Friday, July 11, 2008

Russell Burbage - 1977

Russell Burbage - 1977

As long as I've known of them I've always been a fan of the Teen Titans. I think this is partly because I have always liked Robin. When I watched the old Batman TV series my favorites were Burt Ward as Robin and Yvonne Craig as Batgirl. Even as a little kid I somehow knew that Adam West was not the "real" Batman.

Be that as it may, I first came upon the Teen Titans in the 100 Pages For
60c issue of Brave and the Bold #116. It reprinted "The Dimensional Caper" from Teen Titans #16. This is the story where Robin, Kid Flash, Aqualad, and Wonder Girl fight off an alien invasion from Dimension X. It had wonderful Nick Cardy art and a wacky story by Bob Haney, plus one of the all-time greatest comic-book covers ever. I liked how the Titans were all sidekicks, but they were not incompetent. And they were very obviously friends. They instantly became some of my favorites.

A few years later in 1977 the Teen Titans had their own book again. It featured Robin, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Speedy, and several other supporting characters slash members. Jose Delbo was doing what I considered beautiful art, and Bob Rozakis was doing the writing. Now I don't know about everybody, but I always found Rozakis' work entertaining. He created The Calculator in Detective Comics, he was doing great work on Freedom Fighters, and he wrote some great Robin and Batgirl stories in Batman Family. Plus he wrote some fun letter page columns.

In Teen Titans #48 Rozakis decided he wanted a better looking letter column heading for that book, so he announced a contest to get one. I guess contests were all the rage in those days, since he had done something similar over in Freedom Fighters already. Rozakis was promising an autographed script as the prize, and I thought that was well worth the effort. Something in my 12 year-old mind that that *I* could come up with something cool for this team I liked, so I set upon the task.

I reread that issue over and over again. I thought about the members. I thought about writing to the book. I thought about what you need when you write. Somehow, I came up with the idea to put the Titans themselves on stamps. Maybe I saw the Batman TV episode where the heroes are turned into stamps, who knows? I don't know how it happened, but somehow I managed to win the contest. My design had the six or seven main Titans grouped together on one large stamp, and somehow that design beat out everybody else's ideas.

A few months after I sent in my art I got the letter and the autographed script. To tell you the truth I had forgotten about the contest. As soon as I saw the return address and the size of the envelope, however, I think I had a spasmodic attack. It's really true what they say about letters from colleges and publishers: the bigger the better. I ripped open the envelope and found the script with the memo shown here. I couldn't believe it. Even now, I consider it one of the milestones in my life.
The script is something I treasure to this day. I think that it had a direct effect on how I was able to better understand comics, movies, TV, and eventually plays. I read it and reread it, studying it so I could one day write my own comics.

The script was for Teen Titans #51, so I naturally assumed that that would be the issue where my design would make its debut. I couldn't wait for that issue to hit the stands! When I told my parents what I had done, they of course showed enthusiasm and excitement, too. They couldn't wait to drive me to the bookstore to find the issue. I think for close to four weeks every time I went to the book store my mother asked, "Not yet?"

And then one day it was finally there. I saw it on the stands and grabbed it. I actually dashed out of the store with it in my hand and shouted to my mother in the car, "It's here!" Suddenly realizing that I was, in fact, stealing it, I went back and tried to calm down. I flipped through to the letters page heart sank. My design wasn't there! In my confusion I flipped through the issue for some explanation. By this point my mother had joined me, and she looked, too. "It's not there yet" was all I could say. We decided that even though I got the script for this
issue, the design would not appear until the next. Dejectedly I bought my comics and had to wait an additional two months.
Finally I got the issue I was waiting for. Teen Titans #52 is nothing special as covers go. It doesn't feature any of my favorite characters besides Robin, and the story inside is nothing special. However...! A quick glance to the letters page will show that this issue is one of the most important in my entire collection.
I quickly bought up half a dozen copies to send to my sisters in college and to various aunts and uncles. I was pretty proud of myself; still am, really. Sure, it wasn't my original artwork, and that sort of bummed me out. On the other hand, when I saw that Terry Austin had redesigned it, I couldn't very well complain. As designs go, I still think it's pretty cool.

Unfortunately, just one issue later "my" Teen Titans was cancelled. That means my letter column design appeared in a whopping two issues of the book (sigh). It was awesome while it lasted.

After the glow of the actual incident began to fade, I kept a little bit of pride burning inside me that served me pretty well for several more years. For example, I had a hellish junior high (who didn't?), but whenever things got really bad and I started to feel totally self-conscious and put-upon, I could always pull the script out of my desk and show myself my greatest accomplishment.

People criticizing my art because it looked too much like Hembeck's? Okay, but my design ability was good enough to win a nationwide contest, wasn't it? In an odd sort of way, I thought of myself as a Jim Shooter-type of Child Prodigy. My talent had been recognized, and that gave me the self-confidence I needed to pursue everything else in my life. And although my interest in writing eventually overwhelmed my artistic ambitions, I never lost my self-confidence. After all, I *had* won a nationwide design contest at 12, hadn't I?

Even now, 30 years and plenty of other accomplishments later, I still relish my little bit of connection to the Teen Titans, as obscure or trivial as it may seem. I keep these issues in my "don't sell" pile so my daughter and maybe even my grandchildren will someday know that I had an all-too brief brush with fame in the world of comics.

And if I ever meet Terry Austin, I want to ask him whatever happened to this piece of original art. And I want to get him to autograph my copy of this issue. I'll gladly autograph his in return.


Rick L. Phillips said...

Wow I am happy for you Russell. I have never known anyone who ever won any of those contest. Since you have been commenting and sending in submissions from your collection to my site, comic book letterheads museum, I now can say that I do. I will have to post a link to this story with in the next week on that site.

Anonymous said...


Great story, and congrats, years later. Just FYI, those Titan head shots were used in TwoMorrows' "Titans Companion, Vol. 1", so your design lives on!


Anonymous said...

Earth 2 Chris,
I did NOT know that! I need to get a copy of that!!!

Grears said...

Wow. Just Wow.

I always wanted to get a letter published, but I was too afraid to write!

You are the man.



Anonymous said...

Awesome. I have a new favorite Hey, Kids story!

I really dug that short revival of the Teen Titans. I only had one or two issues of the original TT run but when this revival hit I became so enamored of the group I tracked down all the back issues I could find.

And those back issues - That's the era of the Titans I really fell in love with, the goofy "teen" lingo years. I always thought the Titans worked best when the team was composed primarily of the sidekicks of adult heroes.

Oh, the Wolfman / Perez years were brilliant, no doubt about it. But I think something was lost when half the team were new heroes who just happened to be young people.

Unknown said...

this is a fantastic story, I enjoyed reading about your triumph. I can relate to this since I had a couple of similar brushes with fame although they're nothing to do with drawing/art.