I lost one of my dearest friends Wednesday night when the great writer and raconteur Harlan Ellison passed away. It was Harlan who told me, “The thing that sucks about getting old is losing your pals.”
Harlan was a great, award-winning writer, a champion of creators’ (especially writers) rights, a phenomenally outrageous speaker, an acid-tongued political gadfly and, easily, one of the most loyal and loving friends I have ever had.
Harlan marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama with Martin Luther King. He was the third most anthologized science fiction writer (after Ray Bradbury and Isaac Asimov). Harlan wrote the best Outer Limits episode (“Demon with a Glass Hand”) and best Star Trek episode (“The City on the Edge of Forever”). He’s in the Science Fiction Hall of Fame (Harlan hated being called a “science fiction writer). He was the editor of the incredibly important and influential Dangerous Visions anthologies. When he served as the creative consultant on the first two seasons of the revamped Twilight Zone show in the 1980s, he brought the quality level of that show up to some of the best TV that medium has ever seen.
The Los Angeles Times described Harlan as “fiercely independent, vengeful, sardonic, opinionated, confrontational, foul-mouthed, petulant, infuriating, defiant and a general all-around nuisance — as well as engaging, gregarious, funny, fastidiously organized and generous to his friends”.
Harlan Ellison was all that and much, much more.
I had heard about Harlan before I’d ever met him. His volatile reputation intrigued me. I first saw him speak at the first science fiction convention I ever attended, a WesterCon in Santa Monica in 1969. I hung around on Harlan’s periphery, watching him interact with, entertain, educate and insult a variety of friends and fans. He was never dull and often a wonder to behold.
That year I was working as the sole illustrator for the pulp magazine Coven 13. I was absolutely thrilled and delighted when my editor, Arthur Landis, handed me an unpublished Harlan Ellison story to illustrate: “Rock God”. I drew a double page pen, brush and ink illustration with a strong Jack Kirby influence. After it was published I heard through the grapevine that Harlan hated it.
Shortly after that I was exhibiting at a comic book convention at Universal Studios being put on by my pals at the American Comic Book Company (for whom I was doing lots of advertising illustration). I spotted Harlan and approached him. I caught him totally off guard when, after introducing myself, I said, “I hear you hated my illustration for ‘Rock God’”. For a brief moment Harlan was at a loss for words — the only time I’ve ever seen Harlan at a loss for words.
“Where’s your table?”
I brought Harlan over to my display of works for sale. He looked at my work and then proceeded to purchase one copy of each and every thing I had for sale.
We’ve been close friends ever since.
We shared my friend Byron Preiss as a publisher. I illustrated “Shattered Like a Glass Goblin” (the story that got me hired to storyboard and design the Conan the Barbarian movie) for Byron’s publication The Illustrated Harlan Ellison. When Byron was in town (L.A.) he would usually take Harlan and me out for dinner. At one dinner I was in the middle of beginning my 1981 book THE DINOSAURS – A Fantastic New View of a Lost Era. I was both writing and illustrating the book. I handed one of my scripted stories to Harlan, hoping for his approval. He began to read it and then suddenly burst out with a loud “Woo HOO!” He derogatorily read aloud a passage from my story to Byron and our collection of fellow diners. “Purple prose — and I don’t think it gets much purpler than this, my friend.” He held his nose and handed me back my story.
Harlan’s very public criticism of my writing stung — but as I tell my students, criticism is a gift. It is meant to make you better at what you do. I tell them if I want to be told my work is great, I’ll show it to my mom. But I’m not going to learn anything or get better at what I do by being told I’m wonderful.
I reevaluated my writing and never indulged in purple prose ever again. Happily, Harlan made me aware of this particular bad writing habit of mine when I was beginning my book — not after it had been published.
I told this story to my sons when they were boys. When my oldest son Andy had finished some of his college application essays, he asked me to read them critically. “Be Harlan Ellison brutal, Dad.” “Harlan Ellison brutal” became a phrase used often in our family when one of us wanted the honest truth.
Harlan changed my life for the better in another way. We were visiting at his home, Ellison Wonderland, catching up with each other. I looked smugly pleased as punch as I told him I was making money hand over fist working as a full time consultant at Walt Disney Imagineering, designing Disney theme parks. It was the most money I’d ever made on a sustained job.
He looked at me like I was some kind of schmuck.
“You’ll have something from me tomorrow, Stout.”
Harlan sent me two quotes:
“A man is what he does with his time.”
“Artists are not corrupted by money; they are diverted from their true path.”
I put those two quotes on my studio wall and quit WDI that very week.
Harlan was married five times. He hit the jackpot with his fifth wife Susan, the wife I felt he always deserved: sharp, attractive, patient, loving and someone who didn’t hesitate to call him on his shit — in her very own sweet English fashion.
I’ve got a hundred Harlan Ellison stories. I’m not talking about the stories he has written (I’ve got nearly all of those, too), I’m talking about what happens when you’re around such a colorful guy.
I’m not going to tell them all here, though — I’d be writing this blog and doing nothing else for the next few years.
I will tell you this one story, though, as it is a tale I tell with some pride.
When I was the production designer on the Masters of the Universe movie, I had a really bright guy working for me as a P. A. (production assistant; basically, a go-fer). His name was Josh Olson. I saw Josh sporadically after Masters, usually running into him at Comic Con International. One day I got a call from Josh. He had been nominated for an Academy Award for writing A History of Violence, the terrific David Cronenberg movie. Josh was in the middle of a dazzling experience and he wanted to share it with someone who had been there at Josh’s humble cinematic beginnings. So, we went to Oscar parties together and had a helluva time. During our times together he mentioned how much he admired Harlan Ellison and Harlan’s writings.
“I know Harlan; he’s a close friend. I can introduce you to him if you like.”
Josh lit up like a Christmas tree. I made the call. I didn’t tell Josh that this might end badly, depending upon Harlan’s mood and what Ellison thought of Olson’s writing.
After they met, Harlan called me.
“Where in the hell did you find this guy Josh? He’s like the long lost wonderful little brother I never knew I had.”
Harlan and Josh became the bestest of best friends; absolutely inseparable. My pride comes from facilitating the circumstance of two of my own good friends meeting each other and becoming their own future best pals.
You leave a vast chasm in my life with your departure, Harlan — and a lot of other lives, too. Your writings, your YouTube videos and the fine documentary on your life, Dreams with Sharp Teeth, will sadly have to be our proxy for guidance from you from now on.