Falls Church native Ted White was born in 1938, the same year that what’s called The Golden Age of Comic Books began. He said that when he was a child he and his friends used to pass around comic books of the day, sometimes to the point where they would lose their covers.
Because of an incident involving Wonder Woman, his mother and an incinerator, White became an avid comic book collector, eventually amassing a collection of over 10,000. But despite his and other Falls Church children’s love for comic books, educators and other adults in the City had a disdain for this burgeoning form of literature, saying that it would make children illiterate.
According to White, they had an even lower opinion of science fiction, which he discovered while in the third grade at Madison Elementary School. Reading and writing literature in that genre became his life’s calling during his teen years, starting in 1951 when he was 13.
He became a prolific contributor to science fiction fanzines during that time and eventually won the 1968 Hugo Award for Best Fan Writer, wrote 16 novels (including a Captain America novel in 1968), edited two anthologies of science fiction writing, served as the editor of the comic book magazine Heavy Metal for a year and edited for several science fiction magazines. He was also a professional jazz critic in New York City in the the late 1950s and early 1960s before beginning his career as a novelist.
He currently lives and writes in the Falls Church home that he grew up and raised a family in, serves as the copy editor for the Falls Church News-Press and performs with a band called Conduit. Recently, he was an special guest of honor at the science fiction and fantasy convention RavenCon in Williamsburg.
Ahead of the 15th annual Free Comic Book Day on Saturday, May 7, White took some time to speak with the News-Press about comic books, science fiction, his career as a writer and, with the exception of living in New York City for sometime, being a lifelong Falls Church resident.
News-Press: What sort of things did you read as a child?
White: The very first things I read or was exposed to I would categorize in the broad category of fantasy – fairy tales. My mother used to read me Winnie the Pooh and when I was able to read, the Oz books, things like that.
Actually, by the third grade I had read all of the fairy tale books that were available at the library – the Grimms and the other classical Andersens – and then there was this husband and wife team who did books, the titles of which were color-themed and there were a half dozen or more of them….I exhausted them all by the time I finished third grade, at which point I discovered science fiction.
N-P: How were you introduced to comic books?
White: They were there. I found them. I mean, I can’t remember what the first comic book I ever saw was but it was probably one that one of the neighborhood kids had and it very likely didn’t even have a cover….We’re talking the war years, the ‘40s, early on [and] comic books just sort of passed from hand-to-hand. It was a long time before I bought my first comic book.
There’s an interesting story involved in all of this….One day, I think it was between the first and second grade, the summer, and…Madison had a swimming program for the summer.
And I would walk over to the school, which was a mile away but it didn’t matter because I used to walk everywhere, at a certain time in the morning and join up with a motley crew of other kids and be taken into Washington, D.C. to 14th and K Streets where there was the Statler Hotel….At the end of that we were brought back to Madison and it was time for me to walk home.
But I didn’t walk directly home. For some strange reason I followed N. Washington Street north…I’m not sure where I was headed to but north of Columbia Street there is a bank that used to be a Safeway, a tiny Safeway…and I’m walking in that direction and I’m almost opposite that Safeway when I meet a friend of mine who is pushing his bicycle up the sidewalk…and in the basket of his bicycle he has several comic books.
And we stopped and we talked and he showed me the comic books and I don’t know how I did it, but I talked him out of them and he gave them to me and one of them was an issue of Wonder Woman.
Now I had never seen Wonder Woman before – this was a brand new comic book to me. And it was strange. The art was strange…it was almost Rococo and the writing was even stranger….I started reading this comic book as I was coming along Columbia Street to Tuckahoe and I’m just sort of very slowly walking, reading intensely. It would be the equivalent of someone obliviously reading their cell phone while walking down a sidewalk….I was about halfway home when I look up and I see my mother rapidly approaching and she does not have a happy look on her face.
I am hours late because I’ve been spending all my time dawdling, reading comic books. And my mother took the comic books out of my hand and took the ratty dozen or so that I already had, most of them coverless, and took them out to our incinerator and burned them all.
This profoundly upset me but it also changed me. I was six or seven then, and I decided two things which I was happy to share with my mother. One of them was that she was never ever going to destroy anything of mine again and she never did….and the other thing it did was make me into a collector…from that point on I became a comic book collector…and by time I was in high school…I was written up in a newspaper called the Washington News as the boy with 10,000 comic books.
N-P: How did your lifelong interest in science fiction begin?
White: I read my first science fiction book when I was in the third grade and I liked it enough that I did a book report on it and probably read it a couple different times. It was called The Angry Planet by John Keir Cross, a British writer….It wasn’t very good science fiction, it was kind of silly science fiction about this pair of kids who get accidentally taken in this spaceship to Mars and on Mars everyone was able to breathe and walk around normally.
Even at the time it wasn’t very realistic. It was sort of a children’s fantasy called science fiction, but when I was in the fourth grade I read my first real science fiction book….It was Robert A. Heinlein’s first juvenile, Rocket Ship Galileo.
I loved that book. The instant I finished the last word on the last page I turned to the first page and began rereading it. And that made me science fiction fan.
N-P: Why do you think you drawn to science fiction?
White: Because it showed the world I had always known was there. I had always been really into science. I had a superstitious belief that after I died I would know all of the answers. Everything.
And at that time the world was just full of questions, all science questions. Why this, why that? How this, how that?
But also I knew that there was a great universe out there. I knew there were these other planets. I knew that it should be possible, eventually, for us to go to them. And believe me, as an eight- or nine-year-old kid in the late 40s, this was not a shared opinion. This was not a popular opinion.
My teachers told me that reading comic books would make me illiterate and they told me that science fiction was trash….That’s what I was up against, even from the teachers who liked me and who I liked.
N-P: Why did you start writing?
White: I started writing in fanzines. I started writing letters to people and it was hard at first. I would actually hand write it first and then hunt and peck it out on the typewriter.
I didn’t even know to space after a period, but I learned because it didn’t look good that way. After a couple of years of doing that, from 13-15, I had developed both typing facility and some writing ability. I wouldn’t say that I was that good. I learned how to put my thoughts down in words and I don’t think I was particularly stylistically elegant, but at least my grammar was largely correct.
In my fan writing, I see the turning point as 1958 and I started in ‘51. After ‘58 I can look at my stuff and it’s not embarrassing to me….I would say it was all apprenticeship up until then.
N-P: Why did you become a professional Jazz critic?
White: I was always a Jazz fan. I started out being a fan of Les Paul and Mary Ford somewhere around 1950 or so and from there it spread. And in 1951 or 52 I got into the Sauter Finegan Orchestra, whose music I still love. It was Eddie Sauter and Bill Finegan. They had been Jazz arrangers for more than ten years.
They had arranged for Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller and people like that. Then they cut loose and did really neat stuff, really interesting stuff. [They made] the first high fidelity music….They were into exploring sound….And then there was Duke Ellington and these were progressions because of the sounds that I was hearing. The sounds were pulling me in. Duke Ellington’s arrangements blew me away….Well, once I got into Duke Ellington, I really opened the door to Jazz in general and I just kept exploring.
N-P: The 1950s and ‘60s were an innovative time in Jazz music. What was it like writing about that genre in that time?
White: I have always thought that the ‘50s were the peak in Jazz. It’s the time when Jazz was most experimental and most diverse….[And] it was fun because I would review whatever records I was given to review. The thing about Metronome that annoyed me was that I had to give the records back after I had reviewed them. And I didn’t like that at all because it meant that if I liked the record I had to go out and buy another copy.
N-P: Let’s switch topics. You were part of the first class of spend their entire high school career at George Mason High School. What was that school like back then?
White: Much smaller. I mean they expanded several times in the course of the four years that I was going there….They had these different rooms and they kept moving stuff around because they were still building the school and it was crowded all the time because it was never quite enough yet. But [there were still] small class sizes.
N-P: What’s one word or phrase you would use to describe Falls Church when you were a child?
White: More rural. Much more rural.
N-P: How about now?