AUGUST 2011: by BRAD HAMLIN for MYSTERY ISLAND MAGAZINE
Brad: Hi Bob and thanks for taking the time to speak with us on Mystery Island.
I had not read PLOP! since it came out in the ‘70s, so reading the DC Millennium reprint edition of PLOP! No. 1 was a nice time-traveling experience, especially with an introduction that gave insight as to a little known phenomenon known as the “Comicmobile” … driven by Bob Rozakis!
The idea of you driving a vehicle around New York and New Jersey – dedicated to bringing comic books straight to the customer is a pure piece of Americana, and we just have to get the correct details on that history.
You’ve had a super interesting career in comics and other media, but I’d really like to start out here by asking how you became the driver of the Comicmobile. What was it exactly and how long did it exist?
Bob: The Comicmobile was the brainchild of Sol Harrison, who was the VP at DC at the time. He thought that a good way to sell comics would be to have a fleet of vans that drove up and down the streets like the ice cream man did.
The first (and only) Comicmobile was first driven in the summer of 1973 in New Jersey by Michael Uslan, who has since gone on to fame as a writer and as executive producer of the Batman, Swamp Thing, Spirit and other movies. When Michael had to return to Indiana University, Sol decided that I should do the second half of the summer test run on Long Island. The Comicmobile was stocked with current and back issues of all the DC comics being published.
Brad: And PLOP! was actually your best seller? Must have seemed like the goofy/cool thing to buy on the street at the time – and they were right.
Bob: PLOP far outsold anything else we had on the Comicmobile. Only the first issue had been published when Mike started driving and the second issue came out during my tenure. The kids who had bought the first one were anxiously awaiting #2.
Brad: And you actually have a picture of you and the Comicmobile!
Bob: "Wonder Woman" and "Superman" are my then-future wife Laurie and yours truly.
Brad: Ha, very cool! How did you transition from driving comics around town to actually writing them (or were you already on staff)?
Bob: I had joined the staff as an Editorial Assistant before I went off on my six weeks of driving the Comicmobile. I got to work with Julie Schwartz and so was able to start pitching him ideas for stories. Eventually, I sold him a Robin story ("The Touchdown Trap" in DETECTIVE #445) and then started writing regularly.
Brad: I remember seeing your name all over the place in the 1970s and 1980s, must have been a really exciting time to work with such a treasure trove of characters. What was your first Batman story? I know you worked with both of the big guns, Bats and Superman.
Bob: My first (and second and third) stories were Robin tales. I did a couple of Elongated Man stories. My first Batman was a three-parter that Mike Uslan and I collaborated on.
Brad: You also worked with a true Mystery Island favorite, Aquaman. Anything you remember about working with that character we’d love to hear. The classic Aquaman just doesn’t get the proper attention these days.
Bob: I enjoyed writing Aquaman, along with other characters who were not appearing in other books, because I had some control over what happened with them. I tried to bring some of what I enjoyed of the Aquaman tales of the 60s into what I was writing. I remember bringing back New Venice, the sunken town that had appeared once way back when.
Brad: I read all of that stuff. I'm looking forward to finding those stories again. In addition to writing many of the most iconic characters of the DC Universe – you added to that landscape as well, co-creating ‘Mazing Man and Mister E, but your most interesting credit was the outright invention of DC’s first female black character, the super cool, Bumblebee. I’ve always liked that character. Tell us how she came about.
Bob: The Bumblebee was created as a member of the Teen Titans when I was writing it. Karen Beecher was introduced as the girlfriend of Mal Duncan, but I decided I wanted to give her super-powers so she could join the team. One funny story about her name: When I first used her, Len Wein told Julie that we should change her name to the Black Bee "because bumblebees seem so cuddly." I did not like the idea of changing her name, particularly since it was becoming a cliche that the African-American characters had "Black" in their names (Black Panther, Black Lightning, Black Goliath). So I said to Len, "You may think bumblebees are cuddly, but I don't think anyone else does!" And she remained the Bumblebee.
Brad: Have you kept up with any of the recent developments with Bumblebee? Do you think she’s being handled okay? We liked her on the animated Teen Titans show.
Bob: Like all the other characters I created while writing for DC, I have no rights to Bumblebee. It's nice to see her still being used -- they even made an action figure of her -- but it would be nicer to see a creator credit and get a royalty check.
Brad: At the very least creator credit should be mandatory!
You were also the pioneer of improving the printing processes at DC. Did you feel the comics themselves could look better at the time or was it more of anticipating the next wave of technological advancement?
Bob: I always felt that comic books could look better and when I saw one of the first "paint-box" programs on a computer, I realized the possibilities for coloring and color separations. I was heavily involved in the development of the various upscale printing formats DC used as well as converting all the coloring to computer.
Brad: For someone like you, as both a true comic fan and working professional, to write and edit for DC must have been more than a job, sort of a dream come true. What was one the most standout moments that brought that feeling alive for you, a moment where you said to yourself: “Wow, I can’t believe I’m doing this! This is awesome!”
Bob: Being able to color pages from the first issue of HERO HOTLINE on a computer screen, with some of the very early special effects that we could do, and knowing that what I'd said was going to happen to comics had happened.
Brad: Did you draw on your life as an editor at DC when working with your wife, Dr. Laurie E. Rozakis, on The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Office Politics?
Bob: Oh, yes. There are a number of situations in that book that were based on things that happened at DC.
Brad: Ha, I've gotta get that one. Before we get out of here … any thoughts on the big DC reconstruction/reboot of its character line? With so many continuity changes already in place, for so many years and generations, I think (if handled properly) it could be a good idea.
Bob: I think that the reboot of the line is more about coming out with digital versions of the books than anything else. If they are going to attract a new audience for the digital age, they have to give them a starting point. And the continuity has been so confusing for the past decade, so why not just throw it all out the window and start fresh?
Brad: Interesting and unnerving at the same time. I hope it all works out. Thanks again for taking time out of your summer. We know you’re busy. You’re teaching volleyball? How’s that going? That sounds like a movie in the making.
Bob: I teach a creative writing course for the Johns Hopkins CTY summer program for gifted kids. I'm merely the "guy in charge" of the Adult Ed volleyball program in my local high school. The former might make an interesting TV sitcom; the latter would get boring pretty quickly.
Brad: Oh, I also want to seriously thank you for writing some of the Hostess convection advertisements. I know those couldn’t have been easy to write, and they always cracked me up and actually made me want to eat a Twinkie!
Bob: The Hostess ads were fun to write (and they paid really well). I tried to make the ones I wrote entertaining while selling the product, so I'm glad you enjoyed them.
Brad: Hey, if the King of the Sea enjoys a tasty treast -- so do we!
“Bob Rozakis Interview" by Brad Hamlin.
Edited by Lucy Hell. © 2011 by Mystery Island Publications. Published: 08.24.11.
All rights reserved.
All photos of Bob Rozakis and/or the "Comicmobile" from the collection of Bob Rozakis.
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