Christopher Priest aka: James Owsley

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Owsley looks tough

James Owsley around 1982

James Owsley has changed his name to Christopher Priest. The reasons are unimportant for this rememberance; I really don’t know them. The Owsley I knew was the energetic and intelligent, multi-talented young guy I spent a lot of after-hours time with. Owsley started at Marvel, working with Paul Laiken who was the editor of Crazy Magazine when I came on-staff and before Larry Hama took over. For those who don’t know, Crazy was one of Marvel’s typical “trailing edge” humor efforts, patterned after Mad Magazine. Whatever Larry brought to Crazy is not important here; what he kept was James Owsley. When I arrived at Marvel, the Crazy working area was a small office only a couple of doors down from my stat room. (Later, the typesetting computer room was only a door down from that room. All rather cozy.)

One of the most impressive things about Owsley is that he attended a trade school and he learned a skill. Alas, it was using a Linotype Machine– generating “hot type” for newspapers. In what must have seemed like hours after his graduation from that process, hot type gave way to cold type. I know; sounds funny. Basically, hot type is made in a nutty and gigantic contraption that gives you a poured metal version of a single line of a sentence on a newspaper page. Yep, made out of molten lead! Cold type is the result of a computer assisted photographic process. Which brings me to how Jim and I became chummy. Jim wanted to learn to use the typesetting machine. I am not certain, but it was probably Carl Gafford, the original typesetting machine operator, who taught him the basics. Since there were actually two, wildly different typesetting machines and Gaff decided to leave at one point, Jim and I basically taught ourselves the newer machine. (Along with Marion Stensgard, the second typesetter! But that’s a longer story.)

The new machine was made by Merganthaller Linotype– the same German company who had made Owsley’s mechanical Nemisis. We learned together, because we both knew the principles of what the machines could do. The machine itself was so new, the operator’s manual had not been translated from the German yet!

Owsley saw learning the machine as a way to quickly set type for any Crazy projects that needed doing. Since everything was always late, being able to slip in after hours and do what needed to be done, was a good thing. A special note to Crazy fans out there: look over the indicias carefully. If you know when Owsley and cold type coincided in time, then was when Jim started writing slightly “off” indicias. I haven’t seen them since– they seemed mighty funny at 8 or 9PM. Since Jim worked for Larry, sometimes the “black & white” Conans or King Kulls would get the same treatment. It was also a source of freelance money, never a bad thing at Marvel.

Of note was that Jim had scrimped and saved to make a record album of his own original music featuring himself as lead vocalist. This was around late 1981. Very nicely, he asked me to take some pictures of a recording session and the pic for the album cover (shown below, Jim hanging on to the entry of 575 Madison! Mid-morning, one day, I had my camera in hand, he threw on his suit and we ran downstairs to shoot that shot, as he set it up!). I also pasted up the entire album cover. He insisted I charge him! Usually us Bullpenners all worked as one back then. But Jim was adamant. I also know that he had Larry Hama, a musician as well, in for a session to lay down some tracks.

Time goes by. Owsley is made an editor of the Spider line of books. Great stuff. Now I’m going to tell this story and try to apologize at the same time. I am apologizing for the fact that this took place during the time when I tried to be taken more seriously. I used to be all over the place, taking pictures of people doing all manner of things. When I was moving up, from assistant editor to Special Projects Editor, I was trying to be more business-like. And so, I did not take pictures of:

Owsley’s office! Owsley infuriated pretty much everybody at Marvel by setting a style that was remarkable and forward-thinking. But who knew at the time? Jim spent his own money to buy the first Editorial Computer at Marvel. I kid you not! Jim was the guy. Now Marvel itself had been involved with the infamously-named Wang computer system– which was a really simple-minded word-processor– deeply flawed in that it followed a series of document templates and nothing else. But that was gone by then. Now Jim comes along with the original Macintosh desktop computer! Yes, what we now call the Mac Classic. This was, uh, 1983? Of course, he had to get his own printer. Secondarily infuriating was that he then moved in his own office furniture. A sleek glass desktop supported by a chrome steel frame. Amusingly, for anyone visiting, he had chairs more akin to beach use than office– with clicky, adjustable backs and all.

But the most enraging single thing he did, in his all-new office was: get an answering machine. No small thing, either. Back then they were relatively new and quite large, using cassette tapes for out-going and received messages. They were attached to the very new, quite elaborate new phone system that Marvel had just installed. Those birth-struggles were long and hard. There went Owsley, just ramming his answering machine between the wall socket and the new phone. But it worked.

Amazing. One must know that no one had ever done this before. Very few people had bubbled up through the pipes of good old Marvel and not run around stealing office furniture. Which, in fact, Jim and I would often do– working after-hours has its perks! Even “outside” editors would come in, sniff gingerly at the provided office equipment, perhaps make a request or two for a chair. But that’s it. Jim couldn’t have been more non-plussed or seemingly even able to detect the furor around him. I felt a little outrage, more because I didn’t have the wherewithall to rent office furniture! But I sidled up to Jim to ask, why the answering machines? His response was typically intelligent. People would call in at any time of the day, Jim calmly observed, interrupting whatever it was he was doing. This way, he would call back when he felt best able to focus on the caller. Of course, it sounds rather appropriate now. But back then, Marvel and Bedlam had much in common. The three-ring circus was never ending and irritating phone calls were the lesser of office-evils.

A word should be said about Owsley’s assistants. I have no idea of how Veronica Lawler– forever Ronnie thereafter– found her way to applying as Jim’s assistant. I must have asked, now forgotten. But there she was, a beautiful child; for, I believe she was 20 (I think younger than that, but memories… ). I mean, she was dressed in her school-girl uniform! I did have the sense to crack out my camera for her; seeing one of those pictures recently, Ronnie cracked, “Who the hell was that kid?” Ronnie did her Yeoman duty and did the rare act of moving from assistant editor into production. I was lucky enough to nab her when it came time to fill out my team at Special Projects. Not long after that, sweet Ron connected with Mike Carlin, Editor, seriously enough for a marriage! They even honeymooned with Don Ho! As time and tide would have it, they got divorced and both are now happily re-married! Ronnie is a wildly talented illustrator; an early book of hers is “I Dream To Come To America” a book about emigrants and Ellis Island.

After Ronnie moved to the Bullpen, Owsley needed a new assistant and found– in a similarly mysterious manner– Adam Blaustein. Adam was a compact young fellow but endowed with a vastly deep voice. Such a good voice, that he was a voice artist. The best examples of that were I recall him trying out for the voice of Mr. Magoo, when that was being modernized. The most amazing pop-culture voice that he did make his own: Mewtoo of Pokemon fame! The only character of that string of oddness that spoke words and sentences; the rest of the hundreds only said their own names. Hearing that voice in the theater (with my Pokemon fan son) allowed me to “hear” Adam doing his Brooklyn accent!  Adam moved on from Marvel after I did, so I knew little of what he was up to. But the grapevine was still in place and he was working over at DC for a while. Adam struggled with gender identity, new to the country in the late 1980s and early 90s, the most visible sign was that he changed his name to Addie Blaustein (in the Pokemon movies credits). Sadly, he passed away much, much too young a short while ago.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that James Owsley is the first African-American editor at Marvel Comics.  I find it hard to believe that he was the first Black comic-book editor, but in the “big” houses; pretty sure.

After I had mustered out of Marvel, I lost contact with a lot of Marvelites and comic people; Jim as well. I was visiting some chums at DC and there he was, with an office and all (–a much more staid but discretely-lighted office!). He had been tapped by Dwayne McDuffy, the head of DC’s imprimatur line of African-American oriented books, Milestone, to edit books. Jim was busy but graciously invited me in and we chatted for a short while. I asked him about the rumor that he had been a bus driver for a while. I was frankly curious about being on a high at Marvel, getting the boot and then coming back “across the street” so to speak– working at DC. He answered in that thoughtful and direct way of his. That his time as a bus driver was simply great! You do your route, at the end of the day you park the bus, hand in the keys and your’e done! Nothing like comics. Which is endless.

Some time after that, I was perusing the bookshelves at Barnes & Noble and spotted a book by “Christopher Priest.” I knew that was Jim. It was a hardcover book “Green Lantern.” I was delighted for my old comrade, looked about some more and left. As I hit the street, I was struck by a vivid memory. Back in the “lounge” area of my old stat area, Jim and I were winding down from the regular flurry of day-to-day stuff and we were talking about “them.” The competition, DC. I said I had not read much, preferred Batman to Superman, had dipped a toe in Green Lantern, but didn’t quite see it. Jim then went on to give a perfect precis of the GL mythos, down to the little blue, big-headed Oas, the Battery and The Corp and finishing up with a recitation of  the Green Lantern oath, “In brightest day…” Rather impassioned; it’s different when a believer says it. Comics can be like that.



Ows Copies

Owsley using Marvel’s first plain paper xerographic process copier. Sometime in 1980.

Hollis Stone

James Owsley outside of Marvel’s building on Madison Avenue.

Owsley as a Crazy Magazine character

Owsley posing as a doctor-like person to appear in one of Crazy Magazine’s ads. Jim was very near-sighted and before he got contacts, his eyes were reduced to the size of pin-points!

James Owsley

Taken at the same time as the above! A world of difference– this is the Owsley I remember. The big-eyed one.

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