Review: James Warren Empire of Monsters

A few weeks ago I finished reading James Warren Empire of Monsters, written by Bill Schelly and published by Fantagraphics Books. This is a biography of James Warren, publisher of the original Vampirella magazine as well as Famous Monsters, Creepy, Eerie, and many others.

This was a really great read, one of the best books I’ve read in a while. It’s one of those books you don’t want to put down. Before I get deeper into it I’ll offer a warning – this book gives Vampirella surprisingly little time. But the book is so good I didn’t even care. My interest in Warren goes beyond Vampirella, but I think even someone who isn’t necessarily a Warren fan would enjoy this book. I would highly recommend it to anyone with an interest in comics.

The book is entertaining from cover to cover. Schelly gives us a brief look at Warren’s early life and then dives right into his career as a publisher. I did not realize what a fascinating character he was before reading this book. It sometimes makes you wish  you were James Warren as it details the rise of Warren Publishing, its decline and revitalization, and its mysterious and sudden disappearance in the 1980’s. Along the way you get to read first hand accounts from many of the artists, writers and editors that worked for Warren. Jim Warren himself declined to be interviewed for the book, but Schelly includes many direct quotes from other sources. The reason given for his decision not to be interviewed was because he is was writing a memoir, so that’s something else to be on the lookout for in the future.

While the book doesn’t devote too much time to Vampirella, there are some interesting bits of information that I hadn’t read before. Schelly tells a story about Warren participating on a panel at the 1969 New York Comic Art Convention which took place before the first issue of Vampirella hit the stands. He writes:

[Warren] held up a copy of Vampirella #1, and told how he’d had some resistance to the skimpiness of her costume from wholesalers. When they asked if her breasts could be covered up more, he refused, supposedly telling them, “No, because if we cover them up, we’re gonna ruin the character that Frank Frazetta created. And Frank gets very mad. He’s Italian. He’ll come down and kill you.” It was obviously a made-up story, but the fans loved it. Anything the others on the panel said after that was anticlimactic.

Another interesting piece of information I was previously unaware of was that famed feminist Gloria Steinem was one of Warren’s early editorial assistants. I found this really interesting in light of the current atmosphere in America regarding women’s issues. Characters like Vampirella are frequent targets of liberal feminists in the comics industry because they see these characters as examples of sexual exploitation of women. Schelly:

What would Gloria Steinem think of Vampirella? Warren speculated, “Probably the same thing she thinks of Wonder Woman. Vampi is every bit the equal of most men. There’s nothing wishy-washy or second-rate-feminine [or] weak sister about Vampi. Vampi’ll kick the shit out of you – man, woman, beast, child – she doesn’t care.

Probably the most fascinating part of the book is the story of how Warren Publishing came to an end. Essentially the company collapsed because Warren became less involved with it and left his employees to run things on their own. Without his guidance the company eventually sank. Schelly:

[Bill] DuBay: “I think things degenerated simply because Jim didn’t really have hands-on at the end, like he always had [before]. He felt the company was in goods hands.” If Warren had been there, DuBay was convinced that the company would have survived. But he had no more explanation for Warren’s absence in the face of economic disaster than anyone else in the office. Warren had constructed a wall and let no one through.

The reason for Warren’s truancy is never definitively explained, but it is strongly suggested that Warren was dealing with depression at the time and this led to his isolation from the company. Warren opened up about his battle with depression later in life, so I suppose this theory is as good as any. He eventually was able to largely when that battle and is still active today.

There are so many more interesting facts and stories in this book that I can’t include here. Again, if you have any interest in comics history or the iner-workings of magazine/comics publishing you owe it to yourself to pick up this book. If anyone else has read this book, I’d love to hear what you thought of it. You can pick it up on Amazon here.

I’ll leave you with one more interesting, albeit somewhat depressing, item from the book: an auction notice in the New York Times for the liquidation of the holdings of Warren Communication Corp.

 

 

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