"Bob Stark - His even lesser known works"
by Jerome Stuyvestant-Frent
While no one can claim that Hoverboy was ever a huge commercial success, it certainly had something going for it. Many comic book historians claim that his very ‘ordinariness’ makes Hoverboy so ‘extraordinary.’ After all, here is a young man who can hover. That is to say, hang around, doing nothing. And in many ways, aren’t we all a bit like that? Hanging around, doing nothing? Wasting our lives on stupid things?
With that in mind I thought I’d explore some of the fascinating history of Hoverboy co-creator Bob Stark and his forays into fiction writing, including his obscure crime novel, “Who Done Stabbed Mama?” It’s a subject near and dear to my heart.
Stark got his start in writing in junior high school, with a column in the weekly student rag, The Chester Arthur J.H. Examiner Herald Tribune. Stark wrote a column of wry observations about school life in his regular column, “STARK TRUTH.” His recurring trick was to link school issues to the larger issues of the world, comparing problems that students were struggling with to the greater struggles going on in the chaotic world of the Roaring Twenties. Some articles were more successful than others. But none of them were very good. For example, linking the violent anarchy that was rocking post-WW1 Germany with a much-maligned Biology teacher by the name of Mr. Stoonly required a detailed knowledge of both the teacher, and the death throes of the Weimar Republic. Another article on linking the issue of separate water fountains for boys and girls with Prohibition and Al Capone may have resonated with thirsty students, but it somewhat trivialized the suffering and crime that organized crime inflicted on the United States. A column lauding a new English teacher as ‘The next Clara Bow of the grammar set, a lady who has set a new standard for aspiring authors,’ was somewhat undercut by the fact that Nutt spelled the teachers name as Miss Piffler, Miss Piffeler, and Miss Piffier.
Stark’s next notable writing assignment was selling gags to cartoonists who worked in New York City. Nutt would send off thirty to fifty ideas for cartoons, and cartoonists would buy as many as two or three. Of those, one might make it to print. Stark claims he was the first person to write the ‘lonely guy on a small desert island’ gag that has since seen thousands of variations. In Stark’s cartoon a bearded, bedraggled castaway in tattered clothes stands on a desert island, with one palm tree, as another man crawls ashore, apparently fresh off a ship we see sinking in the back of the picture. The new man says, “Boy, I’m lucky you are here.” Personally, I don’t get it. But those were older times. Another of Stark’s cartoons, a multi-frame one, made it into the prestigious New Yorker. It shows two housewives hanging laundry on clotheslines in their adjoining yards. One hangs all men’s clothes. The other hangs all women’s clothes. In the second frame the housewives are gone, and the clothes are flapping wildly. In the third frame all of the men’s clothes have flown across the fence and attached themselves to the women’s clothes. It looks like the clothes are dancing. Or having sex. Since this was 1927 I would assume it was dancing.
Stark was more successful with his next writing gig, greeting cards. He sold over 180 cards to Belvedere Cards. Belvedere earned a reputation for the most maudlin poems of the time, and eventually they went out of business when their customer base, people in their 60’s and older, all died off. The cards that have survived in the hands of collectors show a rather clumsy mix of sentiment, melodrama, tragedy, and chivalrous sentiments that would, to quote Stark himself, “…have made Norman Rockwell puke.”
Since the cards don’t list the author, it’s impossible to know which one’s were Stark’s, but there are several that include the words ‘hover’ and one that has a jilted young man saying he wishes to cover his head with a bucket. A sign of things to come?
Stark also earned money writing ads for local newspapers, and developed a knack for catchy phrases. “Morrison Matches Light My Wick!” “Drebners Baking Soda, when that Ice Box smell has just gotta go!” and the famous, “Royal Filter Cigarettes are lung-tastic!”
But while working on anything and everything that would make a dollar, Stark also whittled away on his pet project, a crime novel, that he told friends would ‘make that goddamn Agatha Christie choke on her pencil!’ Whenever Stark discussed his crime novel, or when anyone made the mistake of asking him about hit, the conversation would inevitably turn to ‘that goddamn Agatha Christie.’ What exactly it was about the Grande Dame of mystery writers that irritated Stark so much has never been explained. He himself could only choke in rage about how he was going to show her up.
This bizarre obsession with a British writer he had never met drove Stark to work long and hard on crafting his masterpiece. He wrote and rewrote. When it was done, and he was satisfied every word was just so, he sent off his masterpiece, “Who Done Stabbed Mama?” to the nation’s top crime fiction publisher. Three years and 68 rejection slips later Stark decided to publish the book himself. He sought out a vanity press company who would publish anything for a fee. Stark sent the book in and unfortunately someone at the company read it. The book company refused to publish it. This is possibly the first and only time an author has been rejected by a vanity press publisher. Stark was contacted by the company’s lawyer, though no one has ever learned what he said to him, and within two days Stark had burned every copy of his manuscript. For the rest of his life he complained, “I can’t get my book published, meanwhile that bastard Hitler gets a book deal for Mein Kampf! Go figure!”
In his dotage Stark claimed he had actually met Agatha Christie, collaborated on a book with her, and been romantically involved with her. Many people were taken in by this lie, usually until he went on to claim that there collaboration was a book on dinosaurs.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Jerome Stuyvestant-Frent lives in Clarington, Ohio with his cats and the memories of his late life-partner Greg. He is author of several fanzines and a frequent contributor to the Letters To The Editor page of the Clarington Spectator. He is currently developing a screenplay about a cat who saves the world from Global Warming. He is also developing a website on cats.)