AN ADVENTURE IN IMAGINATION
In the mid-80s, writer and comic maven Dave Darrigo created a most unusual and endearing comic hero – Clay Washburn, Wordsmith. What sets Wordsmith apart is Clay is as far from a comic heroes as most readers themselves. Set in the ‘30s and ‘40s. Clay is a writer, the creator of adventures for a full range of heroic characters, which he sells to the popular pulp magazines of his day. Clay is an everyman, not a star name on covers, struggling to make a living at something he loves, eventually earning a penny per word (many were paid less) in a highly competitive marketplace. As a result, Clay had to be prolific and adapt to writing in many different genres.
Each issue of Wordsmith was further unique in sharing not only Clay’s personal struggles, but also the adventures of the characters about whom he was writing – heroes like Brass-Knuckles Bendix, Captain Strong, Domino Detective, Hunter Hawke, as well as various hard-boiled G-Men and many others.
Written with an amazing, underlying, understanding of a writer’s struggles, Wordsmith stands unique in the comic pantheon. The twelve issues of Wordsmith were clearly a labor of love and quickly became a cult favorite. The original issues are still eagerly sought by not only comic fans, but also fans of the original pulp magazines, those involved in the new pulp movement, and anyone fascinated by a writer’s creative process. Fortunately, Dover Press will be publishing a new collection of the Wordsmith stories later this year.
Through a mutual friend, I was able to track down Wordsmith creator Dave Darrigo and chat with him about the world of Wordsmith as well as his own journey through the world of comics.
GROWING UP IN THE ‘60S, WHAT WERE YOUR POP CULTURAL INFLUENCES?
What can I say? Color TV! If you are old enough, you know the names of all the shows. They still make movie adaptations of them – mostly bad ones. Did we really need the Green Hornet movie? Glad they left Jonny Quest alone.
After that it was comics. I was into the second phase of Marvelmania. Before that, I was with DC, but mostly with their war comics, and also paperback pulp reprints (I was big on Doc Savage). Even old radio fascinated me. I would have liked to get old comics but, like today, they were out of my price range. Fortunately, we now have many nice reprint collections.
Notice the word old, which I’ve used as a descriptor. Old wasn’t a dirty word back then. But you were in a cult – the cult of nostalgia.
WHAT DROVE YOU TO BEGIN CREATING AND PUBLISHING COMICS AT A YOUNG AGE?
It all started as an exercise in imagination and a way to bond with a friend. Then I realized the Mimeograph machine in my father’s office (he was an independent businessman) would allow us to make copies of our pages. So, why not try to make a faux comic book? It must have driven his secretary crazy, but she just had to endure it all. Boss’ son at play. It’s the next step that is hard to explain.
HAVING DONE MY OWN SHARE OF MIMEOGRAPHING INDEPENDENT PUBLICATIONS, WHAT CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT YOUR FIRST PUBLISHING EFFORTS IN YOUR FATHER’S BUSINESS OFFICE?
We decided to use my dad’s financial resources to print on photo-offset presses. This was in 1969. I was fifteen years old. Print shops were not on every corner back then. Nor were there any comic shops in existence. We were really out on a limb. We tried to sell them through mail order, but really could not get over the hump.
Yet did I learn from this? Nope. Twenty years later, after Wordsmith, I went back into comics publishing, creating a company called Special Studio. However, we still couldn’t get over the hump.
HOW DID YOU COME TO FIND AND APPRECIATE THE PULP MAGAZINES FROM THE ‘30S AND ‘40S? WHAT WAS IT ABOUT THE PULPS THAT HELD A FASCINATION FOR YOU? ALSO, YOU WERE PART OF EARLY COMIC FANDOM EFFORTS IN CANADA. WHAT WAS THAT LIKE? HOW DID FANS CONNECT IN THOSE PRE-INTERNET DAYS?
Toronto is the media capital of Canada. In the late sixties there was a nostalgia oriented book shop called Memory Lane. It was owned and operated by a WWII vet, Captain George Henderson. His shop specialized in comics and pulps and therefore garnered a lot of publicity, locally, regionally and nationally, via print, radio, and TV.
Several of his customer/friends – including a journalist/editor with the national newspaper – joined him to create an informal nostalgia club, which also covered the current film/TV scene. They took it upon themselves to share their knowledge by doing two publications.
One was a bi-weekly called the Penny Dreadful It was a small pamphlet-sized thing, but loaded with info/comments. The other was a monthly magazine called, Captain George’s Whizbang. And there were Whizbang Specials that would showcase old artists, or do unofficial reprints of old comics.
Anyway, this was early fanzine activity that was immensely entertaining and eye-opening for a kid. Captain George even reluctantly carried copies of our comic in his store – although, he probably threw out more than he ever sold. I think he carried them just because I was a customer with a rich father. George had also published one of the first prozine comics in the country since the early fifties. His was pro as opposed to our amateur effort.
One of the members in their club, Don Hutchison, wrote great stuff on pulps, and I followed him avidly. He went on to write many articles for pulpzines as well as authoring several pulp history books. Eventually, I met Don and we travelled to several pulp conventions in Ohio. When Wordsmith came out, I invited him to do text pieces on the pulps. He updated some of his previous material and did new original work.
I realize now, I never actually held or owned a real pulp magazine until I was close to thirty years old. Then I collected them for only a decade or so. I haven’t bought an old pulp in a long time, even with eBay around. I went through a period of buying pulp replica reprints. Loved them, but had to give those up, too. However, I still pick up reprints in book form.
AS AN INDEPENDENT COMIC CREATOR AND PUBLISHER, HOW DID YOU COMPETE WITH THE INDUSTRY GIANTS?
I didn’t see Special Studio as competing against the big full color boys. I was in the small press black and white universe – happy to get sales anywhere close to the Teenage Turtles. My problem was, I did crime comics just a bit ahead of the curve. Yes, there were characters like Punisher and Vigilante and some in black and white – and Frank Miller was starting his Sin City series – but it was a genre working to make a come-back.
If you want to look for some of my titles check for The Snake, Black Scorpion, Tony Bravado: Trouble-shooter, and Piranha Is Loose! There’s also a one shot called Modern Pulp and another one shot called Heroes from Wordsmith.
I worked at and managed a comic shop at the time Wordsmith came out, so I have great memories of actually selling my comic in my own store. I didn’t own the store. It was owned by John Biernat. Maybe you remember Dragon Lady Press. John published those titles. The store closed down a few years ago after 30 plus years.
HOW DID THE UNIQUE CONCEPT FOR WORDSMITH COME INTO EXISTENCE?
I just got caught up in wondering what it would have been like to be a pulp writer in a time period of history that was of great interest to me. But I wanted to fashion the story in such a way that the writer was not a hero per se – I didn’t want him to be a secret private eye or vigilante. The idea was to look at his life and times as a regular Joe. The action would be in his internal conflicts to finish a story quickly and to overcome plot knots – all the while looking out the window and seeing soup kitchen line-ups and worrying about the rise of fascism and a new war in Europe.
Keep in mind the concept was developed as a novel first. At this time in comics history (thanks to Will Eisner), the medium was evolving into graphic novels, so I thought about twisting the concept into comics form. We had to stop after 12 issues, but it would have been great if it had gone another 8 issues ending in 1945, after the atomic bombs were dropped. when Clay realizes pulp fiction is at a dead end.
Then there would have been a 4 issue mini-series sequel bringing Clay into the next four decades as he wrote paperback fiction and saw the pulps return to market in reprints. The last issue would have had him being honored at a Pulp Con.
So, in its true entirety, it would have been a twenty-four issue graphic novel. However, it had to end half way through when Clay went off to war as a clerk in Washington.
HOW DID YOU SEE WORDSMITH AS DIFFERENT FROM OTHER COMIC CONCEPTS?
There were two problems with bringing this concept to reality. Finding a publisher who got it and finding an artist who could pull it off to everyone’s satisfaction. With good fortune I found both. Wish I could say that same good fortune has stayed with me since.
Everyone was well aware this was very different from the norm, but – again, thanks to creators like Will Eisner and others in the States – there seemed to be a growing audience for more adult approaches to the medium. I had been exposed to European comics, and knew their scene had always encompassed adult material. Not because of sex or violence, but just stories set within real historical settings.
WHAT WERE YOUR ORIGINAL GOALS FOR WORDSMITH?
The goal was to show comics fans how their medium was linked to the pulps in form and content. Not because modern comics were adapting pulp characters, but because pulp writers and artists moved to comics when the medium became popular and the writers struggled to adapt. In Wordsmith, I show Clay's long-time editor doing this, as well.
The second goal was to just bring history to life from 1935 to 1945. I wish I had thought of a story which had Clay attending the 1939 World's Fair, or one centered on the Hindenburg disaster.
HOW DID WORDSMITH EVOLVE FROM ISSUE TO ISSUE?
Simply that time had to pass in Clay’s life. There had to be change. Clay had to move past his fight to reach financial stability, to get married and start a family. I wanted Clay to try new writing challenges, and to react to the big issues shaping the world, as any thinking human would do. All of this had to be done while keeping regular readers happy and trying to get new readers on board.
HOW CHALLENGING WAS IT TO NOT ONLY WRITE CLAY’S ONGOING STORY, BUT TO FIND A WAY TO ALSO INCLUDE THE STORIES OF HIS CHARACTERS?
I would draw your attention to the sixth issue, where Clay took a hiatus to write his Great American Novel. I wanted to show him writing that story and we did so, but there had to be one of his pulp stories shown in the same issue. That was tricky. Although he plotted the pulp story, he had a pulp writer friend of his write it. So, we showed Clay imagining what his friend was writing. And worrying about it.
Once we sold a publisher and some core readers on the concept, it wasn't too hard to fit in his fictional stories. But issues like issue #5 – where his fictional story was the result of a prank – the aforementioned issue #6, and issue #8 (where almost the entire issue was devoted to one of his written stories) were a challenge. My personal favorite story was issue #4, where Clay tries to save an abused boy from his villainous father. It was where Clay had to come face-to-face with a true Evil.
WHAT WAS THE READERS/FANS RESPONSE TO WORDSMITH?
Although we didn't have a letters page in every issue, when we did have them you can see how my goals were met – usually with a positive reaction. These published letters were chosen from many more. Some were just of a keep up the good work type. Still, I always sent back a response using a Wordsmith form letter, but always adding a personal notation and signature.
That people took the time to actually write and mail something to us was a great honor and I'll always have fond memories of it.
One real-life wordsmith, Harlan Ellison, was kind enough to write us. Of course, I printed his letter. He was a long-time comics/pulp fan so he could have been a harsh critic, but he had great praise and set his quibbles aside. He knew our hearts were in the right place and was confident we would improve in time.
After the seventh issue – our Christmas story – our sales peaked and began dropping, so we began to plan for the end. Frankly the last three issues were done more for love than profits. My thanks will always go to Deni Loubert, the publisher, and R.G. Taylor, the artist, for keeping the faith and plodding on.
By the way, I think those last three issues were great and really showcased the concept. #12 was our comic’s issue where Clay meets a Jack Kirby-type character and where his fictional story is not a pulp one, but a Captain America type comic book story.
WILL THE NEW WORDSMITH COLLECTIONS BEING PUBLISHED BY DOVER PRESS LATER THIS YEAR CONTAIN ANY NEW MATERIAL OR PREVIOUSLY UNCOLLECTED MATERIAL?
No. Only once over the thirty years have we thought of doing a short story for some anthology, but that never got far.
I wish Dover well, but even a new story would not make a sales difference. We're just honored to be in their classic line of reprinted material.
DOES WRITER DAVE DARRIGO STILL CONNECT TO WORDSMITH HERO CLAY WASHBURN?
Not really. Because I was writing about someone who, despite being a hack in many ways, at least found a way to make a living at it and just enjoyed exercising his imagination every day. I never did. I still have a cabinet of ideas filed away. Mostly for fiction, crime in particular, however, there's no market for small fiction except online.
I have some ideas for the youth market. For boys. Trying to get to them before they get into games. Working with my artist friends to develop them.
A while ago, I tried a huge challenge – to partner with a friend and write a screenplay. It took a few years to finish a first draft, but we did it and remained friends somehow. Since then, we are actively (and frustratingly) trying to sell it. It's a commercial action thriller and, despite a ton of rejections, we think it is good and fresh. Still relevant for a changing audience.
Trying to adapt to the digital age. Seeing books as we've known them disappear. Seeing people stop reading for the sheer joy of it – no matter how they pretend otherwise. It all started back where we came in on this interview – with color TV's. Even in the radio age people read. Early TV made an impact, yes. But color TV's and the shows created for it really created the coffin. The nails for the coffin have been put in gradually ever since. Now it's all about the end of TV itself as we know it.
Still, I basically can relate to Clay Washburn in the same way I did before the comic. By just reading old pulp fiction and imagining what the writer was doing the day he wrote the words.
I’d really like to thank Dave Darrigo for taking the time to answer all my many questions. In some ways, I feel I’ve found a new friend with whom I can connect on many levels – a true value in today’s transient, disposable, economy.