Monday, July 11, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 6: A Twisted Season

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 6: A Twisted Season

Last time, editor Lou Stathis and I, having found at least a few things in common, were starting to look at how we could turn 'Black Orchid' into the kind of comic that both of us wanted it to be.  Our cogitations led us back to 'Suzy', the orchidette, and her possible role in what was to come.

We’d put Suzy largely on the back boiler again, but had not forgotten or ignored her.  Indeed, at least one of the complete one-issue stories featured her exclusively.  A plan was hatching.  I can’t remember how much of this was my idea, how much was Lou’s, or whether some of it came from the other folk who were still giving me generous advice and assistance when they could, but whatever… it required us to embark on another multi-parter.  In this one Black Orchid would go off the rails, and the story would climax with her complete destruction.  Somewhere along the line, Lou and I had agreed that having two Orchid characters was a bit of a pain, and that reducing them to one – Suzy – would make a lot of sense.  ‘A Twisted Season’ was the running title we went with.

The fairly apocalyptic nature of the upset would enable us to then revamp the series into a new and different style.  I think, even as we embarked on the creation of this six parter, we were already beginning to discuss the intriguing directions in which the title might strike, once we had upset the apple cart.

However, this footnote in comics history is drawing to a close.  Whatever it was that we were planning, it was not destined to emerge.  The comics boom was turning into something of a slump as the 90s progressed.  I’m sure there were some notable exceptions amongst the elite (and deservedly so in some cases), but for those of us who had not set the world alight, sales figures were dropping inexorably, month by month.  One by one those Vertigo titles, that had been the great hope of a year or two before, were beginning to wink out of existence, like stars being erased by some cosmic super-villain.  (I’m sorry.  I’ve been writing about comics for several hours now.  It gets under the skin.)

I can’t remember the exact order in which they went, but for a while it seemed the dust was being bitten on a regular basis by ‘Kid Eternity’, ‘Doom Patrol’, ‘Sandman Mystery Theatre’, ‘Books of Magic’ and more.  Lou and I hung on in the hope that our slightly better sales count would keep us above the cut-off line (which, I was told, is decided entirely by DC’s accountancy department).  If we could make it good enough, the post-Twisted-Season revamp might just have reversed the trend.

In retrospect, I don’t think we really had a hope.  Such gloss and glitter as the series had at its inception had long since been sanded off.  Where once we had received a fair amount of admiring mail for the letters column, towards the end I’m not sure we had any letters at all.  (Mind you, I think I recollect that Lou was not that keen on letter columns, so conceivably he just stashed the last few letters in a filing cabinet and I never got to see them.)

The final issue and last of those lush
McKean covers...

Inevitably the day came when I received the worst phone call of the lot.  We were below the line.  We would be given the grace to complete our final storyline, but the Orchid’s demise would be the entire series’ end.  Strange, it’s only in the course of writing this that I’ve noticed that I began my DC tenure with a story called ‘The Growing Season’ and ended with ‘A Twisted Season’.  But let’s not read too much into that.  Maybe I was already starting to run out of ideas and was just repeating myself.

I’ll say this for Lou Stathis, once you’d gained his trust he was loyal and supportive.  I met some very nice editors during my time at DC.  Tom I’ve mentioned, but I have fond memories of Stuart Moore and Art Young amongst others.  Youthful (then), interesting guys with a real zest for what they felt comics could be, a distinctly un-nerdy sophistication and a good sense of humour.  But with Lou, I genuinely think it went deeper.  For all his objections to what had been done with it before his editorship, he was – as far as I could tell – upset about the way Black Orchid ended.  And though he might understandably have dropped me at that point, like the proverbial ton of bricks, this did not prove the case.  He’d sussed, I’m sure, that I was no genius, no future Alan Moore (there never will be), but he knew that I worked hard, met my deadlines, took criticism – and that kind of stuff he valued.  We moved on to discussing ideas for what I would do next.  We both favoured the idea of the ‘mini-series’, stories that would be told over the course of two to six monthly comics and that were not part of any DC ‘continuity'.  After one or two duds, I came up with something he could see potential in and we began to work on the synopsis.

And then something awful happened.

The phone calls stopped.  I checked in with someone else at DC and discovered that Lou was off sick.  He’d begun to suffer severe, debilitating headaches and they appeared to be getting worse and more frequent.  In time I heard the reason why.  He had developed an inoperable brain tumour.  Within a few months, he was dead.  RIP Lou Stathis.

To speak of the negative impact of this event upon me seems entirely self-indulgent.  It should be pretty obvious how the land then lay and I don’t want to go there.  The fact is that, over twenty years later, here I am still alive, still relatively healthy and enjoying it.  This option was not on offer to Lou.  He was 45 years old when he died.  That’s way too fucking young to go.

I daresay there was a bit more toing and froing ‘twixt me and DC after that, but essentially it was over.  And those years of immersion in the world of comics had done something a bit funny to my head.  Comics weren’t the pleasure they once were.  With the exception of the very best, even reading them was beginning to feel like a bit of a chore.  

And I felt – wrongly or rightly – like I’d failed.  Okay, in my account I’ve presented some of the decisions made that appeared to be outside my control.  It’s conceivable that things might have turned out healthier for me if those decisions had not been made.  But I can’t be sure of that.  The fact is that I made a lot of wrong decisions myself.  And there is no doubt that the writing I did at that stage of my life could and should have been better.  End of story.  

All of a sudden I felt like it was time to move on.  Pastures new and all that.

I wrote a novel.  ‘On Earth, As It Is’ started life as a comic strip for a small press publication called Blaam!.  Only two episodes appeared, drawn by the estimable and charming John McCrea, before Blaam! winked out of existence (that villain again, I think he was called Doctor Lowsales).  But I’d always liked the story and had quietly developed it over the years as I felt it should be continued.  So I wrote it as a prose novel, on the old Amstrad word processor I used throughout my time writing comics.  I sent it to a bunch of publishers and now and again got some good and encouraging feedback.  Editors wrote back to say they’d enjoyed it but couldn’t see its place in the market.  Editors don’t have to say things like that.  They don’t have to say anything at all, beyond the standard rejection slip.  So I took it that there was some quality in my writing.

Then a film came out.  I forget the title but it starred Kevin Spacey as a man who could be from another planet, stranded on Earth, or who could be a human being with a powerful delusion.  Pretty much like the central character of ‘On Earth, As It Is’.  I think it was quite a good movie.  

It was time to move on even further.  I had a life.  There was a new relationship that had come into it, and that was full of promise.  My dearly beloved partner had a yen to move to South Wales, just as soon as she’d taken early retirement from a demanding job as a special needs teacher.  All of which takes us on to, as they say, ‘another story’.  A good one too – I wouldn’t have missed those years in Wales and still feel a strong connection with ‘Twin Town’ Swansea, the Gower and the Brecon Beacons.  

I pretty much stopped writing for a while, for a slew of reasons that I won’t bore you with here.  But the bug was dormant and had no intention of leaving me for good.  An encouraging prod from the direction of Northampton got me thinking about what I might offer to the newly launched ‘Dodgem Logic’ magazine.  Although what I was to contribute to that publication turned out to be something else entirely, it was that very prod that also kick-started ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’.  (For anyone new to this blog, ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ is a book that you really ought to have bought by now.  It’s ever so good, and you can find out how to get it in the ‘Brexit Blues’ post)

As for comics…  A few years back, as you do, I decided to Google myself and see what presence I had on the internet.  What little came up concerning me - rather than namesakes - led me to a comics review site.  I forget what it was called and have no idea whether the posting remains, but there was a bunch of reviews of my early ‘Black Orchids’.  I think they gave the benefit of the doubt to the first 1 or 2 issues, thereafter it made for some pretty excoriating reading.  Ouch!  Well fair enough – I’m not here to argue with the opinions expressed and even agreed with much of what was written (though the reviewer did make some seriously off-beam guesses about me personally, which was kind of fascinating).  I think it was about then that I came up with my ‘footnote in the history of comics’ epithet.

Well, thanks for reading.  You have reached the end of the footnote!

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