“Can I help you?” the receptionist said.
“Yes.” I replied. “I need to speak with the person who writes Green Lantern.”
A smile made its way across the receptionists face. “I’m guessing you don’t have an appointment?”
“No.” I said, matter-of-factly. “But it’s important. I just want to say a few things to him. It’ll take five minutes, tops. Can you just tell him I’m here?”
“Do your parents know you’re here in our office?” the lovely lady said.
“Of course!” I lied, indignant. “My mom’s in the bookstore downstairs.”
A receptionist in a major corporation like DC Comics, centered in the heart of New York City, has to have a certain degree of street smarts. “I’m afraid he’s busy at the moment. I’ll be glad to leave a note for him if you’d like.”
I replied quickly, “No thanks. Just tell him I’m here and that I’ll wait until he’s finished and can talk to me.” I strode over to the couch and defiantly sat next to Clark Kent. Clark was a life-sized (and life-like) statue. He sat right on the couch in the reception area, a real life copy of The Daily Planet held out in front of him. It was kind of spooky and outrageously cool.
My heart was racing a mile a minute. What the heck was I doing here?
When I was a kid, I was obsessed with Green Lantern. He was, by far, my favorite superhero. Batman was super-smart. Superman was super-strong. But Green Lantern was both. He was only limited by his imagination (and the color yellow) and he always, always got the girl.
Frustrated by the tone and content of the story, I decided to write a letter. I searched the fine print and discovered, to my surprise, that DC Comics was located just an hour away in Manhattan. It was then, down in my mother’s basement, that I hatched my secret plan to skip school and pay a visit to 666 5th Avenue.
I tried to come up with all kinds of Ferris Bueller-like schemes as to why I needed to take a train to New York City, but I knew my mom was way too clever for that. She had her own kind of x-ray vision and there was no way around it. In the end, I decided to just walk out the door in the morning and instead of riding my bike to school, I’d ride it to the train station. If I got an early enough train, said what I needed to say and got on an afternoon direct, I’d be back before school was even over. There’d still be the matter of an explanation for my absence, but in my mind, it’d be a heck of a lot easier to fool my teachers than my mother.
The humor was slowly receding from the receptionist’s face. “Young man, you can wait here until your mother comes to get you, but I’m afraid no one can see you today.”
“You’ll never know until you ask, right?” I said. “Can’t you just ask?”
She stood up and walked around her desk. At that point, I figured the jig was up and I’d failed miserably. I didn’t realize it, but my voice had raised an octave and my volume did as well. “Please. Why can’t you just let me in? It’s just for a minute!”
Maybe if I turned on the waterworks, she’d give in. “I came all this way!” I said, tears filling my eyes.
“Just calm down a minute.” she said, genuinely unnerved.
Just then, a voice called out from the hallway.
“What’s going on out here?”
An old man in a shirt and tie appeared, his brow furrowed. “Who’s the kid?” he barked.
The receptionist was halfway into her explanation when the old man called out to me, “get in here!”
That was the day I met Julius Schwartz.
“I’m Julie,” the old man said as we headed inside.
“That’s a girl’s name!” I said, chuckling.
“And a pretty girl at that!” he said, proudly. I didn’t get it.
For those of you unfortunates not savvy to just who Mr. Schwartz was, let me educate you. Julius was the most influential editor in the history of DC Comics and the father of what we’ve come to call the Silver Age. He resurrected both the Flash and Green Lantern from the Golden Age and revamped them for a new, younger audience. Without him, there would be no Barry Allen. Without him, there would be no Hal Jordan. Without him, there would be no Earth-2. Heck, without him, there would have been no one to inspire the creation of Marvel Comics. You can argue that with me all you like, but on this point, everyone’s entitled to my opinion.
Just like that, I’d gained entry into the magic castle. I followed him down a long hall, listening to the phones ring, hearing people call out to one another, gaping at the comic book images on the walls and marveling at the activity all around me. We entered the old guy’s office and I knew then he was someone important. He had a huge desk, a spectacular view and comic-book spinners! Spinners, right there in his office!
“Have a seat.” he said, treating me like a real live adult. I played the part, all the while quaking in my boots. “Now, what seems to be the problem?” He asked.
“The problem?” I replied. “Green Lantern. That’s the problem”.
Intrigued and amused, he said, “Ok. Let’s hear it.” I’d rehearsed this for days, so I came prepared. What I didn’t expect was how my nerves would make me speak at the speed of light.
“Look, no one loves Green Lantern more than me. No one. I’m a huge Hal Jordan fan. He’s just the coolest character and you should let him lead the Justice League already. I love the Green Lantern Corps, too. Heck, I wish I were a member of the Corps! But lately, Hal’s been showing up less and less in his own comic! You changed the name to “Green Lantern Corps” and we’ve got all these new characters running around (Kilowog’s awesome, by the way) and it’s still super-cool, but something’s not right. I know there are Green Lanterns all over outer space and everyone gets their own sector and everything, but if you’re going to bring in entire galaxies of characters, just give them their own comic and stop having them hijack Hal’s! It should be a Green Lantern comic that has all of these other guys visiting earth and not their comic that Hal gets to appear in. It’s just not fair. What if I bought Superman every month and all I got was the “Superman Corps”? What if I bought Batman and got the “Batman Corps”? Just give Hal his own book and the Corps their own book and let people choose what they want to read. That’s it.”
Julie stared at me, completely stoic. My heart pounded in my chest. He got up and walked toward me. I was sure he would grab me by the collar and toss me out into the street. But he walked right past me, stuck his head out into the hall and shouted, “Andy! Get in here!”
Then he went back to his desk, leaned back in his chair and kicked his feet up. After what seemed like an eternity in silence, a man came into the room.
“What’s up?” the man said.
A broad smile spread across Julie’s face. He pointed at me and said, “Tell this guy exactly what you just told me.” Then, he paused and said, “Slower.”
So I did. I was a dumb kid in a legend’s office in the heart of the most powerful comic book publishing company in the world trying to teach an object lesson to Andy Helfer, the editor of Green Lantern. Ah youth, how I miss you…
After I finished my monologue, the two men looked at one another, eyebrows raised.
“Good pitch.” said Andy.
“Kid might have your job one day.” said Julie.
Andy shook my hand and headed back to work. I sat in the office, suddenly aware of my situation. “Time to go.” I thought. But before I could say my “thank you” and hightail it out of there, Julie came around the table and sat next to me. He spoke quietly, a completely different tone than the one he’d been using since he first invited me in.
“Your parents know you’re here?” he said, calmly.
I had a choice to make in that moment. It was a big one and I knew it. In one direction was a future of regret and disappointment. In the other, pride and bravery. I look back on that moment now with a sense of relief beyond description that I chose the latter.
“No.” I told him. “I live with my mom. She thinks I’m in school. I took the train in from Stonybrook.”
“I know.” I replied, the wind flowing out of my sails. “I had to come. I just had to.”
Julie put his arm around me and said, “Takes courage to go on an adventure by yourself. Takes even more courage to tell the truth.”
So Julius Schwartz, a true comic book giant, spoke to my mother. She was upset, but he charmed the hell out of her and reassured her that I was just fine and that he’d make sure I got home safe. They went over train schedules and joked a bit on the phone. I was overwhelmingly embarrassed and tremendously thrilled all at the same time.
“Now that’s out of the way,” said Julie, “let me show you around.”
Julie gave me a tour of the surprisingly yellow offices. He answered my crazy questions. He described the daily routines and how the DC clocks ticked. He introduced me to a staff member, Robyn McBryde, a drop-dead gorgeous woman who stayed in touch after I left and stayed in my dreams well through my teenage years.
Julie and Robyn took me to the deli downstairs and bought me a sandwich. There were two other people from the office there and I listened as they talked “shop” and felt empowered, an honorable member of the DC team for the day. God knows who those people were at the table. Didn’t matter. Julie was clearly the most important and because I sat next to him, I was too.
After lunch, they put me on a train headed back home, my arms filled with bags of DC goodies. I was overwhelmingly giddy at how the day had turned out, but forlorn at the prospect of rejoining my banal life on the Island.
Julie shook my hand hard. He was the great and mighty Oz and he’d let me behind the curtain. “Come back and visit anytime,” he said. Then he added, “Just call first!”
I spent the next month back at home in a terrific slump. What do you do when you’ve been to the moon and now, you’re back to walking the earth? What do you do when you can’t share the experience with anyone who’d understand? Every day that went by, it felt more and more as if it had never happened at all.
And then, the package arrived.
An enormous envelope stuffed with piles of the latest DC comics releases. It was like opening a treasure chest, gold doubloons spilling out around me. Inside was a hand scrawled note, written on DC letterhead.
“To the kid who’s not afraid to tell the truth.” it read. “Let me know if you’ve got any other crazy ideas. Julie.”
Every month for the next two years, I received stuffed envelopes filled with booty. Every month. Sometimes, there were notes from Robyn. Sometimes, there were pads or buttons or Superman peanut butter (no kidding!). I sent letters to both of them every now and again, reaching out to my newfound friends in outer space.
Eventually, my mother and I would move into Manhattan. Eventually, Julie would retire. Eventually, Robyn would disappear from the comic world into the world of mortals. Eventually, DC moved its offices elsewhere. Eventually, the magic of those couple of years started to dissipate into the fog of childhood memory. The more the years passed the less real it seemed.
On February 8th 2004 (my birthday), Julie Schwartz passed away from complications stemming from pneumonia. Many comic professionals passed through my shop doors that day. I’m certain many stories were told in stores all across America.
We built a display in honor of Julie’s work. We ran out of room within minutes. We could have filled every display in the shop and still not had enough.
After closing that day, I found a comic book at the bottom of a box. I’d taken out some of my own personal items to display. All saved from those heady days of secret packages from 666 5th Avenue.
It was a pristine copy of Superman #411. On the cover, Julie is at his desk, surrounded by the DC staff as they celebrate his 70th birthday. Behind him, Superman flies past his window, holding a birthday cake. “Julie, we’ve got a surprise for you!” they shout.
I opened the cover and felt my childhood rush back into my veins. A note was scrawled at the bottom of the splash page. It read, “To Jud Meyers. My real life Super-Friend! Julius Schwartz 7/10/85.”
Decades have passed since my boyhood. I own a comic book store. We’re known for attention to detail and dedication to honesty. A great writer whom Julie would have more than approved of brought Hal Jordan back with a vengeance. The Green Lantern Corps have their own exciting titles.
I can’t help thinking how much one day can make so much difference to a young boy and his future. I can’t help imagining just how many people Julie affected in his eighty-eight years on this planet. I can’t help spending this week every year thinking about the old man in the shirt and tie who invited me in. Who became exactly what I needed in order to feel I had a place in the world and that I wasn’t alone. I can’t help thinking about Julie Schwartz who, for a very brief time, was my Super-Friend.