyne and U.S. Steel, and spent two summers at Los Alamos Scientific Labs in Los Alamos, New Mexico.
During these summers working in the physics industry, I learned one important thing; I didn’t really like physics that much.
I had kept going because the fellowships made it the easiest way to continue doing what I did best, but in my summer jobs I was bored silly. I learned to play the guitar and went to lots of movies and started reading all the new paperback versions of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories and discovered those iconic cover paintings by Frank Frazetta. My interest in comic books was lying dormant but my interest in Tarzan never waned.
The free fellowships kept me in school, where I made straight As and joined a field archery club and continued to work on the guitar.
What was I going to do now? I knew I didn’t want to work in the physics industry, so my only option was to become a physics teacher. I did enjoy teaching, standing up there in front of the class and explaining physics principles which many students found difficult. And I was good at it. I was able to make physics palatable to liberal arts students who would later major in pharmacy or medicine. I liked teaching, at first.
I received two offers in 1964 upon receiving my PhD. One was in Washington from Gonzaga University and the other was from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. I took the Drake offer because they offered me the position of chairman of the Physics Department right off the bat, and Iowa is closer to Missouri than Washington.
So in the summer of 1964 I was preparing to move my family to Des Moines when I remembered the EC box in the attic. It was a hot summer day when I unlocked the box and sat there in the attic rereading the ECs. I took the box with me to Des Moines and decided I needed to complete the collection. Since I didn’t discover EC until late 1951, I was missing all the early issues.
I found out about dealers like Bill Thailing and Howard Rogofsky and started subscribing to early ad zines like The Fantasy Collector, and slowly started adding the early ECs to my collection.
In June 1965, I wrote the letter seen at the upper right to Bill Gaines.
This was my first contact with Bill Gaines, and he enjoyed the letter so much that he immediately replied and told me to come to his office for a visit if I was ever in New York City. As luck would have it, Drake allowed me one professional trip per year and the American Association of Physics Teachers met in New Youk every February. And in February 1966, I went to New York and met Bill Gaines.
The moment I first shook hands with Bill Gaines, in his office at MAD, there was instant rapport. I think Bill was delighted that his EC devotees ended up being respectable people instead of ax murderers. Another connection was that Bill had planned to be a chemistry teacher, and I was a physics teacher.
Bill was fifteen years older than me, which made him not quite a father figure but a mentor and older brother figure. For the next four or five years I made my annual trip to New York in February, and on each trip I had dinner with Bill. I also started visiting Frank Frazetta on these same trips. I didn’t spend much time at the physics convention.
I became aware of organized comic fandom in the late 1960s, where I met these thousands of comic fans who grew up near Main Street in Oklahoma or Texas or California or New York. I met them at comic book conventions in Dallas and Houston, New York and Oklahoma City, Chicago and San Diego. We were a brotherhood.
I also met Moondog in New York in February of 1966. He was standing, like he always did, on Sixth Avenue, wearing his Viking outfit. He was called “The Viking of Sixth Avenue,” and was a regular fixture on the streets. He didn’t live on the street, though; he had an apartment where he wrote music. He met Philip Glass, Charlie Parker, Benny Goodman, and many other musical geniuses, and you can go to YouTube and type in Moondog and hear at least fifty of his songs. His real name was Louis Thomas Hardin. He was born in 1916 in Marysville, Kansas. He was blinded at age seventeen by an accident at the farm involving a dynamite cap. He learned to play drums by drumming on cardboard boxes. He moved to New York in 1945 and named himself Moondog. He met Leonard Bernstein and Arturo Toscannini, and spent all day standing with his Viking helmet and spear at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Fifty-Third Street. I said to Moondog, “What’s up?” and he answered, “Down is up.” When I look at this photograph taken of me and Moondog by fellow physics professor Harry Downing, I see opposite extremes of conformity: I represent complete conformity, with suit and topcoat, and Moondog represents complete nonconformity. Seeing the photo inspired me to become more of a nonconformist myself.
The annual meetings with Bill continued, and we always went out to dinner. Bill loved to eat: it was his favorite pleasure. He took me to many of the wonderful restaurants in Manhattan where we would eat and eat. We ate at Peter Luger’s in Brooklyn and Pen and Pencil, and one of his favorites was Sparks Steak House on East Forty-Sixth Street, where the assassination of mobster Paul Castellano and Thomas Bilotti occurred in 1985. The hit was ordered by “The Teflon Don,” John Gotti. We ate at Sparks many times.
When I visited Bill in his office in early 1970, I noticed that there were several large packages wrapped in brown paper in his office, and he invited me to look at them. This was my first look at EC original artwork. Bill had pulled the originals from his vault on Second Avenue for Woody Gelman’s large book published by Nostalgia Press, Horror Comics of the 1950’s. I had never realized how large the original art pages were, and as I looked at the artwork my first reaction was that the originals were much more detailed and beautiful than the printed versions in the comic books.
I said to Bill, “These originals are really beautiful pieces of artwork. I wish all EC fans could see the art like this.”
Two things were happening in 1970, I was getting more and more bored with teaching physics and was at the top of my career ladder. I was chairman of the department
and the only way for me to move up in the university would be to become an administrator, perhaps a dean. This would mean no time in the classroom, with my days filled with meetings and pushing papers across a desk, interviews, budgets … not for me! I was stuck, I couldn’t continue to be a teacher and advance in my career. The other thing that was happening is that I was becoming aware of the growth of comics fandom. I had been attending comic book conventions in New York, Chicago, Houston and Oklahoma City, and was aware that there were many thousands of comic book fans who, like me, loved the comic books they read in their youth. Maybe there was a spot there for me.
The intersection of these two things resulted in EC Portfolio One, which I published in 1971. The idea was simple: I would have the original art photographed to show the incredible detail and beauty, and then have it printed in a large portfolio and take it to comic book conventions and sell it for ten dollars. Bill agreed to the project, and I printed one thousand copies of that first portfolio and sold all of them within the first year. And I made a profit. This led to five more EC portfolios. I was getting further and further from the university and closer to comics fandom.
During one of those sumptuous dinners, I said to Bill, “You know, Bill, there’s a whole new generation of comics fans out there now and they are hungry for EC comics. Back issues are expensive and hard to find. Why don’t you republish the entire EC line?”
Bill continued to eat and then paused and said, “No. I have all I can handle running MAD and I have no desire to become a comic book publisher again.” Then he paused again and said, “Why don’t you do it?” It didn’t sink in right away, but on the airplane flying back to Iowa from New York I started thinking about it. “Yeah, why don’t I do it?” This was the birth of the idea behind the Complete EC Library, in which I wanted to reprint every single EC comic book, in a large format, using original artwork.
That was it! This was my ticket to leaving the university and devoting full time to publishing. I proposed the idea to Bill and he immediately said, “Yes, do it!” I could now move back to my beloved West Plains, where all my relatives lived, and be a publisher, and take my books to comic conventions all over the country!
I had tenure at Drake. That meant I had a guaranteed job for life, provided I behaved myself. I resigned from that position in 1974 and moved back to West Plains in the fall of 1974, finished with teaching, finished with physics, and ready to become a publisher.
I loved Bill Gaines. Because of him, I was brave enough to resign my secure job at Drake to become a publisher. I will never be able to repay him for this huge debt. Bill and I were alike in many ways and very different in other ways. We spent many evenings in his apartment watching his collection of 16 mm movies like King Kong and Frankenstein. We shared a love of these early horror films. One huge difference was in our relating to animals. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t have a dog, usually several dogs, and I don’t think Bill ever had a pet, and he didn’t like animals. In 1990, I bought a baby chimpanzee fulfilling a lifelong Tarzan fantasy. His name is Sammy and he still lives with me and Shirley. In 1991 I took Sammy on a trip to NYC, where he saw Les Miserables on Broadway. I called Bill and when I told him I was there with Sammy, Bill said, “Don’t bring him to the office!” I wanted Bill to meet Sammy, but Bill told me in no uncertain terms that he was not welcome at the office. I think Bill had a fear of animals which came from never having a relationship with any animal.
For several years, Bill had a girlfriend, Annie Griffiths. Annie liked all the things Bill liked, she had a wonderful, rollicking laugh, and they enjoyed traveling and dining out. In 1987, Bill asked Annie to marry him, and their wedding was in the Windows on the World restaurant on the top floor of the World Trade Center. Henny Youngman was master of ceremonies. Shirley and I attended the wedding, and then, a couple of years after that, Bill asked us to go on the annual MAD trip, which that year was a cruise to the Bahamas, with Jack Davis, Nick Meglin, and all the other MAD people.
I received a phone call one morning in June of 1992. It was Annie, telling me that Bill had quietly passed away in his sleep the previous night. He was a giant to me. I will never forget him.
Ah, the apple trees,
Blossoms in the breeze,
That we walked among,
Lying in the hay,
Games we used to play,
While the rounds were sung,
Only yesterday, when the world was young.
(lyrics by Johnny Mercer)