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Comics Mysteries: Tales of the Unknown

Fred Guardineer at the 1999 WonderCon with event organizer Joe Field. (Photo by Oscar Benjamin)

With memories, you get questions as well as answers. by Mike Antonucci

When I interviewed Fred Guardineer in 1999, I’d only recently come to understand his place in comics history. Guardineer, who died in 2002, was then 85, and the last surviving contributor of note to Action Comics No. 1. His involvement was with backup stories, not the debut of Superman. One that he both wrote and drew was a 12-page tale introducing the magician Zatara.

An inspirational touch that heightened the tale’s historic legacy was having Zatara cast spells in reverse English, pronouncing words with backwards spelling. (I think I spent an embarrassing minute trying to make one example — “uoy era won ni ym rewop” — come out of my mouth in a sensible rhythm). But as memorable as the gimmick turned out to be, it’s linked to a mystery: Guardineer couldn’t recall how he got the idea for it.

That type of nagging little puzzlement set the mood for a lot of my visit with Guardineer, who was about to be one of the honored guests at that year’s WonderCon in Oakland. He was charmingly humble and congenial, but also unintentionally enigmatic. His super ability was his insider’s memory of seminal moments in comics publishing. His kryptonite was that it was only partial recall.

Sometimes, Guardineer noted, he was the only person present to answer the door at the company offices; one time he opened it for “a guy with his mother.” The guy was Bob Kane.

C’mon, doesn’t that ignite your curiosity? Batman‘s co-creator was working his way into the American consciousness accompanied by his mom? Maybe he was just taking her to lunch or dinner after dropping something off for editor Vincent Sullivan. Or was she there to whisper career advice in her son’s ear during an important meeting?

OK, it’s not a mystery in the classic sense. But it’s a wonderfully evocative detail, transporting us into a daily world of routine activities that now seem legendary. And some serious business then has become almost delightful in retrospect. Consider Guardineer’s recollection of Sullivan’s input on Zatara: make the character as similar as possible to Mandrake without provoking a lawsuit.

It’s probably safe to say that no one envisioned anything close to the lasting social impact that was being made. Indeed, many other pop culture mysteries emanate from the same innocent obliviousness.

Let’s talk Pez candy dispensers. Is there any more pop-artsy product/collectible? If there’s a Pez for your singularly favorite comics character, you own one, right? And if you were going to nominate alternative spellings for the word “fun,” wouldn’t Pez be a natural three-letter substitute? But for all that iconic status, Pez presents a fundamental mystery: uncertainty about the origin of its signature feature, the Pez Head. The concept is commonly credited to company executive Curtis Allina. But as noted in the New York Times obituary when Allina died at 87 in 2009, there’s a lack of information about how the design idea was first raised. Allina, however, is regarded as the only person who could have guaranteed its implementation.

The most intriguing facet of these mysteries is how many reasons there are to be optimistic about eventually getting breakthrough answers. I recently caught a 2014 British “Antiques Roadshow” episode that included the public unveiling for a valuable cache of unpublished letters about a famous Victorian love triangle involving art critic John Ruskin. Discussion quickly got around to the possibility of history-changing revelations in the writings.

Makes you wonder. Is there a crucial but forgotten file of correspondence from Allina somewhere? Is there a lost (but not destroyed) statement from a younger Guardineer about his backwards speech contrivance? Sure there could be. I mean, erus ereht dluoc eb.




Mike Antonucci is a longtime journalist known in part for pop culture reporting. His column focuses on lost or elusive details involving comic-book history or industry trends.

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