Page Two: Oh, Death
Remembering the late Steve Levitan, and a long-ago afternoon with him boxing Wendell Crowley's comics collection
By Louis Black, Fri., March 25, 2016
Won't you spare me over 'til another year
Well what is this that I can't see
With ice cold hands takin' hold of me
Well I am death, none can excel
I'll open the door to heaven or hell
– "Oh, Death (Traditional)" as rendered by Dock Boggs
After the Texas Film Awards on Thursday, March 10, we threw a little party at our home to honor Michael Barker, co-head of Sony Pictures Classics, a dear friend who had been inducted into the Texas Film Hall of Fame that evening. During the party, Dan Braun of Submarine (producer's rep company that handled 20 Feet From Stardom, Searching for Sugar Man, Mavis!, and Citizenfour) gave me a very special present. America's Greatest #5, an omnibus comic from Fawcett that featured the comic book company's biggest stars: Captain Marvel, Spy Smasher, and Bulletman.
When I was 14 I met Otto Binder, who lived in Englewood, the town next to the one where I grew up in New Jersey. Binder wrote comics for close to three decades, authoring scripts for dozens of characters. The first time I visited him he lent me America's Greatest #1 and #5.
The gift was deeply moving. Especially significant was that it came from the Wendell Crowley collection. There was a note of authenticity attached, "This document certifies that America's Greatest is from the collection of Wendell Crowley, the former editor of Fawcett publications. Crowley saved, approximately, two copies of each book published from the Fawcett Company. This collection was purchased by Bechara Maalouf of Nostalgic Investments."
Two copies of each Fawcett publication barely begins to cover it. I know because sometime in 1967 I helped box the collection up in Wendell Crowley's mother's attic.
Otto had called to ask if Steve Levitan, one of my closest friends, and I would go over to Mrs. Crowley's house on a Saturday to help box up his comic book collection that had been there, largely untouched, since Fawcett had gone out of business in 1953. We of course said yes. At the time there were precious few reproductions of Golden Age comics outside of those in Jules Feiffer's seminal book, The Great Comic Book Heroes.
We had no idea. Crowley had gone to work at Fawcett as an editor in around 1942. There along with artist C.C. Beck and writer Otto Binder they helped mold Captain Marvel, one of the greatest comic book characters of the Golden Age. Early on after the Captain's introduction, National Periodicals, home of Superman, sued Fawcett claiming plagiarism. The suit dragged on for more than a decade. After the comic book business deteriorated in the early Fifties, Fawcett, which may well have eventually won, instead conceded, folding its comic book line. The towering, over-6-foot-tall Crowley, who had loved working at Fawcett, joined his family's lumber business, where he unhappily worked until his untimely death almost two decades later.
When he went to work at Fawcett, Crowley not only brought home two copies of every Fawcett comic published, but also bought at least one copy of every other comic published during those years. When we went there the collection had been in the attic untouched for over a dozen years.
The comic books were in neat stacks, in rows all across the floor, each title having its own stack. Stacks everywhere, not just Fawcett titles, though all of those: Whiz, Wow, Captain Marvel, Captain Marvel Jr., and Master. But there was also All Star, All Flash, Action, Detective, Smash, Captain America, All Winners, Sensation, and Black Hood. All the early EC titles, along with many books from the smaller publishers, were spread before us. It was beyond fantasy, an Uncle Scrooge vault of all in color for a dime publications.
But it wasn't just comic books. There were stacks of daily comic strips Crowley had collected, as well as large poster board maps of places like Captain Marvel Jr.'s hometown as references for the creative team so they were consistent as to how it was portrayed. There were also color proofs for different comic books covers including Radar #1, a comic I think was never published. The international detective appeared mostly in Master.
We spent the day boxing thousands of comic books. The collection went to Phil Seuling. I've never been sure of what happened to it, but in recent years it has emerged for sale as a pristine and legendary collection.
When Dan gave me the book I was so deeply touched and moved. Thoughts of my childhood and that remarkable day flooded my memory.
Then, as soon as I was alone, I started sobbing. Almost uncontrollably. Because I fully remembered that day and it came home, after marveling over the beauty of the comic, who had been there working with me.
Steve Levitan died while boating in San Diego on March 8. He had cardiac arrest, fell in the water, and drowned. Two days before, I was given a comic book that we had boxed almost a half century before.
Henry Gonzalez died on Feb. 29. John Morthland on March 8. Louis Jay Meyers on March 11. Jim Yanaway on March 13.
It was the best of South by Southwests. It was the worst of South by Southwests.
Rest in peace, Stevie Levitan! I love you so.
This week's cover story is on Graham Reynolds and his partner Shawn Sides. Reynolds scored Richard Linklater: dream is destiny, the documentary that I co-produced and co-directed with Karen Bernstein. Every time I watch even a bit of the film, some new aspect of the brilliance of his score leaps out at me. In a powerfully unique way, it is the musical score that delivers the finished film. Graham Reynolds certainly brought ours home.