Page Two: Home Fires

Revisiting the smoking ban and the return of Otto Binder

Page Two
In the Chronicle's online forum discussions, the smoking ban issue is once again hot, with champions for each side already in combat. I editorialized against the ban when it was on the ballot and continue to think it is a bad law. Most of us bristle at the notion that, under pressure from specific religious or special interest groups, the government does and will continue to legislate morality. Obviously, semantics and definitions are crucial to this discussion. Many of those in the anti-government crowd are still against abortions, which they would like the government to make illegal. The problem occurs when personal beliefs and moral standards are attached to something greater. The legislation then is rationalized as being for the greater good rather than born out of proponents' personal beliefs. With abortions, it is the murder of unborn children; with the smoking ban, it's health.

Obviously, I do have a horse in this race, but there are still things worth noting. In many letters and postings, those supporting the ban glossed over any concerns about the consequences to the financial health of the clubs. They assured all of us that live music clubs would not only survive but would do better than ever, as the smokers would remain as customers and crowds of nonsmokers would now visit these smoke-free environments. The economic effects of the ban have not been as devastating as feared, but the nonsmokers who were supposed to turn out in record numbers have yet to show.

As a rear-guard action, the most self-righteous and contemptuous arguments offered have been those along the lines of, "Well, if the clubs aren't doing well, it shows that the smokers weren't really committed to live music." Sorry, but that's just pathetic.

Before the final version of the ban was even voted on, much less passed, smoking was already not allowed in the vast majority of Austin public businesses. There were only about 200 businesses left in town that had decided to allow smoking to continue. Given that these clubs are not now nearly as crowded as predicted, it's obvious that the reason those supporting the ban were staying away was not because they couldn't stand the smoke. They weren't worried about secondhand smoke themselves; they hadn't been and weren't going to start attending music clubs. It was just that, puritanically, they wanted to stop others from smoking.

What becomes absolutely clear is that an option was taken away from business owners and customers. The lack of audience surge means that many of the people who voted for the ban, though they cited health as a motivating force, were actually far more interested in imposing their personal views on the rest of us.

I don't smoke and am not a fan of smoking. Regardless, I am a fan of citizens' rights, and I especially dislike it when people try to impose their own morality on others by claiming that the issue isn't about beliefs at all – that, rather, it's about the logic of tailoring the law to some objective standard, be it science, health, safety, or the sanctity of life. Both the left and the right, liberals and conservatives, participate in this gambit. Any distinctions here are, of course, inherently controversial, and by no means are any of the issues that clear-cut. The line between the biologically determined and the ideologically conceived can be awfully hard to discern. But what I do know is that when smoking was already banned in all but 200 or so businesses out of thousands, crusading to ban smoking everywhere had little to do with personal health.

The last few columns took a break from the series about Otto Binder. Using the pseudonym Eando Binder, the prolific and well-known SF pulp writer had by 1940 also begun writing comic books, which paid significantly more. Soon, most of his work was comic books, and, increasingly, more of that was for Fawcett Publications, where he became part of the creative team behind Captain Marvel and family. He loved working at Fawcett, which proved one of the most creative and happiest times of his life. Unfortunately, it wasn't to last.

When Captain Marvel first appeared, National Periodical Publications (later D.C.), the publishers of Superman, sued Fawcett, claiming that the Big Red Cheese (Captain Marvel's nickname) was a complete imitation of the Man of Steel, infringing on their copyright. Evidently, there were three major suits involved; Fawcett won the first and third suits, National the second one. When National then made additional charges of plagiarism, Fawcett simply settled. There was a monetary payment involved, and they had to stop publishing Captain Marvel-related books. Already facing dramatically falling comic book sales, they decided to just fold the whole comic book line in the mid-1950s.

This was a devastating development for many, especially editor Wendell Crowley (remember that name – he becomes a central character later). Binder had worked steadily at Fawcett for 13 years, but his employment was always as a freelancer, which meant no benefits and no retirement. During the whole time he worked for Fawcett, he had continued to work for other companies, but now he needed another major writing relationship.

In the early 1930s, Otto and his brother Earl had become fast friends with fellow science-fiction fans Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, who by this time had both become major editors at National Periodicals. Schwartz handled the science-fiction titles, while Weisinger had the more important job of editing Superman and its related titles. Binder began writing for both of them.

Unfortunately, he did so well that he soon graduated to writing mostly for the Superman books, which meant working only with Weisinger. In creative terms, this proved extraordinarily productive, as one of their main tasks was to revitalize Superman. They initiated the Imaginary Stories (what Superman's life would have been if Krypton hadn't exploded), Bizarro, Bizarro World, and the villain Brainiac and introduced Superman's cousin, Supergirl. Two of the main Superman characters were given their own books: Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen (Binder wrote most of the first 30 issues) and Superman's Girlfriend, Lois Lane.

The problem was that Weisinger, by all accounts, was an extraordinarily egocentric, mean son of a bitch. Constantly abusive toward those working for him, he made doing their jobs an ordeal. Despite their long friendship, he routinely belittled Binder's work.

Anxious to develop other sources of income besides comics, Binder jumped at the chance when he was asked to be the editor of a new serious magazine, Space World. The idea was that the publication would do well because of the public fascination with space in the wake of Sputnik. They also asked him to invest in the magazine, which required taking out a mortgage on his fully paid-off house. Space World never took off, and when Binder finally bailed on it in 1963, he was completely broke.

He returned to writing comic books and science fiction while also repackaging some of his older stories to publish as novels in paperback. The best thing that happened to him during this period was the emergence of comic book fandom – which is why and how I met him.

Having discovered that Otto Binder lived in the town next to where I lived in New Jersey, I arranged to visit him in 1964. Soon after the first visit, I was a regular visitor to his home, which he always referred to as "the house that Captain Marvel built."

Otto and Ione, his wife, had a daughter, Mary, who was born in 1952, when Otto was already 40 years old. Mary was extremely pretty and remarkably nice. She never did anything with Otto and me, never attended a comic con, went into the city, or just talked. Named after Mary Marvel, she was the center of her parents' universe. Being as dorky as a young teen could possibly be, I was very shy around her. She was always sweet, going out of her way to talk to me. It was a little odd: I remember the house as dark, Otto working all the time, Ione in the background, but Mary was a ray of light. Smiling, always with friends over or waiting to go out, she seemed to live in almost a different world from the one her parents lived in.

More often than not, when I arrived at the house (mostly on Saturdays but sometimes on Sundays), Otto would be working. I would hang out all afternoon reading Golden Age comics, pulp magazines, and old fanzines until he finished working. Then we'd talk, often for hours. Whatever I'd just read would be the starting point; he filled in the background and detailed context, creating a sense of the life he had been leading at the time. Stories would range from tales of the great SF fan wars of the Thirties to anecdotes about writers to memories of what it was like at his brother Jack's shop or working at Fawcett.

There are at least two more parts to this series, though one will probably end up online only. The ending of this story goes from bad to worse, from the truly tragic to the even more painfully so.

(Although my writing on Otto Binder is largely autobiographical, as well as supplemented by notes I took at the time and letters from Otto, crucial to it and to any writing on Binder is Bill Schelly's magnificent biography Worlds of Wonder.)

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Austin smoking ban, Otto Binder, Marvel comics, Fawcett

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