Friday, October 9, 2009

For the Love of Comics 2: Remembering Joe Gill

Words: Christopher Irving

Joe Gill was the most unique and outstanding anonymous author I knew. He's also my "fuckin' hero".

As the head writer for Charlton Comics, Joe wrote a gazillion and one (and then some) stories...everything from Western to Romance to Action Hero...that all went uncredited.

I'm not going to pretend that I knew Joe Gill the writer that well, or that I was even vastly familiar with his work. I couldn't look at one of his stories and break down the cadence of dialogue beats as distinctively his, or identify the story structure as "typical Gill". Truth be told, I'd only read a handful of his stories.

I knew Joe Gill as an offbeat, funny old guy, who was at the age and point in life where he didn't really care what he said. Despite living a tragic life, Joe kept his sardonic, black sense of humor and irony about him. This man who had battled alcoholism for many years of his life, who had married and then lost both his wife and son, and who went uncredited for most of his work...he was (as he once eloquently put it) a "fuckin' hero".

Joe's brother, Ray Gill, was an editor at comics packaging shop called Funnies, Incorporated in the early '40s. Ray Gill's comics career, and Joe's friendship with legendary crime writer Mickey Spillane, would determine the direction of the post-war Gill's life. Gill had met Spillane while working in a department store together during the Depression.

"We had more illusions, and we were also a tougher generation: we survived the Depression," Joe once said. "Believe me, there were a lot of hardships. If I had two slices of bread with a little ketchup on it, that was a lunch."

Spillane once recounted to me a story about Joe in their younger days (and, please forgive, but it's paraphrased):

Joe and Mickey had a date to take a couple of girls out ice skating. Mickey showed up at Joe's room, pulled the hung-over Joe out of bed, got him dressed, and out the door. Later, at the ice pond, standing in the middle with his skates on...Joe Gill finally woke up.

Joe's alcoholism problem would haunt him for years. He once told me (laughing) that he didn't get married until he was 37. What was so funny about 37, and why so late?

"I was drunk the first 36 years of my life," he laughed. "No, really! I'm serious!"

"After I went to service in the following September, Mickey went into Funnies, because that was a door. He would write a two-page filler for fifty cents. It was a dollar a page for writing, but fifty cents for a filler. You could get a small story in for fifty cents those days.

"When he got out, he and my brother got together and opened a studio. It had to be painted and cleaned, so I helped them paint and clean it. I was going to go back to the Navy as a chief radio operator. They said ‘Don’t do that, you’re going to be a writer.’ I said ‘No!’ Anyway, when they got through putting the place together, there was a position for me--a table, a chair, and a typewriter--so that’s how I got started."

Joe cranked out work by the sheet for Timely (later Marvel) Comics and a few other publishing houses. Eventually, he landed on the door of Derby, Connecticut's Charlton Comics, where he hacked out issue after issue of comics like Billy the Kid, Medal of Honor, Doomsday + 1, Captain Atom, Fightin' Army, Blue Beetle, First Kiss, Battlefield Action...a quick search for his work on the Grand Comics Database produces 1,353 records. Keep in mind, these are only the stories which have been officially documented as his.

Comics weren't all that Joe wrote: the wheeler-dealer hack writer in him wrote for countless true love/confession magazines, travel journals, articles for a maddening variety of magazines: His advice to me was to just go to the library, look it up, and B.S. your way through the article or story. Joe Gill never had any airs about being an "author", he was a hack writer, pure and simple, who didn't give a damn about anything but getting paid.

Joe, incidentally, did wind up going back to the military, in the 1950s.

"I’d go flying with Spillane, he was a reserve pilot in the air force...," Joe once commented. "We’d go up in an AT-6 at Stuart Air Force base, and I was using a Sergeant’s ID. Somebody came along and looked at the pilot and passengers’ names and it said that Sergeant Jones was flying with Lieutenant Spillane, and he knew Sergeant Jones. So he came over and said ‘Sergeant Jones!,’ and I was just in a shirt and a pair of pants, and he said ‘I know you’re not Sergeant Jones, but if you want to go flying, go in there and sign a paper that says you’re an Air Force Reserve [member] inactive. You can go flying all you want, legally.’ So, I did that.

"A year later, Korea came along. They called up Spillane and said he had a command, but Spillane was a Jehovah’s Witness. So Spillane says ‘Like, Hell, I’m not going. I quit.’ Normally, that would call for a court martial, but Spillane wanted that because he was a minister of the Jehovah’s Witness Kingdom Hall, and he wanted the publicity. So he quit, and wouldn’t go, so they called me up! I had to go for a year and a half! I didn’t even know how to march!

"They said they were taken me in as a Private, but I said ‘Like hell, take me in as a Master Sergeant or I won’t go!’ We settled and they gave me Tech Sergeant. I never washed a dish in six years in the service."

The man was an incredible amalgamation of stories, some funny, some tragic (some tragically funny)...but none as effective as when he told them with his quick, wise-guy wit. Despite being faced with so much tragedy in his life, Joe Gill kept an upbeat and sometimes twisted humor about everything, appreciating what he did have as opposed to what he'd lost.

"Right now, I play cards during the day with a bunch of old guys," Joe said in the late '90s. "These guys are all driving new cars, and they may have two pensions, but they have more material wealth than I have, but I had a wonderful life, as far as I concerned."

So what made Joe that "fuckin' hero"?

It was World War II, and the Navy ship that Joe was aboard as a Coast Guardsmen radio operator had been torpedoed, and the ship was broken in three loosely held-together pieces. The by-the-book martinette commander ordered the radio operators to relay their S.O.S. O.P. [Operational Priority] rather than "Urgent", meaning that the message would be put further down the food chain of importance by the radio operators on the other end. While the commander and his cronies were in the background debating, Gill silently changed the message to "Urgent," then corrected it back to "O.P" after the shore station received the message. As a result, his ship was saved by a tugboat, rather than sinking to the bottom of the ocean to become fish food.

"I was a fuckin' hero, and nobody knew it!" Gill laughed.

Joe wasn't just a hero to his fellow crew members, or even to the comics readers who grew up devouring his comics...

He was my hero, and I won't ever forget him for it.