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Category Archives: My Stuff

Comic books written by Paul O’Connor.

Two Nights In Tucson

Scattered impressions of this past weekend’s Tucson Comic Con

Tucson Comic-Con

It was very nice to be invited to the show, even if I didn’t do much more than sit behind my table for the weekend.

Behold, the Longbox Graveyard!

The show was low key and pleasant. The organizers seemed a little harried on Friday, possibly anticipating crowd issues owing to the show’s meteoric growth (jumping from 8,000 to 25,000+ attendees in just a few short years), but from my perspective everything ran smoothly. Certainly, the guest experience was superior and hassle-free — the organizers provided us with a good table location and checked in with us several times during the show, even bringing around water and donuts.

The crowd was steady on Saturday and the afternoon on Sunday, with Friday “preview night” a more relaxed affair. It was nice to see entire families in attendance — I’ve grown too used to San Diego Comic-Con, and overlooked how the demand and cost of that show has all but priced your average family of four out of attending. The attendees seemed a healthy mix of dedicated cosplayers and lookie-loos … I talked to several fans who were attending their first comic convention. The con business is one of the sectors where the comics business is growing, and this was reflected in the Tucson show attendance, near as I could tell.

NOT Tucson (yet)

NOT Tucson … yet!

The con had an old-school vibe, in that it was less about servicing fans with big panels and events than about facilitating the fan-to-fan experience. This is the “convention” part that San Diego Comic-Con is losing sight of more and more, where crowd concerns demand that fans keep moving on the con floor, rather than standing about and socializing. In this Tucson was refreshing and made me realize anew how much of a rat race San Diego can be in all its overcrowded glory. Most of the upstairs portion of the Tucson venue was given over to fan organizations — dueling tables for Justice League and Avengers Arizona fan groups, Star Wars associations, a Steampunk group, and even a Judge Dredd group that seemed in especially strong shape. If you were a new fan coming to the show trying to find your tribe, Tucson Comic Con had you covered.

My own experience was laid back and just fine, really … I expected to sell very little, and managed to sell even less (!), but mostly I viewed my table as an opportunity to sit on the convention floor and watch the crowd go by.

so it goes

I kid, I kid …

I met plenty of nice folks — including Friend-Of-The-Longbox @Regeeken — and I got a contact high watching Transformers and Deadpool fans geek out over meeting my table-mate, Billy King, who did a brisk trade in prints of his original work. It would have been nice to put on a panel, and I regret that my crazy schedule in the weeks running up to the show prevented me from doing so. Maybe next time.

Billy!

Billy King makes a Transformers fan’s day!

I did learn a bit about myself, manning that table and getting so little traffic. There was a time when I would have found it a crushing experience. In my professional days, I wouldn’t have been surprised, so much, that I didn’t get attention — in my old depressive ways, I might have thought it exactly what I deserved — but it would have eaten me up that other professionals at roughly the same level of expertise were doing better, or at least seemed to be doing better. I lacked the experience to understand that sometimes you are up, and sometimes you are down, and the difference between being “hot” or not is often down to things you cannot control, like the good fortune of working on a property people recognize, or some random whim of fannish fate that makes your particular steampunk/funny animal/hot girl pastiche the Rage of the Moment. Older and wiser geek that I am now, I could just let it wash over me, realizing that of course a guy offering 30-year-old black and white comics — and promoting a website and a yet-to-be-released webcomic on the side — isn’t going to get a lot of attention. It was no problem! I enjoyed the show for what it was and kind of regarded my own presence as a kind of performance art.

Tucson show floor

This was my first trip to Tucson, and the city does seem hard-hit by the recession. The recovery has been slow, and driving around the city at night it sometimes looked like a neutron bomb had gone off. Things were orderly, but also dark and deserted. Aside from a few thriving blocks downtown and near the university campus, we wondered where all the people and associated services had gone. There were some colorful characters on the streets — I saw one fellow eating his shoe, I kid-you-not — and there was another guy who’s very convincing zombie costume looked like it served double duty for clothes the poor devil must sleep in when he sadly curls up in an alley at night. There are people out-of-doors all over the country, of course, but it was especially tough to see when contrasted with the four-color escapism going on inside the Tucson Convention Center. Hopefully the city can turn the corner, and to judge by the many Deadpools and Harley Quinns walking the show floor, there are plenty of superheroes around town to help Tucson get off the ropes and battle back!

(And the less said about the many large guys unintentionally cosplaying as Jabba the Hutt, the better!)

Jabba

definitely saw a lot of guys rocking this look!

It would be a grand thing for Tucson Comic Con to lead a city-wide revival, and crazier things have happened — early San Diego Comic-Con guests will remember being advised not to leave their hotel rooms at night, but now the Gaslamp and surrounding convention environs are thriving, both during the show and the rest of the year, too. I’m pulling for you, Tucson, and I hope to visit your Comic Con again!

Billy and me!

Thanks again to Tucson Comic-Con for inviting me to the show!

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Dudley Serious Saves The World!

Just for laughs, I’ve posted a comic I wrote years ago, here in the virtual pages of Longbox Graveyard.

But it’s not just any comic … this is an Interactive Comic!

Dudley Serious Saves The World!

Head on over to my Dudley Serious page to help Dudley Serious Save The World! Only YOU can put a stop to Cliche Master’s diabolical plot!!

Dudley Serious Saves The World

Gerber’s Baby

Longbox Graveyard #34

Last week I wrote about Steve Gerber’s Defenders, a 1970s comic that was as singular as it was strange. That book stuck with me as a kid, and partially inspired by Steve’s crazy work, I would go on to have a comic book writing career of my own. My time in comics was unsatisfactory in a lot of ways, but one of the highlights was working (however briefly) with Steve on his original creation, Sludge.

Having helped launch Image Comics, the Malibu Comics brain trust had first-hand evidence that an original superhero universe could carve out a chunk of a Marvel and DC-dominated market. In 1993 they decided to go for it in a big, splashy way with the Ultraverse, an all new, full-color superhero line co-created by some of the bigger name writers in the business, like Steve Englehart, Mike Barr … and Steve Gerber.

For my own part, I was pretty burned out as a comic book writer by the time the Ultraverse came around, and I wouldn’t have had the name value to participate in the launch even if I had been up to the task. But it was obvious that the Ultraverse was going to be the only game in town and I worked hard around the edges trying to land a book. Once the line matured and deadlines started to slip, I managed to secure a couple fill-in assignments for Ultraverse inventory stories.

One assignment was a two-parter for Rune, which I’ve already examined here on Longbox Graveyard. Another was a fill-in story for Steve Gerber’s Sludge.

There are folks who still remember the Ultraverse, but there isn’t a lot on the web about Sludge. Sludge was a corrupt New York cop named Frank Hoag who was killed after finally standing up to the mob, then rose again as the sewer-monster, Sludge. He lurked in the shadows, was virtually indestructible, melted flesh with his touch, and revealed his inner struggle through story captions demonstrating his torturous thought process.

Challenged by Malibu Editor-in-Chief Chris Ulm to create an original monster comic series, Steve Gerber said that the concept for Sludge came to him during an epiphany at the Arizona conference where the Ultraverse was born. Despite his past association with Man-Thing, Sludge wasn’t Gerber trying to out-do himself with another swamp monster, or an attempt to fill a certain niche in the Ultraverse line. From the outside looking in, it’s easy to jump to those conclusions, but for Gerber, at least, Sludge was its own thing.

Marketing challenges aside, anyone thinking Gerber would under-serve his own creation as “just another swamp monster” was barking up a very wrong tree. One of the things I learned from Steve was how the first responsibility of a creator is to respect his own work. If you go into a job thinking it is a lesser assignment or a knock-off or a joke or whatever, then you can’t possibly do a good job. More to the point — why are you wasting your creative time doing that kind of work?

Steve was completely locked in on Sludge, as he was with all of his work. He walled out the world, didn’t care if people thought the character was another Man-Thing, didn’t care if the book was selling well, didn’t care if the Ultraverse was going to stick or not. Actually, saying Steve “didn’t care” gives entirely the wrong impression. In my experience, Steve did care — passionately, deeply, maybe too much — about every aspect of his work. What I mean to say is that Steve did his best to keep those external and possibly negative influences from impacting the work. It was pride, and professionalism, sure, but it was more than that. I think it was a kind of idealism, all the more impressive for a writer who had been chewed up by a nasty fight with Marvel over ownership of Howard the Duck. Another creator might have expected Malibu to “pay for his divorce,” but Gerber seemed to put that earlier heartbreak behind him, and put the energy into his work.

Or maybe Steve just had a mature understanding that getting even ultimately doesn’t lead anywhere.

I first worked with Steve as the editor and writer of Ultra Monthly. The idea behind Ultra Monthly was that it was a news magazine from inside the Ultraverse — it told the story of the Ultraverse through news stories and “photographs,” relating only what an outsider would be able to divine about the super-powered derring-do of the Ultraverse. I guess it was kind of like Marvels, except that Ultra Monthly was a news magazine, and not a comic (and we didn’t have a couple guys named Busiek and Ross on board, either). Anyway, the point was to show a “street” level view of the Ultraverse, but it was also to promote the characters in the line, and that proved especially challenging for characters that lurked in the shadows of this new fictional world.

I don’t think I ever got a Sludge story into Ultra Monthly. Each creator had to sign off on anything I did with their characters, and Steve was adamant that Sludge was a legendary figure, like Bigfoot, and he just shouldn’t appear in the magazine. My pleas that Bigfoot was a frequent cover boy for the National Enquirer (and that, after all, I was just trying to promote Steve’s book) fell on deaf ears — Sludge appearing in the news, even fictional news, didn’t fit Steve’s concept of the character and he wouldn’t budge. The only people who saw Sludge were the guys he killed and the down-and-out bums who shared an alley with the monster. Sludge was Gerber’s baby, and Steve was true to his character even if it ultimately might hurt his sales.

I don’t know as Steve remembered me from Ultra Monthly, but when Malibu decided it was time to commission inventory stories to fill gaps when Ultraverse deadlines were missed, Steve didn’t object to my taking a crack at Sludge. But neither did he make it easy. As was the case with my Rune story, I first had to submit a concept, and later a full plot — more preliminary work than I would have done on a book of my own. To avoid conflicting with the book’s continuing continuity, I decided to do a flashback story about Frank Hoag’s earliest days on the police force. I wanted to find out what had turned rookie Frank Hoag into the corrupt cop we saw get gunned down by his mafia masters in Sludge #1.

I sweated over my plot, sent it into Malibu, and kept my fingers crossed. I still have the notes Steve sent back:

Notes for Paul O’Connor RE: Sludge Inventory issue “Shadow of a  Chance”

Too many liberties are taken with the character of Sludge rather than dealing with the difficulties the character presents.

Examples:

*Sludge is not driven by vengeance. Ever. He considers it a waste  of time. He could be driven by rage or anger (a thin but important line) or even by his selective urge to see justice done.

*Sludge’s recollections seem perfectly clear throughout the story. They wouldn’t be. His confusion doesn’t automatically go away when he thinks about the past. Another way should be found to do the flashbacks … Maybe they should come from Emily, and not Sludge — may not work either, just a thought.

A lot of time is spent describing the characters’ emotions in almost Wagnerian terms. While that is okay where Emily is concerned, Sludge doesn’t engage in much pathos or talk at length about his feelings (or anything else). Fire the guy walking around in the Sludge suit and put the REAL Sludge at the center of the story.

Think about it, mull it over, think about it some more.

Doing the math, I notice Steve was about my age now when he offered me that direction. I wonder if I would be as helpful to writers trying to work under my direction today?

Being as I was a hack writer who just wanted to get paid and get onto the next book, Steve’s notes drove me crazy. But I could respect the way Steve was protecting his creations. It was a message that stuck with me and I credit it as an early drop of water that started to erode the rocks I had piled atop myself in what was to date a miserable career as a writer and creator. I took Steve’s notes to heart, re-wrote my plot, received approval, and wrote the full script. It was my work, under Steve’s strict direction … so my story isn’t exactly a lost Steve Gerber Sludge script (for that you need to go here), but it is kinda sorta the next best thing.

the man himself!

My Sludge script was never published, though I’m sure I was paid for it. I don’t think it even had an artist assigned. Reading it again, after all these years, it seems to me a nice piece of writing, but not so great a comic book script. Too much of the action is internal, and too much relies on a fill-in artist being able to wring convincing and sometimes subtle emotions out of the characters. While it would have been nice to get another story into print, this tale really is better experienced in the mind — its unlikely the story would have been improved by pencils. I’ve put the script up for your review HERE — give it a read and see what you think.

I lost touch with Steve after submitting my script. We were never close — our relationship was limited to these few Ultraverse jobs — but I always liked Steve, and admired the man and his work. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Steve gave me a gift in that he helped me understand how hard it is to do quality work (a lesson Lorne Lanning would finish drilling into me during my years at Oddworld Inhabitants). Steve also demonstrated how to be professional and dignified as a creator, even if “all” you are writing about is a talking duck or a mucky sewer monster. I was saddened when Steve passed, both because I enjoyed his work as a fan, and because of our brief professional association. The comics world — and the world as a whole — was a better place when Steve Gerber was in it.

Thanks, Steve!

NEXT WEDNESDAY: #35 Beneath The Longbox Shortbox

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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