Those Were Books! — Part 2

After participating in the Howard Days panel about the Lancer Conan series,  I realized quite a few are interested in Lancer Books and the later Zebra Books. The presentation (and my previous article) concentrated on Frazetta’s influence, but now let’s talk a little more about Irwin Stein and Walter Zacharius, the founders of Lancer Books.

Irwin Stein had a journalist background but had an affinity for comic books and science fiction. He wrote for Quality Comics (chiefly known for Jack Cole’s Plastic Man) and later the romance comics line for St. John. When he left comic books to start his own company, Royal Publications, he published genre magazines (men’s adventures, detective, SF, monsters).

Stein and Zacharime partners somewhere along the line. They formed Magnum Communications Corporation. One of their first purchases was Swank Magazine. Martin Goodman (Timely/Atlas/Marvel) was the owner at that time. Swank had a reputation as a quality men’s magazine. Aficionados of these things say the quality took a slightly downward slide after their takeover. Magnum Publications include Untamed, Lion Adventures and True War.

They then started Lancer Books in 1961. Later Stein hired Larry Shaw as editor. Shaw was instrumental in acquiring the Conan series and in getting Frazetta to illustrate the first cover. Mr. Shaw was honored with a special Hugo Award for lifetime achievement in 1984, a year before his death.

The early Lancer books had a distinctive green (often bluish looking) edge around the pages. 1962 saw the start of the Lancer Science Fiction Library. These sold for 75 cents at a time when most paperbacks were only 50 cents. Lancer realized they were pitching to a specialty market that would pay a premium. In 1966 they began publishing paperback originals with the purple colored edges. One notable entry was Michael Moorcock (writing as Edward P. Bradbury) doing a Martian series that owed a great deal to Edgar Rice Burroughs.

For Robert E. Howard fans, the key year was 1966, and the publication of Conan the Adventurer.  There is no need to rehash that story again; suffice to say everyone knew that the Frazetta cover was a smash!

Stein in an interview, from Confessions, Romances, Secrets, and Temptations: Archer St. John and the St. John Romance Comics by John Benson, talks about that first Conan painting:

Yes, those covers really put him on the map, I think. He was known mostly to the fans at the time. I tried to keep one of the paintings, and he threatened to come up with a gun. Well, most of the cover artists, if you said you liked something, they’d say, “Keep it.”  What the hell, they had very little residual value at the time. But Frazetta always had a huge sense of his own worth. And rightfully so. Generally, there were very few that I really wanted to keep for myself. But that was one of them, and I asked him for it.

In 1968 they reissued Conan the Adventurer and issued Conan the Wanderer at 95 cents. From the fanzine, Megavore, which featured a Lancer SF Checklist in their 10th issue comes this comment:

It tells you something about the popularity of the series that Lancer could jump the price so rapidly and not have to worry about the effect it would have on sales.

Lancer was doing well and besides the Conan books published Howard’s King Kull, The Dark Man and Others, and Wolfshead. Larry Shaw left Lancer in 1968. He was replaced by Robert Hoskins. Hoskins, apparently a fan of S&S, edited an anthology Swords Against Tomorrow for Signet Books that mentions REH as a literary descendant of Homer.

1971 saw the change from purple edges to yellow and 1973 brought with it the bankruptcy.

The details of the bankruptcy can probably be found with enough patience and access to legal archives but suffice to say Lancer Books was no more. Magnum Communications Corporation continued on with various publishing ventures and at least three other non-publishing ventures: Vacation Ownership Marketing; Capital Solutions I, and Fuda Faucet Works.

Gerald Jones in Men of Tomorrow: Geeks, Gangsters and the Birth of the Comic Book tells the story of Harry Donnenfeld. Donnenfeld started National (DC) comics. Donnenfeld apparently had ties to gangster Frank Costello. New York publishers bought a lot of paper shipped from Canada. Canada was in full liquor production during the failed U.S. experiment of prohibition. Along with shipments of paper there was plenty of booze. So pretty much all publishers of exploitation literature (comics, pornography, and men’s adventures) have rumors of mob money.

As mentioned before Stein and Zacharius purchased Swank from Martin Goodman (of Marvel Comics fame) and Stein worked for various comic book companies. So, yes, they traveled in the same circles as Donnenfeld and others that might have had mob ties. No doubt pornography publishing makes strange bedfellows, but no real evidence of organized crime exists. There was the occasional article in the SFWA Bulletin newsletter about Lancer not paying royalties and offering lame excuses and after the Lancer bankruptcy their remaining publishing arm, Magnum Books, republished books from the Lancer catalog that were in violation of previous contracts. So there were shady-doings but nothing that other publishers had not set as a precedent.

After the Lancer bankruptcy Walter Zacharius chose to start the Kensington Publishing Corporation (which included Zebra Books) with a new partner, Roberta Grossman. Apparently there was a falling out with Stein but other than a very brief mention in Publishing Romance: The History of an Industry, 1940s to the Present by John Markert not much has been said.

Zebra Books published 14 REH books:

  1. The Sowers of the Thunder
  2. Tigers of the Sea
  3. Worms of the Earth
  4. A Gent From Bear Creek
  5. The Vultures of Whapeton
  6. The Incredible Adventures of Dennis Dorgan
  7. The Lost Valley of Iskander
  8. The Iron Man
  9. The Book of Robert E. Howard
  10. The Second Book of Robert E. Howard
  11. Pigeons From Hell
  12. Black Vulmea’s Vengeance
  13. The Sword Woman
  14. Three Bladed Doom

According to Leon Nielsen in Robert E. Howard: A Collector’s Descriptive Bibliography:

[the] books were selling so well that Zebra capitalized on its success by adding the line, “Heroic fantasy in the tradition of ROBERT E. HOWARD” to the front cover of any book that might fit loosely into the category of heroic fantasy.

Second only to Frazetta as a fan favorite, most of the REH Zebra books featured art by Jeff Jones. Even the most conservative REH fan would probably let Jeff Jones go to the public restroom of his choosing.

Jeff Jones was a troubled fellow with loads of artistic talent. If Frazetta was power, then Jones was poetry. I think it is possible he could surpass Frank Frazetta as a REH fan favorite one day. His best work is breathtaking if not always true to the story.

Walter Zacharius was always an innovator. Early in his career he helped start the Ace Double Novel line (along with Aaron Wyn), and with Kensington he signed deals with Wal-Mart and QVC, and made the first forays into e-books.

One of his more exploitative tricks was during the height of Lee Iacocca’s success with the automobile corporation, Chrysler. Iacocca was popularly known as an innovative entrepreneur (there was talk of him running for President, as if Americans would vote for someone with no political experience!). He had a best-selling autobiography eating up the sales chart. Zacharius republished a previously little read paperback with the same title and it ended up as one of the best selling paperbacks of 1985.

Even with his other successes the Lancer Conan series was a hallmark. His New York Times obituary had this to say in summing up his accomplishments:

With Irwin Stein, he founded Lancer Books in 1961 to publish genre fiction, primarily science fiction and fantasy, notably the “Conan the Barbarian” stories of Robert E. Howard…

The New York Times knew “those were books!”