Monday, 26 December 2011

My Monthly Curse (Part Forty-Six)

I also worked for DC in the early 1990s, but this particular flirt with a comics company was just so tragic I never thought of it in the same light as other bits of bad luck I’d had. I got a call, out of the blue, from New York. It was a guy called Neal Pozner, who was a managing editor at DC and was in charge of a lot of the projects that the general public never saw. Neal was a great guy and we chatted for an hour before he even got around to telling me why he called. He needed a British based comics journalist to do some work for DC on an in-house publication they produced for the creative community called Shop Talk. It was a newsletter cum fact sheet for people who wanted to work for DC, actually worked for them or did some freelance work. Neal was a huge advocate of promoting new talent in comics and during one of our many conversations over that spring he asked me why I’d never bothered to try and write comics, after all isn’t that why everyone who can write gets into comics? I told him about my Marvel experiences of a few years before and he chuckled and told me about the proposals procedure that most companies operate. He didn’t suggest that my allegations against DeFalco were true, but he did warn me that the worst people to send ideas to were the editors, because they could steal ideas and feed them to the writers.

I told him that I’d grown away from superheroes and really wanted to be a novelist. He asked me what I wrote and I had to be honest, not a lot. I’d set out at 17 to be a famous writer. I’d written my first novel by the time I was 20 and hadn’t picked up a pen or sat at a typewriter for nearly 10 years. Since my return to writing I’d written mainly factual stuff and hadn’t really considered fiction because of a lack of time. But that year I’d had an idea and I was working on it when I first heard from Neal. I plucked up the guts and told it to him.

It was called Dead Girls and was the story of three girls, two sisters and their best friend, who died, but didn’t. They became the living dead, except they had their mental faculties; in fact, none of them knew they were dead until things started to go a bit wrong. They weren’t interested in eating brains, they were young teenagers trying to enjoy life; they just at first wanted to know what had happened to them and then eventually to be left alone to really die. After thinking about it, I designed as a four-part comics story around the premise. I ran through the projected four parts and said, “That’s it, I think it’s quite an allegorical tale.”

“AIDS.” It was the only word he said.

“Yeah, in a nutshell.”

“Is the script as good as the outline?”

“It’s only half finished and I’ve never scripted a comic before, but yeah I think it’s workable.”

“You should show this to Art Young.” Young was the then head honcho at DC UK, the editorial liaison office for DC in New York to deal with its huge list of British creators. He was also commissioning editor for any new projects coming out from the UK. I was going to meet and interview him as my first assignment for Shop Talk. Neal seemed quite adamant that I find the time to talk to Young about it. Which I duly did and at the end of a fairly uneventful interview in Soho, I told Art about the Dead Girls idea. He told me to send what I had over so he could have a look through it. And I headed back to Wellingborough feeling like I maybe had a chance.

A couple of days passed, I got a call from Neal asking how the interview went and when could he expect the piece. I told him by the end of the week. I finished that, got it away to New York and concentrated on fluffing up Dead Girls and getting the best job I could muster over to Art.

Neal called the following week, we chatted again and he told me he had Peter Milligan and Alan Grant lined up for me in the coming weeks and would I be able to work my CI schedule around for him. I could, but we didn’t mention Dead Girls.

The following week, I received three copies of Shop Talk and a note saying to call him when I got them. I phoned Neal that evening (UK time) and he kindly phoned me back straight away. He was happy with how it had come out and he apologised for trimming it down, but was happy for me to use the stuff I’d written that wasn’t used elsewhere. We talked about music for a while and I asked him a few questions about DC and finally he said, “I was thinking about your Dead Girls idea, did you mention it to Art?” I thought I had told him already but I might have been wrong. I told him I had and he said that it was important for me to really try and sell the AIDS allegory to Art and that if he could he would put a good word in for me when he got back from his vacation. I thanked him and wished him a good vacation. He replied, “I should be so lucky.” I never spoke to Neal Pozner again.

His vacation turned into a permanent one. I wasn’t aware but Neal had AIDS and had been working at DC over that last year on borrowed time. He never spoke to Art Young, therefore never smoothed it over for me. Neal’s partner, a well-known comics artist had worked for Young, so Art was quite distraught at the death of a friend’s partner.

I didn’t know.

Because Pozner was a backroom boy this kind of news took a while to filter out, so when I phoned Art Young about two weeks after Neal died and about three weeks after I sent my proposal in, the conversation ended up being a little awkward and at the end of it I felt like a schmuck. Suffice it to say DC never picked up Dead Girls. I had a letter from Young’s assistant saying DC was cutting back on new projects for the time being, but keep on trying. I don’t think it was ever looked at.


The following was written by Chris Spicer for his Borderline column World of Heros, it perfectly illustrates the futility of wanting to be in comics:

YOU want to work in comics. Don’t you? Of course you do. Everyone who reads comics does. You watch the constant whirlwind of changing creators as they dance from title to title and you think to yourself “I could do that!” Don’t you? Yes, you do. And that goes doubly for people who write for comics magazines, and even more so for the hard-bitten, cynical writers of spoof news columns.

But you can’t. Comics creators are special, and you’re not. Here’s why:

· Comics creators create comics, which makes them artists. You read comics, which makes you a geek.

· Every month you trek down to the local comic shop, desperate to know what wonderful stories your favourite creators are going to tell you next. Those same creators don’t care whether you live or die.

· You queue for hours to meet comics creators for a few meager minutes, but no comics creator has ever queued to meet you.

· Comics creators get paid to write or draw. You get paid to flip burgers or something.

· You show your portfolios and scripts to creators in the vain hope that they’ll bless you with a few words of even faint praise. They don’t come to you, because your approval means nothing to them.

· Comics creators are in high demand because they can create wonderful things. There are a million mindless proles who could do your job.

· Editors actually want to receive work from comics creators, whereas they could throw your submissions straight into the bin without even so much as a moment’s thought.

· Comics creators don’t have to slog down to their local comic shop to pick up the latest issues of the best titles, because they’re writing or drawing them. In their spare time they phone each other to laugh at you and tell dirty jokes about your mother.

· Comics creators can do their jobs without even leaving the house. You have to spend hours driving through crowds of inconsiderate mindless nothings, or cramming yourself into a dirty, crowded, fetid tube train just to get to a job that you hate.

· When a comics creator dies, they leave behind a legacy of distraught fans and respectful colleagues, whereas if you were to die tomorrow, no one would notice.

· Comics creators have scripts and sketches lying unwanted around their houses. If you were to get your hands on just one of them, you would frame it and put it on the wall, and talk about it in everyday conversation, and worship it as if Jesus himself had just handed it to you with the instruction that the chances of all your descendants getting into heaven depended purely upon it remaining in tip-top condition. A comics creator would consider such behavior to be stupid.

· This column is devoted to talking about comics creators. It may be a spoof, it may take the piss out of them, but there aren’t any magazine columns devoted to you at all. Not even ones taking the piss.

· You wish you could be a comics creator. No comics creator has ever wished they could be you.

· Comics creators’ ideas are published on a monthly, even weekly basis. No one cares what you think.

· When comics creators go to conventions, they meet friends, get drunk, and have a good time. When you go to conventions you spend hours in queues like a sweaty, pathetic sheep.

· Go into your local comic shop. Go on. Now, look at the people in there. If you were to take out a knife, and I’m talking about a really fucking big knife, with a huge serrated blade and a handle that you could use to club seals to death, and use it to hack your throat open then and there on the spot, spewing out astonishing fountains of blood as you floundered almost comically around before collapsing to the ground to bleed out your last in a sorry, unwanted heap in the corner, people in the shop would care more about the prospect of you having damaged their comics by spattering blood on them than about your slowly cooling corpse.

· Comics creators get the respect of their peers. Nobody respects you at all.

· Have you actually read work by Alan Moore or Grant Morrison? You could never be that creative or intelligent. Could you? No.

· At signings, comics creators get paid to sign their name. At signings, you queue for hours to have someone deface your comics.

· Hundreds, even thousands of people write to comics creators every month. The only letters you regularly get are sent by cold, emotionless automated systems operating on behalf of grubby-handed company executives hoping you’ll be stupid enough to sign up for their credit cards.

· If Alan Moore walked into a comic shop, everyone would know who he was. If you walked into a comic shop, nobody would notice you even existed.

· You just read this article. A comics creator would never have done that.

Fandom is full of wannabes and like most industries a lot of tenacious wannabes can become a somebody. It takes a lot of hard work and a lot of hawking yourself around and taking a lot of criticism from people whose only knowledge of comics art is what they like, but they persevere. For artists it’s easy, they take a portfolio and they can get instantaneous reactions from commissioning editors. The same editor can’t read through half a dozen scripts in the same time to get an idea of how good a writer you are. Lots of new artists appear all the time. New writers? Very rarely and in general it’s who they know rather than how good they are.

A lot of comics creators view their ‘fame’ as relative. They can walk in the local Tesco and never be bothered by anybody because of who they are and that suits most of them. They do a job and that job involves a lot of hard graft, much like anyone else that goes out to work. Yeah, most of them are thanking God that they had the talent or the ability to get there, but to most it is a job.

I've told you about Alan Davis briefly. Davis actually lives in the same county as me, but he’s a very private man, so I never did the stupid thing of turning up on his doorstep (even though he lived next door to a former best mate’s brother!) Alan, as I said, worked for British Steel in Corby – during all of the upheavals and what industry likes to call consolidation, he still had his job. In his spare time he spent it drawing comics strips – he didn’t know it, but the people who were seeing his work were being blown away with this contemporary yet cartoonish style. Alan started to get offered more work, and gradually his income from comics surpassed his income from British Steel. Alan gave his job up at British Steel, not because he couldn’t do it anymore, but because he was stopping someone else in Corby from having a job. Unemployment in Corby at the time was about 50%, he didn’t think it was fair, however unsteady his comics work might end up being, to deprive someone else the opportunity of earning money. He made sure one of his redundant colleagues got his old job.

Like I said, when I finally met Alan - he had been one of my comics idols for years - he was a down-to-Earth man with a real sense of privacy about him. He seemed to view comics conventions as part of the job; but you got no sense that it was a pleasure for him. I suspect Alan’s friends aren’t comics people and would never likely be.

The biggest problem with any creator is unless he’s that good he will eventually reach his sell-by date. Remember the rock dinosaurs of the 1970s, when they got back together in the 80s or 90s was their new stuff a patch on the old? No, of course it wasn’t, and the same rule applies to almost all innovators, especially as they get older. Even if the spark is still there the style might have dated. Take the guy who helped turn the X-Men into the most popular US comic of modern times – John Byrne. Born (co-incidentally like his co-creator Chris Claremont) in the UK, Byrne came through the ranks of Charlton Comics before being poached by Marvel. His style was quite extraordinary compared to the general lifeless art that was on display in most comics and whenever he worked on a comic it sprang to life. He never really became the focus of the speculator because quite simply he put out far too much material. Byrne was prolific, he could draw four books a month, nearly 100 pages of finished pencils, compared to some artists today who can struggle to finish a page in a week! Obviously as time wore on, Byrne slowed down, but he could afford to, he was one of three major stars in comics during the late 1970s. He, George Perez and Frank Miller were quickly making names for themselves as creators who steered falling comics out of the doldrums. Byrne did it with just about everything he touched, Perez did it for The Avengers and The Justice League of America and Miller started with Daredevil and really got into the swing in the 1980s with Batman. There were others, but these three were the Adams, Steranko and Wrightson of their era.

Of the three, none fell from grace quite as fast as Byrne. In fact the other two are still regarded highly in comics, most people remember Byrne as ‘The Tinkerman’. Byrne became too big too fast – yet in reality, his rise took many years, but this was the 1970s and rarely did someone come out of nowhere in comics and cause such a reaction. He wrote and drew some of the biggest comics in existence, but because he was so up his own arse at times, he eventually was replaced, because the fans grew tired of his revisionist approach.

Next up: fandom

1 comment:

  1. As a writer myself, I genuinely don't understand why people want to write comics - I mean as an ambition, rather than something you might get into if you got the offer. If you can draw up to some standard they could fun to do, but why want to do something that can never really be what you're imagining?