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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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About Paul O'Connor

Revelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published once a month or so at www.longboxgraveyard.com!

Posted on July 13, 2011, in My Stuff and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Nice insight on the early part of your career, Paul. Made me a little sad though… to be honest. Im curious to have a read.

    I bet you have a creator owned comic idea/character that you have locked in your head that has yet to see print. I bet now you could write a pretty sick story… and I think I would like to read it. =)

    Like

    • Normally I’d offer to send you a couple copies to read, but unlike my old Malibu black & white books (where I have literally dozens or hundreds of copies laying around), those two issues of Rune that I got from Midtown are the only copies that I own. If you’re genuinely curious, I can loan these out to you … or you have another dollar box objective when you hit San Diego Comic-Con next week. Just be sure you get volume 2, rather than volume 1 (although Volume 1 is also worth a read, with the entirely superior team of Chris Ulm and Barry Windsor-Smith at the helm).

      As far as any creator-owned comics ideas rattling around in my skull — if you’ll draw it, I’ll write it! We can go 50/50, publish digitally, and split a sack of tacos with the profits we will earn!

      Like

  2. Great post Paul. I’ve taken the opportunity of being locked away in Santa Clara to catch up on LB Graveyard in a earnest attempt to earn a “no prize” and a reclaim my own wounded enthusiasm for Funny Books.

    Rune was a tricky character – a true villain with a heart of coal. It was seemingly impossible for me to create a character in those days that had a beating heart. I remember the fill-in as being a good script…

    Like

    • You are a lifetime holder of a Longbox Graveyard no-prize, Ulmster. If I had ranks like the old Merry Marvel Marching Society you’d certainly hold the title of “Fearless Front Facer” (F.F.F.) for showing up here at the scene of the crime.

      I think Rune was a fine character, and I think he had a beating heart. It was just a dark, dark little knot of gristle, and really not the kind of place you were ever going to be comfortable going as a writer. It WAS a place I was comfortable going, but I fouled off the pitch when I got my turn at bat, and of course the whole line was more-or-less doomed by this point. I regret I couldn’t do more with this opportunity.

      If Marvel ever re-opens the Ultraverse vault (which I think is stored in the basement someplace right next to Indy’s Lost Ark), then Rune, along with Prime and a hand-full of other characters, would be excellent subjects for a come back.

      Rune was good work. You should invite the guy over to your house and introduce him to your family. It will be uncomfortable at first — and could take a dark turn if you leave him alone with the children — but for better of worse, Rune is your son. Thanks for fostering him to me for an issue or two.

      (And by the way, I posted my original Rune scripts to the blog, just for the hell of it).

      Like

  3. Man, there’s something charming about the computer-generated gradients and “darker than thou” posturings of nineties comics. Sometimes there were interesting stories buried underneath the adolescent angst, and it’s kind of fun to search for those little gems in dollar bins. It’s cool to read the reflections of someone who wrote a good dollar-bin comic, I always wondered about them!

    By the way, I found you by typing “Steve Ditko” into the Twitter search box. You may not be the superstar comic writer you dreamed of being, but those of us who think about comics a lot are glad that a thoughtful writer has that perspective to bring to the table!

    Like

    • I’m glad you found the blog … thanks for reading and posting. I hope you subscribe and become a regular. And thanks for the kind words regarding Rune … I don’t know if it’s a “good” dollar bin comic or not, but I gave it more than the usual effort. I would have benefited, in those days, from thinking more about the work and less about the job.

      That’s certainly how Steve Ditko approached his craft. I’m not sure it did him any favors to break instead of bend — we lost decades of Ditko Marvel stories when he walked away from Marvel, and Ditko lost access the the wider audience and wealth that the Marvel platform could provide. But there was never any doubt that Ditko was 100% committed to his craft — to his art — and devil take the consequences. I wish I had a portion of that confidence as an artist (and a portion of Ditko’s talent!).

      It’s apropos of nothing, but you mentioned the dollar box, and it made me remember a story I haven’t told here on the blog just yet. Several years ago I was shopping in downtown Burbank, CA, in the old “Golden Mall” district before it was gentrified and taken over by chain retailers. There used to be a cluster of used book stores and memorabilia stores down there. In the window of one shop I saw a bunch of comic books … and on closer inspection, I saw three or four of the ten-odd books on display were MY comic books. Ex-Mutants, New Humans, Bones … stuff like that. Weird! So I went into the shop, and found that my books — and a bunch of others — were in the “dollar box.” I went into the store wondering if I had a fan, only to realize that it was the opposite — that my books were worthless, essentially sold for nothing, and only appeared in the window because they had no value — because they could be stapled to a display, and could turn yellow in the sun and it wouldn’t matter to anyone.

      Then I looked up at this vast used bookstore, with volumes and volumes of books stretching away in every direction, and I kind of felt like, well … maybe I was in good company. That whole store was stocked with books that people had thrown away and were selling for pennies. It was actually reassuring, made me understand that sometimes it’s about doing the work and not the business of doing the work that counts, and endures. And maybe it was incumbent upon me to do better work so that it would outlast me, even if it wasn’t especially rewarding in the short term.

      I still think about that sometimes. Thanks for reminding me. There are a thousand stories in the Longbox Graveyard!

      Like

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