Friday, March 30, 2012

It's been a Banner Week!

I have several things to share this week.

First up, my ebook Scratch received a four-star review at

Thanks for the kind words!

Second, I was quoted in the newest issue of the scientific Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. Nothing scientific on my part I assure you. I would have guessed that my lifetime chances of ever being quoted in a scientific journal were more infinitesimal than some quantum particles, but I tend to have some sort of probability-altering field at work in my life, so...

Anyway, it came about like this. The author of the piece, Lynne Robinson, writes for the Journal of the Minerals, Metals and Materials Society. In every issue, in addition to abstracts and articles with titles like A Materiomics Approach to Spider Silk: Protein Molecules to Webs and Tailoring Microstructure and Properties of Hierarchical Aluminum Metal Matrix Composites Through Friction Stir Processing (real titles... trust me, I couldn't make this up), they try to include a more fun and interesting piece. Lynne discovered that many of the scientists she worked with were comics geeks (imagine that), who were genuinely interested in the transforming some of the ideas in comics into real life science. Things like Captain America's shield and Iron Man's armor were of specific interest to them. She wanted to talk about how fiction, specifically Comics and Science Fiction, both influence and reflect the development of new technologies. As she wrote the article she realized that she simply didn't have the background knowledge of comics and comics history, so she cast about to find someone who did. She contacted the PittsburghToonseum, and they recommended she talk to me.

I spent about an hour and a half on the phone with Lynne last fall and covered a lot of ground. She was fun to talk to and genuinely interested in the topic. As a journalist, her style was remarkable. She asked really very good questions and zeroed in on some of the most important points in my sometimes rambling style of talking. I'm really happy with the way the article turned out and proud to have been included. There were a lot of things in the conversation that didn't make it into the article (Doc Magnus and the Metal Men, Jack Kirby and the New Gods and how we all carry Mother Boxes in our pockets and have Metron Chairs at home).

Anyway, you can read a PDF version of the article here:

And my week didn't stop there.

Last year I was invited to participate in writing entries for an encyclopedia of graphic novels to be published by Salem Press. Salem Press is primarily a publisher of reference books aimed at libraries and universities. The two-volume collection is now available (and it's really expensive in hardback). You can see the ad and announcement for the collection at

Out of literally hundreds of articles they could have chosen, my piece on Matt Wagner's Mage: The Hero Discovered is one of ten free sample entries available on the order page, along with pieces on Watchmen, Sandman and other more well-known books. The editors either really liked Mage or my writing. I'm kind of stupidly happy that they picked my article. The direct link to the pdf of it is

I was planning on writing about Mage in my ongoing favorite comics posts anyway. I still will, in a less academic form than this article.

Lots of good things this week. No wonder I'm tired.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Four and a Half – Grendel

This is a follow-up to my previous post on the comic book series, Grendel.

Matt Wagner finished his run on the original Grendel series with War Child, though both Hunter Rose and Grendel-Prime appeared in team-up books with Batman in the early 90's (the first one of which was released on the exact same day that Grey Legacy #1 appeared). He has since created several new Hunter Rose stories in various miniseries. But, for the most part, the main story of Grendel was through.

By the end of the series though, Wagner had created a world with a vast history, with room for a lot of untold stories. He decided to allow other creators to play in his universe. Over the course of several years readers were treated to a series of miniseries called Grendel Tales. Each story was written and drawn by someone other than Wagner, but set in the world of Grendel. The quality of these varied, but there was some stellar work by a number of people who went on to continue to work in the industry, James Robinson of Starman fame among them (he's also the writer on DC's upcoming Earth Two series).

I'm not going to discuss these in detail, though I will say they are worth reading if you're into the Grendel mythos. For more info check out the Wikipedia article at As a footnote, I'll mention that I had a review of Grendel: Devil May Care published in the nationally distributed magazine Kulture Deluxe.

As I've mentioned before, Fred and I were sending Grey Legacy mini-comics to Wagner on a pretty regular basis. Matt always wrote back with encouragement. He was always good at giving newcomers a foot in the door. Many of his collaborators on Grendel and Grendel Tales were unknown at the time.

Apparently our comic impressed him enough that he asked us to submit a proposal for a Grendel Tales series. We were pretty ecstatic, as you might imagine. He sent us a copy of the “Grendel Bible,” which contained his guidelines for the universe and the types of submissions he was looking for.

We pretty much put everything else aside and got to work. We brainstormed a lot of ideas and eventually came up with a story we liked. I'm not going to post the entire thing here (that would take too much digging through the archives and scanning, and besides, I think there is still the core of a good story there, even if we took the Grendel elements out. It may appear in a wildly mutated form someday). But, in brief...

In the wilderness and ruins of what had been the eastern United States an uneasy alliance of humans and vampires begin to follow the peaceful teachings of a young charismatic mystic named Huck. This becomes a movement that begins to migrate west and eventually comes into conflict with the empire of the Grendel Khan. We used the symbolism of Baptism pretty overtly. Wagner's vampires were subject to the classic weakness of running water, so as a symbol of pain and sacrifice this worked really well. The story was an exploration of the ideas of religion, faith, tolerance for others, and peaceful coexistence set against the backdrop of a world based on the spirit of violence.

We plotted this out as a six issue series. We did a bunch of character designs. Like most of my collaboration with Fred, a lot of the specifics are lost in terms of exactly who did what. In general, our working style was that I tended to come up with the larger plot lines and themes and characters, and then Fred would refine them and point out the holes in my story. That's really an oversimplification, and there was a lot of back and forth brainstorming during this process. The final character presentational pieces we sent with our proposal were penciled by Fred and inked by me. I've posted them here, for the first time anywhere...

This is Huck (named after the Nick Cave song, Saint Huck), our young mystic
and the main protagonist of our story. The man in the background is Huck's teacher
and the former shaman of their community.

This is Huck's older brother (I can't remember his name). He tired
of the provincial life and left home to join the Grendel corps in the west.

These two are part of the vampire coven who live near Huck's human settlement and become part of the human/vampire coalition. The first is Petra Moon, a former Grendel who had been turned into a vampire. The second is Haller, the leader of the vampire community, and Huck's greatest supporter.

These are other vampires of Haller's group (yes, that's a ruined Pittsburgh skyline behind them).

Our timing couldn't have been worse. We received a post card from Matt telling us he had received our materials, and while he liked them, the copyright to Grendel and Mage were coming under dispute. I don't know all of the details, but the original publisher, Comico, had been bought out and the new owners believed that meant they now had the rights to everything Comico had published. The original creators for Comico believed that they had always been published with idea of creator rights in place, meaning they all owned their own work. This legal battle went on for years and Matt was unable to publish any Grendel or Mage-related material. The good news is that in the end, Wagner and the others all triumphed and regained their rights. The bad news, for us anyway, is that by the time this happened the comics industry had moved on and there was no call for new Grendel Tales stories (and we had come to the end of our Grey Legacy experience and weren't doing comics by this point either). Matt eventually told new tales of Hunter Rose, and Mage: The Hero Defined, the second in his proposed Mage trilogy finally appeared.

We were disappointed, of course. This is one of the great “Might-Have-Beens” in my life. But timing is everything, and life moves on.

As a final anecdote about this... Sometime in the early 90's I went to Mid-Ohio Con in Mansfield, Ohio to shop around my inking samples (this was around the time I got work from Malibu Graphics). Bob Schreck was there. Bob was, at the time, an editor for Dark Horse Comics and Wagner's brother-in-law (he was married at the time to Dark Horse editor Diana Schutz, sister of Matt's wife). He was on the list of people I wanted to show my portfolio to. When he came to the Grendel pages he started laughing. “Hey,” he said, “I've seen these before, in Matt's living room!”

He was very complimentary of my work, but at the time Dark Horse wasn't hiring freelance inkers. Ah well...

Both Matt and Bob have always been very friendly and remembered me on the few occasions we have met since.

All Grendel related concepts and images are copyright Matt Wagner. The other characters are copyright Wayne Wise and Fred Wheaton.

Monday, March 19, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Four – Grendel

I introduced the topic of my favorite comics by saying that I wanted to talk about the ones that were “heart” books, those that resonated with my feelings more than my thoughts. However, as I think about the books I was most into, those that were influential in the way I think about comics storytelling, and more importantly, those that served as some sort of inspiration, I realize that it's a bit more complicated than that. For the most part, this series is still going to be about the “heart” books, but there are a couple of exceptions that have cropped up.

Chief among them, and the one that made me rethink my original goals with these blog posts, was Grendel, by Matt Wagner. Grendel was a book I loved, but it is certainly not one that inspires the warm fuzzies that Zot! or Beanworld do (or several of the others that will eventually appear on this list). Grendel was a book that was dark, and full of pretty extreme violence. You know... the kind of book that I really don't typically read much of these days. Grendel stands apart from most of my favorite books in this way. In general, I'm not a fan of gratuitous violence and graphic gore. But, the key word in that last sentence is gratuitous. If you have read any of my novels, you know that do not shy away from graphic violence if I believe it is necessary for the story. What I'm not a fan of is violence for violence sake, violence as voyeuristic pornography. If violence is part of a story it needs to have a reason.

The violence in Grendel never felt gratuitous, at least to me. Grendel was a meditation on the nature of violence. As dark as the story sometimes became, Grendel was always an exploration of the the theme of violence. It always asked questions. “What are the underlying causes of violence?” “What circumstances would lead an otherwise normal person to extreme acts of violence?” “What is it about darkness that we find so appealing?” “What does it mean to live in a culture that celebrates and indoctrinates us into violence while at the same time desensitizing us to it?”

None of these questions were asked overtly, but they were implied by the narrative.

I first saw Grendel in the early 80's in an ad for four new comics from a new Black and White publisher called Comico. The other three didn't really spark my interest very much at the time, but there was something about this character called Grendel. It was a simple black mask, with white designs over the eyes.

The stripes over the eyes probably reminded me of the pattern of Alice Cooper's eye makeup. But I'm pretty sure that it was the white circle on the nose that won me over. This tiny detail gave the mask a harlequin-like appearance. It was a clown's nose. This mix of the evil-looking eyes with the hint of the absurd worked for me. It was the mix of comedy and tragedy, an iconic representation of the idea of laughter in the face of darkness, and of how suddenly laughter can turn to tears.

Grendel first appeared in Comico Primer #2, an anthology title.

To this day I have never owned a copy of this book (though I have read reprints of the story).

He graduated into his own title, the first run of which lasted three issues. I picked all three of these up at one time.

This series told the story of Hunter Rose, the first Grendel. Hunter was a wealthy and famous author by day, and in the guise of Grendel, the ultra-violent leader of organized crime by night. He had an arrogant swagger. His ruthlessness was coupled with erudition and humor. This was no simple thug. The written complexity and duality of the character met the promise held in that brilliantly designed mask. Wagner was young and new to the business of comics, and his art style was raw and undeveloped. Many of his figures were crude, and his ink line did not have the control he would eventually master. But there was something about it that really clicked with me. As crude as his actual drawings may have been, there was a sense of design, pacing, and storytelling that promised great things.

The series was cancelled after three issues and Grendel next appeared in full color as a backup feature in the pages of Wagner's next series, Mage: The Hero Discovered (about which I will have a whole lot more to say in another blog). Wagner went back to Hunter Rose and began his story again, this time told in a series of art deco-inspired, beautifully designed pages accompanied by text. 

It can be said that this story was not “Comics” per se, but an illustrated story. Whatever you want to call it, we saw the life story of Hunter Rose unfold to its inevitable, tragic conclusion. This story was eventually collected under the title Devil By the Deed.

But that wasn't the end of Grendel. The series came back, in full color with a new #1. In the first story we are introduced to Christine Spar, the daughter of Hunter's ward, Stacy. Though written by Wagner, the art was done by The Pander Brothers. In this story we see Christine, a normal woman, driven to acts of extreme violence by the abduction of her son.

She eventually dons the mask of Grendel and we see the first hint that Grendel is something much larger than Hunter Rose, or any one person. Though never made explicit in any of the many stories that follow, Grendel is the spirit of violence. It is a manifestation of our own darkest nature. In the case of Christine, it starts with a noble motivation: to protect her child. But the line between the warrior who protects and the monster who takes joy in slaughter can be a thin one.

As the series progresses the nature of Grendel changes with it. Christine's lover, Brian Li Sung, is seduced by the spirit of Grendel as well (in an arc drawn by Bernie Mireault), and his tale is more sad than tragic.

Over time the series moves far into the future. In a world controlled by religious fanaticism, madman Eppy Thatcher dons the mask of Grendel to bring down a system that he sees as a corruption of his pure faith. Eppy communes with his visions of Grendel, and like Joan of Arc, believes he is acting on divine inspiration.

More time passes, and the image of Grendel becomes part of culture. Grendel can no longer be contained by a single person, but has become a motivating icon. An elite band of samurai-like soldiers, known as Grendels, arise to wield power. In the last story arc of the original series, Orion Assante rises from their ranks and becomes ruler of the world, The Grendel Khan.

This was followed by Grendel: War Child, a twelve issue series that focused on the young son of Orion, Jupiter Assante, and the war machine/cyborg killing machine designed to protect him, Grendel-Prime.

Each story arc was drawn by a different art team, in order to give each character a look and feel distinct from the others. Over the course of forty issues Wagner expanded his universe and dealt with huge issues. There was a central concept to lead the reader forward, but not a central character. The art and storytelling was, at times, very experimental and challenging. The stories and characterization were complex, and everything had consequences.

Eventually, the concept of Grendel outgrew Wagner. He had introduced an idea that spanned centuries of time. If Grendel was an idea that possessed many people, Wagner decided to allow it to possess other artists. This was an idea he had already established by having different artists on the book. He expanded this idea by introducing a series of miniseries called Grendel Tales, where other writers and artists could take the concept and play in his sandbox.

Fred and I almost had the chance to participate in this, but that's a story for the next blog.

Grendel and all other characters are copyright by Matt Wagner. Check out his web site at

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

New 5-star review for Scratch on Amazon!

5.0 out of 5 stars A real you can't put down bookMarch 7, 2012
This review is from: Scratch (Kindle Edition)
I use to think that was just an expression but I really fell deeply into the world that Wayne Wise creates here. He manages to paint a picture that can sometimes be scary but always amazing.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Favorite Comics Part Three – Tales of the Beanworld by Larry Marder

Of all of the comics from my past that I love, the one I have the toughest time convincing anyone to read is Tales of the Beanworld by Larry Marder. I get it. I really do. I was just as dismissive of it when I first saw the images and ads in other comics I was reading. Even when Scott McCloud, in the letters pages of Zot! recommended it highly, I still ignored it (and if you read my last post you'll know that I should have learned that lesson with Zot! itself). On the surface this weird little comic looks like nothing more than stick figures. On closer examination, not only do they seem to be stick figures, but the whole thing just seems... weird. Silly. Stupid even. Marder's tagline for the series acknowledges this. He referred to Beanworld as “A most peculiar comic book experience.”

That pretty much sums it up.

But it's wonderful. It's not for everyone, I'll give you that. But if you give it a chance, look past what you believe to be limited art and a silly premise, it is filled with grand ideas, wonder, and a tremendous amount of fun. I ignored and dismissed it for it's entire original run (21 issues from Eclipse Comics, from 1985 until 1993). I read good reviews of it in a variety of sources, but I just couldn't get past my prejudice about what I thought the series was.

In 1993 Fred and I went to a convention in Philadelphia to promote Grey Legacy (I've recounted my meeting with Scott McCloud at this convention elsewhere on this blog). Larry Marder was set up right next to McCloud in Artist's Alley, selling copies of the first trade paperback collection of Tales of the Beanworld. He was incredibly nice and said very positive things about our comic. He gave me a Beanworld action figure, a dry Lima bean with a face drawn on it. Before the weekend was over I decided to try and get over my prejudice and give his book a chance. I bought the TP from him, got it signed, then went back to our motel room and read it. I've been a convert ever since.

So, you ask, what is Beanworld about? That's really difficult to describe. It is a most peculiar comic book experience, after all. It's about ecology and living in harmony with the world. It's about mythology and symbolism. It's about the world, and finding your place in it. It's about art and music and the need to balance personal identity with living in a society. All told with “stick figures” in what Larry Marder refers to as “two and a half dimensions.” He talks about this and the influence of French Surrealist painter Marcel Duchamp on his creation of Beanworld. Really! You can read it at his blog.

I can't really talk about the plot or ecology of the Beanworld without sounding really convoluted and confusing. Many of the details of how everything in this world fits together are revealed over the course of the story. Most of the Beans who inhabit this world appear to be undifferentiated in appearance, yet each works to serve a function in their society. 

There are a few very specific characters who serve specialized roles. It seems that when the need arises for something new in the system, a new point of view, or skill necessary for the Bean's survival, the world provides. When the series premieres there are only five Beans with idiosyncratic personalities separate from the others (and three of them are inextricably linked, so that really there are only three real individual voices).

Mr. Spook is the Hero, and in many ways represents the classic Warrior archetype. The Beans rely on what is essentially a hunter/gatherer method of survival (though like everything else in this series, that is an oversimplification). Mr. Spook carries a three pronged fork, a magic weapon that helps achieve their goals. He leads the troops on their hunting/gathering expeditions. He is a straight-line thinker with very little imagination, but his dedication to their survival comes before any personal gain or glory. The very concepts are foreign to the Beans.

Professor Garbanzo is the intellectual of the group and fulfills the archetypal role of the Magician. She wears the classic Magician's pointy hat, covered in arcane symbols. In this case, the symbols represent the actual building blocks of their reality, and it is the Professor's job to understand how these work to create new inventions from them that will benefit society. There are only four elements in the Beanworld, and everything that is not organic is built from them. I want to point out that Garbanzo is referred to as “she” throughout the narrative. There are no noticeable differences or secondary sexual characteristics between the sexes of the Beans, nor, as we learn later in the series, do they reproduce in a sexual way. Sex only exists as a personal pronoun in this world. I find it interesting that Marder chose to specify female characters since the difference in the sexes seems to have no bearing on the roles they play in society. Equality isn't an issue. It simply is.

Then there are the three unnamed Beans who collectively form the Boom'R Band, a group of musicians. Their only job in the collective is to create music. I think it's wonderful that in a world where everything develops specifically to serve the needs of the community, that once food and safety is being taken care of, music is the next thing that appears. The Boom'R's earn their keep through their music, and there is never a question of it's necessity.
I'm reminded of Kokopelli, the flute player that appears
in petroglyphs all over the American Southwest

Which leads us to Beanish. If there is a central character in Beanworld (and that's debatable), it is Beanish. One of the earliest story’s is called “Beanish Breaks Out.” Breaking out is the term the Beans use to describe when one of them goes from being an undifferentiated member to the community to finding a specific identity and role in their society. It is assumed that at some point Mr. Spook, Professor Garbanzo, and the Boom'R's all broke out as well.

Beanish breaks out and becomes an artist. He begins to create pictures from the four basic elements, creating the “Fabulous Look-See Show” for the other Beans to enjoy (and in a stroke of genius, it is only Mr. Spook, the practical straight-line thinker, who just doesn't get Art. He never questions Beanish's right to create or earn his keep in this fashion, but like many people who encounter Beanworld for the first time, he just doesn't get it). I think "Fabulous Look-See Show" is a great way to describe comics, by the way.

Beanish's story of personal growth becomes a focal point for the series, the storyline that the reader can most identify with. It is the struggle any creative person goes through. He has issues with his materials and discovering how to use them. He questions the value of what he does. He engages in a personal relationship with his muse, in this case a physical manifestation that goes by the name of Dreamishness. Only Beanish knows about her, and he cannot talk about her with anyone else. The metaphor of this will ring true to any of us who have had dealings with our own personal muse. The core lesson Beanish learns, in terms of what he needs to give to his muse, and what he receives from her, is wonderfully expressed in a world where symbols have a physical reality. It is both beautiful and true.

The entire original series is available in two hardcover editions published by Dark Horse Comics. A couple of years ago, after a long hiatus, Marder began creating new tales of the Beanworld. A third volume of new material was released. A new collection, Volume 3.5, according to the solicitation, is due in June, 2012.

Beanworld is a challenge. It is not like anything else you have ever read. A lot of the language used in the dialog is created by Marder, and much of it can sound unfamiliar and weird, but, like the dialects and language in the comic strip Pogo or the novel A Clockwork Orange (and you've probably never seen those two things referenced together before), once you get into it there is a poetry and rhythm. But, if you are interested in comics as a storytelling medium, this is one of the best examples of how far the format can be pushed. Try to move beyond the Mr. Spook way of looking at it and try to see the deeper stories and concepts the symbols are referring to. Be like Beanish and break out of your habitual ways of seeing.

Beanworld and all of its characters are copyright Larry Marder.