Moments with a Giant in Fandom

An interview with Donald Swan (Mark Hamill)

Pardon the personal recollection. But when I first started really understanding that there was such a thing as fandom, my big guide-post was the fanzine Once Upon A Dime. Sure, I’d gotten Jules Feiffer’s The Great Comic Book Heroes for Christmas one year, and that sparked my intense interest in the Golden Age. But because I knew Feiffer was a cartoonist and a playwright, he seemed like somebody I could never aspire to be. (Hey, I was six.)

And then when my parents took me to a comic book store for the first time so I wouldn’t feel jealousy towards their adopting my baby brother, I saw an early issue of Donald Swan’s Once Upon A Dime. Here was the work of fans for fans, shedding light on heroes long since gone (from my youthful perspective).

Who was The Burning Eye? The Green Llama? The Reverend? Mary Medusa? I’d never seen those on the spinner rack at Rhonda Rexall. Donald and his writing partner Derek Jensen filled me in on their pasts, the successful heroes and some far less so. All of them fascinated me.

Of course, none of those characters held a candle to Commander Courage in Donald’s eyes. Through Donald’s dedicated fan scholarship, I came to really understand a creator, the unfortunate Jackson Whitney. People like Jack Kirby and Stan Lee were as much characters as their creations; Whitney was the first to become a real person to me.

So when Donald came to the San Diego Comic-Con this past summer in his new role as technical consultant for the movie Codename: Courage, I had to try and corner him for an interview. Luckily, the guys at Creative Light Entertainment were able to help me connect with the fanboy writer (before they were called such) who inspired this fanboy writer.

When the meeting occurred, it was shortly after a panel that Donald and Derek moderated, featuring Stan Lee talking about his recent video release Stan Lee’s Mutants, Monsters & Marvels . Earlier that day, word had spread around the Con that Donald had also managed to track down Jackson Whitney’s now-adult grandson and was introducing him to the world of comics.

The man after a hard day of dealing with Hollywood suits.

The man after a hard day of dealing with Hollywood suits.

Derek McCaw: Donald, you are to comics fandom what Sal Piro is to Rocky Horror and Bjo Trimble is to Star Trek.

Donald Swan: That’s very flattering.

DM: How does it feel to be sort of the godfather of comics fandom?

DS: Well, Derek Jensen and I have written a fanzine for years, called “Once Upon A Dime.” It’s so sporadic, the fans get mad because we were meant to be like a quarterly, but as things catch up with you, you’re not always on schedule.

But this is like a dream come true for me. Because I always wanted to know why I’m so enamored of sequential art, comic strips and comic books, so many years after we were expected to leave them behind. It’s almost like a wonderful opportunity to figure out why that is. What hold do they have over us? It’s just been really thrilling.

It’s not about me. It’s really about the fans and about collecting. Having said that, I get to rub elbows with Stan Lee and Ray Harryhausen, and what’s wrong with that?

DM: You wrote The Dark Diamond (a comic book mini-series with a decidedly critical eye toward superheroes) with Derek…

DS: With Derek, right. We also wrote a book called Toon Tonnage, about television animation.

DM: Yeah, you mentioned that at the panel…

DS: Oh, you were at the panel. Right. Again, it’s a way to, and I think you have discovered, a way to keep your hobby alive and make it work for you.

And you did, too, Derek, because now you’re writing for Fanboy Planet and you get to indulge all your passions.

I mean I’d hate to have to be writing for the NRA, because I’m not a gun enthusiast, or any specialty magazine where that wasn’t my passion. We’re so lucky, I think, to be able to incorporate what we love into what our job is. Actually, I’d really like to sit down with Fanboy Planet and really do it right.

DM: Let’s do that. We’ll get into the particulars of Commander Courage and Liberty Lad…

DS: That’s right. All of it. All of it.

DM: I guess you’re in control of the character now? Or have I misunderstood what I’ve been reading?

DS: Well, what they’ve done is they’ve asked me to be a technical advisor, but the characters will be revamped. It’s sort of in flux now. I’m hoping I can bend them to my will, because I obviously have a fondness for the Golden Age incarnations. And this one is going to be a much more hard-edged…

An actor hired to portray Commander Courage for the convention.

An actor hired to portray Commander Courage for the convention.

DM: Grim and gritty?

DS: Yeah…Liberty Lad is now Liberty Lass, and she’s old enough to have a relationship, and I’m going…See, partners, I was taught…keep that outside of your work. Your romantic entanglements can really derail you at your job.

But that’s…really, I have to sort of keep that under my hat. Because really, it’s not my…it’s like Stan (Lee) was talking about, “I had nothing to do with the Captain America movie; I was kind of shocked.” And I’m not even on par with Stan.

They’re just using me to, I think, give the project a little bit of credibility, and then there’s that human interest story of discovering the grandson of Jackson Whitney. He had no idea he was related to him. Leo Matuszak’s his name.

DM: That is really exciting.

DS: Well, yeah. We were really trying to find the last place his grandfather had been on the field of battle. We eventually tracked it down to a little Czechoslovakian hospital, and that’s where it all came out.

DM: Will he be here tonight as well?

DS: Jackson Whitney passed away.

DM: I mean Leo.

DS: Oh. Leo. Leo Matuszak. Yes.

DM: We all know about Jackson. Of course, please, I’ve read your ‘zine.

onceuponadime

The 1992 issue — when Donald and Derek first discovered Desktop Publishing!

DS: You know obviously I can’t assume that people are all…that I’m preaching to the converted. I have to remember like when the People Magazine article…well, it hasn’t come out yet, but I think they’re going to do one on Leo, because it’s such a fascinating story.

He had no idea, not only of who his grandfather was, but comic books? He said, “I kind of remember a spinner rack down at the Sunoco,” but he doesn’t even read them. We’re seeing through his eyes.

DM: That’s exciting. You’re like a comic archaeologist…

DS: I feel like it. Thanks for taking the time to talk with me.

DM: We’ll try to follow up after the filming is done, get how you feel about everything that’s happened.

DS: I’d love to. I’m a big fan of your site.

The filming, of course, refers to both Codename: Courage and the documentary that Creative Light has been working on about the behind-the-scenes struggles. We’re holding Donald to that promise as we get closer to the release date.

Editor’s note from 2015: This interview was conducted to promote the filming of Mark Hamill’s Comic Book: The Movie in 2003. It is a real interview, but almost all the facts in it were improvised by Hamill and myself. If you notice a resemblance between Hamill and Donald Swan, then you’ve seen the movie.

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About Derek McCaw

In addition to running Fanboy Planet, Derek has written for ActionAce, Daily Radar, Once Upon A Dime, and The Wave. He has contributed stories to Arcana Comics (The Greatest American Hero) and Monsterverse Comics (Bela Lugosi’s Tales from the Grave). He performs with ComedySportz San Jose and ShakesBEERience, in addition to occasional screenwriting and acting jobs. If you ever played Eric’s Ultimate Solitaire on the Macintosh, it was Derek’s voice as The Weasel that urged you to play longer. Email him at editor@fanboyplanet.com.