When Ray Bradbury died on June 5, he took with him a one-man movement celebrating popular culture. He was his own multi-media phenomenon. He wrote novels, short stories, and poems. He worked in film, television, and radio and also formed his own theatrical troupe. He dabbled as a designer, did voice narrations, and boosted the careers of artists. Annoyingly, however, Bradbury's death inspired a lot of praise that focused on the early 1950s, when, in quick succession, he unveiled his best-known books, The Martian Chronicles (about humanity's vainglorious attempt to colonize the Red Planet) and Fahrenheit 451 (a meditation on the subject of book-burning). Although understandable, this slant left the impression that the rest of his life was a sort of anti-climax, whereas it was actually a seamless extension of his earliest days.
Born in Waukegan, Illinois, in 1920, Bradbury frantically absorbed the popular culture of that era. In the introduction for a 1980 collection of his best short stories, he reckoned his first revelation involved silent horror movies of the 1920s starring Lon Chaney Sr. Next came Buck Rogers, the hero of a newspaper comic strip that began in 1929 and introduced Bradbury to science fiction. For a 1969 reprinting of that series, he recalled how he rushed out the door every morning to grab the just-delivered newspaper for the next installment.
And, of course, there was Edgar Rice Burroughs. Bradbury was not even born when Burroughs started his Martian tales in pulp magazines in 1912 (with Tarzan following in 1914), but the avid youngster discovered this stuff in 1930 and soon caught up. When writer Irwin Porges brought out a major biography of Burroughs in 1975, guess who provided the book's introduction.
Adding still more delight were the traveling carnivals that were so important for small towns in those days. Writer Charles G. Finney provided a glimpse of this with his offbeat 1935 yarn The Circus of Dr. Lao (which Bradbury would include in a 1956 anthology he edited). Bradbury's own moment of sideshow entrancement occurred in 1932, when he attended the Dill Brothers Combined Shows. This circus included Mr. Electrico, a magician specializing in faked electrocutions and melodramatic philosophizing. Bradbury later said he was so transfixed by Mr. Electrico that he hung around when the carnival was closed and got to know the magician. In 1948, Bradbury would write the short story "The Black Ferris," which, through a complex process, became the basis of his 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes. That book centers on the spooky, fictional "Cooger and Dark's Pandemonium Shadow Show," one of whose employees is called Mr. Electrico. (Incidentally, the Mr. Dark of the book is covered in tattoos and is also referred to as the Illustrated Man, another of Bradbury's recurrent images.)
While full of such magic, Bradbury's boyhood in Waukegan was also unsettled. His family briefly shifted to Arizona twice (1926-1927 and 1932-1933) and then left Waukegan for good in 1934, winding up in Los Angeles. L.A., however, turned out to be a cornucopia. There, a teenaged Bradbury discovered the local chapter of a fan group, the Science Fiction League. The chapter's members included such up-and-comers as Robert A. Heinlein. Bradbury also met Ray Harryhausen, who was obsessed with the stop-motion form of animation so dramatically used in the 1933 film King Kong. Harryhausen would go on to became a Hollywood special-effects master -- and serve as best man at Bradbury's wedding in 1947. In addition to all that, Bradbury even created a short-lived fanzine in 1939, providing an outlet for aspiring artist Hannes Bok, destined to be a major fantasy illustrator.
According to biographer Jonathon R. Eller, Los Angeles also sparked an enduring interest in radio. Typically, Bradbury became so taken with this medium that he began attending live broadcasts. Radio historian Gerald Nachman says that Bradbury was fond of a homespun humor show called Vic and Sade (which ran from 1931 to 1946) but was especially keen on a thriller program simply called Suspense. Beginning in 1942, Suspense lasted about twenty years, and Bradbury would eventually become one of its staff writers. Likewise, Bradbury followed the work of highbrow-radio writer-producer Norman Corwin, whom he credited with bringing Walt Whitman and other scribes to his attention. (Bradbury's 1969 short-story collection I Sing the Body Electric! takes its title from a Whitman poem, and the book is dedicated to Corwin.)
Thus, when Bradbury scored his first professional sale, in 1941 -- it was a short story co-authored with one Henry Hasse, of the Science Fiction League -- the breakthrough seemed inevitable. Likewise, as the writings began to flow from his base in Los Angeles, it was inevitable that Hollywood would recruit him at some point. For example, in 1953, director John Huston hired him to script a film version of Herman Melville's Moby Dick. The resultant 1956 movie has never achieved universal acclaim -- Bradbury later admitted he never read Melville's book until 1953 and never fully understood it -- but the project was still an honorable one. Meanwhile, on the small screen, Bradbury contributed to such classic 1950s and 1960s television fare as Alfred Hitchcock Presents and The Twlight Zone.
Bradbury also caused pop-cultural ripples through comic books (although he seemed to take a swipe at them in Fahrenheit 451). In 1952, the comic book firm EC adapted two of his stories without consulting (let alone paying) him. In one of his shrewdest moves, he decided not to issue a cease-and-desist order and instead informed EC that the non-payment must have been an oversight. As related by researcher E.B. Boatner, EC was happy to be let off a well-deserved hook, and it honored Bradbury with the finest treatment enjoyed by an established author in the history of comics. In all, at least thirty of Bradbury's stories were handled by now-legendary artists like Frank Frazetta, Al Williamson, and Wally Wood, making both sides look good.
In the 1960s, Bradbury zigzagged again, this time onto a stage. His modest, newly formed Pandemonium Theater Company launched The World of Ray Bradbury in 1964, and other live productions followed, including The Wonderful Ice-Cream Suit (aimed at kids; 1965) and Leviathan 99 (a science-fictional Moby Dick; 1972). His 1979 stage version of Fahrenheit 451 would be considered good enough to be revived by New York's Godlight Theater Company in 2006.
Other unexpected swerves involved design and vocal work. At the 1964 World's Fair, held in New York, the U.S. pavilion featured layouts partly conceived by Bradbury. When the futuristic "EPCOT" exhibition opened at Walt Disney World in Florida in 1982, some of the concepts there were also from Bradbury. And Bradbury's voice was as good as his eye. By the 1980s, he was narrating orchestral presentations of such works as Prokofiev's Peter and the Wolf, and he also narrated a 1993 Hanna-Barberra cartoon version of his 1972 children's book The Halloween Tree.
Indeed, it is only when one considers the totality of Bradbury's pursuits that his most-famous efforts make more sense. Fahrenheit 451, for instance, happened to be published just in time for the McCarthyist interlude in U.S. politics, and so it seems to demand interpretation as a critique of politically driven censorship. However, it is hard not to notice that the novel's book-burners destroy all books, not just certain ones. In the end, Bradbury's concern was over a general deadening of the mind, which, to someone like him, was frightening. Filled with enthusiasm and wonderment, he could comprehend no other state. While rhapsodizing about his idol Buck Rogers, he once wrote: "For the one thing that continually amazes me in my fellow human beings, intellectual or not, is their lack of imagination."
~ Scott Van Wynsberghe lives in Winnipeg ... or maybe he imagines he does.
Note that most of Bradbury's key novels and short-story collections were published in paperback form by Bantam Books from the 1950s to the 1970s. Bantam also printed The Circus of Dr. Lao and Other Improbable Stories, which Bradbury edited (1956). Ballantine Books, meanwhile, was responsible for the paperback version of Fahreneit 451 (1953) and two collections of the EC comic-book adaptations (1965-1966). A hundred of Bradbury's best short stories were collected as The Stories of Ray Bradbury by the hardcover publisher Knopf in 1980.
- Lon Chaney Sr.: Bradbury's introduction to "The Stories of Ray Bradbury," xii.
- Buck Rogers: Bradbury's introduction to Robert C. Dille, ed., "The Collected Works of Buck Rogers in the 25th Century" (New York: Bonanza, 1969), xi.
- Edgar Rice Burroughs: Bradbury's introduction to Irwin Porges, "Edgar Rice Burroughs" (New York: Ballantine, 1976 softcover reprint of 1975 hardcover original), 17.
- Dill Brothers and Mr. Electrico: Bradbury's introduction to "The Stories of Ray Bradbury," xiv-xv; Stepehen Rebello, "Something Wicked This Way Comes," "Cinefantastique," June-July 1983.
- Bradbury family moves to L.A: Entry for Bradbury in the 1982 edition of "Current Biography Yearbook."
- Science Fiction League and Heinlein: 1982 edition of "Current Biography Yearbook."
- Ray Harryhausen: Bradbury's introduction to Ray Harryhausen, "Film Fantasy Scrapbook" (New York: A.S. Barnes, 1972), 11.
- Hannes Bok: Ben P. Indick, "Still Talking and Laughing," "Publishers Weekly," 22 October 2001; 1982 edition of "Current Biography Yearbook."
- Radio: Jonathon R. Eller, "Becoming Ray Bradbury" Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2011), 14-15; Gerald Nachman, "Raised on Radio" (New York: Pantheon, 1998), 220-221, 315-316, 450.
- First professional sale: 1982 edition of "Current Biography Yearbook."
- "Moby Dick": John C. Tibbetts and James M. Walsh, "Novels Into Film: The Encyclopedia of Movies Adapted From Books" (New York: Checkmark, 1999), 153-154; Ben Herndon, "The Ray Bradbury Theater," "Cinefantastique, May 1986; sidebar piece to Rebello, discussing Bradbury's overall Hollywood experience.
- Alfred Hitchcock and Rod Serling: Mark Scott Zicree, "The Twilight Zone Companion" (New York: Bantam, 1982), 271-275; entry for Bradbury, by Gary K. Wolfe, in Curtis C. Smith, ed., "Twentieth-Century Science Fiction Writers" (Chicago: St. James, 1986),
- EC comics: E.B. Boatner, "Good Lord! Choke ... Gasp ... It's EC!" in Robert M. Overstreet, "The Comic Book Price Guide, 1979-1980" (New York: Overstreet, 1979), A-67, A-68; James Van Hise, "The Art of Al Williamson" (San Diego, CA: Blue Dolphin, 1983), 55.
- Stage productions: 1982 edition of "Current Biography Yearbook"; Wolfe; Bob Kendt, "Torching the Library: Different Year, Same Temperature," "New York Times," 19 March 2006.
- World's Fair and EPCOT: 1982 edition of "Current Biography Yearbook."
- Vocal work: entry for Bradbury, by Willis E. McNelly, in James Gunn, ed., "The New Encyclopedia of Science Fiction" (New York: Viking, 1988); entry for "The Halloween Tree" in John Stanley, "Creature Features" (New York: Boulevard, 1997).
- Bewilderment over lack of imagination: Bradbury's introduction to Dille, ed., xiii.
Click for full-size collages
Ray Bradbury 1920-2012: A Life in Photos
Wizard From Waukegan
Tarzan, John Carter, Mr. Burroughs, and the Long Mad Summer of 1930
Mars Is Heaven!: Graphic Version and Radio Presentation
Ray Bradbury's I, ROCKET Illustrated by Al Williamson
Ray Bradbury Elsewhere in ERBzine:
Edgar Rice Burroughs
The Edgar Rice Burroughs Art of Frank Frazetta
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