In this week’s guest blog, Milo Miller of Hero Tomorrow Comics tells us of the secret origin of his comic book hero, The Apama … and his own secret origin, as well, which involves Steve Gerber, the Man-Thing, and a certain fool-killing vigilante. Take it way, Milo!
I’ve always considered myself a comic book reader. Collector? Not so much. I’ve got tons of comics — a lot of Bronze Age gold that by all rights should be getting ready to pay for college, finance my next feature film, or — at the very least — purchase a jet pack (or two.)
Hulk 181, Spidey 129, Giant Size X-Men. They’re all there & then some; bought ‘em right off the racks.
Then my twin brother and I read them to shreds of course. It’s not like I cut out the value stamps, right Paul? But I might as well have — creased covers, broken bindings, an inevitable grape jelly stain. Ughh.
In the film I co-wrote, Hero Tomorrow, a comic shop customer asks the proprietor — “Is that a comic book or a napkin?” and I regretfully have to admit here, “Yes, my writing does include many autobiographical elements.”
But mostly those books took such an incredible beating because I just loved the stories, the storytelling. And to be honest those landmark books we always picked up — fabulous first appearances, amazing origins, big premiere issues — aren’t all that indicative of the comics I was most attracted to.
My favorite books lived in the shadows; low-selling, anything-goes straight-up weirdness where creator’s often seemed to challenge an audience to follow on a trip that would inevitably end badly (at least from a commercial perspective.) Given the choice I would always take Mister Miracle over Superman, the Creeper over Gotham’s Dark Knight, Luke Cage over Peter Parker’s alter-ego.
It’s those pre-Star Wars books that led me to co-write my own retro/throwback/homage comic Apama The Undiscovered Animal: the story of a Cleveland-born Hungarian ice cream truck driver who unlocks the spiritual force of the most savage beast man has never known.
But it wasn’t only inspiration those Bronze Age beauties provided; they also presented the opportunity for me to meet & ultimately join forces with someone who would become one of my best friends, partner-in-crime, and greatest creative collaborators.
Because the day I met Ted Sikora at the University of Akron I told him all about one of the favorite books in my own longbox graveyard. And things were never the same.
Ted and I were taking a Video Production course together. I was a slumming English Major; he had just left Accounting to take some Advertising & Media classes. We both started talking comics almost immediately —- that uncanny geek-sense pinging as soon as we were in close proximity. I had drifted away from comics to a large degree; I still frequently visited my own accumulation but had lost the thread in the early eighties and hadn’t been actively buying new books in a long time.
Ted on the other hand was —- and still is — a life-long collector, a bag & board guy who hasn’t missed an issue of Amazing Spider-Man since 1975.
So in my desire to make a keen impression on a new acquaintance I played my trump card early in the conversation. “You’ve probably never heard of him but my favorite character of all-time is a guy named The Foolkiller.”
Now Ted surprised me. Because, of course, he knew who the Foolkiller was. Unknown to me he’d made an appearance in Amazing to begin with and -— more shocking to me -— Ted told me there was a new Foolkiller mini-series that had just started hitting the racks.
After class that day Ted and I booked over to a local shop and attacked the longboxes with a vengeance. I picked up some of the other Fookliller appearances -— the afore-mentioned Spider-Man, two-issues of the wonderfully idiosyncratic Omega, a Defenders story. And I also purchased the first two issues of the current mini-series. Just like that, I was back in the game.
And I got Ted to purchase two of the greatest comic books of all-time: Man-Thing #3 & 4.
Ted and I have been friends ever since. After graduation we co-wrote the script for our award-winning indie film Hero Tomorrow which Ted would direct to much acclaim. The film is a comic-shop romance with a super-hero twist about a struggling comic book creator who is desperately trying to break into the industry by promoting his original creation Apama. Apama is the “undiscovered animal,” a creature shrouded in mystery, a crypto-zoological puzzle that puts Bigfoot to shame.
The humor in the film comes from the creator’s inability to see that while characters based on bats, spiders and wolverines have an instant connection with an audience, one based on an animal that doesn’t exist fails to resonate.
In the film his girlfriend makes him a costume based on his creation for a Halloween party and in no time he’s out on the streets of Cleveland “fighting crime.” (I use the quotations since there is very little fighting and even less crime in the actual film).
For a micro-budget indie the film was very successful. We played a lot of festivals across the globe and it was at the post-screening Q&A’s that we kept hearing the same thing, “What’s with this Apama character?”
We didn’t need further incentive -— we’d each been dreaming of taking a crack at doing a comic since we were kids. And so began the ongoing series Apama The Undiscovered Animal.
The book has been getting some great reviews and the Volume 1 Collection of Issues 1-5 just got picked up by Diamond Distribution. It’s something I’m really proud of and captures many of the fun Bronze Age elements I grew up loving.
But enough about Apama; I’m running out of time and I’ve still got to tell you about two of the greatest comic books of all-time: Man-Thing #3 and 4!
I originally traded for beat-up copies from my old neighborhood pal Tim Engleman. He’d colored in the eyes of most of the characters with ballpoint pen for some reason. Paging through it today it strikes me as slightly unsettling; as if the detective investigating a rash of local serial killings will extract this from my accumulation to a thrilling declaration of “we’ve found our man!” Thank God Tim also was kind enough to scrawl his name across the cover as well, giving me at least a shot to slip the hangman’s noose.
I suspect the trade involved sports cards of some kind or maybe an early Blue Oyster Cult album that I was still too young to get into.
Regardless I felt I had won big.
Steve Gerber is (for me) the quintessential Bronze Age talent and -— backed up with some fantastic art by Val Mayerik — nowhere does his quirky poetry and off-the-wall storytelling come into more thrilling focus than this frantic tale of the Foolkiller.
The cover is wonderfully apocalyptic -— attacking alligators, flaming wreckage, a swamp filled with screaming survivors that look like they just woke up in Hell. And it only gets better from there.
My favorite aspect of The Man-Thing in general is simply the jaw-dropping audacity that the character could carry a book. He -— it —- is everything a protagonist shouldn’t be: reactive, mostly passive, barely possessing a consciousness. In the best stories -— like these issues -— the ‘most startling swamp creature of all!’ sort of just shambles on stage as an after-thought, appearing to fulfill some sort of Comics Code mandate for minimum page appearance for a title character.
After the man-muck-monster ties up loose ends from last ish in some action-packed first pages the tale really starts cooking. A couple of bikers from the Skullcrushers —- also hold-overs from Man-Thing #2 -— hit the road after making peace with Richard Rory, the lifelong loser of the supporting cast. There at the bottom of page 11, in the distance we can just make out a figure standing boldly in the middle of the road.
Then, on the page turn after a couple of ads, we’re introduced to what is, frankly, an incredible example of visual storytelling and what can happen in the synergy between writer and artist.
Our first good look of the Foolkiller -— a perfect low-angle shot of a confident and dashing character -— part pirate, part cavalier, all WTF — is accompanied by a brilliant statement of purpose: “They come. All the days of their lives have led to this moment. It was ordained long ago in Heaven that this day they would meet -— the Foolkiller!”
In these next couple of pages every panel is a home run. This “Holy Warrior” stops the two cyclists with a purifying blast -— the “energy of the just and righteous” -— that is so over-the-top and devastating in effect that it can only be the weapon of a madman.
Gerber makes it clear —- even through the satire and absurdity -— that every great villain is a hero in his own mind; but Mayerik’s close-ups leave no doubt —- this guy is friggin’ nuts!
“Sometimes I fear,” FK muses, “that when my killing of fools is done -— only I shall be left alive.” Gerber is firing on all cylinders; the entire issue if full of these incredible, dead-pan hilarious observations. The voice of the character is so strong right from the rip I couldn’t help but be drawn to him. And then when he hands out his calling card demanding his future victims repent, ah brilliance!
Issue #4 has the Foolkiller’s origin which just ups the wacky ante even higher. Born ‘a cripple’ Ross Everbest’s father was killed on the day of his birth during the final days of WW2 while his mother perished as a military nurse in Korea on another of his birthdays -— ‘cut down by a commie bomb!’
Confined to a wheelchair Ross studies the art of war and worships all things military. Which one might think would result in a great tactical mind, an ability that would translate to a strategic advantage in combat but nothing could be farther from the truth. The Foolkiller’s escapades are marked by missteps, mistakes, and operative failure—- he is nothing if not an incredibly violent screw-up.
Everbest discovers his true calling when he’s miraculously healed at a revival meeting. Becoming a soldier in the service of the Almighty he realizes he must be an active agent against the fools -— ‘criminals … protesters, dope pushers … mocking the Lord and the military.”
Add in a betrayal, a corpse encased in a glass shrine, and a strong sense of environmental consciousness to the murderous mayhem and you’ve got classic Gerber. There are so many great little elements along the way -— Foolkiller’s mobile HQ in a the back of an ACME moving truck, a ‘red herring’ sports car, Rory being on the killer’s hit list for playing “blasphemous” music while a disc jockey in Ohio.
And then, within pages of his introduction, the Foolkiller is dead. (By his own hand, of course.) “What a lousy way to die … even for a killer …! But maybe it’s poetic justice … sort of … even if we never know what the rhyme was.”
You can take the Punisher, Wolverine, Deadpool —- any of those characters who have followed that twisted trajectory from hyper-violent take-no-prisoner psychopath to the side of your kid’s lunchbox; I knew I’d found the unstable, rage-fueled killer for me. To this day I think Foolkiller missed his shot at the big time by not more than a degree or two, missed the refrigerator magnet, beach towel, and action-figures and wound up in semi-obscurity instead, buried -— not too deeply —- in many a longbox graveyard.
Punish a PBJ today!
Thanks to Paul for letting me pinch-hit this month; it was a lot of fun. Originally I had contacted him in hopes of getting some promotional attention for the Apama Vol 1 release. But given the opportunity I found myself unable to resist the urge to waltz through some of my own tombstones if you will.
Maybe that says more about our book than any amount of shilling I could do otherwise.