Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Cover Story

One of the challenges for the self-publisher of Ebooks is being responsible for everything. This includes coming up with a striking cover image. Luckily, I have a modicum of artistic talent and design sense. Even luckier, I have a vast network of friends who are more talented artists than I am. For my project I enlisted the help of a couple of them.
The first is Marcel Walker. I have the benefit of him being my housemate, so I can pretty much bug him at any time to help me out. For the covers of both Scratch and This Creature Fair I had pretty clear ideas of what I wanted.
This is the doodle I did for Scratch.
This is the image Marcel came up with.
The photo is one of the Union Valley Methodist Church. This is the church I grew up in. My house was a few yards from where this picture was taken and the area around it is intrinsically linked to most of my childhood memories. I found this in a batch of pictures from my grandmother, Ida Wise. Someone had handwritten the date 1929 on it. Family legend has it that my great grandfather, Lon Wise, donated the land this church was built on in 1879.
I want to stress that no one in the book is based on anyone from this church. We never kept an angel chained in the basement. It doesn't even have a basement.
One of the recurring images and motifs in This Creature Fair is that of the bright red lips of the rock star, Morrigan Blue. My protagonist, Nick Chambers, is trapped by her charms and magic. This image has been in my mind since I first started writing the book.
This is my doodle.
This is what Marcel came up with.
My friend Margaret Bashaar, a talented writer herself, was my model for this. And yes, that is me in the photo as well. My original idea involved just the outline of the lips, but I LOVE the way this looks.
For Bedivere I knew I wanted something more traditional. The story is classic Arthurian fantasy, so I wanted something that conveyed that. I wasn't sure who I was going to ask to do this until I saw a post on Dave Wachter's website. Dave is a relatively new friend and an amazingly talented artist. He recently drew a three issue miniseries for IDW called That Hellbound Train (based on a Robert Bloch story. Dave regularly posts his artwork on his website. One day he posted a beautiful drawing of a knight on a horse and I knew exactly who I wanted to do my cover. The drawing I saw wasn't right for my book so I sent Dave some general ideas. I can't ell you how much I love what he came up with. If this epublishing thing is successful at all, and assuming I actually finish the project, there will be two more books in this series with covers by Dave.
Here is Dave's original painting without the cover text.
Thank you all!

Monday, August 29, 2011

My Ebooks are now available!

I have successfully uploaded my novels to three locations. They are now on sale from Amazon for the Kindle, BArnes & Noble for the Nook, and Smash Words for a variety of other ereader devices.
If you look at the banner at the top of this page you will that I now have an individual page for each book. There are cover images there, as well as my "Back Cover" book descriptions. I have written blogs about the writing experience of each. Be warned and be careful... There are possible SPOILERS in these posts.
And of course there are links to purchase the books.
Since this is the formal announcement I will post the links here as well. You may have noticed the scrolling widget on the right side of the screen. Those links will take you to Amazon.
So will these:

For the Nook follow these links:


This Creature Fair

Bedivere: The King's Right Hand

For Smash Words follow these links:


This Creature Fair

Bedivere: The King's Right Hand

I will be posting more about this in the next few days (months, years... enough that you'll probably get sick of hearing about it). In the meantime, I'm sounding the general call for friends and other interested parties to please post about this if you would. Self-promotion is the key to success in this venture (well... that and the quality of the books, I suppose). I'll be contacting some of you individually for assistance with that as well.

I'm pretty excited by the whole thing, obviously. Thanks to everyone for the support. Some specific thanks goes out to:

Lori Piper, long-term, lifelong friend who suggested I investigate this whole Ebook thing in the first place.

Marcel Walker, who aside from listening to me drone on about this project for months now, took a couple of little scribbles of mine and realized them as the covers for Scratch and This Creature Fair.

Margaret Bashaar, for loaning me her lips for the cover of This Creature Fair.

Dave Wachter, for the amazing painting he did for Bedivere.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

So now what? Writing Part 9

KoS wasn't the last thing I wrote. I've written three complete novel-length manuscripts since then (and abandoned several other long projects that for some reason or another just didn't work). In future posts I will discuss these in more detail, but for now here's a quick run-down.

My second completed novel is a book called Scratch (the one that began it's life as a Guardians short story). It's a modern fantasy/horror novel set in the same world as King of Summer. None of the characters from KoS appear, but there is an overlap in the setting. It's a little darker in tone.

My third complete novel is called This Creature Fair. Set in the Pittsburgh music scene, the title comes from the lyrics to David Bowie's Lady Stardust, from the Ziggy Stardust album. It's another modern fantasy/horror novel. Several characters from King of Summer show up in this one, most notably Chris and Wren, now college age.

I thought I was done with my Arthurian obsession and after KoS would never need to revisit it. I was wrong. I never intended to write my own take on the classic legends, but somewhere along the line I came up with an approach I haven't seen before and before I knew it I was sucked into writing a novel. Bedivere: The King's Right Hand is the first of a trilogy (at least the way I currently have it outlined). This by far the biggest and most complex project I have yet attempted. The second book is in progress.

Though I'm pretty sure PublishAmerica would have published a second novel from me I felt like I wanted to move up the publishing ladder, so I never sent another one to them. I have submitted Scratch to several publishers and agents. I pitched it in person to an agent from the Virginia Kidd Agency at a writers conference I attended. Based on my pitch she asked me to send the complete proposal to her. She rejected it. So have a number of other publishers and agents. In each case I received a real letter, not a form rejection, telling me that while they really liked my writing style (the agent I met described my writing as “lyrical”), they weren't sure how to market the book. It doesn't fit comfortably in a pre-established genre-specific market.

I've heard a number of agents admit that they are all somewhat schizophrenic when it comes to what they agree to represent. Each one of them claims to be looking for that brand new thing that will set the publishing world on fire. Each one of them is likely to continue to represent safe, genre-specific, easily defined and marketable products. I can't even bitch too much about this. I understand that they make their living from books that sell and the truth of it is, formulaic Harlequin romances outsell experimental literary fiction by a huge margin (not that my work qualifies as either).

So my writing is at a professional level, but since it's not something easily categorized it was passed on.(okay, to be fair and self-aware here... it could be that the book simply doesn't live up to their editorial standards. But the tone of their letters seem to indicate otherwise). Anyway, long story short, it gets really tiring submitting manuscripts and then waiting for months on end for a response. That experience is compounded by most publishers having a “no simultaneous submissions” policy. What this means is if I've submitted to one company I have to wait until I get a response before I can submit it elsewhere. A person can get very old going through this process too many times.

Now, add to that the ongoing loss of brick and mortar bookstores. The big chains moved into towns and put the independent bookstore out of business, and now the big chains are going bankrupt. Online book sellers took a huge chunk out of the bookstore market. There are less and less bookshelf inches of display space every day and as a result the big publishers are becoming even more conservative with what they choose to stock. Proven sellers like Stephen King and Nora Roberts will continue to dominate those shelves, while new writers will have an increasingly difficult time being represented at all.

It has been a weird few years because of conflicting dynamics. Because of print-on-demand technologies, new small press publishers, ala' PublishAmerica, have cropped up all over the internet. Since 2002 I have visited a number of writer's resource sites on a regular basis. Some of these maintain an ongoing market update, listing publishers who are currently accepting submissions and how to contact them. I have seen dozens of small press, print-on-demand companies come and go in that time, some without ever publishing a book. Those who do survive, like PublishAmerica, make your book available through online sales and all of the major book distributors, but have very little success actually getting their books into the stores. When KoS was in print you could walk into any Borders or Barnes and Noble and have an employee look it up in their system and order a copy. Your chances of actually ever finding it on display were nil.

The only copy I ever saw in a bookstore was at the Washington Crowne Center Mall (or the Franklin Mall, as I'll always think of it), at the Walden Books where I had bought most of my reading material growing up. I didn't know anyone who worked there and I hadn't contacted them to order my book. Either someone I knew ordered one and told them about it, or they saw the article about my novel in the local paper and took chance on a local boy done good.

So, what's a writer with aspirations of actually being read to do? The answer, currently (and I realize I may lose some librarian friends over this), seems to be epublishing.

I have a lot of mixed feelings and thoughts on this, and I plan on elaborating here, so this may be a good place to bail.

I knew that ereaders were out there, the Kindle and the Nook specifically, and I kind of knew that there was a self-publishing option available through them, but I had never really investigated this option until a friend pointed it out to me (Thanks Lori!). Turns out, the benefits to the author are really pretty good ones. There are downsides of course, but it looks to me there's very little personal risk involved and the potential for significant rewards.

Pretty much for forever now the concept of self-publishing, deemed the “Vanity Press,” has been looked down on by the “legitimate” publishing business. There are reasons for that. In the past, anyone with the financial resources could publish their book without any editing or polishing. The overall quality of most of these books was questionable at best. There were those that transcended that; Walden by Thoreau is the one most often referenced. Even at the time when I first started looking at how to submit, Vanity Presses were something of a no-no. If your book came out from one of these, no matter what the quality was, it seemed you were likely to be blacklisted from major, royalty-paying publishers. This was their goal as businesses and as gatekeepers. The major publishers want to make money from their product and anything published outside their rubric is a threat. They determine what sees print, what gets distributed and seen in bookstores. The upside to this is that they do have a long history of professionalism and editorial decisions. The downside is anyone new trying to join their ranks has a very difficult time. It is possible, of coarse, but I believe a lot of good writing gets overlooked (it has become a cliché to point out that the first Harry Potter book was rejected, I believe, 37 times before someone took a chance on it, because no one believed an audience existed for that kind of book).

If you've been reading this blog, or know me, you know that I come from a comic book background. The self-publishing revolution began there in the 1970's and has been a respected form ever since. Books like Cerebus, Elfquest, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Bone and countless others have proven that quality work will find an audience even if the major publishers (in this case Marvel and DC), don't believe in it initially. Each of these books were critically praised and profitable, seeing reprints and new product over a period of years. Of course, there are dozens if not hundreds of self-published comics at this point that have failed for any number of reasons, lack of quality among them. The point is, in the comics industry the concept of the creator of a book owning the rights and publishing something and making the bulk of the profits for themselves has been a long, ongoing successful practice. The concept of a vanity press simply doesn't exist there. You put out the work, promote it yourself, and succeed or fail on your own merits. It's a much more democratic process and I have a lot of belief that if the creators do the work then quality will find an audience.

This idea is just now hitting book authors, and the technology to make it happen has exploded.

So, I did some research. Here's the deal...

The positives are very simple. I write something. I'm responsible for the quality, meaning I need to give my manuscript to trusted readers and editors to tell me where I suck. But bottom line, I own my work, and I'm responsible for it. I can upload it to Amazon Kindle and a minute later upload it to Barnes and Noble's Nook, and a minute after that upload to SmashWords who make it available to multi-platform ereaders of all kinds. I have an account with each of these (and there are others), and they will make my work available for digital download worldwide and make no claims on my copyright or ownership. At any point I can choose to remove my work from their sites and cancel my account. They will continue to offer my work pretty much forever (or until the next big technological change). The term being used is “Perpetual Bookshelf.” If you are lucky enough to be published by a major and get your book in an actual bookstore your shelf life is pretty limited. You have a few months to make an impact and find an audience and if you don't your book goes into the remaindered bins. Your sales are also limited by your print run. If they print 5000 copies and you're lucky enough to sell them all you then have to wait for a second print run to get your book out there. With digital downloads your potential sales are infinite.

You do not have to invest in a Kindle or a Nook to read any of these books. There are free App downloads available for Ipods, Ipads, cell phones and computer screens. Smashwords makes books available for downloads in PDF and RTF files so you can simply read them on your computer.

The royalties are amazingly better than with traditional publishers. When King of Summer was published my royalty on the ridiculously overpriced cover price of $21.95 was around 2 bucks. My royalty on a $2.99 ebook? Around 2 bucks. Now call me crazy but it seems like I'm much more likely, as an unknown author, to sell more copies of a novel at $2.99 than at $21.99 (plus shipping and handling). My cut of the profits goes from about 10% to about 70%. Since the book and the work that went into it is mine, that seems much more fair.

I don't plan on getting rich overnight, if ever. I'm very realistic about my chances here. My books will be among thousands available, and the chances of enough people finding them and being interested are slim (you know, just like in a real bookstore). There have been some Ebook writers who have been incredibly successful and have reaped tremendous financial rewards. But people like Amanda Hocking and John Locke and Joe Konrath are the exceptions. Many people publish and sell very little.

The responsibility for marketing is mine. I won't have the backing of a major publisher to put ads in the trade mags or promote it in any way. That was pretty much my experience with PublishAmerica anyway. They made it available online and expected me to promote it. Now I can do the same thing and keep a higher percentage of the profits. With social networking sites this is a much easier task than it was when my novel first came out. One status update on Facebook reaches out to my 500-plus friends. That alone is probably more than heard of my book in 2002. If even a small percentage of them repost it, or mention it, or blog about it or review it somewhere my potential customer base expands dramatically.

And trust me, Facebook friends... I'm going to be hitting you up to help me promote this stuff.

I am also responsible for creating the covers. Luckily, not only do I have some artistic design skill, I know a lot of very talented artists.

Now for the downsides. These mostly fall in the category of what epublishing is doing to the book market. I love books. Actual, square-bound books with lots of pages. I like they way they feel in my hand. The way they smell. The way they sit on my bookshelves, silent but filled with words and knowledge, entire worlds folded up between two covers. A librarian friend of mine said to me recently that physical books sing to her. I hear that song. Books have been constant companions to me since before I could read. I love bookstores and libraries. I love browsing through the stacks. They are the churches of the secular soul. Browsing online bookstores will never be the same.

Epublishing, as well as the economy, and the price of books are conspiring to kill the bookstore, and by joining this revolution the bloody ink will be on my hands as well. There is something about this I find very sad.

I don't see print going the way of the dinosaur entirely for awhile yet. As long as there are bibliophiles out there print books will survive. But it will be different. This is the same resistant feeling I had years ago to digital music and the Ipod I, and now I can't imagine living without one. The technologies have changed and there is no going back. The Ebook is a reality and the question is how do each of us choose to interact with this new technology. I recently read my first book on a Kindle, and while it was a different experience, it was still reading. The content of the book I read was the same no matter what physical form it took. I'm about to start a second one. I don't see this as replacing physical books for me for some time, but it is another format. One of the upsides of this revolution is that the price of Ebooks are significantly lower. Hopefully this will lead to people actually buying and reading more than they currently do ($21.95 for my book my ass!).

One of the compromises being offered is that through a program called Create Space, once a book is made available through Amazon Kindle they give you the option of making physical copies of your book available through print-on-demand. I'm not at that stage of the process yet, so I have no idea what kind of price point there will be on these hard copies, but I know I'm going to want a couple for my own bookshelf. Anyone who wants an actual copy of one of my books will be able to order one.

So, the end result of all this is my announcement that within the next few days I will be jumping head first into the role of Epublisher. Each of the three books listed above will be available at the same time. A new, digital edition of King of Summer will follow eventually, as well as as-yet-unwritten projects. I will post ordering information, as well as links to the Apps at that time. Each of my novels will have its own page here on the blog. Check out the banner at the top of the page for that.

So... That's that. Wish me luck.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

King of Summer (Writing Part 8)

I talked about my publishing experience with King of Summer, but I really didn't discuss the experience of writing it. I'm not sure what I have to add. At this point it was around 10 years ago that I began the project, and some of the details and specific memories are hazy. But, it's worth dredging the unconscious to see what I come up with.

Like I said, at some point after seeing the Guardians short stories printed and collected I realized that I was capable of writing at length. That was an important insight and led directly to my decision to once again attempt to write a novel. I had tried this many times before, of course and never got very far into it (the Knight and Armour manuscript I wrote when I was 15 notwithstanding). I'm not sure exactly what it was but KoS felt different from the beginning. I had more actual writing experience under my belt, for one thing. By this time I had had many articles published and paid for. I was a “professional” writer, at least in terms of selling my work. I was more confident when I sat down at the keyboard, and though the articles were different than fiction, through them and the Guardians I had finally begun to hear my own voice in my writing rather than a bad imitation of whoever was inspiring me at the moment.

I think I began KoS with humbler aspirations than previous efforts (if that can truly be said about anyone who sits down to write a novel... there's something inherently a little arrogant about the attempt). Before this I wanted to write something for the ages. I wasn't content to simply write a novel. I wanted to write the kinds of things I loved. I wanted to be Hermann Hesse, or Henry Miller, or J.R.R. Tolkien, or Robert Pirsig or... you get the idea. I was frustrated in my writing because it didn't live up to the impossibly high standards I compared myself to. In Hesse's Steppenwolf he talks about his own efforts paling when compared to those he called “The Immortals.” Hesse had become one of my own Immortals, and his voice, among others, while inspiring, was preventing me from hearing my own.

Writing articles about music was immediate and transient. Writing about the Guardians was fun. Both of these helped me to put aside my aspirations at being an Immortal and let me just write. It was with this in mind that I began KoS. For once, rather than wanting to write the great American novel and being paralyzed by the enormity of that expectation, I simply wanted to tell a story.

I'm not really sure where the original idea came from, or how the story developed. I'm a terrible notetaker and I've always had the bad habit of organizing things in my head rather than writing them down (bad for a writer). I am not an outliner. I get an idea for a story and it just sort of develops in my head. Characters appear and some of them work and some of them don't. I usually “see” several key scenes in a story, and have a general idea of the direction I need to go and the ending. I don't often write any of that down ahead of time. As a result not only am I sure that I've lost brilliant ideas, I also have very little in the way of records of how I work.

In the case of KoS I have a single page of notes.

I knew I wanted to tell a modern fantasy/horror story using kids as the protagonists. I wanted to give it a little more resonance and depth, some kind of mythological underpinning (I said I wanted to just tell a story, I didn't say I had given up aspirations that it would mean something). I have long been fixated on the legends of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. I have read many, many novels based on this, as well as the literature and history and the psychological symbolism involved. One of the things I am fascinated by is how this core story can be reinterpreted time and again and still speak to our modern sensibilities. The symbols, the relationships, the stories, feel universal to me.

With this in mind I decided to use the Arthurian legends as a map for the story I wanted to tell. I knew I didn't want to simply retell the specific tales, but reference the symbols and relationships in a modern context. The challenge was to encode this information into the story in such a way that those who know Arthurian legends would go, “Aha!” and those who don't know them wouldn't be lost or even know they were missing anything. The story needed to work for anyone, not just those in the know. I didn't want to deal with the idea that my characters were specific reincarnations of the knights, or that they themselves would ever know they were in an Arthurian pastiche. They were kids, in a modern setting, who embodied the archetypes without actually being the Arthurian characters they resembled.

This was an idea that Matt Wagner had used in his comic, Mage: The Hero Discovered. It was also an idea borne out of Jungian psychology. There is a book by Dr. Carol Pearson called The Hero Within (and a followup called Awakening the Hero Within), that addresses the idea of embodying heroic archetypes. These were ideas I wanted to play with.

On that single page of notes I have a list of some of the major Arthurian characters and next to each I have the name of one of the kids who ended up in KoS. This was the first attempt to figure out the roles each of them would play. I didn't want this to be glaringly obvious, so other than Artie none of them have a name that directly correlates to the character they represent (though there are some other clues with some of them). Also on the page are a couple of notes about how the classic elements of Arthurian literature would manifest in the modern world. A 12-year-old couldn't very well be wielding Excalibur in small town America.

There are a lot of hidden Arthurian tidbits encoded in the manuscript, and I'm not going to give a list here, though I want to address two of the main ones. I wanted to imbue the everyday with magic. The kids needed to encounter the fantastic in the guise of known items. Excalibur appears in KoS as a pocketknife. This seemed reasonable to me. Lots of young boys, at least where and when I grew up, were given pocketknives very early as a sign and test of responsibility. On a more personal note, my Dad is a dealer in pocketknives (not a collector... he buys them and then resells them for a profit). He knows a lot about the history and other minutia of knives, and I have been around this forever (just as an aside, I don't carry one, a fact that completely befuddles my father who doesn't understand how I can get through a single day without needing one in some capacity).

The Holy Grail appears as a tarnished baseball trophy. The obvious cup-like nature aside, this became an important symbol in the novel of the unity of past generations. When I was little there was an older man at my church named George McNeely. His wife had died and he lived in a small 2-room building near me. A friend and I would go to visit him occasionally and he always welcomed us with snacks and pop and told us stories of his youth. I realize now just how lonely he must have been. In his living room there was a large baseball trophy he and his teammates had won sometime when he was young. It was an item of great pride for him and he told us many stories from those games. In my mind, this symbol of his youth and a better time in his life became the Grail of my story (and George became a character in my story as well).

So, armed with these few notes on paper and a larger story in my head I sat down to write.

I don't know exactly what was different this time, other than some of the vague notions I have outlined here, but for some reason this time I wrote. And wrote. And stuck with it and wrote some more. My goal was 1000 words per day, and I wrote almost every day. There were slow periods, of course, and days when I didn't write because the rest of life got in the way. There were days when I wrote well over my daily goal (one magical Saturday when I was writing what would become the final chapter of part one of the novel when I topped 6000 words, to date my record, and they were all pretty good words).

The story took on a life of its own. It's cliché to say that, but it's true. The outline in my head grew, Characters began to say and do things I never had planned. Vivian in particular, simply wouldn't shut up and made me write her a bigger role than I intended when I introduced her (and as a result she is the character most people have commented on when all was said and done).

One of the problems I had before this was second guessing every sentence. I would write one and then immediately attempt to polish it into perfection. I would introduce a minor character, one who played no role beyond set dressing, and then become paralyzed by the need to find just the right name for this nobody. My internal editor wouldn't allow my writer to write. Somewhere during the articles and The Guardians and Grey Legacy I had learned to differentiate between the voices of my internal editor and my writer, and when my writer needed to work I simply didn't allow the editor in the room. His job isn't creativity. If anything, he is a detriment to it. His job is to clean up after the writer is done. It's an important job (and one he's more lax at in this blog, given the number of misspellings I find when I reread my posts), but only after the writer does his part.

It's a little schizophrenic, but I find this division of labor essential.

I wrote the first draft in about 5 or 6 months, then spent considerable time with the cleanup. In the end I was very happy with the results. I reread it in its entirety recently when I got the rights back back. I'm still happy with it, though there are some edits I would make. I'm a better writer now, but I'm not embarrassed by my first book.

At the top of this page there is a link to a King of Summer specific page. There you will find the back cover book description and a collections of online reviews the book garnered. As time passes I will update this page with any new information or reviews I receive.

And if anyone reads it and wants to know more about the specific Arthurian Easter Eggs, ask me. I'll be glad to bore you with them.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Jerry Robinson

Tonight I was privileged to host an appearance/book signing at the Toonseum by legendary comics creator Jerry Robinson. For those of you who don't know, Mr. Robinson was one of the original artists on Batman starting in 1939. The creation of Batman is usually credited to Bob Kane (some smart legal wrangling on his part back then guaranteed that his name appeared on every appearance of the character), though most comics historians agree that Bill Finger was equally involved. Jerry was hired by Kane's studio as an artist and worked initially as an inker.

If that was all he had done he may have been forgotten, but Jerry contributed at least two elements to the Batman mythos that are essential. He designed the character of Robin and suggested the name (inspired by Robin Hood, not the red-breasted bird), and he created the Joker.

This is his original concept drawing.

There are many online resources that tell his story better than I can. A new book from Dark Horse called Jerry Robinson: Ambassador of Comics would be a great place to start.

In his lifetime Jerry has been a comic book artist, a book illustrator, a comic strip artist, and an editorial cartoonist. He has worked in advertising and fine art. He has formed and presided over several organizations of illustrators. He was a scholar of comics long before anyone else was taking this art form seriously. He published a book on the history of the comic strip in the 1970's (it has recently been reprinted with new sections added to update the content to the present, all written by Jerry). He has been a lifelong champion of creators rights, most notably in the 70's when he helped spearhead the effort to get money from DC Comics and Warner Brothers for the creators of Superman, Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (two men he had worked with and been friends with for years).

Jerry is 89, and though a little frail, his mind is still sharp. He gave a slide presentation and regaled us with stories and anecdotes from the entire span of his career. I was supposed to interview him but I ended up asking very few questions. Though I asked him to elaborate on a couple of points for the most part he covered everything I wanted to ask in the course of his presentation. At the end, when I did ask him a couple of things he gave long, wonderful answers.

He was, quite simply, an amazing presence. Rarely do I find myself in the company of someone who awes me. I did tonight. His career, and more importantly his life, embodies so many of the things that have given my life meaning: art, writing, scholarship and integrity. It goes so far beyond his connection to Batman and any fanboy reaction I may have had (and I did feel a little fanboyish). At 89 he embodies a life well lived.

Thank you Joe and Rob and whoever else it was at the Toonseum who allowed me this honor and thought I would be the right person for the job. Thank you Jerry Robinson, for...

Thank you for living your life well, and sharing it with all of us through your art. You are an inspiration.

Thursday, August 18, 2011

Alice Cooper – Generation Landslide

I saw Alice Cooper last Friday night at Stage AE in Pittsburgh. Alice is the first rock star I ever really got into, and the act I have seen most often in my life. I'm not sure what my first real exposure to Alice was. My parents were older and listened primarily to country music radio, so I wasn't hearing rock in my home very much (though we did watch a lot of variety shows like Ed Sullivan, so I did see a lot of them on TV). I remember a poster of Alice, a picture of him hanged, on the wall in the record section of our local G.C. Murphys department store in Waynesburg, PA. I can't imagine how this was allowed in our little provincial town, but the image was both shocking and alluring to my ten-year-old mind.

This was the inside of Alice's 1971 album Killer. This may have been the image on the poster. It seems likely, but I'm not sure.
The first Alice song I remember is School's Out (and to this day the opening riff makes me 12 again). I don't really remember hearing it on the radio, though I probably did. There was some sort of Greatest Hits of 1972 album in the band room at school and School's Out was on that. The only other song I remember being on this album was Summer Breeze by Seals and Croft. This was seventh grade for me, 1973 and 74, so it was a while after these songs came out.

I remember seeing him on the Phil Donahue Show around this same time (the internet tells me it was in 1975, so actually a little later than this). Donahue was a daytime talk show. In my memory the audience was full of middle-age to older women who were fairly hostile to Alice when he first came on stage. Alice was charming and well-spoken and by the end of the program he had won most of them over.
At the end of seventh grade we had some sort of end of the year school program. The chorus sang a couple of songs, the stage band performed, and somehow I talked the teacher into letting a couple of friends and me end the show with a lip-synched performance of School's Out. I played Alice, of course. I had applied Alice's signature makeup, wore a long, brown wig, and carried a large rubber snake. I stood in the back of the auditorium while the rest of the “band” set up. The principal, a man I would later have a few philosophical conflicts with, walked in and saw me. I don't think I imagined the look of disdain from him. When the opening riff blared through the sound system I ran down the aisle and leaped onto the stage, launching into my performance. Pretty silly, in retrospect, but I had fun and the kids loved it. There's a reason this song was, and still is, an anthem everyone relates to.
And no, there really aren't any pictures from this event that I have ever seen.
As I've said on this blog before, I'm pretty sure a lot of my early musical tastes were influenced by my love of comics. Alice is a prime example of this. He wasn't a superhero, but he wore costumes and was definitely a larger-than-life character. His stage shows were full of spectacle. Monsters and giant spiders and various instruments of death. He took the darkest elements of our psyche and put them on display with a sense of humor and incredible panache. He was an EC Horror comic come to life, and when Marvel Comics did an Alice Cooper issue of Marvel Premiere the cover was an overt tribute to EC.
Fred and I took the name of our comics partnership,
The Fragile Elite Studio, from a lyric on Alice's From The Inside album.
I bought the single of Only Women Bleed. It was getting a lot of radio play at the time, and showed a softer side of Alice. There was the obvious and taboo double meaning of the title (a little lost on me at the time... I was fairly naïve about the physical ways of women at the time), but wrapped up in the lyrics was an overt message about the nature of abuse. The b-side of this sensitive megahit was Cold Ethyl, a song about necrophilia. Coupling this with Only Women Bleed was an amazingly seditious act. The single sold in the millions to unsuspecting teens like me.
I was happy to see these two songs performed back-to-back last Friday.
I didn't see Alice live until 1986. Alice had taken a few years off to get his act together after a life-long battle with alcohol. He hit the road on his Constrictor tour, stronger than ever, and hasn't slowed down since.
I've seen him perform his giant, full-theatrical stage shows, and I've seen him stripped down with only a band and a few props. The Pittsburgh show was somewhere in between, but it didn't disappoint. He is still a charismatic performer, and while maybe not as shocking as he once was it pays to remember that the whole concept of rock theater began with him. I was thrilled when he and the rest of the original Alice Cooper Group band were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame this spring. It was long over due.
I've written a couple of articles about Alice back in my journalism days. Both are actually still available online. The first one originally appeared in In Pittsburgh. If I still have a copy it is buried in the deepest archives. Luckily, some Alice fan out there has seen fit to include it on a site dedicated to articles about Alice. You can read it here.
For awhile I wrote DVD reviews for an amazing site called Fulvue Drive-In. I reviewed Alice Cooper Live at Montreux. If you poke around the site you'll find a number of my articles on various things.
Alice and his songs allowed me to look at the dark things in life in a safe and fun way. But he also taught me lessons. For those of you who didn't immediately go read my old articles, the recap is this; Alice's shows are, in the tradition of classic Horror, morality plays. The character of Alice does horrible things on stage, but he is eventually caught and punished. Alice has died by Guillotine and by hanging and by electric chair thousands of times. He pays for his crimes. After this bloody climax to his show he reappears, usually dressed in white, reborn and purged of guilt. Alice is the son of a Methodist minister and a Christian. The extremes of his imagery is not about embracing the darkness in society, but exposing it, and by doing so, bringing it into the light where it hopefully cannot survive. Alice is a Rock and Roll villain, but by his ritual sacrifice at every performance gives us hope that good wins out in the end.

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

More Grey Legacy Promo Stuff

Back in the mini-comics day we released an 8 page introduction to the characters and setting of the Grey Legacy universe called the Grey Legacy Primer. None of this info was essential to understanding the comic, but it gave some insights into our plans and where we were going.
None of these are available for sale any longer.

Sunday, August 7, 2011

Writing Part 7: Roleplaying and Fanfic

Continued from my previous blog...

So, the Grey Legacy experience was over (at least that phase of it). We both took a break from producing comics. Fred moved to DC to pursue a career that had nothing to do with art (a career he's been very successful at). I was still doing the temp routine. This was around the time I started writing articles for In Pittsburgh (as detailed in a previous blog) and other freelance jobs. A couple of years later I was hired by New Dimension Comics in Cranberry and said goodbye to my temp career. A year after that I was hired by Phantom of the Attic and have been there ever since.

But I didn't stop writing or drawing. I still had the need to create, whether there was any practical or financially-rewarding goals in mind or not.

Like a lot of people involved in my hobbies, I started playing roleplaying games in my teens. I'm old enough that Dungeons & Dragons was a new game when I was a teen. I received the box set for Christmas in the late 70's and a small group of my high school friends played for a couple of years (until my friend Tom Hanks went crazy from the experience and got lost in the sewers looking for real goblins... but that's another After School Special). These were the basic “find a treasure” and “kill the monster” type of adventures. We really weren't experienced enough to turn these sessions into the genuine storytelling, character-driven games that real roleplaying can be. I played a couple of times in college, but that was the end of it for nearly a decade.

When I moved to Pittsburgh in 1990 I met a group of people who were really into roleplaying and joined in. The first campaign I played was called Circle of Iron and the gamemaster was David Fielding (who went on to be the face and voice of Zordon on the Mighty Morphing Power Rangers). It was everything I had ever wanted roleplaying to be. He had created a sprawling and complex world, utilizing mythology and history to give weight to his setting. Instead of simply looking for treasure our characters were placed in a story, with very specific goals. We spent far more time engaged in character development than we did rolling dice and fighting monsters. One New Years weekend we spent hours and hours surrounded by the remnants of our carnage food: bags of chips and Twizzlers, take-out pizza, take-out Chinese, and a never-ending supply of a Kool-Aid we called the Blue Elixir. There were three distinct major story arcs that took place in this world.

From there my roleplaying experiences expanded, usually with variations of this same group of people. We moved from D&D into other game systems. We spent a summer in the world of Shadowrun.

Somewhere in there, based on my lifelong love of comics, I joined a Marvel Superheroes roleplaying campaign. If memory serves, this was a game that had been started by my friend Jerry Scott when he was in middle school (maybe before that, maybe after... well before his college years anyway). Jerry played the Circle of Iron campaign with us and is now a Professor of Theater at Case Western. It was group of superhero characters that he and his friends had been playing for years. Several of us from Circle of Iron joined the fray. Set squarely in the long, convoluted history of the Marvel Universe we all created original characters and fought many classic Marvel villains, as well as new ones we created.

“Original characters” may be overstating it. Like many people who create superheroes, a lot of ours were variations on established characters, at least in terms of powers and backgrounds. It's easy to do this when you're young, and many people who work in comics professionally do the same thing. After 70 years of history and literally thousands of superheroes it's difficult to be completely original.

But we had fun, and somewhere along the line, Jerry decided to write short stories based on our characters.

It has become a cliché in the world of fantasy novels that many of them read like someone's D&D campaign, and it's true. Far too many writers have taken their tabletop adventures and attempted to convert them into prose. I have no doubt that some of these efforts have been successful. A tremendous amount of creativity can go into establishing a roleplaying world. Major publishers have released very successful book series based on most of the popular roleplaying games.

There is also the convention of Fan Fiction, or Fanfic. People who are fans of something, be it a comic, or a movie or a TV show, want to tell new stories set in their favorite world. This is especially true when a series comes to an end. So, they write their own adventures of their favorite characters. There are thousands of Star Trek fanfics out there, and Star Wars, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Doctor Who, and... Pick any show you know of and Google it with fanfic and you will probably find something (be careful... a lot of these take Spock and Kirk in, let's say romantic, directions that were never on the original show). As long as you don't attempt to sell your work and infringe on copyright laws, it's all good.

Of course many, if not most of these, are poorly written drivel. But not all. Lots of serious writers get their start with fanfic and are able to eventually turn this into real careers in writing. Like the roleplaying companies, the copyright holders of any of these properties have produced thousands of legitimate novels based on their product as well. There have been countless novels and comics set in these worlds, and sometimes the authors of these books got their start writing fanfic.

I once had a coworker who said he just didn't get the concept of fanfic. Why would anybody be interested in writing someone else's character? At the time, he was in a punk band that, in addition to original material, played covers of the Ramones and the Dead Boys, among other Punk classics. Fanfic is the same thing. There's something you love that has insired you and you want to perpetuate it. Unless your band is doing a radical reinterpretation of a cover song I'm going to say that fanfic is more creative. At least the story is a new one based on someone else's work instead of a simply faithful rendition of a story already told.

Anyway, Jerry started writing stories based on our Marvel roleplaying game characters. They were meant for fun and he never really intended for anyone to read them other than the handful of us who were in the game. Four or five stories in I asked him if I could write one. He said sure, and so began a two or three year ongoing collaboration between us.

Our superhero team was called The Guardians (and yes, pretty much anyone who ever created their own team of superheroes has named them The Guardians... Jerry was young when this all started). I would write a story, then Jerry would write one. We never really overtly collaborated on any single story, but we kept each other in the loop about what we intended, while still trying to surprise each other. We both had a mutual respect for the characters and each other, so neither of us ever introduced anything that completely changed the world. If we wanted to do something huge, like killing off a character (poor Tenebrae), we talked it over ahead of time. There were some characters, like Mindbender and Lightwave, that were more Jerry's province than mine, simply because he had created them. Others, specifically Auracle and Totem, were my characters and I felt like I had more autonomy with them than others.

Of course, I did costume designs and drew pictures of all of them. Oddly enough I never attempted to do full-fledged comics of any of our stories.

In the end we wrote about forty short stories between us. These were never published on the internet (and probably won't be). One year for Christmas Jerry printed and bound two volumes of these to give to our friends in the game. These were pretty thick tomes and my initial response was “Wow... So I can write long extended works.”

This was an important insight, and led pretty directly to my confidence and ability to embark on a full-length novel. Not long after that I began work on the manuscript that was to become King of Summer, my first finished, and first published, novel.

The fanfic experience was really important to me as a writer. It was low pressure. This wasn't meant for publication or for the eyes of an editor. It was writing simply for the fun of doing so with a product that had no larger intent. We were never going to submit this work to Marvel, or anywhere else. I was writing to please myself and a small handful of others (though myself and Jerry primarily). That was tremendously freeing to me. I had the tendency to over-think my writing prior to this. I would sit down to begin the great American novel and become far too concerned with every word being perfect to ever get very far into any project. The Guardians allowed me to simply write.

This was during the same time frame when I was writing articles for In Pittsburgh, so the two forms of writing, and the rewards of actually being published by the newsweekly, both reinforced my habit of writing.

I'm sure that a lot of that work would seem very clumsy to me now, in terms of language, plot, story structure and character. I learned a lot of those skills while writing those stories. There is a definite progression in writing ability, on my part and on Jerry's, that can be seen in The Guardians. The short story format of these (though some probably count as novellas, based on word count), allowed me to develop structure and forced me to be more concise (believe it or not), while the serial nature of them gave me the opportunity to work on long-term plots. Simply seeing the bound versions made me realize that I had written more than enough words to count as a novel or two.

Every once in awhile Jerry and I reminisce about The Guardians, or throw out a inside joke about them that only he and I in the whole world would appreciate. It's another friendship and collaboration that that has changed due to life (though Jerry is still my friend, and I'm very proud of what he has accomplished). We both miss Mindbender and Auracle (the characters he and I played respectively, and the obvious focus of most of the stories), and the fun they brought to our lives.

But remnants of The Guardians still remain in my work. One story of mine in particular, Fire and Flood, had a lasting impact on me. When King of Summer was finished and I was making notes for future novels I realized that I could strip all of the superhero elements out of that story and still have a world and a core concept for a modern fantasy/horror novel. The idea stuck and after a lot of reworking it became the basis for my second completed novel manuscript entitled Scratch. Though the prolog chapter has been rewritten and polished many times since, the base flow of it and the ideas introduced, is still the chapter I wrote for The Guardians.

Scratch has not yet seen print, though there are some stories about it.

Next time...

Magnus Rex

For those who don't know, Batman: Dark Knight Rises has been filming in Pittsburgh for the last couple of weeks. I went to the giant mass casting for extras in June but never received a phone call to be in the movie (though I did get an audition for a local commercial that I didn't plan on. I went, but didn't get the part).
Friday night at 9:30 the phone call came. They needed lots of extras for a long day of shooting at Heinz Field for one of the big scenes in the movie. They needed a stadium full of Gotham City football fans. So, I got up really early and spent the day on the set.
I'm not going to go into a lot of detail here (I signed a non-disclosure agreement, and I'm sure you can find images and other details all over the web from other people if you really want to. I didn't take any pictures. We were asked not to, though some have already cropped up, and I didn't even take a camera with me (my cheap cell phone doesn't even have one built in).
But here are a couple of other images, just for posterity. These are wrinkled and sweaty from spending the day in my pocket.

Thursday, August 4, 2011

This is a 4-page promotional flyer we made to promote the Xeric-funded publication of Grey Legacy #1.

We repurposed this image a number of times. It was the cover of the first mini-comic. A color version of it served as the back cover of the actual comics. The characters on top were our main cast. The ones on the bottom pointed to stories and ideas that would eventually expand our universe. I mentioned that Brix was seen in the background of a single panel of the first story and completely forgot she was on the back cover in full color.

The last page was our vanity page of quotes and reviews.