Tagged: Del Close

Stephen Colbert, we have your writer for “The Chronicles of Amber”!

You may have seen the piece in Variety that America’s leading fanboy with a late night talk show Stephen Colbert is joining the team that is adapting Roger Zelazny’s “The Chronicles of Amber” for television as an executive producer of the potential series under his Spartina production banner, joining with Skybound Entertainment and Vincent Newman Entertainment. “The Chronicles of Amber” follows the story of Corwin, a prince who awakens on Earth with no memory who soon discovers that he is a member of a royal family that has the ability to travel through different dimensions of reality and rules over the one true world, Amber.

The Variety article also notes: “The search is currently on for a writer to tackle the adaptation.” The story of Amber is complex and requires a writer who can navigate different worlds, characters, and timelines.

Stephen, bubullah, we have just the guy for you: John Ostrander.

If you don’t know John (and for the purposes of this column, we’ll say you don’t) he’s a highly accomplished and popular writer who has made significant contributions to the world of comics and fantasy literature (as well as contributions to this website) with particular advantages that make him just the guy for this job.

First and foremost, Ostrander knows his heroic fiction. He’s written for DC, Marvel, Star Wars, and is the creator of “The Suicide Squad,” the cult classic comic that has been adapted into two feature films and a television series. The series follows a group of supervillains who are recruited by the government to carry out dangerous missions in exchange for reduced sentences. This showcases Ostrander’s ability to create compelling and complex characters, a skill that would be invaluable in adapting “The Chronicles of Amber.”

In addition to “The Suicide Squad,” Ostrander also created the character GrimJack, a hard-boiled private investigator who operates in a dystopian interdimensional crossroads. GrimJack was so beloved by Roger Zelazny that Zelazny not only wrote the introduction to the GrimJack graphic novel Demon Knight (reprinted in GrimJack Omnibus 5, ahem), Zelazny bodily lifted GrimJack and included him in the seventh book of the Chronicles of Amber, Blood of Amber, as “Old John”, an emissary of the Crown of Amber who worked for both Random and Oberon. This shows Ostrander’s ability to create a character that resonates with fantasy audiences, and Zelazny’s stamp of approval is a testament to his talent.

Another reason Colbert should consider hiring Ostrander is his relationship with Del Close, who also happened to be Colbert’s improv teacher and director at Second City Chicago. Ostrander and Close were writing partners, and their collaboration resulted in the graphic horror anthology Wasteland for DC Comics and several installments of the “Munden’s Bar” backup feature in GrimJack. This connection not only highlights Ostrander’s versatility as a writer but also his ability to work well with others, which is essential in a collaborative medium like television.

In conclusion, Stephen, it should be obvious that you should hire John Ostrander for the adaptation of “The Chronicles of Amber” for television. His experience in writing media-friendly high fantasy, creating complex characters, and his connections to Zelazny and your former teacher make him an ideal candidate for you. Give him a call.

John Ostrander: You/Not You

You : Not You

One of the interesting facets of talking about writing is the contradictions you find in the craft. For example: All your characters are you. All your characters are not you.

All of your characters are you.

Every character you write must have some of you in it. All of them. Not just the ones you like to identify with. All of them. The large and the small, the good and the bad, male and female, no matter what age, race, or nationality. If you’re going to write honestly about the character, you must be in the mix.

This can get uncomfortable. Once, when I was writing a white supremacist  in an early issue of Suicide Squad, I had to look into myself and ask, “What in me is like this man?” Look, I’m an aging white guy; there’s going to be something there. No matter how much I’ve worked at freeing myself from that, and I have, there’s going to be something there.

I found it. It’s not enough to understand such a character’s point of view; it’s necessary to find what is in you that is like that. However much I dislike that aspect of myself, it is there to some degree and it can be used. It was.

We all have multitudes within us. We are slightly different people depending on who we are with; with our parents we’re slightly different than we are with our siblings than we are with our friends than we are with our lovers and partners. Each of them know a slightly different aspect of us. That’s one of the purposes of supporting characters; they bring out different aspects of the protagonist.

We play so many different parts in our own lives on a daily basis, we should be able to find some aspect of ourselves – good or bad, laudable or disreputable – that will allow us to identify, to be, the character that we are writing.

I’ve often said that writing dialogue between several characters is the writer having conversations with his/herself. We are all our characters.

All of your characters are not you.

You have to have some perspective on the characters that you write and that requires some distance. The differences are important.

There is, mostly in fandom, a form of criticism pertaining to a “Mary Sue” (among female characters) or a “Larry Stu” (among male). Generally, it means a character is an idealized and unrealistic version of the author. For the most part I dislike the term; it’s too easy, too lazy, and too pat a critique. The person using it generally only has to accuse the author of either having a Mary Sue or Larry Stu and that’s it; no further discussion is needed or, often, allowed. The accusation is made. End of story.

However, as with most stereotypes and clichés, there is a germ of truth. A good character can be very seductive. Few people believe themselves to be evil; even Shakespeare’s Richard III, who describes himself as a villain, believes he has a right to do what he is doing. I met someone once who believed that if he could take something that you thought was yours, he was within his rights to do so. “You only have a right to what you can hold onto,” he would claim. Not someone I wanted to spend any time with, but an interesting idea for a character.

I saw a TV interview with a guy who was doing time because he was a hired killer for the Mob. Coldest son of a bitch I’ve ever seen. Literally would just as soon kill you as look at you. “My life doesn’t matter to me, so why should yours?” was what he said. Again, not a person I would ever want to meet, but it became part of my core concept for my version of Deadshot in the Squad. Lawton doesn’t have a death wish; he just doesn’t care if he dies – or if you do.

The whole “You are your character/you are not your character” thing is a dichotomy and that’s fine by me. I think that most often you find the truth in contradictions. It’s what Del Close taught in his Second City and iO improv classes. Del held this contradiction as a rule: it’s not either/or; it’s and/both.

Finally, don’t try to reconcile or explain the contradictions. State them and trust to your reader to dope it out. Do your job right and the reader will think that the character is them… and not them.

John Ostrander: Back to the Beginning

Warp Play PosterWhen I get asked by earnest neophytes how to break into comics, my pat answer is “With a pick and a crowbar through the roof in the middle of a moonless night.”

Somewhat less than helpful, I know.

The truth is that I don’t know how to break into comics. I don’t think most of you can go the path I took. I had an old friend – Mike Gold, who you may have seen hereabouts – and he knew I loved comics and he had liked something I had written for the stage and offered me a chance. When Mike had first gone to NYC to work for DC Comics, I pressed on him a sample script I had written for Green Lantern. He dutifully did but the script didn’t go anywhere and it shouldn’t have. I was very keen but very raw in those days (although I did use elements of it eventually; writers are forever cannibalizing themselves).

Fast forward a few years. Mike left DC to return to Chicago and eventually co-found First Comics with Rick Obadiah. The first comic that First Comics was going to print was an adaptation of the play Warp!, produced by the legendary Organic Theater of Chicago. The play trilogy described itself as “the world’s first science fiction epic-adventure play in serial form”. The director and co-writer, Stuart Gordon, freely acknowledged that he was very influenced by Marvel Comics. (We’re talking late 60s, early 70s Marvel. The primo stuff.)

I was – and am – a huge fan of Warp! Heck, I was a huge comic book geek at the time as well. Peter B. Gillis was hired to adapt the play but I got a call one day from Mike (who was now supreme editor and High Poohbah of First Comics) asking me if I would like to try my hand at writing an eight page back-up story.

Of course, I said yes.

And so began the process of picking one of the characters from Warp!, figuring out a story, working out the plot, breaking it down into page and panels, doing it and re-doing it, learning the tricks of the trade as I went. I had written plays which are similar to comic-book scripts but comic book writing has its own practices and demands. I’d write it up, Mike would give me notes, I’d re-write it, I’d get more notes and so on until one day Mike finally called me and congratulated me – they were going to use my story as the back-up feature in the first issue of Warp! which was going to be the first comic published by First Comics.

“Oh,” I replied, “great. Uh … do I get paid for this?”

“Of course, you sap,” Mike replied and gave me the page rate.

As a side note, I’ll mention that at that point I hadn’t written anything for a year or more. I felt I had a bad case of writer’s block. I discovered that there’s nothing like getting a paycheck to dissolve a writer’s block.

I went on from there to write more back-ups. Then I got Mike Grell’s Starslayer as a regular assignment and from there I originated GrimJack thus creating my career or sealing my fate, whichever you prefer.

The fact that I have a career is largely Mike Gold’s doing. As my first editor, he taught me not only the tricks of the trade but how to be a good writer. When Mike returned to DC, he brought me with him. Thanks to Mike, I got the job plotting Legends which was the first big DC crossover following Crisis On Infinite Earths. It may not sound like so much in these days of constant company wide crossover events but it was big back then. (Len Wein did the dialoguing and John Byrne did the pencils.) At Mike’s suggestion, we debuted Suicide Squad in the pages of Legends.

Mike also famously drafted me into doing Wasteland (we brought Del Close along). It was Mike’s idea and I wasn’t sure about it or at least my doing it at first. However, Mike is persuasive and I’ve learned when Mike has an idea to just say yes; at the very least, it will be interesting and potentially it will be some of my best work (as with Wasteland).

Mike has also been a very old, very loyal, and very good friend.

It boils down to this – if you like what I’ve done with my career, hey it’s all due to me.

If you don’t like what I’ve done, blame Mike.

John Ostrander: Origins


As I mentioned in a previous column, I’ve been on a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe reading/re-reading jag as of late and have been enjoying it greatly. As other commentators have noted, the pleasure in the Nero Wolfe novels is not so much the plots, which have been noted as serviceable, but in the characters, especially the rotund and eccentric genius, Nero Wolfe, and his wise cracking legman and assistant, Archie Goodwin.

(Sidenote: when I first met the late and great comic book writer/editor, Also Archie Goodwin, I meant to ask him about Wolfe but decidedly, I think prudently, that he had probably gotten enough of that in his life. End digression.)

Stout had written 33 novels and 39 short stories on the pair between 1934 and his death in 1975. After his death, his estate authorized further Wolfe and Goodwin adventures by Robert Goldsborough who has written ten books, one of which was Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to the Nero Wolfe stories telling the tale of how the two first met.

That’s a story Rex Stout had never told and I’m enough of a fan to have wondered in the past about it so, of course, I ordered the book.

Pastiches can be hit and miss; the author is trying not only for the style of the original author but for the voice of the characters. There’s been a lot of different pastiches over the years for different literary creations; Sherlock Holmes has them, there are Conan the Barbarian pastiches, and more recently Robert B. Parker’s characters have come back to life with various writers of different abilities.

I read Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t Stout but it wasn’t bad. It hit all the clues about the characters’ backgrounds that Stout had sprinkled through the Wolfe canon. Goldsborough has caught Wolfe’s “voice” pretty well although I felt his Archie was a bit spotty. However, my biggest reaction after reading the book was “Why?”

Rex Stout never gave a full “origin” of the Wolfe/Goodwin partnership. Do we really need one? Yes, I bought the book because I was curious but I didn’t learn anything new about the characters. It got me to thinking: do we always need an origin?

When I started writing my GrimJack series, we joined John (GrimJack) Gaunt in the middle of his doing something. Sometime later, we did an “origin” which the late columnist and critic Don Thompson said was his second favorite origin story of all time, next to Superman’s. In it, Gordon, the bartender of Munden’s Bar which Gaunt owns and is his hang-out, offers to share Gaunt’s “secret origin” with a patron. It goes like this: Papa Gaunt. Mama Gaunt. A bottle of hootch. Wucka wucka wucka. Nine months later – Baby Gaunt.

The point of it was that Gaunt was born and everything that had happened to him since then is what makes him into GrimJack. I differentiate between “origins” and “backstory”.

An origin is the starting point from which everything else flows. Backstory fills in and explains different aspects of a given character. Sometimes there may not be any single starting point.

I wrote some stories with Del Close, the legend who directed and taught at Chicago’s Second City for many many years and then went to form the ImprovOlympics (now simply called “I/O”). I took some of his improv classes at Second City myself; they were extremely valuable to me as a writer and very liberating. One of Del’s rule was to start in the middle of the story and go on past the end. He used to say, “I get bored with all that exposition shit. Get on with it.” If it was a fairy tale, he wanted to know what happened beyond the “happily ever after”. For him, that was what was really interesting in the story.

One of the big questions Del made me ask myself was “Just how necessary – really necessary – was all that exposition?” What was the minimum that reader had to know in order to follow the story? The answer usually is: a lot less than you think. A writer may want to be clear about everything so s/he may overexplain.

I remember one of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read began with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle on a New York street with the Rhino. I didn’t know anything about either character but the writer, Stan Lee, assured us in a narrative caption: “Don’t worry, effendi. We’ll catch you up as we go.” And damned if he didn’t. That also taught me a lot.

One of the rules that has been devised for comics is that Every Comic Is Someone’s First Issue. Therefore, it was obligatory to be absolutely clear about it all. Someone’s rule was that within the first five pages, the main character’s name had to be said, the powers demonstrated, and what’s at stake made clear. That’s important for the writer to know, certainly, but how much does the reader need to know? Usually, less than you think.

With GrimJack, Timothy Truman (the book’s first artist and designated co-creator) and I knew a lot about John Gaunt’s backstory but we decided to only tell it when it was pertinent to a given story. The reader sensed that there was more story than we were telling and that created some mystery about him but, at the same time, there was trust that we knew what we were doing.

The writer also has to trust the reader and to assume they are intelligent enough to fill in some blanks. It doesn’t all need to be spelled out. You can imply a lot and trust the reader to get it. That trust creates a bond between creator and reader and that’s when magic happens.

For me, that was the main problem with Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. It gave me the incidents of how the two met, the what, but not the why. How did that relationship start? Was there a chemistry from the start? The book was very prosaic but it needed a touch of poetry; there needed to be something between the lines. There needed to be a touch of mystery because in all the Rex Stout stories about the pair, that was there. The biggest mystery in every Nero Wolfe story, the one that is never solved but always there, is the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. That’s what keeps me coming back. Over and over.

John Ostrander: ‘Tis the Season

ostrander-art-131201-150x184-7689597Well, it’s the First of December and the Christmas Season is well and truly and legitimately upon us. As I’ve noted before, I really do love this time of year and I love Christmas stories, none more than A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens and turned into umpty-bum versions in the movies, on television, and on the stage.

I appeared in a stage version at Chicago’s Goodman Theater for many years. The Goodman was and I think still is the biggest professional theater in the Chicago area but every year it hit a hole in its schedule around Christmastime. They took note that the famed Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, MN, performed A Christmas Carol. Starting in 1977, the Goodman decided to also produce a stage version of Dicken’s classic. They asked a veteran of the Guthrie production, Tony Mockus Sr., to direct their show.

I was cast in various absolutely vital roles like Fred’s Friend #3, Mr. Lean (or was it Mr. Round?), Dancing Man, and “Ensemble.” I did it for years and was always grateful for the opportunity if for no other reason than the Goodman paid top dollar to actors; it was great to have that bit of income at the end of the year. My very good friend, William J. Norris, was cast as Ebenezer Scrooge. Bill was and is a great actor but I used to joke that as Scrooge he really only had to “act” during the final scenes of the show, after Scrooge was reformed and loved everyone and loved Christmas. Bill sometimes is the original Humbug and takes pride in it, I believe.

For all the fact that A Christmas Carol has become a tradition at the Goodman (a rather lucrative one, I might add), it was far from a sure bet when it began. There were a lot of actors and even more costumes, sets sliding on and off, special effects and actors flying through the air. During the long technical rehearsals, there were serious questions whether or not it would all ever come together.

Due to the schedule, we had to work on Thanksgiving, doing a full dress rehearsal. Being away from my family was a little tough but the Goodman generously sprang for Thanksgiving dinner catered in the rehearsal room and we were allowed to invite guests. I invited my Mom and my stepfather and it was very cool feeling; I had often eaten Thanksgiving at her place and now she was, more or less, eating at my place – my current theatrical home. After dinner, all the guests were also invited to the dress rehearsal. They were warned we might have to stop if a problem cropped up (it was still a rehearsal, after all) but my memory of the night was it all came off well.

However, we were all still jittery as opening night came. Even if it all came off as we wanted, would the audience like it? The Goodman had a lot invested in the production; the sets and costumes et al would pay off better as they were used again and again in the following years. If this first production flopped, there would not be subsequent productions and the Goodman would have to eat the expense. It was not a cheap show to produce. It wasn’t in the vicinity of Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark costs but they were substantial for the time and the place.

Opening night went without a hitch, the audiences gave us a standing ovation, and as they left the theater a gentle snow began falling. We all wondered how the special effects team managed that. They never copped to it but had mysterious smiles that suggested more than they said.

Personally, I credit Tony Mockus, Sr., one of the nicest people I’ve ever met in the theater and a very religious guy. I think he put in a word with the Big Guy/Gal.

It was also during this first production of A Christmas Carol that I met Del Close. Del was already a legend in Chicago theater as director/teacher over at Second City and also for who he was. I had heard he was a Satanist, which was untrue. He was a practicing witch by his own admission (he even wore a pentacle under his costume for the show) and he had been cast as the Ghost of Christmas Present – who is a pretty Bacchus like character and thus good casting. I was pretty square in those days and he was a real Bohemian. He was also my roommate in the dressing rooms. To be honest, I was a bit terrified of him and his reputation.

I needn’t have been. Del was affable and cordial and, to tell the truth, a little bit nervous about his part (he needn’t have been; he got glowing reviews, as did the entire production). He was also a big fan of science fiction and of comics. He was just one of the best read persons I’ve ever met. Our working relationship in comics (Munden’s Bar, Wasteland) stemmed from sharing that dressing room.

My different parts in the show often required me to tear off my clothes in the wings on one side, throw on another costume, rush to the other side of the stage behind the back wall, and become part of a crowd scene. One year as I was doing that in one of the last performances of the year, I was crossing the stage, trying to “be in the moment” as we say in acting circles, and my mind was saying, “You know, you could be making a lot more money at the typewriter.” My comics writing career had started not long before and was in the upswing. As I exited offstage, I realized that my theater career was ending. I finished the run and then retired to be a full time writer.

I’ll never forget or regret those days in A Christmas Carol. I made a lot of friends and have nothing but fond memories of that time. Thanksgiving has just passed but I’ll just say that those productions are one of the big things in my life for which I am thankful.

God bless us every one.


TUESDAY MORNING: Not Emily S. Whitten, but…


Mike Gold: Mad, or Sad?

A couple years ago, Mad Magazine was demoted to quarterly release – a status it had not had since it first converted into magazine format in 1955. Shortly after, I ran into its publisher Paul Levitz and expressed regret at the situation. Paul, a major comics fan and historian, shared my feelings but said with obvious sadness “Maybe its time had passed.”

Maybe so. Mad’s return to bi-monthly status, one suspects, has more to do with the successful animated series than any publishing-revenue prerogative. Paul was right, and he’s still right: Mad’s time had passed. To his credit, it had passed back when he was still a teenager.

I came across Mad at an early age, discovering my sister’s comics stash as I was ferreting about her bedroom looking for, well, comics. And maybe spare change. Like an unbelievable number of Boomers, it totally warped my mind. Mad was part of its time: we also had Ernie Kovacs and Rocky and Bullwinkle. Steve Allen and Del Close. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis. All assaulted a status quo that was desperately in need of destruction.

As it always is.

Perhaps these combined forces shaped me more than the average pre-adolescent. Truth to Power, there’s really no “perhaps” about it. Therefore, when Mars Attacks! came out I discovered creative people can up the ante. And Mars Attacks! ushered in the 1960s when the ante wasn’t simply upped, it grew daily and exponentially.

Somewhere along the way, Mad’s “usual gang of idiots” continued to age. Instead of hoisting our culture on its own petard, Mad sometimes turned on the latter-day iconoclasts. Not viciously, not regularly, but by the end of the decade you could hear the sound of the hardening of their arteries.

This was unnecessary, but it left room for the sons of Mad to take on the role – folks like Robert Crumb, Jay Lynch, George Carlin, Tommy Smothers, Richard Pryor, Michael O’Donoghue, Doug Kenny, Frank Zappa, Matt Groening, Mike Judge… I’m happy to say the list goes on and on. Now, the grandsons of Mad have taken over. Just as Frank Faye begat Jack Benny who begat Johnny Carson who begat Bill Maher, Mad is better thought of as a major influence than an active force.

I’m not saying Mad sucked. It continued to be funny and, often, clever. But it was totally ready for prime time. Mad was on Broadway. It became a movie (for which publisher and legend Bill Gaines apologized – in the pages of Mad). It became a television show. It became two television shows, actually, and both were more cutting-edge than the magazine had been in over two decades.

Onetime Madmen like Paul Krassner and Chevy Chase went elsewhere. If you’re in the culture evolution business and the establishment doesn’t regard you as a pariah, you’re not doing your job right.

Clearly, Paul was on the money. My inner-fanboy (who pays the rent; it’s a good arrangement) says Mad could of and should of stayed in the thick of the fray, but que sera, sera.

The massive talent of Mad was celebrated ten years ago in a wonderful book called Mad Art, by none other than Mark Evanier. It owns my highest recommendation. A new book, Totally Mad, is set for release next Tuesday, which means it’s in the “bookstores” right now. I haven’t read it so I won’t comment, but you might want to give it a look.

THURSDAY: Dennis O’Neil


John Ostrander: How I Learned to Write

One of the pleasures of the Internet and of Facebook in particular is that sometimes old friends find you or you find them and you get a chance to re-establish old bonds. One such for me is David Downs who I knew in my Loyola University theater days. Recently, he was asking about my writing and about writing plays and I realized – by Gum! – there was a column in it. Thanks, David!

I’m essentially self-taught as a writer. I’m not putting down writing classes or seminars; I’ve taught some myself. As I think I’ve said elsewhere, however, the theater was my writing school. Much of what I’ve learned about writing comes from my days in theater. I was an actor, a director, a playwright, a sometimes techie, a teacher and occasional inept producer.

My sense of structure comes from the theater and my work as a playwright, an actor, and a director. All three demanded that I be able to break down a play, to comprehend where the conflict lay and how the action built to a climax, how it paid off. The acts break down into scenes and the scenes into beats. A beat can be described like a heartbeat – ba-DUM, ba-DUM. It’s an action/reaction, usually between two characters but it can be one character (witness Hamlet’s “to be or not to be” soliloquy) or even two groups of characters.

Beats build into scenes with their own mini-climaxes, which in turn lead into acts with their own climaxes, which in turn lead to the play’s climax. What a character does is determined by their motivation; something that drives the character. Not just something they sorta kinda want to do, but what they need to do. There may be more than one motivation and they may be conflicting within the character. Sometimes the characters will think they want something but, underlying, there is something they want more and they learn that in the process of the story.

I learned from theater that everything is defined by action and that includes the dialogue. No one ever just talks – they confirm, they deny, they ask, they reject, they explain, they lie, they oppose, they attack, they defend and so on and so on. How they express themselves reveals something about them as characters. Do they hide behind words? Do they not know how to use words? What is the rhythm of their speech? Do they use long words? Do they use short sentences? Shakespeare wrote in iambic pentameter but his characters do not all speak in the same way. How characters speak reveals themselves as people, often in ways they don’t expect. It happens in every day life; that’s why it works in theater or in writing.

From Shakespeare I also learned how theme should be tied into plot – hard wired in. It’s not something that you overlay; it’s not the “moral” of your story. On any given topic, it’s hard to tell what Shakespeare “thought.” That’s because he was so brilliant at exploring and expressing different and even diametrically opposite points of view. What his characters said on different topics fit because in the plot it was appropriate at that moment to advancing that plot. It was deciding their actions and those actions drove the play.

Case in point – in that same “To be or not to be” speech I mentioned earlier, Hamlet is trying to decide whether to kill himself or not. He debates the pros and cons with himself. He’s trying to determine his course of action. If it’s just declaimed as a beautiful piece of poetry or philosophy, it misses the point. It needs to have an urgency, a real sense that Hamlet just might kill himself if he can’t find a reason why he shouldn’t.

I’ve learned other things from other playwrights – Samuell Beckett and Harold Pinter taught me about economy of language. George Bernard Shaw was very good at wedding social issues with bright characterization and very clever dialogue.

I also learned a lot of Improvisational theater. My sometime writing partner, Del Close, taught many, many classes in Improv and I was privileged to be in some. He taught as well as directed at Second City for a couple decades before moving to the ImprovOlympics. Del was famous for hurling chairs at actors if he felt they were going for the funny. He wanted them to go for the true because, as he often said, “Reality is far funnier than you can ever hope to be.” He wanted the moments that would reveal situations and characters.

He also wanted us to “start in the middle and go on past the ending.” He wasn’t interested in “all that boring exposition crap” and he wanted to see what the next moment was beyond what should have been the end of the story. He wanted the next day after “happily ever after.”

One of the really big things I took away was how little exposition we really need to get into the story. Much less than most writers would think. Assume the readers can keep up. Stan Lee did that with many stories; he’d start you in the middle of a fight and promise to catch you up as he went. He did, too.

From the theater I learned to do without explanation. Don’t tell the reader what to think or feel; let them think and feel and then tell you. Character is to be found in contradiction; don’t try to resolve the contradictions – explore them. I learned all this from constant repetition until it has sunk deep into me; it becomes second nature.

It comes down to this. If you’re going to be a writer, then write. Don’t talk about it, don’t just think about it – do it. A lot of what you write at first may be twaddle. That’s okay. Write the crap out of your system and keep improving. I believe I’m a good writer but not yet as good as I can be and I hope that never occurs until the day I die.

There is no one system or course of instruction that works for everyone; there’s only what works for you. This was my path. Find one that works for you.

MONDAY: Mindy Newell


Mike Gold: Bad Taste Tastes Good

I am of the opinion that “bad taste” is a good thing. It’s the most ridiculously subjective concept imaginable: what offends me (admittedly, very little) might be absolutely awesome to you, and we each have a right to our opinions.

I was fortunate enough to be the editor and, along with ComicMix co-conspirator John Ostrander, co-conceiver of a DC Comics series called Wasteland. It was the black hole of humor, a monthly love-letter to bad taste. The stories usually had a point with enough wiggle-room in each concept to cause the reader night sweats. John wrote the series, often in tandem with improv legend Del Close, and we had a rotating gaggle of extraordinarily gifted artists as our visual collaborators. We’d have four going at any one time: three doing interior stories and one doing the cover. The one who did the cover in month one would do an interior job in month two, and so on. The artists usually came up with the cover concepts.

I only rejected one Wasteland cover. Drawn by Bill Wray, it happens to be my favorite. Those of you who are familiar with the Wasteland run might wonder just what it would take to cross my line. What it took was my concern for the continued existence of the comic book shop retailer: if not for the fact that we had to sell the thing, I would have published the cover about a hobo fishing off of a bridge into a sea of floating dead babies in a heartbeat.

 (Just for shits and grins, I took it to editor-in-chief Dick Giordano anyway. He took one look at it, laughed, and said “You already rejected this!” I miss Giordano a lot.)

All of this is my way of reviewing a truly wonderful new book, [[[Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See]]] by Françoise Mouly, art editor of The New Yorker and publisher of TOON Books. Under her editorship, The New Yorker’s covers shifted rather rapidly from inoffensive fodder to litter doctors’ waiting rooms into a powerful agent provocateur lurking on the newsstands with the sole purpose of confronting our assumptions and values.

Well, not quite every week. Perhaps their most infamous of these covers rests atop this column; it is among the many that has acted as a pie tossed in the face of the pathetically uptight. Most of these covers are reprinted in Blown Covers…

… and so, as the title suggests, are many that didn’t make it. Most of those reprinted in this tome are certainly print-worthy, and to be fair, many didn’t make it because somebody else beat them to it, including Mad Magazine, which also employed the aforementioned Bill Wray. Some… simply… crossed the line. That inevitable, damned line.

Reading Blown Covers is great fun. Just looking at the pictures is great fun, but reading about the decision-making process should be de rigueur for anybody who thinks editing stuff might be a legitimate way to earn a living. Quotes from the artists abound.

My favorite of these rejects was one that wasn’t even offered for publication: it was done by Art Spiegelman, a frequent cover contributor and author of the Pulitzer Prize winning Maus, to his wife, the aforementioned Ms. Mouly. It was a drawing of a cattle car overstuffed with Jews on its way to a Nazi concentration camp. One guy was on his cell phone… and his über-cramped neighbors in the cattle car were annoyed and pissed.

What? Too soon?

Like I said, Blown Covers is great fun. Give it out as Christmas gifts to all your relatives.

I will.

Blown Covers: New Yorker Covers You Were Never Meant To See • Françoise Mouly • Abrams Books • $24.95 retail, also available in electronic editions.

THURSDAY: Dennis O’Neil and the Secret To Getting Hired In Comics!



I love stories. I love reading stories, I love hearing stories, I love telling stories.

I’ve been like this as far back as I can remember.

The way my mind works is that I see stories everywhere. Back when I was going to Chicago’s Quigley Prep Seminary in my freshman year of high school, I had to take the elevated train down to school and back at least five days a week. In those days, the first seat in the first car was a single seat right by the front window. When I could get it, I’d watch the tracks as we went. I’d assign one person’s life to one of the rails and another person’s life to the parallel rail and, at junctions, where another set of rails could switch you to another set of tracks, I saw those parallel lives coming together but then another junction would come and those lives would no longer travel on together. I projected a story onto the rails.

Yeah, I was an odd kid.

Sometimes I would come home after dark, especially during the winter, and when I could I’d sit by the train window and watch the apartment buildings as we passed them with rows upon rows of windows. Most would be dark or have the shades drawn but, every so often, the window would be lit and the shade would be up and you’d see someone in the window, just for a few seconds. You’d catch a bit of their life and wonder what the rest of it was like.

Years later, I lived in an apartment that was a half block or less from the train tracks. I lived on the third floor and I knew, from my previous experience, that if the lights were lit and the shades were up, people from the passing trains could look into my life just as I glimpsed into others. That seemed fair.

What I learned from this is that we play many parts in our lives. We are the leads of our own stories (or should be) although, as Charles Dickens, in the opening of David Copperfield, wrote: ”Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” We can be the hero or villain in our own life and sometimes are both. In the story of other peoples’ lives, we assume different plot functions – supporting character, antagonist, cameo, walk-on. We are part of so many different stories.

We are all stories; we are all storytellers. As my former rector, Revered Phillip Wilson, used to say, stories are the atoms of our social interactions. We use story constantly in our own lives, to convey experience, tell a joke, share an experience. Stories are how we understand the world into which we have been born. The stories we tell shape us both as a people and a nation.

The stories often get told and re-told just as DC Comics is now re-telling its stories. Events get altered because it makes a better story. When Del Close was telling portions of his life story in Wasteland, he was never concerned about the facts (although there were often some kernels of fact in the story) – he was concerned with what was true, what was good for the story.

A good story always reflects the storyteller and Del’s stories always did. Del lives in his stories just as Dickens lives in his stories just as Shakespeare does in his. As I do in mine. The stories aren’t real in that the events haven’t happened but they are hopefully true; lies told in service to the truth.

So – what’s your story?

MONDAY: Mindy Newell