This column has its roots in Mike Gold’s column this week. While it’s not necessary to read Uncle Whizzy’s Wazoo this week, it is recommended – as it is every week. Loves my UWW on Monday!
I’ve spent a lot of my writing career in other people’s sandboxes and, in general, have had a great time. Sometimes I wonder if I haven’t spent a little too much time in those sandboxes. My career might have been better served with a few more original creations such as GrimJack (and I’m working on some that will appear here on ComicMix eventually) but, as they say, hindsight is 20/20. Hindsight also often sounds as if one is looking out one’s butt – which certainly explains many of the utterings we hear from political pundits these days. However, that’s a different topic for another time.
Brother Gold’s column this week was about whether or not a strip or a character or a series should continue after its creator’s death (or their choice to discontinue work on said property). His point was that in many cases we would not have some very fine stories using those properties were that not the case. Nor would we have had some very notable careers. For example, Frank Miller first made his name taking over the very moribund Daredevil book at Marvel and making it the most talked about book in the industry. Alan Moore was known to those us who could get their hands on 2000 AD and/or Warrior (and thus first saw Miracleman, a Captain Marvel rip-off character that he performed surgery on and made into something very new) but his first big American title was when he took over Swamp Thing and re-invented not only the character but its whole mythology.
I also benefited from taking over on other folk’s work. I got my start at First Comics doing back-ups using characters from Warp (which I knew all too well from having gone to way too many performances of it when it was a stage play). My first book was to take over for Iron Mike Grell on Starslayer, in the back of which began my first original feature, GrimJack, which went on to become the cornerstone of my career.
Brother Gold also brought me over to DC with him where my first major work was plotting Legends – the first company wide crossover after the company’s re-make of itself with Crisis On Infinite Earths. That led to my work on Firestorm, which I took over from creator Gerry Conway, and Suicide Squad, a re-invention of a title that had lasted maybe six issues in Showcase. That, in turn, led to other titles and characters that I played with later – notably The Spectre, Hawkman (in Hawkworld, following Tim Truman’s remake of the character) and The Martain Manhunter. For one-shot, I even got to play with Blackhawk and his crew. One of the few original series I did in that time was Wasteland.
I did so much work for DC at that point that other companies thought I was under contract or something. It was only after I started doing Magnus, Robot Fighter for Valiant that Marvel seemed to realize I existed. I got to dabble with the X-Men corner of the Marvelverse for a bit, did a bad take on The Punisher, but had a lot of fun on titles like Heroes For Hire.
For the past eight years I’ve been doing work on the Star Wars franchise over at Dark Horse, primarily with artist Jan Duursema. One of the characters that we created for the comics, Jedi Aayla Secura, actually got into the last two Star Wars movies. Now that’s a trip! Seeing a character that started in your mind up on the big old movie screen! And, more recently, they’ve announced that characters that Jan and I created for our latest SW book, Legacy, are going to be made into toys! Supposedly there’s a rule somewhere that the one who dies with the most toys, wins. What they win, nobody says. Still, if there’s any truth to it, then there has to be special points added for toys that are made based on what you dream up.
Which means that I’m going to make a pretty penny on that, right? Royalties and all?
Umm, no. I don’t see a penny on it. That was the deal going in and I knew it. I signed on anyway and went ahead and created the characters. I know other artists who simply will not create new characters unless a) they own them or b) have a clearly defined participation. I respect that position without subscribing to it. To me, my job is telling stories and making up new characters is part of that. So long as I know the non-participation is part of the deal going in, then it’s my choice.
I would make money on a GrimJack toy deal and that’s what I really want. I especially wants me a plush life-sized Bob that says things like “. . . beeeeer. . .ciiiiiigs. . . “. Ah, someday!
When I’m approaching a character or a concept, there are several questions I look to answer for myself. Am I taking over an ongoing series (as I did with Firestorm or Starslayer) or trying to re-launch a title, a character, or a concept (as I did with Suicide Squad, Spectre, or Martian Manhunter). Taking over an ongoing series that is doing well is a different concept than taking over one that is hovering near cancellation. In the latter, you have maybe six issues at most to turn the thing around. In the prior, you need to keep what the fans are enjoying while, at the same time, not simply copying the writer who went before.
If you’re dealing with the re-launch of a title or a character, you have to deal with the perception that, in its previous incarnation, said title or character is perceived to have failed. It got cancelled which usually means low sales. The publisher has to convince the fans and retailers that there is a reason to pick upthis version of the title or character despite it having been cancelled before. That means first the published has to be convinced. What’s new and different about the approach you’re pushing?
In just about every case, I start by asking what is essential about the character, the concept, or even the title?
For example, why was the Martian Manhunter not just some green version of Superman? Tom Mandrake, my artist, and I early on hit on the concept that J’Onn J’Onzz had come to Earth as an adult, whereas Kal-El came to earth as a baby. Superman was raised as an American; the Martian Manhunter was a product of the society that raised him which led us to investigate and develop what Martian culture was. The Martian Manhunter was more truly alien than Superman was and that was the cornerstone of our take on him.
We did the same thing earlier with the Spectre. Over the years, different concepts had been attached to the character. The feeling was that he was too powerful to star in a series on his own; that power had to be stripped away or diluted in order to have viable threats to face. We, however, felt that also stripped away his essential iconography. The Spectre should have these really stunning graphics. The question was how to keep the Spectre at full power and still be able to tell stories.
The key, I felt, was in the human side of his make-up – Jim Corrigan, a mortal plainclothes cop from the 30s, not unlike early Dick Tracy. Over the years, all sorts of tricks had been done with Corrigan. They had brought him back to life. They had made him, to be honest, something of a wuss. Or he was Jiminy Cricket – the Spectre’s “conscience.” They’d become like barnacles on the underside of a boat. Barnacles slow things down and make things sluggish and every once in a while you have to stop and scrape them off to get things moving again. We decided that a) Corrigan was still dead, b) he had been dead since the 30s; c) he was a hard-boiled tough guy; d) the Spectre’s power was limited by Corrigan’s view on how to use it; and e) the world had not gotten better despite a half century of the Spectre.
On a smaller, different scale, I played with Luke Cage in Heroes For Hire. Despite having been supposedly raised on the street, Cage’s biggest expletive was “Sweet Christmas!” Of course, that’s because you couldn’t use the language Cage should really use in comics back when Cage first appeared. Of course, many writers have “fixed” that by using the actual language. My take was different. In one fight, I had the badguy cade was fighting make fun of Cage’s sense of street talk. Cage responds that he was raised with his grandmother who hated swearing and, Cage added a she pounded the bad guy into poo, “She was tougher you!” I took something that was established and idiosyncratic to Cage and, rather than apologize for it or ignore it, I tried to make it a part of his character and part of what made him unique.
Some characters I’ve invented or re-invented to fill a specific niche or perceived need in a given comics universe. One example is the character of Oracle in the DC Comics Universe. Barbara Gordon was originally Batgirl. In The Killing Joke, the Joker shoots her at point blank range with a large caliber gun and brutalizes her. My late wife, Kim Yale, was – to be honest – a bit appalled. It was plain that Babs was not going to be a big part of the Batman titles after that and we got permission to use her over in Suicide Squad. Given how she was shot, we felt that she would have suffered permanent spinal damage. We didn’t want her miraculously recovered. She would be in a wheel chair from then on, paralyzed from the waste down.
We still wanted her to be a super-hero, however, so we created the Oracle identity for her. Babs had a lot of experience with computers so we made her the information broker for the other superheroes in the DCU. We also, rightly, figured that would make her very attractive to a lot of other writers in the DCU. She’s been in the Bat titles, the JLA, and starred in Birds of Prey. It could be argued, I think, that Barbara Gordon has been a more important part of the DCU as Oracle than she ever was as Batgirl.
Amanda Waller was created because there simply was no one like her in the DCU and, I would argue, there hasn’t been anyone like her since. She was modeled after some African-American women I had met and known at the time, not just off character types I had seen on TV or in the movies. She writes herself, by the way, and surprises me all the time. And, for the record, yes I do regard her as a “hero.”
All that being said, would I be as keen about someone else writing GrimJack? Let’s just say I’m leery about it. I know that if he ever makes into movies someone else is likely to write the script. And he has made guest appearances elsewhere – he popped up in one of Roger Zelazny’s Amber books going under the name of “Old John.” (Zelazny, by the way, nailed him.) I asked Gaunt about this sideline job and he told me to mind my own business. Sweet Christmas, the man can be cranky and he’s as well armed as Mike Grell.
To summarize, when I’m playing in somebody else’s sandbox, I try to figure out what the essentials are about the character or concept, what makes it unique, why we liked it in the first place, and how to stay true to the essentials while making it feel new. If it’s my sandbox, well – keep your hands off my toys until I’ve decided I’m not playing with them anymore.
Yeah, I’m cranky, too. Gaunt gets it from somewhere.
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and much of Munden’s Bar, new installments of which will reappear anon here on ComicMix. Both for free. His new Suicide Squadmini-series is out there from DC Comics, and his Star Wars: Legacy is out there from Dark Horse, both at finer comics shops across the galaxy.
John Ostrander started his career as a professional writer as a playwright. His best known effort, Bloody Bess, was directed by Stuart Gordon, and starred Dennis Franz, Joe Mantegna, William J. Norris, Meshach Taylor and Joe Mantegna. He has written some of the most important influential comic books of the past 25 years, including Batman, The Spectre, Manhunter, Firestorm, Hawkman, Suicide Squad, Wasteland, X-Men, and The Punisher, as well as Star Wars comics for Dark Horse. New episodes of his creator-owned series, GrimJack, which was first published by First Comics in the 1980s, appear every week on ComicMix.