In 1993, "Grendel" and "Mage" creator Matt Wagner was approached with an offer he couldn't refuse: Help the legendary Harvey Kurtzman adapt a short story by sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury to comics. The result, while something Wagner is proud of, was not the experience he'd envisioned when he accepted the gig.
In the first half of his look back, Wagner shared his initial excitement at being offered the project, which was quickly followed by confusion and frustration. Now, the award winning writer/artist recounts how things got even worse before they got better.
In this second of two behind-the-scenes articles, I'd like to revisit a piece of my work that, sadly, not many people have ever seen. This short story adaptation was very important to me on both a creative and professional level and herein we'll take a look at the entire process of how it came to be. You can find the first part of this commentary here.
I finished the pencils for the story and submitted them for the obligatory approval process. At this point, I was terribly thrilled by the directions I was headed for this project and couldn't wait to get started painting it. Unfortunately, after a somewhat ominous delay, I finally heard back from the publisher with the remarks that they thought it was, "too cartoony...even for a Harvey Kurtzman story." Which is a softball way of saying they wanted me to draw the whole story over again.
Now, to be completely fair, the pencils I had submitted were, in fact, quite spare and, yeah, overtly cartoony; I'm posting them here as a way of showing the tenuous middle stage of this story's production. But that sketchiness is pretty much par for the course on how I work. I've often commented on the fact that, since I ink my own material, I never work with what any industry standard would term "full pencils" -- that is, fully rendered with all the shading and lifework delineated in very sharp fashion. In inking my own work, I like to leave a certain level of creative spontaneity to occur at that stage; I like to draw with the ink as well as the pencil. And so it was with the pencils for this tale; the publisher wasn't seeing these pages in the finished, lushly painted, final state that I envisioned in my head. And, admittedly, the visual style was a far cry from most anything I'd done in the past. Still, I was adamant that this was the direction I wanted to go and, eventually, the publisher saw fit to give me the go-ahead to proceed. In the end, I think they were happily surprised by the final outcome.
The final unusual element I wanted to utilize for this story was the lettering, balloons and captions. Here again I wanted to go with a somewhat unconventional approach. Rather than the traditional, precision rendering of comic-book narration, I wanted both the balloons and captions to have no distinct outline and to utilize more organic shapes instead of the hard geometry that was the industry standard. My feeling was that "normal" balloons and captions wouldn't mesh as smoothly with the very painterly feel of the art and would tend to just sit on top of the panels rather than seem like they were part of the narrative. Thus, the captions would be irregular shaped blocks of pure yellow and the balloons became organic blobs of white. Even the pointer-tails from the balloons to the speakers would be thick and blunt in an effort to echo the rendering style of the art.
For the lettering itself, I turned to my colleague and dear pal, Tim Sale. This may seem like a strange choice and a certain waste of such a talented artist's skills, but I'd always loved Tim's unfussy and, again, organic-looking lettering in those instances when he would letter his own work. Thankfully, he was all too happy to jump on board for such a request. All of these factors were, once again, met with a bit of skepticism from the publisher but I guess they figured that, at this point...in for a penny, in for a pound. So, finally, this project that had elicited both inspiration and frustration for me on many levels was complete. And I was very, very proud of how it turned out. And that's when it all took a turn for the worse.
Now we arrive at the point in Harvey's layouts that had first caused me such concern. Remember, I was only vaguely aware as to the state of his declining health when I first received these breakdowns in the mail. The fact that there was basically no drawing on this page really threw me. The following two pages are even worse. Once I learned of his illness, the state of these layouts really hit me hard; it was like I could actually seeing him slipping away on every page. Now, during the course of the production of this story, I'd had no contact whatsoever with Harvey. It was obvious that he was in a bad way, and I didn't want to seem like some eager-beaver, young punk, looking for gratuitous strokes from someone who'd seen and done more in this industry than I might ever hope to achieve. Someone who, frankly, I didn't even know and yet to whom I felt in some way connected by way of this story. And, up until now, my only feedback to this work had been a skeptical, "Well, okay..." response from the publisher. So, once I was done, I was really hoping to hear back from Harvey as to how he liked what I had done and, hopefully, a nod to the fact that I was trying to capture a flavor that would honor his legacy.
Unfortunately, sadly, Harvey Kurtzman passed away about a week or so after I finished the art for "It Burns Me Up."
I never got to speak to him and, to my knowledge, this is the last such collaboration produced during his lifetime.
Harvey's death was the harbinger of a string of incidents that brought this project that had once seemed so golden and inspirational to a rather sour ending.
The week that the book finally shipped to comic stores, I eagerly stopped in at a local retailer to see how the story looked in print... only to receive a rude surprise. This all took place in 1993, in the midst of that strange and idiotic period in our industry's history when it became chic to ship books already hermetically sealed inside plastic bags, as if this somehow made them more "collectible." They were usually packaged with some added buying incentives, in this case a promotional trading card of some sort. It must be really great to get such a special extra along with the comic you're buying... and then never open the fucking bag to ever look at or, god forbid, actually touch either item. My heart sank when I saw this, since I realized that, as I said, anyone buying a copy of "Ray Bradbury Comics" #2, due to the fact it was sold in this comic-in-a-condom fashion, was never going to see anything inside the book itself. And, anyone looking for work by either Harvey Kurtzman or myself would surely skip right over this protected-from-the-elements atrocity as their eyes would justifiably continue to wander right on down the shelf. This, more than any other factor, is the main reason that almost no one has ever seen what is, I feel, a rather special piece of mine.
The next blow came when I finally received the original artwork back from the publisher. As a bit of context, again this was 1993, the days before digital printing. Every piece of full-color art had to be scanned and converted into film negatives to accommodate the four-color printing process. And almost no publisher at the time did this color separation process in-house. Scanners at the time weren't the flat-bed variety that have since become the norm, so any full-color art had to be pliable enough to wrap around a metal drum which then rotated as the scanning laser slowly panned back-and-forth over the surface of the art. I had done the art for this story on a heavy-weight bristol board, which I had used on other color pieces and had known to be bendable enough to fit the requirements. The color separator that this publisher used mistook the bristol board for illustration board, which is non-pliable but specifically designed for its workable surface to be easily peeled off the solid base/backing board on which it is mounted. These color separators peeled the top layer off each and every page of the bristol I had used, which again, isn't designed to be peeled. The result left most all of the pages torn and cracked in various spots. Those beautiful, pristine pages I'd sent off for publication came back to me looking like they'd been run over by a truck.
The final bummer came when, a month or so later, one of the more high-brow comic industry magazines ran an in-depth analysis of the story. The reviewer extolled Harvey Kurtzman's bold and expressive style of art for this unusual tale, his clever and canny adaptation of Bradbury's famously lyrical prose, his intense use of color in contrast to the expected somber tone of such a narrative, etc, etc. I'm paraphrasing a bit here but, basically, the review reduced all my sincere efforts and artistic contributions for the story to a single, throwaway phrase -- "with finishes by Matt Wagner." Ah, well...
But, hey -- everybody loves a happy ending, right?
The production, publication and subsequent fall-out (perhaps that should read "lack of fall-out") over "It Burns Me Up" had all left me in something of a quandary. On the one hand, I was awfully proud of the final product and the fact that I'd gotten the chance to work with one of our industry's most legendary creators. But the entire process had also left me feeling more than a little sour and unfulfilled on a variety of levels. So -- what was I to do with the original artwork? As I said, the boards ended up a bit battered, but they were still intact and vibrant and represented a certain milestone, being the final Kurtzman collaboration. Still, considering Harvey's recent and tragic passing, the idea of selling the art seemed kinda icky and opportunistic. In an effort to purge my palette of any unpleasantness, I ended up donating the entire story to the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, who put it up for auction. To my great joy, the art was purchased via a generous bid by my longtime pal, former studio assistant and now owner and publisher of Oni Press, Joe Nozemack. At time of his purchase, Joe had asked me to just hold on to the originals for him until he could figure out what he wanted to do with them, until he either acquired a home big enough to display all the originals in frames or whether he might instead opt for some sort of museum-display scenario at some point. So, the art pages still resides in storage at my studio, waiting for their final resting place.
And, to bring this all to an even more harmonious conclusion...
I'd been fairly vocal about my biggest distress over this gig -- not having the chance to hear Harvey's reactions to the work I'd done. A colleague who worked at DC Comics and who knew Harvey's widow, Adele, took the opportunity to intercede on my behalf. I'm not sure that he ever got to see the entirety of the finished story, but his wife reported that he had indeed seen the work-in-progress, and quite a few of the final, painted pages. She claimed that, on a day otherwise clouded by pain and pills, the results had brought a brief but genuine smile to his face.
I really couldn't ask for a better conclusion that that.