Friday, March 9, 2012

The Bookseller and the Comix Man

I owe a debt to Seattle’s well-regarded bookseller, dedicated Mariners fan, and suitably reticent gent, David Ishii… and now won’t ever get to make good on it because David died recently, felled by diabetes and kidney failure at age 76.

I first got to know him slightly about 45 years ago when we both worked for the original Seattle Magazine, David as an ad salesman and me pretending to be a journalist, or at least a features writer. I was still an amorphous kid, really, but David was already a confirmed baseball scholar and serious fly fisherman. In fact he was already becoming known for the brim-down sailor-styled cap (suitable for attaching flies, I always assumed) that became his quirky identifying
clothing item over the decades. We sat together for lunch a few times, and I think it was then that he tried educating me about the imprisoning of Japanese-Americans during WWII, a continuing sore point for David many years later--and for his novelist friend Frank Chin as well. (With some chagrin I admit I can’t remember whether David experienced America’s concentration camps directly, or if, as a small boy, he was spared that embarrassment to our Democracy.)

I soon moved on to a screenwriter job with an educational film company and then a lengthy slot as a writer-producer in the creative end of advertising. And David somehow became a bookseller with a small shop a few blocks south of Seattle’s Pioneer Square, antiquarian but specializing (I think) in his
favorite subjects: fishing, baseball, history, and literature, especially Asian-American, pretty much in that order, but gradually adding more and more books on the Arts. I’d drop in every couple of months to admire his stock and rib him about Seattle’s mediocre ball teams. (When no baseball game was on, he’d almost always have the radio tuned to Classical Music in general and Opera in particular.)

One day in 1972 he asked me if I had any interest in the comic strips of the Thirties—from the Phantom and Buck Rogers and Tarzan, to Blondie and Krazy Kat and the Katzenjammer Kids; it seemed he’d acquired some old newspaper comic sections…

The timing was perfect. I didn’t collect strips but I knew several guys who did and I was sure I could find a buyer. So David and I agreed on a hundred dollars (sufficient, he said, because he’d gotten the sections for next to nothing), and I left with a six-inch stack of comics in splendid condition, which I soon managed to resell for slightly more than five hundred… just in time to finance a trip east to New York, to attend the one-time-only convention (later deemed a landmark in “comix” history) devoted to the fabulous artists, conscientious writers, and canny editors of the hallowed E.C. line of comic books: cool science fiction, ghastly horror, highly prized war comics, and eventually the one and only Mad, first as color
comic book and then b&w parody magazine.

Bill Gaines, Al Williamson, Harvey Kurtzman, Wally Wood, Marie and John Severin, Roy Krenkel, Jack Davis, Al Feldstein, Will Elder, Joe Orlando, Jerry DeFuccio, George Evans, Johnny Craig… My stars, what a line-up: best of the Fifties creators of non-superhero comics all gathered together in a Manhattan hotel for three glorious days. I met personal favorites, I got autographs, I shot the breeze, I bought collector stuff…

And I recognized, and scooped up immediately, and went straightaway to return, the valuable left-behind samples portfolio of an aspiring young artist named William Stout, who was already assisting Russ Manning on the current Tarzan strip, and mischievous Harvey Kurtzman on Playboy’s “Little Annie Fanny” series, plus contributing comics to L.A.’s many car
and motorcycle magazines. Bill was soon to become revered for his own parodies of E.C. characters and stories, his caricature covers for "Trademark of Quality" bootleg record albums, his design work on many Hollywood movies, and eventually his gorgeous and honored paintings of dinosaurs, Antarctic wildlife, and fantasy and science fiction scenes, not to mention several huge murals enhancing Southern California’s natural history museums.

My fortuitous portfolio-save led to an immediate and continuing, decades-long friendship. Bill and I (and our cheerful wives) have shared many a fine gathering
over the years, and though we don’t get together as frequently now, I’m proud to think him one of my best friends still; and he wryly calls me his “first patron collector.”

So I do owe a great friendship in part to David’s kind offer 40 years ago. But in the right sort of coincidence, Bill too visited David’s store several times and no doubt spent some good money there, as did other artists (The New Yorker’s Richard Merkin for one), plus an international network of baseball fans, bass fishermen, and book-basic friends (with maybe a basso profundo or two thrown in) who discovered David’s intimate but expansive little bookstore and kept coming back for more.

I didn’t know David really, but I well remember browsing his packed shelves while we talked (and he read the newspaper)--and the occasional sightings of him ambling across Seattle in his turned-down hat, happily greeting acquaintances, brightening the city wherever he passed.

(Ishii photos copyright the Seattle Times.)

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