Comic fans probably know the name Mark Verheiden best from his writing and producing work on "Smallville" or for writing the films "Timecop" or "The Mask." He's also written a number of comics over the years, including well-regarded books for Dark Horse such as "Aliens" and "Predator" as well as his creator-owned "The American."
In the early 1990s Verheiden, along with writer Jan Strnad and artist D'Israeli ("Lazarus Churchyard"), created "Stalkers" over at Marvel's Epic imprint. This December "Stalkers" returns to print for the first time since original publication from Atomeka. CBR News caught up with Verheiden for a quick chat about the series.
"Basically, the series postulated a future America where terrorism was a major concern (And yes, in 1989 that was still a 'high concept')," Verheiden told CBR News. "The Government, overwhelmed by attacks, has decided out of desperation to privatize America's counter-terrorist effort. These fightin' franchises are known as 'Stalkers.' But unlike most retail franchises that value consistency (like most fast food outfits), the Stalkers units aren't that well regulated, and almost anyone can get a license to open up their own office. Meaning some of the Stalkers groups are good and some are… not so good. The idea behind the series was to jump around various franchises and their missions, showing the good, the bad and the incompetent."
Since "Stalkers" original run the world has changed in dramatic ways, some that parallel the story laid out by Verheiden and Strnad. Clearly the duo can't tell the future, but the story they wrote 14 years ago may resonate even more so with readers today living in a world where terrorism is a very real threat.
"I suppose real life, unfortunately, caught up with my so-called fictional conceits," said Verheiden. "The idea of the elderly being left destitute when their 401K's disappear because of financial mismanagement wasn't exactly novel in 1992, but it's become far too common now. And the whole concept of the Government 'managing' the news has evolved drastically since 24-hour news channels and partisan radio shows erupted on the scene."
The story you'll find in the December release of "Stalkers" originally saw print within the pages of Epic Illustrated, which followed a twelve-issue run at Epic. Verheiden laid out the history of this project for us.
"Back in the late 80's, I had some success with a creator-owned book called 'The American,' then with the first 'Aliens' and 'Predator' comics, all for Dark Horse. I was also writing 'The Phantom' for DC and they were interested in having me come up with something new for them, so they graciously flew me out to New York and we discussed various ideas. I had met Jan Strnad earlier and thought it would be fun to have a partner in crime on this series, so when I got back home to L.A. we agreed to co-create the series. We brain-stormed the 'Stalkers' idea, then Jan put together a very cool (for the time) presentation in Apple 'hypercard.' However, when we presented the idea to DC, we couldn't seem to get a firm yes or a no from them. As I recall we had some sketches of the characters done, but still couldn't get DC to commit. So we sent the same presentation to Marvel, who had their creator-owned Epic line at the time, and they snapped it up immediately. Luckily for us, creator-owned actually meant creator-owned back then, so when Marvel/Epic didn't continue with the series, all rights eventually reverted back to me and Jan. (However, despite a formal request and a contractual guarantee, Marvel never returned the film for the books themselves, making our copyright and ownership a little pointless… until now, when technology allows us to scan the pages directly from the books.)
"Creatively, I've always been interested in exploring the dynamics between the Government and 'us' in highly charged times. 'The American' was all about the chasm between what the Government wants us to believe and the 'truth.' 'Stalkers' was on the same theme, but a little wilder, and even more sarcastic. If that's possible."
One habit of most creative types is to look back on what you created before with a very skeptical and critical eye. Since 1990, Verheiden has kept busy writing for Hollywood, yet he still looks back fondly on the story he crafted in "Stalkers."
"I certainly don't cringe, I think it holds up pretty well," said Verheiden. "If I were to change anything, it would be the way we launched the original series (we did 12 monthly issues of the book at Epic, mostly illustrated by Mark Texiera and Val Mayerik, before this 48 page story in 'Epic Illustrated'). Jan and I really wanted to show readers that the Stalkers world was different from other comic book worlds, so we started the regular series with a two-issue story that ended with a nuclear bomb devastating Detroit and killing the entire Stalker team. In other words, our boys failed. Miserably. In issue three, we kicked off new stories featuring all-new, all-different Stalker teams. Well, apparently some of the readers of the first two issues had actually gotten attached to that first team and were put off by their ignoble defeat. I remember a couple letters smugly insisting that surely we were going to bring the dead team back as mutants or something… but no, they were toast. So I think we sort of outsmarted ourselves, and the book's sales never did recover."
The collaboration on "Stalkers" with Verheiden and Strnad gave birth to a friendship, which remains to this day. The story illustrated by D'Iraeli was written by Verheiden alone, although Verheiden says he doesn't recall talking to the artist much at the time. "Frankly, I can't remember much discussion, maybe a phone call or two," said Verheiden. "Basically, I loved what D'Isreali did with the story. I tend to write obnoxiously full script to avoid endless discussion."
Over the years there's been scattered interest in adapting "Stalkers" for television, but nothing concrete. As for future "Stalkers" stories, it's something Verheiden would be interested in exploring if the right opportunity presented itself.
Verheiden left his producing gig on "Smallville" towards the end of season three to Executive Produce a new "Dark Shadows" pilot with John Wells ("The West Wing," "er"), but unfortunately as is so often true in Hollywood, the series didn't get picked up. "As far as 'Smallville' goes, I had a great three year run, left amicably and still love the show, but now I'm just a fan like anybody else," said Verheiden.
Looking towards the future, Verheiden's got a very busy schedule in both comics and TV/Film, but as is often the case "mums the word" on a number of projects.
"It's a frustrating question, because there's a lot of stuff happening, but nothing's been formally announced," said Verheiden. "So 'generally speaking,' I'm writing another pilot at Warner Brothers with the John Wells company, a genre piece that we'll be announcing soon. I have a second pilot deal at Sony Pictures with Hypnotic, Doug ('The Bourne Identity,' 'The O.C.') Liman's production company. I'm working on a major comic book project that should be announced soon. And in features, I'm writing an original movie at Dark Horse Entertainment to be directed by and star 'Evil Dead'/'Bubba Ho-Tep' icon Bruce Campbell. So hopefully I can leave the 'will write for food' signs in the garage for another few months."