Book Review: Otto Binder
The Life and Work of a
Comic Book and Science Fiction Visionary
by Bill Schelly
North Atlantic Books, 2016
Words of Wonder, Bill Schelly’s 2003 biography of semi-legendary comic book industry hack Otto Binder, now gets a spiffy new reprint from North Atlantic Books, so that a wider audience might thrill to the exploits of this indefatigable storyteller. Biographies like this – so improbable and yet so fascinating – are always an encouraging sign that at least a few young readers out there eventually grow up to become writers who remember how much they owe to typewriter-jockeys like Binder, who came up with ten great bad ideas before breakfast every weekday and in the process created much of the background greenery of an entire genre. Binder dressed neatly, showed up for work on time, had a ready smile for everybody, and never forgot that his main job in putting Superman or Captain Marvel through their paces was to entertain. Not everybody can be a goggle-eyed and off-putting genius like Frank Miller or Alan Moore, and Otto Binder: The Life and Work of a Comic Book and Science Fiction Visionary reminds readers that not everybody would want to be either.
Schelly strikes his clear, admiring tone early in the proceedings:
He had been one of the most prolific writers of comics not for fame or glory, but to put food on the table. In two of his three decades in that industry, he had composed some 2,227 comic book stories (and had the records to prove it). He’d produced comics scripts that became classics of the medium. Who knew they would be remembered by so many, not just by kids but by a surprisingly large number of older teenagers and adults?
He gives a quick sketch of Binder’s early life and then moves on to the book’s main preoccupation, Binder’s endless hustling in the comic book and pulp magazine worlds where, for a few booming decades, a fast writer of catchy prose could make a fairly decent living, provided that writer was willing to take every job, make every deadline, forego luxuries, and toil under pseudonyms. And Binder was everywhere in that four-color world: he was the chief writer for Fawcett Comics for thirteen years, writing hundreds of adventures for Captain Marvel and his steadily-increasing cast of friends, family, and foes (Binder helped to create quite a few of all three categories, including super-powered Mary Marvel, whose saucy quips still crack smiles today); he wrote on Superman in the 1950s and ’60s, creating or co-creating such now-iconic concepts as Brainiac, Supergirl, the Legion of Super-Heroes, and Krypto the Super-Dog; he was the editor of Space World magazine, a doomed venture and inevitable future collector’s item.
Schelly is just restrained from hero worship throughout the narration of these heady backstage adventures, and whenever the setbacks of Binder’s life or career force him to set out blunt facts, he nevertheless manages to invest them with something of the Binder narrative zest just the same, as when noting that even as late as 1959, Binder seemed to have no savings to speak of:
What had happened to all the money he’d earned in Captain Marvel’s heyday? Binder himself wondered where it had gone. Taxes had taken much of it, of course, and he had been sending regular checks to Mother Binder all through the years. He also spent freely on his daughter (ballet lessons, music lessons, et al.) and paid for the upkeep of his son Robert, which was expensive. In a later story, Binder puts words in a character’s mouth that could easily have come from his own: “Money! The magic key to the good life! But it only passes through my hands!”
The end of the tale can’t possibly match the effervescent enthusiasm of its beginning, of course. Binder’s later life was marked not only by tragedy – the death of his beloved daughter in a freak traffic accident, from which neither Binder nor his wife ever really recovered – but by the quieter disappointments of a changing world. Schelly is kind but clear about Binder’s unlikely attempt to return to the comics industry in 1964:
Changes had come with startling rapidity, largely a result of the new breed of comics being published by Marvel (formerly Timely Comics). Stan Lee had introduced heroes quite out of the DC or Fawcett mold. These new heroes – Fantastic Four, Spider-Man, Iron Man – weren’t magical beings or visitors from another planet. They were more or less average people who had had heroism thrust upon them. They were imperfect heroes with problems and hang-ups. Marvel comics were both more psychologically interesting and more action-packed than those of DC.
“Otto Binder, now fifty-two, was many things,” Schelly writes, “but ‘hip’ was not one of them.”
Through novels and writing projects and illness and yet more hustling, Schelly follows his hero to the end, noting with characteristic generosity that “holding on to his essential self in the face of everything was a significant personal triumph.” A triumph of a different sort, but no less significant, is this biography of a gaudy, reliable unsung creator of the 20th century.