Saturday, July 30, 2011

Another Addendum: The Fred Files (more images and scans)

Among the various skills that Fred has that I lack is the ability to be far more organized about keeping stuff. He's been reading the blog and this morning I woke up to an email from him that included several files of some of the things I've been talking about.

This is the front of one of the postcards we received from Matt Wagner.

And this is the back (that address isn't good anymore, by the way). This was obviously after he had asked us to submit a Grendel Tales proposal. This was the beginning of a long copyright dispute for Matt (he eventually won and got his rights back). I talked with him about the whole thing at a con years later. He really liked our stuff.

In 1993 or'94, when I was shopping my inking samples around I met Bob Schreck, then editor at Dark Horse Comics (and Matt's brother-in-law). I had all of our Grendel sample pages with me. Bob recognized all of them. "Hey, I saw these in Matt's living room a couple of years ago!"

This is the front of a postcard from Scott McCloud. I know we received several pieces of correspondence from him.

And this is the back (this address doesn't exist anymore either).

My next written blog has a Scott McCloud anecdote.

This is the fan letter from Denmark I mentioned. This guy didn't order a copy of the mini-comic directly from us, so I have no idea how he ever saw out book.

That's it for now. There are a couple of Dave Sim letters I need to scan.

Friday, July 29, 2011

An addendum: Scans and Images

So after writing my last blog I was motivated to dig through some of the boxes in my basement to see if I could find any of the small press things I talked about. I'm not very organized, so this could have been quite the challenge. Thankfully, when I moved to a new house last year (after 17 years in the same place), I put a lot of this stuff in one box (not everything, apparently... grrrr!). This isn't everything, but I wanted to put up some samples. So, while this ties in, this post gives you all a rest from my long-windedness.
One of the characters I created for The Plain Brown Wrapper was Buggly, The Inbred Bear. I wrote and drew five Buggly stories that appeared. Eventually I collected all of them in my own mini-comic edition. This was the cover.
I haven't reprinted the stories anywhere yet, and I don't want to post them here. I want to keep this blog relatively PG-13 or R-rated, and they do not qualify.
The following is a sample of the kind of listing/review we would get when we sent copies to mags like Factsheet Five. I can't find any actual copies of F5.
This was from a mag called Comics FX.
In 1993 we were nominated for several small press awards in Comics Feedback magazine.
We came in second for Best Small Press Comic. The winner, Adventure Strip Digest was really good.
We only came in 4th for Best Writer, but notice who did win. Troy Hickman has written a number of titles for Image Comics in the last few years. We won the Best Mid-Magazine format handily.
The following is a copy of a pretty long interview we did for a 'zine called Webline. This is the first time I've read this in years. Interesting now to see where we were and what our plans were, especially now that so much of it didn't happen. It's also interesting to note that we both still list a lot of the same influences as we did then. Hooray for consistency. Anyone who comes into Phantom will also recognize my rants about the state of the industry. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose...
That's it for now. If I find more stuff I'll post it.
Next time, back to the writing.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

Writing Part 6 (Comics Part 3)

Continued from my previous blog...

In the wake of the Black & White implosion Fred and I retreated. We were a little burnt out from the wicked pace we had set producing Shadowlock #1 and to have it come to naught was frustrating. One of the most valuable lessons we learned though was that we were just not ready, and neither was the product. In the process of developing a back-story for Shadowlock, the universe in which he lived had expanded dramatically. I'm not sure exactly when it became clear, or which one of us suggested it, but we realized that the story we wanted to tell didn't start with Shadowlock. It actually began with his father, Greylock in a time time period that predated Shadowlock by 20 or 30 years.

This was a giant leap for us, and gave us a freedom we hadn't had before. We realized our story wasn't simply about one man, but about where he came from, and his entire universe. A lot of the universe he lived in had been influenced by Greylock and the legacy he had left behind. The title of the first issue of Shadowlock, Grey Legacy, became the title of our entire series. This insight led to an unprecedented (for us), burst of creativity as we expanded our ideas into this new concept. We did tons of sketches and filled pages with notes (most of which survive in a couple of 3-ring binders we jokingly refer to as the Grey Legacy Bible). But for all of this creativity, we knew we weren't ready to actually produce the book yet, and decided not to attempt to do so until we had improved our skills.

One of the first issues we had to address was the mish-mash of styles that contributed to the amateurish look of Shadowlock. We couldn't both keep on doing everything. As I've said, from the beginning Fred has been a better artist than I am. Since his pencils are very detailed and precise and mine are a lot more sketchy we decided to let him do the pencilling stage of Grey Legacy (and the tedious job of hand-lettering... that's a skill I've never been able to master). It was at that point that I decided to hone my skills as an inker, and to do so I needed to settle on a tool.

Once, at a convention, I heard a fan ask John Totleben (inker of the Alan Moore Swamp Thing issues and artist on many other comics projects), what was the best tool to use for inking. Totleben is a master of the quill pen (quite honestly, he's the master of any art tool he touches), but I liked his response. He said, “Anything that leaves a mark on paper. What kind of effect do you want?”

Tech pens always felt a little dead to me, and in my hands a quill pen is an ink-spattered blob of a mess waiting to happen. While I still believe that John's answer holds true (and some of my favorite inkers, John included, use different tools), I have always loved the effects that good inkers achieved with a brush, so I decided to make it my inking tool of choice. Talking about inking is a huge topic, and that's not what this whole blog is about. Like any skill it takes a lot of hours, a lot of practice, and a lot of ruined pages. But over time I learned it, and while I still believe that overall Fred is a better artist than I am, I'm pretty sure he would agree with me that I'm the better inker.

While we were reworking Grey Legacy we didn't retreat from publishing entirely. While still in Edinboro Fred and I discovered the existence of The Plain Brown Wrapper, a music and humor 'zine published in Erie, Pennsylvania. They were looking for comics to include and found a whole apartment full of us. Fred and I, as well as roommate Gordon Nelson and friend of the apartment David Matthews (not that David Matthews, as he's fond of pointing out), began to contribute short single-panel gags and one page stories. This kept expanding until we were doing three and four page stories with a variety of characters and ideas.

Through The Plain Brown Wrapper we became aware of the vast underground network of self-published mini-comics and 'zines. This sort of thing had always existed in some format, from the Tijuana Bibles in the early part of the 20th Century (look them up, but beware! Most are definitely X-rated and NSFW). The underground comix scene of the 60's produced Robert Crumb and S.Clay Wilson and a host of others. But it seemed like there was an explosion of these in the late 80's. Easy access to printers and copiers was part of the reason. Anyone could go to their corner Kinko's store and get cheap reproductions of their work. I don't know if there is any provable direct connection between the collapse of the B&W comics and the rise of the mini or not, but it seems likely to me. 1986 proved that anyone could make comics whether they made money from them or not.

There was a magazine called Factsheet Five where anyone could send their 'zines and mini-comics for a free listing and a review. We began to produce our own minis and to submit them. We would get orders for our books (usually people would just stick some money in an envelope to pay for the book and a stamp). Trading comics was a big part of the scene as well, so we ended up with stacks of poorly-drawn, poorly-written, cheaply-produced comics.

It was wonderful. This was the Do-It-Yourself Punk Rock ethos being applied to comics. It was the Wild West... anything went. Very few people producing mini-comics had any delusion of ever working as a comics professional. They simply wanted to make comics, and in spite of what I've said above, some of them were actually pretty good.

When the time came to publish Grey Legacy this seemed to be the logical first step. We had built a small audience, we didn't have the money to start a publishing business or print a traditional off-set press book, and comic shops and distributors, having learned their lesson in '87, were simply not interested in a small press black and white book from unknown creators.

In spring of 1990 we published Grey Legacy #0. The zero numbering was a play on a trend that was happening comics at the time, but it was also a little bit of presumptuous arrogance on our part. We knew that the eventual plan was to publish actual comics, so we didn't want to confuse future readers with different #1's (are you listening Marvel and DC?). We published #'s 01, 02, and 03. Pretty quickly we were the darlings of the mini-comics world (at least the part of it we were involved with). We were featured in articles and interviews in the scene and sold quite a few copies (we spent a lot of time at Kinko's, this in the pre-computer graphics days of type-setting and manual paste-up). We received a fan letter from Denmark and to this day I couldn't tell you how someone there stumbled across a copy. Not to sound too arrogant, but Grey Legacy was simply a better quality comic than most of what was coming out of the scene. By this time we were working at the professional level we hadn't achieved in the Shadowlock days.

We sent copies to a number of comics professionals whose work we admired, just to see if we could get some feedback. We received a number of very supportive letters and postcards back from Dave Sim (Cerebus), Scott McCloud (Zot! And Eventually Understanding Comics), Mike Allred (Madman) and Matt Wagner (Mage and Grendel). It was during this time that Wagner asked us to do the Grendel Tales proposal I mentioned a couple of blogs ago.

As a result of all of this we were invited to participate in an actual comic book anthology series called Wavemakers. Editor Mark Innes had seen our minis and asked us to do a Grey Legacy story for him (and actually offered to pay us!). We jumped at the chance, of course. This was a book that was going to be distributed to comics shops, and our first stab at real publishing since '87. At first we weren't sure what to do. He had asked for Grey Legacy, and we certainly wanted to pimp our primary project. But, the first few issues were pretty tightly planned. We didn't want to do something from the main story that wouldn't appear in our book. The benefit of expanding our fictional world though was that we now had lots of secondary and tertiary characters to play with. We decided to tell a story set in that world, but not about our main cast. We settled on Brix.

Brix was scheduled to appear in a Grey Legacy story (and if you look really closely you'll see her in the background of page 10, panel 4 of the first Grey Legacy story). She was meant to play a small, but very important role in the overall saga. That said, she was a character I was very fond of. Her role in the main story may have been small, but we were aware she had a life and other stories outside the main narrative.

So we wrote and drew Brix's Bane, a nine-page story, sent it off to Mark Innes, and received a check. Wavemakers #2 came out in January, 1991. Also appearing in the issue were such small press comics luminaries as Evan Dorkin, Matt Howarth, Harvey Pekar and Wayno. This is the first page of the story. You can read the whole thing at Drunk Duck.

This all took place right after I had walked away from my “career” in Psychology. Fred was working a crap job at a mall store and I started my career as a temp. He was doing some freelance art on the side, commissioned paintings and a few illustrations and book covers for a couple of local Pittsburgh companies. Through his contacts I sold some illustrations as well. Buoyed by the success of Brix's Bane I decided to start shopping my skills as an inker around to comics publishers. I did samples and sent them to most of the major publishing houses. DC is the only one that flat-out rejected me (though they did give me some very specific tips and critiques). Most of them, Marvel included, said they liked my work, but they simply didn't have any open assignments at the time and asked me to check again in a few months. This may have been utter crap, but it felt good to be told I was working at a professional level.

I finally received a phone call from Tom Mason, editor at Malibu Graphics. At that time Malibu was in probably the top six publishers in the business and they were publishing a lot of books. He gave me my first professional inking assignment. I inked a three issues mini-series called Invaders From Mars II. It was a comic book sequel to a 1980's remake of a 1950's scifi movie called, you guessed it, Invaders From Mars.

It was pencilled by someone named Sandy Carruthers and Written by Lowell Cunningham (creator of the comic book version of Men In Black that the film was loosely based on, also published by Malibu), with a pretty cool cover by Mike Grell.. I never met or spoke to either of them during this process (I met Lowell at a con years later). Sandy did the pencils and then they were sent to the letterer, then they were sent to me. I inked them and sent them back to the editor. The series appeared and I got paid. Not phenomenally well, but it was better than the temp work for three months.

When that was over I received my second assignment for Malibu. At the time they had licensed the rights to publish comics based on the movie and TV series Alien Nation. I inked a four-issue series (also by Cunningham and Carruthers) called Alien Nation: The Public Enemy. This was drawn on something called duotone board. There are two different shades of gray embedded in the paper that can be made visible using two different specific chemicals. In the hands of someone who knows what they are doing you can get some really great effects. I had never used it before in my life, and was given only two random pages to practice on before the first issue showed up in the mail. I think my lack of experience with this technique shows. But, like before, I got paid. Four more months I didn't have to rely on the temp work.

That was my last work for a comics company, but certainly not my last comics work. Grey Legacy was about to move into a whole new realm.

Need I say it?

To be continued...

Monday, July 25, 2011

Writing Part 5 (Comics Part 2)

Continued from my previous blog...

So Fred graduated high school and moved to Edinboro University of Pennsylvania while I graduated from Waynesburg College and started work (first as an administrative assistant to my local State Representative and then as a counselor at an ARC group home). During the two years we lived apart we engaged in regular correspondence. This was in those halcyon years before email or the internet, and long distance phone calls were expensive. So we wrote real letters. Lots of them. In addition to writing about our day-to-day lives (relationships, school/work, comics, movies, books and music), we began to seriously develop the Shadowlock world.

Our letters were full of character sketches, ideas and designs, back-story and plot ideas. We started to see Shadowlock as a more serious vehicle for the kind of stories we wanted to tell (though not too serious... there are lots of remnants of the Hitchhiker's Guide influence). We were young and finding our voices and styles. A lot of what we were reading at that time made it's way into the work. Philosophy and psychology and science fiction and everything else we were into at the time. This was in the mid-80's when the birth of the Direct Market had opened comics up to a whole new world of small press publishers. We were devouring this influx of material from new creators and seeing possibilities for comics beyond what Marvel and DC had offered. All of this went into our work as well. Books like Love and Rockets, Nexus, Grimjack, Elfquest, Cerebus, Mage, Grendel and Zot! (among many, many others), provided a direct influence on the way we wanted to make comics, if not in terms of actual content or art, then in terms of storytelling and approach. There was an unprecedented movement in the small press that allowed for more idiosyncratic visions and creative control and we wanted to be a part of it.

In 1986 I was burned out with my job at the ARC and decided it was time to avoid the real world for awhile and go back to grad school. Edinboro was an obvious choice. Fred was there. I had made several trips to visit him and met a lot of people. There was an open space at the apartment he was living in (Fred, me, and four other guys... it was one of those college apartments. Lots of stories and possible fodder for further blogging). Edinboro also had a pretty highly-rated graduate Psychology program (plus, they gave me an assistantship that paid for most of my tuition there and gave me a stipend to live on), though, to be fair, that was really a secondary consideration. I moved there in the fall of 1986.

It has been said that 1986 was “The Best Year in Comics, Ever!” and I'm inclined to agree. There are lots of reasons for this. Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen were both released. The John Byrne relaunch of Superman came out. The first trade paperback collection of Maus came out (it would eventually win the Pulitzer Prize).

But another reason for that was what has come to called the “Black and White Comics Explosion of 1986.” The first black and white issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles were first printed in 1984, and by 1986 the creators, Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, were well on their way to becoming millionaires. There are lots of reasons for this that are too complex a part of comic book history to go into in detail here (ask my students). One of the results of this success is that everyone who could hold a pencil wanted to produce a black and white comic with the belief that they too could become fabulously wealthy. In the short term comic shops stocked everything so they too could cash in on the next big thing. By doing so they created a market where almost anything of any quality, or lack thereof, could be moderately successful.

Jumping ahead for just a moment, in the long run the market simply couldn't support it, most of the books were crap, and though a few significant creators got their start here (Jim Lee and Guy Davis come to mind), most people didn't become millionaires. This collapse led to what has become known as the “Great Black and White Comics Implosion of 1987.”

It was fun while it lasted and Fred and I were in the thick of it. This had been going on for a little while by the time I moved to Edinboro, so we had already been making plans. We put together a proposal package of art and story ideas and began sending them out to every small publisher we could find an address for. In fall of '86 we got a bite. We received the following letter from Showcase Publications:

Don't try the phone numbers.
I'm pretty sure they don't work anymore.

We were stoked, to say the least. Now I'm pretty sure that unless you knew us then, or have heard my stories before, you've never heard of Showcase Publications. Even in the middle of the B&W explosion they were pretty small potatoes. But it was a chance to be published. We called and talked to Brian (whose last name I don't remember and can't decipher from the letter), and signed a contract with Showcase Publications. Shadowlock was about to become a published reality.

Somehow, in the middle of both of us being in college (my first semester of grad school, the most difficult academic semester of my life), we managed to write and draw thirty-two pages (a main story and a back-up feature) of Shadowlock #1.

We were still finding our style (as the following pages show). This was at a point where we both wanted to do a little bit of everything. As a result the art is a mishmash of styles. There are panels that I pencilled and Fred inked. There are panels that Fred pencilled and I inked. There are panels that are a mix of both.

The inking is a mix of tech pens, quill pens and brush. Neither of us had really developed that skill set with any tool yet.

Other than that it's difficult to break down who did what in our creative process. We worked on layouts and dialog together, just doing thumbnails and throwing words at each other until we agreed on something. We never really had a problem with egos on any project we've ever worked on together. In general I'm willing to say that probably the majority of the characters (and at least their initial design), and the overall, long-term plot of the book came from me. Fred was much better at the details, fleshing out the cultures and their philosophies, as well as the architecture, clothing styles and the spaceship designs. He added personal details to the characters. This is a generality and Fred certainly created his share of characters (Lesterfarr key among them), and I added my share of the rest of the stuff.

Somehow it all came together. We mailed our package of materials to Showcase and waited for the first issue to hit the stands. In the meantime, we were out there promoting our book. We had met a number of other small press publishers and creators at conventions. That was a magical time. We all believed we were on the forefront of something big in the comic book world. At Mid-Ohio Con in 1986 there was a tremendous sense of small press and community and camaraderie. We were all mutually supportive and excited to be a part of the process. We exchanged artwork, writing and art tips, and experiences with publishing. We hobnobbed with the big name stars at the Con (we had drinks with Frank Miller at our table at the Holiday Inn in Mansfield, Ohio), and they were friendly and supportive.

Fred and I were actually the featured guests at a few local cons. This was a mixed blessing. It was cool to finally be on the “comics professional” side of the table, and promoting our work was important. But, the downside is, other than our art, we had nothing to show. Shadowlock #1 was still being produced at the time this was all happening. We didn't have the actual comic book in our hands to promote.

We never got one either. Showcase Publications, like a lot of other companies, went belly-up during the“Great Black and White Comics Implosion of 1987” before our book was ever sent to the printer.

We were devastated, of course. We weren't the only ones. The next year at Mid-Ohio Con, 1987, there were a lot of disappointed small press comics creators. The excitement of the previous year was gone and so were most of the books. We all commiserated, supportive in our failure as we had been in our dreams.

We got our art back from the publisher. I knew some people who didn't. We lost no money, only time, and I still see that as a worthwhile investment in our art. We produced a lot of pages and met a deadline. We learned a lot about the art of comics.

In retrospect, as disappointing as it was at the time, I'm glad no one actually saw the finished product. Shadowlock #1 was incredibly amateurish. Like a lot of the people who published B&W comics in 1986 we simply weren't ready. We weren't working at a professional level, and Showcase Publications was simply trying to cash in on a fad while they could. This disappointment forced us to retreat and to rethink our entire approach to the story.

The B&W small press comics phenomenon also retreated, went underground and became the mini-comics movement of the late 80's. By then we were better artists, better writers, and better storytellers. We were a little smarter for our experiences as well. Shadowlock had morphed into a bigger, better project called Grey Legacy.

More on that next time.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Writing Part 4 (Comics Part 1)

As I've said, I've always known I wanted to be involved in the world of comics (Mission Accomplished!). I learned to read from comics. There was, and is, something about that magic interplay between images and text that appeals to me like no other art form. When comics are done well they work a very specific kind of magic that no other storytelling medium does (and this is where I point out that this is true of every storytelling medium at it's best). But in addition to being a fan of comics, I have always wanted to create them as well, long before I knew anything about the process of actually doing so.

My earliest memory of “creating comics” was in church with my grandmother when I was little. I mean really little, like four or five years old little. The memory is vague, of course, but I'm making the assumption that I was fidgeting and bored. She gave me a notepad and a pencil (maybe a pen) to keep me occupied. What I drew is the primary part of the memory, and I'm sure my mind's eye and the many years since have warped the actual visuals, but... I rendered a stick figure rendition of the Fantastic Four.

As a child, and on into my teens and adulthood (I still do this...) I filled sketchpads with drawings of superheroes. At first, like so many artists, I copied my favorite drawings from the comics, as well as from other sources (I remember doing a decent reproduction of Sequoia from the cover of one book of a series of American biographies for kids I was devouring from the library at the time. This would have been around third grade). These were not tracings. I would look at the art and draw it freehand. I was determined to someday have drawn every superhero that had ever existed (at the time I had no idea what that would actually entail).

Not content with the number of characters that already existed, I also created my own. Lots and lots of them. I think most people who read comics at that age have done something similar. Some of them go on to professional work in comics and introduce characters that had their origins in the brains and sketchbooks of ten-year-olds. I wanted to create my own stories, with my own characters, not simply write what other people have already created.

Flash forward to my late teens and early twenties. I met Fred Wheaton around that time and the first thing that bonded us as friends was our mutual love of comics. Thirty years of friendship later, with lots of shared life experiences, comics is still one of the topics we discuss pretty much every time we talk. Fred also drew comics, and wanted to create his own. We very quickly embarked on a series of collaborations.

I want to go on record here, and this may embarrass Fred (though this is the least of the embarrassing things I could say here)... Fred has always been a better artist than I am. When I first met him, he was younger than me and as crude as we both know his art was then compared to what it became, he was better than me then. He's better than me now. He has a sense of composition and a surety of line I envy. He simply sees better than I do, and is able to translate what he sees onto the page with more assurance.


We co-wrote part of an X-Men/Micronauts crossover and drew a few pages (Marvel actually did this series, much better than we could have done, a year or so later). We started creating characters for other series. We really only had a vague idea of how to go about making comics. In 1981 we attended PittCon '81, our first ever comics convention, and met a lot of comics pros and learned a lot about the process. Scripting, pencilling, inking, layout and design, storytelling. It is a complicated craft and we're still learning it, but that Con connected a lot of the dots for us very early on.

Somewhere in there Fred began writing a series of short SciFi prose comedy stories (inspired by Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy) featuring himself and his friends as main characters. They were full of in-jokes and Pop Culture references that no one but a few of us would get today (and don't ask either him or me... you're not going to get to read them). He wrote three and then I wrote a fourth one. I introduced a ridiculous villain by the name of Shadowlock, the most feared man in the universe. He had a robot companion named 7Q9 and carried the Necroblaster, a gun of limitless and completely undefined power.

So of course he became the star of his own comic. We made him a little more serious in tone, though the comedic elements certainly remained. Fred was still in high school at this time, and for some kind of art project we wrote and drew a short story (8 or 10 pages... I don't remember) and printed and bound a few copies.

Spiral Bound. I'm pretty sure this is my
pencils with Fred's inks.

This was the beginning of what would eventually turn into our Grey Legacy universe, the very same universe that my current Brix comic strips (accessible elsewhere on this page) takes place.

It has changed a lot over the years.

This would have been 1983 or '84. In 1986 we had a contract to do a full-fledged, nationally-distributed comic book series called Shadowlock.

But that's the next blog...

Join us next time, same blog channel, for Writing Part 5 (Comics Part 2)!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Writing Part 3 (Getting Paid)

I'm going to go a little out of chronological order with this. My experience writing, drawing, and eventually self-publishing comics sort of falls into the general category of “getting paid” but it's a story in and of itself. I'll come back to that later.

I moved to Pittsburgh in the early 90's for a job. Lots of people in my life at present don't know that have a Master's Degree in Clinical Psychology. It doesn't surprise me that they don't because that feels like a lifetime ago to me, another life entirely. I had followed the path of getting a good education to get a good job and at the time I still thought that being a Psychologist of some kind was my primary vocation. I don't regret the education, or the time spent getting it. Some of my best memories are of that time period. But the jobs... well, let's just say that Psychology was not my primary vocation.

One day, in a fit of pique... rage is a better word, I walked out of my professional career and never looked back. I had some money in the bank, but not another job to go to. Not having anyone other than myself to support allowed me to make this hasty decision. It was one of the two or three best decisions of my life.

So began six or seven years of living from paycheck to paycheck from unpredictable temp jobs (including the seasonal job of department store Santa... If you saw the Pittsburgh Christmas parade around 1993 or 94, that was me that John Fedko interviewed on the float). It was stressful and maddening and free. Within the first six months of leaving my career I had sold my first freelance art and writing. Now, I want to stress, I never made enough from either to live on it. But I was doing it.

The art was mainly comics related stuff, so that belongs in the next blog.

The writing, like a lot of things in my life, seemed to fall in my lap (people say I'm lucky, and maybe so, but I believe a big part of luck is putting yourself in it's way. Make connections, reach out, let people know what you're doing. Every bit of luck I've ever had can be traced back to specific connections I've made to set things in motion). The Spirits of Independence Tour came to Pittsburgh. This was a small press comics con, featuring Dave Sim of Cerebus fame, among others. Phantom of the Attic Comics (my current employer, though not yet at that time) was one of the only retail sponsors of the show. A friend of mine, Dean Focareta, was writing an article about the con for In Pittsburgh Newsweekly, the free weekly City Paper kind of thing at the time. Another mutual friend, Chris Potocki, was working as the assistant Arts and Entertainment editor for the paper and had given Dean the assignment. Dean called me up and asked if I would introduce him to some of the comics pros at the show (I had met and befriended a number of them over the year at various conventions). I said sure. I also asked Potocki if I could write something as well. Chris said to give him a couple hundred words as a sidebar for the article.

On the Friday night of the show, Steve Bissette (artist of Alan Moore's Swamp Thing, among many, many other things), was giving a slideshow lecture on the history of the Horror genre in comics. Dean was unable to attend this, and Steve is one of those artists I had befriended, so an article was born. I wrote it over the weekend and sent it to Chris. On Wednesday of the following week it was published exactly as I had written it, with no edits whatsoever. A week or so later I received a check for fifty bucks. In those days of temp work, fifty bucks was significant. I called Chris up and asked what I needed to do continue writing.

So began several years of being a fairly regular contributor to In Pittsburgh. I guess I should address that, yes, Chris was a friend of mine and he was doing me a solid. That said, he was an assistant editor with people above him who also liked my work. Chris left the paper not long after, but I kept on writing for it. I went through several editors; Margie Romero, Steve Segal and Mike Shanley. They were all very light-handed when it came to editing my work.

I wrote mostly entertainment based articles. CD reviews and concert previews for the most part, sprinkled with the occasional local comic book themed story. The pay wasn't great (though broken down to an hourly wage it wasn't bad for the time I actually spent on it), but the swag was great! I received a lot of free CD's to review. I saw a lot of free concerts. I went out to more concerts during this time when I was working as a temp and had no money than at any other time in my life. I interviewed the singer Jewel when she was 18 years old, about six months before she broke really big onto the national scene. My first cover feature was a phone interview with Frank Black, lead singer of the Pixies. The Pixies rank pretty high on my list of all-time favorite bands, so this was amazing. A couple of years later I met and hung out with him with a group of friends at the Squirrel Cage (a bar in Pittsburgh, for you out-of-towners). I met and hung out with Alt-Country star Robbie Fulks a dozen times or more. There were others. No one really, really big or famous, but in the world of Indy Rock they were people I was pretty excited about.

In Pittsburgh was eventually bought out and closed down by the City Paper. Within a year, maybe a little bit more, a new independent newsweekly called PULP came to life in Pittsburgh. Mike Shanley was Arts editor for this and called me up to see if I wanted to write for them. I did for the whole two years of the paper's existence. During this time I also sold a couple of articles to Pittsburgh Magazine, and had a few articles published in two different nationally distributed music magazines, Kulture Deluxe, and the Alt-Country bible, No Depression.

About the time PULP went out of business I was feeling a little dry. I felt like I had said pretty much all I had to say in that format and that, even though I was writing about different bands or subjects, I was writing the same old things over and over. By that time I wanted to move on to other projects.

This was a great experience for me. Getting a financial reward (as well as CD's and concerts) is always motivating. Seeing your work in print is always a good feeling as well. It's validating. For awhile I was one of the voices of Pittsburgh. Every so often someone still recognizes my name from something they read. It also taught me some discipline. I had deadlines I had to meet, and though all of my editors will tell you I pretty much always sent articles the day they were due (I had usually written them that morning), I never missed a deadline. It was good working with editors. Though they left most of my work unmolested they did occasionally ask for changes, or edit my work. I can only think of one time that I really disagreed with their choices, and even that was a good learning experience.

I'm not sure I'll ever go back to it. Nothing against it, but I just don't feel the motivation the way I did then. I might not turn down a gig if it was offered, but I'm probably going to need more than CD's and concerts at this point.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Writing Part 2 (sort of...)

King of Summer wasn't the first thing I wrote. There are notebooks and digital files full of unfinished projects that span the course of my life. It wasn't even the first thing I had published. First novel yes, first professional writing, no.

I'm not sure when I decided I wanted to be a writer. It feels like it has always been a part of my identity, not something I made a choice about at any point. I love to read. I love story. Being part of that world, whether I was “successful' or not, has always felt like the most natural thing in the world to me.

I learned to read very early, mainly from comic books. Mom is an avid reader and always read to me as a child. Comics were simply part of what she read to me, along with children's books. I remember drawing superheroes in notepads at a very early age, and even then I knew they weren't simply drawings, but part of a story. Because of comics the idea of images and text coinciding has always been the way I viewed the world. I am a very visual thinker and when I write I see everything very clearly. I know how I would lay out the comic version of anything I write. Then it's a matter of describing that in words.

I graduated quickly to “real” books. By third and fourth grade I had read Tom Sawyer, Huckleberry Finn and Howard Pyle's Robin Hood and loved them. I'm pretty sure I didn't pick up the deeper layers of Huck Finn and read it as a boy's adventure story, but I read it. Robin Hood was a huge influence on me (and I'm still drawn to the imagery). In delving into my memory this may have been responsible for my first attempts at writing. I wanted to stage a play of Robin Hood and cast all my friends in the roles. This was not simply playing in the woods. This was an actual, “hey, let's put on a play in the barn” moment, only I didn't want to do it in the barn. No, this was going to outdoor theater-in-the-round. I wrote scripts based on the novel and cast my friends (I was going to be Robin, of course) and gave them lines to memorize. Though some of them seemed excited by the project and others indulged me nothing ever came of this. It was way beyond my ability to organize and make real.

But I wrote.

As an aside... in sixth grade I was cast as Will Scarlet in a musical version of Robin Hood that my school put on. I'm pretty sure being the only redhead in the class was my primary qualification.

In my early teens I read a lot of bad Westerns and “Men's Adventure” series. My favorite Western was a series called Edge (the main character's name). I read series with such testosterone-filled names as The Death Merchant, The Butcher, and The Destroyer. These were probably... no, they were definitely inappropriate material. They were filled with over-the-top gratuitous violence and graphic sex (this at a time when I had yet to experience either of these at any level). These weren't the only types of books I read. I did eventually discover Lord of the Rings and various good Science Fiction. Somewhere in there I read Shogun and Roots. But, I read a lot of these adventure novels. So many that I decided to write one.

So when I was fifteen I started filling a notebook with the chapters of the first book in my proposed Men's Action/Adventure series called Knight and Armour (the main characters were named Todd Knight and John Armour... anyone notice a theme that still runs through my life?). They were ex-Mob hitmen, on the run from their former employers. It was, and I quote myself here, “filled with over-the-top gratuitous violence and graphic sex (this at a time when I had yet to experience either of these at any level)”... and it shows. While it was probably pretty good for a fifteen-year-old, it was terrible, by any real standards of writing.

But when it was done, and I did finish it, it was 90-plus pages of single-spaced type. Not a bad achievement for a kid.

After that was the aborted attempt at poetry (all bad), and some fantasy short stories of the barbarian/sword and sorcery type. I had been sucked into the worlds of Fritz Lieber and Michael Moorcock by then. I sent some comic book mini-series proposals to both Marvel and DC.

By my mid-20's I had discovered Hermann Hesse and Henry Miller and Jack Kerouac and spent probably the next ten years trying to write like them. My friend and collaborator, Fred Wheaton and I spent a tremendous amount of time creating what was to become the Grey Legacy universe and wrote and drew an issue of a book called Shadowlock. We both also began contributing short comics to some late 80's 'Zines, as well as publishing our own mini-comics. As a result of this, Matt Wagner (creator of the comic book series Mage and Grendel) asked us to submit a proposal for his Grendel Tales series. At the time he said he liked what we sent him, but a decade-long copyright dispute prevented him from publishing the series for a while.

And I kept trying to write novels. Eventually, finally, in the 90's, I began to get paid for my words and became... Ta-Dahhh!!! A professional writer!

If getting paid is the primary definition of that.

More on that next time.