“Let me tell you a story.” At 91, comic book pioneer Allen Bellman has lived a colorful life, and if you give him a chance, he’ll tell you about all four colors of it.
Bellman is a guest at the Space City Comic Con in Houston this weekend, signing autographs and speaking of comic book days of yore. On Saturday, I moderated Bellman’s panel, and he was eager to talk about Marvel Comics’ Golden Age – something he was proud to see.
Here are the stories he had to tell.
Getting Introduced to Comics
Bellman remembers the day superheroes changed his life forever.
“I was in Junior high school and I had a thin dime in my pocket … I walked into there and I was going to buy a candy bar … and I see hanging from a wire, this guy in a blue uniform and his underwear picking up a car – and I bought it. That magazine today goes for millions of dollars.”
He no longer has the issue, of course, though his son Gary once claimed to have sold it by mistake as a child, Bellman said there wasn’t much thought into keeping comic books in the early days. “If my work didn’t appear in it, we threw it away.”
Then on Memorial Day – 74 years ago this weekend – Bellman saw an ad in the paper asking for artists to join this growing company called Timely. He figured he’d respond later, as he loved to draw, but his father made him apply immediately. That’s how 17-year-old Bellman got a job working at the company that would be Marvel.
Asked if Stan Lee – who also began working there as a teenager – was the same age, Bellman denied it. He’s not nearly as old as 93-year-old Stan Lee.
“No, no. He was a year and half older. 19-and-a-half, yeah,” Bellman explained. “He was a little kid, I was a little kid. He had his uncle Robbie, the brother-in-law to Martin Goodman. … Robbie was breaking him in, so Stan Lee walked behind him like a little puppy dog, but Robbie Solomon passed away at a very early age and nobody ever walked [in front of] Stan Lee again.”
Early work was done in the illustrator’s bullpen, an office full of superhero artists – Bellman mostly did backgrounds in the beginning.
“My first story was called the Patriot. He died as soon as the war ended.” Getting slightly choked up, Bellman said VE Day was an unforgettable moment. “We were overjoyed when the war was over. In the office we dropped everything, ran around, just hugging each other.”
It also meant the end of his new superhero gig. “They also dropped the Patriot. I don’t know, I guess it wasn’t time for a patriotic character, but Captain America lived on to today.”
Of course, in modern Marvel Comics, it’s been revealed that the Patriot went on to replace Steve Rogers as Captain America in the late 40s, and even married Captain America’s former girlfriend, Betsy Ross.
Race Wasn’t an Issue Because They Didn’t Know It Should Be
While Bellman fondly recalled superhero books like Young Allies, the first superhero team published by Marvel, he said characters like Whitewash Jones were a product of their time.
“It wouldn’t be permitted today. … He looks like an Afro-American? But, you created him as a caricature of African Americans, what can I say?”
This was a generation that read books like Little Black Sambo in primary school, Bellman explained, something that would be unheard of today.
“We had one black artist, Ray Holloway. He was a freelancer and he did a comic strip Scorchy Smith for the Associated Press,” he added. “There was no animosity against color. I never heard anybody say or use the N-word. Some guys were nasty, but, eh…” And with that, the subject changed.
The Animation Bullpen Was a Mad House
The Marvel Bullpen was long an iconic part of the company, and Bellman said he stuck to the illustrator’s bullpen, but the animator’s bullpen was, appropriately enough, where the craziest things happened.
“[Future Mad Magazine artist Al Jaffee] worked there with Ziggy Pig and Silly Seal, and they were a crazy bunch of guys. Al Jaffe, he used to like to walk in and give an illustrator a hot foot. What is a hot foot? He takes a match out of a match book. Creeps in under the desk, puts it under a guy’s shoe, and he lights it. That gave him his jollies.
“I met him recently and the first thing he said to my wife: I knew Allen when he was 18 years old. He had a good memory anyway.”
Then there was cartoonist Mike Sekowsky.
“Nasty disposition on the guy. And I never knew how he got his work done. … He was good, really great, but lousy attitude.”
Sekowsky worked next to Violet Barclay, who went to school with Bellman.
“She was a beautiful girl. I went to high school with her. And she used to stand on the steps, waiting for the bell at the High School for Industrial Arts, and she was like a goddess. … Somehow, there she was working for marvel, Timely comics. … Next to her was George Kline, a real debonair, handsome guy. Mike kind of suspected his girlfriend was too friendly with George Kline. He goes into Stan Lee’s office and says, ‘Stan, I want you to fire her, or I quit,’ so Stan Lee says ‘goodbye,’ and he goes back to his desk.”
Sekowsky didn’t quit, of course, so the three artists remained in Timely’s animator pool. With Barclay working less and less with Sekowsky, she agreed to go on a date with Bellman, much to his surprise.
“I had a date with her for coffee, and I had a date with who was [to become] my wife today, and I had to make the choice. I think I made the right choice,” he said, glancing toward his son Gary in the audience, “and I stood her up, and that’s not like me. … She passed away recently, but she was so beautiful.”
When the comic book industry collapsed in the 50s, many were worried about finding new jobs, but Sekowsky quickly became an animator in Hollywood.
“He got a job right away, he was good.”
When Comics Nearly Died, But Didn’t
“We had this crazy psychiatrist. … He wrote a book, Seduction of the Innocent,” Bellman said, referring to Fredric Wertham, whose anti-comics crusade nearly killed the industry. “Well, I tell ya, Stan Lee was already packing up to become a salesman. I was out. It was like the earth stood still in the comic book industry, and here I just met my second wife with no job. Oy.”
The industry stayed afloat thanks to the Comics Code Authority, which policed comic books and helped prevent complaints from detractors. Bellman didn’t care about the politics of it, he was just happy to have work again.
“Let them worry about that, not me. They gave me a script, I penciled and I inked it. That was my job.”
With superhero comics in decline since the War, and horror stories scarce after the CCA’s creation, Bellman found himself working on more mystery and western stories, even some sports comics.
“I did a baseball story. Whoever wrote it, they didn’t know anything about baseball. Once they take a player out, he’s out of the game. In this story, the manager brought the player back again, but I kept my mouth shut. Why go looking for trouble?”
This was also a time when freelancers worked from home instead of inside the physical bullpen. This meant Bellman could stay at home with this family in Long Island, instead of trekking to Manhattan daily. Of course, this led to new challenges.
“You see that guy over there?” he said, motioning toward his son Gary again. “He scribbled on my work … I walked out, you went in took a brush in ink … and I had to do that page all over again. But I forgive you.”
He was also offered a job at DC at one point, but declined.
“I gave it back. Why did I give it back? Stan Lee was keeping me busy working, and I was afraid if I took time out to work for another company he might’ve forgotten about me. You can’t dance at two weddings.”
Looking Back On a Changed Comic Book Industry
Bellman is happy he worked on Captain America, and other formative comics.
“Joe Simon and Jack Kirby deserve the honor of creating that character. With the movies, the comic books – it’s a revival. And they like us guys who were there in the 40s and 50s and 60s.”
Bellman joined Timely shortly after Joe Simon and Jack Kirby left the company in the 40s, and ended his time with Stan Lee’s crew shortly before Kirby’s work became the foundation for Marvel Comics.
“I only met Joe Simon once, in two-oh-seven,” he said. They were at an event celebrating comics’ history. “I said ‘Joe, thank you.’ He said, ‘for what?’ I said, ‘When you left Timely, you and Jack Kirby left an opening for me.’ He laughed, but you know, when another artist compliments another artist, it’s great. And Joe Simon liked my work.”
That acknowledgement by one of the most celebrated creators in comic book history is something that still chokes Bellman up. And it’s the kind of thing that keeps him coming to conventions.
He’ll be at Space City Comic Con today, and he’s excited to have been invited to San Diego Comic Con this year to help celebrate Captain America’s 75th anniversary.
“That’s the motivation. Money is secondary to me.”