Otto Binder

Bill Schelly, Words of Wonder: The Life and Times of Otto Binder, Hamster Press, 2003

In purchasing this, I was mainly curious to know if it would provide any new information on his flying saucer writings, possibly what he told others about what he felt concerning their significance. There was a possibility the subject might be consigned to a footnote, since I had some awareness he was a prolific writer, arguably a hack who churned out a ton of verbiage over the years, but I got it anyway since I personally respected his book What We Really Know About Flying Saucers as better than many on the subject at least when it first appeared. Over time, it has been superseded and essentially forgotten, but even if the biography ignored it that very fact might be of minor interest. When I first got it, I quickly saw that his saucer works were mentioned and there was clear supporting evidence to the view that his involvement was entirely sincere and not just a matter of an ambition of exploiting a new market. I put the book aside, my curiosity satisfied.

More recently, I picked it up again and took to reading it at leisure. It was a fairly adulatory biography and centred mainly on his years as a script-writer for comic books most particularly his massive output as a contributor to the Captain Marvel series, one of the prime competitors to the Superman franchise and the only imitator worrying enough to get harassed with lawsuits. Binder started first in the science fiction pulps and achieved early respect for his Adam Link stories, an innovative series that took the perspective of life as seen through the eyes of a robot with an emotional side. His move to comics was largely a matter of money; comics paid more and he was young enough to easily adapt to the emerging form. Over the ensuing two decades he cranked out a huge number of stories and achieved respect for doing quality work and surviving where others lured into the field quickly faded.

Much of this was done anonymously and at the behest of a publishing industry that sucked in writers to fill as many pages with whatever they could grind out. They raked in the coins of a huge market of young readers.  Binder thrived financially, socially, and emotionally in this period and the idyll of this period is nicely described and detailed. Then in the Sixties, his life fell apart. The comics market shrunk. He hoped to develop his love for the space programme into a science magazine. Potentially, it could have been a lucrative market, so he mortgaged the house. But Space World didn’t find enough subscribers and he gave it away to Ray Palmer who spent virtually nothing for writers and kept it in a limbo, never really a success but still existing as the ghost of an ambition. In a financial spiral, Binder came under the thumb of a psychologically abusive comics publisher. His habit for piling on personal insults led to emotional turmoil and Binder’s long-standing social alcoholism spiralled out of control.

Things gradually improved, but then the rug got pulled up from under him in March 1967 when his angelic daughter was killed by car driven by a mentally-handicapped youth with no licence. You don’t need psychic powers to predict how things went after that.  The biographer doesn’t connect the dots between Binder’s downturn and the emergence of his UFO beliefs. He puts it down to an open mind and the heady UFO frenzy of the Sixties. Yet, there is evidence here that Binder was a sceptic up to 1961 and saucer frenzy was abundant in the Fifties. Science fiction buffs were talking about the subject throughout the earlier decade. Space World put him in closer contact with space issues and perhaps one could say that made him more knowledgeable of the puzzle, but NASA folks more generally favoured disbelief.

By 1967 What We Really Know About Flying Saucers is in print and though it arguably is the most rational saucer book of the mid-Sixties, it isn’t difficult to wonder if it isn’t really an exercise in mild paranoia. His idea of Project Earth Reconnaissance metaphorically echoes the eye of his "mysterious masters" of his past - evidently hostile. Phooey on "the brush-off machinations" of the orthodox, i.e. his nasty ex-boss. UFOs exist!  Similarly, it is very tempting to see his later and weirder UFO books, Flying Saucers Are Watching Us (1970) and Mankind - Child of the Stars (1974), as products of a mind in torment. How much easier to understand it in the prism of a human crushed by the loss of an angelic daughter, coping with an unhinged wife who set fire to their home (January 1969), downsizing into a house in virtual isolation (February 1969), and in the midst of this continuing to pay expensive institutional upkeep on a Downs Syndrome son (since 1955).

This, however, is just a footnote on one facet of a man who otherwise comes across as a very nice, very successful, very moral, hyper-productive creative human. His flaws are pretty minor in the context of his many virtues. Sometimes, adulation can undermine a biography, but the sugar in this one is cut by early struggle, the earning of respect, and a heavy tragedy. In the end, I felt it a very well-rounded story and crammed with a ton of useful information for people interested in learning more about Otto Binder’s writing career. Very reader-friendly, I rate it excellent. -- Martin S. Kottmeyer

This book is currently out of print, however a number of Binder's other books are still available:


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