So this is one of those may-get-it-in-late columns, at the end of a busy week. The good kind of busy, as opposed to gathering
oneself -- and one's loved ones -- up after a tornado, say, like those poor folks in tornado alley, as the weather keeps reminding
us it will likely no longer remain cooperative, during most of the rest of our lives.
No, the lucky "good busy" these past couple weeks has included reworking the opening to a Danger Boy book (a sandbox I hadn't
played in awhile), copyediting the manuscript for a long a-borning zombie novel (if that's not a contradiction in terms), and doing
the social media authorial rounds for a new eBook released at May's end.
That's where the "disclosure" comes in, since you may have noticed Derek Johnson's column elsewhere on this fine web site, which
is an interview with, well, me, about that very eBook, called GhostDance and has to do with some ghostly and
creature-strewn upheavals in Hollywood during a key night in film history, circa 1937.
Heck, in the interview I even acknowledge Nexus co-conspirator Rick Klaw, who was the original editor on GhostDance during
an earlier digital incarnation of that work -- see how small the world can be?
The cover on GhostDance is by one Doug Potter, another collaborator and pal from out Austin way (where I suddenly realize
I'm overdue for a visit), and this is what swings us 'round to comics.
I've also been working with Doug on my first finished comic story in too many moons. It's a Barnstormers tale, and the B-stormers
are a squad of unemployed movie monsters from the 30s, who form a traveling baseball squad to earn some Depression-era cash.
And in writing comics again, I'm doing that "means testing" that's good for all of us on the "critic's" side of the block -- which
is to say, returning to a regular practice of that which I write about when others do it.
I've actually taught comic book writing over the years, and I'm always telling class members that the main thing -- as a
writer -- is to learn how to defer to the artist. Let him (or her) do as much of the storytelling as they can, and try not to
overcram the frames with dialogue and captions.
(Captions are their own half-session in writing class: Is the convention of a hoary omniscient narrator even viable anymore,
outside of retro-irony? "Meanwhile, back in Gotham City...," etc. For me -- and there was probably no turning back after the
first time I read Watchmen -- everything in a caption box needs to be sourced -- overlapping dialogue from another
panel, "found" text from newspapers or other documents that exist within the story, or in the case of the Barnstormers tale,
narration from a Walter Winchell-like radio announcer...)
But coming out of a long focus on prose-only storytelling, Doug's and my "pilot episode" for the project -- running around a
dozen pages -- was in fact crammed with backstory, as I kept figuring out how to introduce most of the main characters, the world,
and do the beginning/middle/end thing for an actual story.
When I had the Barnstormers arguing as they're being burned out of a barn, post-game -- the torches and pitchforks outside remind
them too much of all the movies they've made -- I had Dracula arguing that he'd rather be back in Hollywood. In the finished
panel, Doug had Drac turned into a bat, regaling his teammates, as he attempts to fly away.
This had the virtue of saving space in the frame for other characters (in case my "novelistic density" was making things a little
too dense), and adding a "power" to Dracula that I hadn't recalled or thought of when writing the story, and which is now
registered for future use.
In the same vein, he wanted an aquatic monster in there, and I mentioned that most of those we're familiar with came along later,
in the nuclear age -- like the Creature from the Black Lagoon. Make him your own!, I said, 30s-style. So Doug has a fish-man in a
Fedora, drinking a cup of java while standing around the back entrance to the studio lot. I didn't realize we had a fish-man in
a Fedora until that moment, but now that I do, I'm already working on his backstory.
So while the future remains as uncertain as ever -- for tornado alley residents, comic creators, anyone in the 21st century,
really -- plunging back into Barnstormers has been rejuvenating fun. If heartbreak in the comics biz lies ahead, I'll report back
and let you know.
And if you're wondering whether this left me any time to actually read any comics this past month -- well, yes. Not book length
ones, but "single issues," as they used to be known in the newsstand days. I guess they still are, but I read each one of them on a screen.
They were three different #1's, each intriguing in its own way. One was Mark Millar and Frank Quitely's Jupiter's Legacy, from
Image, part of a ten-part series, where those "JL" initials are significant. Millar explores the "creation" of American
superheroes (in this case, the heroes create themselves by finding an uncharted island with a mysterious boon) in
the 1930s, then jumps to now.
The "now" kids of those superheroes have their own powers, and their own ennui too, living in a media-drenched age, replete
with public images to maintain, or not. Meanwhile their "JL" parents, still buff and sexy decades later, argue among
themselves about why they haven't more forcefully changed a clearly falling-apart world. One says he's going to get in touch
with President Obama.
It'll be interesting to see how Millar handles the question that has informed his other work -- namely, what would superheroes
be like in our "real" world. Or more precisely, what would we be like, here back at "reality," were there actual superheroes
bounding about. Let's see if the caped ones can get a handle on climate change first.
Clive Barker's Next Testament is a 12-parter from Boom Studios. The horror meister is working with fellow writer
Mark Miller (no, not that one) and artist Haemi Jang, who is somewhat Quitely-esque himself, which is a good thing.
The first issue is mostly premise -- but aren't they all? -- where a megalomaniac industrialist frees an ancient god who exists
in rainbow hues, and starts racking up a body count. What this may tell us about prophets -- false and otherwise -- in the same
troubled world that the other Millar's "JL" force is debating taking in hand, could be interesting, especially if some
kind of religious counter-history gets developed.
Meanwhile, the weight of one's personal history is evident in Richard Corben's adaptation of Fall of the House of Usher, first
issue out from Dark Horse. Corben has done Poe before, even, actually, Usher, but here he amps up airbrushed caricatures
of his characters -- a 3D technique that I've loved since first coming across his stuff in those underground 60s -- and
also the sense of dis-ease and decay. He appears to be adding some interesting subplot material -- I had to go back and brush
up on my Poe after reading this first installment. As online comic critic Zack Davisson notes, Corben's also combined the
Poe story "The Oval Portrait" here, and the Usher siblings' unhealthy bond is given a stark visual representation because of it.
Plus it's good to see those old cats still creating work. Or even the middle-aged cats, like Doug and me.
Have a splendid summer, and we'll see you in July.