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July 30, 2009

Ray Bradbury: Forty Years Ago He Was One of Comic-Con’s First Guests; Now He Talks About the Anniversary of the Lunar Landing


Somehow, when I was plotting my Con schedule, I had missed that Ray Bradbury would be here (related story: Bradbury's Fahrenheit 451 is on our list of the hottest graphic novels of summer). He had been one of the featured guests at the first Comic-Con back in 1970, when the crowd was a mere 300 at the U.S. Grant Hotel. I had seen him three years ago at the L.A. Book Festival in what was one very memorable afternoon. Thus when I learned he was on the lineup, I found my way to the room where he would appear. On the way, I thought I was on the right line, only to be told it was one for Boondock Saints 2. When I said I wanted to see Bradbury, I was told, "There will not be a line like this for HIM." Well, while I did walk in the room without waiting, the room still was filled with what looked like a couple of thousand people, and when Bradbury's wheelchair hoist got him to the presentation level, the place immediately erupted into a standing ovation. The thing about the Con: There's something for everyone.

Since the last time I saw him, Bradbury has aged. That time, he spoke for more than an hour on his own, with no notes. This time, both Arnold Kunert, his longtime friend, writer, and producer, and Sam Welller, his official biographer, joined him onstage.  But he was still marvelously spunky and opinionated for a man of almost 89. And he had command of the event from the start when he requested that a tape be shown of an interview he did the night 40 years ago when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Of course, this had not been on the agenda, but a DVD appeared and was cued. 
It opened with Walter Cronkite introducing Bradbury and Mike Wallace saying that science fiction writers, especially one like Bradbury, were vindicated with the moon landing. (When Cronkite appeared onscreen, there was wild applause from the audience.) In the segment, Bradbury opined that the moon was just the beginning. We needed to move on from the moon to Mars and then the stars. He saw the rocket as a moral subsitute for weapons of war and instead a chance to conquer the universe peacefully. He felt that here on earth wars would be stopped as we moved as one to find life elsewhere in the loneliness of space. He saw the lunar landing as a moment for mankind to redesign itself.
Continuing with anecdotes, he recalled that that night he was to appear on the David Frost show behind Englebert Humperdink, but he found him to be such an absurd guest for such a momentous evening that he bolted from the studio to do the Wallace piece. After recording the show, he walked the streets of London looking at the moon with a mixture of laughter and tears.
For the record, Bradbury plans to be buried on Mars. He did say he plans to live to at least 100; thus the space program has 11 years to get us there.
Back on more earthly topics, Bradbury talked about how he learned to read with illustrated books. He remembers his first book was Beauty and the Beast and he taught himself to read from it at 5 and then read comics. He read Buck Rogers for 7 years and then Tarzan at 12 and Prince Valiant at 15. He still owns two original Faust drawings of Tarzan, which he treasures. He feels all his work is tied back to those early years reading illustrated material. Seeing the work, not just reading it, infused his sensibilities as a writer.
He feels education needs to change and that we need to focus on 3-5 year olds and teach them to read with comics. He sees Peanuts and then Calvin and Hobbes as wonderful educators. He said jokingly that perhaps Calvin and Hobbes should be put in charge of education.  (It made me remember the summer my younger son read Calvin and Hobbes and The Far Side books back to back.) He also does not allow so-called intellectuals to tell him what he is doing and why. He knows what mattered to him. 
Tim Hamilton, the creator of the graphic novel of Fahrenheit 451, which will be in stores on August 3rd, joined Ray onstage and talked about his work. He said he felt like Ray was working over his shoulder as he approved both the prose and the art. This book is on our Hottest Graphic Novels of Summer list and hearing Tim, I look forward to John interviewing him.
Bradbury then opined the best advice I have heard, which I recalled from seeing him in the past. "Listen to your heart. My ideas are not in my head, but rather in my heart. Do what you love; love what you do."
The room exploded in applause and another standing ovation. And then the crowds flocked the table against the instructions of the room monitor where Bradbury signed, and posed for photos. I left and there was still a long line of folks waiting to talk to him. Sometimes it's not about the line to get in, but rather the line that stays that shows star quality.