Page Two: Tales of the Pioneers

Roller Derby queens and pulp fiction masters

Page Two
This column probably seems unduly Austin-centric and Austin-partisan to some – which it is without apology. If you belong in the camp that feels that way, however, this issue's cover story may drive you to drink. In talking about the rebirth of women's competitive Roller Derby (which had once flowered but had been moribund for more than three decades), all acknowledge that Austin was a crucial city to the sport's resurgence. Still, it's more than that: The first women's competitive Roller Derby league started here was run by a management team consisting of active Roller Derby participants. When a lot of those involved in the competition objected to this top-down ownership and management, they went off on their own to set up a separate league. In the best Aus­tin tradition, both leagues succeeded, one becoming something of an inspiration and prototype for women's Roller Derby with a flat track while the other did the same for banked tracks.

Essentially, innovation, followed by a labor/management dispute between labor and management, resulted in Austin's pioneering both of the major variants in contemporary women's Roller Derby. Speaking to the best Austin traditions while adding another celebrate-Austin layer, I'll note that this story is brilliantly and contemporaneously told in Bob Ray and Werner Campbell's wonderful documentary Hell on Wheels.

The Ongoing Personal Story, Continued

Last week's column described how, after becoming interested in comic books, in 1974 I first met Otto O. Binder, a well-known writer of comic books who lived in the town next to where I grew up. Gradu­al­ly, Otto and I began to spend significant amounts of time together.

When I first met Otto, I'll readily admit I knew nothing more about him than what I had read in Alter Ego No. 7, the fanzine that had led me to contact him. In Otto's room, his work area was up front, separated from the rest of the room by bookshelves. As you entered the room, there were also bookshelves on the right filled with comic books, most of them Golden Age, while on the opposite wall were stacks of pulps. All the comics and pulps contained stories by Otto. Over the years, as I visited regularly, I read my way through both comic books and pulps.

In the early 1930s, Otto and his brother Earl began to publish stories in such science-fiction pulp magazines as Amazing Stories, Weird Tales, Astounding, Wonder Stories (which later became Thrilling Wonder Stories), Startling Stories, and Fantastic Worlds. Writing together, they used the pen name Eando Binder (EandO). Their brother Jack Binder, who graduated from the Chicago Institute of Art, would become a prolific comic book artist later. Earl dropped out of the team by the mid-Thir­ties, though Otto would continue to use the pen name of Eando for the rest of his writing career.

Eando Binder had become one of the best-known pulp science-fiction writers by 1939, a stature he maintained until 1942, by which time he was mostly writing comic books. By 1945, Otto had published some 2 million words of SF in pulps. He was so prolific that in some issues of a pulp, he might have a number of stories: One would bear the Binder byline, but there might be another using the house name (the name remained the same regardless of who had written the story), as well as other pseudonyms, such as Gordon A. Giles and John Coleridge.

In the very little critical writing that exists on his SF output, Otto is regarded as a prolific pulpster and given no credit for any literary qualities other than excellent storytelling and innovative ideas. Although I have read most of Otto's pulp fiction, it was while sitting on a bed beneath the shelves of pulps as he typed away nearby; clearly, my opinion on his work lacks any critical perspective. Otto was not only the first writer I knew personally; I also loved his work and devoured everything he had written in comics and pulps.

Despite the lack of critical attention, his influence on other writers in terms of ideas is generally acknowledged, although I don't think he is given anywhere near sufficient credit. Undoubtedly, his best known and most important works were the Adam Link, Robot stories, beginning with "I, Robot," published in Amazing Stories in 1939. Along with Lester Del Ray's story "Helen O'Loy," they are generally regarded as being among the first SF stories featuring intelligent, sympathetic robots. They are told in first person by Adam Link; Otto explained that this was the driving idea behind the stories: "Who could tell what happened to a robot better than the robot himself, assuming him to be of near human intelligence? Such a robot, in a sense, is actually a form of life rather than just a mechanical man. He would have his personal opinions, prejudices and outlook."

Otto noted that the Depression was a time of great injustices, leading to much speculation on new social orders. As a pulp writer, he responded in his stories. "Adam Link was my Gulliver," he told me, "the robot an underdog misunderstood and attacked by the system."

Adam Link is the best known and most enduring character Binder created, and there were numerous paperback editions of the stories published over the decades. Otto also had great success adapting the stories for comic books, first for EC's Weird Science-Fantasy and later for Creepy, from Warren Publishing. The story "I, Robot" was also adapted for an Outer Limits episode (though not by Binder) and inspired an episode of Star Trek.

Later in 1939, Isaac Asimov also began to publish intelligent-robot stories. These were clearly influenced by Otto's work, as were Asimov's three laws of robotics. All Asimov's robot stories were collected and published in one book by Gnome Press in 1950. Over Asimov's protests and ignoring his proposed title, the published book was with the title I, Robot.

When I knew Otto, we attended a number of comic book conventions and SF events, including the Lunacon, the annual NYC SF community miniconvention. Whenever Asimov was at any event with Otto, he always came over to talk with him. They were good friends who shared a deep nostalgia for the golden age of SF pulps.

Obviously, Binder published far more SF than just the Link stories. Among my favorites were the Anton York, Immortal stories, which were similar to a number of tales of superhuman heroes then appearing in the pulps. The Via series of 10 stories, published in Thrilling Wonder Stories under the pseudonym Gordon A. Giles, are about discovering a series of pyramids on the planets in our solar system. While they are not proclaimed a major influence on Arthur C. Clarke's 2001, there are certain similarities to the narrative structure. Clarke was a devoted fan of science fiction at the time, and it's more than likely he read the stories. At the one Lunacon that Clarke attended, he came over as soon as he saw Otto, very happy to say hi and chat with him. Otto introduced me, but I was not yet a Clarke fan, so I said a brief hello, somewhat rudely leaning past him trying to get a look at Samuel Delany several rows away.

In 1937, Jack Binder had gone to work managing Harry Chesler's shop, which turned out comics published by Chesler as well as complete stories for other publishers' books. Jack Cole, Charles Brio, and Gill Fox were among those who worked under Jack. Jack began urging Otto to write for comic books.

As much as he loved SF, comic books paid. Even as a star writer, Otto at most got a fraction of a cent to two cents a word from the pulps. He was paid $5 for a relatively easy-to-write comic script by Chesler, and after Jack opened his own shop in 1951, Otto was paid $2 to $3 a page. Soon, all of Otto's writing was concentrated on comic books. Working for the shop, Otto wrote for any number of companies, including Street & Smith, New Friday, Timely Publications (later Marvel comics), MLJ (home of Archie and friends), and Quality. While there, he also began to write scripts for Fawcett, the home of Captain Marvel.

Soon, he was working directly for Fawcett, where he would stay for more than a decade. It was easily one of the happiest times of his life, a period he never spoke of with anything less than enthusiastic affection. There he found a welcoming, exciting creative home; it also proved to be one of his most happily productive periods and the source of his greatest fame. Binder's whimsical, comedic vision and happily wacky ideas that still embraced adventure perfectly complemented artist C.C. Beck's already established style for Captain Marvel.

(This piece on Otto Binder is largely autobiographical, based on my memories and supplemented by notes and letters. Still, absolutely crucial to it and to anyone interested in learning about or writing on Binder is Bill Schelly's magnificent biography, Worlds of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder.)

To be continued.

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Austin Roller Derby, Otto Binder, Roller Derby, Texas Rollergirls, Eando Binder, pulp fiction, science fiction, comic books

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