Of all the guests who’ve visited the Cobalt Club, Allen Bellman isn’t one I’m likely to forget any time soon.
Sporting a red shirt, Betty Boop suspenders, and sunglasses beneath a white coiffure, the octogenarian is a distinctive figure even before you begin to consider the legacy of his work, which began 71 years ago and continues to influence pop culture.
Bellman was in Birmingham a while back to attend the Alabama Phoenix Festival, a three-day event celebrating science fiction, fantasy, and comic books. As one of the last artists from the Golden Age of Comics who are still on the scene, he was among the festival’s most popular guests last year.
“Do you remember some of the first things you ever drew?” I asked him.
“I started out drawing on paper bags at my father’s bakery,” the Manhattan native replied. “As a kid, I always wanted to draw and tell stories with pictures.”
From that beginning, he landed a job as a staff artist for Timely Publications, the publishing house that eventually became Marvel Comics Group. “I got my job there on Columbus Day, 1942,” Bellman said. “I started out drawing backgrounds.”
“Whatever is in back or in front of the characters,” he explained. His talent quickly led to assignments beyond that, including drawing the adventures of Marvel’s “big three” characters: Captain America, the Human Torch (the predecessor to Johnny Storm of the Fantastic Four), and the Sub-Mariner (an aquatic hero who predates the better-known DC character Aquaman).
The Human Torch and the Sub-Mariner debuted in the first issue of Marvel Comics in 1939 (a comic book that’s now valued at half a million bucks), and Captain America first battled Nazi tyranny two years later in the first issue of his own magazine, written and drawn by Joe Simon and Jack Kirby. Bellman began working on Marvel’s characters as their original artists moved on to other projects, other publishers, or World War II.
“Whatever Stan Lee threw at me I would do,” he recalled. Besides the “big three,” he wrote scripts, drew, and inked his own and other artists’ pencil work on a number of Timely’s less well-remembered features (the Blonde Phantom, Blackstone the Magician, and the Young Allies) and the publisher’s science fiction, western, horror, crime, and sports titles. Although he was quite prolific, he never kept any of his published work. “If a comic book had my art in it, I threw it away.”
The Sub-Mariner and the Human Torch still appear in Marvel comics, but Captain America remains the character with which Bellman is most associated. “I’m glad to see Captain America still very popular and still in demand. I even got invited to the opening of the movie in Los Angeles. We went out there, walked on the red, white, and blue carpet, and partied with the stars.”
After 51 years as a professional artist, Bellman retired to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. Having survived two heart attacks and six coronary stent procedures, he’s now less than six months away from 90, still accepting commissions for reproductions of his old work and other comics characters, and still active on the convention circuit. He’s already made two convention appearances this month and has nine more on his schedule for the remainder of the year.
While our conversation was briefer than I wish it had been, the experience remains one I wouldn’t trade for all the bridges in Bridgetown. There aren’t many of these great old artists left, something that isn’t lost on Bellman.
“I feel very blessed that I was able to spend so many years doing the work I love, and that I’m still able to be at the conventions. It’s like getting away from reality for me. I get energized when I’m here. This is vitalization for my soul.”