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Old Vampires Never Die …!

It’s only taken two decades, but the publicity campaign for the two issues of Rune that I wrote is finally hotting up!

That’s right! Two issues of Rune (that I blogged about writing, HERE) were recently the subject of not one; and not TWO; but THREE podcasts by the illustrious Professor Alan!

You can listen to Prof Alan’s assessment of Rune #4 HERE.

Rune Volume 2, #4

And you can listen to Prof Alan’s review of Rune #5 HERE.

Rune Vol. 2 #5

And then you can listen to Prof Alan interview ME about both those books (and other comics stuff, besides) HERE!

And for a really deep dive, be sure to check out my original comic scripts for these issues of Rune!

Barry Windsor-Smith's Rune

There you have it … all the Rune you can stand … and a blast from the past in the form of a contemporary interview about work I did in the 1990s. Gotta love the internet! And you gotta love Prof Alan for exhuming my stuff from the Quarter Bin.

Thanks, Prof!

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Top Five Ultraverse Comic Book Movie Properties

Longbox Graveyard #112

Editor’s Note: This week’s guest blog is a special treat — a look at the buried treasure that is the Ultraverse from two men who were there at the start! Along with a host of high-powered comics creators, Chris Ulm and Tom Mason played critical roles in the foundation of the Ultraverse, which might just be the greatest comic book universe you’ve never heard of! In an age where Marvel is bringing Ant Man and the Guardians of the Galaxy to the movie screen, the time may be right for the Ultraverse’s return!

Take it away, Chris & Tom!

Hey, Disney executives and producers with a Disney deal in your hand or a desk on the lot — have we got some ideas for you! As you know, your Marvel Comics properties are all locked up and tied together to create a Marvel Movie Universe that mirrors the founding comic books.

Ultraverse!

But, if you look on the fringes of Marvel’s super-hero properties, you’ll find a few gems in the Ultraverse, a universe of comic books that Marvel purchased from Malibu Comics back in 1994. There are several titles that could be pulled out to start their own tentpoles separate from the Marvel Universe.

Here (in no particular order) are our top five!

Mantra

Mantra, Adam Hughes

Creator: Mike W. Barr

High Concept: Ancient Warrior Knight Reincarnated In The Body Of A Soccer Mom!

There’s nothing you guys love more than a body-switching movie. It’s been a reliable box-office performer ever since Freaky Friday. Sometimes, you have such a switch-crush that you’ll make two of them in the same year. In Mantra, an eternal warrior named Lukasz is killed but reincarnated into the body of a woman, Eden Blake. Now, you’ve got a manly-man warrior with the attitudes of a guy from centuries before stuck in the body of a single mom with two kids and an ex-husband. However you pitch it, it’s Highlander meets Switch and that’s either comedy gold or high drama.

Firearm

Firearm

Creator: James Robinson

High Concept: Film Noire Detective Hunts Super-Heroes

Too many super-heroes? That’s what the so-called pop culture critics say. Somehow four super-hero movies in one year is too much for them and they need more idiotic rom-coms or weepy historical dramas instead. If you’re one of “those” people, then Firearm is your antidote: he hunts super-heroes. He’s no angry vigilante, though. He used to be in a British secret agency called The Lodge, but he “retired” and moved to California to set up shop as a private eye. But his cases are far from normal and usually involve crossing paths with both good and bad super-heroes, including the super-hero serial killer called Rafferty.

Prime

Prime, Boris Vallejo

Creator: Gerard Jones and Len Strazewski

High Concept: Boy Living In A Man’s Body

The big man of the Ultraverse, he’s Superman and Captain Marvel all in one. A boy named Kevin Green transforms himself into a super-hero by “building” a super-strong hero shell around himself. The shell is built from organic liquid skin that ejects from his body. And when he transforms back, the body withers and spits him out. But that’s not the best part — he’s super strong and has basically all the powers of Superman, but he’s controlled by Kevin, a 14-year-old boy, with a boy’s experiences and emotions. So the world’s most powerful super-hero is an inexperienced, hormonally-charged teenager. The teenager never goes away — he’s always trying to masquerade as an adult. Once again, that’s either comedy gold or high drama.

Rune

Rune, Barry Windsor-Smith

Creator: Chris Ulm and Barry Windsor-Smith

High Concept: Twisted Twilight

Rune was a walk on the dark side. Rune, an ancient energy vampire, had many guises through the history of mankind: alien, sorcerer, beast, god, devil. Now he is dying of cancer and only the blood and energy of super-humans can stave off imminent death. Rune has it all: secret societies, government conspiracies, teenage romance and a story that spans the history of humanity.

The Strangers

The Strangers, Rick Hoberg

Creator: Steve Englehart

High Concept: Passengers Assemble!

Random passengers on a cable car get struck by energy and find themselves changed beyond recognition, with strange powers. Who becomes a hero? Who tries to hide? Who uses their newfound powers for evil? These are the questions that drive the strangest collection of super-heroes ever assembled. While suited to film, this property seems tailor-made for episodic television in the tradition of Lost or Under The Dome, with seemingly random characters thrown together, and then tested in the crucible of paranormal circumstances!

Malibu Comics Co-Founders

Malibu Comics Co-Founders Tom Mason, Chris Ulm, Dave Olbrich, and Scott Rosenberg at their 2012 Comic-Con Reunion

Drawing from classic super-hero comics, hard science fiction, horror and epic fantasy, the Ultraverse was known for its epic premises and imaginative takes on classic tropes. Many of the best concepts could not have been realized as movies because the state of the art for CG was not up to the task in 1993, and the audience was not sufficiently literate in all things comics. Now, that’s all changed — comic books drive box office world wide and it’s about time the strange and wonderful corridors of the Ultraverse were explored on the silver screen!

Are you listening Disney?

About The Authors:

Chris Ulm was a co-founder of Malibu Comics and the Editor-In-Chief of the Ultraverse, which was based on his original development. He co-created the Ultraverse title Rune with artist Barry Windsor-Smith. Chris Ulm is now CEO and co-founder of Appy Entertainment, a leading mobile games development studio.

Tom Mason was a co-founder of Malibu Comics and the company’s Creative Director. He co-created the Ultraverse title Prototype with writer Len Strazewski. Mason is currently an Emmy-winning writer-producer in the big, wide world of television.

Thanks, Tom and Chris, for making your case why the Ultraverse is ready for its close-up! What do you think of their list? Did they forget your favorite Ultraverse character? Should Marvel go with their own C-list characters rather than develop these Ultraverse properties? Does the loyal devotion of Facebook’s Ultraverse group indicate the Ultraverse still has the capacity for mass appeal? Sound off in comments, below!

IN TWO WEEKS: #113 Ben Urich: Role Model in a Sea of Heroes

LONGBOX GRAVEYARD TOP TEN LISTS

Glorious Bastards

Longbox Graveyard #22

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, but I’ve done little besides take quick little Pandora peaks at them these past twenty years.

nice ink job on this cover by future Marvel Comics bigwig Jimmy Palmiotti

I worked 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 like a lot of comics from this era, few of my books got much traction. For the most part, 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 those hard days working flinty soil as a comics writer in the early 1990s.

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 — I’m not ready to read them just yet. 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.

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.

BadAxe #1-3: My original sword and sorcery epic, and a love-note to Joseph Campbell. I have fond memories of this but I haven’t tested them by reading the books.

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 poor inks trumped good pencils in the first issue, and the book met with untimely cancellation.

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. 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 most Malibu/Eternity books 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.


Heavy Metal #645: An outlier from 2005 — everything else here is from the early 1990s. A promotional story I helped create to launch Darkwatch, a video game I co-created for High Moon Studios.

Interactive Comics: Dudley Serious & The Dungeon of Doom #1: Our splicing of comic books and “pick a path” adventure books. We also did Dudley Serious & The Space Patrol and Dudley Serious Saves The World (a superhero spoof that you can read online HERE).

Lensman #1-6: I thought some Lensman would be better than no Lensmen at all, but I ended up underserving 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). Not great.

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.

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.

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 initially 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 might have done 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. My last copies of this series are being offered in lots over at eBay — order one and I’ll sign it for you!

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.

Ultra Monthly #1-6: A promotional rag I wrote to support the Ultraverse line. It was a clever idea — a newspaper from inside the Ultraverse — and an idea that might still work for marketing superhero comics.

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.

Maybe.

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #23 Queen of the Black Coast

Null And Void

Longbox Graveyard #4

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 character: Rune — vampire “Prince of Void” and badass anti-hero of the short-lived Ultraverse.

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.

(BONUS: I’ve put the original manuscripts for these issues up on my Scripts Page. You can read Part One of the story here, and Part Two here.)

NEXT WEEK: #5 The Rap On Cap

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