A Conversation with Writer and Indie Comix Legend JAN STRNAD - Part One
Cereal At Midnight: Jan, you've had an incredibly prolific career in multiple mediums. Beginning with your contributions to nascent comics fan publications at a time when comic book enthusiasts were only just beginning to organize as the subculture that we now know today, you have been at the forefront of fandom for decades. From multiple underground and independent characters and publications with Richard Corben to celebrated projects at Marvel, DC, and Dark Horse, to your contributions to the Star Wars galaxy and even your work on television screens with Disney animation, your stories have fired the imagination of millions. What were the stories that inspired you to pick up a pen for your own horror, science fiction, and comic book tales? Do those early inspirations still inspire you today? If not, what does?
Jan Strnad: Let me tell you about “inspiration.”
I was a puny kid. Did you ever line up in gym glass by height? I was the kid second from the end, the short end. No athletic ability at all except that I could climb the rope and catch a softball. Couldn’t throw for shit, or bat, or shoot, or run. Climb the rope, catch a softball－that was my repertoire of athletic skills.
So, yeah, I played softball and football with the neighbor kids, but I didn’t like it much because I sucked at everything.
Then there was music. My dad was a musician, played drums and guitar in a band, was on the radio, met my mom at a dance. You’d think that a few of his musical genes would’ve wandered over into his son, but they didn’t, not a one. Mom and Dad shoved one instrument after another at me hoping that I’d display some sliver of talent. Piano, saxophone, cornet－foreign objects to me. I was like Virgil Starkwell in Woody Allen’s Take the Money and Run, who played cello in a marching band. His cello teacher said, “He had no conception of the instrument. He was blowing into it.”
What I was good at was reading. We had reading groups in grade school back then. I was always in the best group. When we read books aloud as a class, listening to the slow readers read was sheer torture for me. I’d get into trouble for reading ahead to myself. Then when the teacher called on me to read aloud I wouldn’t know where the class was in the book.
My mom probably read to me as a child but I don’t remember that really. We--my older sister and --had the usual Little Golden Books. I was a critic even as a kid. Hated The Pokey Little Puppy, the bestselling hardcover children’s book of all time in the USA. By being poky and coming home late, he avoided the punishments his siblings suffered and got all the food. What kind of stupid moral is that? Even as a kid I knew how bass-ackward that story was. But you see, already I was out of step with the mass public who love that book. I’ve always been a little out of step.
What I did love was comic books. I began with the Harvey comics: Casper the Friendly Ghost, Hot Stuff the Little Devil, Richie Rich. Then I started reading the DC books: Superboy was a favorite, and all of the DC super-heroes. I liked the s-f Classics Illustrated--War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, Frankenstein. I devoured the Marvel monster books. Loved American Comics Group’s Forbidden Worlds and Herbie. I read the Archie comics, though I always thought Archie was a dunce for not going for Betty and I could never see what she saw in him. And that crosshatched hair baffled me－what was that supposed to be? I’ve never figured that out.
Then when I was ten or eleven, Fantastic Four #1 came out. All the white on the cover hit me like a nuclear flash. Then came Spider-Man and Doctor Strange. That was it. I was a Marvel Maniac.
I was also reading all of the science fiction I could lay my hands on. I loved the short stories and the anthology books. Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, Damon Knight, Robert Silverberg, Ted Sturgeon… all of those s-f authors were influences. In the horror genre it was Robert Bloch and Richard Matheson, though I should probably list Matheson first. I’m still waiting for an honest adaption of Matheson’s I Am Legend, the only book I’ve ever read and then immediately turned back to the start and read again.
I used to type on my mom’s old Underwood typewriter. Had to practically jump on the keys to make an impression. I don’t know what I typed. Stories, I guess. I don’t know. When I was fifteen my parents got me my own typewriter, a classic Smith Corona electric. I sat down with one of my science fiction anthologies and typed out Lion Miller’s “The Available Data on the Worp Reaction” just to see what a typed manuscript looked like. I did it wrong and single-spaced it, but when I was done I just sat there and looked at it and thought, “I can do this.”
The Frank Frazetta covers sucked me into the Conan books. I loved Roy Krenkel’s covers, too, but I never really got into Edgar Rice Burroughs’ writing for some reason. I love the incredible illustrations that’ve come out based on his Mars books, but the books themselves didn’t press any buttons for me. Don’t know why. You’d think they would have, given all the fantasy and s-f that I read.
We had a comics artist in town (Wichita, Kansas), Reed Crandall. My friends Don Bain and Bob Barrett and I would drop in on him now and again. He was gracious and charming, though one time he was sleeping off a drunk. I could see him lying on the sofa in his cheap apartment across from the baseball stadium and any illusions I had about the glamour of the comics biz went right out the window.
A comics fan and later dealer, Jerry Weist, lived in Wichita. I met him when Don and I decided to create our fanzine, Anomaly. Jerry was publishing his EC Comics fanzine, Squa Tront, which introduced me to EC Comics and pre-code comics. I realized that I’d led a very sheltered comic book life and had missed out on the good stuff, the tasteless stuff, the schlock, the horror comics, and the classic art of Frazetta, Williamson, Crandall, et al. The closest I’d come in the modern day was the Warren Publications black-and-white comic magazines Creepy and Eerie.
In college I discovered the underground comix that were so irreverent and sometimes thoughtful and often funny as hell to somebody who’s rebelling against everything. They were just wild and out of control. And Robert Crumb… jeez, there’s a guy who lets it all out and doesn’t give a crap what you think about him. As well as being phenomenally skilled, of course. Crumb helped inspire me to loosen up and take some chances.
I enjoyed English class in school. I fell in love with John Steinbeck’s writing, hated Melville, admired Hemingway and his economy with words, wasn’t so fond of Faulkner but his short story “Tomorrow” is a favorite. Outside of school I loved John D. McDonald, Seven Days in May by Fletcher Knebel and Charles W. Bailey II, and On the Beach by Nevil Shute. Harlan Ellison’s short stories blew my mind at a time when I was losing interest in the science fiction I’d grown up with, as did Kurt Vonnegut Jr.’s work. Vonnegut’s another writer whose work draws its power from minimalism and all the words he doesn’t write. Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon is probably my favorite book. Keyes, I later learned, worked under Stan Lee on the Atlas Comics titles, the precursor to Marvel Comics. He wrote a couple of stories for Basil Wolverton that I’d love to find, but I don’t even know what the titles are.
I was born in 1950, so I’m a TV kid. I loved Sky King, Superman, The Lone Ranger, Fury, and about anything that was on television on Saturday morning. And the cartoons, of course. I wish I could be half as ecstatic these days as I was lying on the living room floor, eating a bowl of cold cereal and watching Looney Tunes when I was kid.
Then there were the monster movies from that era. From big budget epics like Forbidden Planet and This Island Earth to the low budget flicks where astronauts flew in spaceships with office chairs and smoked cigarettes while flirting with the only female crew member and fought aliens made of latex and carpet scraps, I loved it all. Still do, man, still do.
But on an entirely different plane from everything else, head and shoulders above everything else, born in another dimension or on some far away planet far removed from everything else, there were the Harryhausen movies. And King Kong, of course, of course, of course. The midnight Creature Feature used to play King Kong once a year, and I stayed up for every showing. The week leading up to that Friday night dragged like it was stuck in mud. Harryhausen’s The 7th Voyage of Sinbad was and is simply incomparable. Naturally I had to eventually write a Sinbad story, a graphic novel with Rich Corben called The Last Voyage of Sindbad (using the spelling from Richard Burton’s translation of the Thousand Nights).
I’m leaving out a great deal of stuff, of course. Lots of other books and movies that had an impact. And come to think of it, I should mention the dinosaurs. I had a great collection of dinosaur models that I’d play with and make up stories as a kid. My childhood friend, Doug Davee, and I would always “play dinosaurs” when we got together. We’d also run around the back yard pretending we had on rocket packs or that we were in the jungle like Jungle Jim. I remember using Bromo-Seltzer granules as make-believe acid (just add water!) and straddling tree limbs pretending to be riding a brontosaurus. I had a pretty good background in being a kid. Making up stories was just something we did. We did it all the time. Second nature.
I never wanted to be anything but a writer. It was my singular ambition. Well, along with dating Sky King’s niece Penny. I soaked up everything. Everything was my inspiration.
You asked what inspires me today. I’m going to be honest and say “nothing.” It isn’t that everything bores me, not at all. There’s a lot of phenomenal work being done. It’s just that I’m old and tired. I’ve been writing and selling stories now for over fifty years. I don’t have the passion to Say Something with fiction. If that sounds sad, please, don’t cry for me Argentina. I’m happy. I’m content to be a consumer. I don’t have to spend hours and hours in a small room, at a keyboard, making up stories. I like writing short bits for Facebook. It’s about all I have the attention span for anymore.
There’s an incredible amount of first rate material out there, and more being created every day. I don’t feel guilty or sad about hanging it up. Now please excuse me for a minute－I’ve got to chase some kids off my lawn.
To be continued in Part 2!
Jan Strnad is an award-winning writer, known for five decades of sci-fi, horror, and comics tales. He has also written for almost two dozen animated television series and is co-creator of the underground comic Fever Dreams, which has been adapted into the feature film MEAD.Read the whole conversation!
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