There’s been a lot of talk about DC Comics leaving New York City for California next year—and it really is a huge shift, since the comic book business was born in New York and has been so completely shaped by its city from the start—so a while ago my old colleague Bob Greenberger was soliciting memories of DC’s Midtown offices from old-timers for his blog. He was kind enough to ask me, and I really wanted to participate. Unfortunately I was “overwhelmed by work” (i.e. managing my time badly) so I missed his deadline, but it all got me looking back on my first major experience with the DC offices. Which was, in some ways, my first real experience with New York.
It was the spring of 1984, I was 26 years old, and I was researching The Comic Book Heroes, a book Will Jacobs and I were writing for Crown Publishers. Book-length comics histories were rare enough then that just about everybody in the business was willing to drop everything for an hour or two to talk to me, and I’d arranged several interviews at DC, then in the shiny aluminum building at 666 Fifth Avenue, corner of 52nd Street.I’m not one of these people who grew up on Julie’s comics (I’d been a Stan Lee loyalist as a kid and saw no point in learning the names of anyone at the competition), but in my rediscovery of comics as an adult I’d fallen in love with the precise craftsmanship and ingenious whimsy of his Flash, Adam Strange, and Green Lantern, and as a nascent comics historian I knew that he was a very big deal in the development of the form.
I’d been to New York a couple of times as a tourist (and at seventeen even visited the Marvel offices as a fan), but I’d never been to the city on business, never spent time there, never gotten under its carapace. This time I went out to lunch and dinner with Crown staffers as one of “their writers,” and the next day I walked into 666 Fifth with an appointment. The sheer urbanness and grownupness of the whole thing was thrilling and intimidating, never mind the fact that I was going to meet Julius Schwartz Himself.
I was also a quietly alienated son of the California suburbs of the 1970s, and I couldn't help feeling as though New York City was the real America, and the people who had lived through the ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s were the real adults, and very little could be realer or more American or just generally, cosmically above me than me than an old Jewish guy in Manhattan who helped create the comic book business. Which made it a very big deal when he not only let me sit in his office and ask him all kinds of questions about his life and career but then actually invited me to lunch.
So there I am eating a pastrami sandwich in the delicatessen on the ground floor of the 666 Fifth building. Not a very good delicatessen (even I can tell that), and everybody who works there is either Chinese or Puerto Rican (none of the old Warner Brothers character actors who would have been spouting weisenheimer dialogue in the delicatessen of my imagination). But still. It’s a delicatessen. In New York. With Julius Schwartz.He asks what I’ve been doing in town, and I tell him I’ve gone to some restaurants and I heard some jazz at the Village Vanguard, and he starts talking about the jazz he used to listen to, mentions how he and his friend John Broome (my heart skips a beat) used to go to nightclubs to hear a guy named Maxie Kaminsky. And I say, “Oh yeah, Max Kaminsky. The trumpeter.” And he says, “You don’t know who Maxie Kaminsky was.” And I say, “Yeah, I do. Well, I don’t know him well. But I’ve heard some of his stuff with the Dorsey band.”
Then suddenly, impossibly, Julie Schwartz is impressed with me. Or, if not impressed, then at least curious and affectionately amused in that way that’s almost the same as impressed. I say “impossibly” because this was not a calculated moment. I did have some general awareness that he was a Dixieland jazz fan, but that sounded so cornball, it hadn’t occurred to me that he could have been one of those hepcats following hot-swing-cum-early-jazz-revivalists like Max Kaminsky. Or Bobby Hackett or Jack Teagarden or the other musicians I mentioned to keep that affectionately amused smile on his face.
That happened to be one of my geeky things at the time, swing music and its offshoots. Just the night before my girlfriend and I had gone to the Rainbow Room to hear Sy Oliver (who used to arrange for the Dorsey band around the same time Max Kaminsky was cutting his few sides with them). That had been a lot of fun, but we were still outsiders, young tourists who paid for one of those souvenir photos they insist on taking of out-of-town rubes. But today I was sitting in a delicatessen with a cool old Jewish guy (the cool old Jewish guy of all cool old Jewish guys) talking about Max (I wouldn’t presume to call him Maxie) Kaminsky and his hot horn in the late-night sessions at Jimmy Ryan’s club—which, I happened to know, had been right there on 52nd Street, less than a block away from where we were sitting.
We went back up to his office, and I got back to the business of asking him questions about comics, but it felt different than before. I felt like I belonged there somehow, in a way I hadn’t before. And just a few minutes later, a young guy popped in, gushing enthusiastically about some project he was working on, clearly enjoying Schwartz’s attention. Julie asked me, “Do you know Frank Miller?” Which I certainly did, by name. Frank was the hot writer and artist of the moment, finishing up Ronin, rumored to be starting on some thrilling new rendition of Batman. But he was also, at least it seemed to me, another guy my age, also from somewhere less interesting or less real than New York, still excited to feel like he belonged in the DC offices talking to Julius Schwartz.
Julie introduced me as an author of a book about modern comics, Frank gave me his phone number and told me to call him if I had any questions. And it was right then, in the presence of Julie Schwartz, Frank Miller, and Maxie Kaminsky, that I knew I'd be coming back to those offices soon enough; and that, one way or another, I wouldn't be coming back as a tourist.