June 24, 2007

A Web of Intrigue


It started simply enough, as these things usually do.

      I was having an idle conversation with a musician friend who lives in California. This was a few days after the Oscars, and we were chatting about movies. He mentioned that production was starting soon on a film version of the Iron Man comic book.

      I told him about a fellow I knew named Gabriel. These days Gabriel is a very successful storyboard artist in Hollywood, but he’d got his start in New York drawing Iron Man for Marvel Comics.

      “He also worked with Lou Stathis briefly at DC,” I said.

      Lou Stathis died in 1997, but he’d been a writer and editor at Heavy Metal, Fantasy and Reflex magazines, as well as at Ace Books. The last three years of his life, he’d been at DC Comics.

      I knew him only tangentially, mostly through other people. Every few years, it seems, I come across someone else who knew Lou. Perhaps not surprisingly, he’d also been friends with the musician in California.

      “Did you know Lou?” he asked. “He wrote one of the first in depth articles about my band back in the mid-seventies.”

      He then told me that Lou had also interviewed him in the early eighties, during what was a very turbulent time for the band.

      “I’m sure he got some juicy info,” my friend said.

      I asked if the interview had ever been published any place—because if it had, I wasn’t aware of it.

      “As far as I know,” he said, “the interview wasn’t for any magazine in particular and has never been published. It was more like he happened to be around, saw that it was an interesting time, and, since we were open to it, decided to tape an interview for some way-off-in-the-future project that never happened. At least that’s the way I remember it . . . I always wondered what happened to those tapes.”

      As it happened, I knew a woman named Judy McGuire who’d dated Lou for awhile. I worked with her sister Sue at the Guggenheim, and later with Judy herself at the Press, where she’d written a dating column. I figured what the hell? It was worth a shot. So I wrote her a note, asking if she happened to know anything about these twenty-five year old tapes.

      “As far as I know,” she wrote back, “all Lou’s stuff got auctioned off out of the storage locker. However, you should talk to Shelly Bond at DC/Vertigo comics, as she was his girlfriend at the time of his death and knows way more about what might still lurk around.”

      For most people, you’d figure there was no chance in hell those tapes would still exist after a quarter-century. But Lou, I’m told, was a bit of a pack rat. Chances were actually pretty good that he did still have them at the time of his death—but chances were equally good that they’d either been buried under years of old NY Times, or auctioned off to someone who had no idea what those tapes held.

      I was already getting the feeling that I was being drawn a bit too deeply into some Hitchcockian web of intrigue, with these old tapes as the MacGuffin. Why did they suddenly come up now, ten years after his death? What secrets might they hold? Would I soon find myself in Peru, machete in hand, standing atop a Mayan pyramid, knowing the forces of evil were hot on my trail, willing to stop at nothing to get their hands on those tapes?

      I sure hoped not—I had absolutely no interest in going to Peru.

      But I was hooked now, and about to call a woman I didn’t know and ask about her dead boyfriend. A woman named “Bond,” no less! Could it be any more transparent?

      Setting all these worries aside, I picked up the phone and called the offices of DC Comics. I was soon transferred to her voicemail.

      I left what I imagine sounded like an appropriately cryptic message.

      “Hello, Ms. Bond—my name is Jim Knipfel. We’ve never met, but I have an odd question to ask you involving Lou Stathis. I’m looking for something that might have been in his possession at the time of his death. You can reach me at . . . ”

      Much to my surprise (or perhaps not, given the way things were going) she called me back ten minutes later, and I quickly sketched out the situation, not sure how she would react.

      As it turned out, she was very open and helpful and friendly. More encouraging still, she told me she had a box of his things, and would take a look.

      “And now I have a question for you,” she said. That’s when I started getting a little nervous.

      It seems I was mistaken about that “we’ve never met before” bit.

      I don’t recall exactly what year it was that my editor at the Welcomat, Derek Davis, decided to run a comics issue, featuring stories about local comic artists and comic book companies, underground comics and the like. I know I did a couple pieces, one of which focused on a locally-produced comic called The Elementals (which was essentially a Fantastic Four knock-off based in Philly).

      I don’t remember exactly what I wrote, or why I was so mean to The Elementals. I do remember, however, that the illustration for the story was my own crudely-rendered drawing of the comic’s main characters.

      Yeah, the drawing I remember. There were even stink lines involved, and crude commentary. I was like that back then.

      So the story ran, and I had myself a mighty chuckle. Little did I know, however, that elsewhere in Philly, a young woman had only recently been named senior editor at the company that produced The Elementals. When she saw the story, she sat down and wrote a—perhaps justifiably—scathing response, which the paper dutifully ran.

      And now, over fifteen years later, I was on the phone with her, asking for her help.

      “Oh, ummm . . . ” I said after she reminded me of all this. Everything always comes back around.

      But things remained friendly. There was no yelling. And it gave her the chance to tell me that the man who’d created The Elementals—the one I’d so cruelly mocked—was now an incredibly popular and influential comics artist, considered by his peers to be a genius who’d redefined the form.

      I, on the other hand, was unemployed and playing private dick in my (ample) spare time.

      Figures. That’s the way these things usually work out.

      Still, I couldn’t help but think that at every step of the way, the web of intrigue which began with Lou Stathis had expanded another level. Perhaps the real purpose of those tapes—whether they ever showed up or not—was to illustrate yet again that everything really is connected.


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