There's a fine old tradition in superhero comics. A second-string hero, a B-lister, chugs along in neutral for years, and then a smart creator gets hold of the feature and suddenly it's really interesting and cool. Frank Miller on Daredevil. Alan Moore on Swamp Thing. Mike Grell on Green Arrow. And so on.
Well, it's happening again. Suddenly I'm finding myself becoming a real fan of a character that previously I'd shrugged off as just being okay. Although technically, the new take that turned me around isn't happening in comics.... it's happening in a series of modern pulp paperbacks.
It started like this. A while back I did a column on B-list pulp heroes and how some of them have migrated over to comics over the years. One of those fellows was the Green Lama.
Among other things, I mentioned that a prose anthology of NEW Green Lama stories was being published by Airship 27 Productions. One of the contributors to that anthology, Adam Garcia, noticed the mention and sent me a copy of the book.
I liked the book well enough overall and I especially enjoyed Adam's story, in particular. I said so in this space and as a result he and I struck up a small e-correspondence. So it transpired that a few weeks ago Adam very kindly sent along a preview copy of his new Green Lama novel for Airship 27, Green Lama: Unbound.
The book is tremendous fun. To be honest, the premise is so terrific that Adam had me on board just with the promo copy:
The classic pulp hero returns in his first full-length novel in nearly 70 years!
Following the disappearance of his secret love Jean Farrell, Jethro Dumont-- the Green Lama-- and his associates travel to the small Greek island of Samothrace in hopes of finding her. But their investigations soon lead them to discover a terrible Nazi plot that ties directly to the Green Lama's origins. Racing against time, they must stop at nothing to prevent the return of the world's greatest evil: Cthulhu!
A classic pulp hero trying to rescue his girl from evil Nazi wizards who are about to summon a slimy Lovecraftian demon to win the war for Hitler? Sold. I'm so there.
I don't want to spoil it. Suffice it to say that the book completely delivers. It's my favorite kind of let's-floor-it! adventure story, smart and fun and with great character bits, told at a pace that never lets up. I enjoyed it so thoroughly that I didn't want to just do a review, and anyway I thought it would be more fun for me AND for you all to do an interview instead. Both Adam and also the book's illustrator, Mike Fyles, agreed that was a fine idea, and Mike even sent along some scans of his work that I'm running here as well.
So here you go. Enjoy.
First of all, can you catch our readers up on who the Green Lama is, and which version, exactly, you are doing? There's several out there.
Adam: Let’s see if I can do the cliff notes version…
The Green Lama is a character created by Kendall Foster Crossen (under the pseudonym Richard Foster) in 1940 for the Frank Munsey Company, as a potential competitor for the incredibly popular Shadow. Originating in the pulp magazine Double Detective, the Green Lama was really Jethro Dumont, an American millionaire who had spent 10 years studying Buddhism in Tibet. Upon returning to New York, he witnessed a drive-by shooting that killed a young girl and when the killers escaped justice he became the Green Lama.
Like the Shadow, Jethro had multiple secret identities (Dr. Charles Pali, Hugh Gilmore, etc.) and a massive supporting cast; however the Lama never used guns, his only weapons were his radioactive salts— which made him electric to the touch— and a scarf called a kava which he used alternatively as whip or a rope, and violence was only used as a “last resort” ...though he would often use his electric touch and knowledge of human pressure points as a form of torture.
There were only 14 issues, all of them told with a very rigid (though imperfect) continuity, something I believe was relatively rare at the time. Older stories were often referenced and footnoted, characters would come and go— two even married each other and had a baby. More often than not the villains in these stories were gangsters involved overly complex scams, Nazi sympathizers, or the occasional mad scientist.
Around the same time, the Green Lama was appearing in short comic stories in Prize Comics.
Visually speaking, the character bore considerable similarities to the Green Lama of Double Detective, and had a similar supporting staff, but there were several major differences that distinguished him from his pulp origins. For starters, the Lama of Prize Comics was practically a sorcerer, with the ability to travel through time and summon ghosts; he even had reoccurring battles against Lucifer’s minions. It should also be noted that this version also participated in one of the first comics crossovers: Green Lama and other Prize Comics characters teamed up to fight Frankenstein (who was also appearing in Prize Comics at the time.)
A few years later, the Lama had received his own title under Spark Publications—where Crossen acted as publisher and Mac Raboy acted as artist. Here, Jethro was a full-fledged superhero, tights and all, his powers activated when he uttered Om! Ma-ni pad-me Hum! Generally, the Lama fought Nazis and gangsters, but one issue in particular was incredibly forward-thinking, featuring the Green Lama teaching a white soldier that hating African–Americans makes him no better than the Nazis. And based on what I know of Crossen, he used his stories to preach acceptance of people of all races. Upon re-reading the pulps I firmly believe he intended one of the Lama’s associates to be gay, but that’s a whole can of worms we can open at a different time.
Finally, the Green Lama made it to the airwaves in 1949 as something of a Buddhist detective with a serious power degrade, no secret identity -- he was simply Jethro Dumont, the Green Lama -- and a single supporting character. These stories were relatively generic, mystery-of-the-week format. He was briefly considered as a potential television property, but for better or worse, the pilot was never made (as far as I can tell).
Most modern comic readers are probably most familiar with Alex Ross and Jim Krueger’s more nature-based mystic in Project: Superpowers.
Others might have read his mini-series from AC Comics, which takes place in an alternate reality centered on Jethro Dumont III, the grandson and reincarnation of the Green Lama of Spark Publications.
The version I’m doing is based on the original pulp version, though my Green Lama is a little younger, a little less experienced and much more insecure about his destiny. There are a lot of elements and characters pulled from each of Crossen’s creations so that while these stories fit firmly into the established canon of the pulps, they can also be seen as bridge between the pulps and the comics. The stories stand on their own, but if I do it right, you can read the pulps, my books, the golden age comics and maybe even Project: Superpowers and Moonstone’s upcoming shorts and see an evolution of the character.
Tell us about the new book. How'd it come about? And feel free to talk about Airship 27 as a whole and what they're all about, too.
Adam: About a year and a half ago, I met Airship 27’s owner and editor Ron Fortier at the New York Comic Con. (For those unfamiliar, Airship 27 has been publishing new pulp stories since 2007 and has a library that’s rapidly growing. They’ve done everything from Secret Agent X to Sherlock Holmes to the Black Bat to Jim Anthony.)
We started chatting about pulps, golden age comics and serials – mind you there’s a forty year gap between Ron and I, so I think he might have been a little amazed that someone born during the Reagan administration would know what the pulps were, let alone who Commando Cody was. I handed him a copy of my self-published comic Nick Adrian: Security Guard—which answers the question of “What if Dirty Harry was a security guard at the Gap?” (It’s a very funny comic and you should all buy several hundred copies and demand a sequel.) Ron really liked my writing and asked me to come aboard, sending me a list of public domain characters they were working with or hoping to publish, and one of them was the Green Lama.
Now you have to understand that I was raised on comics. It wasn’t something I discovered in adolescence, it was quite literally something I was brought up with. My dad taught me the secret identities of superheroes while teaching me the alphabet. While we’ve never sat down and done a count, we estimate he and I own well over a hundred thousand comics; the crown jewels of the collection being Amazing Fantasy #15 and his sets of rare or esoteric characters like Golden Lad, Atoman and the Green Lama.
I’ll confess that while I wasn’t aware of the Green Lama’s pulp origins, I couldn’t pass up the chance to add to the canon of one my father’s favorite characters. Honestly, how could you say no to that?
My novella, “Horror in Clay,” appeared in the first Green Lama anthology along with stories written by Kevin Noel Olson and W. Peter Miller. While our three stories were set at different points in the Green Lama’s history, we worked to create a shared continuity, including references to each other’s stories and shared MacGuffins throughout.
It was in Kevin’s story “Shiva Endangered” that the Jade Tablet was introduced. Kevin came up with the idea that the rainbow ring of hair the Lama had worn in the pulps was also the source of his radioactive salts, and I simply thought it was a fantastic concept. So while my story centered on the Green Lama facing off against a golem that attacked the German consulate in New York, I revealed that the golem is powered by a second Jade Tablet that’s mysteriously connected to the same power source as the original Jade Tablet.
There’s a scene in which a character reveals how they discovered the Second Tablet and I put in what was initially meant to be a throwaway cameo: Next to the Tablet, in this massive storeroom, was a statue of Cthulhu. But the idea took hold quickly and it just seemed natural that the Green Lama would be somehow connected to Cthulhu, so as I brought the story to a close, what eventually became Unbound began to form in my head. I pitched the idea to Ron and he told me to go for it.
It occurred to me, reading the book, that Adam is now probably responsible for more wordage about the Green Lama than anyone other than his creator. Clearly there's a fondness for the character there and a sense of -- I don't know if 'ownership' is quite the right word, but you are really invested in Jethro and his world. I'm wondering if you came to the project with that or if it developed over time, after working on the characters?
Adam: In terms of actual prose, I might be approaching Crossen’s word count, but you can’t discount Jim Krueger, James Ritchey, Mike Barr and others (including the gentlemen who wrote the radio show alongside Crossen), I’m certain they’ve made a huge dent in wordage, and guys like Jim have been writing him for several years now. I’ve had the chance to speak to both Jim and Mike and they’re both fantastic guys.
I did come to the character with a bit of a personal connection -- again, this was a gift for my dad -- but as I wrote “Horror in Clay” I found myself falling in love with Jethro and his associates, in a way that transcended simple pulp characters on a page. It’s hard to describe, but Jethro, Jean, Ken and Caraway speak to me in a way that is incredibly visceral. For me these characters are as real and three-dimensional as anyone, the nightmare I’ve put them through (and I’ve put them through hell) really brought them to life... and maybe I feel a little guilty, heh, but I feel like I owe it to them to make sure they get the happy ending they deserve.
Here's one for Mike. What struck me about your work, particularly the interiors, is that they managed to come across as both old-school pulp illustrations and yet very modern, almost photorealistic in places.
Can you tell us about your process? Do you choose the scenes you illustrate or are they assigned? How many stages does a piece go through before it's done? Etc.
Mike: The nine scenes that comprise the interior illustrations for Green Lama: Unbound were selected by the editors at Airship 27. My copy of Adam's draft had nine highlighted captions within it. I was left to myself to work them into pictures and then presented them to Ron and Rob at Airship. I was instructed to keep Adam a little in the dark about the interiors (so he had something to look forward to, it was suggested) but I think a number of the questions I asked Adam about character and setting began to give him a pretty good idea of some of the scenes that had been chosen. Adam was great about this and even went to great lengths to supply me with very useful reference material. I had full say over the style of the illustrations with line art or grey-scale as the first port of call.
I read Adam's narrative first but as I encountered the captions I began to live with what they implied away from the text. Adam's narrative is very 'physical' and bounds along as any good adventure should but there is a lot of subtle character development within it. If I had to represent someone in particular I would re-read anything written about them and do a little visual characterisation myself. I usually start sketching on paper pretty quickly and like to establish elements that will be in the scene. Once I've a strong idea I start using computer generated 3D models and props and literally stage the scene, light it, and establish favourable viewpoints. If I hadn't the computer and these useful applications I would probably build models, and/or photograph myself and friends as the dramatis personae - just like previous generations of commercial illustrators did. It is interesting how you mention the 'old-school'/ 'modern' distinction - because that certainly is a by-product of the process I've described. Most CGI applications aspire to photo-realistic ends, however I tend to value what they can do to help me visualise settings and thereby provide the compositional elements ready-made for painting.
The book itself is almost The Green Lama - The Motion Picture, it's got that great epic summer-blockbuster feeling to it. What's more, several changes and revelations are made that have real long-term significance for the character. It reminded me of how, in superhero comics, the most interesting stuff usually happened with the second-tier characters because the creators had more freedom. Obviously you guys have a much freer hand with the Green Lama than, say, Will Murray did when he was doing the new Doc Savage novels for Bantam or something like that. What I'm wondering is how far you get to take it, and if any other Airship 27 writers are taking another crack at the Green Lama, do they defer to you on this stuff?
Adam: “Green Lama – The Motion Picture.” I really like the sound of that. Hollywood, the lines are open, we’re taking your calls.
Unbound was definitely intended to be the Green Lama’s biggest story ever. The original Green Lama is such a fascinating character and I felt he deserved an epic, end-of-the-world story to really call his own (this is of course not discounting AC Comics’ mini-series, which is also epic in scope).
I’ll admit I was surprised with how much Ron let me get away with. While we do get a lot of editorial freedom with our stories, Airship 27 writers can’t do anything that goes against what was established in the pulps. For example, you can’t just kill off Betty Dale in Secret Agent X, nor could you have X reveal his real identity. In writing Unbound (and “Horror in Clay” before that) I tried very hard to not to write anything that defied the established continuity of the original stories, and I made sure the characters had a similar voice to their original interpretations. The changes I did make can arguably be seen in the originals. For example, it was always established that Jethro spent 10 years in Tibet, but beyond the vaguest details no specific information was ever shown; Jean and Jethro’s relationship is somewhat implied in the originals; Magga’s identity was never revealed but there was always something more to her; Caraway never mentioned he had a wife, but he also never said he didn’t, etc. While I couldn’t write like Mr. Crossen, it was important for me as a die-hard fan that this novel fit into his established canon but, in writing for a modern audience, make sure it isn’t necessarily reliant on it. I want fans to see that this book stays true to the character, but hopefully you can pick up this novel without any prior knowledge of the character (or the pulps in general for that matter) and enjoy it as a fun adventure story. Basically I want your girlfriend to be able to read this book and love it.
As the novel evolved it became quickly apparent that there was no way these characters could simply return home, act like nothing happened and reset to zero. I’m not the sort of writer who will keep his characters on a straight line, I want to play with the grey areas, and I feel in order for a story to resonate with a reader you need to drag your characters through the mud. So to have them come back same as the day before just wasn’t an option; it’s not something Crossen would have done, so it’s not something I could do. It’s partially why I set the novel after the last original Green Lama pulp, that way these characters can keep moving forward and not be restricted by canon.
I’m not sure the other writers will have to defer to me directly -- that’s up to Ron and Rob -- but once I’m done with the character I will be writing up a definitive bible for others to refer to. Since I’m following a strict continuity and have a very definitive story arc in mind for these novels it might be difficult for others to write stories that take place in between mine, but there will be more than enough room to tell stories set prior to the events of Unbound and after my final book. Ultimately I hope to leave these characters in a very exciting and satisfying place that will tie everything together while leaving room for future tales. I have a very specific ending in mind and of course it all depends on what Ron will let me get away with, but I think he’ll be pleased with what I have in store.
Sort of piggybacking off the last one, without spoiling too much, what are your further plans for the Lama?
Adam: I’m currently working on the next two Green Lama novels with Mike: Green Lama: Crimson Circle, and Green Lama: Legacy (working title), which will close out the trilogy. Crimson Circle is both a direct sequel to Unbound and acts as the bookend to the original pulp stories. In addition to Jean Farrell, Ken Clayton and John Caraway, the Green Lama’s former associates Dr. Harrison Valco, Gary Brown, Evangl Stewart and the villainous Dr. Pelham will be making significant appearances. Whereas Unbound was about Jethro accepting his destiny, Crimson Circle is about both his past victories coming back to haunt him, as well as the corruption of his powers. Jean’s journey will also take a very interesting turn that I think will surprise readers. While smaller than Unbound in terms of scale, it will be tonally similar to Empire Strikes Back and will set the stage for the next novel, Legacy. (Mike’s included a fantastic teaser image for Crimson Circle.)
Legacy is the going to the final part of the trilogy, that will bring to a close this chapter in the Green Lama’s mythos, and it will be epic. In Unbound, we establish that Jethro is the last in the succession of bearers of the Jade Tablet. Legacy will explore that concept, stretching across the fictional history of the “Airship 27 Universe,” ultimately having Jethro face off against the “first Green Lama” and fulfilling his destiny. I won’t reveal more than that, but I will say that I’ve got the conclusion to both books all but written. They will be very bittersweet.
As with Unbound, the backbone of these novels will be Jean and Jethro’s relationship. These two define the narrative. This is their trilogy.
Another one for Mike. Did you consciously adapt your style to try and evoke a 'pulp' feeling to the illustrations, or did you just do what you do and it happened to fit? Was there a specific influence that you had in mind to evoke when you sat down to figure out what you were going to do, and how did that play into what you ended up doing? I ask because these all looked very horrific and noir, it seemed like there was a thematic unity to the approach that wasn't there with the other Green Lama pictures I'd seen from you.
Mike: The 'style' is intended to evoke the 'pulp' and illustrated stories we've all enjoyed over the years in mass/popular fiction but not just as an exercise in nostalgia. In a different way to comics, illustrated stories are still very popular, and not just with children. What I find interesting is that a lot of readers seem to welcome the illustrator's interpretation of events, of character, of setting - yes, sometimes to mix with their own - but often to stand as the 'default'/defining imagery for the story and even thereafter. This is why someone like Joseph Clement Coll or J. Allen St. John or N. C. Wyeth retain my attention because of how their illustrations of well-known stories remain, to this day, so defining.
My opportunity with The Green Lama and Adam's wonderful reclaiming of this public domain character is to work towards providing the images both he and his readers (and Airship 27) will find defining. While I like to think with The Green Lama: Unbound I've got a little closer to the character, I'm so glad to get the opportunity to take it further with The Crimson Circle.
Adam: Mike’s illustrations always seem to capture exactly what I had envisioned (oftentimes better) and he simply seems to understand the tone of the story and brings the characters to life in a way that’s always surprising. There was an image he had done based on my last story and I remember seeing it and nearly bursting into tears, it was as if he had reached into my head and put it on paper. I wrote Unbound with Mike in mind, and kept his outstanding Cthulhu image (that he had just done for fun) open on my desktop.
The novel’s dark tone was definitely inspired by Mike’s work and it made the story stronger. Sharing the pages with him is a dream come true, I’m one of his biggest fans (I’ve collected all his Marvel covers) and it is an absolute honor to be working with him.
As a long-time Wold Newton guy, I loved the idea of the Green Lama taking on the minions of Cthulhu, and I also spotted a couple of minor shout-outs to other pulp characters and such along the way. Do you approach these stories as being part of a larger, I dunno, 'Airship 27 universe,' or are you just having fun?
Adam: It’s a combination of the two. Like you, I’m a huge Wold Newton fan, I absolutely love the idea of a shared universe. For me a shared universe makes a lot more sense than a standalone universe, because we all live in a shared universe everyday. I know who Stan Lee is, I’ve seen him in movies and at the cons, I collect his comics, but I’ve never met him. Our mutual narratives are going on separately, and while we’ve never had direct interaction, in many ways our lives are tangentially connected, much in the same way the characters in Wold Newton are.
I felt that since this novel was already a major crossover to begin with, it only seemed natural to acknowledge other pulp characters and storylines existing on the fringe of the narrative and help build an Airship 27 Universe. I know other Airship 27 writers have had crossovers in their stories, for example, Hounds of Hell has Moon Man and Dr. Satan face-off, Andrew Salmon had Dan Fowler, Domino Lady and Secret Agent X cross paths, etc., and I wanted to add to that tradition, though I personally subscribe to the Dwayne McDuffie method of Shared Universes. This means that what is true in my novel doesn’t have to be true in other novels and vice-versa. For example, we establish that Indiana Jones exists in this world, but the Green Lama doesn’t exist in Indiana Jones’, or I can show Captain Hazzard was in Tibet in 1935, but that doesn’t need to be true in the Captain Hazzard books. It frees other writers from adhering to a specific continuity and makes it easier for the reader who might not read the other books. All you need to know is that these books take place in the Green Lama’s Universe
If I were to give it an “Earth” designation it would be “Earth 27GL,” because I am that kind of nerd.
Tell our readers how they can get hold of your book. Something we comics bloggers tend to obsess about is finding alternative markets, and I was interested to see that Airship 27 is trying some different approaches to retail rather than just traditional bookstores. Any thoughts on that?
Adam: You can pick it up at Amazon and BN.com (Barnes and Noble's site) and you can easily request it at your local store. As of recently, Airship 27 titles will be available via Espresso Book Machines, which are located in bookstores and print the books on the spot (for those lucky enough to live near one). For readers in New York, there are copies at Forbidden Planet (13th and Broadway), all of which will have my John Hancock. For your convenience, I’ve personalized them all to “eBay.”
I think that in this rapidly changing market, Airship 27 is a little ahead of the curve at getting the books into the hands of the reader. I’ve heard they’re working on eBook (Kindle and Nook) versions, and the print-on-demand option allows for publishing books with low overhead.
What else have you guys got in the pipeline? Any other new projects we should know about, pulp-related or not?
Adam: In addition to the Green Lama novels with Mike, I’m currently writing a short story for for an upcoming anthology for Airship 27. It features an original pulp character called Dock Doyle and the basic conceit is Don Draper of Mad Men meets Doc Savage; it explores the nature of pulp heroes in an alternate history.
I’m also working on a graphic novel called Sons of Fire with two incredibly talented artists: Ricardo Della Rovere and Ben Granoff (http://benvsdov.com). The story is a dark twist on Superman’s origins and follows a young boy who discovers his best friend is something more than human. Though the protagonist urges his friend to use his abilities in a positive way, over the course of the book we realize that this isn’t the origin of a superhero, but of a super villain. Tonally speaking, we’re aiming for Smallville as written by Stephen King. My collaborators and I will be at the New York Comic Con (October 8-10 at the Jacob Javitz Center); we’ll have a booth under the name “Bag and Board Studios” and will be selling copies of both volumes of The Green Lama (and for less than you would find online), as well as other works and assorted goodies. I’ll be dressed as the Green Lama, and shall only be addressed as such. (Not really.)
Mike and I are also talking about building a website dedicated to the book and characters, similar in style to Chris Kalb’s Spider website. In the meantime, you can follow me here, and you can check out Mike’s work here and here.And finally, since I didn't get to do my Summer Reading List Of The Professionals column this year, I'll ask you both what you've been reading lately.
Mike: It is said that the British have a peculiar obsession with the Second World War, due in large part to our rapid decompression in 1945 (post sense of purpose) to a flailing International Monetary Fund beggar in 1976. Strangely, my summer reading reflects this and has consisted of: ABOVE US THE WAVES by C E T Warren and James Benson (1953), which, largely by anecdote, describes the heroic and often desperate role of the Royal Navy's human torpedoes and midget submarines in the Second World War, and CHURCHILL’S WIZARDS by Nicholas Rankin (2008), which explores, in a fairly scholarly fashion, the British tendency, during the Second World War, to pursue madcap schemes of deception and trickery (Ian Flemming/James Bond drive from this mix in some fashion).
Adam: I recently read the fantastic brick of a novel Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I also picked up Greatheart Silver by Philip Jose Farmer which was a little underwhelming, and I just started The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril. I’m also patiently awaiting the arrival of my Kindle which has Tarzan, John Carter of Mars and other old school treats waiting for me.
There you have it. Many, many thanks to Adam and Mike for being so forthcoming and for supplying so many awesomely cool illos. I hope you all enjoyed that as much as I did, and I also hope that you'll check out the book. Because it's well worth it. Certainly, it moved the Green Lama up to my personal A-list of pulp heroes, and Crimson Circle can't get here fast enough to suit me.
See you next week.