October 31st represents not only the end of a autumnal month here in Vermont with trees ablaze in their colorful death but a time consumed by costumed celebration. Betsey Swardlick (CCS ’11) below pens an essay on the connection betwixt the town of Rutland and the comics universe.
White River Junction, a town that takes pride in its vibrant artistic community, has an annual Halloween Parade sporting human-sized butterfly puppets swooping above the crowd, a glorious, flame-belching Fire Organ, and a procession of costumed revelers wending their way through the town center. With over two dozen art studios nestled into the downtown this is not your Grandma’s holiday craft crowd. With the addition of The Center for Cartoon Studies in 2005, a yearly influx of cartoonists added yet another element of creativity to the town and to the parade.
As the school gains national and international notice for its growing contribution to the comics field, the town can boast a unique place in the art world. White River Junction is one funky little Vermont town made famous by comics. But we have to remember that an hour to the west, the slightly larger town of Rutland has a venerable connection to comics and Halloween that has exercised some of the most creative and influential talents in the comics industry.
In 1959, Rutland held its first Halloween Parade, consisting largely of the high school marching band and one kid in a Casper the Friendly Ghost costume. So how did this quaint bit of rural revelry become one of the largest and most beloved Halloween events in the country? How did it garner the notoriety to inspire DC and Marvel Comics to set superhero stories in its midst? Ask around and the locals will tell you about Tom Fagan.
Rutland local Tom Fagan saw the inaugural parade and thought, “Not bad, but I think it could be better.”Recreation Chief Commissioner John Cioffredi took him at his word and appointed him general chairman of the event for 1960. Fagan, an enthusiastic follower of DC’s Batman comics, chose the all-encompassing theme of “Creatures of the Night,” and set to work knitting hispassion for comics into his newly-acquired civic duty. The second Rutland Halloween Parade featured a Batman float, with the Caped Crusader himself (Fagan, incognito) as parade marshall. Fagan wrote letters to Detective Comics, the publisher of Batman and other titles starring heroes, such as Superman, informing readers that Batman was now the leader of the Rutland Parade. A tradition was established.
Fagan’s love of comics infused the parade with an energy that kept Rutland engaged year after year. In that time before specialized comic book stores and only a very few, small comics conventions, there were few opportunities for comics fans to celebrate their interest. With Tom Fagan at the helm, the Rutland Halloween Parade grew from a simple town event to a celebration of comics fandom so great it spread not only to fans and to professional writers and artists of comics, but even to the content of the comics themselves. In 1965, Fagan attended a convention in New York city hosted by Dave Kaler, fan-turned-writer for Charlton Comics. Fagan invited Dave and another Charlton writer, Roy Thomas, to the Rutland Parade. By that time, the single Batman float had grown into a cavalcade of more and more comics characters, saluting the crowds and returning their cheers.
The post-parade party for the volunteers added to the event’s appeal and quickly became legendary. Housed first in an old Victorian home on Pine Street, and later moved to the old Governor’s Mansion known as the Clement House, the party was Fagan’s “thank you” to all those who volunteered their time and energy to the parade. By the end of the 1960s, some 200 to 300 people flocked to the mansion each year. As Fagan attended more comics conventions he found the parade had started to build a reputation among cartoonists, some of whom remembered his letters in Detective Comics. Fagan would invite them to see the parade for themselves, and by 1968, notable DC writers such as Marv Wolfman, Len Wein, and Mark Hanerfield made the trek to Rutland.
In 1970, the bridge between comics culture and comics mythology was crossed when the Rutland Parade was written into the Marvel Universe. Roy Thomas (then working for Marvel), was so taken by the parade and its energy that he set Avengers #83, “The Lady Liberators,” in Rutland during the event. Thomas also wrote himself, Fagan, and Fagan’s wife Jeanie into the book, marking the first of many cameos of real people to be made by Marvel and DC staff in subsequent Rutland stories. The parade even inspired the first inter-company crossover in 1973, when Steve Engleheart, Gerry Conway, and Len Wein teamed up to write a three-part story featuring themselves, Tom Fagan, and heroes and villains from both the Marvel and DC universes. Between 1970 and the present, the Rutland Halloween parade was featured in no fewer than fifteen separate issues of multiple titles by Marvel, DC, and WaRP Graphics. The most recent appearance was in 1997, in DC’s Superboy and the Ravers #16.
Although Tom Fagan had retired from his post as parade chairman by the mid-2000s, he continued to attend as a special guest and costume judge until his death in 2008, just a few weeks shy of Halloween. Though Fagan is gone, the spirit of the parade remains true to his original vision. The parade celebrated its 50th anniversary in 2009, and will continue to bring comics fans together for years to come.
The Center for Cartoon Studies is proud to present this exhibit about Rutland’s Halloween Heroes, their parade, and their comics. Two small Vermont towns, not far apart, play unlikely roles in that most American of art forms, the comic book.
-Betsey Swardlick (CCS ’11)
The Halloween Heroes Exhibit will open this Friday, October 29th from 5pm to 8pm. Gallery hours will continue every Saturday from 10am to 2pm at the Center for Cartoon Studies in the heart of White River Junction, Vermont. You can’t miss us, we have a window display with a robot. To take part in the White River Junction GORY DAZE parade, please show up at the Main Street Museum at 9pm on Saturday, October 30th. It’s at 58 Bridge Street right by these wooden sculptures (charming cartoonists no doubt will be covered in Halloween frippery)
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