The Golden Age Is Back in "The Next Issue Project"

This December, Image Comics will publish an anthology featuring characters you haven't seen in a very long time. "The Next Issue Project" will showcase top talent from the world of comics reimagining Golden Age characters that have fallen into the public domain. But it's not quite as simple as that - the series will literally publish the next issue of a great golden age book, with modern interpretations of Golden Age super heroes.

The series is attracting considerable interest, with commitments coming from an august list of creators that includes Erik Larsen, Mike Allred, Kyle Baker, Frank Cho, Bill Sienkiewicz, Howard Chaykin, Steve Niles, Phil Hester, Dan Brereton, Ashley Wood, Joe Casey, Ivan Brandon, Eric Canete, Gerry Duggan, Frank Espinosa, Jay Faerber, Steve Gerber, Brandon Graham, B. Clay Moore, Moritat, Tom Scioli, Jim Valentino and Tony Salmons.

CBR News caught up with the man behind "The Next Issue Project," Image Comics Publisher Erik Larsen, to learn all the ins and outs of this series and where the inspiration for this series came from.

Erik, a couple of weeks back in your column ONE FAN'S OPINION here on CBR you wrote about a bunch of Golden Age comics you picked up and I'm guessing that this idea all sort of came out of you going through those golden age bins and finding some real gems.

It actually came before that. My impetus for going through those bins in the first place started with me being into the old Captain Marvel comics and I got to a point where the issues of "Captain Marvel Adventures" I needed were getting fewer and fewer. My run was almost complete. So I asked myself, "What the hell else is out there?" Joe Keatinge in the office had stumbled onto a web site that showed a bunch of Fletcher Hanks stuff and he's really taken with his work. At WonderCon, he got a copy of this book "Fantastic Comics" and he thought it was the coolest thing ever! He brought it into the office and I looked at it. We had a conversation about how this stuff is out there, it's completely in the public domain, nobody owns it and if we did something with this it would be like doing a comic book about Santa Claus - it's up for grabs and you can do whatever you want with it. That was followed-up by me, in looking through the photo journals and asking, "What else is out there?" I came up with a list of like 50 different books - some just had a great logo, others had great looking characters, some had good stories. There's just a mess of these cool comics out there. I then went out and bought a mess of them at Heroes Con in Charlotte, NC. There I was actively talking with different vendors dealing in golden age comics about this project and trying to dig up information about this, trying to see what is out there. I found a bunch of titles and bought a huge pile of some really awful comics! [laughs] To some extent the reason these things went away because they just weren't very good, but regardless there were a lot of comics and characters that didn't start out strong that people took under their wing, did something with them and turned them into things that were better than what they started with. That's part of the idea. In "Avengers" #4 they resurrected Captain America, in "Fantastic Four" #4 they brought back Sub-Mariner. There are various times throughout the course of history of comics where you have people coming along, grabbing these old characters and making of them something more than what they were. I mean, Mr. Monster had a much larger life beyond his Golden Age appearance years later under Michael Gilbert's eye. I think what we'll have here is a bunch of guys who will do the same with a bunch of other characters.

First, let's talk about you actually purchasing these books. How much did they set you back personally?

A lot? [laughs]

How about a ballpark figure? Enough to get your wife to yell at you?

A couple grand, let's put it this way. I'm making a personal investment in this and it'll pay off big because once these issues come out, my back issues will be worth a fortune! [laughs]

Your nefarious plan revealed! [laughs]

I don't actually sell off parts of my collection so there really isn't that-and my wife puts up with a lot. But I'm anticipating that once this is announced we'll have all kinds of comic dealers who will really want to be part of this. Guys who'll bring us the crown jewel of their collection who think it would be cool to have those characters come back and have that comic have a spotlight thrown over it.

In going through those back issue bins, was there a specific style of character or comic you were looking for?

To begin with I was looking primarily at old super hero comics and characters that haven't been seen in a long time. Almost all of these books have a ton of other stories in them. People aren't used to it these days because this isn't the way comics are done today, but comics used to be 64 pages with little to no ads and almost all of them had somewhere in the neighborhood of eight to twelve different features. There'd be a lead story, which would be the longest story in the book, anywhere from 10-22 pages, then the rest of the book was filled with a variety of stuff. Almost all super hero books of any sort would have funny animal or "big-foot" stuff in them - a couple of pages of gags and what have you. A lot of the comics, even if you were looking at it and saw a super hero on the cover or something akin to a super hero, you'd open it up and discover something more like Blackhawk would be a back up. They can be all over the place.

"Fantastic Comics" is the first book we're launching with which has Space Smith, which is kind of a Buck Rogers-ish kind of thing. It's got Stardust, which is also kind of a space character. The lead story is Samson, which is a mythological character in modern times fighting bad guys and all that fun stuff. Then there's the Golden Knight, which is pretty straight up knights in shining armor kind of stuff, then a couple pages of Professor Fiend, which is supposed to be a funny thing that really isn't. [laughs]

Oh, the name alone - Professor Fiend -- that's just priceless.

They have all these names that are just great! Just that kind of weird, archaic names people don't come up with anymore. We don't get pitched books anything like this anymore. It's really kind of cool to take these things and ask, "What can you make of this? Oh, and you've got six pages to do it in!" [laughs]

So, we're taking our more mature comics sensibilities and you're still sticking to that old publishing format of smaller back up stories with a lead feature and your creators will have to figure out how to make it all work.

It'll run the gamut because there will be some guys who will want more space adventure. Joe Keatinge is writing a "Stardust" story because he loves Fletcher Hanks and wants to do it right and Mike Allred will draw it. Mike is like, "I have to find a cool style that'll still remind people of my own stuff, but at the same time paying homage to Fletcher Hanks." Meanwhile I'm doing the lead story starring Samson and I'm ditching all of the old stuff because it's awful! [laughs] Samson was, unfortunately, one of those strips that just wasn't executed very well but the pieces are in place - there's a way to take what's there are make it cool without completely obliterating it.

What's equally interesting about these characters and comics is that most of them have no origins to speak of, not much background. They just go in, have their adventure and that's the end of it. There's not much more to it than that. Some of it is completely random! In the issue of "Fantastic Comics" I have, Samson finds this kind of mountain top with a kid sitting up there who says, "I was in an airplane and the airplane crashed and I'm the lone survivor." And he's sitting there in front of a fire, warming his hands, but there's no discussion of where the plane is - no wreck, nothing! [laughs] Just a real quick and dirty way for Samson to say, "Well, I've got a kid sidekick now!" They were really big on giving these characters kid sidekicks back then and they'd just get them at the drop of a hat without any pretense.

Of those creators you're approaching to be a part of this, are you asking them to keep it in a pseudo golden age style, or are you letting them do it their way?

No. Well, actually yes and no. What we're going to attempt to do it all. The comics will be formatted golden age size, so they'll be wider than a typical comic book is today. They'll have the glossy covers that comics had then but the interiors won't be newsprint-they'll be a higher quality paper. They'll be flat, not glossy but we're not selling these for a dime so I think readers would get a little annoyed if we went out of our way to have these books be printed as poorly as many comics were back then. It would sort of be like if the publishers of these comics saw that everything was going down the tubes so they jumped into a time machine to get the worlds greatest comic book creators of the future to come back and save their lives! It's modern creators doing Golden Age characters. They'll have a similar look, with flat color-not rendered to beat the band but at the same time I think it would be a waste of time to have a modern creator draw exactly like the guys of old. Asking Bill Sienkiewicz draw like Dick Sprang would be a waste of time. Why would you do that when you've got someone who can bring something different or cool to the page? The idea is to modernize these characters to an extent-without trashing or redesigning them.

There are certain limitations built in because of the old school technology, as you said, but there are some advantages as well - the oversized nature of golden age books provides an opportunity for your artists to play with a larger canvas.

Well, that all depends on how they decide to do it. We might have guys who may want to draw it on the same sized paper as those golden aged guys, drawing it on gigantic paper, while other guys will draw it on the same sized paper they have now, but adjust things by making it a bit shorter so it'll be wider in the end. I imagine artwork is going to come in all sorts of different sizes.

What about the coloring?

We're going to do pretty much flat color like would be seen back then, much like the DC Archives or Marvel Masterworks collections. Acme Novelty Library is a good reference point here because that book is also on a similar kind of paper with a similar style of coloring. It's modern but has a classic feel to it-a cool aesthetic.

Obviously all these characters are in the public domain, but do you have a team of lawyers making sure you have clearances on all these characters and names?

Oh, yes. It's an ongoing process because it's book by book by book and then there are some cases where there are trademarks that are still owned. The thing is, trademarks are good for three years following the cessation of publication. So, if I were to start up a new book tomorrow called "Fantastic Comics" - and I am - then I can own that name as long as I keep it in print, basically in perpetuity. But if I just put out one issue of "Fantastic Comics" and do nothing else with it, the name lapses and someone else can do a comic with that name and I would essentially be shut out if they're actively using it. Much like what happened at DC with Captain Marvel - they can do stuff with the character, but they can't use that name on a cover because Marvel Comics owns that name.

I'm surprised you're clear on the "Fantastic Comics" name.

Nobody's used that name in 60 years. Occasionally there'd be someone who put out a fanzine called that, but it's been a hell of a long time since anyone has. Now, there are various characters that we won't be able to probably use their names on the cover - like Stardust. It's a name that DC/Vertigo has used with the Neil Gaiman story, so we can't splash that all over the cover and make a big stink out of it - although we did for your benefit! [laughs] I mocked it up based on cover copy, but we probably can't say that on the actual printed comic cover.

Now, if one of these characters takes off, is there a possibility of spinning out these characters?

Absolutely. There's also the possibility of doing the next issue of the next issue thing. So, instead of just creating a "Fantastic Comics" #24, we could also make issue #25. I expect some people will take the characters they worked on, get excited about them and will want to do more with them because the character is now near and dear to them. I could see bringing Samson into "Savage Dragon" just because drawing and writing his story and adding to his rogues gallery has been so much fun.

Now, once you've created this new version of a public domain character, nobody else can come along and do something with that same story, right?

Exactly. You can own your take on a given character. So, we have Mike Allred's version of the Clock. Somebody else can do a version of the Clock, but if there's some hint that it's springing off Mike Allred's work, that's where things get complicated. They can only do their own versions of the characters based on the originals. Much like anyone can do their version of Santa Claus - one doesn't prevent or get in the way of the other.

Let me clarify one thing - the first book will be "Fantastic Comics" #24. It's not like you're pulling from this Golden Age book over here and this one over there. It's as though you're taking the contents of "Fantastic Comics" #23 and moving those stories forward.

Yes and really what we're doing with any one of these titles is that rather than go and say this continues directly from the previous issue, we're going to fudge it quite a bit. Essentially what we'll do is treat each one of these books as a best of with us older, allegedly wiser creators from the future knowing what's best. In so many cases these books, when they ended, the last three issues suddenly became jungle romance or horror or just something wacky in their crazy, desperate, flailing attempts to keep their heads above water. We'll come in and say we want to take the best logo from this particular book's run with the best costumes on the character. In a lot of cases characters went through 10 or 12 different costumes in the course of a run, just all over the place as those creators were frantically trying to find something that works.

You're working on a Samson story for "Fantastic Comics" #24. What's next for "The Next Issue Project" following that?

The next book will be "Crack Comics" and Mike Allred will take the lead with "The Clock." I'd like to be involved to some extent in every issue, but it's not always going to be on the cover and not always on the lead and sometimes I'll take the character nobody wants anything to do with and see if I can make something of that character. That's part of the fun of it. There'll be a lot of different collaborations that will introduce a hell of a lot of characters that nobody has seen in 60 or 70 years.

I should add that the talent line up is very amorphous at this point. It's a long list, but really it's going to depend on how much material we can get on each of the different books and which ones turn out to be up for grabs, as opposed to not. It's an ongoing process. We've got a few we know are clear. We've got a mess of different creators who say they want to participate, but whether they'll participate in the first issue or subsequent issues, we don't know yet. Joe Casey wants to write some of this stuff. Bill Sienkiewicz wants to draw. Steve Niles wants to contribute. Howard Chaykin is there. It's really a cool list of guys. It's not like you'll be opening these up and it'll be all duds. It's going to be A-List creators doing and reviving creators from comics Golden Age and doing something cool with it.

What's been the biggest surprise for you about this project - whether it be specific characters or the creators who've agreed to contribute, what are some of those surprises?

Shoot, that's a good question. Mostly I've been surprised by how many people were truly enthusiastic about it. Nearly everyone I've mentioned it to has said, "Wow, that is a great idea!" That just seems to be the most prevalent response, with really great enthusiasm.

This does sound like a challenging project, though, with logistical issues possibly bordering on nightmarish.

It is and the thing is also because every book will have eight to ten features, that means eight to ten different creative teams that need to be assembled and keeping those guys on schedule. Is it going to be a nightmare? Yup! [laughs] But it's something I'm really enthusiastic about and I'm knee deep in it. I've done a couple of covers already and half way through my Samson story.

How are you going to handle identifying these as part of "The Next Issue Project?" Based on the covers we have here, there's no notice that this is "The Next Issue Project."

That may end up being something where we'll do it as a back cover, I'm not 100% sure yet. I'm afraid it would kind of ruin it if it were splattered all over the front cover. I know want to do something akin to a fake sticker over the price because obviously we can't do all these for a dime! [laughs] It would be awesome if we could because they'd end up being the best selling comics ever! [laughs] We'd go completely broke, though.

At its core, this really is an anthology book you'll be publishing.

Yeah, and I should acknowledge that yeah, there are a lot of anthologies out there, but people often put together anthologies where the theme of it is so vague that often times I as a creator am stymied as to what to do. When you can do anything, it becomes too big. It's like when people ask me to do a sketch at a convention and say do whatever you want, I'll just end up doing a Savage Dragon head just because that "do anything" is too big. Where as with this, it's clear what you have to do.

With "The Next Issue Project," you really are paying tribute and showing a tremendous amount of respect to those Golden Age Creators who tried everything they could, threw everything they had up against the wall hoping it would stick. In most cases, they didn't, but here you are picking those creations up from the floor and throwing them back against the wall.

That's the cool thing about this stuff. These were the guys inventing the language of comics and we're able to fire off scans of these creations to some of comics' top talent to see what they can do with them. That's very cool. These guys just invented it, having never done anything like this before and we're able to play with that. I hope it's taken as a cool project rather than a trip down memory lane. This isn't something where we're really sitting there riffing on golden age books although we really are doing this with as much respect as we can muster up for this material-this is a series of books by new creators doing new stories with old characters.

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