Friends with books: Two men of Mars


I'm one of those people who actually enjoy it when people share their baby pictures. But I like it even better when they share their new publications, and recently, two longtime friends published a pair of books about a couple of lifelong heroes of mine.

Ray Bradbury was a beloved local literary fixture for decades until his death in 2012, often appearing at civic events, library programs, and conjuring fanciful urban landscapes and visionary transit systems. Who among us--especially in his adopted city of Los Angeles--has not at some point in our lives fallen completely under his spell? I was only 10 or 11 when my dad bought me a Ballantine paperback, Tomorrow Midnight, a collection of eight of Ray's science fiction tales originally adapted for the 1950's EC Comics line. It was the first reissue of EC material since a Senate investigation effectively shut them down in 1954, and my first exposure to their controversial but amazing work--but more importantly, it was my initiation into the mysterious realms of Ray Bradbury.

In the years to follow, I tracked down Ballantine's earlier companion paperback The Autumn People, a matching set of eight of Bradbury's early EC horror and crime story adaptations; "The October Country," a Ballantine reissue of material from Dark Carnival, his 1947 debut story collection from Weird Tales and other pulp magazines; his novels "Fahrenheit 451" and "Something Wicked This Way Comes;" his linked and themed story collections, "The Martian Chronicles" and "Dandelion Wine;" some of Bradbury's numerous other anthologies, "The Golden Apples of the Sun," "The Illustrated Man," "R Is For Rocket," "S Is For Space," "I Sing the Body Electric..."

I scooped up everything I could find, but I soon discovered Bradbury had been such a prolific author, essayist and poet over the years--with material scattered so widely in both mainstream and impossibly obscure publications--that collecting his work was far beyond my ability.

That didn't stop some people from trying, however. So I was pleasantly surprised to get a call last spring from my old friend Mary Williams--who had offered me so much guidance and help back when I was in grad school--telling me about her new book, My Ray Bradbury Collection.

It's a veritable cornucopia of Bradburiana, reproducing cover art from hardbacks, paperbacks and playbills, as well as scripts, correspondence, magazine articles, and small-press monographs, showcasing the fantastic graphics and illustrations by Bradbury's friend Joe Mugnaini and many others who complemented his work so well. Browsing through its pages reminded me how much Bradbury's best work still resonates with me 50 years after I first chanced upon it. Truly a labor of love for Mary, and for his fans, her book is one item that belongs in every Ray Bradbury collection.

* * *

Five years earlier and 16 miles away from Bradbury's 1920 birthplace of Waukegan, Illinois, George Orson Welles was born in Kenosha, Wisconsin, situated a little further north along the same western shoreline of Lake Michigan.

Welles was truly a prodigy, and like Bradbury, largely self-taught and a voracious reader. He first made his mark on the stage as an actor and director in the Federal Theatre Project, one of FDR's New Deal programs aimed at supporting the arts community through the Depression, and then founded his own troupe, The Mercury Theatre. With his sonorous voice, he soon entered and conquered the fledgling medium of radio drama, inaugurating The Mercury Theatre on the Air--and it's not hard to imagine the impact his notorious 1938 broadcast of H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds might have had on an 18-year-old science-fiction fan and aspiring writer named Ray Bradbury.

Moreover, both men shared several literary influences: In the introduction for his 1966 short-story anthology S Is For Space, Bradbury wrote: "Jules Verne was my father. H.G. Wells was my wise uncle. Edgar Allan Poe was the batwinged cousin we kept high in the back attic room...There you have my ancestry."

And one shared, too, by Welles. Only a week before his War of the Worlds broadcast, his Mercury Theatre on the Air had aired his adaptation of Verne's Around the World in 80 Days. Welles would later adapt the work with Cole Porter into a Broadway musical extravaganza, Around the World, and recycle the name and concept yet again for his mid-'50s travelogue series on British television. Welles' fascination with Poe included a radio adaptation of The Tell-Tale Heart, a draft screenplay melding Poe's "The Masque of the Red Death" and "A Cask of Amontillado," and much later, a dramatic reading of "A Dream Within A Dream" set to the music of The Alan Parsons Project.

Bradbury published his first professional short story in late 1941. Only a few months before, Welles had made his celebrated directorial debut with "Citizen Kane," the subject of my friend Harlan Lebo's new book, Citizen Kane: A Filmmaker's Journey. In this volume, Harlan expands upon his earlier Kane book with a wealth of new information about the production, detailing the tortuous studio politics, artistic disagreements, technical challenges, the campaign by William Randolph Hearst to suppress the film, and its slow climb back from a nearly forgotten money-loser to popular acceptance and critical acclaim as one of the greatest films of all time. As many times as I've seen it, Kane never fails to thrill and move me, and by pulling back the curtain for a glimpse into the mysterious workings of the studio machinery that created it, Harlan's book has only deepened my appreciation and admiration for Welles' accomplishment.

* * *

At least one genealogy site claims that Welles and Bradbury are even distantly related (20th cousins once removed), but whether true or not, they were certainly kindred spirits in many ways. Both shared a fascination with magic and magicians, a love for classic American literature--particularly Herman Melville's "Moby Dick," which inspired Orson's play Moby Dick-Rehearsed and Ray's play, Leviathan '99--and a special fondness for darkly macabre storylines. Though Bradbury was a great admirer of Welles and considered him a friend, they worked together professionally only a few times. Bradbury adapted Moby Dick for director John Huston's film, in which Welles played Father Mapple, and he wrote Welles' uncredited narration for director Nicholas Ray's Easter perennial, "King of Kings."

Welles is best remembered for his films, Bradbury for his published stories. But some of their best work was actually done for radio, where both men could give free rein to the power of imagination, unencumbered by technical or financial constraints. At various points in their respective careers, they crossed paths with radio dramatist Norman Corwin, who cast Welles in some of his best-known productions in the early 1940s, and later in the decade encouraged a young Ray Bradbury to go see a New York publisher with the sheaf of pulp science fiction stories that would eventually constitute "The Martian Chronicles," and cement Bradbury's literary reputation.

In 1983, near the end of his life, Welles once again found himself working with Bradbury, helping to promote the long-awaited film version of Bradbury's 1962 novel "Something Wicked This Way Comes." For a special movie tie-in, Bradbury skillfully wove together swatches of the film's dialogue and music with a fresh written narration voiced by Welles into a spooky and evocative 85-minute radio drama aired only once on a handful of stations. You can listen to it here. Later that year, a New Year's Eve TV special locally produced in Los Angeles marked their final collaboration, Welles reprising dramatic readings from Something Wicked and Bradbury offering viewers a hopeful seasonal message refuting the idea that George Orwell's ominous world of 1984 was just around the corner.

That program, sadly, is thought to have been lost. Most of their other work, fortunately, survives, where it continues to engage, inspire, and entertain us.

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