Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 5: Bonding Over Can and Don

Apologies for late appearance of this week's bit of bloggery.  It's been a hectic few days, gorblimey guv'nor.

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 5: Bonding Over Can and Don

Last entry's cliffhanger will hopefully have chalk biters everywhere on tenterhooks.  So, without further ado, here's what happened next...

I can’t quite remember my first encounter with Lou Stathis.  It was probably on the phone.

In those pre-internet years, communication between UK creators and US editors took place through the media of fax, phonecalls and Fed-Ex.  I didn’t have a fax machine so I was restricted to the last two.  Fed-Ex was fun: the feeling of relief when you finally got a script packaged and sent off; the feeling of excitement on receipt of a bundle of new artwork.  Phonecalls were, by and large, not so much fun.

I’ve always reckoned that, just as Marmite (or Vegemite or whatever yeast extract gets called elsewhere) divides the world into those who like it and those who loathe it, there is a distinct divide between those who relax into and enjoy phonecalls and those who dread them.  I’m one of the latter.  Even when I phone close friends I get nervous.  What if it’s a bad time to call?  Will I remember the stuff I really wanted to say?  Perhaps I should just leave it for now.  It’s all completely irrational.  (You thought I was sane?)

Owing to the time difference with New York, these phonecalls tended to occur between 9pm and midnight here, when the DC editors were starting their working days there.  Being of the larkish disposition rather than the owlish, this did not suit me particularly well either.  I was usually knackered and ready for bed when the phone rang and I’d find myself having to discuss fine details of plot, dialogue and artwork with some sharp young American, fresh from his coffee and waffles.

I think I’d heard a few things about Lou before that first encounter.  He liked to come across as a hard case, a man who didn’t suffer fools gladly.  Diplomacy was apparently not a strong point. He had some radical ideas about what he thought was wrong with Vertigo comics during their early years, and he was on a mission to stir things up.  And he had some clout.  He’d had extensive previous experience in an editorial capacity with the somewhat prestigious ‘Heavy Metal’ magazine, which ran high gloss, adult oriented comic strips along with some journalistic content.  So as you can imagine, that phonecall (if phonecall it was) was faced by me with the usual trepidation, enhanced to the power of ten (or possibly a Nigel Tufnell style ‘11’).  I had visions of a quick dismissal and the end of my barely begun career as a comics writer.  Lou Stathis would see right through me to the hollow man at the core.

Actually, he wasn’t so bad.  Remember ‘Black Orchid’ was still selling at least slightly better than the majority of its Vertigo contemporaries.  So I got some respect for that, and of course I kept quiet regarding my doubt about deserving it.  I think he wanted to sound me out and was prepared to give me a chance – so long as my ideas blended with his for the development of the character and the style the comic should adopt.

For a man who had to walk past Superman bursting through that wall every morning on his way to the pokey little offices in which DC editors laboured, it was perhaps rather unfortunate that Lou hated super heroes.  He was steeped in the work of the underground comics artists, and that of the European writers and artists whose adult oriented science fiction and fantasy had been featured in the pages of Heavy Metal for years.  As regards the former, so was I.  And I had a working knowledge of the latter, though I didn’t quite share Lou’s enthusiasm.  I think it became clear, even in our earliest encounters, there was some hope that a working relationship could yet ensue.

That said, his complaints regarding ‘Black Orchid’ as it had run so far were copious.  Tom Peyer, if you ever read this, forgive me – but I shifted the blame onto you for quite a few of them!  Lou loathed all those super-hero elements that had gone into the story so far – and you made me do it, Tom.  You made me do it.  And the Children’s Crusade related stories I’d done (one of which had flashed back to the original 70s Black Orchid super heroine) – boy, did he particularly hate those.  I could almost imagine him taking copies from his office and ritually incinerating them.

But of course, to back up my craven shirking of the responsibility, I had my original outline for the first twelve issues.  Ironically the very idea that had been so firmly rejected at the time of the comic’s genesis was pretty much of the sort that Lou hoped to see in Vertigo Comics.  When I described it to Lou, I felt a distinct warming of his attitude.  Maybe I could be an ally in his mission.

Two more things aided our developing relationship.  Lou was editing Jamie Delano’s work on – I think – ‘Animal Man’ (another obscure old super hero who’d been given a revamp).  Jamie tends to effect a hard-bitten, frequently cynical persona, which chimed quite well with Lou’s brusque approach.  That Jamie and I had a good friendship lent me at least a little more credibility in Lou’s eyes, or so I think.  Along with a shared appreciation for the work of writers such as William Burroughs.

The other thing was music.

I took a quick look at his Wikipedia page before I wrote and didn’t spot any mention of this, but I’m pretty sure that Lou had been at least an occasional contributor to US rock magazine Creem.  He was certainly a massive rock music enthusiast and had interviewed a number of musicians of whom I was in awe, including Don ‘Captain Beefheart’ Van Vliet (the interview can still be found on the website).   And it was the edgier, more challenging music that he was largely drawn to, particularly German band Can.  I too was a serious enthusiast for both Beefheart and Can.  Over this we bonded.  Phone calls became just that bit more tolerable with the occasional digression onto some rare Can live bootleg or similar that one or the other of us had acquired.

But what to do with Black Orchid?  How could we effectively change its direction to something we both thought would be more in keeping with whatever a Vertigo comic should be?  We couldn’t just change horses in midstream.  The threads I’d established in the opening issues had to be honoured and I’d come up with a few single-issue story ideas that, in the short term, met with Lou’s editorial approval.  He could be sharply critical but I often found his suggestions well worth incorporating.  Alternatively, if I made a strong enough case for something he initially disapproved of, he was prepared to listen and modify his views.

During that period I remember that I was enjoying the writing a lot more.  In many ways, when reading as well as when writing, I preferred stories that were complete in one issue to sprawling multi-part epics.  One story at least remains in my memory as a decent achievement.  Some research had led me to a creature of folk lore in the UK county of Leicestershire, a kind of hag figure known as Black Annis (aka Black Agnes) who had certain features in common with the Orchid herself, not least the similarity of name.  Because she was known as a ‘child snatcher’, a bogeyman, I blended the material I’d gleaned about her with stories of ‘phantom social workers’ that I’d read in Fortean Times.  I then contrived a way to bring the Orchid to England and wrapped it all in what I remember as a tight, tense storyline.  One of my better ones.

Yes, check it out, (issue 14) you can probably pick up an old back issue for a song, if you sing sweetly enough.  Or get in touch via my website, I've still got a copy or two left - though a fairly lengthy instrumental break will be a required part of any song you care to offer.

Next time, this epic winds towards its close, as we look at what Lou and I cooked up and, despite this, the subsequent demise of Black Orchid.  Which was followed by a deeper sadness, the death of Mr Stathis, a man I'd come to hold in high regard.  

I will, I hope, resume normal service next Monday.  Til then, may all your horses win their races...

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