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AFTER THE GOLDEN AGE for 05/28/2001
Volume 2, Number 6
Rich Morrissey 1953-2001
For reasons that should soon become apparent, I am reluctant simply to make the usual short obeisance to the death of a member of the comics confraternity that we get in such abundance these days, especially as older personalities from the Golden Age continue to leave us. But it's not only that Rich was so young that I feel him to be entitled to more than a passing mention with appropriate expressions of regret. He was unique and special, and to the best of my ability and knowledge I feel he is entitled to as much of a biography as I am in a position to provide in this space. I felt close to him, sometimes as I might to a son. And a true biography tries to reveal its subject, warts and all. Of course, this is not a book, but it is, to the best of my knowledge, how I saw Rich, how he got to be the way he was, and why he will be especially remembered by me and my wife Kay. As for his role in comics beyond this particular year, that is something that will take care of itself.
With Rich's sudden and unexpected passing last Tuesday, comics unquestionably suffered a great loss. Those who were close to him were suddenly deprived of a presence, a special kind of personhood that probably only became recognizable for what it was after it had gone. One tended to take Rich for granted, he was so easily there and so quickly responsive that suddenly the space he left in passing became an abyss of surprise and disbelief.
Above all, he was a very gentle man. Even when he disliked someone or something, it was difficult for him to express it. He was clumsy in his dislikes, except for the more impersonal sphere of politics where he held strong and consistent left-of-center opinions. But it was in his gentleness we may find some clues to what overburdened his heart and took him from us.
First off, it was extremely difficult for Rich to express justified anger against anyone who had wronged or been unfair to him. Instead of pushing his own case, he would tend to back off and swallow the anger, or the frustration or the slight, whatever it was. In the end, he would turn it all back on himself, so that his whole personality quivered with the stress of it. It took the form of a rushing headlong speech, even a kind of stutter. If one ate with him, a discerning friend might note that here too he was swallowing too fast, as though somehow turning the world back on himself even in this elemental and common activity.
Would it surprise any of you to know that Rich earned a degree in law from Boston College and, for a time, practised as a Public Defender? In the end, however, he discovered that he had no stomach for the rough and tumble, the adversarial demands which his conscience required him to exert to the fullest for his clients. He could not rise to the level of aggression that the courtroom situation demanded. Yet he had all the intellectual equipment. His mind was quick to grasp distinctions and fine points. He could absorb facts and details in massive amounts. And he had a reading speed that bordered on the incredible. Everyone who has come into contact with Rich as a comics historian has been astonished at his encyclopedic knowledge and his ability to order that knowledge into interepretive and critical structures. He may even, at times, have been a little too facile in this area, but that too goes with the territory of such an unique skill.
Some reasons for this may be adduced from his personal history. Rich told me that both his parents had died relatively young. I don't recall now whether cardiac problems were involved. But he also told me that during the course of his parents' marriage, following Rich's own birth, there was no emotional relationship between the older Morrisseys. They stayed together, remained friends, without ever showing the kind of emotional or sexual affection, or even disaffection, that might be expected from a marriage relationship. Rich was brought up in this mild, gentle and emotionless world, there were, of course, no siblings. And so, somehow, he never saw or experienced normal intersexual affect. Coming to manhood without ever having known such emotions in childhood, even though he had strong feelings himself, he was deprived of the foundation for developing any of the courtship skills through which to express thuis important area of his personality.
He had good friends among women. He felt himself in love from time to time but somehow could not so express himself that he was able to create the kind of full relationship he yearned for. On the other hand, there were one or two women with whom he formed deep personal bonds, bonds, however, of powerful friendship and caring which somehow never seemed able to get beyond that. He had, in short, a strange handicap, without any confusion of identity about hetero or homosexuality. He was simply someone for whom the appropriate expression of emotion had never been acquired at the right time. And here one might find the key to his inability to express normal aggressive behavior, not only interpersonally but in the practise of law. On the other hand, much of this truncated libido found expression in his love for comics. A poor substitute in one sense, yet given his special intellectual gifts, a great boon for comics. Without Rich, along with the assistance of his friend Martin O'Hearn, so many comics creators from the pre-1958 days of anonymity, would never have gotten the recognition they deserved, myself certainly included.
For the last eleven years, Rich Morrissey played a very important role in my life. He was the one who single-handedly brought me back into contact with comics, a field I had abandoned completely since the day I left back in 1958, at a time when Rich was only five years old.
It all started with a newspaper story where, during a meeting of a writer's group in Melbourne, Florida, a reporter for the Gannett press, Florida Today, asked members of the group to tell something of their earlier writing history, and I happened to rermark that, among other things, I had once written Batman and Superman. The story appeared as a feature and in a manner still not clear to me came to Rich's attention. He wasted no time getting in touch with me, and easily overcame my unwillingness to dig around in an area of my life I'd abandoned 33 years earlier.
He did it through his own fascination with the medium, by somehow transferring to me his own great affection for it, and even, by means of his own vast knowledge of the field as well as the changes that had occurred in it since I'd left, not to mention the infectiousness and intelligence with which he approachewd the subject.
As it happened, this all occurred at a time when Kitchen Sink Press was trying to establish credits for the planned production of the Batman Dailies (1944, 1946). As a result, Rich and I worked together to help editor Joe Desris establish from those days of creator anonymity who had actually written what during the three year McClure syndication run of the Batman strip, and even got me to write an essay and critical analysis for the project.
That was the beginning. My wife and I saw a lot of Rich after that. He introduced us to the new (to us) phenomenon of the Comics Con, even joining us in Florida where we all attended my very first con in Tampa. There was so much about the comics world I either didn't know about or had forgotten. Rich not only brought me up to date but infected me with some of his own fascinations. But it goes much further than that.
In my recent memoir, An Unlikely Prophet, many of you will have noticed that the work is dedicated to Rich Morrissey. And for good reason, since the story of the still lingering influences of comics and Superman revealed in that work only began to come together and complete themselves as a result of my getting to know Rich. In other words, it's quite accurate to say that that work might never have been written except for Rich Morrissey.
Even more interesting is the fact involving this month's reappearance in a new edition of my 1948 novel, The Blowtop, now regarded by many as having been a major inspiration for the development of the Beat movement of the fifties. The Blowtop, as originally published, and without the new introduction that explains its place in recent literary history, had been known to Rich from before he even met me or knew who I was, since I wrote comics under the name of Al Woodrum. He had happened upon a copy in the Boston Public Library years before, and not only recalled liking it but even remembered it quite clearly.
It got to the point where most things I was working on, including a series of other novels, including one to be published this coming winter, almost always passed through Rich's hands first. I had come to respect his judgment and his comments and had little hesitation in taking advantage of them. When I attended a con, it was Rich who was able to tell inquiring fans which stories I had written among the thousands of pages I had turned out and forgotten years ago.
I will remember him for many reasons. And whenever I look at a comic book or visit a con or write another comics script, I will be reminded of him and realize that I miss him. I can see him now, forever held in an image centered on those eyes of his, eyes impossibly and profoundly blue under a disorderly thatch of black hair. It's a memory bound to the very first time I met him in person when Kay and I visited him at home in Framingham ten years ago.
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