Monday, July 2, 2018


Harlan Ellison, a dear friend and arguably the best writer of our time, died last week. His passing was not unexpected, save that he died peacefully in his sleep. As others have noted and as I think Harlan himself would find amusing, we expected Harlan to go down in some spectacular fashion as befit the manner in which he lived his life. He was 84 years old.

There have been articles detailing all of Harlan’s accomplishments and they are numerous. There have been many recountings of Harlan stories, some of them true and some of them fantasies and lies. In recent days, I have read stories told by Harlan’s many friends and feeble character assassinations by those who would never have had the courage to confront him in person. As a word of warning to the last group, it would not surprise me to see Harlan return as some great avenging spirit. He would be the best at that.

Today’s bloggy thing will be a series of stories involving Harlan and me. I tried to organize them, but that didn’t work for me. What follows is sort of chronological, but I can’t be certain I remember the sequences accurately.

I do remember the first time I met Harlan. It was at the 24th World Science Fiction Convention. Tricon, as it was also known, was held September 1-5, 1966 at the Sheraton in downtown Cleveland. The con was hosted by three cities in the region: Cincinnati, Cleveland, and Detroit. Hence...Tricon.

I was just about to start my first year at St. Edward High School in nearby Lakewood. In many ways, though, Tricon was the start of a different kind of education. I met Don and Maggie Thompson there. I met Fred Cook, who invited me to write for Bronze Shadows, which was a fanzine focused figure it out. I sat in awe at some panel which featured Isaac Asimov. I watched both pilot episodes of Gene Roddenberry’s Star Trek. Extolling the virtues of the series was...Harlan Ellison.

I’d read a few Ellison stories prior to this. Meeting him face-to-face was a mind-opening experience. He did not dismiss me as some kid. He was friendly. He was perceptive. He was someone I took to and looked up to. From that moment on, I read everything he wrote. Some of what he wrote kept me sane. I'm not kidding about that.

Flash forward to my first days and weeks living in New York City. I was working at Marvel Comics and, in those days before I started doing considerable freelance writing for the company, I was pretty much broke all the time. I always paid my rent on time, but I did miss a few meals. I washed dishes in the ridiculously early hours of the morning to earn a free breakfast. On my first Thanksgiving in New York, my first away from my birth family in Cleveland, I got a turkey sandwich and a bottle of pop from a Brooklyn deli. Which left me enough for subway tokens and about one meal a day until my next payday. I was more than a little frightened and lonely during those first days and weeks. I had doubts about my chosen career path.

I had brought two books with me when I flew from Cleveland to New York. They were Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions, two anthologies edited by Harlan Ellison. Many of the stories in those books are rightfully considered to be classics, but it was Harlan’s introductions to each and every story that spoke to me more loudly than the stories themselves.

Harlan’s introductions made me realize that writing, the thing that I wanted to do more than anything else in my life, was every bit as noble an undertaking as I could imagine. By the end of that lonely Thanksgiving, instead of being forlorn, I was inspired to survive and thrive in that alien city.

Harlan kept me sane, which he never knew until I spoke at a special event honoring him in Cleveland many years later. He kept me going at the very start of my career. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say he was floored by the revelations. I don’t think he really understood how vast his influence was on myself and countless other creators over the decades. Yet it was.

I saw Harlan a few times while still living in New York. This would generally be at conventions. Once we talked about my adapting his story “Along the Scenic Route” for one of Marvel’s black-and-white magazines. When the story first appeared, it was titled “Dogfight on 101" and, to this day, I prefer that title. Still, I would have adapted the story if Harlan called it “Yo Mama!” It was an action-packed tale with an unlikely protagonist. It was eventually adapted by someone else and not for Marvel, but it looked and read great.

After I’d moved back to the Cleveland area, Harlan came to town to give a talk. I was there and so was a former business partner who I had booted from said business for various reasons, including his stealing from the business. Like an annoying gnat, this guy would attempt to vex me from time to time. On this occasion, while I was talking with Harlan, the creep made a lame short joke directed at me. Harlan silenced him with a few words and a stare. That’s when I realized Harlan and I were, indeed, friends and that he’d always have my back.

I hosted Harlan at 1988's International Superman Exposition. Since I was allegedly running the thing, I was going back and forth the whole time. Adding to my anxiety, my Saintly Wife Barb was about to give birth to our first child. The convention volunteers were told they always had to know where she was and where I was in case our son decided he wanted to make his debut at the convention.

Harlan made a few jokes about not understanding why a woman would want to “reproduce” with me. They were funny in a way that friends get. But Harlan also made sure I went to our green room to eat on a regular basis. One time, he practically dragged me into the room and led me down the buffet line to make sure I ate my vegetables. He was particularly fond of the steamed carrots.

On my too-rare trips to Los Angeles, I was always invited to share a meal and spend time at the fabulous Ellison Wonderland. Which is the greatest house I’ve ever seen. Every room, every part of every room, is a work of art. If I have any regrets about my friendship with Harlan and his wondrous wife Susan, it was that I was unable to convince them to document every corner of that house on video. His response was that he didn’t want potential thieves to know what they had. Mine was to tell him to shoot the video and not release it during their lifetimes.

The other regret is that I didn’t get to spend even more time with them. I loved them madly and never doubted they felt the same way about me.

During a low time in my life and career, Harlan would call me twice a month or so. Just to check up on me. He would give me advice and we would joke with each other. Sometimes he would call asking for some information. On more than one occasion, he would read me his latest story. Let that sink in. The finest writer of our time. One of my favorite writers. He would call and read me his new story. A private performance. It staggers me to recall how often that happened.

Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor was a comics anthology wherein some of the very best writers and artists in the business would create comics adaptations of Ellison stories. Everyone wanted to be part of that series. Most of those who contributed were among the most popular writers and artists in the field. And then there was me.

Harlan said I could pick any story I wanted and was delighted when I picked a dark little comedy called “Opposites Attract”. It wasn't a well-known story, but it tickled me when I first read it and stayed with me ever since. Seek it out. Both Harlan’s prose version and the comics version by myself and artist Rags Morales.

Harlan was pleased with my script and the various comics cookies I worked into the script. He did complain that I had capitalized the word “God” in some dialogue. I reminded him that this was comics. Every letter in every word would be capitalized. Besides which, at the time the story took place, most people would have had at least some passing reverence for God. Harlan accepted my arguments.

I rank Harlan as one of the best editors I’ve ever had. Though we only did that one story together, I was amazed at how generous an editor he was. It was his prose story, but he always sought to make my script the best Tony Isabella script I could write. He set the standard for editors that I have always hoped for. I was fortunate to have such editors on my recent Black Lightning: Cold Dead Hands mini-series for DC.

The last time I visited Harlan was in early 2014. Bob Ingersoll and I celebrated my receiving a very nice check for a comics company by going to Los Angeles to spend time with friends when there wasn’t a convention to prevent us from spending time with those friends. You can find my trip reports in the bloggy thing archives.

There are two Isabella quotes that Harlan has used in his stories or elsewhere. One is “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved” and the other is “Expediency is not heroism.”

Harlan had the latter quote made into a plaque where it hung on his office wall surrounded by quotes by much smarter, much better known people than me. It is an honor I will always cherish.

Harlan and I talked a few times after that. As his health declined, we talked less. Knowing how he was struggling, knowing his energy levels were down, I didn’t want to impose on our friendship. I’ll always wonder if that was the right thing to do.

One thing I don’t wonder about is this:

Harlan loved me and I loved him. He showed me that love countless times over the years. I haven’t wept over Harlan’s passing, but the memories of his love have tears rolling down my face as I complete this piece. The world is diminished in his absence.

Harlan wrote something or this occasion:

For a brief time I was here; and for a brief time I mattered.

The brief time he was here is over. The brief time he mattered is not over by a long shot. He entertained and informed and inspired and loved so many people with his kindnesses and his writings that our memories of him will not fade in our lifetimes.

Thank you, Harlan.

I’ll be back tomorrow with more stuff.

© 2018 Tony Isabella