Tagged: Wasteland

Marc Alan Fishman: My Five Best Comic Book Meals!

Life is about balance. After last week’s screed on my personal health journey, it’s only fair I balance things out with a very gluttonous listing of my most favorite meals whilst being an indie creator. You see, a life in comics — part time, at least — find folks assembled around a table to break bread more often than you’d think. When logging in considerable hours at a convention, creators often will nibble here and there, and then run out of the expo hall in a mad dash for food when the con floor closes. Great minds have met over bowls of pasta and pizzas, whilst inking deals on Batman or the X-Men. Here are, in no particular order, five meals that remain stuck in between my teeth:

Miller’s Pub with Mike Gold

The first time ComicMix honcho Mike Gold asked Unshaven Comics to meet him for a meal, he chose Miller’s Pub in downtown Chicago. Prior to the lunch we shared, Mr. Gold was a fleeting presence at the Wizard World Chicago where we made our debut. The lovely late Linda Gold had stumbled across we Unshaven Lads, dying a slow and panicked death in Artist Alley. She listened to our pitch and promised to bring Mike by. After briefly meeting us, Mike and I exchanged e-mails post-show. When the opportunity arose to find Mr. Gold back in the Chicagoland area, he proposed a meeting of the minds. Over hot sandwiches and the first round of name-dropping stories we would succumb to hear on a yearly basis, Mike looked us in the eyes (as we demanded Unshaven Comics pick up the check) and said the kindest thing we’d ever hear in our careers: “Boys, I will do whatever I can to see you doing well in this business.” And let me tell you, nothing has ever tasted sweeter.

Breakfast Buffet with John Ostrander

A few years back, John asked us to pick him up at his house and drive him down to the Detroit Fanfare comic convention. We were more than happy to oblige. The next morning, he asked us to join him for breakfast. Amidst pans of bacon, lukewarm pancakes, and runny scrambled eggs, John waxed poetic about all sorts of things. Star Wars, the Suicide Squad, playwriting in Chicago, and even the secret origin of Wasteland all came tumbling out from John’s timid timbre. Matt, Kyle, and I sat in awe of an industry legend as he treated us as friends… not the drooling fanboys we were. And not to be undone by Mike Gold, John heaped a bit of praise on us (as we picked up the check): “Seriously, I don’t know how you guys do it. You have everything planned out to the nines. I’m in awe of you.” Not bad for the cost of a few plates of breakfast meat.

The CowFish with The Samurnauts

Unshaven Comics got greedy in 2013. Figuring we could sell tons of books by splitting up and covering more ground, we sent Unshaven Salesman 2000 (Kyle Gnepper) off to a show in Cincinnati whilst Unshaven Matt and I covered the HeroesCon in North Carolina. Knowing that sans-Kyle we’d be without our real power, our blue and yellow Samurnauts (Cherise and Erik) joined our menagerie to bolster our abilities. While we learned that four of us couldn’t match a single Gnepper, we did find something redeeming about the lackluster show. Unshackled from Kyle’s more predictable palette, the Samurnauts, Matt and I found a burger/sushi restaurant in a neighboring town. I could spend literally an entire article simply remarking about what all we ordered… or I could simply say we loved the place so much, the manager gave us coupons if we’d consider coming back the next night. And we very much did.

Brandy Hauman’s Homecooking

When Unshaven Comics makes the 14-hour trek from Chicago to New York (or, in fact, Homewood to Weehawken), ComicMix’s Glenn Hauman is always the most gracious of hosts — opening his home to us for the price of a few bottles of hooch. As the New York Comic Con sits on the single piece of New York real estate devoid of decent food, we often wind up at la Casa del Hauman for some real New Jersey takeout. But last year, Glenn’s amazing (talented, beautiful, funny, and charming) wife demanded she make us a home-cooked meal. A nice roasted chicken and some sides — but it was served over a table filled with laughter, embarrassing stories, and friendship. With this past NYCC our fourth journey to the city that never sleeps, this single meal stands out as a testament to the best part of the tri-state area: the people who you make friends.

Some BBQ joint in Stamford, CT

I’ll end here on the most sincere memory I have in regards to comics and food. As mentioned above with the meal at Miller’s Pub, with this meal Mike Gold quickly morphed from a coveted mentor to both a mentor and a mensch. When my wife and I got married in November of 2009, we’d invited all of the ComicMixers we knew — knowing that the gesture was largely symbolic given the distance any of them would have had to travel just to see a then super-fat Marc stomp on a glass and yell L’chaim. As it would turn out, the newly minted Mrs. Fishman and I would take our honeymoon out along the East Coast (we didn’t quite google that Cape Cod is really a summer town). Mike was quick to demand that on our way home, we move our route to swing down his way. There, not far from the WWE headquarters, Kathy and I would be greeted by Glenn, Mike, Linda, and a smattering of other ComicMix friends for a BBQ lunch. As with much of this list: I don’t remember the food as much as the feeling that I’d made friends I’ve held on to ever since. That these oddballs would welcome me and mine into their family has cemented that my life in comics has been filled with some of the finest meals a man could dine on.

John Ostrander: No Trespassing

My Mary will sometimes pop into the office to chat a bit. If I’m just goofing off (a lot of my work day consists of goofing off), that’s fine but if I’m actually working she has to leave. She understands and doesn’t take offense; she can get the same way when she’s creating.

I don’t want anyone looking over my shoulder when I’m working, especially with the initial draft. I get self-conscious and everything freezes up and goes away. Oddly enough, Kim didn’t always understand that. It bothered her that there was a private place inside me to which she was not invited. She felt a couple should share everything and, for the most part, I agree – except when I’m writing.

I suppose that, with most couples that’s also true to some degree. Perhaps it’s even desirable that the person with whom you’ve spent a good long time can still surprise you, hopefully in positive ways. I once wrote a Wasteland story in which the husband challenges his wife when she claims she knows him completely. He suggests that he could, in fact, be the serial killer they’ve heard about. The claim that he could be eats away at his wife and, by the end of the story, she’s ready to leave him because she realized that the doubt she is feeling indicates she doesn’t really know her husband at all.

It is a big question. How much do we really know another person – even someone that we know intimately? We start off the relationship by being attracted to someone which may lead to falling into what we think of as love. I would suggest that, in fact, what we’re really falling in love with is our construct of the person. Someone we’ve invented that’s based on the other person but is as much or more really based on us as it is them. Hopefully, as time goes by, our perception deepens as we see more of the actual person and, again hopefully, fall into more of a true love.

That gets chancy. As you wind up really seeing more of the other person, you have to let them see more of the real you. Brrr! Pretty scary, boys and girls! It does necessarily involve opening up.

However, when you’re doing something creative – writing or art or what have you – the process can be very private. It’s a mysterious business to begin with; you don’t always know where the initial impulse comes from and you may not want to know. For a long time, I resisted any idea of going to a therapist because I felt that, if I knew more about my creative instinct, it would vanish. In reality, therapy turned out helping quite a bit. I understood why I did or thought some things and that understanding actually helped me creatively.

Still, I don’t want someone watching me create. I may need to dig around in parts of my psyche that can get a bit dark. (Those of you familiar with my work can probably appreciate that.) Nietzche said in Beyond Good and Evil: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Kim and I used to describe the creative process as bungee jumping into the abyss and pulling out something. Usually it’s squirming.

I don’t need observers when I do that.

I do wind up revealing aspects of myself in my writing; you have to. Every character you write must in some way be you. However, you’re in disguise; you can always claim a given aspect of a given character is that character and not you. Keep in mind, as I’ve warned some people in the past, that I may appear to be a nice guy but GrimJack comes from somewhere in me.

And visitors are not welcomed there.

John Ostrander: And Be A Villain

suicide-squad-and-be-a-villainMy friend Brian Skelley recently e-mailed me a question that gave me some pause: what is the difference between an anti-hero and a villain? Having trafficked in anti-heroes for some time, you’d think I know but I had to parse it out.

As I postulated it to Brian the basic answer was that the anti-hero is the protagonist of a given story; the villain is often the antagonist which makes him a support character. The main purpose of any supporting character is to bring out some side or aspect of the main character, the protagonist. A villain can be the protagonist; I’ve written stories where the Joker is the main character, for example, or with Captain Boomerang, neither of whom could be called a hero in the conventional sense.

cumberbatch-hamletThe anti-hero doesn’t display the usual heroic attributes such as courage, empathy, decency, integrity and so on. They don’t care about the common good; they care about #1. Some, like John Gaunt (GrimJack) may have their own code but one of the questions I put to myself when I began writing GrimJack was “how do you make a moral choice in an amoral world?” I once had Gaunt shoot a guy in the back and that alienated some readers. My response, then and now, was that Gaunt was never intended to be a role-model.

Whatever the anti-hero’s deficiencies, he or she are usually better than those surrounding him/her. Why are we rooting for the anti-hero to succeed? If we feel nothing for them, what is the point? At the very least, we need to be rooting for them to get away with whatever it is they are doing. We want Danny Ocean’s plan to rip off the casino to work, in part because (in the later movies) he’s played by George Clooney at his most charming.

wastelandFor myself, I like working with anti-heroes more than the conventional heroes. I don’t know what it says about me to say that they seem to resonate more within me. I can more easily find something to identify with in the anti-hero than with the conventional hero. Writing Martian Manhunter was far more difficult for me than writing The Spectre. J’Onn J’Onzz was a far more decent being than Jim Corrigan. No doubt it points to some deficiency in me.

I guess I like my heroes more morally ambiguous. Certainly none of them have been more morally ambiguous than Amanda Waller not to mention the Squad as a concept. However, I’ve never considered Amanda to be an outright villain. Some folks who have written her took that tack, but I think she’s more interesting as an anti-hero. She has a conscience; she knows the difference between right and wrong. It doesn’t stop her from doing the bad things but she knows what she’s doing and does what she does deliberately. She hocks her soul for an ostensible greater good. What she does marks her as a villain; the reason she does it makes her a hero.

And then, of course, there’s Wasteland. Chock full of anti-heroes. We have a father who dissects his son’s biology teacher for traumatizing the boy. (Actually, by the end it’s a heart-warming tale… in a way.) I asked the reader to step inside the mind of a serial killer and, however briefly, identify with him. There have been occasions when I almost told a person, “You don’t want to mess with me. I wrote Wasteland.” That should scare most people.

Some times it scares me.

John Ostrander is “Indifferent Honest”

Harley Quinn Suicide Squad

On August 1, the Suicide Squad movie premieres in NYC and I’ll be there. I’ve watched the trailers and the hype and, I must say, I’m hyped up. From everything I can see, David Ayer (the writer/director) and the cast have read my work on the Squad comic and are using it. Viola Davis as Amanda Waller especially seems pulled from what I did and for me personally that’s very exciting.

I don’t expect the film to be a direct translation of the comic; this is a different medium and has different needs. I love my fans a lot but there’s not enough of them to fill a single theater for a week. The movie has to appeal to those who never heard of the comic. However, in its DNA, this is the Squad I created. At its core is the concept of The Dirty Dozen with supervillains. That was my concept. Amanda Waller was my creation. So – yeah, that’s my Squad up there.

The Squad as a comic and I suspect as a film will also reflect, to a certain degree, some of my sensibilities. The main one will be the moral tones of gray. For a long time, despite being in four colors, comics were very black and white. There were Heroes (white) and Bad Guys (black) and the Good Guys beat up the Bad Guys. Comics were very primal in their Good Vs. Evil.

I don’t see things like that and I don’t write that, especially with the Squad. With the Squad, the bad guys are forced to “do good,” with that “good” defined by Amanda Waller who herself is morally very gray. Even the “heroes” who went along to keep the Squad in line were themselves compromised morally, often just by being associated with the Squad. They had their own problems. No one was 100% good – or 100% bad either.

That’s how I see people so that is how I must write them if I am to write honestly. Shakespeare has Hamlet say

I am myself indifferent honest;
but yet I could accuse me of such things that it
were better my mother had not borne me. . .

I think that’s true of all of us. We are all only indifferent honest.

These days that may not be a popular view. There’s a lot of black and white thinking out there. People are viewed in black and white terms; issues are defined in black and white terms. Too often discussions these days start from the premise “I’m right and you’re wrong.” Politics and religion are prime culprits in this but fandom can be the same way. Example: when Wil Smith was cast as Deadshot some people were outraged – the film was going to suck because Deadshot wasn’t white. No discussion was allowed.

I can go that route as much as anyone. I really don’t like Donald Trump and I’m not prepared to reconsider it. I don’t understand people who are in his corner; I find him to be a dangerous megalomaniac. However, my job as a writer to to find a way to understand him and his supporters. Where is something like them, like Trump, in me? If I wanted to write a Trump-like character and not make him just a cartoonish buffoon (well, any more of a cartoonish buffoon than he already is), I have to find those parts of myself that resonate with him, with them.

Once, in Wasteland, I wrote a story from the perspective of a serial killer. I wanted the reader to identify with him, to find out where he lived in them so first I had to find those points in myself. That took me to some very creepy places but, I think, the story worked. From what I’ve read, Jared Leto felt he had to do something like that to play the Joker in the Squad film. It’s a weird contradiction – you have to use empathy to create a character without empathy. And then I ask the reader to go there as well.

Ultimately, with the Squad stories I wrote, I asked the readers to identify with the villains. As Will Smith’s Deadshot says in one of the trailers, “Don’t forget – we’re the bad guys.” If the film works (and I think it’s going to), it will ask the audience to identify with these “bad guys” – just as we did in the comic.

Hopefully, we will all be uncomfortably entertained.

Marc Alan Fishman: The Super Hatred for Batman v. Superman

Batman V Superman Doomsday

Let’s get this point out straight away: I haven’t seen Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Just Angry Dudes Who Like Destruction-Porn.  Beyond the trailers, I have done everything in my power to not read spoilers. I’ve put on blinders on whilst perusing my social media feeds, allowing me to catch only shreds of the shared rage boiling over amongst my closest 927 friends. So, my column this week explores the deeper issue fans are complaining about the most these days: gritty realism.

The clamber in the streets is about how DC is taking itself too seriously. How leaning into grit, grime, explosions, and death is ruining childhoods, and fans. But I beg the question: when your director previously worked on 300, and the lukewarm sepia-washed Watchman adaptations and delivered his own mighty opus in the video-game-cum-popcorn-film Sucker Punch, well, pardon me: what the fuck did you think he was going to do with Batman and Superman?! The output of Snyder shouldn’t come with a single measurable iota of surprise.

The deeper issue then gets tied back to Chris Nolan’s interpretation setting the table for what has come since. Batman Begins, The Dark Knight, and The Dark Knight Rises were once applauded for removing the kitch from the Bat-franchise. Nolan’s Knight was as real as you could get with the base-concept. The interpretation of the Joker was chilling – and not in the gutter-punk way Jared Leto appears to be aping Ledger’s performance mind you. And Bane? Well… he spoke in a weird accent, and had an appreciation for coats of the 70s. Those three Bat-films begat what we’re getting now. And that includes the popcorn fart that was the spectacular – Trump-level – Green Lantern movie.

So why is Marvel so beloved? As we’ve seen the table set for Civil War… for all the fun we had laughing at SHIELD agents playing Galaga, and Ant Man cracking wise, we’ve been privy to just as much world destruction. New York? Invaded. Washington D.C.? Had helicarriers dropped on it. And that fake-sounding country in Avengers 2? Well, it done went and turned into a low-grade meteor. Pair that with a few Hulk-smashed cities, and all those dead goats in Ant Man, and you have plenty of grit to chew on.

The difference being the actual plot and characters in service to it.

Man of Steel, much like The Avengers featured the destruction of a city (and maybe a few suburbs). Iron Man, Cap, and pals were lauded as witty-brilliant. Kal-El was deemed a dour dolt by the very same folks. One movie was held up in reverence. The other, kicked to the dollar bin with a sigh. For the record? This is as it should be. The Avengers took the time to showcase their heroes making attempts to save the people of New York. Superman was basically shown punching for the last 40 minutes of his film; subsequently followed by the murdering of the villain, a quick bit of snark, roll credits. It would seem, based solely on the 10-20 sentences I’ve half-begun to read on my feed… BvS is much in the same vein. And not a surprise either… I saw the trailers, and can put one and one together.

Spoiler-free knowledge of BvS dictates that Batman was in Metropolis during the Kryptonian scuffle. And true to his comic-counterpart (to whatever degree you agree with me), he sees an unchecked level of power on display and finds need to be fit to control it. Superman is the gun that took Bruce’s mom and dad until he can prove it otherwise. What follows – I’ll safely assume – is 90+ more minutes of fighting, yelling, and teeth gnashing. And Wonder Woman is there to make girls happy or something.

Don’t get me me wrong. I believe we need to look to our ComicMix cohorts Mike Gold, Denny O’Neil and John Ostrander when we talk on the topic of grit and realism. Pick nearly any yarn spun (and edited) by those gentlemen, and you’ll see how the heaviest of topics can be touched on without leaving a fanbase in ruin. Hell, check out the very first issue of Wasteland, and ask how the material could be covered within its pages and still leave you with a bit of a smirk.

When it comes down to it, I will see the new Batman and Superman movie. I’ll do my best to withhold judgment until the last frame is projected. I’ll do whatever I can to suppress expectations to anything higher than a whisper. I’ll give credence to the filmmakers, writers, and producers to prove to me they have a way to bring the heroes and villains of their catalog to life in direct completion to the House of Mouse.

But, at the end of the day, the devil is in the details, not the CGI decimation of untold thousands. So, I’ll just guess there won’t be a need for any follow up review, kiddos. No worries: Civil War is just around the corner.

John Ostrander’s Election Follies

Donald Trump The Joker

ComicMix comments upon pop culture and entertainment and, in this silly season of primaries, politics qualifies as entertainment. Sometimes perverse entertainment, I grant you. I’m from Chicago and I was raised during the reign of King Daley the First so I know from political entertainment. As Studs Terkel said many long years ago, “Chicago is not the most corrupt American city. It’s the most theatrically corrupt.” So that’s my standard.

I was raised Republican but, on reaching voting age, I became a Democrat because that was the only way to vote in a mayoral election that counted in that city – the Democratic mayoral primary. The last Republican mayor of Chicago was “Big Bill’ Thompson was booted out of office in 1931. There is no Republican Party to speak of in Chicago.

So I know from political entertainment, although currently it’s hard to decide to laugh, cry, or go screaming into the night.

Let’s start with the Democrats, the apparent adults in the room. In the New Hampshire primary this last week, Bernie Sanders got 60% of the vote and fifteen delegates to the Democratic National Convention. Hilary Clinton’s share got her nine. However, as Larry Wilmore pointed out on The Nightly Show, the Democrats also have something called superdelegates and all six of those went to Hilary. So, despite Sanders clearly winning the popular votes, they both left New Hampshire with fifteen delegates each. Now there’s Common Core math for ya!

The real entertainment, though, was over with the Republicans where an actual reality show star topped the field in the GOP version of the New Hampshire primary. Donald Trump’s numbers, as he himself might say, were huuuuge. He got 35% of the votes and that was more than twice the numbers posted by his nearest competitor, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio. (All together now – “Who?”) Even the GOP leaders don’t want Trump. His nearest competitor is Senator Ted Cruz and the GOP higher-ups don’t much care for him, either. I understand most of Cruz’s fellow senators are not fond of him.

In addition to Trump, there are two other Republican candidates seeking the Presidential nomination who have never served in public office – Dr. Ben Carson and Carly Fiorina, although Fiorina dropped out of the race after New Hampshire. Their main appeal to the voters seems to be that they have never been politicians. The distaste for Washington seems so deep that some voters will take someone who has zero experience in politics and give them the most difficult, most challenging job in politics.

Before this whole brouhaha started, the presumed nominee was going to be Jeb! Bush, brother of former President George W. and son of former president George H. W. Bush. That flamed out pretty fast. He now has his mother stumping for him as well as his brother, not known in most circles as the best Prez of the U.S.A., will also be on the election trail. One of the saddest things I’ve seen was Bush pleading with a sluggish audience to applaud. And then there was the moment in the Republican debate when Bush interrupted Trump only to be shushed by the real estate tycoon.

You have to say that Trump is the real star of the show. He gets the attention, the audience, and the best (or worst) lines, He reminds me of Captain Boomerang when I wrote him in Suicide Squad. Every time you thought he had gone as low as he could, he’d find a new level to which to sink.

Here’s a sample of Trump:

“What can be simpler or more accurately stated? The Mexican government is forcing their most unwanted people into the United States. They are, in many cases, criminals, drug dealers, rapists, etc”

I will build a great wall – and nobody builds walls better than me, believe me – and I’ll build them very inexpensively. I will build a great, great wall on our southern border, and I will make Mexico pay for that wall. Mark my words.”

“If Obama resigns from office now, thereby doing a great service to the country, I will give him free lifetime golf at any one of my courses!”

“All of the women on The Apprentice flirted with me – consciously or unconsciously. That’s to be expected.”

“Donald J. Trump is calling for a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.

On unemployment numbers: “5.3 percent unemployment – that is the biggest joke there is in this country… The unemployment rate is probably 20 percent, but I will tell you, you have some great economists that will tell you it’s a 30, 32. And the highest I’ve heard so far is 42 percent.” (Note: during the Great Depression, unemployment peaked at 25%.)

About his daughter, Ivanka: “Yeah, she’s really something, and what a beauty, that one. If I weren’t happily married and, ya know, her father…”

EEEUUUUHHH!

Trump has been generous in providing fodder for Noah Trevor, Larry Wilmore, Bill Mahar, John Oliver, and now Samantha Bee (whose new show is great) as well as all the late night broadcast folks and comedians and satirists across this great country of ours. That’s added to the entertainment value. Still…

Can you seriously see Trump with the nuclear codes? Can you see Trump at an international conference and talking to our allies who might not be our allies afterwards? Can you see Trump nominating a Supreme Court Justice and maybe more than one? Can you see Trump “negotiating” with Congress and maybe telling them all that they’re fired? Some people can and that cheers them. Me? I don’t know if it’s a comedy or a horror story.

Hmmm. Sounds to me like a Wasteland story.

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: The Spectre – What Was I Thinking?

spectre

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.

All false modesty aside, I think it’s worth it.

Mike Gold: Money For Nothing

I was having lunch with www.getthepointradio.com’s Mike Raub yesterday and we were deep in discussion about our favorite topic, what the hell is wrong with the planet and why we are the only ones smart enough to realize it. Before long we were ranting about the lameness of most mainstream comics and the various attempts the sundry marketing departments make to boost sales.

As always, this discussion came to the point where I started in on my favorite seething rage, which, in short form, goes like this: “Screw this variant cover shit; it has nothing to do with getting people excited to actually read the comic book.”

Variant covers became amazingly popular among comics retailers and a handful of wealthy consumers some 20 years ago. In fact, while packaging some books for Image Comics, I wanted to publish a variant cover printed on chewable bubble gum. Image vetoed that one; I strongly suspect they got the joke and had an understandable aversion to biting the hands that feeds them.

But as I was about to babble on and on, I came to a quick stop. A 25-watt light bulb (LED, of course) went off over my head. Indeed, I had an epiphany! It dawned on me there are at least three types of comic book covers being published today: the regular cover, the variant covers that are celebrity-drawn and/or way too cute for words, and the blank cover variant.

You’ve probably seen a few of them. Ostensibly, readers are supposed to get an artist at some convention to draw the cover for you, often in exchange for a stipend. Maybe you’ll just get autographs. Fine. Audience participation is cool. But variant covers generally go for a premium, or in exchange for purchasing X number of comics. What does this mean?

It means many comic book publishers have figured out a way to soak the reader for an “exclusive” that, in fact, costs the publisher next-to-nothing to produce.

That, my friends, is a business model.

Mind you, I may have been the first to publish a blank cover. It was DC’s Wasteland #6, and we did that because the printer screwed up massively and put the wrong cover on the issue. They reprinted it with a blank cover; my idea, as I wanted to alert the reader and the retailer that this was something different. I designed this cover, but I didn’t get paid for it for three reasons: 1) I was on staff, 2) Publisher Paul Levitz knows sarcasm when he hears it, and 3) the damn cover was blank!!!

Same thing with these contemporary blank variants. They are blank! You, the reader/collector/dealer, are spending money for nothing.

And your chicks for free.

To paraphrase Yakov Smirnoff, Comics – what a business!

Someday, somebody will try to sell a comic book based upon its merits and not rely on stunt marketing to do the heavy lifting.

If the business lives that long.

John Ostrander: ‘Tis the Season

Ostrander Art 131201Well, 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.

MONDAY MORNING: Mindy Newell

TUESDAY MORNING: Not Emily S. Whitten, but…