Monday, June 27, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 4: On the Crusade

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 4: On the Crusade

The Orchid is under way, but whoops! Duck!  Here comes the next glitch...

I forget exactly when it came along, but the next spanner in the works was in the form of what DC called a ‘crossover’ series.  This had worked for them pretty well, I gather, in the super hero comics.  Comics fans, you’ll know what I’m talking about so you can skip the rest of this paragraph.  For the rest, here’s how it worked.  It was, essentially, a marketing exercise to sell more comics by running a major must-read storyline across a range of titles, including some of the less popular ones.  So a Batman loyalist would start reading this as a Batman story, but then realise that he’d have to buy a copy of …  I don’t know…  Aquaman or something in order to find out what happens next.  The classic one was ‘Crisis on Infinite Earths’, and, well, I guess that doesn’t leave an awful lot out.  Except infinite non-Earths, I suppose.  And come to think of it, there’s probably quite a few of them.  Hey ho.  Anyway, the fan would buy the copies he needed of the titles he didn’t normally buy, and then – maybe – stick with them, as collector mentality kicked in.  Something like that, anyway.

So someone, perhaps in the accountancy department, decided that this principle should be applied to what DC at some point started calling the ‘Vertigo Universe’.  What were they thinking?  Wisely, as far as I know, they only tried it the once.

Perhaps because he had developed a close working relationship (and I think some degree of friendship) with Karen Berger at the time, they roped Neil Gaiman in to set up a framing concept and write a couple of one off comics to top and tail this impending saga.  I’m sure that he, like most of us, has a bunch of ideas in his notebooks that he knows are not his best – but that might come in useful for something or other one day.  Enter: ‘The Children’s Crusade’.  

I won’t attempt a synopsis.  Much of it is forgotten.  Suffice to say that Gaiman wrote (or maybe just plotted) his two comics and the rest of us had to recount the various plot threads, following the breadcrumb trail from the first to the last, in each of our various titles.  Well, once again, with the benefit of hindsight…

But you see, there was this jolly.  Dangling, a lure…  Oh lord, the sirens called me and I should have resisted…  Expenses paid trip to New York city.  A visit to the DC offices, where Superman forever bursts out through a wall in the foyer.  (Well he used to, anyway.  Maybe he’s had to shoot off and rescue Lois Lane from a burning building by now.)  A few days in a swanky conference centre at a place in upstate New York called Tarrytown.  I think I still have a stationery pad from there, lurking in a drawer somewhere.  Perhaps most interestingly, a chance to meet some of the then fellowship of Vertigo writers – Ms Collins, Ms Pollack, John Ney Reiber.  And, as it turned out, less interestingly to discuss with them, some editors, my good friend Jamie Delano and Mr Gaiman himself the ins and outs of this now barely remembered storyline.  A creative summit, if you will.

One thing that amused me while we were up in Tarrytown.  Back in super hero land, DC were running a 'death of Superman' storyline.  They've probably killed him off and resuscitated him a few times since then, but at that time it was actually making the news in the US of A.  So once the people who were serving us with food and stuff found out we were part of the DC outfit, they were on to us like a ton of kryptonite.  Was Superman really for the chop?  They seemed genuinely concerned at the possible imminent destruction of this icon.  Of course, none of us had any more of a real clue than they did.  But we were able to point out that it was a tad unlikely that DC's cash cow would be sacrificed for good.  Phew.

Then, back in NY city, there was a comic convention to attend, situated in some huge, soulless industrial unit.  Those two astute Scotsmen who will forever be associated with the heyday of 2000AD comic were there and full of the joys of flying over Manhattan in a helicopter.  I remember a trip to see some pretty weird metal sculptures in a little gallery in some trendy place that I’ve forgotten the name of (SoHo?).  I remember getting but one afternoon’s free time.  I walked the streets in search of hip record shops; maybe finding somewhere I could get my hands on whatever was still being published in the way of underground comics; and buying myself a black beret in the mistaken belief that it would make me look as cool as Alan Vega out of Suicide.  Or was it Martin Rev who wore the beret?  I remember being almost completely unable to sleep in 40th floor hotel room.  Good times.  I think.

But as regards the development of Black Orchid as a comic, it all proved somewhat counter-productive.  In the mini-series, preceding my work, Gaiman had created a second Orchid, who took the form of a child and for some reason I now forget was called Suzy.  An Orchidette, you might say.  In the spirit of at least selective honesty with which I write this account, I must now admit that I’d had no idea what to do with Suzy.  So I’d left her in a sort of limbo until I figured out what to do with her.  Maybe she would come in useful for something or other one day.

The clue’s in the title.  For ‘The Children’s Crusade’ I had to do something with the Suzy character, fish her out and give her a role.  This, it seemed to me in my by-then bewildered state, necessitated building new layers to the Orchid mythology – in order to connect with the various mythological realms that were being utilised by other writers in the crossover project.  I think at that point I got bogged down, and produced a kind of myth structure which – at its worst – was a second rate imitation of Neil Gaiman’s ‘The Dreaming’.

Having set up this future cross to bear, and having worked my way to the end of that first too hastily conceived ‘story arc’ (as the in-house terminology had it), I now had to contemplate where next for the Orchid.  And where next for Suzy, now that my hand had been forced and she was back on the scene.

Even as I began to tackle all this, I was notified of a change of editor.  I forget what pastures Tom Peyer first went onto, before he eventually withdrew from being an editor and went back to writing.  I didn’t read his super hero comics, but I do remember reading ‘Cruel and Unusual’ – a darkly satirical look at the death penalty in the USA, written in collaboration with the estimable Mr Delano.  Sharp and biting, if I remember rightly.

Meanwhile, with some trepidation, I contemplated the creation of a working relationship with my next editor.  A gentleman by the name of Louis ‘Lou’ Stathis.  If  Tom was cheese, Lou was to prove a particularly tough form of chalk. 

Yes, when next we meet bite into the chalk that was Lou Stathis, the former 'Heavy Metal ' editor who saw 'Black Orchid' through to its final issue.

Monday, June 20, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 3: The Orchid Flies

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 3: The Orchid Flies

Chocks away!  With the editorially modified outline agreed, scripts meet artwork, letters and colours - and in due course Black Orchid goes on sale.

The artist assigned to draw Black Orchid was an American, Jill Thompson.  I felt very fortunate to be working with her.  She’d done some fine work in Sandman and elsewhere and I particularly liked her clear line style.  She seemed enthusiastic.  I still treasure a watercolour sketch she sent me of the character in repose.  The first few issues of Black Orchid looked fabulous, Jill’s artwork a distinct change from the painterly style of Dave McKean, whose visuals graced the Neil Gaiman mini-series.  Though it should be added that I was doubly fortunate in that McKean designed the new Black Orchid covers, and did so consistently for the entire series.

Water colour sketch by Jill Thompson
(apologies for the flash reflection above centre on right)

There is no buzz like the buzz you get when the Fed-Ex man turns up at your door with a box of first issues of a comic you've written, with a cover by Dave McKean and 24 pages of fabulous artwork inside.  I was walking on air.  For days. All the blisters, man, they just fell away...

It looked good and it sold pretty well.  For its entire run, I was told that it sold in appreciably greater quantities than most of the other new Vertigo titles.  That said, I’m not sure I can claim credit.  The selling factors were more likely the artwork, the covers, the Neil Gaiman connection and perhaps, as Tom Peyer and/or Karen Berger had figured, the fact that it was more like a regular super hero comic than its stable-mates.  I think that, artistically, if I’d worked to my original outline the comic would have been better, but I can’t be sure that it would have sold.

Ah, but it was an exciting time.  I’d convinced myself that I could make the new outline work (and I did so with freely given guidance from some very expert hands).  Four figure cheques were rolling in from DC and suddenly I was earning more money than I ever had in my life before, or – as it turned out – ever have since.  There were regular trips to London to wine and dine with visiting American editors, as a second project – a 12 issue mini-series that never saw the light of day – was also in development.  Expenses paid hotel rooms when I attended comics conventions.  Meeting other writers and artists whose work I had admired for years.  Some of them even talked to me.  One night I got to set foot in the Groucho Club.  You might think you’d made it when stuff like that happens to you.

But I never quite lost that skin-of-my-teeth feeling.  Looking back and very broadly speaking I think there were two kinds of people who were ‘making it’ in the comics biz in those days.  On the one hand there were hard workers with a genuine commitment to the art form, the best of whom were buzzing with fresh and vital new ideas.  On the other there were the ones who progressed by strength of personality, the ability to convince people that they were special and worthy of attention.  Their writing tended to be cool and flashy, saturated with whatever was fashionable at the time, but ultimately made for rather empty, soulless reading.  Somewhat shy and awkward in social situations, I had no chance of becoming one of the latter.  My concern was to establish myself amongst the former.  Well, I could work hard and I did.  Now and again, I had some good ideas too, but probably not quite enough of them.  Or so I felt.  On my own terms, ‘making it’ was a touch and go prospect.

Was I ‘cool’?  I very much doubt it.  I remember looking forward to meeting Jill Thompson when she was flown to the UK for some comic convention or other.  I think we chatted pleasantly for an hour or so and I can’t remember a great deal about it except that she expressed surprise that I didn’t have a beard.  That was, she told me, how she’d visualised me – along with, I suspect, a bit of a paunch and a Batman T-shirt with relish stains from gobbled hamburgers.  (Think ‘Comics Guy’ from the Simpsons.)  Truth was, I think, she was already about to jump ship.  She’d been spending time with one of the writers in my second category above, one who had aspirations to challenge Alan Moore’s supremacy, and he’d clearly charmed her.  In the ensuing months she began to struggle with Black Orchid deadlines, and pretty soon she was off the project.  No hard feelings.  She did a great job on Black Orchid.  Whatever she’s doing now, I wish her well.  And I still treasure that watercolour.

I never got to meet the artist who was next assigned to the comic, which is a great shame because I developed a lot of respect for Rebecca Guay.  Her work perhaps lacked the stylishness of Thompson’s art and some of her panels looked a little rushed to me at first.  But she stayed with Black Orchid for the rest of its run, as far as I remember she was a reliable collaborator who never missed deadlines, and her artwork grew in both skill and confidence throughout the period.  I guess I learned to write for and to her skills, and she learned to pick up on the aspects of the story I wanted to be told without words.  It felt like a good working relationship and I enjoyed it.

(I've just had a look online at some of her more recent work.  Beautiful.  She just gets better!)

A pre-colours/overlay page from Black Orchid #10, pencils by Rebecca, 
inks by Stan Woch, lettering by Clem Robins.

Next time, Vertigo goes 'crossover' with 'The Children's Crusade', and I buy a black beret in New York in the deluded belief that it will make me look as cool as Alan Vega out of Suicide.

I probably should have gone for the Batman T-shirt...

'Til then, take it easy, take it smooth, or - at the very least - take it!

Monday, June 13, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 2: A Dodgy Take-Off

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 2: A Dodgy Take-Off

Last time I wrote about being offered Black Orchid by DC Comics and, despite some misgivings, deciding it was my best (perhaps only) chance to break into comics writing on a regular basis.

It was my intention to be a professional scriptwriter.  Okay, I told myself, to meet that description I ought to be able to take on this challenge.  I re-read the miniseries and also at least some of the original Black Orchid stories from the 70s or whenever they’d appeared.  Essentially, I felt, Neil Gaiman had followed a template established by Alan Moore with Swamp Thing – to take a somewhat vaguely conceived minor comic character and re-package them with a more convincing, better thought out conceptual framework.  Since he’d only intended it as a one off mini series, Gaiman brought less rigour to the process of working this out and – significantly for me – sewed in a lot less in the way of potential threads to develop in a continuing series.

Black Orchid was both a product of pseudo-science – a human/orchid hybrid – and a mystical being, an ‘elemental’, like Swamp Thing and, by then, other members of that comic’s cast.  My opening proposal to DC was centred chiefly on the latter aspect of her nature.  The Orchid was a force of nature, barely glimpsed in bodily form by human beings and largely incomprehensible.  Like the tale of the blind men and the elephant, those who encountered the Orchid would conceive of her only in the form of the part of the whole that they had personally encountered.  But those encounters would change their lives in some significant way.  For the first twelve issues at least, these people would be the focus of self-contained stories, in the style of so-called urban myths.  The linking device for all this would be the reporter character I introduced, who has some information regarding the origin story and is trying to track down what has become of the being who once manifested as the super-heroine, Black Orchid.  Eventually, by issue 12, he would have his own devastating first encounter with her – which would constitute her first real-time appearance in the comic.  How I’d follow that, I probably had little idea, but it is the way of a continuous comic series that you build in threads that will lead to new possibilities as you go along.

Looking back, I still think that was a pretty damn cool approach to a character who, let’s face it, was never going to be that easy to write.  I could have had a lot of fun with those human characters and their self-contained stories – some humorous, some thrilling, some just starkly awesome.  Sadly, it was not to be.

The editor to whom I was assigned for the series was Tom Peyer.  Tom is sharp, politically suss and a really nice guy.  I liked him a lot and felt comfortable with him at all times.  I’m not sure to this day what he really felt about that original proposal.  What I remember of what he told me was that he liked it, could see the potential, but…

And the ‘but’ was that Vertigo, for all its pizzazz about creating comics with adult themes for adult readers, was not quite confident enough to boldly go into this new territory wholesale.  There was still a need, either felt by Tom (who was still a bit of a super hero buff himself) or by those above him, for some sort of super-heroic element - and that had to be manifest in Black Orchid.  You could make it mad, post-modernist and surrealistic, as Grant Morrison and Peter Milligan had already done by then, but you still had to have people in costumes visible on the pages.  12 issues of a comic in which the title character appeared only fleetingly as a character or purely as a force of nature in other people’s stories was a no-no.  Could I not condense that idea I’d had into a single first issue, and then develop a story arc in which the Orchid figured as a character that readers saw and could relate to?

Once again, my own lack of confidence undermined me.  These editorial people knew their business.  Maybe they were right.  Especially one of them that I liked and respected.  Again, with hindsight, I feel I should have told him that if I couldn’t do what I felt was right, I’d rather walk away from the project.  Vertigo itself pretty quickly realised that if it was to succeed on its own terms, it would have to sever far more of its connections with the super-hero mainstream.  And it did.  One quite early Vertigo title, Matt Wagner’s Sandman Mystery Theatre was not a million miles from my concept, as far as I can remember.  And increasingly, as it struggled to maintain sales, the imprint experimented more and more with a variety of different story formats.

But me, I did my best to comply with the stipulations that had been laid down.  Bad guys were needed and would have to be fought.  Gun play would occur.  Cliff-hanger endings were required.  You get the picture.  The comic about a human/orchid hybrid became a hybrid between two styles of comic, and as such it was not entirely successful at being either.

Next: Well, I said last time I'd get on to the Orchid's first few flights, but this chunk of the story was a bit longer than I thought and the next chunk will work better as a complete and separate entry.  So next time: how she flew, how she fared, and some words about the artists with whom I was fortunate to work.  Stay tuned!

Monday, June 6, 2016

Working for the DC Dollar - Part 1: How I Got There

Working for the DC Dollar
Part 1: How I Got There

First off, I’d like to thank any of you who are regularly reading this blog for giving attention to my words and occasional images.  There have been no more than 600 ‘hits’ so far, so I’m not exactly in the major league and of course I’ve no idea how many of those are just glances and how many represent a reading of one or more entries.  But it feels like a substantial number to me, and – as I say – those of you who actually do read these words are appreciated.  (Even those of you who haven’t got round to buying a copy of ‘Wilful Misunderstandings’ yet.  Tch tch.)

If you’ve got here via my website or through Goodreads, you may be wondering about my former incarnation as Dick Foreman, writer of ‘Black Orchid’ and a scattering of additional work for DC and other comics publishers back in the 1990s.  I generally describe myself, to anyone who asks, as a small footnote in the history of comics – but even footnotes can be of interest to some.  So I thought I’d share a few reminiscences from those times over the next few weeks, and wrap it up with some sort of how I got from there to here summary.  Here goes…

(I’m working purely from memory.  If I started going through diaries and records from that time, I’d take far too long to get this out.  Maybe one day, if it seemed worth the effort…)

The Comics Boom

A little bit of scene setting to start with.  The late 80s and early 90s were, I think, a rather exciting time to be reading and making comics in the UK and the US.  There was a sense that the market for them could be opened as wide as that for books and films.  Comic strip art wasn’t just for children and adolescents.  The term ‘graphic novel’ was being bandied about for the first time, and boy did that sport a bunch more gravitas than ‘comic’.  Or so it seemed.

You can find the history of all this elsewhere.  Threads that led us into this situation at the time included the radical influence of ‘underground’ comics during the late 60s and 70s; the stunning savvy of the UK’s ‘2000AD’ comic; the impact of the Alan Moore’s innovative writing as it began to emerge and that of those who followed, spearheaded by Neil Gaiman and Frank Miller.  New possibilities seemed to be opening on every front.

I’d been working as community artist for a good few years, and much as I enjoyed that work, felt a growing desire to concentrate on my own projects.  I’d been a lover of comics since my childhood and encouraged and greatly assisted by friends already in the business decided to try my hand at scriptwriting.  In due course, as is the way of these things, my work appeared in various small, independent publications.  A 2000AD ‘Future Shock’ (one off short story) followed, but I made no further headway with them.

It was about this time that US publishers DC Comics were preparing to launch their Vertigo series of comics, in the hopes of cashing in on the perceived ‘adult’ comics boom.  Editor at the helm was Karen Berger, who had worked with Alan Moore on his US breakthrough series ‘Swamp Thing’ and subsequently signed up a number of UK writers who appeared to be following in his footsteps, among them Gaiman, Grant Morrison, Jamie Delano and Peter Milligan.  (For the sake of brevity, I’m leaving artists largely out of this account, essential as they were and brilliant as many turned out to be.)  As regards my nascent ‘career’, Vertigo seemed a likely target at which to aim.

The route to regular work with DC was via ‘fill-in’ issues, one off stories for ongoing titles to be used when a regular writer needed a break or had fallen behind with deadlines.  With a little bit of help from my friends, I managed to blag three of these, starting with a Swamp Thing story (‘The Growing Season’) of which I am still proud.  Whatever the merits of this and the other two, they proved sufficient to put me in line for more work.  Coming up to the same level around this time were another wave of UK writers, including Garth Ennis, Mark Millar and, possibly a little later, Warren Ellis.

Are you noticing a gender bias in all this?  Some things weren’t changing so fast.  But to Karen Berger’s credit, on the US writer roster for upcoming Vertigo titles were Nancy Collins, Ann Nocenti and Rachel Pollack.

Black Orchid

My opportunity came with Black Orchid.  I wouldn’t have chosen it myself.  I’d read Gaiman and Dave McKean’s three issue ‘deluxe miniseries’ as I think I recollect it was termed.  It was a well enough done revamp of an obscure old DC character, with lush, sophisticated artwork, but it did not hold my interest or excite me in the way that the best of Gaiman’s work on his breakthrough comic series, Sandman, had.  In retrospect, when I was told that an ongoing series was planned for the character and invited to submit a proposal, I should probably have let this reaction guide me and said: “No, thanks.”

But hey, whaddya gonna do?  You jockey along in the hope of getting regular work.  When the offer comes – you turn it down?  I don’t think so.

A more confident writer than I was at that time might have.  But I had the feeling I’d got where I was by the skin of my teeth.  Any faith that the DC editorial team placed in me was shaky at best (and perhaps rightly so).  My track record was thin, and I recall at least a single one-to-one meeting with Karen Berger, which felt awkward and difficult – I suspect for both of us.  With no sense of certainty that I would be offered anything else, no ‘gift of the gab’ and no readily marketable alternatives to offer, this seemed like the one opportunity I had to prove my worth.

Next: After a difficult genesis, the new Black Orchid series takes off and, for a short while, flies.