Remembering Nelson

Remembering Nelson 960 300 Paul Levitz

There’s been a bit of discussion of E. Nelson Bridwell (1931-1987) online recently, centering around his role in evolving the Black Adam character, and it inspired me to write a bit about him.  Nelson was an extraordinary living example of the theory that when the gods grant gifts, they come with prices…or the reverse, that those of us with burdens are often given unique gifts.  I can only think of one or two people I’ve met who shared his phenomenal ability to acquire and retain information, and none who used it as idiosyncratically.  Nelson was both one of the earliest comic book fans, and in some sad ways, the embodiment of the worse charicatures of our tribe.

Born in a small city in Oklahoma, Nelson confused his family early on, as his elderly aunts described at his memorial.  They reported that as  a child he taught himself Latin and Greek to read the classics in their original form, a skill he never advertised as an adult.  He was an active member of the fandom that focused on E.C. Comics in the 1950s, and stayed interested in MAD enough to make a few sales to them in the ensuing decade.

Nelson had the good fortune to be offered a job at DC Comics, a place uniquely suited to his talents.  Unfortunately, it was assisting Mort Weisinger, who though a brilliant and commercial editor, was unceasingly abusive to Nelson, an easy target.  Looking backward, I don’t think he was an Asperger’s case or even on the spectrum, simply a person with a massive I.Q. and no real comfort with most social relationships.  Mort talked to and of Nelson contemptuously, and years after the event, Nelson’s biting and hilarious speech at Weisinger’s retirement party was considered the height of ‘roast’ form by industry peers.

Despite a difficult relationship with his supervisor, Nelson felt that he had landed in exactly the best place for him to work.  The position made use of his encyclopeadic knowledge of comics,  pulp fiction, history, the Bible and other topics…if less use of his equally legendary knowledge of PLAYBOY.  (But then, free copies of PLAYBOY was an office perk along with other magazines distributed by DC’s sister company, Independent News).  He wrote well-remembered comics both for Weisinger (LEGION OF SUPER-HEROES) and other editors, creating two titles very distinct from the DC line of the time: INFERIOR FIVE and THE SECRET SIX.  The former notable for an issue parodying the DC staff, and the latter for being the first DC title to feature a man of color as a pivotal hero.  His longest run was on SUPER FRIENDS, where we introduced new characters, and treated the DC icons with honor while maintaining a softness for our youngest readers.

Visiting fans found a warm welcome from Nelson, and he was a pivotal source for me when I was doing THE COMIC READER.  Part of that connection was like-minded souls bonding, as the fans often obsessed over the same details that Nelson mastered (ready for a discussion of how G-8 AND HIS BATTLE ACES connects to the SUPERMAN mythology?), and fan Rich Morrisey became one of Nelson’s few close friends.  Few?  Well, at one point in my odd career I had the task of reviewing DC’s phone bills.  For most of us, you could easily identify our loved ones by their frequent or daily reappearing numbers as outgoing calls.  Nelson usually had no more than a handful of calls for the month, none betraying an emotional pattern.

Much of his social challenges by the 1970s came from his health, which included a syndrome that might have been a version of Tourette’s, as emitted odd noises at unpredictable (and clearly uncontrollable) intervals.  Or it might have stemmed from his digestive problems.  Whatever the cause, in those pre-ADA, less enlightened days, he was asked not to eat in the Warner Communications cafeteria which served as DC’s lunchroom from 1973 on.   You could find Nelson eating lunch alone at his desk, or perhaps curled up under it, napping.

Despite all these factors isolating him, Nelson was unfailingly generous with his knowledge, and took joy in carefully selecting reprint material to share the treasures of the past with others.  Long before the digital revolution, or even the common presence of shelf after shelf of trade collections, Nelson introduced others to the Golden Age by careful picks in the classic DC Annuals, 100 Pagers and tabloids…and even the near-legendary Crown collections, SUPERMAN FROM THE 30s TO THE 70s and the companion BATMAN and SHAZAM volumes.  For some of us, assembling reprint books was an interesting way to pick up a few extra bucks,; for Nelson, it was a way to spread the word.

A longtime guardian of the company’s continuity, Nelson was called upon to help the creatives on projects from  SUPERMAN THE MOVIE to SUPER FRIENDS, as well as beleagured editors going to him for copies of the awkwardly assembled and photocopied reference sheets he had for many characters.  It was only matters of continuity violation that could bring Nelson to anger, and there was a moment in the creation of the first DC mini-series, WORLD OF KRYPTON, that came close to fisticuffs between Nelson and his then boss, Joe Orlando.

Whatever private life Nelson had, he kept private.  Somewhere along the line, he acknowledged going to nudist resorts, but  expressed it in as unsalicious a tone as describing the latest book he read.  When he passed, his friends who went to shut down his apartment reported it as basically consisting of giant piles of comics and magazines, and a mattress.  For it all, though, I can’t recall seeing Nelson sad or envious of the life anyone else had.  He was a difficult man to truly get to know, but I regret that I didn’t make more efforts to do so.  If you’re ever lucky enough to have someone like that on the periphery of your life, don’t make the same mistake.

  • I enjoyed your comments about Mr. Bridwell. . As a fellow Okie, I always wanted to learn more about him. Thank you very much.

  • This was a lovely tribute to a socially awkward genius. My brief but enjoyable run of sales to Julie Schwartz in 1980-81 of stories for the WHATEVER HAPPENED TO…? back-up series in DC COMICS PRESENTS were probably almost entirely due to Nelson reading my proposals and saying to Julie, “These stories follow DC continuity.” I’d first met him in 1971 when visiting the DC offices, then again the following week at the Seulingcon, and encountered a person who found comics continuity as fascinating and wonderful as I did. We spoke each July at the offices and the cons (he’d usually show up Saturdays) from then till 1976, then by mail until December, 1984, when I last had occasion to be in NYC, where I spoke to him for hours at the office and then at the DC Christmas party at the Automat.

    I can’t say I knew him well, but I counted him as a friend, and my admiration for his work and scholarship has only grown since his too-early death at age 56. His Tourette’s never interfered in our conversations, and he was never condescending to me despite his obvious far more vast knowledge of books, plays, movies as well as his overall intellectual superiority. My biggest regret was never asking him enough about his own Global Guardians, which I considered to be throwbacks to the ’40s-’60s heroes, far out of step with the grim and gritty contemporary characters of the late ’70s, so much so as to be defenseless to the post-Crisis corruption of their pedigree once he was no longer around to protect them. While he may have been proud to see some of them gain JLA membership, I know he wouldn’t have appreciated a half-dozen of them being used as cannon fodder to younger writers’ capricious dispatchiing of “lesser” characters.

    All I can hope is that someday Nelson will get his due widespread recognition for what he contributed to both DC and to comic books in general.