Len and Abby Brown enjoying a life of retirement in Dripping Springs,
Texas. Courtesy of Len.
Len Brown, Dynamo!
The Topps guy on his career and THUNDER experience
Conducted by Jon B. Cooke
Transcribed by Sam Gafford
Book Artist #14
Although you may recognize the name of Leonard Brown as the alter
ego of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent Dynamo - you may not know there's also
a real human being with the same name, a guy who contributed to kid
culture mightily from 1960 up to the '90s. Only recently retiring
from Topps Chewing Gum, Inc., where he spent over 30 years as a major
creative force at the monolithic trading card company, Len worked
on any number of series, from Mars Attacks to Wacky Packs to Garbage
Pail Kids. Plus he had a brief and memorable career as a comic book
writer. The following talk took place on April 23, 2001 via telephone
and Len edited the final transcript.
Comic Book Artist: Where are you from?
Len Brown: I was born in Brooklyn, New York, back in 1941,
but I've lived in New Jersey the bulk of my life. We moved down to
the Austin, Texas, area about a year ago when I retired from Topps.
So I've lived here for almost a year in a town called Dripping Springs.
Great place to live!
CBA: Why Texas?
Len: I love the music. Over the last ten years, I've had a
radio show in New Jersey playing traditional country music. I've also
done a little radio down here and hope to do some more in my retirement
CBA: Hank Williams, Sr.-type music?
Len: Yeah, Bob Wills, Hank Williams, '50s and '60s kind of
stuff. I don't care for the current music but I love the old stuff.
CBA: You grew up in New York City?
Len: Yeah, in Brooklyn and I lived there for almost 30 years
of my life.
CBA: What kind of neighborhood was it?
Len: Oh, it had a very nice kind of community feel. A small
town kind of neighborhood. I grew up in an apartment building where
you'd know everybody. You'd walk down the block and everyone would
say hello. The block was almost like living in a small town even though
it was in a big borough in a big city.
CBA: Were you into comics at an early age?
Len: Oh, boy, I loved comics from the earliest I can remember.
I can clearly remember being six years old and discovering an issue
of World's Finest Comics that sold for 15¢ and being amazed at
how thick it was, 98 pages for 15¢! I loved comics. Superman,
Captain Marvel and Wonder Woman were my three favorites.
CBA: Did you draw yourself?
Len: I tried. Whenever I got white paper I would try and draw.
I never had any talent but I can remember doing a Dick Tracy-kind
of strip when I was a little boy and thinking it was terrific.
CBA: What were your aspirations as a kid?
Len: I always thought I'd want to be a journalist more than
a writer, you know? Working on newspapers. I grew up in a time when
there were seven dailies in New York. Into my early teen years, there
were three or four that I'd want to get every day but I couldn't afford
it. Each paper had their own collection of comics and I loved comic
strips. I used to cut and collect them for years, you know? Li'l Abner,
Prince Valiant Sundays and all that.
CBA: That's dedication!
Len: Yeah, I loved it! I always thought it was a little weird
because I didn't know anyone else who did it. When classmates would
come over I'd show them these stacks of strips and they weren't really
interested. I had Joe Palooka, Steve Canyon, all the big strips of
the day and I always thought it was a strange hobby. Then I read this
article on Ray Bradbury when I was in my teens and it turned out that
Bradbury used to do that, too! Vindicated! [laughter] My family used
to get one daily newspaper and I would really look forward to Saturday
and Sunday. The New York Journal American used to have color comics
on Saturday, 16 pages of tabloid comics. Then, on Sunday, they'd have
the full-size big comics section. They ran almost every King Features
strip and in those days there were some great ones: Buck Rogers (which
wasn't King Features), Lone Ranger, Popeye and they'd run them full-page
on the tabloid which was wonderful. The New York Daily Mirror was
another of my favorite papers.
CBA: What kind of strips did they run?
Len: Steve Canyon, Joe Palooka, Li'l Abner... When I was very
young, they carried Superman on Sundays which I liked. And then in
the early '50s they had Tom Corbett for a couple of years.
CBA: Did you ever dream of doing your own strip?
Len: Oh, yeah. I think at some point I thought that writing
a comic strip would be just fabulous. Actually tried it once with
Al Williamson. This is jumping ahead now into the '60s. At one point,
Woody Gelman who worked at Topps was the inspiration and co-financed
a strip by Al and me; Woody paid Al to draw a couple of the sample
Sunday pages which I wrote. We did a pretty ornate two-page strip
which has appeared in print a number of times over the years called
Robbie. It was a takeoff of Little Nemo but it was prime Al Williamson
work. We shopped the samples around to the syndicates and a couple
of them held them for a while and acted like they were considering
it but who knows? Basically, the feedback was that they weren't interested
in a Sunday strip, they wanted a daily, which we didn't want to do
because we wanted big panels to show off Al's artwork.
CBA: Did you consider the grueling schedule involved with
doing a syndicated strip?
Len: No. I was blind to reality! First of all, the writer's
work is a lot easier than the artist's on a daily basis. I could probably
write a weeks worth in two-three hours and the artist would have to
slave for the other six or seven days. This was before Al was doing
his own syndicated strip [Secret Agent Corrigan].
CBA: Did you have favorite artists when you were growing
Len: Oh, yeah. I guess it wasn't until I was 12 years old that
I realized specific artists worked on these comics. I was a huge EC
fan once I discovered them, and the artists from EC were the greatest,
in my mind. Wally Wood, Al Williamson, Reed Crandall, George Evans,
Jack Davis - what a company! What can I say?
CBA: You were the perfect age for that, right? You were ten
when they first started coming out with the New Trend stuff?
Len: Yeah. I don't think I got into it right away. I remember
discovering EC when I was in fourth grade so I guess that would be
1953, a couple of years later. A friend was telling me about the great
science-fiction stories that were in these comic books and that was,
of course, Weird Fantasy and Weird Science. So I latched onto those
and then found out about the horror stuff and got those, too, and
then Mad... oh, I thought Mad was the greatest!
CBA: Did you get into the war material, too?
Len: I wasn't interested in the war stuff. I am now but I didn't
get into the Kurtzman books at the time, just his Mad and the EC horror
and science-fiction. I wasn't even picking up Crime SuspenStories
or Shock at that time. It was just the three horror, two sci-fi, and
the humor book and then Panic, of course.
CBA: Because the artists were able to sign their work at
EC, you were able to recognize their work?
Len: Yeah, exactly. Whereas of the DC books, which I did read.
. . I read a lot of comic books, I even read Dell from time to time,
and there were Quality and Fiction House comics that I loved. I was
around for the tail end of Plastic Man.
CBA: Was Jack Cole still doing it?
Len: I don't think so; not at that point. It seems like he
got involved with Playboy and once he got involved with that he left
the books. I just know that I loved the character of Plastic Man and
the look of it. A strip I loved - I don't know if you know it - was
in a comic called Big Shot and there was a strip in there called "Sparky
Watts." I forget the name of the artist who did it which I'm
really ashamed about because I really love his work. Years later,
when I met Art Spiegelman, he mentioned that he was a big fan of "Sparky
Watts" and I couldn't believe that anyone else knew it. In fact,
Art got the rights and reprinted one of the "Sparky Watts"
stories in Raw because he thought so much of it.
CBA: Did you become an official EC Fan-Addict?
Len: You know, for some reason I never joined but, boy, my
heart was with them. It seems weird when I consider how much stuff
I sent away for when I was that age. I guess money was tight when
I was growing up.
CBA: So were you non-discriminating in your taste? Did you
like funny animal stuff as well as super-hero and other genres?
Len: Yeah, absolutely. I hate to say "non-discriminating"
but I loved comics! I loved the books that would reprint newspaper
strips like Tip-Top and Sparkle, you know? They would do four weeks
of Tarzan Sundays and other strips... I just loved the medium.
CBA: How do you recall the Wertham era as a kid? Did you
feel inklings about what was happening? What did your family think
of your interest in comics? Did they care?
Len: They never really encouraged it. When I was about ten
or eleven years old, they found out that I needed glasses. I've worn
glasses since I was eleven years old and it was alternately blamed
on television and comic books. So they always looked at it a little
wantonly. Comics didn't have a good reputation in the '50s. Wertham
was around saying comics caused juvenile delinquency and stuff like
that. My mom was willing to let me get just so many and when the pile
got to about 50 books they would suddenly just vanish! I would come
home from school one day and the comics would be gone. "Well,
yeah, I cleaned your room out. You know, you would let it pile up
to the ceiling if I let you!" She was a nice mother but she was
not very prone to let me collect too much. We lived in a small place.
There were five of us living in a small apartment. Things were crowded.
Then, at one point, she actually suggested... we had a basement
where people stored their bicycles and stuff, it was a community basement
in the apartment house and I actually had cartons of comics stored
down there for a long time.
CBA: Were you able to save them?
Len: Yeah. Every once in a while I would take a carton of them
upstairs and look through them. This was probably when I was about
14 or 15 years old.
CBA: Do you still have them?
Len: Nah, you know what happened? One day I went down there
and the super had cleaned everything out. All the cartons were gone.
All of them. I was heartbroken. Heartbroken. It was traumatic. I had
to start collecting from scratch all over again.
CBA: So did you ever stop being a comics fan?
Len: I can't remember a period where I ever stopped buying
comics. I may have cooled off in my later teen years but I don't think
entirely. I can remember being there when Showcase started bringing
back the super-heroes for DC. I remember buying the first Flash comic,
Amazing Spider-Man #1, Fantastic Four #1. I remember being very interested
in seeing the super-heroes coming back in a big way; once they came
back, I got interested again. I think the period that was the least
interesting for me was when EC stopped publishing. I think there were
a couple of years when there wasn't much for me to buy and then the
super-heroes came back in what, 1957? A few years later? Then I started
to follow that very closely. I was thrilled with the Justice League
because I had been a great fan of the old All-Star Comics a decade
CBA: Were you able to trade with other kids to get back issues?
Len: In those days, I think kids read comics but not many collected
them or else they had moms like mine. I don't remember ever being
able to trade with anyone at all. The best I had was a general store
that sold old comics - it wasn't a comic store; it was basically a
hardware store a few blocks from my house - and whenever I would go
there, I would find a small selection of old comics. The owner would
buy a comic for a penny from kids and sell them for 3¢. One of
the great moments was going there and finding about 20 ECs (after
EC had gone out of the comics business) and I bought them all for
3¢ apiece! Boy, was I excited! I think I was able to keep those.
[laughter] This was just about 1957 when my mom stopped indiscriminately
throwing everything out. . . I was 16 then and she wouldn't dare just
throw my things out without checking with me.
CBA: Were you athletic?
Len: I wasn't really a natural athlete but I loved to play
stickball, a real Brooklyn type of game, and softball with friends
in the school yard, but I didn't play other sports.
CBA: Did you ever go to Ebbet's Field?
Len: Maybe once a season in the early '50s. I definitely remember
going there. I was a Dodger fan early in life.
CBA: Did you ever go see the Yankees?
Len: I became a Yankees fan after the Dodgers left, maybe a
little before that. When I was a teenager, I would go take the subway
up to the Bronx for the double-headers and sit in the bleachers.
CBA: You saw Mickey Mantle play?
Len: Many times. I saw Roger Maris. I remember 1961, which
was a great year. Every morning I'd wake up and run to the paper,
which was on the kitchen table every morning, and I couldn't wait
to see if Mantle or Maris had hit a home run the previous night.
CBA: For me, it was the '69 Miracle Mets. I lived in Westchester
at that time. We moved out when I was eleven but New York is bred
in me. What were your aspirations when you were a teenager?
Len: I always thought maybe I'd take some journalism classes
when I got to college. I was going to evening classes at Brooklyn
College, but you know what happened? Very early on, I got in contact
with Woody Gelman. Woody had joined the Topps Chewing Gum Company
in the early to mid '50s. In 1955, I met Woody when I was 14 years
old and he became like a father to me because my father had died when
I was five years old. So I grew up fatherless and Woody seemed like
the most unbelievable guy in the world. I wrote Woody a letter because
he was publishing a series of kids' magazines. They were TV Guide-size,
with fictional stories about Davey Crockett and Daniel Boone, and
also a Hardy Boys-type series called The Power Boys. I wrote him a
letter with some suggestions and a couple of days later he called
me on the phone and invited me down to his office to discuss some
of the books that they were considering. He was looking for feedback
That one letter I wrote changed my life. Woody was also working for
Topps at the time. Ultimately, the books weren't making a lot of money
and he closed down publishing after about a year, year-and-a-half.
Woody would call me about ideas that they were considering at Topps
for trading cards. I remember once calling them and telling them that
the TV show The $64,000 Question was very hot and that Topps might
want to issue a trading card set, but they didn't. We always stayed
in touch and when I turned 18, he offered me a part-time job at Topps.
Detail of Len Brown - the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agent, not the writer -
as Dynamo from the Wood/Adkins pin-up in TA #3.
CBA: Did you collect trading cards?
Len: I did. I loved Topps baseball cards tremendously. I was
there from the beginning. I remember the '51 card series which which
looked like small playing cards. Then in '52 they went to a more
traditional size (though still a little bigger than the ones today).
I was collecting sports cards, Davy Crockett cards...
CBA: Non-sports cards, too?
Len: Yes. I loved the non-sports stuff. I remember Bowman,
which was a competitor of Topps in the early '50s (which Topps eventually
bought), was putting out some non-sports cards that I loved, a series
called Spacemen was a beautifully painted science-fiction series.
CBA: Did anybody of note work on them?
Len: You know, I don't know the names of the artists. I know
that they have their little cult following but it was nobody that
folks like us from the world of comics would know. They were beautiful
little cards, though. I think they were the first science-fiction
CBA: Was it space opera-type stuff? Inspired by Captain Video,
Len: Yeah, it was more like Buck Rogers. I mean, the heroes
wore Buck Rogers/Flash Gordon kind of outfits. They were really neat.
CBA: What was the appeal? I think that nowadays, people can
understand the appeal of sports cards but the non-sports cards...
when you were a kid, what was the appeal of them?
Len: Topps had a great idea back then which was to put a stick
of gum in the packs. They were a penny a card with gum or you could
get six cards and a stick of gum in a nickel pack. All their early
items were sold that way up until about 1956. You had your choice
of one card and gum for a penny or six cards and gum for a nickel.
It was appealing to me, I guess: You got a piece of gum to chew and
you start collecting. It's that basic collecting instinct, you know?
I think that was the appeal. I can remember collecting flags of the
world, a very early Topps series, I think it was called Parade Flags
of All Nations, in 1951 or maybe '52, I was 11 years old. I had begun
collecting that very early non-sports stuff. Then Topps issued a series
on cars called Wheels, and stuff on planes called Jets which were
black-&-white photos of jets and I'd try to collect the entire
series. I guess I was born with a collecting instinct. Today, I collect
DVDs and CDs. [laughs]
CBA: But you don't go through them and say, "got it...
got it... don't got it... got it"! [laughs]
Len: Right! And I don't flip them!
CBA: What's interesting is that for a lot of people who fell
in love with comics and subsequently became professionals in the field,
there's a life event that made them collectors. For me, it was in
the Fall of 1969 when I had chicken pox and later spending a year
in Europe, when I buried myself in comics; it was those periods of
relative isolation that did it for me. Dick Giordano suffered scarlet
fever as a child and went through a solitary recovery mired in comics.
Do you think that by losing your father at such a young age perhaps
got you into collecting?
Len: Oh, you ought to hang out a shingle like a therapist!
[laughs] I've often thought that. I've analyzed what made me a collector
and I absolutely came to the same conclusion. As I've gone through
life, I realize because there was a void in my life, no father figure
basically, and I'd lost something dear to me and this was a way of
keeping something and not ever losing it, by collecting. Absolutely.
No doubt in my mind.
CBA: Who was Woody Gelman?
Len: For the bulk of his career he was the creative director
of Topps. He came from the world of animation. Woody was a cartoonist
and also wrote some great comic book stories of his own, but he got
involved in animation and worked for Paramount Studios on the early
Popeye and Superman cartoons.
CBA: He worked with Max and Dave Fleischer and then with
Len: Exactly. Actually he left Paramount after he got involved
with trying to unionize the animators and the studio got wind of it
and fired whoever was involved. Paramount was down in Florida in those
days so he had moved down there. When he came back to New York in
'44 or '45 and opened a studio, doing art advertising. Did you ever
heard of Popsicle Pete?
CBA: No, I haven't.
Len: Popsicles used to feature a kind of Bazooka Joe character
in their advertising - Popsicle Pete - and he was in a lot of their
ads that were aimed at kids. I think Woody came up with the character.
Then, later, he got involved with Bazooka Joe. Through his art service,
Woody was approached by various corporations for advertising work.
Topps ultimately came to him and the owner at that time was impressed
with Woody and offered him a job. Woody closed down his art studio
which he'd operated for seven or eight years.
CBA: Did he specifically produce comic book advertising art?
Len: He did a lot of different stuff. Those were just the two
that I remember - Bazooka Joe and Popsicle Pete - because they were
cartoon characters but the studio produced a lot of stuff, basic product
artwork for advertisements.
CBA: It wasn't necessarily in competition with the main comic
book advertising agency, Johnstone & Cushing?
Len: I don't know who they are.
CBA: J&C was a New York agency renowned for their quality
comics material. Lou Fine, Neal Adams, Dik Browne, Irv Novick, Al
Stenzel are some artists who worked there between the '40s and the
'60s. They did all the comic strip work for Boy's Life.
Len: Yeah, I used to like that material in Boy's Life. I subscribed
because of the comic strip section they printed. In early years, I
think they were actually on comic book paper, then they got away from
that and used regular slick paper. I remember a strip, Pee Wee Harris,
a Boy Scout strip, and a science-fiction strip called Space Conquerors
which I always liked. Did Al Stenzel go on to do other comics?
CBA: I'm not sure. He actually ran Johnstone & Cushing
in the 1960s, I believe, as the production manager.
Len: Oh! He was a good artist.
CBA: Woody was from New York originally?
Len: Yeah, Woody was born in Brooklyn. Originally he lived
just a few miles from where I grew up as a boy. Woody was about 25
years older than I. I think he was born in 1916. Oh, he fed my collecting
mania! Walking into his house was like walking into a museum. He collected
pulps, had a complete run of Amazing Stories, all the great pulps
- Argosy magazine, the humor magazines Judge and Life.
CBA: He started collecting during the pulp era?
Len: I would guess so. He was an avid collector and loved early
newspaper strips. He had a complete run of the Sunday Little Nemo
strips which were just wonderful. As early as 1947, he was the first
private publisher to reprint strips in book form rather than comic
book form. He put out a reprint of Little Nemo in Slumberland in black-&-white
on his own. I think he printed a couple of thousand copies. It was
32 pages and it contained some of the great Nemo strips. Woody said
that he lost money on it because back in those days no one cared about
such things, and there was no real way to sell it.
CBA: So with his first real foray into publishing Woody started
at the top with Little Nemo!
Len: Then he started Nostalgia Press in the '60s, reprinting
classic strips in hardcover books at the same time Ed April was reprinting
Buck Rogers and other strips. It was the beginning of an era when
strips were being reprinted in finer forms either in trade paperback
or hardcover forms. Do you remember Nostalgia Press?
CBA: Oh, yeah! My friend John Borkowski gave me some of Woody's
Flash Gordon collections and that great EC horror comics compilation.
Woody also did Prince Valiant volumes, didn't he?
Len: Yeah, he did those.
CBA: It's au courant to be reprinting this stuff now but
Woody was really ahead of everyone in the '60s and early-'70s.
Len: I think so. Again, I've got to give credit to this other
fellow, Ed April, who was doing some but I think he dropped out a
lot sooner than Woody did.
CBA: Woody just did this publishing on the side? He had a
full-time job while doing this?
Len: He sure did!
CBA: Did you work with him on those collections?
Len: I did. He gave me credit on them. Woody also began a magazine
called Nostalgia which reprinted comic strips and featured articles
CBA: Was this published by Topps?
Len: Oh, no. This was on his own. He had a lot of energy. He'd
go home and work on it at night and on the weekends.
CBA: Was he married?
Len: Yep, he was and had two children. He had such an innate
drive and a love for collecting old periodicals and nostalgia items.
One of the earliest books he did was a Nostalgia Press picture history
about Charlie Chaplin. He was a big Chaplin fan.
CBA: Woody was into the movies, too?
Len: Very much into silent film. He was a big Douglas Fairbanks
fan and collected movie posters. The early Thief of Baghdad poster
was in his living room, a great piece of art. He definitely made me
feel "normal" about collecting. If you collect and don't
have any support, you can feel like the weird kid on the block. But
because Woody was such a collector and successful in business and
in life - being married and with kids - it almost justified the things
I did. Like I said, Woody was a father to me, my mentor who brought
me into Topps. Because of him I think I just ended up there the rest
of my life even though he left Topps 15 years after I was hired. He
was in his fifties and spent the rest of his retirement publishing.
CBA: Did you love him?
Len: Oh, yes, absolutely! He became the father I lost at the
age of five! I always say to my wife that I regret she never had a
chance to meet him. It's the second marriage for us both, and when
I met Abby, Woody had already passed away a couple of years before.
He was just a wonderful guy. One of the most intelligent guys I've
ever met. A great thinker.
CBA: Were you part of his family life, too?
Len: Well, not as much. I met his son and daughter on many
occasions. Woody verbalized that he was as close to me as he was to
his own son. You know, we saw each other five days a week at Topps
and when either one of us had personal problems that would crop up
in our lives we would confide in each other. It was really more of
a father/son than a boss/employee relationship.
CBA: After you had first met him, was that in your mind that
someday you'd work for him?
Len: No, I didn't at all, but about a year or two later - before
I joined Topps - he gave me an assignment to write a Power Boys novel.
I remember submitting a couple of chapters and then it looked like
the business was going downhill so I never finished it. I guess at
that point I started to think that it would be great to work with
Woody. I was about 16 or so at the time and still in high school.
It was after I got out of high school that he called and asked if
I'd like to come in for 12 hours a week and sort of help as an assistant.
Take care of mail that would come in and file some things. Then, little
by little, I got involved in Topps projects and was working there
five days a week in about a year.
CBA: Do you recall your first salary?
Len: It was about $70 a week. Back in 1959, that wasn't too
bad. Probably about 1961 or so, I was making $100 a week and I just
thought I was doing great.
CBA: When did you move out of home?
Len: Ah, right about that time. I actually paid rent and bought
a car. My first car was a brand new Ford convertible and that cost
about $3,000 in 1960.
Wally Wood thumbnail sketch of his trademark character, Dynamo.
Courtesy of Bill Pearson. Art ©2001 the Estate of Wallace Wood..
CBA: Did you still live in Brooklyn?
Len: I did. Topps was in Brooklyn, located in a factory district.
The second floor was the main business office where we were and the
fourth floor was where the manufacturing was done. Bubble gum was
manufactured on the fourth floor.
CBA: Was the printing done in-house?
Len: No, Topps didn't own printing presses in those days, though
they did much later. The printing was done by a company in Maryland,
I think Lord Baltimore? Then there was a company in Philadelphia that
would print the sheets of trading cards. There were 264 cards printed
on one sheet.
CBA: How big was that?
Len: Oh, I don't know. You could do the math, I suppose, and
figure it out but they were really large sheets.
CBA: Did you ever travel down to Baltimore to do press proofs?
Len: I never did, no.
CBA: Did Woody do that?
Len: No. Woody had a partner in his art business named Ben
Solomon who was also out of animation. They both left Paramount about
the same time and came back to New York and started the art service,
which was called Solomon & Gelman. In fact, they published the
boys series books, called Triple Nickel books. They sold for 15¢.
Solomon became the art director at Topps and Woody was the creative
CBA: Was Woody a good artist?
Len: A great cartoonist. He created the character Nutsy Squirrel
for DC Comics. I don't know if he had his own book or if he just appeared
in Funny Stuff Comics.
CBA: Did he ever talk about his DC experiences?
Len: A little bit. This is a funny story: When I was about
seven or eight years old, I remembered reading a Funny Stuff and a
feature that I really liked called "The Dodo and the Frog."
In the strip, these two funny animals were having an argument about
who could jump higher, who could run faster, and finally the Dodo
(who was this little guy that the Frog was always outsmarting) says
he knows a guy who could out-jump the Frog so they make this big bet
and in the final page he drags out Superman! [laughs] This had to
be the first time that a super-hero appeared in a funny animal strip
but this was DC so they could do it. Ultimately, Superman beats the
frog. So I remembered this story from a decade earlier, and I told
Woody about it while visiting his home. Well, he started to laugh
and pulled out the comic book from his basement and the rough black-&-white
drawings... he used to do these pencils to show how he'd want it
drawn and then script it afterwards. So he showed me both and he laughed
because he had done it! I told him I'd always loved that story and
the thought of Superman appearing in a funny animal strip was something
I never forgot!
CBA: Was Woody easy to work for?
Len: Oh, yeah. Amazing. I don't think I heard him raise his
voice once or twice in all the years we worked together. He just didn't
seem to have a temper. He was a sweet guy, a really sweet guy.
CBA: What was the organization like at Topps? Who started
Len: There were four brothers who started it after WWI. They
had owned a chain of gas stations and had actually done so well that
Esso bought them out. Esso (later Exxon) saw them as something of
a threat. The brothers now had all this money to go into another business,
so they hired some market research people to find out what kind of
business to start. The war was just getting over and the market research
people predicted that there would be a baby boom and chewing gum would
be a great thing to get into. Trading cards wasn't the first thing
Topps got into. It was chewing gum and then later it became bubble
gum. The first gum that they put out was just called Topps and it
was like Chicklets (which was very popular around that time).
CBA: Was there any significance to the company name?
Len: I don't know. I guess they just thought it was a good
name to call the company... "top of the line" type thing.
Sort of had a double meaning.
CBA: Do you have any idea when Bazooka Joe was developed?
Len: There was a weirder Bazooka Joe character in the 1940s
that looked more like an Archie character but the Bazooka Joe that
we know with the eye patch, T-shirt and baseball cap came about in
the early 1950s. That was something that Woody and Ben Solomon came
CBA: Do you know if Topps had any comic mascots before then?
Len: Yes, they did, though not of their own creation. They
bought the rights to a lot of Daily News Syndicate characters. Really
minor characters that I don't even remember. They ran them as comics
before Bazooka Joe. I know in the '50s they got the rights to Li'l
Abner which they used on their packaging.
CBA: Obviously Bazooka Joe's name was derivative of the WWII
Len: Right, and one of the four brothers was Joe Shorin who
named his son Joe Jr., so I think that was where the name came from.
CBA: So Topps got right down to the business of focusing
on the baby boomer thing? Because they obviously clued into the non-sports
cards when television was becoming big.
CBA: You got into the company in 1960?
Len: I actually started in 1959.
CBA: Do you recall the significant non-sports cards you worked
Len: I remember the first day I came into work, another fellow
in our department who was on an equal footing with Woody, was Stan
CBA: Stan Hart, the humorist?
Len: Yeah! He worked for Mad magazine for many, many years.
CBA: Then he worked as a writer on the Carol Burnett Show.
Len: Yes. Absolutely. We became very close. In those days,
it was Stan, Woody and myself in the new products department. Woody
had hired me but in many ways, Stan was my boss. I was 18 years old
and I guess Stan was about ten years older than that.
CBA: What was Stan like?
Len: Stan could be tough but he was a very funny guy and very
creative. I don't remember exactly when but it was probably around
1965, when he left Topps and went to California. He was already working
for Mad magazine by then... Somehow he did get involved with Carol
Burnett and started writing for her and became head writer and eventually
won an Emmy. He worked with Burnett for many years and he's done many
different things. He produced his own movie and wrote a play that
Hal Prince produced on Broadway. It was called Some of My Best Friends.
CBA: Did you maintain any contact with Stan once he went
Len: Oh, yeah, we stayed in touch and I'd visit him occasionally.
He never really went completely "Hollywood" and he continued
to consult for Topps. He'd fly in periodically for a series of meetings.
I think after the Carol Burnett gig ended (I don't remember how long
he worked for her), he moved back to the city and got involved with
Topps again, though not on a daily basis. He'd come in a few days
a week as a consultant and we'd still work together. Since I moved
to Texas, we've spoken and, in fact, I have a note here to give him
a call and see how he's doing. He's retired now and I think he's close
to 70. He's got grandchildren. Stan was a very important aspect of
my life, too, and very supportive of me during my early days at Topps.
CBA: We were discussing memorable non-sports trading cards
you worked on?
Len: Well, on that first day I came to work at Topps, Stan
was there and Woody hadn't arrived yet. So I introduced myself. He
knew I was coming and had heard about me from Woody. Stan was writing
the copy for the backs of a Fabian series (Fabian was a teen idol
briefly in the late '50s). Stan was looking for information and I
was into rock 'n' roll in those days and I remember answering some
questions about Fabian. I guess that would be the first set I worked
on. Another very early series was Jack Davis' Funny Monsters; it was
just a joy to work with Jack Davis.
CBA: You worked on a Civil War set?
Len: The Civil War set was a couple of years later. Let's see,
I started in '59 so this would have been about '61, I guess. I was
very involved in that. I wrote the backs of all those cards and, together
with Stan and Woody, we would plan the scenes. We would actually describe
very dramatic battle scenes. We wanted picture cards that looked like
a pulp magazine cover. High drama! Woody, who was very instrumental
in the look of the set, brought in some of the old gum cards that
he had collected over the years and this would have been Horrors of
War and some of the Gum, Inc. cards from the 1930s which used illustration
and blood 'n' guts and all the things that kids liked.
CBA: [laughs] Kids still do!
Len: A lot of gore, yeah. They were very much inspiration to
the Civil War set.
CBA: Were they explicit cards in the 1930s?
Len: Oh, Horrors of War was a very explicit set that was published
in the 1930s, depicting the Japanese-Chinese war of that decade...
it showed incredible gore. It outdid Mars Attacks!, let me put it
that way. One card depicted a scene of a bombed city, and there would
just be severed hands holding the steering wheel of an automobile.
Just the hands and nothing else left of it! That was one particular
image which stuck in my mind. That was about as bad as it got. I remember
that Woody told me that the Japanese embassy complained to the Roosevelt
administration, just before they bombed Pearl Harbor. [laughs] They
actually complained that this was an awful thing that this American
company was doing, depicting the Japanese as these barbaric soldiers,
that they were being shown as the bad guys in this war with the Chinese.
Anyway, it was one of the most graphic sets and it's highly collectible.
If you look in any of the non-sports guides, a complete set is worth
thousands of dollars.
CBA: When did you first meet Wally Wood?
Len: I was telling Woody Gelman about EC comics because he
was aware of them but he wasn't following comics in those days. I'm
sure I brought some in and mentioned Wally and Al Williamson. I remember
we tried to contact Al Williamson but he was living in South America
at the time and we couldn't reach him. We did locate Jack Davis and
hired him to do a funny monster set.
CBA: Did you introduce Woody to the work of the EC artists?
Len: Oh, yes, very much. Because of my love for EC. Woody Gelman
instantly saw that these guys were very talented as soon as I showed
him these comics. We brought Wally in to do a parody of Ripley's Believe
It or Not which we called Crazy Cards, not a great name but they were
a funny set. Wally would draw the front of the card in a typical Believe
It or Not-type style. On back of the card was the punch line and a
CBA: You remember Funny Valentines?
Len: Jack Davis did that series before I came on board. Jack
was no longer doing much for Mad but he was doing a lot of advertising
work, movie poster work. As a matter of fact, he did a series of Valentines
for Topps annually for about three or four years. It'd be like "You
look like a million bucks" on the front of the card and it would
look like this sweet Valentine and then on the back it would say,
"All green and wrinkled," [laughter] and it would show this
ugly girl who was all green and wrinkled. It was very, very successful.
CBA: The '50s was this very conservative time with Eisenhower
in office and all that and yet all these subversive elements were
creeping to corrupt kids. Famous Monsters started about that time,
EC Comics, and Topps were able to do this wonky, Kurtzman-esque type
of humor that was downright radical at their core.
Len: Well, Mad was really very big and very early on we realized
that Mad had a really good formula and kids really related to it.
It's kind of funny that you brought up Stan Hart as a humorist because
he had a really great sense of humor and he'd write all these funny
card sets that we put out. He'd have me help out a little and write
some but he was really prolific. If I came out with one or two a day
I was feeling pretty satisfied but he could do 12 gags an hour.
CBA: I've been contemplating those creative geniuses who
came out of the New York area in the early part of the last century
- Will Eisner, Woody Allen, Neil Simon, Mel Brooks, Sid Caesar, Jules
Feiffer, Jack Kirby, and many others who all happen to be Jewish -
and there was just so much creativity that came out during that period.
Perhaps the greatest was Harvey Kurtzman who was able to really cue
in on the essence of Jewish humor and he perhaps changed the American
psyche with a "new" brand of humor. Was there something
in the water there? [laughter]
Len: Well, you know, I agree with you. It was pretty amazing.
Woody and I would actually talk about that and we'd say that a poor
slob growing up in Dripping Springs, Texas, wouldn't have a chance
because he was away from the world of publishing and media. The fact
that all these people were born in the center because there was L.A.
and New York and, of course, Hefner in Chicago, you know? But most
of these people in other parts of the country... I met a very talented
fellow that never really made his mark in life and he had lived his
whole life down south and even did a little work for Topps but he
struggled all his life and did some work for DC. His name is Bhob
Stewart. Even now we stay in touch to a certain extent but Bhob was
always on the fringes but he had a basic talent. He could have written
comics and stayed involved. But how do you break into comics when
you live and you're spending your life in Des Moines, Iowa or something?
I know some people have the luck. They send in their stuff and someone
responds to it and they get their break. But when you're not able
to get out there and go to the office, I just think that the proximity...
I'm not taking anything away from the Neil Simons and Kurtzmans of
the world but luckily they lived in the center where all of this was
happening. I think that had a lot to do with it.
CBA: Do you think also that it was the ethnic aspect? When
you really get down to it, all of these creative geniuses coming out
of the same area at the same time were all Jewish.
CBA: Woody Gelman was Jewish, too?
CBA: Stan Hart?
CBA: And you?
Len: Yes. [laughter]
CBA: What you're talking about is really a minority in a
city creating humor for a whole world. It's fascinating.
Len: It is. I guess it really does have something to say for
our environment and upbringing. There's a lot of humor in growing
up, intentionally or unintentionally. My wife and I love to watch
the old Woody Allen movies - the early ones - when he was doing the
funny stuff! And he was talking about his family and his grandmother
and when you're watching this stuff it's funny but it wasn't when
you had to live through it, but it's hilarious years later. Sid Caesar
was marvelous. I love his old stuff! And I love Mel Brooks. I love
CBA: So do I!
Len: I guess you're not Jewish?
CBA: No, I'm as goy as they get, pure WASP. The history of
comics is just permeated with this Jewish sensibility. Did you read
The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon?
Len: I have the book on my shelf to read but I haven't gotten
around to it yet.
CBA: I strongly recommend it. It's really wonderful and,
at the core of it, is the Jewish experience in America. I also think
that like Jack Kirby and Harvey Kurtzman, it's a part of what they
are, being Jewish and what they created. They showed an enthusiasm
for the super-hero that was rooted in the reality of the Depression
that perhaps the fellows down in Dripping Springs couldn't articulate
Len: Yeah, I guess. By the way, a cousin of mine by marriage
- although divorce ended our relation - was Jerry Siegel from Cleveland.
So look at Siegel & Shuster, too. I don't know Bob Kane's ethnic
CBA: He was Jewish, too.
Len: Was he really?
CBA: Yeah. Is Brown your real last name?
Len: It was our given name and the story I heard was that my
grandfather had come through Ellis Island at about 1910 and it was
this long sounding Russian name and I used to get kidded at Topps
all the time about that and they would call me "Len Brezhnev."
[laughter] Anyway, my grandfather couldn't spell the name out because
spelling is different in Russian so they just wrote Brown and that
became the family name.
CBA: Did you ever find out what your real last name was?
Len: No, never did.
CBA: So you obviously clued Woody Gelman into the EC comic
Len: Yeah, I let him know what he was missing. He never loved
the super-hero stuff. It was more the comic strips that he loved.
He loved Foster, he had some Foster originals. He worshiped Winsor
McCay. He just loved comic strips, I guess the stuff he grew up with
in the 1920s. He had Sunday comic sections from the Herald Tribune,
where I know Little Nemo appeared. He collected comic strip art, but
never comic book art.
CBA: With your generation's sensitivity to comic books and
Woody's prior generation's to comic strips, there was a real kind
of synergy at Topps?
Len: I think so. As for the EC guys, we also had George Woodbridge
do something for us, Bill Elder came in and did an odd item for a
little while and then Harvey Kurtzman was even hired as a consultant
and brainstormed a few ideas. So I got to meet Harvey a few times.
CBA: What years roughly?
Len: Oh, about middle to late-'60s. I'd say '65 or '67, somewhere
CBA: Were you in heaven being able to pick up the phone and
talk to these guys?
Len: Oh, yeah, it was great. I idolized Wally Wood. Boy, I
couldn't wait on Sunday to go to work on Monday in the '60s because
it was just the Golden Age for me. Those first ten years we seemed
to be putting out all the good stuff! Working on Mars Attacks!
CBA: Did Woody Gelman attract other fans to him?
Len: Once he started publishing the Nostalgia books, he would
get other fans coming to him. But Topps was a very anonymous company
back in those days. People didn't know his name or my name or even
the artists on some of the picture cards. In fact, there was a very
long period of time where, if we got a call and someone had broken
the code and found out that Len Brown was employed by Topps and Woody
Gelman was the Head of New Product Development, and if that call got
through and you were from the press, we could not speak to you. Topps
had a public relations guy. We'd have to say, "I can't answer
your question but I can send you to someone who can," and immediately
transfer the call over to PR.
Bill Pearson shared this partially-inked Wally Wood preliminary
drawing, apparently an unused cover design. Art ©2001 The Estate
of Wallace Wood.
CBA: Was that because of the highly competitive nature?
Len: I don't know. I really don't know why they were like that.
Guess it was a part of corporate life.
CBA: I mean, what secrets could you give?
Len: Exactly! We weren't dealing with the atomic secrets at
CBA: I mean, Norman Saunders! What a secret! [laughs]
Len: Well, they might have been a little paranoid because we
didn't want to lose talent to another company. Fleer was the big competitor
back then. So there might have been a little of that. We were the
creative department but not allowed to speak to the working press
or people that wanted information.
CBA: When you were young and just working at Topps was there
a particular project that you really wanted to do?
Len: I guess once we started to talk about Mars Attacks! That
was the one. And there was some thought as to maybe we shouldn't do
it but the president of the company was pretty supportive. We had
a pretty good track record in our little department. I mean, not everything
would come out and make a million bucks for us but top management
respected Woody and Stan, and if they said they really wanted to do
something, the president of the company would just tell them to go
ahead and get it done.
CBA: So Topps really had a hands-off style of management
Len: Oh, yeah, it was great in the early days!
CBA: Was there a separation between your department and the
Len: Not in the beginning. You know, it was funny. The philosophy
of Topps was that in the baseball season you put out your baseball
cards and in football season you put out the football cards. In between,
you'd probably put out a non-sports series that wouldn't interfere
with the sports items. Then once football ended and before baseball
started you could get another non-sports series out. So we looked
to do two non-sports series every year in the early '60s.
CBA: What was your average run for a series?
Len: Back then it was about 88 cards. 88 seemed to be the magic
number. That was because of the sheet size.
CBA: Would it take you about six months to produce them?
Len: About that.
CBA: Was there much overlap with projects?
Len: No, we'd pretty much work on one project, get it out,
and then start working on the next one. The Civil War set was timed
for the centennial and it wasn't even Woody or I who said that we
should do a Civil War set. The president of the company suggested
it for the anniversary and, at first, we all groaned, "Kids don't
care about the Civil War." But Woody was really pretty creative
and because of his love of Horrors of War, he brought in a few of
those cards and we started thinking that maybe we could do the Civil
War set that way. No one was really watching what we were doing. We
had limbs being blown off, people dying in flames - "The Atrocities
of the Civil War" was what we were really putting out - and it
worked! It sold! Another thing that was very popular was the inserts
that were put into the Civil War packs. There were the cards and the
gum but also these reproductions of Confederate money on parchment
paper. The kids loved that and it was a huge hit! A year later we
were trying to think of another card series we could do and we were
certain that it was the blood 'n' guts in the Civil War set that kids
were responding to. So Woody, being a big science-fiction fan - said
let's do something in that genre. Then we actually started talking
about what kind of card set we should do. Invasion from outer space,
War of the Worlds, was just such a natural. But we even thought about
should we do an Invisible Man set which was science-fiction or a Frankenstein-type
thing or a series like The Incredible Shrinking Man. But after we
made up our list it just seemed that an Martian invasion theme would
really, really work.
CBA: How much writing did you do on that series?
Len: I wrote the backs of the cards. Woody and I pretty much
planned out the whole thing. Stan was not a fan of science-fiction
and horror the way Woody and I were, nor a big comic book fan. He
recognized good art when he saw it, and liked the guys that we were
bringing in, but it was essentially Woody and I who planned the whole
Mars Attacks! set. We'd figure out what we wanted on each card. Woody
would do a little thumbnail sketch then it would be sent to Bob Powell
who was a pretty famous comic book artist back then, who had done
lots of great stuff. Bob was excellent at taking these little thumbnails
of "a boy and his dog are attacked by Martians," and would
then do two or three roughs from different angles. Showing the dog's
perspective, the Martian's perspective and when he'd send them back
after we okayed which version we liked, he'd do a very tight pencil
twice up, card size twice up so it'd be about 5" x 7". He'd
give this very tight pencil back to us and we'd send it to the painter
who would paint right on top of it. Unfortunately, the pencils no
longer exist because the painter went right over the pencils.
CBA: So Bob did everything from soup to nuts on the pencil
Len: On the pencil images, yeah. We would supply the ideas
and he actually laid down the pencil images and Norm Saunders did
the actual painting on about 80% of Mars Attacks! I think, in the
end, we weren't getting it done fast enough and we pulled in another
couple of artists.
CBA: Wasn't Wally Wood involved in Mars Attacks!?
Len: He was definitely involved in the beginning and he designed
what the Martians would look like. He designed a lot of the ships,
Martians, and hardware, but he didn't do the day-to-day work on the
CBA: Did you hang out with comic book artists to any degree?
Len: Well, I was up to Wally's apartment a number of times
but that was when we started to work on T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. I was
still pretty young at that time so I was like a kid to these guys,
although I did get to know Al Williamson pretty well when he returned
from South America and was living in Pennsylvania. He invited me up
to his house a number of times and that was always a treat. He's
an incredible collector of everything from Big Little Books to artwork
to movies and the work of great illustrators. It was like going to
a museum and looking at all the stuff he had. So we were pretty friendly
and we would talk.
CBA: He's still pretty much a kid anyway.
Len: Yeah, he is. He's a 70-year-old kid! He's as enthused
about stuff as ever. [laughter] He's great. And then with Al, he got
me into movie collecting because he used to collect 16mm movies and
when I'd go up there he'd always show me some serial or some great
old horror movie. I came to find out about this underground of film
collectors and started collecting films. This was before the days
CBA: Here we are, a good hour into our interview and now
we need to start talking about the subject at hand.
Len: Well, that was the most interesting stuff, but okay! [laughter]
CBA: How did you get involved with Tower Comics?
Len: Well, Wally would periodically come up to Topps with his
material when he completed something and I always made it a point
to talk to him. I always wanted to know if he wanted to do super-heroes
and he said that he had but that it seemed that he was always working
for companies in those days that didn't want to do super-heroes. Now,
I would almost ask you, Jon, when Wally did Daredevil, because that
was certainly super-heroes and that was a little ahead of T.H.U.N.D.E.R.
CBA: No, that was before T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents.
Len: Yeah, that's what I thought. So he had finally done a
super-hero. I don't know who contacted him about T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents
but one day the phone rang at Topps and it was Wally on the phone
and he was asking, "How would you like to write some comic books?"
And, by God, that was probably only about second best to being asked,
"How would you like to spend the night with Marilyn Monroe?"
[laughter] What a thrill! Are you kidding? I was trying to keep my
voice from trembling. I definitely agreed to try and write something.
CBA: Was this your first attempt to write something for comic
Len: Yeah, yeah, it was.
CBA: So how old were you? That was 1964?
Len: I don't remember when the first issue came out...
CBA: That was in '65 so I'm just assuming that this would
have been earlier.
Len: Yeah, it must have been about that time. I had a story
in Creepy #20 but I suspect that that came later.
CBA: Yeah, that was later.
Len: So anyway, Wally said he wanted to do a Justice League
group kind of thing so we batted around a few names. I remember that
I came up with... it's funny because there's a saying we used at
Topps and that's "Success has a hundred fathers, but failure
is an orphan." Basically, Larry Ivie has disputed my recollection
of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents. In fact, Roy once sent me a copy of a letter
that Larry had sent him where he discussed his recollection of his
involvement with Wally and T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents that disagreed with
my recollection but honorable men can disagree honorably they say.
He just remembers it slightly different even though they happened
at the same time... I don't quite understand it. But I recall coming
up with the name of the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents because, basically,
I had always loved the old Phantom Empire serial with Gene Autry in
CBA: Oh, I loved that one!
Len: I absolutely loved it, too. I remembered that the Thunder
Riders were the agents of the evil queen in the serial. I always loved
the name, the Thunder Riders, so I recommended Thunder Agents to Wally.
CBA: So you came up with the acronym?
Len: No, Wally came up with that part of it.
CBA: And the original name of Dynamo was supposed to be Thunderbolt?
Len: Yes, but Wally switched it. The villain was supposed to
be named Dynamo that he was going to fight in the story but Wally
swiped the name Dynamo and used it. I forget what the villain was
CBA: Was that the Warlord?
Len: Yeah, that's what he was ultimately called.
CBA: Do you know if the reason the name was changed from
Thunderbolt was because Charlton was coming out with a character called
Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt?
Len: No, I don't know. I don't think so.
CBA: I'm pretty sure that Tower Comics preceded the Charlton
Action Hero line but I was just wondering if there was any connection.
But Dynamo is a more - ahem - dynamic name, right?
Len: Yeah, I think so. I think it was a good decision ultimately.
CBA: Whose idea was it to have this kind of spy motif? You
know, there was SPECTRE in James Bond, 007.
Len: Yeah, that wasn't like me at all. Thunderbolt to me was
from my love of Captain Marvel and I wanted to have a thunderbolt
on his uniform like Captain Marvel. So Wally designed it the way he
thought it should look. The thunderbelt was my concept but Wally added
all of the spy stuff. It made sense, I guess, with all the James Bond
and The Man from U.N.C.L.E. which was probably on the air at that
point, and it probably made it more unique.
CBA: Did you come up with any of the other characters?
Len: No, I did not. My involvement with T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents
was really very limited. I only ended up writing three stories. I
think I wrote the lead story in the first two issues and then the
dinosaur story, I think that was in the fourth issue. Wally had called
me up and said he had always wanted to draw a story about a dinosaur
in Times Square so I think that was a splash page in #4. Yeah, that
was Wally. He threw in that idea because he'd always wanted to do
CBA: It was pretty cool because there were lots of billboard
jokes and in-jokes with Wally's assistants name all over. There's
Tony Coleman, Dan Adkins, Tim Battersby all appeared on billboards
or hotel marquees.
Len: That would have been Wally's doing.
CBA: There was a pretty big in-joke that took place in the
first issue. Do you remember it?
Len: Oh, yeah, well [chuckles]... the most-asked question
of my career! I always explain that this was Wally's little joke on
me but I was always a little embarrassed about it.
CBA: What was it?
Len: Well, the thing that people always ask me is how come
Dynamo is named Len Brown. That wasn't my idea. Because it always
seemed like, "who is this egotistical guy who uses his name as
a super-hero?" and it wasn't anything I had anything to do with.
God knows, I'd be the last guy to try and do something like that!
So everybody then asks me what I had originally named Dynamo's alter
ego. When I recently moved, I actually found the script for the second
issue (I could not find the script for the first issue) which would
have had the name I wrote, which is the only place I could have found
it. The only anecdote I can add about character names is that I was
dating this girl that I was enamored with named Alice Sparrow, an
odd name. I named Dynamo's girl friend, Alice Robbins, after her.
But I don't know what Dynamo's real name was supposed to be. I just
tried to impress this girl.
CBA: Did it?
Len: I don't think she really cared one way or another.
CBA: Did you enjoy writing comics?
Len: I liked the idea but it was really hard work. It didn't
come easy for me. Roy Thomas was living with me and he could just
whip out stories so prolifically and he seemed to enjoy it in a way
that I really envied. It was never that enjoyable for me. I loved
the idea of getting the assignment and seeing the story in print.
I guess the work was hard. I enjoyed it when the work came out but
I never enjoyed doing it. It never flowed as easily as the writing
of the back of the baseball cards which I did for many many years
back in the '60s. They'd have little biographies on the back and I
could write 15 of them in a hour. You'd look at the record book and
just knock them out. Comics would be a lot of work. I learned from
what Woody Gelman had shown me about sketching out a comic page breakdown.
I couldn't draw very well but I'd rough sketch it in stick figures
and then stick in the word balloons. When Wally and I were working,
we'd do it the old fashioned way, the DC way. Marvel's way was the
opposite. The artist would get the penciled page and write the dialogue
but we did it the old way which I guess was the DC way in that I'd
write the script and then he'd draw it. Yes, I found it was tough
work, though I did have a fondness for it. I wrote a few other comics
for Topps, about five or six of the six-page Mars Attacks! stories...
back-ups in the Mars Attacks! comics. Jim Salicrup [editor of the
Topps Comics line] asked me to do it and I enjoyed that. I don't want
it to sound like I didn't like doing it because I would also be enthused,
but the actual sitting at the typewriter would always be tough. It
didn't flow as easily as I hoped or wanted it to.
CBA: Were you incredibly busy at Topps anyway?
Len: Oh, yeah. That was part of the problem during the T.H.U.N.D.E.R.
Agents days. In fact, Wally called me and wanted me to do another
story and I had to tell him that I just didn't have the time because
I did have a full time job working five days a week. So I would have
to do the writing on the weekend and was involved with this girl I
was telling you about. She encompassed all my thoughts. So I actually
begged off further assignments from Wally. Again, I only wrote the
three stories, but I do feel that I was a core, important part of
the origin of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and Dynamo at the very beginning.
CBA: Did you like the comics when you saw them?
Len: Certainly. What's not to like about Wally Wood's art?
I did. I always felt that it was too bad that they had to sell for
CBA: Oh, yeah?
Len: Yeah, because it made it hard for them to compete with
Marvel or DC with the price because Marvel was really kicking ass
in those days. They were putting out all of these great books and
I think they were about 12¢ in those days. So we were charging
more than twice as much. But still, wouldn't you rather buy two books
than one? 25¢ books had to be pretty special in those days and
T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents lasted, what, about 20 issues? It was around
for only a couple of years.
CBA: Were you privy at all to the idea behind them about
them being 25¢? Did you ever talk to Wally about that?
Len: I thought that that was just what he was told. They wanted
to put out a book at that price. Maybe they could see less of a print
run at that price. Maybe there was a better profit at that level which
I'm sure there was. I was always told back then - maybe that's not
true any longer - that the cover cost as much as the entire interior
of the book. So, if that were true, at a quarter, they were able to
buy that package at a pretty good price with all those pages and only
one cover. That was maybe a third of the cost. I think they had business
reasons in that they'd have to sell less copies to make a profit.
The break-even was probably lower but a quarter was tough to get from
a kid at the time.
CBA: Did you deal with Samm Schwartz at all?
Len: I only met Samm twice that I recall. The first time was
when Wally brought me up to the Tower offices because Samm wanted
to meet the writers, you know. I went up with Wally at that point
and he just seemed like a business kind of guy, not that he had a
great love of comics or anything. He sounded pretty much like a businessman.
I don't remember a long meeting with Samm. It couldn't have been a
long time, he just wanted to meet the people who were doing the work
and I didn't meet him again until several years later. Everything
was done through Wally. Wally would receive the script and make whatever
changes he felt they needed which was fine with me because Wally knew
comics better than I did. Then I left after the first few issues.
I kept on buying them, of course, and the other books in the line.
CBA: Did you stay in contact with Wally?
Len: Oh, yeah, we still spoke. And he was still interested
in doing Topps work. He did a wonderful series of little booklets
called Krazy Little Comics, this great series parodying other comics.
Roy Thomas wrote the scripts for them. Stupidman, Fatman, Fantastic
Fear. Typical Mad-type stuff and Wally and Gil Kane would do the artwork.
They looked great. They looked like something that was done for Mad
and I know those came after the Tower work. We stayed in touch. He
still had the studio and we did some stuff.
CBA: Did you ever have a wish that Topps would get involved
Len: Oh, absolutely. I tell you, back in the '60s, Woody Gelman
and I talked about this. The closest we ever got was that Topps talked
to Archie Comics and they were interested in putting out a Bazooka
Joe title. They thought it was an interesting character and that it
might work. Woody went to his files and showed me a comp that he made
up of Bazooka Joe as a comic. We had actually talked about Topps getting
into publishing in the '60s and they did. They published a couple
of magazine one-shots. One on Soupy Sales which I co-edited and a
one-shot on The Man from U.N.C.L.E. and they sold reasonably well.
And you know what happened? The president looked at what we had made
on the magazines - about $20,000 profit - and decided they weren't
worth it. I think we broke even on the Soupy Sales book and the reason
for that was that we had gotten the rights from Soupy directly. He
was really hot at the time and someone else put out a Soupy Sales
fan magazine without any rights which hit the newsstands the same
week we did and the other thing that didn't work was that Soupy was
a New York City area phenomenon at the time and we were doing a national
magazine hoping it would sell a lot of copies but it really only sold
in New York. But The Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine was published about
a month or two later and that was a big hit. The bottom line was that
we had only made $20,000 and the president of the company looked at
it and said, "You only made $20,000 on this, you would have done
better to have concentrated on a new card series and we would have
made a couple hundred thousand dollars." So we got away from
publishing at that time. About 1989, a new head of product development,
Ira Friedman, came in and he was just great. He came from the world
of publishing. Next to Woody, Ira's been my best boss. We talk to
each other all the time. We e-mail each other a couple of times a
week. He came from the world of publishing and was always interested
in getting Topps into publishing and indeed they did. They put out
a Star Wars magazine for a good number of years and a sports magazine
for a number of years and then ultimately we got into comics when
the comic boom was going on.
Pencil rough by Wally Wood for the cover of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents
of Andrew Steven. Art ©2001 the Estate of Wallace Wood.
CBA: That's one thing that Tower took advantage of in the 1960s
in that they started publishing while the Batman craze was going on.
Len: That's right. Yeah, Batman helped make that happen. It
was also because Marvel was doing so well... it was the beginning
of the Golden Age of Marvel when their books started going big.
CBA: Was there any comic-related material in the Soupy Sales
Len: There was a little bit, but not too much. I always loved
the fumetti [photo comics] look. So we actually did three or four
pages of gags where six panels would be of Soupy and his puppets...
CBA: White Fang!
Len: They were photo comics. Then in The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
which was like a picture fan magazine, there was a 10- or 12-page
fiction feature illustrated with line art.
CBA: Who drew it?
Len: I looked at it recently and think it was drawn by Gray
CBA: Were you in on the photo shoot with Soupy?
Len: Yep. It's funny that you asked for a picture from that
period and I was thinking if I could just find that magazine there
was a great picture of Woody, Soupy and myself.
CBA: What was Soupy like?
Len: He was okay. He wasn't terribly interested in the magazine.
We went and interviewed him. We being my co-editor, Bob Shorin, and
myself. Bob was a relative of one the founders of the company, the
Shorin family, and a very nice man. So we went up and interviewed
Soupy and he was fine during the interview. Then, we got done with
the interview and he was just ready for us to go. I guess I just wanted
to hype the magazine because I was really excited about Topps getting
into publishing and I remember saying that it was going to be a great
magazine and that we hope he was looking forward to it and he just
went on to something else with someone else like he didn't even hear
what we were saying. He had his own career and I guess he felt that
the magazine was nice but that he really didn't need it and he wasn't
particularly funny during the interview either.
CBA: Soupy was a weird phenomenon. Like I said, I grew up
in the New York area during that time so I remember all that stuff.
White Fang and Snaggletooth. The show was great! I always suspected
Soupy didn't translate very well outside of New York.
Len: We did Soupy Sales cards and I think they did pretty well
but again, in the metropolitan area.
CBA: And the craze just as quickly died. Suddenly he was
gone right about the time of the Beatles. Did you do any Beatles cards?
Len: Yep, I wrote the backs of those cards.
CBA: Did you hang out with Larry Ivie, Bill Pearson or the
fan circles that were around in the '60s? Bhob Stewart?
Len: Bhob Stewart, yes, because he worked at Topps, but not
Larry Ivie. Well, I always felt he was a little reclusive. I was up
to Larry's house once, as far as I know, though he's vanished off
the face of the Earth. I'm sure there are people still in contact
with him. I always liked him. He was working on a book on the history
of comics years ago that Woody Gelman thought he was going to publish.
It was voluminous. He had quite a bit done in the '60s. Just one of
those things that fell by the wayside.
CBA: Yeah, did you go to First Fridays? It was a monthly
get-together type thing. It was held variously at the apartments of
Roy Thomas, Jeff Jones, Archie Goodwin....
Len: No, I never did. I went to all the local conventions and
I knew Phil Seuling... I had been over his place. I had my own
circle of friends that I was closer to. I got married for the first
time in 1968 and moved to Jersey about a year or so after that. I
was always interested in what was going on in comics and read the
Comic Buyer's Guide and all that, whatever newslink kept me connected
to what was happening. In fact, I still like to know what's going
on. I still go to comic stores once a month. You know what I buy?
I buy the DC Archive reprints and things like that. I loved when DC
did the Millennium reprints every week and it broke my heart when
the year was over and there were no more of them coming out.
CBA: The retro stuff seems to be the only growing part of
Len: Yeah, I spoke to Paul Levitz, DC's publisher about a year
ago, and he said that comics continue to be a tough business but the
part that's really growing is the reprints in book form... the
backlist of books they keep putting out. I love when they announce
a new Plastic Man or Captain Marvel book coming out.
CBA: When do you recall meeting Art Spiegelman?
Len: He was about 14 years old when I met him, so I guess that
would be about 1963?
CBA: Did he come into the office?
Len: Yeah. Like myself, he just wrote Woody a letter and Woody
responded and they corresponded for awhile. Art sent in some of the
stuff he had done for his high school newspaper and a fanzine, and
Woody was just amazed at what he was doing for his age. Artie is probably
just the most brilliant guy I've ever met. You use the word genius
rarely, but he has a genius about him. He's creative, funny, could
draw, could write, and he's just an amazing guy. So he was just 14
but Woody could see the potential in him and gave him an assignment.
Ever since that, there were times he worked on staff... I think,
more often than not he worked freelance. We were very good buddies.
We hung out continuously and after work we would go places and do
things together. Then he relocated to the West Coast for many years
and then he came back. I've known Artie for many, many years. Not
as close these days and it's not because we don't like each other.
He's so involved with his area and things he's doing. He worked at
Topps for many years and was key to Wacky Packages, Garbage Pail Kids,
and candy and gum products. We were close as two guys could be as
friends at one point. We have kind of drifted apart in a way. When
Artie heard that I was leaving Topps, he called me up and recollected
how close we had been over the years, like brothers almost. I remember
the night his mom committed suicide.
CBA: Yeah, he wrote about that in a comix story, "Prisoner
on the Hell Planet."
Len: We had been together earlier that night and about ten
o'clock, the phone rang at my house and it was one of his relatives
trying desperately to reach Artie saying that there was an emergency
at home and they thought he might have been with me. He had actually
already left to go see a girlfriend. When I asked what the emergency
was, they told me that his mother had committed suicide. I actually
thought he was going to spend the night with this girl and would come
into Topps the next morning and I would have to break this news to
him and it was the most tormented night of my life. I didn't sleep.
But I didn't have to break the news. It turned out that he had called
home and got the message and found out. Again, we were like brothers
at one point and we talked about it. But I haven't seen Artie more
than twice in the last two or three years.
CBA: Did you have an inkling that he would achieve the level
of success he has?
Len: Absolutely. I used to tell him that and he would laugh
at me. I would say, well, when he first started Maus, I would tell
him that it was going to be a phenomenon, this is going to be a bestseller...
he was doing it just to get that stuff out of his head, you know?
Like therapy. He never, ever imagined the impact it would make. Woody
Gelman always felt that Art was a genius and he was going to find
a niche where he was going to become famous and make a fortune. I
think Artie's done all right for himself.
CBA: Well, he's always staying busy. He's doing a Plastic
Man book now with Chip Kidd.
Len: Oh, great! Because I read the piece he did in the New
Yorker a few years ago which was maybe a prelude to it. I know he's
working on another book like his recent Little Lit with Jay Lynch
who I stay in touch with.
CBA: Did you start dealing with Jay in the '60s?
Len: Oh, yeah, Artie brought him in. They were buddies. Jay
and I are fairly close. We like each other a lot. We have a lot of
respect for each other. In fact, I was talking with Jay just last
week. He's a terrific guy. That's a guy who has an incredible genius
very similar to Artie's but he hasn't been able to channel it commercially
or financially. He deserves a lot more recognition than he gets among
the masses. I think he's well respected among his peers. He's done
some wonderful stuff and he's a great cartoonist. Topps is always
trying to give him work. I know he's even done some freelance work
with Topps through Ira Friedman's office recently.
CBA: Was he always Chicago based?
Len: Well, he lived in Jersey as a teenager or as a young kid,
but later he went to Chicago when he was old enough. He recently moved
to Binghamton, New York.
CBA: Did you know anything about Tower Publishing beforehand?
What was Tower Books?
Len: Well, I knew they had a paperback line. As a matter of
fact, I wrote three paperbacks for them during the days of paperbacks,
on pop music. One was a rock 'n' roll quiz book, another was an encyclopedia
on country music and one was an encyclopedia of rock 'n' roll. I co-wrote
them with Gary Friedrich.
CBA: Are you kidding? I just did a long interview with him
and he mentioned those same books! He's a courier out in Missouri
now and he seems to be happy although he'd like to do creative work
on the side.
Len: My hypothesis is that when you live in the city, it's
easier to get the work. I think there's a lot more opportunity. When
Gary was living in New York, of course he was friends with Roy Thomas
and Roy opened a lot of doors for him at Marvel, but he was completely
involved in comics and did a lot of comics. But once he moved back
to Missouri, it's like out of sight, out of mind. If you don't live
where it's happening, it's so much harder for you. He certainly worked
on a whole lot of great books.
CBA: Did you become friends with Roy Thomas?
Len: Oh, yeah. Well, Roy was a roommate. I knew him as a comic
fan from Alter-Ego and then when he came to New York, I think I met
him the first week he was here and working for Mort Weisinger at DC
and ultimately we became roommates for about a year-and-a-half. He
lived in Brooklyn with me and then he married Jeanie, his first wife,
and got his own place but we stayed in touch. We fell out of touch
for a number of years and then when Topps got into comics, he was
the first guy I called. He wrote the Mike Mignola Dracula adaptation.
On any of the books I edited, I tried to get him. Jim Salicrup was
the full-time editor and whenever he gave me books to edit like the
Cadillacs & Dinosaurs series, I'd want Roy to write them. He was
my favorite writer to work with.
CBA: Were you happy to see Topps finally get into comics
in the '90s?
Len: Oh, yeah! You know, my first reaction was this isn't Topps.
Because I go back to the conversation I had with the Topps president
after The Man from U.N.C.L.E. magazine when he said that we had only
made $20,000 when we should have made hundreds of thousands. How many
comics make $20,000 these days? But comics were booming and they hired
a nice little staff. Charlie Novinsky's a great guy who Jim Salicrup
hired. But I feared comics weren't really for Topps. I remember talking
to people at Marvel over the years and a typical Marvel book maybe
made a few thousand dollars and that was why they put out 40 books
a month (back when they were doing 40 books a month). So that way
they were making a hundred thousand a month. And then licensing became
the big thing. Probably made more money for Marvel than comics. I
just never felt that Topps would end up feeling it was worthwhile
when all was said and done and yet in the beginning, I was dead wrong.
The month we introduced the Kirby books [Jack Kirby's Secret City,
Satan's Six, etc.], we sold a million dollars worth of books. Over
a million dollars and non-returnable. So for a while it thrived. And
even in the last year, it still made money. They never had a year
where they lost money. I think in the last year they made something
like $200,000 on comics and it was X-Files and Xena making the money.
But it wasn't enough for the activity. Having staff and people who
had to follow what was going on in the business when there was still
the other core business to worry about. For instance, Ira Friedman
who was just a great asset in comics, was the publisher, but they
really wanted to focus more on the cards and candy because the money
there was far greater. Comics is a tough, tough business. I was stunned
last month, some report came out, I think it was Diamond or IBC2,
the Web site that gives comic breaking news. The story showed the
best-selling comic didn't break 100,000 in circulation and Dark Horse's
biggest selling comic for that month was 24,000! You don't make money
with figures like that. Topps didn't break even when we sold that
many. I think our break-even was around 31,000. So I don't know how
Dark Horse stays in business these days. And it was a Star Wars comic
that was their biggest seller.
CBA: Overall, how would you assess the T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents
stuff? Was it fun?
Len: Oh, yeah. It was. I'm proud of it. I never thought it
was up to the Marvel level, you know? Maybe because it didn't have
as many titles and it was so short-lived, but I was always amazed
at the fans' reaction to it. Even today, people still remember it
and think fondly of it so it was very gratifying to have been involved.
The Wally Wood aspect for me was the best part... getting to work
with him. T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents is part of my legacy I guess, which
is nice. _I wish now that it had worked better and that I had been
more involved and wrote more stuff.
CBA: Did you stay in contact with Wally Wood until the end?
Len: Well, he left the area, didn't he? Moved somewhere out
in the West? He wasn't doing stuff for Topps and he'd fallen on hard
times and was having health problems. I know he had kidney problems
and was on dialysis which I heard had prompted the suicide... I'd
heard he didn't want to deal with it. But I'd heard he was doing porn
strips for Screw magazine at some point. He'd fallen on hard times.
I guess we had fallen out of touch by that point.
CBA: Do you recall where you were when you heard about Wally
Len: No, but I was stunned. I think someone at work had called
to tell me. It was a real shock. I was horrified.
CBA: Were you surprised?
Len: Yeah, I really was. There was a certain depressing aspect
to his personality. I mean, when you spoke to him, he was very soft-spoken,
and when you talked to him on the phone there were times when you
couldn't hear what he was saying. The act of suicide is so shocking.
I guess I didn't know what he was going through in the last couple
of years and he just couldn't deal with it anymore. So I was surprised.
I was shocked and felt awful about it. What a great talent whose potential,
as great as he was, I don't think was ever realized. Do you know what
he always felt badly about? Whenever he would show you artwork, he
would show what he was working on, and then he would add this because
he'd heard it so many times, "but it's not like the old EC work,
is it?" I think he peaked, in a way, with the old EC artwork
and he knew that. That was the thing that everyone loved and now EC
was gone and he was doing other things. I saw that Prince Valiant
page he did, that one Sunday page before Hal Foster retired, as a
test and it was gorgeous. I remember thinking that he should be the
one to replace Hal Foster. But I don't think that would have made
him happy if he got it.
CBA: When did Woody Gelman retire?
Len: 1974 or '75. We did things together after he retired,
published a few books. When Presley died in '77, we did a couple of
Elvis photo books together.
CBA: Were they successful?
Len: No, I don't think so. At that time, there were so many
Elvis books. It just got buried.
CBA: When did Woody pass away?
Len: I believe in 1978. He was only 61 and I say "only"
because I'm at 59, almost 60, and I still feel like a kid. In this
day and age, 61 is still pretty darn young.
CBA: Do you recall hearing about it?
Len: Oh, yeah, I called his house and he had had a stroke,
I found out about that and I was in touch with his son almost daily.
Yeah, his son called me one day and told me. Once he had this really
bad stroke, I don't think they expected him to last much longer. He
went into a coma and I think he lasted another couple of weeks and
I kept hoping he would come out of it but he never did. He'd had a
couple of minor strokes earlier with no damage, but there was the
final one at 61 and that was devastating. It was like losing a father.
And we had still been working on things until the very end. We did
a postcard book on Close Encounters of the Third Kind and a Star Trek
postcard book we packaged for Crown Books.
CBA: He was always bubbling with ideas?
Len: Always. I know the week before he died, he still had projects
he was thinking of and wanted to do. He always had a list of projects
he wanted to do and the list was always longer than he could get done
because he wasn't a full-fledged publishing house. He had a lot of
books that he put out over the years and that made him very happy.
He did a great book on EC horror comics, you know? Classic Horror
Comics of the '50s.
CBA: What was your favorite experience with Woody?
Len: Probably Mars Attacks! with all the hype. It was something
that I loved and we just worked on it together for hours and hours.
It was the best of all the work we did together, and appreciated more
than anything else.
CBA: Were you just like kids working together?
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