Posted by Paul O'Connor
Five whole boxes in the Longbox Graveyard contain cherished books that have been separated, indexed, bagged, and boarded.
Another two or three boxes contain books waiting in line at Ellis Island.
Ten boxes are full of dross.
And then there are the five boxes full of my own stuff. “My own” meaning books that I wrote.
These boxes are freighted with old memories — and not good memories. I’ve done little besides take quick little Pandora peaks at them these past twenty years.
I struggled for about four years to break into the mainstream comics business by writing black & white comic books for Malibu Comics and it’s various imprints. At first I did series of my own creation, then later wrote scripts for properties Malibu owned. I learned a lot about myself as a writer but created nothing of lasting value and have little to show for my efforts. For the most part I avoid thinking about this era, and I’ve locked the books away as a means of keeping those ghosts buried. Most of the reasons why I got out of comics entirely, both as a pro and a fan, stem from the disappointment I experienced as a comics writer in the early 1990s. I failed to take full advantage of my comics writing opportunities and it is still difficult to think about it.
But something about working through other parts of the Accumulation gave me the courage to tackle my own books. It wasn’t even a gradual coming to terms — it just sprung on me in the middle of the night, a sudden and nearly irresistible urge to organize and catalog just the books that I had personally written during my brief career as a comic book writer. It was like bagging and boarding five hundred books from other creators made me want to see my own work afforded similar ceremonial respect.
I restricted myself to organizing and indexing books in this pass. Lord knows I’m not ready to read them again. But this is a huge step for me. It’s like acknowledging a pack of bastard children, and if it is too late to actually tend to their rearing, at least I can start to form relationships with them now that they’re grown.
For the last two decades I’ve basically denied that I ever wrote comics. Now I’m here to declare (though it matters only to me) that I wrote these books … but that’s as far as I’m going right now. A deeper look at the work and those times, as well as an assessment of why my comics career was so deeply disappointing to me, will have to wait for another post.
Here’s an alphabetical and incomplete list of what I wrote, based on what I’ve been able to find and enter into my database.
Bones #1-4: First comics I ever wrote. Light, goofball fantasy. I remember it as uneven, but heartfelt.
Empire #1-3: An original space opera that I deeply loved, but the inker slaughtered good pencils in the first issue, and the book was cancelled due to catastrophic sales. An outright cancellation was a rare thing in those days, when we didn’t plan for more than four or six issues in a run. I threw myself into this one but it was a doomed enterprise from the start. One of my real heartbreaks.
Ex-Mutants Winter Special #1: I turned in my scripts every thirty days, and sometimes we’d get way ahead of schedule and end up printing a book or two as a special edition, or an annual, or a double issue. I think that’s what happened here.
Ex-Mutants: The Shattered Earth Chronicles #1-15: Grind-it-out work-for-hire. I think the check I got for issue #1 was the most I was ever paid to write a comic. For most books I never got paid beyond my advance-against-royalties (because my sales never generated royalties!). For that first Ex-Mutants I probably made six or seven hundred dollars, which was two or three times what I made on any other book.
Interactive Comics: Dudley Serious & The Dungeon of Doom #1: Our splicing of comic books and “pick a path” adventure books. I know there were a couple more — a superhero story and a science fiction story — but I can’t find them. I have an Italian copy of the superhero story so I know it exists.
Lensman #1-6: I thought some Lensman would be better than no Lensmen at all, but I ended up doing a disservice to a great genre tradition. I loved space opera and leaped at the chance to do this series, but it had to be based on a pretty crappy Japanese animation series (rather than the original books), and I was saddled with a passive-aggressive prick of a penciler who made my life miserable for the whole run. Everyone lost.
Lensman War of the Galaxies #1-2: Really just a continuation of Lensman, but we started a new series to juice sales numbers owing to a new #1. I left after two issues — it wasn’t worth the grief of “collaborating” with a penciler who clearly regarded a writer as unnecessary.
The Liberator #1-6: Along with Bones, the first series I ever wrote. My homage to Captain America, by way of Alan Moore. I’m afraid to read it. Pencils by my old pal Jim Chadwick, who is an editorial wheel over at DC Comics now.
Monster Frat House #1: I remember writing a dynamite series bible for this, and then just having nothing left when it came time to write the issue itself. This was a naked IP pitch for animation, or something. Fizzled.
New Humans Annual #1: See comments above for that Ex-Mutants special.
New Humans, Volume 2 #4-15: Another long run that I can scarcely remember. This was more work-for-hire in the Ex-Mutants universe. I think I put a bit more of myself into this series but I’m not really sure.
Paranoia #1-6: Certainly the best art I ever had on a book, and a rare color book for me (pretty much everything else here is black & white). This was based on the role playing game license, and I wrote it as a “straight” Paranoia story, but then we scared up a wild-ass South American artist who went completely off the rails with his own look and feel, and I gleefully followed him. We probably did a disservice to the license and its fans but I liked what we did. There are scans of a couple issues over at Mars Will Send No More. I recently re-read the series and quite enjoyed it.
Roger Wilco #3: Comic book version of the old Space Quest computer game. Pretty sure I wrote #2 as well, but I can’t find it.
The Three Musketeers #1-3: I loved Dumas. I probably loved Dumas too much, because I tried to put too much of him into the three issues of this book. I nearly killed my poor letterer (the good-natured and very professional Clem Robins) — these books were a wall of words! I failed to understand the difference between adaptation and transcription. But I loved Dumas so much that I couldn’t cut a word …
Tiger-X Book II #1-4: I got to play with Ben Dunn’s giant robot property for a couple issues. I wasn’t really suited to it.
Ultra Monthly #1-6: A promotional rag I wrote to support the Ultraverse line. A painful experience that I’ll describe another time.
And I know I’m missing some of the kids, too, probably all lurking in the same box someplace. There was a “Shattered Earth” anthology series I remember, another Roger Wilco book, and a couple fill-in issues of Rune that I wrote during the last gasp of the Ultraverse (which I already covered in detail).
I’ve always had this vague idea that I’d written around a hundred books for Malibu, but there are only sixty-odd here, so either my memory is faulty or I’m missing a box, or both. There were also several unpublished books (some of which I was paid for), including a multi-part history of baseball; an undead pirate epic called The Black Joke; a fill-in issue of Sludge where the deeply-missed Steve Gerber put me through the wringer (and did me a great service); an extensive pitch for Ultraforce that didn’t get picked up; two or three long-gestating original superhero stories that I still remember fondly; even a translation of a French pornographic comic that I wrote under the name of “Armand Jean du Plessis” (all the more amusing because I don’t speak French). I’ve found a few of these lost scripts and put them up for your examination on my Comics Scripts page.
Sorry this is only a survey, but just writing fifteen hundred words about my comics oeuvre is a big, big step for me. It’s the most I’ve thought about my comics in twenty years. I’ll dig deeper in a future post. For now I’m going to do some deep breathing and maybe read BadAxe.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #23 Queen of the Black Coast
- The 10 Most Valuable Comic Books (celebritynetworth.com)
- The Comic Book Money Printing Machine – Legally Cheating CGC (comicbooksecrets.com)
- Breaking: Neil Gaiman Returns to Marvel (comicbooked.com)
- Claremont Reflects On Jean Grey, Muses On New Wolverine, X-Men Films (comicbookresources.com)
- Digital comics come to life on tablets (reviews.cnet.com)
- Ask Insideman™ – Revisiting 39 of the Best Recent Graphic Novels (inveteratemediajunkies.com)
Posted in My Stuff
Tags: BadAxe, Ben Dunn, Bones, Comic book, Darkwatch, Dudley Serious, Ex-Mutants, Heavy Metal, High Moon Studios, Jim Chadwick, Jimmy Palmiotti, Lensman, Liberator, Malibu Comics, Monster Frat House, New Humans, Paranoia, Paul O'Connor, Roger Wilco, Rune, Shattered Earth, Sludge, Steve Gerber, The Three Musketeers, Tiger-X, Ultra Monthly, Ultraforce, Ultraverse
Posted by Paul O'Connor
Most of my reviews here at Longbox Graveyard will cover books from the Bronze Age, but beneath my baleful gaze today are two issues from the 1990s, about a forgotten character, from a forgotten publisher, by a forgotten writer.
The publisher: Malibu Comics — one of the more successful independent publishers of the direct market era. Over a span of eight years they published thousands of comics in every imaginable genre, and launched Men in Black and Image Comics before their acquisition and eventual shutdown by Marvel Comics.
The writer: Me! That’s right, this time … it’s personal.
As a career retrospective I’m coming at this backwards, as these two issues of Rune were the last comics I ever wrote (excepting only a one-shot for Heavy Metal when we launched Darkwatch, but that was a whole different life). I haven’t laid a lot of groundwork about my past comics career or how my severely ambiguous feelings about that era polluted my opinion about comics in general. Suffice to say that I used to write comics; that I wasn’t terribly successful at it; and that working in comics largely ruined them as a hobby for me. I’ll save the soul-searing examination of my early work and my tiresome stories of how I broke into the business for another time.
Today, though, you get therapy and comic review in one column! It’s like Marvel Two-In-One, except instead of the Thing clobbering stuff you get me blubbering about a series you’ve probably never heard of. Well, buckle your chinstrap, True Believer, because it’s Blubbering Time!
That I read these Rune books at all, much less that I’m writing about them, is a minor miracle. I regard the seventy-odd comics I published in the early 1990s as demented, wailing minotaurs that I cannot disown and so have locked them away, out of sight, in the cardboard labyrinth that is the Longbox Graveyard. The therapeutic balm of this blog has anesthetized me to the point that I’ve been able to organize and acknowledge my books, but I hadn’t gone so far as to actually read one of them.
Until now. I bought a bunch of miscellaneous Marvel back issues online from the excellent Midtown Comics and saw they had my issues of Rune available for a couple bucks. Since these were MIA from The Accumulation I threw them into my order. When they showed up, I gave them a read …
my name on the cover, with a cast of thousands
… and they weren’t as bad as I feared. My tale was a medieval-era fill-in of Rune battling a holy champion for the fate of a town, and the books hit their marks. My story bashed you over the head, and my dialogue was pretty melodramatic, though in my defense I was trying to catch the tone of a soliloquizing megalomaniac of a main character, who was in the habit of howling out loud to no one in particular how pissed off he was. The book is more overtly written than was most of my work, with a lot of captions. I recall thinking these might very well be the final books I ever wrote, and if so, I was going to go out typing, over-captioning if need be rather than letting inadequate art fail to move the story forward.
The art is not inadequate, but I don’t think it was as strong as my script. I never met Patrick Rolo, and looking him up just now it seems he was another one of us “Malibu guys” — a second-stringer who worked on several books for the company, always solid, never spectacular. These two issues of Rune were a fill-in job, and it looks like it — Patrick’s pencils get the job done but don’t do much to communicate the medieval era of my script, and of course most anyone’s work on this character is going to suffer in the shadow of original co-creator Barry Windsor-Smith.
I can’t speak for Patrick, but for me this job came at a desperate time. My full-time freelance comics career was long over, and I was back in the video game business (probably with Oddworld Inhabitants, though I’m a little fuzzy on the dates). A freelance side-line to my wage-slave life would have been welcome in those days, and after failing to make a mark with my own books, and then failing to catch-on with Malibu’s big talent-driven Ultraverse launch, I viewed this two-parter as my shot. It was a color book, it was part of the Marvel era of Malibu, and for all that it was a medieval fill-in story in the second volume of an obscure anti-hero series, it was by far the most mainstream comic I ever got to write.
Let that sink in for a moment.
Anyway, I pinned my ears back and just wrote this bitch. Chris Ulm was editor-in-chief at Malibu, and co-creator of the character, and also my best friend. Because of that, he likely threw me a bone with this assignment. Also likely because of that, he put me through the wringer writing these issues. I was on a much shorter leash here than on my own black-and-white books. Looking back at my files, I see that I went through several drafts of a page-by-page plot before writing the issues themselves, which was unusual for me.
The process helped and this is a decent story, at least in concept. Fill-in issues are tricky. They have to stand alone, and you are working uphill against fan expectations that this is a story that “doesn’t count” created by second line talent. My task was helped somewhat that this two-issue story was a planned fill-in: Rune is stuck in the Negative Zone for some crazy, cross-company Marvel/Malibu synergistic reason, and he can flash back to a story from any time in his immortal past. Regular Rune scribe Len Kaminski would write some bookend pages to fit my story into the flow of the series and hopefully the audience would give us a chance.
The challenge in writing an anti-hero like Rune is that you have to keep him a bad guy, while making him sympathetic by setting him in situations and against characters that are even worse than he is. The hard way to attack this problem is to go inward (Alan Moore style), by revealing unseen depths in the character that help you appreciate his twisted psychology. The less difficult way is to go outward (Jim Starlin style), by defining the universe around that character to cast him in the light you desire.
My problem, of course, is that I was neither Alan Moore nor Jim Starlin.
I chose to go outward. Rune didn’t belong to me and I had to give him back after two issues, and I didn’t have the skill or the vision at that time to reinvent the character internally. But I was and am a student of history. Having several times read Barbara Tuchman’s A Distant Mirror, I had developed an interest in medieval Europe during the black plague and thought it would make a fine setting for a Rune story. People of the age regarded those years as the end of the world and it seemed to me that if Rune could set himself up as a lord of a medieval town, and protect that town from disease and war, he might be regarded as a kind of twisted hero.
So far so good, but I made a couple mistakes with my script. Most notably, I tried to do too much. With just forty pages to explore my story, I should have concentrated on Rune and his relationship with his village. There are a lot of directions I could have gone here — I could have done a Seven Samurai-style story with Rune protecting unappreciative peasants from brigands; I could have had Rune play at being a man and take a human bride; I could have done a court intrigue story where Rune’s arrogance sees him outmaneuvered and betrayed by the villagers he regards as cattle.
it’s never a bad idea to steal from Seven Samurai, but I missed my chance
Regardless, the interesting part of this story is how a character who is essentially the Devil sets himself up as king of a medieval town, and because the world is so cruel, his people come to appreciate and even love him. Rune’s power would lift him up, and his arrogance would bring him down.
Instead I chose to tell a superhero slugfest action story, which is a safe choice for a comic book, but by failing to distinguish itself from every other story aside from its setting, it was a choice bound to make this fill-in assignment even less memorable. But I was a wounded creator in those days, with little confidence in my own vision, and in writing an action story I thought I was giving the market what it wanted, even if it wasn’t what I wanted to give.
As a slugfest story I had to create an opponent for Rune, and that was “Crusader,” a Highlander kind of eternal warrior who acquires nanotech armor and the curse of eternal life from what he thinks is God, who then charges him to walk the earth and destroy evil. In battle he transforms into a suit of living armor with a flaming sword and some other stuff … he was a decent character on paper (and I recall I wrote plenty of background for him), but there wasn’t room to handle a second, complex character in this tale, and Rolo’s pencils, while adequate for the rest of the story, showed genuine disinterest in rendering Crusader. He looks like a bland version of the Silver Surfer. I should have called for rivets and articulated plates and steam and light blazing from Crusader’s helm in the script.
Live and learn (except that I never did).
it’s not Patrick Rolo’s fault that he wasn’t Barry Windsor-Smith — few people are
Anyway, with Crusader needing his introduction, there are even fewer pages for Rune to do his thing, so his characterization scenes only serve to make him more monstrous, failing to elicit the audience sympathy an anti-hero requires. He hunts and kills a townswoman, and I tried awkwardly to make it a kind of mating dance that Rune regrets even as he slakes his thirst, but it doesn’t really play. We can tell Rune is bored with being a king because I tell you he is bored with being a king, not because of anything that happens in the story. I introduce some secondary characters but don’t adequately develop them before they are killed.
I have a few good set pieces. I get Rune nailed to a cross and burned alive at one point, and my description of the plague is pretty good, though cribbed directly from Tuchman. My concepts are strong, and the theme of good versus evil proving meaningless in the age of the plague has promise. But for the most part my script is a series of scenes that don’t build on each other and character bits that go nowhere. Against that backdrop, the fight with Crusader is uninspired and not the clash-of-medieval-titans that I hoped it would be.
Well-intentioned, ambitious in areas that didn’t matter, craftsman-like, but generic and disappointing. Kind of like the Green Lantern movie, only not so expensive. That’s my run on Rune.
getting a comic right is harder than it seems sometimes
That was also the end of my comic book career. Far from being “my shot,” those two issues of Rune were the finish line, as I think they were fated to be. I didn’t understand the business — any business — in those days, and so failed to see how doing the work was only part of the job. I was clueless about how to get the next job — aside from relying on the Ulm for another assignment — and so never used my work for Malibu as a springboard to the next level.
And it is a good thing, too. I would have loved nothing more than to be a freelance comic book writer the rest of my days. It’s possible that if I’d broken in with Marvel or DC that I would have been one of those superior writers who maneuvered himself into film and television or at least a senior editorial position and managed to make a decent living in the superhero business. It is far more likely, though, that the best I could expect was a victory lap after writing a few well-known characters. And then?
Well, nothing, probably.
Instead, I had to settle for second best, and remained in an industry with exploding growth and opportunity that has led me through several successful jobs, startups, and acquisitions. Life’s funny that way. I have been blessed in that most of my failures have allowed me to fail upwards.
And now at least I get to write about comics, even if I no longer write comics themselves.
Thanks for reading.
- Title: Rune
- Published By: Malibu Comics, 1994-1996
- Issues Rescued From The Longbox Graveyard: Vol. 2 #4-5, January-February 1996
- Music To Pound Your Ears While These Issues Pound Your Eyes: Metallica – Metallica
- LBG Letter Grade For These Issues: C
NEXT WEEK: #5 The Rap On Cap