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to Section One | to Arts & Entertainment
posted Friday, April 13, 2018 - Volume 46 Issue 15
Seattle comic book fan and gay author Bill Schelly
Arts & Entertainment
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Seattle comic book fan and gay author Bill Schelly

by Chuck O'Donnell - Special to the SGN

SENSE OF WONDER:
MY LIFE IN COMIC FANDOM -
THE WHOLE STORY
BY BILL SCHELLY
NORTH ATLANTIC BOOKS


Bill Schelly was a confused and lonely kid in the 1960s when being gay was considered a mental illness, and the fear of being ostracized - or worse - forced him to harbor his secret well into his teens.

He found solace in the pages of comic books and the burgeoning world of comic book fandom inhabited by others whose common love of Spandex-clad supermen superseded such things as race, religion and, to Schelly's astonishment, sexual orientation.

He traces the secret origins of comic book fandom and how it helped save his life in his new book, Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom - The Whole Story.

The Seattle resident has evolved from fan to award-winning comic journalist over the past 50 years, but Sense of Wonder succeeds in capturing those days of his youth first in Pittsburgh and later in Idaho where he would create fanzines - homemade fan magazines replete with art work, reviews, opinion pieces and original superhero prose stories - and mail them to the other comic book fans across the country and around the world. They had all found each other after their home addresses were printed at the bottom of their missives in the letters columns in the pages of DC and Marvel comics.

Soon, Schelly was publishing several fanzines, including one called 'Sense of Wonder.' Sense of pride is what he got, considering his earliest dream was to write books and sell them at a street corner stand much in the way someone would sell freshly squeezed lemonade.

His fanzines attracted a large subscription-paying following and helped him connect with fellow fans of Batman, Spider-Man and other colorful heroes. It all happened through the miracle that is the United States Postal Service. They would not only trade fanzines, but also letters comparing printing techniques back when ditto and mimeograph machines were cutting-edge technology.

The kid who used to duck into the school library and wait for the bullies to go home after school had finally cultivated a trusted, albeit widespread, circle of friends. From a safe distance, they couldn't tell he was not athletic or not outgoing or not straight. They probably wouldn't have cared, anyway.

'It was a place where everybody was equal,' Schelly said. 'True, there were some people who were older who we would call the big-name fans. I wasn't a big-name fan; I was a little-name fan. But, I was allowed to sit at the table with everyone else and publish my own magazine and I was mailing it out and getting back coins from people who were ordering it. It was quite an amazing time.'

Sense of Wonder is an updated and expanded version of the book he published in 2001. That book ends with Schelly arriving in Seattle in 1974 straight from the campus of the University of Idaho. He came here looking for work and eager to immerse himself in the gay social scene. He boogied the nights away at Shelly's Leg and The Golden Horseshoe and he soaked in the social life on Capitol Hill. (When Schelly published the first version of his memoir in 2001 he didn't mention the fact that he is gay in any of the details in the book perhaps because he was working for the federal government at that time.)

Schelly returned to his writing roots in his forties and went on to write the definitive retrospectives of such luminary comic book figures as Otto Binder, Joe Kubert and John Stanley. His book, Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created MAD and Revolutionized Humor in America, earned him an Eisner Award - the comics industry's equivalent to the Oscars.

In his memoir, Schelly demonstrates a good sense of humor about churning out a series of books after 40:

I was a late bloomer. One day, fellow comics historian Michelle Nolan said after reading Man of Rock (about Joe Kubert), 'If you'd started writing when you were younger, Bill, you could have been a really fine writer.' After we both burst into laughter (because it hadn't come out quite the way she meant it), I had to say that I have no regrets about being a late bloomer. It's never too late to start. Frank McCourt didn't publish his first book - Angela's Ashes, which won a Pulitzer Prize - until he was sixty-six. Norman Maclean was seventy-four when he published his only novel, the best-selling A River Runs Through It. So, Michelle, who knows? Maybe there's still time for me to become 'a really fine writer.'

To be sure, the book is as much about how comic books and their heroes have helped shape his life as anything. A warm conversation with Jack Kirby, a scolding from Steve Ditko, a few encouraging words from Stan Lee - these brushes with comic book legends live in Schelly's heart.

So it should come as no surprise that the first two people Schelly came out to were fellow comic book fans. He mentioned it in letters he sent them. One of the pen pals never spoke to him again. The other, Mario, was, by chance, gay, too. And in a too-strange-for-comic-book-script twist, Mario would become Schelly's first love.

But beyond that, Sense of Wonder chronicles the inevitable highs and lows that life has wrought over his past 40-plus years in Seattle. There are loves found and loves lost. There's fruitless job searches and gainful employment. There's the joy that came with having two children with a lesbian couple and the grief that followed when cancer claimed the life of his son at age 20.

Through it all, Schelly, 66, who lives in the Lake City area, has maintained a sense of wonder - and by and large he has his dad to thank for that. In addition to everything else, Carl Schelly came through that fateful day at the train station in 1960 when young Bill first cast his eyes upon Giant Superman Annual No. 1.

Dad had already bought Schelly's brothers comics for a dime each. This Superman comic in Bill's eager hands was 25 cents. Dad hesitated, but finally plunked down the quarter.

'Writing this memoir did affect my feelings about my father,' Bill said. 'At a certain point, I felt like he wasn't that good of a father because he was rather distant. As I began to remember all the things he did for me, like buying me a set of oil paints when I was 10 or 11 and buying me my first comic book, which obviously had a big effect on me, and many other things he did, I realized I was wrong. I think he was a good father. I feel sad that I can't tell him that because he is no longer here.'

Sense of Wonder: My Life in Comic Fandom - The Whole Story by Bill Schelly (419 pages, North Atlantic Books, $25.95). For more information, log on to northatlanticbooks.com or billschelly.net

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Seattle comic book fan and gay author Bill Schelly
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