Tuesday, August 25, 2020

Book Review - Empire of Monsters

Before picking up Empire of Monsters (affiliate link), I was aware of Warren Publishing, and I had heard of Vampirella, Creepy, and Famous Monsters of Filmland, but I knew nothing about James Warren, the man behind the magazines. Bill Schelly’s book was an interesting and informative biography that appealed to me in ways I wasn’t expecting. 

            Prior to starting my legal career, I had a brief career in journalism. Warren’s experiences as a New York-based magazine publisher in the '50s and '60s really appealed to my interests in the history of journalism and media. As Warren was building his business, his path crossed many well-known media personalities in New York, including photographer Diane Arbus, whose photo he published, famed crime scene photographer Weegee, and Gloria Steinem, whose career in publishing started at Warren Publishing. Terry Gilliam, of Monty Python fame, was an assistant on Harvey Kurtzman’s Help!, a magazine that Warren published.

Warren was also inspired by Hugh Hefner, early in his career. In fact, an obscenity charge was filed against him for publishing a less risqué Playboy knockoff.

            Schelly does an excellent job describing Warren’s rise, fall, rise, and fall over the decades. He tells the fascinating story of a man who was driven to succeed in publishing, constantly looking for the next big thing, and desirous of, and a bit indulgent in, success. The portrait Schelly paints of Warren shows him to be a complex and conflicting character. He could be both friendly and gregarious and also secretive and combative. Schelly’s excerpt of Warren’s speech at the New York Comic Art Convention in 1971 is both hilarious and depressing in its skewering of the industry and fans and in its relevance today.

            Warren’s magazines hosted a who’s-who of comic creators over the years—sometimes launching them, and sometimes harboring them from industry burnout. Over the years, names such as Frank Frazetta, Bernie Wrightson, Neal Adams, Archie Goodwin, Alex Toth, Wallace Wood, Louise Simonson (Jones), and many others worked for Warren.

            I particularly enjoyed the behind the business aspects of this book. Reading about how Warren built his publishing business, how he had to juggle finances to get his magazines started, and during lean years keep them afloat, was fascinating. It was also interesting to read about the variety of deals Warren would make with his writers and artists regarding pay and returning original artwork. I found a particular passage illuminating. During an interview later in life, Warren describes creative people as childlike and lacking in business sense. While on its face, the comment might seem mean spirited, he was merely acknowledging that creative people have a different mindset than business people, and the two may clash because of it. He also recognized his role in the business as someone who creates work for creatives.

            The book recounted many of Warren’s legal issues, including how Warren tried to protect the title Eerie before another publisher could use it. (It recounted this as a copyright problem, but it really should have been a trademark issue.) It was also revealed that Warren did not have his writers and artists cash checks with a “work-made-for-hire” notice on the back, as was common at DC and Marvel. Instead, he just acted like he owned the works and would republish at will. There were also interesting tales involving a copyright lawsuit filed against Warren Publishing by Harlan Ellison, and, after Warren Publishing collapsed, a chapter on Warren’s lawsuit against Harris Publishing over the rights to Vampirella and other intellectual property assets.

            Empire of Monsters is a well-researched and well-written account of an interesting figure in comic book and magazine publishing. It is a worthwhile read for anyone seeking to learn more about these industries and this era of publishing.

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