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Issue #125

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Issue #125
  • It happens once in awhile. Nothing urgent to get pithy about, no mail, nothing to review, and so much time jam up that getting a column out is problematic. I know columnists who prep well in advance for such moments, tucking away columns written in their spare time for a rainy day, but since spare time’s an alien concept to me these days and there’s so much I want to write that spending time whipping up bits of emergency froth strikes me as interest-killingly dull…

    Fortunately, there’s always an answer to these things.

    Reviewer Chris Allen, who writes the excellent Breakdowns column over at Kevin Smith’s Movie Poop Shoot, recently reminded me of something I’d completely forgotten: an essay I’d written for Avatar Press on the creation of my new series over there, MY FLESH IS COOL. It’s currently posted at Avatar’s site, but since no joke is an old joke to someone who hasn’t heard it and most people probably haven’t gone over there to read it (I believe it also appears in MY FLESH IS COOL #1), why not run it here, right? Sure, you can take it as cheesy promotion for MY FLESH IS COOL, which finally debuts today (more on that at the bottom of the column, if you’re interested in getting a copy), but since I get a lot of mail from people asking me things like, oh, how one comes up with those nutty, nutty comics stories (or any other kind), I figure it’s got application well beyond the specific project, as a discussion of the creative process. (My creative process, anyway; can’t vouch for anyone else’s.)

    Anyway, sorry for the filler. Feel free to take it as you will:

  • [My Flesh Is Cool]

    Work as a writer in a field like comics long enough (like maybe three days) and you’ll get the question people love to ask: “Where do you get your ideas?” A common reply is “there’s a mail drop in Ohio…” but that’s so obviously snide (have any ideas ever come out of Ohio?) that I’ve always thought it must be a bit offensive to querists, who, in my experience, genuinely want to know. Though we culturally have such a mystical viewpoint about “ideas” that my own answer must be disappointing, and probably more than a little mystifying.

    It’s pretty much like any trade. It just takes practice.

    I first codified this a few years ago while having my hair cut. The stylist (not that I get my hair styled, but these days if you want your hair cut you go to salons, and in salons the barbers are called stylists) rattled off the usual questions – How do you want your hair cut? Is that your natural color? What do you do for a living that you can get your hair cut in the middle of the day? Oh, really? What do you write? Where do you get your ideas from? – and, not being in a particularly chatty mood that day, I said: it’s probably a lot like cutting hair.

    Think about it. If you want to be a hair stylist, you get training. At some point (in theory, anyway) you learn or figure out how to cut hair. So you start cutting. For awhile, you’re not quite sure what you’re doing or if you’re getting it right. But after awhile, you’ve trained that mental muscle. You don’t concentrate on how your hand holds the scissors or anything like that, you may not even concentrate on the hair. You know what you’re doing. Your body knows. (To paraphrase another song, this one from Howard Devoto, your skin remembers.)

    (In fact, since I made that observation, it turns out brain studies back me up. The latest neurological investigations show that learning a new skill causes development of new brain cells in, and functionally a swelling of, the corpus collosum, the knot of tissue that holds the halves of our brains together. That amount of development depends on what skill is being learned – learning to play the violin, for instance, causes tremendous development – but after a certain point the “educated cells” disperse across the brain, returning the size of the corpus collosum to normal. Which is the point where your “skin remembers.” You no longer have to actively think to access that skill, you know how to do it. This is fascinating on another level. It has always been thought the brain doesn’t regenerate dead cells, but now it turns out we can regenerate all we want. We just have to keep learning new skills.)

    Anyway, learning to get ideas is just like learning to cut hair: practice long enough, and after awhile it just happens.

    Sort of.

    “Getting an idea” is the act of drawing a mental line between two dots that no one has ever drawn a line between before. No idea erupts from nowhere, just as you can’t build muscles without exercise and protein. The “idea muscle” is just like any other muscle: it needs to be nourished and developed to work properly. Information is our protein. To some extent writers have to be information sponges, absorbing pretty much everything without filters or bias. Because that’s how you accrue the raw material of ideas: information bits are the amino acids that coalesce into ideas, and you never know which bits are going to matter.

    I’m not sure how far back to trace the evolution of MY FLESH IS COOL. Certainly it goes back at least as far as 1978, when I heard the British rock band Ultravox sing “Artificial Life,” containing the following verse:

    “So we drink and sink and talk and stalk

    with interchangeable enemies and friends

    trying on each other’s skins

    while we’re dying to be born again”

    That image always stuck with me. The band used it metaphorically; I made the jump to a literal interpretation. That’s the “line between the dots” thing I was talking about. It took years, but the idea slowly formed and festered in my head and became something else: what if you could jump into someone else’s body, do whatever you wanted, then leave without a trace and without any risk of blame or punishment for what you did there, because no one would ever know it was you and not the person whose body you wore?

    I grew up in an era when “freedom” was a topic of considerable debate, and, for many of us, a real concern. (Then, as now, the official stance of the status quo was that we were free to disagree with the government as long as we did what we were told anyway.) As Americans we pride ourselves on our “freedoms” (even as we spend an inordinate amount of time trying to flush them down the toilet), but there’s always the question of where freedom ends and licentiousness takes off. That fine line between freedom and license has fed many novels, Sunday sermons and Congressional debates, but rarely without a Calvinistic subtext wherein it’s expected that the libertine will ultimately get his.

    So the limits of freedom (as far as it can be said to be limited) has been one of the recurring themes in my work. You might have to look hard to spot it, but it’s there. Another, which I don’t get to delve into anywhere near as much as I’d like to, is the dislocation of identity. (It doesn’t seem to be a theme that interests many editors.) It’s probably why I was attracted to the idea of “body jumping” in the first place.

    In the mid-’80s I moved to Los Angeles, and it was there I decided to write a spec screenplay called SLIDER. This was in the Reagan era, when the economic and social disparity between the rich and poor in America became striking, particularly after the relatively egalitarian ’70s – to the extent that it seemed war had been declared on the poor. (Things are so much better now, of course.) Nowhere was this more evident than in L.A., a city bursting with life and possibility if you’re filthy rich and crushingly oppressive if you’re not. By now you’ve probably noticed songs function as triggers for me, and here another enters the picture: the Sex Pistols’ “Holidays In The Sun.” In this case, though, it wasn’t a lyric but the dust jacket for the single that provided a trigger phrase: “a cheap vacation in someone else’s misery.” And that’s what I envisioned in SLIDER: the ultra-rich indulging their every whim, especially with sexual indulgences in particular being made problematic by the scourge of AIDS, by transporting their minds into other people’s bodies and getting their kicks that way, leaving the poor possessed shlub to clean up after the party’s over. In the story, this was accomplished by secret government assassination technology – throw assassins into bodies of the trusted aides of targets and perform the hits through them – sold to those able and willing to pay the price to get an implant. It started with incredibly rich woman “sliding” on her 70th birthday into the body of a Sunset Strip streetwalker, only to be brutally murdered by a John who may or may not have known how to prevent the woman from leaving her pilfered body before death. (It was the illogical conceit of the story that voices travel with spirits from body to body, and a vocal cue triggers return to the original body, meaning if the voicebox is crushed the “slider” can’t escape.) The hero of the story, an ex-cop, comes in to track down the real culprit, the original slider whose natural talent gave the government the model for their technology, but who was then incarcerated only to escape with the intent of wiping out all the other sliders.

    It was an ’80s kind of story. The screenplay got some interest but ultimately didn’t sell (the fate of most spec screenplays). Eventually the Sci-Fi Channel introduced the TV show SLIDERS, about an intrepid band shifting from parallel Earth to parallel Earth – sounded too Irwin Allen to me, so I never watched, plus I was pissed about the name – and that was pretty much it for SLIDER. No point in even showing it around after that. Unless I changed the name, and I just couldn’t come up with another name I thought was any good, and, at any rate, as the ’90s wore on aspects of the screenplay just didn’t seem pertinent anymore. It was time to let it go.

    I’ve brushed up against the theme here and there after that. When I was writing the thankless MANHUNTER series from DC c. ’95, I created a villain called The Skinwalker, a primodial spirit/monster who stole and wore human skins in order to function in our world, and who hung up his victims in a closet the way we hang up our clothes. Though easily my favorite issue of that short-lived series, it was already miles from SLIDER.

    I’ve never really been very comfortable writing the standard hero, probably due again to the era in which I grew up. The “hero” in America is an archetype, which is a fancy way (misinterpreting Carl Jung much the same way the overuse of the word “synchronicity” does, and you can trust me on this because I’ve studied Jung) of saying cliché. Heroes, particularly in comic books, are expected to behave a certain way, have certain reactions to certain stimuli, and uphold specific philosophical biases readers are believed to hold dear. I’m not against any of that, but having such considerations constantly imposed gets tedious. Remove them, and you get characters with a much wider range of response, and that’s when stories get interesting for writers. I’d previously written a more customary hero, a cop, for publisher-editor William Christensen in my first Avatar project, MORTAL SOULS (if you haven’t read it, run out and find it, because you’ll like it), so when William asked me to come up with something else and pretty much left it to my discretion, I wanted to try something a little different.

    I didn’t, in fact, have an idea for a follow-up to MORTAL SOULS. This is where ideas come from: sometimes they hit you out of the blue, sometimes you squeeze them out under duress, sometimes old ideas reconfigure into new. Plus all of the above, at once. MORTAL SOULS had itself “stolen” an idea from an unused project, something I generated years ago for Shawn McManus to draw called BIZARRE, whose titular heroine could only see living things via their Kirlian auras and thus realized that many people walking around were dead. This time, fishing for an idea, I remembered doomed SLIDER and realized I still wanted to explore that territory. I didn’t, however, want to return to those characters, or even that story.

    For one thing, I only had three issues to work with, and three issues of a comic book covers considerably less than a full-length movie (even if many movie adaptations are crammed into that many comics pages). Still, there was that core idea – throwing your psyche into someone else’s body – that was worth hanging a story on, no matter how much reconception was required. First up was the lead character. Unlike the hero of SLIDER, who’s introduced slowly and untangles both the scenario and the mystery over time, I needed a protagonist who could cut straight to the chase and get us into the story as quickly as possible.

    Which meant he had to be the one doing the “sliding.”

    Let’s face it, there are only so many reasons you’d want to jump into someone else’s body. One I’d covered in SLIDER: sheer arrogance and malice, because you could, free from repercussion; to have sex with no strings attached, or to demonstrate power over your victim, essentially being a rapist. I’d covered it in the screenplay, but it’s not something I feel any sympathy toward. There’s curiosity (amounting, in such a situation, to voyeurism), but recurring curiosity quickly becomes indistinguishable from obsession.

    So if my “hero” was going to do this, it would have to be for practical, though probably not noble, reasons. Professional reasons. (I suppose I could’ve concocted purely altruisitic reasons for him to essentially kidnap, manipulate and endanger other people, but get real.) Longtime readers of my work may have noted my frequent use of criminals as protagonists (also expressed as the vigilante or loner hero, all of them being basically social outsiders). For me, this is the essence of the “crime story”: not stories about cops hunting criminals but stories about criminals themselves. Editors tend to be uncomfortable with this type of focal character, so I don’t get to them often, and I figured this was a good spot for one.

    There a school of thought (if you’ve ever taken screenwriting classes, you’ll have heard this) that creation breaks down into functions: plot, story, theme, character, etc. That you create your characters and build a story around them, or you come up with your story and find characters that fit. Then you add in this element or that, and voila! It doesn’t work that way for me. I find it very difficult to separate character from plot in my head. Stories happen to people, and people happen to stories, and anything else is just trying to impose market considerations, a subtle form of self-censorship. Every element you put in a story affects every other element, and if it doesn’t you’re not thinking it through.

    So, okay, he’s a criminal of some sort. How would someone make professional use of the ability to jump into anyone else’s body? How would they gain that ability? Though I’d done what amounted to a government conspiracy in SLIDER, that whole bit had been so overdone in the intervening years I didn’t want to go there. Corporate crime? That would make sense – bear in mind this was before Enron, WorldCom, etc. suddenly put corporate crime back on the front pages – and it would provide him a rationale. But why him? If some corporation had developed a “slider” technology, wouldn’t they have a small army of “sliders” working for them? But that would cripple the protagonist’s uniqueness, the thing that sets him apart, as well as take him out of the “loner” category. So he’d have to be working freelance, in the pay of some company but not on their payroll, and the means to do what he does would have to be his alone. How would he have access to that sort of technology?

    Past the initial inspiration, every story is a series of problems to solve, and you hope when you come out the other side you’ve made the right choices. (On the other hand, there’s Brian Eno’s aphorism, “Honor thy error as hidden intention.”) A technological source of the protagonist’s “power” drove things too far in the wrong direction, so I pulled back and shifted gears, deciding on a drug instead. So we’ve got a protagonist who uses a drug to jump into other people’s bodies, working freelance for a corporation? As what? A troubleshooter, dealing with “problems” the corporation can’t deal with any other way. Still, they’re a corporation; if he gets results, they’re going to want to know how he gets them, which will lead them to…

    And this is how stories come together. You set up your dots, draw the lines, and at some point elements of the plot coalesce into a logical order. New characters become necessary – you create them as needed, and they turn the story in new directions as the interrelationships become clear. (More dots, more lines.) This is a reason I don’t like to define stories too much in the early stages, often the stages where editors want detailed plots. Every story should be allowed to breathe and change as necessary.

    What I didn’t have were names. Names are important. They set a character’s tone. Here’s where a good thesaurus comes in. Pick a characteristic and root through a thesaurus, leapfrogging from meaning to meaning as synonyms shade, until the right name hits you. Due to his abilities and his profession, I wanted something that suggested his ephemeral presence and how dangerous he is. It took half a day but I finally hit the right combination: evanescent (“(of an impression, etc.) fading quickly) and noxious (“harmful”).

    Evan Knox.

    A guy who could compartmentalize his life enough that he could be a perfectly decent guy on the one hand and a corporate killer on the other. Who could get the error of his ways shoved in his face and rise to the occasion to do the decent thing and accept responsibility for a situation that couldn’t have arisen without him.

    More than that would be telling, of course. Except to follow the “what if” to its logical extent: what happens if the drug Knox uses starts being sold on street corners? What kind of civilization do you end up with when anyone can leap into anyone else’s body and indulge whatever desires or fantasies move them? And what does someone like Evan Knox do about it? That’s the story of MY FLESH IS COOL, and ultimately it isn’t about guns or killing or even corporate intrigue. It’s about when it becomes important to do the right thing, and how far a man is willing to go to do it.

    With twists and curveballs to keep things interesting.

    Of course, a comic book isn’t just a story. We still needed a title and an artist. For some months, I’d been in contact with Spanish artists’ agent David Macho Gomez, whose stable includes artists from Europe and South America. There I found Argentinian artist Sebastian Fiumara, whose pages grace this book, and though he hadn’t worked in the crime genre before (and MY FLESH IS COOL, in my mind, is equally crime and science fiction, or what Harlan Ellison calls “speculative fiction”), he loved the story and was eager to step up to the plate, and it turned out we loved his work too. But I don’t need to talk you into loving it. Just go look at it.

    Which left a title. I puttered around with more traditional titles. I forget what they were just now, but they were nothing inspirational. And then I remembered:

    One summer during my Los Angeles stint, my wife and I were sitting on our sofa during a heat wave when she brushed against my bare arm and noted, “your flesh is cool.” It was such a weird thing to say – nobody says “flesh” anymore, for one thing – that I was instantly taken with it. I repeated it, translating it to the first person, and it evoked Mickey Spillaine writing erotica: MY FLESH IS COOL. I went for a long time looking for a story I could hang on that title.

    Now I was looking for a title to hang a story on, an unusual title that stood out from the standard type of comic book name. MY FLESH IS COOL was perfect, and even appropriate with another faint tweak to the concept. Still, I expected William Christensen to blanch at it.

    He didn’t.

    Enjoy the book.

  • I can’t be sure, but next week may be as compacted as this week is, so I’m going to try something we had a lot of fun with on the GRAPHIC VIOLENCE forum a few months ago.

    From now through 11:59 PM Sunday February 8, I’ll be taking questions on any subject (except my private life): comics, writing, culture, politics, etc. Any question you want an answer to. Ask me anything, anything at all. All questions and answers will run in the column next Wednesday, all senders confidential. All questions must be e-mailed to me; those posted to the Permanent Damage Message Board will be ignored. One question per person.

    I’m waiting.

  • Remember that right about now, MY FLESH IS COOL #1, with art by Sebastian Fiumara, and VIVID COMIX #1, should both be available from Avatar Press. You can also hit up your local comics retailer for:

    DAMNED: trade paperback from Cyberosia, art by Mike Zeck and Denis Rodier, coloring by Kurt Goldzung

    Crime. A parolee jumps parole to fulfill a promise to a dead cellmate, and finds himself hunted by mobsters looking for missing money he knows nothing about, in a city where he has no friends.

    MORTAL SOULS: trade paperback from Avatar Press, art by Philip Xavier

    Crime/horror. A police detective tracks and kills a female serial killer, only to gain her gift of seeing her targets for what they really are: the dead, who run the world, and who hate the living.

    BADLANDS: trade paperback from AiT/PlanetLar Books, art by Vince Giarrano

    Crime story, set in 1963 and starring the man who really killed John Kennedy.

    BADLANDS: THE UNPRODUCED SCREENPLAY: text from AiT/PlanetLar

    Screenplay version of BADLANDS, designed to ward off anyone who wants to make a movie of it.

    PUNISHER:CIRCLE OF BLOOD: trade paperback from Marvel Comics, art by Mike Zeck and John Beatty

    Crime. The original mini-series that transformed The Punisher from a minor character into a movie-franchise spawning star. Imprisoned for his killings, the Punisher fights to survive and escape, but the war he declares on organized crime once he’s out takes an unexpected turn.

    GREEN LANTERN: TRAITOR: trade paperback from DC Comics, art by Mike Zeck, Gil Kane, Scott Kolins and Klaus Janson

    Superhero action. Three generations of Green Lanterns – the alien Abin Sur in the old west, Hal Jordan joined by the Atom in the Silver Age, and the modern Green Lantern Kyle Raynor – battle an unstoppable cyborg powered by the stars and driven by a religious calling to snuff out all life in the universe.

    FRANK MILLER’S ROBOCOP, monthly comic from Avatar Press, art by Juan Jose Ryp

    Science fiction action. The most faithful comics adaptation of a screenplay in history. From the version of ROBOCOP 2 that was never filmed, Frank Miller’s vision of the decaying future city of Detroit is realized for the first time, as Robocop crosses swords with a demented squadron of military police and a program-altering self-proclaimed moral watchdog, while the real police go on strike and OCP readies an even more powerful Robocop to replace him.

    I encourage the patronage of local comics shops where applicable, but don’t forget that if you can’t find what you want there, you can always shop the fine online retailers Khepri and Mars Import. I’m still working on a complete listing of upcoming projects, but I’m also working on the projects themselves as well as a screenplay, so time is pretty tight. But keep looking; the online shop will be up at the Paper Movies website soon as well, I promise.

    Those wishing to comment should leave messages on the Permanent Damage Message Board. You can also e-mail me but the chances of a reply are next to nil these days, given my workload, though I do read all my e-mail as long as it’s not trying to sell me something. IMPORTANT: Because a lot of people apparently list it in their e-address books, this account has gotten a slew of virus-laden messages lately. They’re no real threat but dealing with them eats up time I don’t really have, to the extent I can no longer accept unsolicited e-mail with attachments. If you want to send something via attachment (say, art samples) ask me first. If I say okay, then send. Unsolicited e-mail with attachments will be wiped from the server without being read. You can also leave messages for me and have discussions on other topics at my Delphi forum, GRAPHIC VIOLENCE. Please don’t ask me how to break into the business, or who to submit work to. The answers to those questions are too mercurial for even me to keep up with.

    Those wanting to subscribe to the WHISPER e-mail newsletter should click here.

    I’m reviewing comics sent to me – I may not like them but certainly I’ll mention them – at Steven Grant c/o Permanent Damage, 2657 Windmill Pkwy #194, Henderson NV 89074, so send ’em if you want ’em mentioned, since I can’t review them unless I see them. Some people have been sending press releases and cover proofs and things like that, which I enjoy getting, but I really can’t do anything with them, sorry. Full comics only, though they can be photocopies rather than the published version. Make sure you include contact information for readers who want to order your book.

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