Wednesday, September 30, 2009

"The Bullet"--and a rare interview with panelologist/fine artist R. E. Butts!

Well! I have been "Blogged!" Yes, sir, this flattering, if bewildering write-up of my humble efforts appeared today! Here is the URAL to read it:

Now onto today's very special post. I was asked by one of my followers, "Mr. Moray, you attended many of the early 'comic-cons' in the 1960s and 1970s. Did you meet any of the early 'Golden Age' cartoonists? Were you ever able to interview any 'lost legends' for your fanzines?"

I'm happy to give a resounding answer of "yes!" to both questions.

In those halcyon days of panelology, I met and spoke with, among others, the following giants of the artform: Jack Kirby, Carl Burgos, William Everett, Robert Powell, William Eisner, Martin Nodell, Joseph Kubert, C. C. Beck, Vernon Henkel... oh, how the list could rattle on!

Friends, you have no idea of the ease with which an eager young disciple of the panelologic arts could encounter the geniuses who brought our four-color dreams to the printed and inked page!

I managed to do interviews with many of these "key figures" for my best-known fanzine, "Panelological Pleasures."

However, the most rewarding--and fascinating--"Golden Age" artist I had the fortune to encounter was not one whose name might be found in household chat. Richard Evelyn Buttram, A.K.A. "R. E. Butts," never attended any of those bygone "comic-cons." Nor did he receive any of the acclaim that even the least talented craftsman of 1940s panelology might have received, had he simply wandered into the rooms in which said "comic-con" was conducted.

I met Mr. Buttram whilst attending the 1969 Big Apple Comicon. It was my first trip to New York City. I was eager to take in all the sights. At age 22, my curiosity knew no bounds.

Having spent several hours in the sweaty confines of the dealer's rooms at the Big Apple event, I deemed it provident to wander outside and get some fresh air--the latter merely a turn of phrase in smoggy, grimy Gotham.

I strolled into the East Village--then a haven of "beatniks," "yippies" and bohemian artists. I had heard much about the "expresso pads" of the Village, and wanted to sample this "hip" beverage. Friends, it turned out to be plain old coffee--albeit served in a tiny cup!

It was good coffee, tho'. On a crisp autumn afternoon, as I squinted in the sunlight, I chanced upon an outdoor exhibition of paintings. Their creator was a tall, grey-haired man, wearing a striped sweatshirt and a derby hat, just like those worn by Hardy and Laurel in their screen comedy classics.

I had on hand a formidable stack of comic magazines--treasures newly acquired from the confines of the dealers' room. Said pamphlets caught the eye of the elderly painter. Atop the stack was the very issue of Amazing Mystery Funnies from which today's special selection is found.

"Lord God!" the artist sighed. "What memories that brings back!" He pointed to the comic magazine in question.

"Did you read this magazine when it was new?" I innocently asked.

"Read it? Hell, son, I drew for it!" He snatched the precious magazine from my hands and deftly paged through it. He then held up the "splash page" to "The Bullet." He cleared his throat. "Son, that's me. 'R. E. Butts.' That was my pen name for the funny books."

You'll appreciate that I found my heart in my throat. So suddenly, so unexpectedly--here was a "forgotten man" of the "funny book" era!

"You were a panelologist?" I asked, fighting an urge to stutter.

"Speak sense, son! I drew for the funnies! But that was 30 years ago... I've gotten into the fine art racket. Done OK by it, too."

At the time, I was preparing the first issue of my fan-zine, and still "at sea" for a cover feature. I was thunderstruck with a sudden gleaning: here was my interview subject--a man who worked "behind the scenes" and could "tell it like it was" for my curious readership!

"Sir," I blurted out, "might I interview you for my fanzine?"

"Interview?" His brow wrinkled with the effort of thought. "What's it pay?"

At the time, I was naive. It seemed apt, to me, that such talented creators, indeed, should receive pay in exchange for telling of their experiences in the panelological universe.

"Er--would fifty dollars be enough?"

Mr. Buttram's eyebrows appreciably raised. "Hmm... you'd better make it sixty."

I opened my wallet. There were four twenty-dollar bills within. This would seriously hamper my further involvement, as a buyer, in the Big Apple Comicon. But how many of my fellow "fans" could boast that they had bought, with their hard-earned money, a genuine slice of panelological history?

I agreed at once. Mr. Buttram invited me to interview him at his studio that evening at the unearthly hour of midnight! He wrote down his address and said he'd expect me there at the stroke of twelve.

As a token of good faith, I paid him the $60 in advance.

Friends, I was on Cloud Nine! I wandered back to the "con" when another thought struck like lightning. How in the heavens would I record the imminent interview for posterity? At the time, tape recorders were still in the realm of wealth. "Ordinary Joes" such as myself did not have such devices at their constant beck and call.

However, a friend at the "con" owed me both money and a favor. I collected on both.

His name was Wallace "Sparks" Spinkle. "Sparks," may he rest in peace, was a pioneer of panelological fandom. His fan-zines Realms of Tomorrow and Power Blast Phenomenon! set a standard for journalism and ethics seldom equalled, even today.

"Sparks" Spinkle had a portable reel-to-reel tape recorder. I borrowed it from him to conduct the interview. "Sparks" also repaid me 30 dollars he'd borrowed from me, in order to purchase a copy of Action Comics #1. I'd advised him against its purchase.

Talking horse sense, it seemed that one might do better to buy 30--or even 60--comic magazines, for that price, rather than put "all of one's eggs into the basket." "Sparks" was dead-set on acquiring this over-rated piece of panelology.

To my surprise, he'd turned around and resold it--within five minutes--for 50 dollars. P.T. Barnum was right, it seemed! "Sparks" had earned 20 dollars with no effort whatsoever.

I'm sure "Sparks" does cart-wheels in his grave when he thinks how much that comic magazine would fetch in these 21st century times!

To prepare for the interview, I read the story Mr. Buttram had indicated as his work. To put yourself in the frame of mind I shared, in the hours before my interview, here is said story:

You will admit that 'R. E. Butts' had a unique visual and textual panelology style. Indeed, there would be much to discuss. Here was a phantom figure of the dawn age of the comic magazine!

Midnight found me examining a dank basement apartment, fronted by a coal-black hallway. I heard things skitter in the bottomless dark around me. Finally, I found a door, and rapped against it.

"What?" a thick-sounding voice muttered from within.

I announced myself, and recapped our meeting, earlier that afternoon. "Oh yeah," the voice slurred.

A great number of locks slid, clicked and cracked. Finally, the door eased open, and a gentle, orange-hued light mingled with the jet-black of the hallway. I saw that those skittering things were rats! I was truly in the heart of the city.

Mr. Buttram invited me inside. His was a typical "artist's loft"--strewn with paintings, art supplies, underwear, cereal boxes, empty liquor bottles, and, in an eccentric touch, the near-deafening tick of a thousand wind-up alarm clocks.

Said clocks were everywhere--they blanketed every flat surface, and all were set to a different time! On a time-worn "hi fi," genuine "bee-bop" jazz music played in the background.

"D'you bring the money, son?" Mr. Buttram asked.

"But, sir, I paid you this afternoon--in full!"

His face tellingly reddened. "Yes, I recall that you did." He cleared space on a frayed, stained sofa-bed and invited me to sit.

I switched on the tape recorder, my heart beating in time with the myriad alarm clocks clucking and clittering all about me. I was about to conduct my first interview!

Here it is, as it appeared in my maiden effort of panelological commentary, Strange Oddysey #1, which saw print in early 1971.

"They Wanted Me To Draw That Way!"
"R. E. Butts" in the Dawn of Comic Magazines
interview by Mason J. Moray

"It paid the bills," says Richard E. Buttram, as he takes a "drag" from a green bottle of "night train," here in the dark heart of Gotham. The "it" referred to is panelology; the speaker, now a classically-trained artist of fine paintings, is likely unknown to you by his given name.

Try out "R. E. Butts" for size! Yes, this bohemian gentleman, sitting at midnight in his squalid "pad," is the man who created some of the earliest panelological presentations, primarly for the long-departed Centaur Press--launching pad of many a comic-magazine career.

When asked how he entered the panelological "scene," Buttram is modest. "I knew a guy. He knew a guy. It was like that. I needed work. My paintings weren't selling. I couldn't cut it as a magazine illustrator. I didn't have the discipline to hack it.

"I'd seen these 'funny books' around town. It seemed like kid's play to me. I figured, 'get in for a few months,' you know, crap out some stuff, sell it, and then get out of it. And that's exactly what I did."

And, thus, our interview began proper.

Do you have any remembrances of the halcyon days of panelology?


What was it like to work in comic books in the late 1930s?

Aw, it was just a bunch of guys in a room, drawing and kidding around. It was something to do, you know...

What was your inspiration in creating The Bullet? Its panelological stylings are quite unorthodox, even for this pioneering period...

Kid, you need to talk English. I just made this crap up as I did it. "Fill seven pages," the editor told me. You heard of "Uncle Joe?"

No, sir. Who--

"Uncle Joe" Holstein. The biggest crap-slinger on Manhattan Island. All talk and no action! Just try and get him to put money in your hand! You'd have to be that magician guy. Oh, what was his name?



Yarko the Great?

Huh? No! It doesn't matter. Nothing mattered, except for two things. Two... things. One: draw the crap. Whatever it is; it didn't matter. Just draw the crap. Two: Get the money. That was the hard part.

Thank God the war came on. The Merchant Marines paid a hell of a lot better than "Uncle Joe." I didn't mind getting shot at. I was making real money in the war!

I saw your exhibit of paintings today in the Eastern Village. Are all of those recent works?

Some of 'em. Some of 'em have been kicking around since the '50s. Tourists buy 'em, mostly. I've sold some to hotels.

What did you like most about working in comics?

The paycheck. When I got it.

What was the worst part of working in comics at the time?

The worst? I'll tell you the worst. You could be [expletive] Michael Anjelo. You could draw like a [expletive], paint the [expletive] Sisteen Chapel ceiling. But when you worked for the funnies, all that went out the window.

You bring that funny book with you?

Yes. Here it--

Yeah, just look at this. [points to several drawings on the page] They wanted me to draw that way!

I remember; I brought in this job to "Uncle Joe." He chewed on a piece of leather. I think it was part of a wallet. Always chewing on that damned thing.

"Uncle Joe" looked at my lead page. [points to drawing of a character's head on page one of story] "OK," he said, "I'll let you have that one. One good drawing. The rest of this--you gotta re-do it!"

Of course, I was shocked. "Re-do it? Why you [expletive]! This is good work!"

I'll never forget get. "Uncle Joe" chewed on that wallet piece, sucked on it, and put his finger tips together, like that game, this is the church, open the door and look at the people? You know that one?

No, sir.

Well, no matter. He patted those fat fingers back and forth. Back and forth. "We don't encourage our artists to draw well. We don't want our artists to slow down on that fancy stuff. We need to get these out the door quick."

Long story short--I had to re-draw all the faces--and do 'em badly! He made me sit in a closet and put Chinese White all over the good drawings. He stood over my shoulder. Anytime I started to draw well, he'd chuckle and say, "Uh uh uh! That's too good."

So this "Uncle Joe" wanted you to draw poorly?

That's the long and short of it!

Is that enough? What else you want to know?

What other features did you create for the comic magazines?

Oh, that was a long time ago. Let me think... [sighs] It all starts to blur together when you get to be my age, son...

Aw, hell. "Tack Dixon." That ring any bells?

No, sir.

"Tack Dixon." He was a prize-fighter who hunted cannibals in Africa. That was one. "Five Deuces;" that was an airplane feature. "Cochita of Laredo." She was a Mexican detective. Imagine that--a Mexican woman who's a dick!

Who were some of your favorite artists in pan-- er, in comics at the time?

Tell you the truth, son, I never even looked at the things. I just did my pages, took 'em in, and tried to tough it out 'til that fat [expletive] paid me off.

Then the war came on. I signed up before the last bombs had hit Pearl Harbor. I'd rather go to war than struggle on in this nonsense. That was the last I saw of comic books. Never looked back.

I see.

That's what I'd do if I were you, son. Turn your back on the whole sorry business. Learn a trade. Don't fool with this bunk. It's just a--

[Our interview was rudely interrupted by the simultaneous ringing of a hundred alarm clocks. Your correspondent nearly leaped out of his skin at that moment.]

Well, friends, that was the interview. It was nearly three in the morning when I shut off the tape recorder and gathered myself to leave.

I'll never forget what happened next. Mr. Buttram looked at me. "You know, it's nice of you to look me up, talk to me about this baloney. I don't mean to sound like an old grump."

He reached, without looking, to a stack of framed paintings that leaned against a wall. He grabbed two and insisted I take them. "I want you to feel like you got something good for your money."

"R. E. Butts" saw me to the door. I found myself alone on the eerily silent streets of the East Village, two oil paintings in my arms, along with "Sparks" Spinkle's tape recorder and the very comic magazine from which today's tale originated.

I still own those paintings today. They hang in our home. I took pictures of them so that I can share them with you today.

"Hat Lady" by R. E. Buttram, c. 1960

"Pretty Scenery" by R. E. Buttram, c. 1967

I never heard of, nor saw, "R. E. Butts" again. Each time I visited Gotham, I frequented the East Village, in the hopes of sighting this panelological legend. It was as if he never existed.

Yet, every day, when I pass by these paintings in my home, I'm reminded of this artist whose pioneering efforts helped to build a panelological empire. This post is dedicated to you, Mr. Richard Evelyn Buttram.

Your work was not in vain. Not in the realms of the Pantheon!

Until next time, I remain your humble friend and servant. Good day.

1 comment:

  1. Amazing story!

    I found your baffeling bloggisms through another blog ( on comic Creator Jack Cole) and I sinserely hope you do some writing under an assumed name in your spare time as you surely can pound out precise pinnings.