Berkeley, California: North Atlantic Books, 2016; $19.95 tpb; 352 pages
Otto Binder is best known as one of the most prolific writers of comic books with over 3,000 stories written between 1938 and 1969, many of which chronicled the iconic superhero families of Captain Marvel and Superman. Many of those stories were firmly in the science fiction genre, including classic work for EC Comics, DC Comics, and others, and he began his writing career as one of the most prolific writers for the science fiction pulp magazines in the 1930s, returning often to science fiction in later decades up to his death in 1974. His most famous science fiction prose stories were the Adam Link series that began with “I, Robot” in 1939. (Many of his earliest stories were cowritten with his brother Earl and published under the joint pseudonym Eando Binder.) This comprehensive biography of Otto Binder by comic book historian Bill Schelly (with foreword by sf author Richard A. Lupoff) provides valuable information for fans and historians in the science fiction field as well as the comic book field.
Otto Binder: The Life and Work of a Comic Book and Science Fiction Visionary was mostly written more than a decade ago and is a corrected and updated version of Schelly’s self-published Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder. After Schelly’s massive biography of seminal comics artist and writer Harvey Kurtzman (Harvey Kurtzman: The Man Who Created Mad and Revolutionized Humor in America), it is safe to say that Bill Schelly is among the finest writers of biographies in the comics field. His signature ability is to illuminate the life as well as the work of his subjects, which he does extremely well in both the Kurtzman and Binder biographies.
Binder’s story provides many insights into the history of science fiction and comics as well as his own work. His greatest strength as a writer was the ability to channel his inner youth, writing in a mode that communicated a wide-eyed innocence that resonates with the 8-year-old in all of us. This was best exemplified in his Captain Marvel family comics in the 1940s through the early 1950s but can also be seen in his pulp science fiction stories. The most poignant moments of the Adam Link series are established by Binder’s ability to characterize the robot as a brilliant but innocent youth who must survive in an adult world he has difficulty understanding.
The most engaging parts of Schelly’s biography, however, involve the intimate aspects of Binder’s life, which are explicated in great depth through Schelly’s extensive research and willingness to search out those who knew the man. His life began in a family of German immigrants growing up in or near Chicago that struggled to make their way in a new land. He managed to make a living in the 1930s writing for the science fiction pulps and serving as a literary agent for other authors before discovering that writing for the nascent comic book industry was more lucrative. At the height of his success in comic books in the early 1950s, DC Comics’s lawyers, claiming that Captain Marvel infringed upon Superman, killed the Marvel family and with it, temporarily, Binder’s comics career. He sought to capture the public’s newfound interest in space by putting all of his savings into a new magazine called Space World that ended, as do most undercapitalized ventures, in failure. Failing to capture a sufficient audience with science, he turned to pseudoscience in the form of a series of moderately successful UFO books. Years of yearning for a child were finally fulfilled by the birth of a daughter in the early 1950s, only to have her tragic death at fourteen forever change his life. Recognition of his work by nascent comics fandom seems to have provided some solace for him. But for the rest of his life, he and his wife suffered from alcoholism and depression, especially his wife, whose mental illness became severe. Schelly chronicles all of these ups and downs in Binder’s life with great sensitivity, leaving nothing out. It is a biographical tour de force.
There are other incidents in the book that I found of particular interest, and others in the science fiction field might as well. Binder was very involved in science fiction fandom throughout the 1930s; it is there he met Julius Schwartz and Mort Weisinger, setting the stage for his later DC Comics writing. He traveled to both the East and West coasts to visit with sf fans of the day. Others he interacted with include a who’s who of 1930s fandom, including Forrest J. Ackerman and Sam Moskowitz as well as young writers such as Isaac Asimov, Ray Bradbury, Otis Adelbert Kline, Jack Williamson, L. Sprague de Camp, Frank Belknap Long, Edmond Hamilton (who like Binder left the sf pulps for comics), and Manly Wade Wellman. (Schelly provides many photographs in the book of Binder with various of these men.) Binder was one of many chosen by Schwartz and Weisinger to write a collaborative sf novel, Cosmos; some of the others were A. Merritt, Doc Smith, Ralph Milne Farley, David Keller, Otis Kline, E. Hoffman Price, P. Schuyler Miller, John W. Campbell, Edmond Hamilton, and Ray Palmer. (Has Cosmos ever been reprinted as a novel? It appears it has not.) In the 1960s, Binder wrote The Avengers Battle the Earth-Wrecker, to initiate a new series of Marvel superhero-based paperback novels, which Ted White credits with being so poorly written that it sabotaged any chance of success for his Captain America: The Great American Gold Steal, the second (and last) in the series. At the end of his career in the 1960s and 1970s his agent was Roger Elwood, which resulted in several Binder stories appearing in the omnipresent Elwood anthologies of the 1970s. In 1970, he wrote for Terry Bisson, who then was editing black-and-white horror comic magazines. But perhaps the most interesting incident relates to Isaac Asimov and the title “I, Robot” which is now associated with Asimov despite Binder being first to use it in 1938. Martin Greenberg changed Asimov’s title “Mind in Iron” to “I, Robot” in 1950 over Asimov’s objection. Asimov always felt bad about that abrogation and made up for it by writing for Space World in 1960. Binder also used the title for the 1964 Outer Limits episode (which was redone in 1995 for the new series—and both starred Leonard Nimoy!).
Before reading this book, I had not realized the extent to which so many of the stories that were so important to me in my formative years were written by Otto Binder. American comic book writers were seldom credited before the 1960s and much of his science fiction was published as by Eando Binder or under other pseudonyms. When I started reading comics in the early 1960s, my very first love (in addition to Mad Magazine) was Superboy and the Legion of Super-Heroes, some of which were written by Binder. (I abandoned Superboy and the Legion a few years later for Marvel Comics superheroes and Stan Lee.) The Adam Link stories were among the first science fiction books I read when issued in book form in 1965. And I would soon become enamored with the science fiction in EC Comics, some of which were by Binder, although by the 1960s, those decade-old comics were already too expensive for my teenage budget, and I would not read them all until their reissue in the 1970s. (Bill Schelly has also written several excellent but hard-to-find books about those early days of comics fandom that were formative for both of us.)
There are a few shortcomings to this book. It is sometimes hard to keep the timing of events straight as Schelly covers various related incidents and then returns to earlier times; a more strictly chronological approach (with only minor foreshadowing) would have been easier to follow. In addition, it would have been useful to know more about how Binder’s later science fiction work was critically received. And most importantly, a discussion of what Binder work has been reissued since his death and where to go to read Binder’s best work would have been a useful appendix or afterword. The engaging story of the life of Otto Binder makes one want to sample some of it again or maybe for the first time.
Bill Schelly has done a masterful job chronicling the life of one of the truly nice people in the field of comics and science fiction. Even if you do not have interest in comic books, the story of Binder’s on-and-off career in science fiction provides much of interest to sf fans and historians.
D. Douglas Fratz died suddenly in September, 2016; a fine obituary can be found at <www.spraytm.com/doug-fratz-of-cspa-passes-away.html>.