Jerry Bails Memoriam

By | Monday, November 27, 2006 Leave a Comment
I'm certain that the death of Dave Cockrum will do a lot to overshadow that of Jerry Bails, but I think Jerry is deserving of much more than what I expect he'll receive. I'm probably not the best person to take this up (that honor should fall to Roy Thomas and/or possibly Bill Schelly) but I'm probably the most vocal online, so I'm going to try to honor Jerry here in the ether while Roy puts together whatever he'll undoubtly do in Alter Ego. (The cover shown here, by the way, is taken from a celebratory issue from 2003.)

This blog would not exist without Jerry Bails. Newsarama would not exist without Jerry. Marvel Comics would not exist without Jerry. Without Jerry Bails, the comic book landscape would definitely look a lot different. Bold statements, certainly, but Jerry really did have that kind of impact on the industry.

I first learned about Jerry in Bill Schelly's The Golden Age of Comic Fandom. Schelly is one of a very few authors to really take a look at comic book fandom thus far, and he's far and away the most prolific of them. Schelly's book examines the earliest days of comic book fandom tracing its roots back to the early days of science fiction fandom decades earlier. Jerry is referenced, though, on numerous occasions for all of the various things he'd done for the industry. I was surprised, in reading the book, to learn about how much he had done since he is/was scarecely discussed in comic book literture. He never worked for Marvel or DC or any comic book publisher, and yet he clearly had a huge impact on the industry as a whole.

I can't begin to describe the entirety of things Jerry did for the industry, but Alter Ego #25 does a good job if you want to order that from TwoMorrows. There's also a (much) shorter summary of his efforts, as well as an interview I conducted with him, over at The Pulse.

Jerry wasn't the first comic book fan, certainly. He wasn't even the first to publish articles about comic books. But in the late 1950s and early 1960s, he put a LOT of effort in making comic book fandom its own entity. He repeatedly would start fannish efforts to get things rolling, then pass them off to other fans, so he could start yet another way to bring fans together. He could have stuck with Alter Ego (or any of his ideas) and made it successful in its own right. But instead, he was interested in uniting fandom long before the days of cheap, easy, electronic communication. He was writing letters constantly. His letter-writing helped prompt Julie Schwartz to create the Justice League of America -- which, in turn, prompted Marvel to respond with Fantastic Four! His letter-writing (and a sizeable donation of old comics) helped keep a young Roy Thomas interested throughout college, and prompted Roy to leave his schoolteacher job in Missouri for a gig with DC -- which led to his being snatched up by Marvel's Stan Lee a scant two weeks later.

I never met Jerry in person. He was something of a homebody with failing eyesight by the time I even knew his name. But we communicated via e-mail for a little while, and our conversations ran all over the map. And in every facet of our talks, he was thoughtful, intelligent, well-reasoned, polite and open. I mean, here was this punk kid asking questions about aspects of his life that he didn't think anyone would care about, and he responded with an amazing amount of candor, bringing up deeply personal moments without prompting. I felt almost immediately at ease with him, and I treasure the electronic commuiques we exchanged.

I've been studying comic book fandom specifically for several years, and I don't feel I even have a good grasp on everything Jerry contributed to fandom. I am quite happy to have had the chance to chat with him, but saddened that he is no longer with us. Even if he hadn't been so strong a force in fandom, he was genuinely a nice guy and dealt with a lot of hardships with an amazing strength of character.

I'll always regret not having tried taking the opportunity to meet Jack Kirby before he passed away. I think it's important to let people know when they have an impact on your life, and I didn't really have a good sense of what Kirby did for me before he died. I did at least have an chance to tell Jerry and thank him for everything he's done, but it's unfortunate that so many people are only now just learning about him now that he's no longer with us.

Jerry did seem pleased overall with where fandom has gotten to, although I'm sure he didn't give himself nearly enough credit in how he shaped it. I think it's impossible to understate what Jerry did for comic book fandom in the same way that it's impossible to understate what Jack Kirby did for comic books. There's just so much there over so long a period that I can't imagine what fandom would look like without Jerry to have kicked things off.

So thank you, Jerry. Thank you for Alter-Ego and Comicollector and Who's Who and the Detroit Triple Fan Fair and the GCD and everything else you did for comic fandom. Thank you for never losing sight of what you enjoyed in comics. Thank you for showing what could be done by joining together through long-distance communication. Thank you for doing everything that you did with a high degree of intelligence and professionalism that helped to bring respectability to comics. Thank for you spending so much of your free time devoted to a life-long hobby. And most of all, thank you for being such a decent, honorable human being that I am proud to say I had the chance to know ever so briefly. I'm not a religious man but, Jerry, I hope you've got the chance now to re-read those old, mint condition All-Stars as often as you like.
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