Jeffty Is Five

I first met Harlan Ellison in 1977. It was a Friday afternoon in late summer. He was in town for a while, staying at Spinrad’s apartment.  I had recently been promoted to Editor of Starlog magazine, and I was there to meet and interview Harlan for a feature story.

My wife’s family had a house out in Ocean Beach, Fire Island. On summer Fridays I would cut out of work a bit early to catch the Long Island Railroad train to the beach. Knowing this, I had made my appointment to meet Harlan, where he was staying, at about three o’clock. That would give me plenty of time to do the interview, get to Penn Station, and catch the train to the Island in time for

Friday night dinner with the whole family. It did not work out that way.

Harlan and I hit it off immediately. I was a huge fan of his work, of course, which made it easier. And one of his good friends was a young writer he was mentoring, David Gerrold, who had a column in my magazine. So we were both pretty comfortable with the situation. And we schmoozed. I got about an hour and a half on tape, and a bunch of photographs. I looked at my watch. That proved to be a mistake. “You got somewhere to go, Zimmerman?”

I explained about Friday night family dinner. Harlan started to walk me to the door but changed his mind. “Say, can I read you something?”

Sure, waddaya’ got?

Harlan says, “I have just finished writing the best short story of my life. It’s going to win all the awards. Can I read you some?”

Of course. But after he had read two pages, I glanced at my watch again. Harlan took it as a challenge. I tried to excuse myself, telling him when the train departed and how long it would take to get from here to there. Again, Harlan walked to the door. This time, however, he took a chair with him and placed it in front of the door, facing me. And sat in it. “There’s not that much more,” he said. And proceeded to finish reading to me the final draft of Jeffty Is Five. Needless to say, I missed dinner that night.

My wife was miffed, but what could I do? I couldn’t have moved Harlan away from that door with a crowbar. (Did I mention that he was taking martial arts instruction from Bruce Lee at the time?)

Anyway, Jeffty Is Five was published in one of the genre fiction mags a little while later. It was nominated for awards, and it won awards. The Hugo for Best Short Story of the Year, voted upon by sci-fi fandom. The Nebula for Best Short Story of the Year, voted upon by the community of professional science-fiction writers. And, eventually, the Locus Readers Poll for Best Short Story of All Time.

And I had heard it first—from the author’s mouth.  Whether I’d wanted to or not.

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Ellison, Star Wars, and Me

So there I am, walking the floor of a major science-fiction convention in a New York City hotel, circa 1980. Back in the day, comic books and artwork and merchandise were always part of any con. I was the editor in chief of Starlog magazine and a guest of the convention.

Harlan Ellison was in the city then, probably staying with Norman Spinrad, or at least using Spinra’d’s Greenwich Village apartment. (Norman may have been in Europe at the time.) Harlan had a monthly column in Starlog, and we had become friendly colleagues, on the way to becoming actual friends.

So Harlan and I are walking across the main convention floor looking at comics, licensed toys and other merch, sci-fi memorabilia, etc. Harlan was hunting for a specific Star Wars action figure. One company had put out a couple dozen of them at high quality. Harlan was always an inveterate collector, and one with discerning taste. So we’re looking at dealers’ tables for whichever one he needed. Couldn’t find it.

But at the back end of the room was a major dealer, with three tables worth of SW stuff. And yes—he had the specific series Harlan was collecting. And even better, he had the very one Harlan needed. BUT, it was not on the tabletop. So he looked in the boxes beneath his table. Not there. He realized it had to be in his room, upstairs. He asked if he could have his assistant watch the booth while he ran upstairs for the action figure: would Harlan mind waiting? Harlan did not mind; he was delighted to have found a dealer who had what he was after.

So were’ standing at the guy’s table, chatting and waiting for him to return. A couple of fans walked by, slowed down as they approached us, began looking at the table, and just stayed there. This was a slow process, but about ten minutes later, we looked up to see a semi-circle of fans around us, about a dozen deep. I was a bit uncomfortable; Harlan was used to it.

We ignored them and continued talking. Then, one brave fan stepped forward from the group, and politely as he could, interrupted us. I took a step back, certain he would thrust out some book of Harlan’s for an autograph. And he did thrust something out, but it was a magazine. In fact, it was the latest copy of Starlog, and he was interested in my autograph. I was surprised and a bit embarrassed. I asked if the young man recognized the person I was speaking with. He did not. I was dumbfounded . . . and sure that Harlan would take his head off for interrupting us. Or for wearing the color red, or whatever. (Harlan used to be famous for going off on pros and fans alike.)

But Harlan took two steps back, made a “by-your-leave” gesture with his hand, and provided a pen for me to sign with. When I finished signing, it was like a dam broke, as at least a dozen of the other fans who’d been watching came forward waving stuff for autographs—Starlog stuff, for me to sign. Fortunately, the dealer arrived back at the table a couple of minutes later. Harlan bought his action figure, I signed a couple more mags, and off we went.

I began to apologize to Harlan for the rudeness and ignorance of the Starlog fans, and then saw he was trying hard not to laugh. He had enjoyed the whole scenario, happy not to be the one chased after, just this one time.

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The Height of Power

I am a short person. Not by choice, you understand. I come from a long line of short folks on both sides of the family. When fully grown, I reached the unassuming height of five foot eight inches. But when I was a kid, I was really small. When I danced with my mother at my Bar Mitzvah, she was taller than me. She was all of four foot ten.

In grade school, I was either in the first row first seat—assigned by height; or the last row, last seat—by alphabetical order.  Either way, it is an isolating position and not a whole lot of fun.

And so it is with a warm smile that I remember the time when I was the tallest guy in the room. Okay, not in the room, maybe. But in the group.

It was at a New York City convention–either a comic-con or a sci-fi con, circa 1980 (they say memory is the first thing to go, and they’re right).  I was the editor in chief of Starlog magazine, which at the time was a big deal. It was not only nationally distributed, it was sent around the world. And one Japanese company did an unlicensed knock-off using our trademarked logo.  They were so successful at cloning us and adding their own material, that instead of suing, my publisher offered them a sweetheart license for Starlog Japanese. But I digress. . . .


Ed Naha

Harlan Ellison

Ron Goulart

I was in the company of giants. Okay . . . not physical giants, but men of stature in their chosen fields of endeavor. I was walking across the convention floor with a bunch of guys I knew and respected: my ace interviewer at Starlog and future Hollywood screenwriter, Ed Naha, and award-winning authors, Harlan Ellison, and Ron Goulart. And yes, halfway across the floor I realized that I could see over the heads of the entire group. I was the tallest guy among us. It was unique. It was intoxicating. It made me feel . . . oh, I dunno . . . gigantic.

There are two stories from this convention that I’d like to tell; one that focuses on Harlan Ellison, and one that’s specific to Ray Harryhausen.  So . . . stay tuned.

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Comic Con 2013

The New York Comic Con at the Javitz Convention Center just keeps getting bigger and bigger. The good news is that the show gets better organized each year, and though there were just as many people attending as do the San Diego Con, you could get around much better. The main aisles have been made wider, which is terrific. And this convention has yet to be taken over by the movie industry, which is wonderful.

But it is not run by “comics people,” and I heard several small retailers—those from shops as well as artist and writers—complaining about how proper services were not provided. Some of this, of course, happens at every large convention, and NYCC is no exception.

There are now officially a bajillion entrepreneurs in the comics biz, many with but a single product or comic book to sell, and the variety of merchandise for sale was really interesting. I spent some time at the Starwarp Concepts table of Steven A. Roman–comic book writer, novelist, editor, and pop-cultural expert. Steve is hawking his latest graphic collection of stories about his angst-ridden teenage heroine, Pandora Zwieback, who is afflicted with “monster vision,” which allows her to see through the human disguises of non-human creatures. Oh, and her mentor is a drop-dead gorgeous 400-year-old monster-fighting succubus. Yes, Pan is just a typical teen, trying her best to grow up and get by without having to kill too many creatures.

At the Starwarp table was Steve’s guest, cover artist extraordinaire Bob Larkin. (That’s Bob with the beard, me with the glasses.) Bob’s cover work for Marvel in particular is iconic and graces such titles as The Savage Sword of Conan, Spider-Man, The Hulk, The Punished, Doctor Strange, Tomb of Dracula, etc. etc. etc. Sal Q. productions has an excellent volume out on The Savage Art of Bob Larkin.

Although there was much programming about how schools and libraries are buying and broadening the market for curriculum-related graphic materials—from adaptations of classic fiction stories to graphic biographies to volumes on science, history, etc.—there was not a large presence of non-superhero stuff on the convention floor, and very little graphic nonfiction in evidence. Although, clearly this wasn’t the crowd for it, as cosplay seemed to be the overwhelming choice of many convention-goers. Costumes ranged from classic superheroes to newer anti-heroes; science-fiction movie and TV heroes; monsters and horror, and walking dead-related dark fantasy characters. (I went as a much-older version of myself.)

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Darth Vader and Me

Back in the day, when I was editor in chief of Starlog magazine, we did extensive coverage of all “star-related” things, especially Trek and Wars. We covered Star Wars from the time the first movie was in early production. We interviewed everyone; we covered the special effects; we revealed that R2-D2 was both a robot and a man in a machine.



In issue number 23, we featured an exclusive interview with David Prowse, the British body-builder, weightlifter and actor who portrayed Darth Vader in the first three films. He’s a really good-natured kind of guy and was happy to come up to the Starlog office when he hit Manhattan. In one of my back-of-the-issue editorials there is a photo of David and me engaged in an arm wrestle. Of course, we didn’t actually arm wrestle—he would have torn my arm right off my body.

Prowse was excited about the first movie’s reception and eagerly anticipating the release of The Empire Strikes Back. But he was crushed that George Lucas had chosen another actor to voice the roll that Prowse was in the process of making famous. Obviously, James Earl Jones did a wonderful, iconic job with the voice. But according to Prowse, Lucas had promised him that his own voice would be used, and that, ultimately, when Vader was unmasked, he would be inside the suit. So you can imagine his angst when Return of the Jedi came out and another actor was used in the unmasking scene.

He has been complaining about this ever since, to the point where apparently Lucas—or whoever makes these decisions for George—has Prowse banned from appearing at any and all official Star Wars conventions. Ouch! So this has gone from “famous feud” to an apparent act of revenge. Kind of ironic. You see, the third film was originally entitled Revenge of the Jedi, but George changed it because he realized that the Jedi did not engage in revenge—they were above that kind of petty behavior.

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The Magic of Graphic Storytelling

It’s an exciting time for Z File, as we’ve just signed contracts with two new clients, North River Press and Zenith Press, and will be producing new nonfiction graphic novels for them.

The success of graphic nonfiction has been an eye-opener to traditional book publishers, and we’ve shown that it’s possible to produce entertaining and informative graphic works on just about anything: Evolution, Health Care Reform, The Vietnam War. Now we’re going to be doing a graphic adaptation of one of the most successful and important books on business analysis and plant management ever published. It is The Goal, by the late Eliyahu Goldratt, in print for over twenty-five years and now in its third updated edition. With over 5 million copies in print in 30 languages, it is considered as important an analysis tool today as when it was first conceived.

In a recent interview published by CNN, CEO Jeff Bezos said that when he takes his senior executive staff on business retreats, they spend a week reading and discussing three books. And, you guessed it, The Goal is one of those three.

Taking on the script adaptation is longtime Z File friend, freelance author Dwight Jon Zimmerman. (No—we’re still not related.) Doing the art, lettering and design is another old friend, comics genius and the father of “Mr. X,” Dean Motter. The work of Zimmerman and Motter has garnered many award nominations—and some actual awards—over the years.

As the ink is still drying on the contracts, it will be a while before we have anything to show or tease you with. But sometime in 2015 the book will be available in both print and electronic formats.

Our other new client is Zenith Press, a smallish house located in Minneapolis. They have commissioned a 96-page history of . . . wait for it . . . AREA 51. No, not the Roswell “cover-up.” Not alien spaceships nor recovered alien beings. The actual secret history of America’s most important base for testing and developing new aircraft. From the U-2 and SR-71 blackbird spy planes to the F-117 attack/fighter and B-2 stealth bomber, all of  the newest, cutting edge craft are tested out there in the Nevada desert.

Fantastic illustrator Greg Scott, who has worked for both Marvel Comics and DC Comics, gives us a realistic portrayal of the men and their visionary machines, while Dwight Zimmerman once again gets to regale us with his knowledge of formerly classified military history as scripter.

More on both as things develop.

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R.I.P. Frederick Pohl

The future died two days ago, with the passing of science-fiction giant and legend Frederick Pohl.

Pohl was the last of the original Futurians, the direct link back to Hugo Gernsback and the beginnings of American science fiction. He was part of the first sci-fi fan club. And he and his friends held the first actual science-fiction convention, in New York City. While still a teenager, Pohl was agenting stories written by his friends to the sci-fi pulp magazines. He sold Isaac Asimov’s first novel, A Pebble in the Sky. He was a fan and a professional, and his group of friends included the original royalty of science fiction: Isaac Asimov, James Blish, Cyril M. Kornbluth, Damon Knight, Donald A. Wollheim, Hannes Bok, and Judith Merril.

Pohl wrote stories of dystopias and of human nature—fallible, corruptible, selfish, unmindful of history’s lessons. He wrote fiction and nonfiction; he was a great agent; he was an even better editor; and he kept up his friendships with his teenage pals, all of whom had grown up to create modern American science fiction in the first half of the 20th century.

William Gibson said not too long ago, when asked why he no longer chose to write genre books or label his work as science fiction, that “the future is already here. It’s just unevenly distributed.” Gibson is one of the new generation of “senior” writers in the field of science fiction, regardless of the labels applied to his work. And he’s right about the uneven distribution of technology and the access to it. His latest works explore the potential of what has already been invented.

But back in the 1920s and 1930s, the future seemed to be all ahead of us, just waiting to be molded into real form. Fred Pohl and his fellow Futurians allowed us to see visions of that future—the good, the bad, and the awful; the potential pitfalls and ultimate triumphs.

Long live the Futurians—we shall never see their like again.

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The Sci-Fi Explosion

The late 1970s and early 1980s saw the greatest explosion of science fiction since the 1940s, when the genre had found its first audience here in America. In 1977, Starlog magazine published a preview of an upcoming new space-opera that was causing a buzz, a little thing called Star Wars. It was followed by the first Superman movie and the first Star Trek motion picture, and Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Ridley Scott brought us Alien in 1979 and Blade Runner in 1982.  This last one was adapted from a Philip K. Dick story. Science-fiction film had come of age.

And Starlog magazine grew with the field. It went from a one-shot special to a quarterly frequency, to six times a year, to a monthly, in very short order. The mag’s circulation was going through the roof. We routinely sold 150,000 to 200,000 copies an issue, with special issues doing twice that amount.

My publishers knew what this meant: it was time to take some of that money and invest it in expansion. We got bigger offices. And more staff. And in 1982, we began another pop-cultural periodical, Comics Scene magazine.

As editor in chief, I was sent to do some interviews to jumpstart the publication. I went out to California and met with Burne Hogarth, Jack Katz, and Jack Kirby. Katz had what today would be called an “indie” publication. It was a sci-fi/fantasy series called The First Kingdom. Intricately layered, it laid the groundwork for many crossover series and books to come. Hogarth was already a god of American illustration. He did the hugely popular and incredibly beautiful Tarzan newspaper strip, dailies and the full-color Sunday pages. He also had helped found New York’s School of Visual Arts. He also taught illustration, and his guidebooks, such as Dynamic Light and Shadow, are still used today.

And then there was Kirby. Right behind Asimov, or perhaps side-by-side, this man was the major god in my own pantheon. And he, too, was a bona fide genius. I was fortunate enough to spend the day with him and his wife Roz, a wonderful bright, upbeat and totally dedicated partner to Jack, who she referred to as “Kirby”—although she of course knew that wasn’t his real name. A lot of young, talented Jewish kids had changed their names in the 1930s and 1940s to make them sound more American, and so Jack’s professional name was transformed from Katzenberg to Kirby.

Jack had already left Marvel by that time, and was feuding with DC as well. His “Fourth World” comics had been brilliant, but they had all ultimately been canceled by DC. Now, Jack was doing his own thing with smaller, independent houses that actually allowed creators to continue to own their titles and the rights to their work. To say that he was bitter about the way he’d been treated in the industry does not do justice to his inner rage.

But he channeled his frustrations into new energy, creating new worlds, new characters, and new comics titles.

I had a great time during that trip and came away with forever memories of meeting men whom I greatly admired. The original Comics Scene only had a two-year run, but it was great to have had the experience.

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The first project I did with Byron Preiss was called ”The Bank Street Collections.” They were four paperback anthologies filled with graphic adaptations of genre stories—science fiction, horror, mystery, and fantasy—that were produced in conjunction with the Bank Street College of Education and were designed to be used in classrooms. It was a fun and challenging project, and as far as I know, the anthologies are still being used in schools today.

I worked with talented editors at Bank Street who were award-winning authors and artists in their own right. One was Seymour Reit (who, among other things, created Casper the Friendly Ghost) and another was Barbara Brenner (a “Connecticut Science Writer of the Year” award-winner).

A few years later, I did series of science mid-grade primers, again with Bank Street, and again Barbara Brenner was the main author. One of the titles was a tour of the solar system, introducing young readers to the Solar Family (planets, moons, comets, asteroids, etc.).  In the manuscript draft for this one, there was an egregious error. Rather than inform the author immediately, I waited until we had our scheduled meeting in her office to review the manuscripts for all four of the science titles she was writing.

When we got to the solar system, I had a variety of questions and edits, and we reviewed them together, but I saved the biggest error for last. When we were almost done, I asked Bobbi to look at a specific paragraph on a specific page, and to read it out loud.

In it was a passing reference to “the seven planets in our solar system.” I stopped the author and asked her to reread that sentence, which she did, but still did not notice the error. Finally I had to say, “But Bobbi, there are nine planets in the solar system!”

Her response was anything but what I would have expected. She wasn’t so much embarrassed as confused, when she said, “But I got it from Asimov.”

Indeed. She reached back to a bookshelf behind her and took out one of Asimov books on basic astronomical science. She flipped through it, found the dog-eared page she wanted, and gave me the book. And sure enough, there it was.

Yes, Asimov was only as good as his editors.

The coda to this story is a few years after that, at some publishing event, I met the editor who had worked on the volume. I told him the story, and he confessed that it was his screw-up. I asked him why it hadn’t been corrected? The book was in something like it’s kajillionth printing. The bottom line was that the book was still making “X” amount of dollars every year, and if they fixed it there would be a one-time extra production fee, their profit on the title for that year would drop, and he would look bad.

Of course if they had changed “seven planets” to “nine planets,” it would have had to be changed once again when Pluto was demoted to mini-planet status.

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As I was saying. . . .

My first assignment as an assistant editor at Starlog Magazine was to edit an essay by the great Isaac Asimov on the possibility of actual faster-than-light travel. I read through its 5 or 6 typewritten pages, made some notes, and went back to my publisher.

He approved the edits. Then I told him I had a list of questions for Dr. A. “Great,” said the publisher. “Here’s his number—call him.”

Big gulp. Hear racing, I dialed his number (and  yes, it was a rotary phone).  I introduced myself to Asimov, “Howard Zimmerman, assistant editor at Starlog,” and told him I had some questions about his essay. “Shoot,” he said.

I read him the first one. He wrote blah-blah-blah, but my research says it was actually yadda-yadda-yadda. “Fine. Make the change,” he replied. I moved down the list. But not too far, because when I got to item three, Asimov said, “You said you were an assistant editor over there, right?” I confirmed that was correct.

“Good,” said Asimov. “Then edit.” And he hung up.

Over the following years and decades, I had the opportunity to work with Asimov several times, both at Starlog and at Byron Preiss Visual Publications. And he told me his dirty little secret.

“Howard, I never rewrite. Anything. I have no time. Therefore, I am only as good as my editors, and I depend on them to make sure I don’t look foolish in print.”

Asimov still holds the record for most books written in the English language (it’s in Guinness, you could look it up). He never worked on fewer than four or five things at once, usually including at least two books he was writing simultaneously. So he famously never wrote a second draft. Of anything.

And he was indeed as good as his editors’ skills would allow.  There is more to this story. . .

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