Had a lovely lunch with AIT/PlanetLar Books publisher and fellow CBR columnist Larry Young and his partner Mimi Rosenheim last Friday. After I’d led them on a merry romp through the secret passages of the Strip (you can get from Treasure Island all the way to the Mandalay Bay at the far south end without ever touching a sidewalk and barely ever being out of doors) and after we established that Mimi was the business brains behind the operation and Larry is not only a visionary but the luckiest damn slots player in the world, we talked about some of the issues currently facing the comics business. And came to the conclusion that my term “Paper Movies” (now my company name) is not only a good populist replacement for the term “comics books,” as discussed in last week’s column, but that “zines” is also a good replacement, a word that vaguely suggests something to everyone who hears it and is steeped in comics history (for those who came in late, as the Phantom used to say, “zine” was once a popular slang for “fanzine,” adopted by comics fandom from sf fandom), is generic enough to not burden the medium with unnecessary expectations, and is “comics-neutral,” like manga. Everyone who has ever heard the term knows manga are Japanese comics. But they’re not comics, they’re manga. Like anime isn’t cartoons, it’s anime. It’s that vague perceptual shift I was talking about. So: zines. End of discussion. Start using it.
About the same time, I got an e-mail from one Ken Marcus, who had this to say:
Thank you Mr. Grant for week after week of intelligent, insightful and, although sometimes non-linear, very pointed thoughts on the comic industry.
I’ve been a comic fan for over 20 year (dear God), and I enjoy discussions about the medium that dig a little deeper then which costume is cooler or who would beat up who. (Whom? Pardon the grammar.) Your column certainly fits the bill.
Thanks again, and keep up the good work.
While praise is always gratifying, Ken’s words reminded me of Larry’s dictum that the comics industry has to start serving many markets, not just our current little feudal holdings. This is a principle on which Larry has based his company, and it occurs to me now that’s I’ve been ignoring a large portion of my audience and begging the question:
This has been a matter of overriding concern to great sectors of comics fandom as long as I can remember. I remember seeing it discussed in letter columns of ROCKET’S BLAST/COMIC COLLECTOR, to the point where by the mid-70s it was a running gag. I first met Erik Larsen at the Chicago Comicon in ’88 or so, while waiting to go to dinner with several people. Not that we were formally introduced; I went to the bathroom, to return and find Erik in my chair, regaling Paul Smith with this great story he had that proved once and for all the Hulk was stronger than Thor. Erik, who didn’t know me (and why should he, after all?) seemed a bit miffed at the suggestion that, since he was sitting in my seat, between my wife and my friend, he should move (he didn’t). He continued with his story. He must’ve been telling it to anyone within his sights that convention, because a couple weeks later Jim Shooter told me about this great story he was buying – about how the Hulk is stronger than Thor. By Erik Larsen, no less. I don’t know if it was ever actually done or not.
On the one hand, you can roll your eyes and call it a stupid question. On the other, there’s something to be said for characters – and Thor isn’t even really a major Marvel character – who get generations asking the same question. That’s something virtually no other zine characters (see how easy it is to slip that in there?) have been able to pull off.
I’d like to be able to answer the question once and for all, but it turns out it’s a “blind men and the elephant” deal: depends on your perspective. Take The Hulk: scientist Bruce Banner caught in the blast of the mightiest bomb ever exploded on the face of the planet, SECRET WARS II. (No, wait, that came later. I mean the gamma bomb.) Simple process: the madder Hulk gets, the stronger Hulk gets. Must be an all-body deal because his muscles never get so dense they rip his ligaments apart or grind his bones to dust. Turns green (or gray). Goes monosyllabic unless Peter David’s writing him.
Then there’s Thor. No other way to say it: Thor’s a god.
So what appears to be another mundane juvenile obsession is actually another lost opportunity for comics. Because the real question isn’t: who’s stronger, Thor or The Hulk? It’s another question that has ripped the seams of our civilization since at least as far back as Occam’s Razor: what’s stronger, science or religion?
The Hulk’s the ultimate monster of science. Thor? Sure he’s easy to laugh at now (he’s practically a fashion criminal) but there used to be whole cultures centered around worshipping this guy. Personally, I have to go with Erik on this one, from a logical and emotional point of view. See, The Hulk can get as strong as he needs to get, and the worse he gets pummeled the madder he gets, so the stronger he gets, so the harder Thor would fight the tougher the Hulk would get. The big variable: is there a limit to godly strength? Can God make a rock so big Thor can’t lift it? Or is Thor as only as strong as the faith of his followers? These are tough to answer, but given Norse mythology points to a day when Thor will be killed, swallowed whole by the Midgard serpent (which might simply be a symbolic way of saying he’ll be buried in the Earth), you have to think he has limits. If The Hulk has limits, no one’s found them yet. Science wins! Science wins!
Of course, if you’re of a religious bent, you might see things otherwise. Doesn’t matter. What’s important is the potential of important discussions in even the stupidest of comics-related questions, and all the opportunities we’ve lost to truly convert this medium into something “adult” (as opposed to, say, letting characters use swear words, or tongue each other’s anatomy) just by thinking things through. (Not that the questions could ever be properly resolved, making them anathema to the “win/lose” scenarios dominating superhero comics. And, separate from any greater issues, either Hulk or Thor fans would feel betrayed if Marvel ever settled the question once and for all, and since Marvel’s theoretically in business to keep them happy…)
I’ve been fixating a lot on lost opportunities lately. My monitor died last April. Since I knew I was moving, I opted to move from my desktop to my laptop until the move was over, rather than pay for a new monitor then pay to move it. (Every pound costs money, you know, and money is tight.) On the day I took possession of my new house, I popped over to CompUSA to pick up a new 19″ Viewsonic, only to discover my hard drive controller, inactive for a year, was shot. (As was my LS-120 drive, so if anyone knows where I can get a PC-compatible USB model cheap, get in touch.) Finally had to override the online controller and slap in a controller card, and when I came back to my files after a year what I found was, basically, a career of unsold projects. Neil Gaiman’s SANDMAN stocks a library in the dream world with books that were never written. Here are some of the things that would be on my shelf.
PILGRIM: this was my first original series, an allegory set in the far future (loosely based on John Bunyan’s PILGRIM’S PROGRESS; you can smell college boy all over the thing) whose polyglot hero is accidentally stranded on an Earth long abandoned by humanity and now repopulated by creatures from mythology, with a “heroic” ending lifted wholesale from Joseph Campbell and AE Van Vogt. (And, mind you, this was before George Lucas was known for anything more than AMERICAN GRAFFITI.) John Byrne had tentatively agreed to draw it, but then turned pro. It died. Somewhere around here I’ve still got John’s designs, though.
STAR REAVERS: STAR WARS fever was in full swing by the time I teamed up with Minneapolis Rich Larson on this. (Rich later joined me for WHISPER at Capital.) Not that I was ever mad for space opera, but the season was ripe for it, and this was a crazed full bore time-and-space twister set in a universe where an early spinoff of The Church gained dominance and the world evolved into a super-scientific society where all mortal sins were sins of character, not action. The characters had all sorts of pun names like Ansata Cross, and, of course, unveiled the secret of the universe: it oscillated, repeating over and over until all possibilities were played out. It fell to the hero to stabilize things. While it probably owed something to Jim Starlin’s WARLOCK, I had enough of my own experience with the Catholic Church to inform it. Ain’t it wonderful how, when we’re young, we feel compelled to explain how the universe really works? Rich and I ostensibly sold this series to the Schanes Brothers’ New Media Publishing, but nothing ever came of it.
NICK FURY: I always liked Nick Fury, especially the Steranko version. He was one of the few purely action heroes at Marvel, though as director of SHIELD he has a fatal flaw – how can he ever really be the underdog when he’s got the super-scientific facilities of a major organization behind him? My solution, which I pitched to Roger Stern when he was editor, was to have Nick discover SHIELD was as corrupt as the CIA (I actually first tossed this around with Steve Gerber in some hotel room during my ’76 Christmas visit) and would have to go against his own operation. Went nowhere. Al Milgrom later asked me to do a one-shot Fury story for MARVEL FANFARE, and I wrote an action piece with Fury and Val trying to protect a threatened diplomat. Never got drawn. The transvestite villain might have been a bit much for Marvel c. 1980, though it’s just as likely the story was crap. My initial Fury idea became the background for the MARVEL TEAM-UP story I wrote introducing Mockingbird, while every so often I’d hear rumors that this person or that was now working on a NICK FURY VS. SHIELD mini-series, rumors finally put to rest when Bob Harras wrote one. Not surprisingly, Fury as underdog heated up sales. Also not surprisingly, Marvel reverted the character to status quo ASAP, which instantly cooled sales.
TALISMAN: I pitched this as an Epic comic, and Archie liked it. A seminary student obsessed with sin attempts a magical ritual to purify himself, and ends up splitting off an evil duplicate (of course, the guy is so not evil that the best his doppleganger can do in the way of evil is steal cars and have extramarital sex) and meeting God, who gives him the task of reweaving the fraying fabric of reality. See, turns out every organization, from the 4H Club up to Time-Warner and beyond, is really a magical secret society, and they’re all working counter to each other, even though none knows the others exist. (It’s that vow of secrecy thing.) A number have tumbled to the fact that our hero is the long anticipated Talisman who’s going to reshape things, and they all want their hooks in him so things fall their way, since he’s outside the grasp of their rituals and not bound by the magical conventions that bind them. Problem: to reweave the fabric of reality he has to use magic and using magic unravels the fabric of reality. His partner on his extended road trip is a woman who starts off by coming back from the dead, an incident we’re told is “really pretty common, but people don’t like to talk about it much.” I went through a slew of potential artists on this, including Steve Dillon (vanished off the face of the earth, though I did get a lovely chat with his mum out of it) and Paul Smith (opted to draw DR. STRANGE instead). Then John Byrne cribbed the name (not that he knew anything of my project) for ALPHA FLIGHT. Oh well. This one I could still see doing someday.
THE BLOCK: A simple idea for the Reagan era. A city starts a campaign to remove urban blight by erecting a modern skyscraper block, with stores on the ground floor and floor after floor of apartments above, in the center of a decaying slum, the first of many. Except budget cuts end further development, stranding the mostly lower middle class families whose move in was subsidized and who don’t have the resources to leave. The stores close up. The city bus stops coming through. Most of the men leave to find jobs elsewhere with hopes of bringing their families along later, and in the ensuing collapse of hope among the adults, the kids rise up to fill the power vacuum, while the mysterious outlands of the slums start to close in around them. There was a lot of J.G. Ballard’s HIGH-RISE in this one, which I pitched to First c. 1989 as “LORD OF THE FLIES meets FORT APACHE THE BRONX.” (Which indicates how much my interests changed since the days of PILGRIM and STAR REAVERS.) Lots of paranoia, with fantasy expectations crashing against realities at every turn. Some people at First were very hot on the mini-series, but then-editor Bob Garcia somehow got it in his head that the story would be about the inner workings of the city government, with the block as background. When he learned otherwise, that was pretty much the end of it.
RUNETHIEF. Another 80s project. I’d done TWILIGHT MAN at First, essentially an attempt to modernize the sword-and-sorcery genre, which I’ve always had a soft spot in my head for but which is generally dismissed, not without reason. (TWILIGHT MAN is itself a lost story, the published version being nothing like what I’d originally planned, except for the second issue that reconfigured the Great God Pan as an incestuous child molester; that alone survived more or less intact from the original version. What never saw print was a savage critique of Reagan administration policies, which is what the book was really about.) RUNETHIEF was a second attempt, conjured when I read of treatment of Catholic prisoners in political prisons in Northern Ireland. The Runethieves were a myth I made up, about an ancient tribe of 300 men who stole the secret language of the gods, and threaten to free humanity from their yoke. War ensues, ending only when the Runethieves are betrayed by one of their own, and the last surviving Runethief uses the power inherent in the gods’ language to escape through death, reincarnating eons later in a man murdered in an Irish prison. Another political allegory.
AMERICOMMANDO. Following the success of THE PUNISHER, I got some interest from DC, mainly Bob Greenberger, who was looking to revamp old DC characters ala THE SHADOW. Americommando is created to be the ultimate American soldier, only to discover he’s being lied to and used every step of the way; his main powers were rapid healing and the ability to totally blot out pain. It’s been done a thousand times since then, and was probably done better in Dark Horse’s THE AMERICAN by Mark Verheiden, who did it first. I used elements of it in ENEMY, also done at Dark Horse, but my main regret is never being able to do the poster I envisioned: an American flag shot full of holes and the slogan “America needs a new hero… like it needs a hole in the head.”
BLACKHAWK. I pitched this ground floor revamp, sometime after Howard Chaykin’s BLACKHAWK, to an eager Jonathan Peterson, but a movie deal with Joel Silver for the character killed any chance of it. In mine, the Blackhawks are formed after the war by a stand-in for real life escaped Nazi war criminal Otto Skorzeny, who directs them into violent anti-Red campaigns all over the globe. Living on their own island off the coast of Spain, the Blackhawks have a field commander known as Blackhawk, but the post has a rapid, fatal turnover, after which they fight among themselves to determine who’ll take over. Our hero is an American agent, mock-accused of treason to give him a cover story, who “escapes” custody to make his way to Blackhawk Island where his assignment is to become the new Blackhawk and convert the mercenary team to a covert arm of American foreign policy. Only when he’s on his way do his handlers discover he has his own agenda that jeopardizes theirs. Hilarity ensues. This was pretty much guaranteed to send all Blackhawk fans into screaming fits.
THE SHADOW STRIKES. During Michael Golden’s editorial stint at DC, he brought me in to work on a few different projects, including a revamp of THE WEB for !mpact, and a standalone comedy version of the Salvo character from the old THRILLER! Series. He also gave me THE SHADOW STRIKES!, and I did a handful of stories based on real events of the ’30s, including an attempted quasi-fascist coup of the American government backed by prominent industrialists, and an explanation of the myth that Robert Johnson developed his amazing blues skills in a pact with the Devil. (It turned out that the Shadow was the real “hellhound” on Johnson’s trail, in a story involving the white underworld’s war to wrest control of the marijuana market from African-American gangsters.) The book was cancelled before any were published, and DC has since lost the rights. I pushed for a more graphic style for the book, veering from the traditional pulp look. My main regret is that Michael wanted to get Alex Toth to draw an issue. Since Toth is well-known for his Errol Flynn fixation, I concocted a story set in Hollywood where the Shadow was badly wounded in the course of events, and to save the day Flynn had to take his place. I dunno how good the story would have been but working with Alex would have been something of a culmination.
TORNADO. Michael Golden’s conversion of Salvo got killed when Michael left and Paul Kupperberg took over. Paul gave it another try, from a serious angle. That went nowhere to, but I converted the material to TORNADO, about a military sniper who takes part in our invasion of Panama, where he disobeys orders because of something he sees and gets court-martialed for it. Following a couple years in the brig and dishonorable discharge, he retreats to his mother’s home where he lives as a solitary biker until he’s marked as a patsy in an assassination. I tried getting this off the ground several times, until I found out Stephen Hunter did pretty much the exact same story in his novel POINT OF IMPACT.
COLD ANGEL. Another turn-of-the-decade political story. A highly-trained spy is sent into Eastern Europe just before the fall of the Iron Curtain and the Soviet Union. He learns only after he’s there that he’s a decoy, intended to be caught and flushed away, and he vanishes into the chaos of Eastern Europe only to return to America several years later looking for revenge and answers in the guise of a foreign professional wrestler. Some at DC felt it was too complicated, and the name, taken from a poem by George Mackay Brown (courtesy of Peter Maxwell Davies), was kyboshed by DC legal because some New Zealanders had previously submitted a rejected pitch with the same name.
And there are dozens more where those came from. The fact is the life of a comics freelancer is a sea of unpublished projects. You get very thankful for those you manage to get off the ground.
Speaking of getting projects off the ground, I’m still waiting to hear on all my current pitches. Which means I still have no news to speak of. In the meantime, Larry Young and I have agreed in principle on a couple projects, one of which will be a must-have for MASTER OF THE OBVIOUS fans. More on that later.
Question of the week at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board: do you see yourself still buying comics material in five years? Why or why not?
Whatever questions you might have about me can probably be answered with a quick trip to Steven Grant’s Alleged Fictions. You can also express your own views at the Master Of The Obvious Message Board, or send me mail. Bear in mind that while I read all my mail, time constrains me from replying in most cases. Thanks.