One of my ongoing goals for this bloggy thing of mine is to report on my appearances, conventions and other trips in a far more timely manner than has been the case over the past few years. I’m treated very well by the fans and promoters and I want to acknowledge those kindnesses as soon as possible.
Troublemaker, Malcontent, Desperado: A Celebration of the Life and Legacy of Harlan Ellison was held Saturday, September 17, 1:00 pm at the Cleveland Public Library’s Louis Stokes Wing, 525 Superior Avenue in downtown Cleveland. It was a busy Saturday in “the Land.”
Both the Cleveland Guardians and the Cleveland Browns had games at their respective stadiums. An Alice in Wonderland event saw several cosplayers roaming outside the library. The African-America Writers of Greater Cleveland were meeting and displaying their works inside the library, one floor below our Harlan event. Pickle Fest, which billed itself as “Cleveland’s premiere food festival,” was holding court on nearby Mall B.
According to a friend of mine, there was also a porn film festival in Cleveland that day. I never saw any publicity for the festival, but those who wanted to attend had no problem finding it. Here’s a quick tip: never ask a friend what their favorite kind of porn is.You really don’t want to know.
September 17 was the 15th anniversary of our friend Harlan’s last public appearance in his hometown of Cleveland when he participated in the 2007 Midwest premiere of the biographical documentary Dreams with Sharp Teeth in the auditorium of Cleveland Public Library. I was asked to speak at the event by Harlan his own bad self. Maybe “asked” is somewhat inaccurate. Let’s say “demanded.” Not that I’d ever refuse to say a few words in honor of a man who was a friend, an inspiration and the finest writer of our times.
Don Boozer, who wears many hats at The Ohio Center for the Book at the Cleveland Public Library, asked me to speak at this new event. My response: My friend Harlan would haunt me from the afterlife he never believed existed if I denied your request.
Also speaking at the event...
Mark Dawidziak. This man is a Cleveland legend. Author, journalist, scholar and a dear friend of Harlan’s. He’s written books on The Night Stalker, Columbo, Mark Twain and more. He’s currently writing a book on Edgar Allan Poe.
I followed Mark at the podium, but I’ll tell you about what I said there in a bit. Unfortunately, a plan to video the event went awry. Which is a shame since it was an interesting hour.
Cleveland State University faculty members Dr. Jeff Karem and Dr. James Marino were the only two speakers who had never met Harlan. They brought a different perspective as two people who came to know Harlan strictly from his writings and their teaching of his works to their students. Most of us agreed that the golden age of finding Ellison was around 12 or 13, but I loved hearing about how they and their students came to appreciate his works.
The final speaker was Ellison’s niece, the delightful Lisa Rubin, who shared memories of her uncle and his interactions with family members. This was followed by a brief question-and-answer session. All in all, though the attendance was small, this was one of the best remembrances of Harlan I’ve attended. Knowledgeable speakers, attentive fans and great questions and remembrances.
As for what I spoke about, well, this is a greatly expanded version of my comments about our friendship...
I first met Harlan at the 1966 World Science Fiction Convention in Cleveland in 1966. I wasn’t even 15 years old at the time. It was a memorable convention for me. I met my life-long friends Don and Maggie Thompson. I met Fred Cook, the editor of the Bronze Shadows fanzine and the first adult to ever ask me to write an article for his publication. And I met Harlan.
I became a fan of Harlan Ellison before I read a single work he’d written. I thought he was one of the coolest people I had ever met. The epitome of the hip serious writer I hoped to become once I got out of high school and college. As it turned out, I didn’t wait to finish college. After less than a year, I bailed on the arrogant Jesuits of John Carroll University to take a job with a rare books dealer and then the Cleveland Plain Dealer.
When I went to work at Marvel Comics fifty years ago, I lived in a cold and gloomy basement apartment in Brooklyn. The landlords had somehow managed to divert most of the head from that apartment and even showering was a frigid experience. On more than one occasion, I moved my small writing table into the small kitchen. I turned on the stove, opened the door and took what heat I could from the old appliance. Harlan was with me in those challenging times.
I didn’t have room in my luggage - a suitcase and a typewriter - to bring many books. I brought two books with me: Dangerous Visions and Again Dangerous Visions. Cheap book club editions of two great anthologies edited by Harlan. During my moments of crippling doubt, it was those books, specifically Harlan’s introductions to each and every story in the anthologies, that kept me going. Because what I got from Harlan and those introductions was the inherent nobility of being a writer and sharing my truth, both real and spun from the corridors of my mind. Without Harlan, I doubt I would have survived that crappy basement apartment until I was flush enough to move to a much better dwelling.
It wasn’t until 2007 when Harlan learned how important he was to my early days as a comics professional. The Cleveland Public Library held an event and, since we were good friends by time, Harlan made a request to have me as one of the speakers. He also asked that I speak as long as possible so he wouldn’t have to speak as much. He was kidding himself. The man loved to speak and he was so much more interesting than any other speaker I knew.
I didn’t meet Harlan again until I was working at Marvel. My first interaction with him was when the first issue of Marvel’s The Haunt of Horror digest royally fucked up the story he had written for it. Editor Gerry Conway got the brunt of Harlan’s justifiable ire, but Sol Brodsky and I got involved as well. This is when Gerry asked me to become an assistant editor of the title. My friend Gerry and he is a friend obviously saw my value as cannon fodder.
Our solution to this problem was to reprint Harlan’s story in the second and final issue of the digest. I don’t know how many times Gerry read the proofs of the reprinted stories and how many times I did, but we managed it to get it right.
After that, I would see Harlan at the occasional convention party. I remember we once discussed my adapting “Along the Scenic Route” for either Marvel’s Worlds Unknown comic book series or the Unknown Worlds of Science Fiction black-and-white magazine. I’d loved the story since it appeared as “Dogfight on 101" in one of the science fiction digests edited by Ted White. I never got to do that story, but, years later, it appeared elsewhere with remarkable artwork by Al Williamson.
An unexpected encounter with Harlan happened during my mercifully brief time as a DC Comics staffer. I was editing Young Love, which I enjoyed despite a limited budget, and decided to run an inventory story written many years earlier by a writer who had since become a top name in the industry. As what I assume was meant to be some sort of inside joke, the script had a character say “Thank you, Mr. Ellison.” The panel included a shot of an envelope with the unseen Mr. Ellison’s address on it. It struck me that I knew that address.
Sure enough, it was Harlan’s actual address. I had that removed and replaced. When asked why I changed it by production boss Jack Adler - I liked Jack but I often felt he was second-guessing me because of my age and Marvel origins - I explained it was a real address and could get DC Comics sued. No further explanation was needed.
After I moved back to Cleveland, I attended an Ellison event that I think took place at Cleveland State University. After Harlan’s talk, I went up to say hello and was amazed he remembered me. I wasn’t working in comics at the time - I was running Cosmic Comics in downtown Cleveland - and he asked if I was writing anything. He has happy to hear I was getting back into it and added that he had always thought I was a pretty good writer. It was flattering, but what cemented that we were actually friends was when a former business partner - a swine of a human being - tried to make a short joke at my expense. I can’t remember exactly what Harlan said to him, but he shut him down in a manner reminiscent of a puppet falling down with its strings cut.
I got back into comics writing and started attending the San Diego Comic-Con on a regular basis. Where I would sometimes spend a bit of time with Harlan and Susan Ellison. When I was involved with the 1988 International Superman Exposition in Cleveland, I invited him to be a guest at that both glorious and financially ruinous event. Where we had more time together and where he jokingly expressed his astonishment to my very pregnant Saintly Wife Barb that she would willingly have my child. Yenta that he was, Harlan also accosted me periodically to make sure I ate regularly while juggling dozens of jobs during the event. His concern for my health would continue as long as I knew him.
Harlan was concerned for the health of many of his friends. At the one Mid-Ohio-Con he attended, while appearing on something called Comic-Book Squares, he literally grabbed a cheeseburger out of the hands of Kurt Busiek. Not quite as dramatic as when Harlan jumped across a table at Perkins to seize the extra butter I’d ordered for my pancakes, but with a much bigger audience.
There was a time when I was at a particularly low point in what I still considered my comics career. I had been unjustly fired from my second Black Lightning series by Pat “the Rat” Garrahy. Knowing Garrahy was a jerk, DC people above him who had sworn they’d have my back if he pulled any shit on me. They didn’t. Including a guy I had thought was one of my closest friends until time revealed he had been screwing me over for decades. That my Saintly Wife Barb, one of the kindest people I know, hates this man with a passion is all you need to know about how vile he is and how good he has been at following people for his entire career by carefully doing right by some people. But I’m getting off topic.
Harlan started calling me frequently during this time. Checking up on me. Making sure I was hanging in then. On one such occasion, he started the conversation with “Isabella. I just finished a story. Want me to read it to you?” That’s right, a private presentation of his latest work. Just as his Dangerous Visions introductions were so inspiring to me at the start of my writing career, his kindness and respect for my own work made me feel valued. I was blown away. To my chagrin, I was so blown away that, outside of remembering the story was amazing, I don’t remember which story he read me on that chilly morning.
Harlan continued to check up on me and speak on my behalf. It was hard to overcome the back alley slander being spread by some of the people who had done me wrong at DC Comics and further spread by a few people spreading that slander though they had, in many cases, never even met or worked with me. Harlan remained my champion and even asked me to adapt one of his tales for Harlan Ellison’s Dream Corridor, the wonderful anthology series published by Dark Horse.
Harlan said I could name any story I wanted to do and was delighted when I chose “Opposites Attract,” one of his 1950s crime stories in which a bomber encounters a slasher and, as it will, romance blooms between them one. It is a darkly silly story and, as drawn by Rags Morales, colored by Marie Severin and lettered by Clem Robbins, it remains one of the best and favorite things I ever did. Perhaps my most cherished memory of that collaboration was when I told Harlan what I planned for the final panel. He literally laughed out loud. I like making my heroes laugh. I did it with Stan Lee several times and I did it with Don Thompson.
My too infrequent visits to Ellison Wonderland continued, always in the company of our mutual friend Bob Ingersoll. Always a good time and always full of wonderful discoveries.
Harlan had plaques containing quotes that spoke to him mounted on the wall next to his writing desk. Much to my surprise, one of my quotes - “Expediency is not heroism.” - was among them. Harlan did me the honor of using that quote and another of mine - “Hell hath no fury like that of the uninvolved.” - in two of his stories. He mentioned my name in one, characterizing me as a great philosopher. Whenever I think of that, it brings a smile and a tear to my face.
I loved Harlan Ellison and, of course, his brilliant wife Susan. I could have saved myself writing two thousand words and just started and finished with that. Those of you who were also lucky enough to be their friends would have nodded in agreement.
Hardly a week goes by that I don’t read something by Harlan. As I organized by Harlan Ellison collection, it’s my intention to live long enough to reread every book, every essay, every screenplay and every story. I can think of few more worthy efforts.
Thank you, Harlan.
I’ll be back soon with more stuff.
© 2022 Tony Isabella