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, 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.
NEXT WEDNESDAY: #23 Queen of the Black Coast
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About Paul O'ConnorRevelations and retro-reviews from a world where it is always 1978, published every now and then at www.longboxgraveyard.com!
Posted on November 16, 2011, in My Stuff and tagged 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. Bookmark the permalink. 44 Comments.
What would you differently if you were going to write comics now? Sounds like you mostly got projects you weren’t thrilled about and artists who were difficult. Can you imagine some ideal circumstances under which it would be fun?
Thanks for asking, Mars.
Actually, almost to a man, my artists were good guys. My Lensman partner was a pain but the rest of the guys were fine. I regret that our deadlines made it so hard to collaborate; I’d liked to have gotten to know them better. If they had any failing it was that they were learning their craft on the job (a sin shared by their writer) — Malibu gave a lot of guys their first jobs, that was one of their strengths. Sure, there were plenty of times that I got pages back in the mail and was disappointed in what I saw, but I’m sure there were plenty of times when my pencillers read one of my scripts and rolled their eyes. We were all green together.
What I’d do differently is pay more attention to the craft of writing, try not to let myself get beaten down by poor sales and small paychecks, and try to improve issue after issue as a writer rather than self-identifying as a grind-it-out modern day pulp hack. I didn’t have enough respect for the job or many of the titles I was writing and I let that erode my self-esteem as a creator. The writer has to take his job seriously — more seriously than anyone else, no matter what. The writing can be light but the work has to be serious. I shouldn’t have let other people set my value for me, and the first time I turned in a script that I knew wasn’t as strong as it could be was the time I should have called in sick to my day job and done a re-write (or asked off that particular book). It would be several years before I came to really understand the commitment creative work demands (though Steve Gerber did try to drill it into me right there at the end — I’ll share my Gerber story in a future blog).
I’d also spend more time networking, and trying to set up jobs outside of Malibu. I wasn’t plugged into the community, I wasn’t a good self-promoter, and my work wasn’t good enough or widely-distributed enough to come to the attention of editors at other publishers.
I also regret that I didn’t write SUPERHEROES! That’s what I always wanted to do, but I just couldn’t get a superhero story sold at Malibu. For the most part people didn’t buy black and white books for superheroes — Marvel and DC did that better, so they came to us for all the alternative stuff. And by the time the Ultraverse color superhero line was hatched I was pretty much done. I did have some unpublished superhero stuff that I thought was strong and fun and while I doubt it would have changed the business (or even the course of my career) it would have been nice to see that work come to print.
I’m not disappointed in what I learned about myself as a writer. I’m proud that I hit my deadlines, that I did a large volume of work in a short span of time, that I learned how to write a twenty-four page comic in three days. For a couple years I made my way entirely as a freelancer; I’m glad to have done that. None of my work was terrible, but little of it was exceptional. I learned a lot about myself as a creator — and I’ve gone on to have a successful creative career in video games — so the time wasn’t entirely wasted. But given that I never worked in comics again, those years writing funnybooks feel like years put into a degree that I never finished. There was a lot of heartache and late nights and skull sweat that didn’t amount to anything, and that I didn’t go on to fulfill childhood ambitions and write scripts for the characters I honor here at Longbox Graveyard counts as one of my life’s disappointments.
I fondly remember Bones, but probably haven’t read it since it first came out. I also remember at least trying Liberator, but have this tickle in the back of my memory that my main reaction at the time was that it was no “American” from Dark Horse. I may have picked up a copy of Empire here or there – I definitely remember seeing copies around. As for most of the rest – I never cared for the Ex-Mutants or most of the “Malibu Universe” that they tried to create with Dinosaurs for Hire, etc. (I do remember liking a series called The Rover Boys I think).
I am sorry that the experience was so problematic for you. You gave it a good shot, however. And at least based on my vague memories – give Bones another shot.
Thanks for the kind comments, Jim, you remember my books almost better than I do.
My transition from creator-owned books like Bones and Liberator to “Malibu Universe” books like Ex-Mutants was a watershed moment, and looking back on it should have been my cue to begin seeking other work. It was a necessary transition at the time — my creator-owned stuff wasn’t selling, and Malibu had a need with their owned IP — but it was running in place, both for Malibu and me. If I was going to spend my time working on company books I really should have been pursuing better page rates at bigger publishers. The problem was that I was never much good at networking, and my work wasn’t strong enough on its own to secure new writing opportunities, so I was like a bench player in the low minors hoping I’d get a major league call up. Wasn’t going to happen.
Still not ready to take a closer look at my own books, though I am crawling closer by the day. Once I finish selling off everything else in the Accumulation I will have little choice but to confront my own books as it will be time to keep them or dump them. I certainly will keep one archive copy of everything I ever saw published, but what of the rest? Hmm.
Thanks for sharing this — I appreciate it.
Boy, did you have me scramble through my bins during this read. Unfortunately (fortunately for you?) the 3 issues of Lensman I own are of Lensman:Galactic Patrol, not written by you. And the Ex-Mutants Special I own from 1987 is also a not-you book. Bummer.
Well, you know, Prof, a little bird tells me that dedicated readers of this blog who send a modest wish-list of my old titles that they’d like to own, along with their address, to longboxgraveyard (at) gmail (dot) com SOMETIMES get a surprise in the mail.
oooooohhhhh …….. tempting!
If Monster Frat House is what I’m thinking of in my head (Animal House meets Monsters Inc), it has comic/animation gold written all over it.
The book pre-dated Monsters Inc. by decades, but yep, that’s about the size of it. Because I used Universal monster knock-offs I suppose a more accurate high concept would be Animal House meets Hotel Transylvania. I expect I still own the IP, those Malibu contracts were pretty favorable in that regard …
This was a really good read along with your comments. I understand feeling like you didn’t take advantage of the opportunities you had, but from my perspective (and lots of other aspiring-cartoonists I know), just having someone pay you and publishing your stuff is a HUGE accomplishment to be proud of. I know guys who’d kill just to be published once, let alone a hundred times. But I do understand the ‘could have done so much better’ aspect. I feel like that about stuff I’ve just recently finished sometimes.
Again, thanks for the article and comments.
Thanks for the kind words, and I don’t mean to be ungrateful (and I know that is not what you are suggesting). I am proud, after a fashion, to have done this work. Certainly it is better to have done it than not to have done it at all. And even if I had been more successful at the time, there’s no guarantee that it would have been a better thing for me, overall, to have stayed in this business … and in fact recent comments from old pros like Jerry Ordway and Herb Trimpe make me think the only thing worse than failing at comics may be succeeding at comics!
Anyway, thanks for reading, and being part of my Twelve-Step Program in coming to terms with my creative past!
Necro’d post! Seriously man, you should be ashamed of none of these! I think it’s really awesome that you got to write comics at all. So maybe you didn’t think they were that strong or whatever, but i bet each one was better than the previous in some way.
Even though comic fans can be some of the harshest critics around, i’m sure if we’re honest any one of us would be thrilled to say we wrote any one of these issues.
These should be front and center of the Accumulation/Collection – gotta hustle your own stuff. Maybe even get them graded, why not?
I’ve become much more comfortable with this work since first writing this article. I still haven’t re-read most of these books but I am more at peace with them. It isn’t that I am ashamed of the work so much as I am disappointed that it didn’t grow into something larger. But life is long and I may yet do more comics work … which might be fun, provided my living does not depend on it.
Reading the stories of old pros (who are now my contemporaries) I am sometimes left to conclude that the only thing worse than failing to become a success in comics would have been to become a success in comics. Being outside the business these past twenty years has positioned me in a good spot, as regards technology and my prospects for the future (I help run an iOS publisher and developer); having twenty years of comics scripts behind me might not be so favorable a position.
Things work out.
Nice to hear from you, Doug!
I came across the Paranoia comics many years ago, and long before I discovered the great RPG. I thought the comics were fantastic, and a really interesting take on the setting. Unfortunately, I only managed to get the first two issues before my local comic shop closed, and I was unable to find any back issues until eBay came along. I was totally surprised to see the change in art-style (and artist!) from issues 3 to 6. I was wondering if you might expand on what happened there? In your post you also alluded to how the artist had some influence on where you took the story, would you feel that the story would have changed somewhat if the original artist had continued his work on the books? Thanks for creating something which has stuck with me through the years!
Hey, Josh! Thanks for reading and posting, and for the kind words about Paranoia.
First of all, write me — longboxgraveyard (at) gmail (dot) com — and I’ll get you set up with any Paranoia issues you may be missing from my personal stash.
I’m fuzzy on the details of the artist change — I will ask around, and get back to you — but I think the first artist suffered some illness or injury that required he drop the book. The second artist was also quite good — a better storyteller, if not so stylish — and I would have been happy to have him aboard for the whole run, but you are right, it is quite a change in style when one takes over for the other.
I got this assignment because I was one of Malibu’s reliable, go-to guys for licensed books, and also because I had an extensive background in role playing games, having written/designed for that field (and having played Paranoia several times). My original intent was to closely follow the look and feel of Paranoia as seen in the West End Games supplements, and the first couple scripts were written with that in mind … but when that first art came back, it was obvious we were going a very different direction, and I tried to embrace that in the writing. I’m not sure we did West End any favors in departing so greatly from their house style (and I bet we confused a lot of RPG fans, too) but it made the series more entertaining and personal for me to write, and in the long run I think made it a better work.
In a sense the whole thing was kind of backwards. The first few scripts I wrote were relatively conservative … then I saw I had a wild artist, and changed my scripting approach to keep up with him … and then those scripts were illustrated by a more conservative artist!
Hey, Kids, Comics!
(That’s how it goes).
I recall Ex-Mutants fondly. I had a somewhat similar story of getting out of comics after the late 90s bust, although I’m still kinda proud of my small body of published work, which was all creator-owned — Cult Press, Caliber, and a few smaller names. The closest I ever got to work-for-hire was pitching for the Punisher at Marvel and selling a two-part story to WildStorm that was an ‘Elseworlds’ tale reimagining their characters in the 1800s Wild West. Their anthology book folded before it was our turn at bat, and there was talk of doing it as a 64-page special, but they eventually did a different take on the premise. Still got paid, though, and that was by far the most I’d ever made writing.
Now I’m working with a number of artists on concepts we’re going to do as self-published illustrated novels and short digital fiction — we’d like to do comics, but being realistic, there’s probably more money in prose (or at least a much wider potential audience). Hopefully if we can get a fanbase going we can parlay that into taking a stab at comics with the same IP, or at least the artists will get some money coming in from their half-ownership of to not spend months creating something that generates very little income. It’s a weird low-rent transmedia attempt, but I’m hoping it works …
Always good to hear from someone who was in the same trenches in the 90s.
Welcome, fellow traveler!
Half the purpose of this blog was to come to grips with my own brief time in the industry (the other half being about coming to grips with my gigantic comics accumulation) — in both cases I find myself nearing the end of the process, with my accumulation now very nearly a Collection, and my career finally coming into perspective. I see my time in comics now not so much as a failure of talent or commitment (I had plenty of the later, and did the best I could with the former) … I’ve come to recognize that my comics issues were business issues, personality issues, networking issues, even depression issues, all of which are things I can accept.
The work could have been better. It can always be better. But the reason I didn’t go forward had less to do with the work than those other things. I can live with that. I think I’m even ready to start reading my old books again. So, there’s been significant progress.
Nice that you are still in the creative business — don’t give up the fight! I may rejoin you. Or I may just keep spinning my wheels here at Longbox Graveyard. It’s nice to have options! And it’s nice to hear from people who stop by the blog … thanks for the comment!
One of my favorite LongBox posts! Funny story, Lensman was one of those book that I aquired in a trade many moons ago! I remember the art being a little wonky.
You have to tell me about the behind the scenes of this one! Sounds like less than a fun time!
Good stuff as usual Paul!
Loved that Ex-Mutants line of books and struggled to collect them all. Fond memories of those books.
Thanks! (Hopefully they were MY Ex-Mutant books … there were a lot of different series floating around!)
Also, on the Tiger-X front, I knew Juan Muro, the artist on the first two issues, back when I was a kid. I was able to see some of that original art and was blown away by it. I enjoyed the mini-series very much but was disappointed Muro never completed the run.
I’m not sure I ever really got my feet under me with Tiger-X, but it was nice to play with Ben’s book a little bit. I’d attack a project like that very differently today.
BONES was very enjoyable, a perfect mixture of fun, adventure and black humour.
In my opinion, and several other superhero comic fans in Germany, “THE LIBERATOR”
was one of the most underrated superhero comic series. In the wave of “THE AMERICAN”
and several other EPIC and TITAN post-superhero comics, it was the series with the best
continuity and complex but coherent story. “THE AMERICAN” started strong, but the storytelling qualitiy dwindeld with issue 4 ff. The problem was the art and the label, if it had
been published by DARK HORSE, drawn by a better artist, it had the potential for a big hit.
What a nice holiday surprise, to learn that I have a lost tribe of fans in Germany!
I re-read both Bones and Liberator last year, and found them better than I’d remembered. They were certainly heartfelt. Liberator is thoroughly a product of the emerging political conscience of my late-20’s, when I was still offended by hypocrisy, and could summon outrage at my country’s greed-driven foreign adventures. I still feel the same, but the passion doesn’t burn quite so bright, and the years have worn away at my distaste for hypocrisy to the point where I can now admire a good hypocrite, the same way I might admire a snake or a poisonous toad — they are perfect examples of what nature has made them, the apex predators of a certain bankrupt niche.
Thanks for reading and commenting!
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