By 1997 I had two issues of Innocent Bystander under my belt and I was heading towards issue #3. Because of my daytime job (well, really a nighttime one, since I worked the 3:00-11:30 PM shift) as a TV news graphic designer at KDKA in Pittsburgh, time was limited for any personal creative endeavors. I could only produce one issue of IB per year, both physically and financially.
While the shrinking comic book retail marketplace and distributor problems were continuing, I still went ahead with my plans for issue #3. My sales for IB #2 weren’t great, and if I was smart at the time (I wasn’t), I would have thrown in the towel (I didn’t), and called it a day. But I started to branch out a little (exhibiting at conventions like Pittsburgh Comicon and SPX, Small Press Expo in Bethesda, MD), and I had what I thought were very special plans for IB3.
My love of the Marx Brothers went back to Christmas Eve 1968, when my brother placed a paperback book, The Marx Brothers at the Movies, in my Christmas stocking. “What’s this?” I asked, and he told me to wait and see. That night, one of the New York City TV stations played A Night at the Opera and Duck Soup (back-to-back, in that order) and we stayed up very late and watched them both. I loved Groucho’s irreverence, Chico’s shadiness, and Harpo’s childlike charm. I was hooked and remain hooked to this day, more than half a century later.
For Innocent Bystander #3, I decided to do a story on the Marx Brothers, a tribute chronicling their careers and what they meant to me. In that issue, I wrote the following in an afterword of sorts, called “Why A Duck?” after the brothers’ famous scene from their first movie, The Cocoanuts):
“Honestly, I don’t know what possessed me to do an entire book on the Marx Brothers. It started out as just another in my series of movie stars that mean something to me stories, like the 3 Stooges in IB1 and Buster Keaton in IB2, and then I decided on putting the Marxes on the front cover, and then the back cover, and the inside covers … And then an 8-page story became 12 and then 15 pages and then “The Marx of Time” (a career timeline at the bottom of the story) came into existence and before I knew it I had this idea for “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Groucho Marx and hey … Hello, I must be going.”
The first three pages of Innocent Bystander #3. Click on the images to see them larger.
The first pages of the Chico, Harpo, and Groucho profiles.
So, go big, or go home, I guess. Innocent Bystander #3 became my first theme issue: All Marx Brothers, all the time. It featured a short introduction on how I discovered them (see above), and then a long overview of their career (titled “Julius, Arthur, Leonard, and Sometimes Herbert,” after Joe Adamson’s wonderful 1970s book, Groucho, Harpo, Chico, and Sometimes Zeppo), which was divided into brother-by-brother 2-page spreads for Chico and Harpo, a combo page for Zeppo and Gummo, and a 4-page section on Groucho, which included the double-page center spread seen below. Along the bottom of each page was a timeline for the brothers, called “The Marx of Time.” I even devoted a page to their parents, Sam and Minnie, and did my own capsule reviews of all their films with a cigar-rating system, called “The Humidor” with three cigars being “The best: Primo Marx (Cuban),” and no cigar being “Close but no cigar; bad even by Marx standards.” All of that took up 15 pages of a 24-page book, the longest story I had attempted until then. I rounded out the issue with an illustration and the script of a Marx-themed story I wrote as a teenage, about the brothers running a movie studio, titled “A Night at the Movies” (three pages), and finished off with “Everything I Need to Know I learned from Groucho Marx,” a two-pager filled with movie quotes that related to various topics (“Travel: Well you go Uruguay and I’ll go mine.”), plus the usual text page, letter column, and ad for previous issues.
The center spread of IB3, the one, the only, Groucho.
I didn’t know what to expect with this issue. I knew there were still Marx Brother fans out there, of course, but how many of them went to comic shops? One of the biggest fans was Paul Wesolowski, who had a house filled with the world’s largest collection of Marx Brothers memorabilia. I had been subscribing to Paul’s excellent The Freedonia Gazette, his fanzine on the Marxes, and I got in touch with him to plug Innocent Bystander. His annual open house was coming up (I believe it was Memorial Day weekend) and he was trying to bring Miriam Marx, Groucho’s daughter in for it. I worked up a poster design (printed on my work’s color Xerox machine) and I gave 50 copies to Paul to sell for donations to help bring Miriam to his home. (As a side note, it was at this open house in New Hope, PA that I met Charlie Kochman, an editor at DC Comics and actor/writer/director Frank Ferrante, famous for his one man show, An Evening with Groucho, which you can catch on PBS in April 2022. Charlie became a lifelong friend, moving on to Abrams and starting his own imprint, Abrams ComicArts, after discovering Jeff Kinney, writer/artist of the Diary of a Wimpy Kid series, and Frank, god bless him, always remembers me when I see him at his Groucho shows … truly one of the nicest people in show biz. His Groucho is pitch-perfect, and I’ve introduced a number of friends to his show.)
Innocent Bystander #3 premiered in March 1997 and became my very first issue to come close to selling out its 3,000 copy print-run (it was also the first issue that I sold the bulk of the original art for). It received some great reviews, too, including one from Paul Wesolowski who said: “This book is required reading for all Marxists. We half considered buying a few hundred copies, slapping a false cover on it and calling it The Freedonia Gazette #27. It’s that good.” Tom Lawton in Comics Buyer’s Guide wrote: “Innocent Bystander #3 resembles a fanzine more than a comic book, but with all the information that writer-artist Gary Sassaman packs into an issue, it might as well be a textbook. This issue focuses exclusively on the Marx Brothers and their place and influence in Sassaman’s life. Written with love, respect, and an objective eye to the Marxes’ lesser works, IB #3 continues Sassaman’s streak of intelligent, well-written comic books that you can still take home to mom” (my slogan for the book at the time). Small Press Feedback gave it 3 1/2 stars and called it “… A Marx Brothers feast … you simply can’t help but enjoy this book, whether a Marx Brothers fan or not.”
The success of IB3 certainly stoked more of a fire in me to continue making comics. Maybe this theme issue idea had something going for it. 1997 had TWO issues of Innocent Bystander debut within 6 months of each other. More on that next time, when we explore Innocent Bystander #4, featuring the world famous IB cats, Stan and Ollie.
The splash page to “Everything I Need to Know I Learned from Groucho Marx; the special logo for this special issue of Innocent Bystander; and issue #2 of FIB, showcasing IB3.
I still have a very small number of copies (less than five) of Innocent Bystander #3 available for sale, along with other issues. Contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org for information.