In Wyncote, an impresario in the world of monsters

James Warren, a "P.T. Barnum, Napoleon, and Gordon Gekko rolled up into one, but with heart."
James Warren, a "P.T. Barnum, Napoleon, and Gordon Gekko rolled up into one, but with heart."
Posted: July 30, 2013

In the era when Frankenstein's monster got smaller, James Warren had a radical idea.

Movie monsters, gigantic and terrifying on the big screen in the dark, were now a foot high on living room televisions in the light of day.

"Kids were in the safety of their own home," said Warren, 82, of Wyncote, "They weren't scared, and they started taking the side of the monster."

So Warren, then an ad man out of money after an arrest on pornography charges, came up with a plan. He would turn the Draculas and Hunchbacks into celebrities with a fan magazine all their own.

With Famous Monsters of Filmland, first published in 1958, Warren began a career that would mark the beginning - and apex - of horror film publications. His work helped elevate comic book storytelling to an art form and inspired young fans of the magazine, including directors Steven Spielberg and George Lucas.

"He's P.T. Barnum, Napoleon, and Gordon Gekko rolled up into one, but with heart," said Jon B. Cooke, editor of the former Comic Book Artist magazine who co-edited The Warren Companion: The Definitive Compendium to the Great Comics of Warren Publishing!

Warren's company published scores of titles, including famed comic magazines Creepy, Eerie, and Vampirella. He hired some of the most talented writers, editors, and artists and employed then young upstarts author/activist Gloria Steinem and writer/director Terry Gilliam, later part of the Monty Python comedy troupe. Both worked on Warren's satirical magazine Help!

Now Warren, a spirited octogenarian, is preparing for a new direction, one that will take the ghouls he loves and their magazines to the Internet. He will soon begin putting old editions online.

It is the latest chapter in the life of a man who collected comic books as a boy in Philadelphia and created a three-page newsletter for his neighbors when he was 11.

Warren studied architecture at the University of Pennsylvania and served in the Army, where he lost much of his hearing in an accident. When he was discharged, he worked in advertising but had aspirations to be Hugh Hefner.

"I saw what was happening in Chicago with Playboy and I thought I could duplicate it," Warren said. "I liked the life - the nightclubs, the glamour."

Warren published After Hours, his own version of Playboy, featuring articles and photos of bare-breasted women.

"It wasn't porn, but it was the 1950s," Warren said.

The magazine lasted for four issues, long enough to get Warren arrested on pornography charges as part of a crusade that snared a slew of publishers. The charges were thrown out, but the incident cost Warren his money and reputation, so he moved to New York.

There, he met with one of his After Hours contributors, science fiction writer/editor Forrest J. Ackerman, who showed Warren a copy of Cinema 57, a French movie magazine. The issue was devoted to horror.

"I thought this could work in America if done right," Warren said.

Warren borrowed $2,000 to publish what became Famous Monsters of Filmland and even posed on the cover of the first issue in a Frankenstein mask because he could not afford more than one model.

Famous Monsters sold out in three weeks and soon began inspiring young readers such as Roy Thomas, a former editor-in-chief at Marvel Comics.

"We found out we weren't alone. There were other people out there that cared about monster movies," said Thomas, 72, who wrote series that included the X-Men. "It made us all want to go out and be filmmakers and write monster comics."

Warren drafted a who's who of comic artists, editors, and writers for his magazines including Harvey Kurtzman, the founding editor of the Mad comic book, which became Mad magazine.

"I wooed them like you woo a lover. I would sit on their doorsteps and wear them down," Warren said.

The magazines' success gave Warren the kind of Hefner-esque life he craved back in the '50s.

"He always had a beautiful woman on his arm," Cooke said. "There are stories of him landing a helicopter on buildings in Manhattan and flying people to his beachhouse in the Hamptons."

Today, Warren lives a quieter life in Wyncote, spending much of his time with his companion, Gloria Goldberg, a childhood sweetheart Warren credits with saving his life.

In the early 1980s, Warren contracted an immune deficiency that sapped his energy and reduced him to 119 pounds. Warren became depressed and unable to work. His company fell into bankruptcy and was acquired by Harris Publications.

Warren, who never married, moved back to Philadelphia, where he reconnected with Goldberg. She nursed him back to health.

Later, Warren filed a lawsuit and reacquired the rights to all of his magazines except Vampirella.

Asked about this legacy, Warren initially quipped "Who cares? I'll be dead." But on reflection, he added that he hopes he'll be remembered for creating magazines that were not just fun, but provided a bit of inspiration amid the eerie for young readers.

For now, Warren is eyeing the next step when his magazine monsters go digital.

"Maybe by the end of the year," Warren said, "Or maybe, by Halloween."


Contact Kristin E. Holmes at 610-313-8211 or kholmes@phillynews.com.

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