So, Bill Maher crossed the line and got himself into hot water. Given the nature of his HBO show, Real Time, and his own proclivities as a satirist, maybe he should just have a hot tub on stage instead of a desk. It would suit him in many ways.
Recently, as part of an interview, Maher jokingly referred to himself as a “house ‘N’ word.” No, I’m not repeating the actual word here for a few reasons. A) I don’t want to pull a Maher; B) I don’t like the word. I won’t pretend I’ve never used it; I threw it around a bit as a kid in 1950s Chicago along with the “c” word, the “f” word, the “mf” and others of that ilk because I knew they were bad words, naughty words, and I was trying at those moments to pass myself off to my self and my friends as a naughty boy, as a bad boy. Didn’t use those words around my family, my parents, or the nuns; I would have been a dead boy if I had. I haven’t used the “n” word as an adult; not since I learned the history of the word, the harm in it.
I know that the “n” word is used by African-Americans and I know that’s different; there’s a cultural aspect to the use that doesn’t work with someone who is white. There’s a menace when that happens; a whole history of racism and bigotry packed into it.
However, I do have a question. Can I, as a white male writer, ever use it in the context of a story? When I was writing The Kents (my historical Western featuring the ancestors of Clark Kent’s adoptive family), I had characters who could have and perhaps should have used that word. I couldn’t bring myself to do it so I adopted a similar word as a replacement only to learn later that this word was perhaps more offensive.
I ran up against the same problem with Kros: Hallowed Ground. It’s set during the Civil War and the word would have been used. At first, I was inclined to use it but I had long talks with my partners, Tom Mandrake and Jan Duursema. They made the point that the word was jarring when you came across it and that it might well offend some of our backers, black and white. In the end, I agreed we shouldn’t use that word and didn’t.
The question still remains for me; can I as a white male writer justifiably use such a loaded word?
There’s the Mark Twain example who made prolific use of the “n” word; one of his great characters in Huck Finn is “N” Jim. I know there are versions of the book in which all the “N” words have been removed. I’m not nuts about that. There is a term “Bowdlerize” which denotes going through a text, especially a classic, and removing words and/or terms deemed offensive or not suitable for children and people easily offended. That raises my writerly hackles.
Still, the question persists – can a white male writer legitimately use the “n” word or the “c” word or any other words of that ilk? I don’t know. I’m still searching for that answer and I suspect I won’t find a definitive one.
Maher, for his part, realizes he went too far and did apologize for it. He devoted a considerable part of his show this week in a discussion of the term, repeating his apology. Ice Cube, among others, explained why the word is objectionable in ways that might expand our understanding of the situation.
However, there have been those who have called for him to be fired. I understand that Sen. Al Franken canceled a scheduled appearance on Real Time this week. Franken was formerly a comic, sometimes an edgy one, but he’s cutting no slack here.
Both Maher and Kathy Griffin (who got herself in trouble with a photo holding up a severed head of Trump) make edginess part of their routines. The edge, however, is not well marked and at times the only way you know where it is is when you’ve gone over it. And, at times, you’ll go past it at 100 mph.
To say the “N,” if you’re white, is never right. As a writer, as a white male writer, can I ever write it? I don’t know and until I have a clearer answer, I won’t. I may never get that.
Life would be simpler if it just came with a clearer book of instructions. Something simple and easy, in clear black and white.
More than once over the years I’ve been approached by someone who says that they have a great idea for a story and that I should write it and then we split any money evenly. The problem with this (aside from the fact that the work is not even) is that I have plenty of ideas of my own that, for one reason or another, never get written. Having ideas isn’t the problem; executing them is.
Here are a few ideas I’ve had in my journal that haven’t seen the light of day.
Spectre/Batman Alt Worlds
An alternate DC Universe idea set back in the Thirties, we start with the Waynes getting gunned down in an alley, but this time young Bruce is killed as well. This sets off such a furor that something has to be done. Commissioner Gordon decides on someone from the outside and so brings in a tough as nails New York plainclothes detective named Jim Corrigan to clean things up.
Corrigan tears things up pretty well but finds himself as hamstrung as Gordon does. Frustrated, he gets the idea of an alternate identity and becomes the Bat-Man; however, this one carries .45s and shoots to kill.
Meanwhile, Bruce Wayne’s spirit rages in the afterlife about the injustice of what happened to him and his family. A voice offers him a chance at retribution and he takes it. A 10-year old Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham as the Spectre.
Inevitably, the paths of Bat-Man and the Spectre collide and leads to the ultimate confrontation. Corrigan dies and Bruce is stripped of the Spectre powers but given a chance to live his life again. He becomes Gordon’s ward. In the meantime, Corrigan is given the mantle of the Spectre.
Why didn’t it go? This would have fallen under the “Elseworlds” banner and DC has stopped doing those.
Star Wars: Han Solo miniseries
This one is set between Episodes IV and V when the Rebel Alliance is hidden on the ice planet Hoth. Mon Mothma, trying to negotiate for another planet to join the Alliance, is grabbed by some space pirates and held for ransom. If the Alliance doesn’t want to pay up, the kidnappers will sell her to the Empire.
Leia and Luke are off on separate adventures but Han, Chewie and the Millennium Falcon are on hand. Han knows the kidnappers and tells the Alliance leaders he should bring the ransom and get Mon Mothma back. He figures that the Princess would like that and, who knows, he might be able to claim at least part of the ransom as a reward. The plan includes double crossing the pirates, including some old acquaintances.
It all gets more complicated when the Empire learns that the pirates have Mon Mothma and dispatch a Star Destroyer with Darth Vader to grab Mon Mothma and dispatch the kidnappers. Han gets a hold of Mon Mothma just as the Empire shows up and its all a mad scramble to escape the pirates and the Empire.
The tone was meant to be light and fun and focus on Han as a rogue.
Why didn’t it go? Right around the time that I came up with the idea, Dark Horse was losing the license to the franchise. Marvel, who got it, doesn’t appear to be interested in those who did Star Wars for DH. I don’t blame them; they want their take on it.
DC has/had been having trouble re-launching its venerable Legion of Super-Heroes (LSH). Is the concept – teen superheroes routinely saving the galaxy – outdated?
I like jumping stories down their own timeline; witness Star Wars: Legacy. I thought I’d jump this narrative down its timeline by 500-1000 years. The United Planets no longer exist; the LSH is nowhere to be found. The Khund Empire rules and Earth itself had been shattered and is an asteroid ring around the sun. Super-powered beings were barred or restricted to their own planets.
In all this a young man emerges; the only name he gives is Legion. He has with him several LSH flight rings and he travels through the galaxy trying to find super-powered beings to join him in an attempt to overthrow the Khunds.
Since I like what I call narrative alloys, this was an attempt to cross the concept of LSH with Star Wars.
Why didn’t it go? DC had its own plan for the LSH and I guess they thought this would muddy the waters. Or they just didn’t like my take.
There’s lots of other ideas and concepts in my journal and/or my computer. Two of them will be up this year; Tom Mandrake and I (with Jan Duursema) are preparing Kros: Hallowed Ground for the printer right now and then Jan and I will be completing Hexer Dusk. Both are independent projects funded through Kickstarter. Both have taken a lot of thought, energy, and effort to realize.
So, as you see, the problem is not a lack of ideas. Everybody gets ideas. The problem is what do you do with them. Some just never come together and some never get an okay. So you file it and move on to the next. You work at what’s working but you don’t lose track of the ideas you’ve had. You just never know.
Completing the trifecta of John Ostrander related items suitable for putting under the Christmas tree, today we have the Suicide Squad movie now out on DVD, Blu-Ray, and assorted other platforms that I don’t understand. The movie came out in August and now, just in time for Christmas, it’s out for your home theater.
This may be a trickier recommendation than my previous two because, although the movie did very well in the theaters, not everyone was a fan. In fact, some hated it. Me, I loved it – but I admit to a slight bias.
The version I got was the extended version with the bells and whistles – extended scenes and bonus features (which I’ll get to in a minute). I’m not always crazy about extended scenes or deleted scenes; more often than not I can see why they were cut. Although there was a scene in The Godfather between Don Corleone (Marlon Brando) and his son (Al Pacino) in a hospital corridor set early in the film where Michael angrily tells his father “I will never be like you! Never!” I still can’t believe they cut it.
However, I like the extended scenes in the Squad. I think they filled out the story, added characterization, and explained one or two things. It doesn’t take care of all the flaws. For example, (SPOILER ALERT) after the climax Deadshot rightly asks Amanda Waller, “How come you aren’t dead?” It’s not answered and it’s a fair question; acknowledging a flaw doesn’t correct it.
The plot is a little too “save the world” for my taste; when I wrote it, the Squad didn’t really do that. There are other flaws as well, all of which I admit, but I had a good time every time I watch it and I did again. The good very much outweighs the bad so far as I’m concerned. I love the character interactions and Amanda Waller is so Amanda Waller for me. They had read and knew the source material and made a fine adaptation of it. I’m gratified.
And there’s a bunch a special features and, if you’re a fan of mine, you might be interested that I’m in some of them. I sat down and did a video interview and parts of it were incorporated into the special features. If you’ve read/heard interviews with me in the past, you’ve probably heard the stories I tell here. Not everyone who watches this will have heard them, though. I suppose I should find a new way of telling these stories but it’s practiced and professional the way they are now and, I think, moderately entertaining. So now I have my name not only up on a building in the movie, I’ve told my story in the background feature.
It is odd to watch myself in the video. I always have a disconnect between myself on the screen and my own self-image. Do I really sound/look like that? I guess so. I look presentable and sound reasonable and that’s not always the case, so I’m content.
Should you buy the home version if you were not crazy about the film in the first place just to see me blather? No, absolutely not. If you didn’t like it before, even the addition of extended scenes and (ahem) me will not improve that for you. However, according to Amazon, the Blu-ray is among their best sellers in action/adventure so I guess there are plenty of folks who are enjoying it.
A second Squad movie has been announced as in development but with no release date yet set or any other particulars so far as I know. I’m looking forward to it.
Now, if we can just convince Warners to make a movie of Tom Mandrake’s and my version of The Spectre. Heck, I’d pay to see that one!
In the meantime, Happy Holidays to you all. Whether you buy a John Ostrander related item or not.
Last week I gave a review of the Suicide Squad movie. This week, I’m talking about my trip to NYC for the premiere.
I got in to the East Coast on 7/31 and stayed with my friends Tam and Kev English over in New Jersey, near to where I used to live. Tom Mandrake and Jan Duursema, who also live in the area, were going to be in town Sunday night before going on a trip so we all got together for a nice meal. Hilarity ensued.
Tom and Jan also gave me a box full of Kros: Hallowed Ground booty. This is stuff that will be going out to our subscribers and it is killer cool.
I took the train into Manhattan on Monday to join my old bud and oft-time editor and my date for the evening, the lovely and effervescent Mike Gold. We were meeting for a pre-festivities lunch. Among many other projects, Mike edited Legends, which is where my version of the Suicide Squad first appeared. True to form, I screwed up both the time and the location but eventually wound up where I was supposed to be, a little hot, a lot sweaty, but there.
It was a nice meal at Virgil’s BBQ (when with Mike, you’re quite likely to wind up eating barbecue) and then it was time to head out to the pre-premiere party being hosted by Dan Didio and DC Entertainment. On our way to a taxi (Mike suggested the subway but I was already overheated), we went to the heart of Times Square and there – lo and behold – was a huge frickin’ ad for the movie up on a building. It was at least four stories tall and wrapped around the building on either side. I was staggered.
On to the DC pre-party up at Pappardella on the upper west side. We were met outside by Jimmy Palmiotti and Amanda Connor; seeing Jimmy always guarantees a good time and Amanda graces the company of wherever she is.
All sorts of DC stalwarts were inside including some old friends like Paul Levitz, Mike Barr, and Keith Giffen. Was also joined by Adam Glass and his wife at our table in the corner. Adam had written the initial issues of the New 52 edition of the Squad and we were able to chat Squad shop. Great guy, good writer, and a fun table companion.
I also got to meet Geoff Johns face-to-face for the first time. We’ve traded more than a few emails but have never been able to be in the same place at the same time. Geoff has recently been promoted to President as well as Chief Creative Officer of DC Entertainment and I had a chance to congratulate him. He sat down and we had just a really good chat. In addition to being a really good writer, Geoff is a hell of as nice guy.
They got some group photos of all of us at Pappardella and then it was time to walk over to the nearby Beacon Theater for the premiere. We got off the buses and it was amazing: there was major security, both private and city, and barriers and people behind barriers looking for stars and celebrities. I was dazzled and dazed. I started to follow the herd towards the theater until I heard someone calling my name. It was Dan Didio as well as my date gesturing me over to a large air conditioned tent right there on Amsterdam Avenue. I mean, the air conditioning units were huge. I was supposed to go in that way. I wasn’t sure why but I went there.
Inside there was a backdrop and lots of press and photographers. I was in a spotlight and, swear to God, they were calling “John, look over here.” “John. Over this way.” “John, look straight ahead.” Flashes flashed and I had on my best deer caught in the headlights look. It was weird.
My baptism by strobes completed, I was escorted out of the tent and to the theater and given my assigned seat. The Beacon is no small theater (albeit a beautiful one) and every seat was assigned. I sat in the middle of the DC row and settled in. Geoff Johns was two seats to my right but the one right next to me was vacant. I decided that seat belonged to my late wife and frequent Squad co-writer, Kim Yale. Knowing Kim, she was having a blast.
Pete Tomasi, my one-time editor on a lot of The Spectre, Martian Manhunter, and The Kents, came over for a chat. It was great to see him; it’s been far too long. Pete‘s also a freelance writer these days and a good one.
I’ll admit to being dazzled. A lot of fuss was being made over me and more than a few people came up and said that this was my night as well; that none of this would have been happening without me. I guess that’s technically true but it’s a little hard for me to wrap my brain around.
Anyway, it comes time for the movie and the director, David Ayer, comes out to say a few words and he brings out the entire cast of the movie. Loud cheers all around. The cast walks off and the movie begins.
I reviewed the movie last week and I’ll double down on it. I’ve seen it again since then, with My Mary (who couldn’t make it to the premiere) at IMAX and in 3-D and I liked it even more. I understand that there’s people who don’t agree with me and that’s fine; different tastes for different folks. For example, Mary likes broccoli and I can’t stand it, referring to it as “tiny trees”. But I loved the Squad movie and I’ll see it still again.
One note about it and it’s a very minor spoiler. I knew ahead of time that they had named a building used in the movie the John F. Ostrander Federal Building. I knew it was there, I knew it was coming up and yet, somehow, I missed seeing it. The DC row cheered but I didn’t see it until we went to the IMAX. Go figure.
There were cheers when the movie was over and then it was time to get onto the buses and go to the after-party. It was held in a huge hall with parts of it made up to look like Belle Reve (I’m told it was on display at SDCC and then moved east). There was food, there was drink, there was a DJ and loud music; DC had a private area off to one side. I understood the stars of the movie were in attendance and had their own area as well.
This may surprise some folks but not, I think, those who know me well. I sometimes get a case of the shys; I feel awkward where I feel somewhat out of place. I saw Kevin Smith there and wanted to go up and talk with him but he was talking to someone else so I wandered off. I didn’t want to bother him.
The one person I did want to meet was Viola Davis who played Amanda Waller. Amanda is special to me and Ms. Davis did a superb job, IMO, and I just wanted to tell her so. First, I had to deal with security. I walked up to a guy guarding the artist’s area; the Hulk is smaller than this guy. Real tall, shoulders the size of a football field – nobody was getting past him. Nobody.
I went straight to him, explained who I was and why I wanted to see Ms. Davis. He was polite, got a hold of someone who had to go check on me. While I waited, he deflected two or three others. The guy was good at his job.
Finally, someone came up to take me back the handful of steps to –. I introduced myself and then told her how much I enjoyed her performance. She was very gracious and lovely. I think, although I’m not certain, that I did not babble unduly.
And then I was done.
I might have liked to say hello to some of the other actors and especially the director but, plain and simple, I’d run out of nerve. My date had already left to catch a train and it was time for me to do the same. Penn Station was only a block or two away and that’s where I need to go to get back to Tam and Kev.
I’m reasonably certain in my heart that Kim was there at the party. She would have been in her element. She was an extrovert and she would have been dancing and drinking and chatting with the stars and flashing that megawatt smile. I’m also reasonably certain she’s still there; at many a Con, Kim would still be partying while I went to bed. I couldn’t keep up with her.
I said goodbye to Geoff Johns, got to Penn Station and went back to my friends in Jersey.
It was an experience totally unlike anything I’ve ever had. I don’t know if I’ll ever have another one like it. Even if I went to another movie premiere, this was my first one. As they say, you never forget your first.
I was a temporary celebrity. I’ve done lots of interviews connected with the event and I’ll probably do a few more, told the same stories or given the same answers a lot of times. I’ve been dipped in the waters of fame. There were faces on the other side of the barriers in front of the theater or the after party, looking at me, wondering who I was. I must have been Somebody. For the moment, maybe I was.
I’m home now. The dishes need washing, this column has to be finished, and one of the cats wants attention. That’s who I am and I’m happy with that. The rest will fade as it should. I’ll tell you this, though – it sure as hell was fun while it lasted! For that night, I was John Fucking Ostrander with my name of the side of a building in a big ass movie..
I love writing and I am so glad I’ve been able to make a living at it. I’m very thankful to all the fans and all the publishers who have enabled me to do that over the years.
The trick is in getting the work. There’s this malady known as “freelancer’s disease” which consists of a freelancer taking every gig offered because you’re afraid that if you turn down any, they will all go away. It’s not rational but it’s real and it’s how some freelancers wind up taking on too much work. I’ve been sick with that disease from time to time. To make a living from writing, though, depends on a publisher saying yes.
That’s changed a bit in recent years thanks to the phenomenon of crowd funding where the artist can put together a project and then, if they can, get it up on the Internet at a crowd sourcing site such as Kickstarter or IndieGoGo. There you ask the fans to fund the project– and its their interest in what you are doing that counts. You ask the reader to trust you and your past work and invest in this new one.
I’ve done it with Tom Mandrake for Kros: Hallowed Ground (vampires and the Civil War) and I’m trying to do it again with Jan Duursema for a science fiction project called Hexer Dusk. For over a decade, Jan and I did Star Wars comics at Dark Horse, acquiring a fan base and a rep for doing really good Star Wars stories spread over different epochs. We created a lot of new characters who also became fan favorites and we had a great time.
We stopped doing Star Wars because George Lucas sold his rights to Disney. Disney owns Marvel and the licensing rights for Star Wars comics, which were up, went to them. Since the franchise was re-defining itself and its continuity, Marvel was looking for new talent to do the comics. I don’t blame them at all; I understand the rationale completely.
Jan and I really loved doing Star Wars and had always talked about creating our own space opera – one that we would own with worlds and characters of our creation. Hexer Dusk is not Star Wars by any means, but it is informed by our work on Star Wars. We have a galaxy with space ships and blasters, yes, but there’s magic and monsters and horror as well. And humor. You can’t have a slightly off kilter combat robot without humor. It’s also gritty and grungy because that’s what we do.
Jan got the idea for the project from a dream she had of great sky cities floating above a planet that were at war with one another. There were massive explosions and both cities were destroyed. It was a very vivid dream and, when she told it to me, the images were very vivid in my mind as well.
Every story has a genesis point and that was ours for Hexer Dusk. We started riffing together, throwing ideas back and forth as we did when working on Star Wars. Jan brought in Xane Dusk, the Weird, KOMBOT, and beadies. I brought in scavvers–Prybar, Sooz, Captain Skargle and The Missus. Heck of a party! And then there are the Razers who want to destroy all remaining Hexers – including Xane Dusk.
Xane Dusk is one of the last of the Hexers. That’s bad news for the galaxy because, when the Sky Cities exploded and fell, they created an other-dimensional rift in the fabric of space and these strange nightmarish creatures started coming through. They’re called The Weird and they can only exist in Xane’s galaxy by possessing existing bodies – living or dead. It’s a problem because the only ones who can really deal with the Weird are the Hexers and, as I said, Xane may be the last of them.
This story is going to happen. Our Kickstarter is basically funded with enough for printing, shipping, creating art rewards and Kickstarter fees and we’re now working on the stretch goals. Stretch goals are important because they will provide enough funding so that we can pay for art, writing, lettering, and colors as well as possibly adding pages to the story and a black and white PDF or print version of Hexer Dusk. Stretch goals are a way of bringing those kinds of extras to the backers of the project. If these stretch goals are achieved every backer gets more rewards. Which is cool.
Our Kickstarter project is at https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/313324911/hexer-dusk and I invite you to come take a look. There are some preview pages up with some really nifty art from Jan as well as descriptions of various reward levels ranging from a PDF of the graphic novel to a printed book with sketchcards or a sketch by Jan. You can also read the first nine pages of the book by going to www.hexerdusk.com
We’ve still got a week to go before the Kickstarter ends so we’re hoping for more folks to jump on the Hexer Dusk train – and to spread word about Hexer Dusk to their friends. Getting more eyes on this project is important. People can’t support something if they don’t know it’s there and word of mouth really is the best promoter. As always, we depend on our fans.
As they used to say on the old Bartles and Jaymes TV commercials, “We thank you for your support.”
Halloween was yesterday (if you’re reading this on Sunday); a time of ghosts and ghouls and little children strong arming adults for candy under the threat of “tricks.” Oh, also when the Great Pumpkin rises from a really sincere pumpkin patch to bring toys and presents to good little children all around the world. Or so I have been told.
And, of course, it’s time for ghost stories and horror stories and tales of things that go bump in the night and I’ve told a few of those myself, notably Wasteland. My most successful foray into the genre, though, probably was the run I did on The Spectre with Tom Mandrake for DC Comics back in the 1990s.
The Spectre was an interesting amalgam of both supernatural and superhero. Created in 1940 by Superman creator Jerry Siegel and artist Bernard Baily, the central character was hardnosed plainclothes detective Jim Corrigan who falls afoul of mobsters and is murdered. He’s sealed into a cement filled oil drum and dumped in the river. His soul, however, is unable to rest and an entity called “The Voice” sends him back as a vengeance-seeking ghost, a.k.a. The Spectre.
As the Spectre, Corrigan has unimaginable powers and abilities. And therein lay the problem. The only being more powerful than the Spectre would be God and only on days when God had been eating his Wheaties. How do you mount a credible threat to someone like that? If there is no risk, there’s no suspense and no story. The bad guy does bad things and the Spectre shows up and dispatches him, usually in a grisly fashion.
The Spectre never lasted long in his own series, although there were several attempts. The common wisdom was that you had to reduce the Spectre’s power to make a story. The problem with that was, in so doing, you lost some of the spectacular visuals that made the Spectre what he was. Why bother?
Tom Mandrake and I had been partners for a while, working on GrimJack and then on The Fury of Firestorm. The latter series was ending and we were looking for something new to do together. Both of us were long time fans of the Ghostly Guardian (as the Spectre was known) and campaigned to get to play with him. DC was leery; a recent attempt at doing a Spectre ongoing had been cancelled only a relatively short time before.
“Give him to us,” Tom and I told DC; “We know how to make him work.”
Editor and friend Dan Raspler took up our cause and got DC to agree based on our past track record together and how we pitched our concept for the relaunch.
It wasn’t the Spectre that we changed so much as it was his human counterpart, Jim Corrigan. Different versions of the story resurrected Corrigan and even set him at odds sometimes with the Spectre persona, which had taken up residence in Corrigan’s body. I felt that Corrigan himself had become something of a wimp. So, first of all, Tom and I declared that Corrigan was dead and had been dead since the 1940s. That was his tragedy. Sometimes, he fooled himself into thinking he was alive but he was, in fact, dead.
Second, Corrigan had been a plainclothes police detective back in the 40s. He was hard-boiled. Go back and watch the police movies from back then; hell, go read the early Dick Tracy strips. Hard, tough, and not afraid to use violence and even death to achieve justice. This, we felt, was why he was given the power of the Spectre and informed how that power was used. The Spectre may have had the power of a god but he had the perspective of a mortal man, a very flawed mortal man.
We decided that “The Voice” was short for The Voice of God and the Spectre himself became the Wrath of God. In a way, he was an aspect of God, specifically of Jehovah – and a very Old Testament Jehovah at that. The Spectre had been the Angel of Death that had culled the first born of Egypt. At one point, the Spectre entity rebelled against mercy and so it was decreed it that it had to be united with a human soul in order to walk the Earth, the theory being that the human could temper the Wrath of God. However, when you had a human as liable to rage and outrage as Jim Corrigan, that wasn’t always true.
This enabled us to keep the spectacular visuals and outrageous stunts, the iconography that gave readers a reason to come to the Spectre in the first place and still allow us to construct stories. The Spectre wasn’t vulnerable but Corrigan was.
Corrigan was also weary; since the 1940s he had tried to eradicate evil and the world had only gotten darker. He was very near despair and facing an existential crisis. That also gave us a platform for our stories; we asked questions on the nature of punishment, despair, and redemption. We posed ethical and theological questions. I was less interested in giving answers to those questions, which I felt the readers could and should provide for themselves.
This is all very cerebral. I know. What really made the book sing was Tom’s artwork. This is the character that Tom Mandrake was born to draw and over and over again I looked for situations that played to his myriad strengths. Hey, as they said in The Producers, “When you got it, flaunt it, baby, flaunt it!”
What added to the run were the covers; each issue had a different artist and each artist presented their own interpretation of the character, often telling their own story in one image. Likewise, the letter page (helmed by Peter Tomasi who started as the assistant editor on the book and later became the book’s editor) also delved into the topics raised by the story, creating an interesting discussion between Pete and the reader. All in all, it was quite a package.
We went on for five years and we learned that our run was nearing an end. We were given a year’s notice and permission to wind up the story our way. This is really rare. Corrigan had grown during the run of issues we did and, in our last issue, he gave up being the Spectre to go on to his final reward. That’s also unusual. With that ending, we were able to tie up our entire series and make it all one story. It completed what Tom and I were doing in a way that one rarely gets to do.
Tom and I are playing with the horror genre again as we work on Kros: Hallowed Ground. We’re both very excited by it; this is the first time we’ve played with the horror genre together since The Spectre. Expectations may be high; The Spectre was one of the high-water marks in both our careers. We feel confident but not cocky. The Spectre was very much of its time and where we were in our careers but I think it also stands up today. Two TPBs have been issued from DC gathering some of the early issues; I hope they go on to collect the others as well.
As part of the Kickstarter campaign for Tom Mandrake’s and my new project, Kros: Hallowed Ground (which, by the way, is still going on at x.co/kickkros), I’ve done a number of podcast interviews, which have been fun, and I always try to listen to them. I want to get an idea of how Tom and I sound to the fans who might be listening. However, my voice always surprises me. It’s not how I hear myself. I’m told this is the same situation for many people. How you sound to others is not how you hear yourself.
The same has proven true in my writing. Every writer develops a “voice” – a style, a way of expressing oneself that is unique to the individual writer. If authentic, it will reflect your views, your values, how you think, how you feel, how you react to the world around you and so much more.
Can you imitate someone else’s voice? Of course you can just as all the Elvis imitators out there try to channel Elvis Presley. It’s a whole industry. Within that industry are variations and nuances as each imitator tries to develop their own “voice” as Elvis.
In addition to all your own experiences you add the influences that work on you. What you read, what you see, the music that you hear and so on. One of the ways you develop your voice is by imitating the works that have made an impression on you. You take a bit from here, a touch from there and gradually it becomes how you express yourself. Imitation is certainly permissible at the beginning but, to be a good writer, you must develop beyond that. You take what you learn and make it your own.
The first time I came to the halls of DC comics, I met several editors including Dan Raspler who would later become the first editor on Tom Mandrake’s and my version of The Spectre. Dan did a double take when he saw me and confessed he was startled. He was a big fan of my work on GrimJack and, from my writing, he thought I’d be a big burly and surly young biker type. Instead, he got a genial, balding, pudgy white guy edging into middle-age. I’ve been told I’m very personable and pretty easy to get along with. Some editors have said that if you can’t collaborate with me, you can’t collaborate with anyone. I don’t think that’s how my stories read and that surprises me as well. Dan was right; I write like a surly biker. My work is often cynical, with a dark sense of humor, and I love conflicted characters. I prefer villains to heroes. That’s not who I am in life but it is how I am on paper. And, yes, that sometimes surprises me.
So if you meet me at a convention, come up and say hello. I don’t bite. (Hard.) I’m not that guy you’ve encountered on the pages I’ve written. Overall, I’m pretty nice.
Okay, I saw the Suicide Squad trailer that was “leaked” from SDCC and then the HD version a day or so later. I loved what I saw – particularly Amanda Waller. Viola Davis has the look, the sound, and most important, the attitude. Much of what she says at the start of the trailer sounds like it was taken from my proposal or one of my scripts. Yeah, I’m very happy.
As for the rest of the Squad, I can’t really say yet but if the whole thing mirrors their use of Waller, I think we’re going to get as close to the comic version of the Squad as a movie can get.
Mind you, I’m anticipating there will be changes. Comics and movies are different media with different needs and demands and so they will interpret the material differently. My main question for the Squad and any other comic book movie is will they get the essentials right?
When I say “essentials,” what do I mean? It’s not necessarily the costume or even the powers. It’s what defines them, what makes them different from other characters. When Tom Mandrake and I took on DC’s Martian Manhunter, we had to determine what made him different from Superman. They shared many of the same powers; in fact J’onn J’onnz had a few that Kal-El was missing. What was the essential difference? Tom and I determined it was that Kal-El came to earth as a baby and was raised in Kansas; he was raised human. J’onn was raised among his own kind on Mars and came to Earth as an adult. He is an alien from an alien culture. That was a fundamental difference in the two characters; something that was essential.
And something unique.
Stan Lee was recently asked about whether or not Peter Parker could be gay or if some minority could become Spider-Man. “There’s no reason not to,” he replied. “The only thing I don’t like doing is changing the characters we already have. For example, I’d like Spider-Man to stay as he is, but I have no problem creating a superhero who’s homosexual.” That, I think, is a reasonable answer. When Static was created, Milestone had their own Peter Parker who was not at all Peter Parker. Just as good but different, yet in the same mold.
What about the Green Lantern Corps? How are they unique? Everyone has the same ring, roughly the same uniform, and all take orders from the same little blue men. Again, it’s not the weapon or the uniform that makes someone unique. It is essentially who they are. It’s like a good war movie; they are all soldiers but each member of the squad is different. That’s their essence.
We’ve seen a lot of shuffled identities lately. Sam Wilson is now Captain America and not Steve Rogers. Before that, Bucky Barnes was Captain America instead of Steve Rogers. I think that’s a mistake. It’s not the uniform and the shield that define Captain America; it’s who Steve Rogers is. It’s who he is that makes Captain America and that’s what the films have gotten. Steve Rogers is the essence of Captain America.
I’m not saying never create new versions of old characters. I’ve done it. But the characters were moribund or dead. When Tom and I created a new version of Mister Terrific, we kept very close to the origin of he first Mister Terrific. We were true to the myth.
As Tom and I work on Kros: Hallowed Ground, we’re dealing with vampires and what we are exploring is what is essential to a good vampire story. Our basic take – they’re monsters. Not misunderstood gothic romantic figures or a different species just trying to co-exist on the planet. They’re monsters. So also might be our protagonist – Kros.
Sometimes you have to strip away the barnacles and crap that’s built up and get back to the essence of a character or a concept. That’s my approach when I’m given a character to write – what is their essence, why do we want to read about this character as opposed to another?
War is always a horror story. Terrible things are done and people kill one another in violent ways for what must have seemed very good reasons to them at the time. Sometimes, not always, the war is necessary. Opposing Hitler and the Nazis in WWII was necessary; wasting lives and dollars in Iraq was not.
The Civil War seemed necessary and inevitable. The United States was lurching towards the conflict since the country was founded. As Abraham Lincoln said in his “House Divided” speech on June 16, 1858 (a speech considered by many to have lost Lincoln the Senate election in Illinois that year), “I believe this government cannot endure, permanently half slave and half free.” The issue would have to be settled and settled in blood, in war, with horror.
This past week we observed the 152nd Anniversary of the Battle of Gettysburg, the climatic battle between the forces of the North and the South. The war would go on until 1865 but at this point it became a war of attrition. The South was not going to win after Gettysburg. The killing, the horror, would go on.
The Battle of Gettysburg is also the setting for Tom Mandrake’s and my new project, Kros: Hallowed Ground. Coincidently, we launched our Kickstarter campaign on the eve of the anniversary. (You can find our Kickstarter right here)
Oh… and we added vampires.
You might ask yourself, “Why did you do that, John and Tom? Surely the events of that great battle are dramatic enough on their own.” They are, and don’t call me Shirley.
The difference is that we’re not telling the story of the Battle of Gettysburg; we are using the Battle as the setting and the backdrop for the story we are telling. The Battle of Gettysburg is a huge tale and has consumed many, many books from different authors in its telling. While you can tell the story from many different perspectives according to who you focus on, there is no one character of the battle that can be called the main protagonist or antagonist. That’s not ideal for graphic fiction; you want one central character around which the story revolves. That’s what we’ve done.
“But why vampires?” You are insistent on that, aren’t you?
I’ve long been interested in what I call narrative alloys – combining elements of one genre with another. Robert E. Howard created Conan and other sword-and sorcery works by combining historical fiction and what was referred to as “sword-and-sandal” with supernatural stories, especially monsters. When I created GrimJack, I smushed together sword-and sorcery with hard-boiled noir detective fiction. When creating Agents of the Empire in Star Wars, I combined James Bond with Star Wars.
In combining the Civil War with horror fiction, I’m hoping to underscore the horror that was the Civil War. Too often I’ve read fairly bloodless accounts that focus on dates and names, troop movements and the order of battle. I think your skin should crawl when you read about the Battle of Gettysburg. We give you two Battles of Gettysburg; one by day and one by night. The concept is that Civil War battles would call to vampires who, like carrion birds, descend on the battlefield when the cannons and the rifles fall silent. The vampires come to feed on the wounded. Imagine for yourself the horror you would feel if you were badly wounded and still lay upon the ground where you fell and then, in the dark, a monstrous creature comes to suck the remaining life out of you and you are helpless to stop them.
That makes my skin crawl and I’m betting it will do the same for you.
Our protagonist is a vampire hunter – a dampyr – named Kros. This time, however, he discovers that he cannot fight alone and soldiers from both the North and South must come together to fight a greater evil that may literally consume them and everyone they care about. I want the reader to see the Battle through new eyes and to feel it viscerally. Tom Mandrake will make that happen. He is doing the best work of his storied career; his art creeps me out sometimes and I know what’s coming!
Before I was a professional comic book writer, I was a fan. I still am. I was going to comic cons long before I turned pro. Some are good, some are not so good, and some are the San Diego Comic Con which is too large to fit into any category. For me these days, cons are mostly working weekends where I meet with fans and fellow pros, sign some autographs, maybe sell a few of my trade paperbacks.
Last weekend, I and My Mary were at the Motor City Comic Con in Novi, Michigan, and we had a great time. It’s close enough to where we live so that we could just drive there and the Con gave us a hotel room so we didn’t have to drive back and forth. The cats weren’t pleased that we were gone but they survived and, once we fed them, forgave us our absence.
Last time I had been to Motor City was maybe a decade ago and it has really grown. My understanding is that they had over 50K attendance over the three days this year. It was large but not too large and, while it had a nice selection of media guests, it was still a con focused on comics.
I managed to make contact with some old friends such as Jim Calafiore (we worked on Magnus, Robot Fighter together) and current ones such as Chris Scalf (we have a new project we’re working on). I also met Mike McCone, with whom I had done one of my favorite Batman stories (a three-parter in Detective) but whom I had never actually met. (Comics are often like that; you work with someone but you may not actually meet them in the process.) Arvell Jones was at the table next to mine along with his family; really nice folks and a pleasure to meet them.
One of the media guests was Michael Rowe, who played Deadshot on Arrow when the Suicide Squad appeared there. I thought it would be interesting to go up to his table, introduce myself, tell him I had defined Floyd Lawton in the comic. Surprise! He showed up at my table first. He knew exactly who I was and told me he had read everything I had written on Deadshot and used that as the basis for the character he played.
I knew there was a reason I liked his version.
He was really nice and actually had me sign some of his comics. That can make your head spin around. I remembered the movie Stranger Than Fiction in which a writer discovers a character she is writing is real and they meet face to face. I’m not sure I would want to do that, given what I’ve done to a lot of my characters – especially Deadshot – so meeting Michael was a little surreal but very pleasant. He didn’t hurt me at all!
There were a couple of things that really struck me about the Con. One was not only the number of cosplayers present but the overall quality of their costumes. I know some folks are not all that keen on cosplayers at cons; some actually want them banned. For me, I really like what they add visually to a convention. It becomes like a great Halloween party.
The 501st Legion was well in evidence and they always have great costumes. I got to meet and chat with Thomas John Spanos who I first met when he was cosplaying Ganner Krieg, an Imperial Knight that Jan Duursema and I had created for Star Wars: Legacy. This time out Thomas was in his Clone Emperor incarnation. Really nice guy. I’ve been struck by his artistry and talent and attention to detail, something I find in all of the 501st members and the cosplayers in general that I saw last weekend. For example, I saw a really well done Groot posing for pictures, especially with kids who were thrilled.
Which brings me to another thing that really struck me about the Con – the number of kids I saw there, from very small to teens. About ten years ago, I saw a drop in kids at Cons and that worried me. It seemed they were all going to video games. I felt that wasn’t good for the Comics Industry. The kids are where the next generation of readers would come from and I was afraid we had lost them. I personally think that unless you start reading comics by a certain age as a kid, you don’t get into them and they’re never going to be a part of your life.
What’s changing that? Less the comics themselves with all their relaunches, new directions, and crossover events than the movies and TV shows based on comics. (They may also be more coherent and accessible than the comics.) In any case, there were a lot more kids at the show than in the past and it’s amazing how many of them were cosplaying as well.
One last thing about a Con the size of Motor City; while I was pretty busy autographing books and doing interviews, I still had time to chat with those who came to my table and I really like that. I managed to tell a lot them about the new project Tom Mandrake and I are getting ready to launch and don’t worry, I’ll be telling all of you as well when the time comes. The fans and I talked about what I’ve done in the past and hope to do in the future. I am so appreciative of the support that the fans have given me and my work over the years. Thank you.
So it was a good time and more than just a “working weekend.” I hope to do more Cons in the future and, if I do, come by and say “hi.” I give good blather, I think you’ll find.