Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Chain Culture: The Loss of Borders and the End of a World

When the Borders brothers sold their budding bookstore chain, the company was well known for its impeccable customer service, top-notch inventory system and large-format approach that uprooted the way the books were sold.

But the Borders shopping experience eroded over the years as the chain grew in size, management became unwieldy, the Internet encroached on sales and electronic books emerged as an alternative for avid book readers.[1]
A number of reasons have been given as to why Borders, a used bookstore founded in Ann Arbor in 1971 that became a retail chain in 1992, ended in bankruptcy in 2011. Among the most prevalent are: the rise of the ebook, competition with Amazon, overexpansion of retail locations, overinvestment in music sales, and various mismanagement decisions. quipped, “It died by a thousand—OK, maybe just four or five—self-inflicted paper cuts.”[2]

But Nathan Bomey is right when he places the erosion of the Borders shopping experience at the head of the list.

A shopping experience may be a more difficult thing to quantify than the ubiquitous assertion of mismanagement, but it is very real. In the case of Borders, the erosion of the shopping experience was deadly.

I grew up in suburban Detroit in the 1970s, about 40 minutes from Ann Arbor. Two youth counselors at my church had been students at the University of Michigan, and were well acquainted with the first Borders Store on State Street, and took us there on an expedition. This was not its very first location, but it was already a fully mature destination of wonder. Large, with brick walls and multiple levels, it seemed to have every coffee table art book under the sun, scholarly titles, mystical new age books, books on world cinema, and cultural journals. I never had any money in those days, but in the early 80s, when me and my friends haunted the art film houses ensconced all over campus, Borders was a place to explore before or between screenings. (Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds.)

When store #9 appeared in the South Hills of Pittsburgh in the early 90s, I did have money, and I spent a lot of it there. I can’t remember if I saw the store logo driving past, or heard about it from a friend, but as soon as I learned that a Borders store had opened, I realized that the world had become a better place. It was not as great as the Ann Arbor location, but it was still a destination and a treasure house. I spent many a rainy Saturday night there, sipping coffee and coming home with Neil Forsyth’s The Old Enemy: Satan and the Combat Myth, or Joseph Campbell, or many a coffee table book that I still have in my library.

When store #174 open in the North Hills, it was not as great as store #9, it was still good. From 2000 to 2005, I worked there part time on and off. It was there that I was inspired to go back to school, finally earning my PhD in art history in 2013. This was during the heyday of Harry Potter and Chicken Soup, and one of my own freelance illustration jobs, for Al Franken’s Lies and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them: A Fair and Balanced Look at the Right appeared. It was only slightly absurd that the book for which I had drawn The Adventures of Supply Side Jesus was one of the innumerable items I rang up as a cashier, or helped people to locate as a bookseller. (No, I never mentioned that, by the way, I was the cartoonist!)

But I was not that unusual in having an example of my work on sale at Borders. A number of the staff were highly creative, particularly in music but also in theater. The manager recorded a smooth country album produced by another employee that played on the store sound system for several weeks, and other employees often had publications and creative offerings of one sort or another featured in the store.

Life without Culture: Undoubtedly, the mystique of Borders influenced the naming of 1980s science fiction comic book saga Border Worlds. An unpublished panel.
But during my time at Borders, the shopping or customer experience did erode noticeably, along with the employee experience, at the end of my time there quite precipitously. At the beginning, each store had its own CRC or Community Relations Coordinator, a person responsible for scheduling events such as folk singers in the café, local author signings, or weekly or monthly meetings of the poetry group; it had a rack of free brochures and local independent newsweeklies; a plethora of scholarly titles; and still a wide selection of off-beat magazines. Most importantly, it had knowledgeable employees who cared about culture in its manifold forms.

But quickly the CRCs were replaced by regional staffers overseeing multiple stores, and finally event planners in the corporate headquarters. The quirky folk singers were routed out, and events were stripped down to a few big-label music releases. Author signings followed suit, with local authors eliminated for fewer, bigger national names. Groups that were once given coupons for free cups of coffee and announced over the store sound system were quietly eliminated. The number of sofas and chairs strewn about the store for customers were eliminated, as well as (maliciously) the stools for employees manning the service desk. The brochure rack disappeared.

None of these clunky, handmade aspects of Borders were profit centers in and of themselves, and many of them were inefficient and bothersome to employees. I personally found the local iteration of the Socrates Café, a meeting of overly loud bullshitters named after the book, extremely fatuous. But they all contributed to the atmosphere of Borders as a unique, even sometimes bizarre experience, and their loss contributed to the erosion of the shopping experience and, guess what, the bottom line.

A word about those knowledgeable employees: a typical Borders bookseller was college educated, perhaps changed majors too many times to complete a degree, maybe had even dropped out of grad school, or was by temperament or otherwise unsuited either to academia or the corporate business world. For these sensitive souls, work at a chain bookstore at slightly above minimum wage might not have amounted to a career, but it allowed them to utilize their minds and earn an employee discount, and to be among some of the rich cultural resources that they loved.

Such a labor pool certainly existed in Ann Arbor in the 1970s, and nearly every major city and college town into which the Borders chain initially expanded had a ready supply of such employees. In more than one way, the growth of the chain eventually outstripped this labor pool, and by the early 2000s (myself notwithstanding), such knowledgeable, geeky, cultured, and book-loving employees were in increasing short supply. (College, it seemed, had become too expensive for humanities majors, or at least for humanities majors to drop out before completing their degrees and getting a real job to pay back their student loans.) New employees could have been working in any kind of retail or fast food business, and manifestly could not have cared less about books or culture. Indeed, many of the older, knowledgeable employees of the type that built the Borders brand were consciously being routed out by management as the 2000s wore on, along with the free weekly newspapers, the quirky folk singers, and the pompous poetry groups.

While ringing up a Schaum’s Algebra workbook in 2002, I had a serendipitous (serendipity being one of my church youth counselors’ favorite words) moment, and realized I should go back to college. I started part-time in January 2003 at the Community College of Allegheny County, and was full-time by the fall. I earned 60 gen ed transfer credits and started at Pitt in 2005. During this time I phased out my part-time employment at Borders, which finally concluded with the end of the 2005 Christmas season (a notoriously bullying manager that had been transferred to our store was summarily fired after the holidays). By this time, the chain had already cultivated a corporate feel virtually indistinguishable from Barnes & Noble.

It is important to note that even as store stock contracted and the notorious Categories scheme was implemented (turning the de facto control of entire genres over to the highest-bidding publishers), it was still useful to work part-time at Borders even and especially as I returned to school full-time. Familiar with the ordering system, I could make SPOs (special purchase orders) of virtually any title in print and quite a few out of print (particularly those I needed for school), usually at the highest employee discount rate, and virtually risk-free, making it more convenient than Amazon. At some point, however, working at Borders became not worth it, and ordering through Amazon became the preferred mode of acquiring necessary books during grad school.

I still occasionally shopped there, but my own shopping experience was noticeably less enjoyable than in the past. Selection was curtailed, bland bestsellers dominated, games and gifts replaced scholarly titles, and it became easier to order books for school online. It was no longer a destination or a treasure house, but a cold, unfeeling, alienating experience.

The shopping experience had eroded over the years. Was nobody watching?

I still miss Borders every rainy Saturday night, like one sometimes yearns for a bygone lover.

Friday, July 24, 2015

The Bizarre Heroes Fiasco: How Megaton Man #11 Still Almost Happened!

The History of Megaton Man, Part III: The Image Tent and Bizarre Heroes | Part I | Part II

Our Story Thus Far: For a three-year period, from December 1984 to October 1987, I had created 17 consecutive bimonthly comic book issues for my first publisher, Kitchen Sink Press. These included the color Megaton Man #1-10, a Silver Age superhero parody, and the black-and-white Border Worlds #1-7, a dark, brooding science fiction saga for mature readers. Each issue averaged more than 33 pages per, for a total of 510 pages of story, art, and lettering (with some coloring), an accomplishment unmatched by any other creator for the imprint.

During the second three-year period, from 1988 through 1990, I created only half that amount of material, or about 250 pages, in eight comic book issues. These included Return of Megaton Man #1-3, Megaton Man Meets the Uncategorizable X+Thems #1, Yarn Man #1, and Pteranoman #1, all of which (slightly) furthered the Megaton Man narrative; Bizarre Heroes #1, a dramatic superhero tale about Megaclones being cooked up in a secret research lab; and Border Worlds: Marooned #1, an adults-only eighth issue of my unfinished space station epic.

All tolled, my 750 pages for Kitchen Sink Press in six years would remain an unmatched achievement by any other creator in the publisher’s history, including Will Eisner, who created about as much new material over a 30-year association with the publisher, but not exclusively (works such as The Building, for example, were first published in England some time before appearing in a Kitchen Sink Press edition in North America).

The dividing line had been what I wanted to call Megaton Man #11, but which, after the publisher’s initial acceptance, was by decree renumbered #1, becoming the first issue of the Return of Megaton Man three-issue mini-series. The communication I received from the publisher around Thanksgiving 1987, just in time for my 26th birthday, was filled with brutal bullying, verbal abuse, gross distortions, and uncharitable exaggerations: I was called a prima donna, a hack, and a spoiled egomaniac; I was told that I had killed or abandoned Megaton Man and Border Worlds simply because I had tired of them; and that I had betrayed my fans and publisher, all because I was incensed that the publisher had reneged on his agreement to maintain the consecutive numbering of Megaton Man with issue #11, and had the temerity to point out how a new #1 was a cheap gimmick that belied publishing impotence (see Part II).

Instead, I had been remonstrated by the publisher,

No one the fuck will care about the numbering in the long run if the strip itself has substance. That is the real goal. The short-term pragmatic decisions in the realm of packaging and marketing are traditionally (and best) left to the publisher. Your input is welcome, and you damn well know I’ve been responsive to your input. Your demands are another thing altogether; they are intrusive and likely to backfire.

I was further taunted,

And if you don’t think any publisher can handle your genius, you can always become another Dave Sim, create your “own” self-publishing empire and peddle whatever you want however you want and eliminate the evil middleman. Believe me, it ain’t easy. Settle down and learn to trust my judgment more. Second-guessing everything is your prerogative, but you’re scattering your energy in what I see as a self-destructive path. You’re diluting your output and hurting both of us. Get back to the drawing board and produce that pace-setting comic that stands toe to toe with the best. And then, believe me, we’ll both profit. [1]

As I had tried to explain, maintaining the consecutive numbering of Megaton Man was important to my sense of extending a cohesive, organic narrative, one that, much as my erstwhile editor had suggested, viewed the characters over the long-haul as more than mere parody vehicles. Conversely, the repetitious #1 ploy, which by1988 had metastasized into a virtual declaration by the publisher that they were not really interested in publishing anything but Don Simpson #1s ever again (see Part II), fractured my sense of Megaton Man as a coherent, ongoing narrative, and severely retarded the organic growth of the characters and the relationships that I wanted to explore. The need I felt to creatively justify the gratuitous #1s also slowed down my imaginative process as I tried my best to make each stand-alone issue more than just a marketing gimmick.

In retrospect, I regard the Megaton Man #11 moment as one in which I might have been induced to create Megaton Man once again on a regular frequency. Instead, the strict #1 regiment enforced upon me a piecemeal, Ground Hog Day routine in perpetuity, ironically guaranteeing a scattering of my creative energies and dilution of what had been an unmatched, consistent output. On the one hand, I was free to draw any comic book I wanted each and every time out (dramatic superhero, science fiction, comedy, underground, etc.), but on the other, any feeling of momentum of an ongoing “strip” was perpetually being erased with the next #1. Worse, the marketing gimmick boomeranged; not only could I no longer recall how many Megaton Man issues I had created, but neither could my fans.

The last straw came at a convention in Ohio in late 1989, where I met an ardent Megaton Man fan who monitored the industry closely and ordered comics every month from their local shop. This particular fan had no idea that Yarn Man #1 had already come and gone, and completely missed it. Had the miniseries and one-shots been consecutively numbered (Megaton Man #14, #15, #16), overlooking a back-issue would have been impossible. Moreover, sales for the one-shots were falling, and I was subsidizing my creator-owned work by freelancing “work-for-hire” assignments from third parties (mostly DC Comics and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles), which involved illustrating scripts for comics that I did not own, but which rewarded my labor in multiples over what I had ever earned from royalties on my creator-owned work. Kitchen Sink no longer treated a new Don Simpson #1 as any kind of special event, and for the most part dumped my work onto the market with little fanfare. [2] By 1990, I can vividly recall, I felt that I would have rather thrown the original artwork for my next creator-owned comic book into the river than have it appear with a Kitchen Sink logo on the cover.

Our parting of the ways was formalized in 1991, and I bought out the “first right of refusal” clause in my contracts in exchange for the original artwork for Megaton Man #1, the original comic book that had taken me 13 months to complete while washing dishes at a restaurant in Detroit. I was now free and clear to market any sequels to Megaton Man, Border Worlds, or Bizarre Heroes to another publisher, or self-publish.

My first order of business was to devise a piece of work I could sell at convention appearances. I had always been fascinated by the letterhead of the Joe Simon and Jack Kirby studio from the 1940s, which showed a variety of their creations for different publishers including Captain America for Timely and the “kid gangs” for National, all arrayed in a “class portrait.” I decided I would design a limited-edition print of all my characters from Megaton Man and Border Worlds, as well as characters I had created as far back as junior high school, along with the explicitly erotic characters I had created under the pseudonym Anton Drek for Fantagraphics, Wendy Whitebread, Undercover Slut and Forbidden Frankenstein, into a similar class portrait.

All my scattered, diluted energies in one place for the first time: the 1991 limited edition print.

The Simon-Kirby letterhead showed the Red Skull chatting amiably with an elegant gentleman in a Sherlock Holmes deerstalker cap, and other characters created for diverse competitors in the comics publishing industry interacting freely, if only for promotional purposes. No doubt, this image had inspired the famous wrap-around cover to the publication in which I had seen it reprinted as a ten-year old in the early 70s, Steranko’s History of Comics, Volume I. This piece including superhero and adventure characters from nearly every publisher, composed in a spellbinding mosaic.

Neither the Steranko cover, nor its inspiration, the Simon-Kirby letterhead, offered “real” interaction between these fictional characters in a narrative sense. While it was apparently permissible, either for self-promotion or historical interest, to group Spider-Man and Superman, or Captain America and the Guardian, in the same drawing, these events were not “really” happening (it would be years before cross-company team-ups made this possible). Further, I had been equal parts appalled and enthralled by Philip José Farmer’s “family tree” concept, in which pulp character like Doc Savage, Tarzan, and the Shadow turned out to be related (what has come to be known as the “Wold-Newton Universe”).

The Simon-Kirby studio letterhead of the 1940s, featuring their creations for various publishers oddly mis-colored.
As I created the artwork for my own print, I pondered the paradox of Jetstream, a Megaclone from Bizarre Heroes #1, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the Frankenstein monster, and Jenny Woodlore from Border Worlds in the same contiguous space as Domina from Megaton Man Meets the Uncategorizable X+Thems #1. These various narratives were rigidly partitioned in my imagination, not only by time (the future setting of Border Worlds versus the contemporary setting of everything else), but also by humor and “straight” superheroics. But these partitions were self-imposed, not legal or contractural, as were the boundaries separating the characters in the Steranko or Simon-Kirby drawings that inspired my print.

Not only was I free from the constraints of the tyrannical mindset of my old publisher, for whom publishing Gay Comics and Steve Canyon made perfect branding sense (but for whom my eclectic experiments were a dilution and scattering of energies); I was also free to transgress the artificial boundaries I had imposed upon myself. Not only could I draw all of my various characters interacting in a “class portrait” for a poster-print; I could actually tell stories with these characters if I felt like it.

The spell-binding wrap-around cover to The Steranko History of Comics Volume I (Supergraphics, 1971), which I first saw in 1973 at the age of 11. What if you could tell stories with all these characters, mashed up in a single universe?

I was most eager to continue the narrative of the Bizarre Heroes one-shot I created in my latter days at Kitchen Sink Press. This featured John Bradford, a younger, hipper version of Kolchak: The Night Stalker, and The Meddler, a character whose originated as a Halloween costume I made in ninth grade, and the aforementioned mystery of a secret lab manufacturing Megaclones. These Megaclones were super-powered beings based on normal people that were grown in cylinders to become perfect specimens of humanity. Upon maturity, they would replace their counterparts in the real world, assuming their civilian identities until called upon by a fanatic eugenicist (maliciously made to resemble Will Eisner) to take over society. At the end of the issue, four Megaclones had escaped, posing a threat to this evil scheme, and The Meddler had caught wind of these developments.
A dramatic superhero comic: Bizarre Heroes #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1990).

In my post-Kitchen Sink period, I now planned to continue this storyline, particularly wanting to introduce a group of characters around The Meddler I had created in junior high school that I had called The Crime Busters, and had intended for comics but had never utilized. These included Clown, Master of Disguise; B-50, the Hybrid Man; Negative Man (now sometimes Negative Woman); The Slick (a new name for a hitherto unnamed character); and more. This was clearly juvenilia recalled from my days as an enthusiastic reader of comics and Doc Savage paperbacks, but of such stuff enthusiastic comics could be made.

But the print I created suggested further possibilities. What if The Phantom Jungle Girl, ostensibly a humorous character when she hung around with Cowboy Gorilla or The Brilliant Brain, was The Meddler’s lover? What if Clarissa James, the Detroiter who became Ms. Megaton Man, were to flirt with John Bradford, columnist for The Detroit Day? What if Megaton Man could meet Forbidden Frankenstein?

I decided that a new, ongoing series would establish all of my contemporary characters in a single, organic universe, including those from the Megaton Man comics as well as my Anton Drek comics (with plans to eventually bring some of the Border Worlds cast time-travelling back to late-twentieth-century Detroit). Bizarre Heroes #1, the Kitchen Sink one-shot, would retroactively become the “pilot episode,” and the its Megaclone storyline as the over-arching framework for the series. Once I had established all of my creations in one Megaverse, I could explore various characters and genres to my heart’s content, guaranteeing that I would never run out of fresh inspiration or ideas. Creatively, I would have a field day, and rather than diluting or scattering my energies, I would be able to concentrate all my creativity in a single, ongoing series that would be numbered #1, #2, #3, and so on indefinitely.

My cash cow, Megaton Man, was only there to launch the series, but the joke was on me:  the Megaton Man narrative would soon take over the whole darn book. Don Simpson's Bizarre Heroes #1 (Fiasco Comics, Inc., 1994).

The problem was finding a new publisher, which I was loathe to do, or finding the funding to publish Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes myself. This problem was soon solved by the Image tent.

At the time, several prominent Marvel creators had defected from the company (rebellion was in the wind), to form their own imprint, at first in association with Malibu Comics. The first public event was held at the 1992 Chicago Comicon, to be housed in a large tent erected in the parking lot outside the convention hotel. Arrangements for this were coordinated by Gary Colabuono’s Moondog’s Comics, a Chicago chain, and my his staff, who consisted of Larry Marder, Chris Ecker, and Bevin Brown, who would run security.

To make a long story very short, Larry Marder, creator of Tales of the Beanworld, had been my friend for a long time, and in fact when I unexpectedly met him at Chicago distributor’s warehouse party in 1985, I was carrying around Tales of the Beanworld #1 which I had bought at a store signing I did months before but had forgotten about. Larry was working closely with Image upstarts Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld on the Image Tent, and one day called me up to tell me that they wanted me to draw a parody book of their shared universe. Larry wisely understood that I would have likely blown a cold call, but I was prepared when Jim and Rob phoned me, and Splitting Image was born. When the actual Chicago Comicon with Image Tent occurred, I spent half my time inside the hotel in Artists’ Alley, and half outside in the parking lot, soaking up the ambiance of the rebellion. Erik Larsen proposed a team-up between his character, The Savage Dragon, and Megaton Man.

From a narrative standpoint, the two Image Megaton Man team-ups I would go on to do did little to advance the Megaton Man narrative; indeed, they only further affirmed the view instilled in me by erstwhile publisher Denis Kitchen that Megaton Man was merely a cash cow, worthy of only hit-and-run one-shots, and useful only for funding other projects. On the other hand, the Image team-ups exposed the character to an audience far larger than Megaton Man had ever enjoyed at Kitchen Sink Press, and the six-figure windfall that fell into my lap as a result of Splitting Image #1 and #2, The Savage Dragon vs. The Savage Megaton Man #1, and later Alan Moore, Rick Veitch, and Steve Bissette’s 1963 and Jim Valentino’s normalman/Megaton Man Special, gave me the nest egg I needed to launch Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes under my own imprint, Fiasco Comics.

In many respects, while creatively exhilarating, the format I settled upon for Bizarre Heroes proved too improvisational, freewheeling, and undisciplined to maintain reader attention. Characters were introduced but did not appear again for several issues; storylines and subplots proliferated uncontrollably; there were lots of fan favorites among the cast, but no stars to anchor the series.

John Bradford, a character I had created in junior high school, witnesses a Megaclone riot in Bizarre Heroes #12.

On the other hand, Megaton Man and his supporting cast, who had been on hand to launch Don Simpson’s Bizarre Heroes #1, would not go away quietly. Even though the Man of Molecules was relatively the new kid on the block, having been created only in 1982, whereas John Bradford first appeared in a short story I wrote in seventh grade in 1974, I realized that I had formed long attachments to these characters through experience of sixteen Kitchen Sink comic book issues (ten issues of Megaton Man, the three-issue Return of Megaton Man mini-series, and three Megaton Man one-shots). Within a few issues of DSBH, Megaton Man had a new sidekick, X-Ray Boy; Stella Starlight, the mother of Megaton Man’s son Simon, had evolved from The See-Thru Girl into The Earth Mother and for all intents and purposes assumed leadership of the Crime Busters; and Yarn Man, Cowboy Gorilla, and Gower Goose were raising hell in a VW van, oblivious to the Megaclone threat.

Covers such as this vividly illustrated the Megaton Man narrative beginning to predominate over the Megaclone storyline. Bizarre Heroes #9 (Fiasco Comics, Inc., February 1995).
By issue #10, it was becoming obvious to me that the Megaton Man narrative was beginning to supplant the Megaclone storyline. As I began work on the eleventh issue, I prepared two versions of the cover, one with the Bizarre Heroes logo, the other with the Megaton Man logo. I sent photocopies to Jeff Smith, creator of Bone, at Cartoon Books in Columbus, Ohio, from my Fiasco Comics, Inc. office space in Pittsburgh. I remember the phone call; Jeff urged me to go with Megaton Man #11.

The search was really for Megaton Man, and an alternate design had the Megaton Man logo predominating, almost making this issue Megaton Man #11.

I really wanted to, but I knew I had at least several more issues in which the Megaclone storyline would predominate. However, within a year, Bizarre Heroes #15, essentially a solo issue featuring The Slick, would be the last for the time being to concentrate on characters from junior high school. Bizarre Heroes #16 would be doubly-titled Megaton Man vs. Forbidden Frankenstein #1, and Bizarre Heroes #17 would be co-titled Megaton Man #0. The latter was more of an illustrated text than a comic book story, presenting an overview of the imaginative world I was then calling the Fiascoverse, but now am inclined to call the Megaverse. The final page showed the hotrod from Border Worlds, gesturing toward the time-travel interlude I had planned but still hadn’t gotten to.

After a seventeen issue run (mirroring the seventeen non-Border Worlds issues at Kitchen Sink Press), my Image nest egg was exhausted and the comic book industry began to fall apart. In 1996, more than a dozen comic book distributors collapsed into two, then finally one; hundreds of independent comic book shops closed up, and I decided to fold my tent. After a dozen years in the print comic book industry, I had proven my point: I could publish and promote my own work as badly as had Kitchen Sink Press! [3]

Next: The Megaton Man Weekly Serial and a few more Megaton Man comics at Image...

Go Back and Read Megaton Man: The Kitchen Sink Years Part I | Part II
More at The Bizarre Heroes Blog!

Read “How Megaton Man Has Evolved in Thirty Years and Why I’m Still Creating Him”

[1] Denis Kitchen, letter to Don Simpson, November 25, 1987.
[2] Paradoxically, during the same period of 1988-1990, Xenozoic Tales by Mark Schultz dropped in frequency from three to two to one per year, yet remained unproblematically sequentially-numbered, and continued so even when it dropped to one every two years through the mid-1990s. See Xenozoic Tales at ComicBook Database.
[3] Worse still, I had abandoned a third comic book series, just because I felt like it!

Sunday, July 19, 2015

Whatever Happened to Megaton Man #11, or, The Limits of Creator-Owned Comics

Megaton Man: The Kitchen Sink Years, Part II | Read Part I

Between December 1984 and August 1987, I had created 17 consecutive, uninterrupted bi-monthly comic book issues for Kitchen Sink Press, each averaging 33 pages of all-new material (30 to 32 interior pages of writing, art, and lettering plus cover, and often including an inside front cover and/or back cover),[1] or roughly 500 pages of comics, a feat unparalleled by any creator for the Kitchen Sink imprint before or since. While sales of Megaton Man had remained remarkably consistent over its 10-issue run, averaging between 17-18,000 copies per issue (briefly flirting with the 25,000-range with issues #3-4), sales of Border Worlds, which started strong at over 20,000 copies with issue #1, sank in a nearly straight line to under 8,000 copies by issue #7, its lowest point, earning me the smallest royalty of any comic book I had created, one that could no longer feasibly support my extremely modest lifestyle.

My sketchy plot synopses for Megaton Man #11-14 were welcome by the publisher, with editor Dave Schreiner encouraging me to think of the character as more than a parody vehicle. “[H]e’s manipulated and used,” Dave observed, “Yet he still goes forth and faces what he has to face. None of the other characters in [Megaton Man] have these qualities.[2] Publisher Denis Kitchen welcomed the sketch of Megaton Man #11, which featured The Man of Molecules snarling, “I’m Back! Now I Quit Again!” although he hinted that a new #1 might help sales.

I was already used to the idea of Megaton Man in black-and-white. Megaton Man #1, which I had created before I had ever contacted let alone secured a publisher, was laden with dot screens to create grey tones, and I half-expected it to be published in black and white if at all. Much to my surprise, it was published in color for ten issues. Later, when losses on The Spirit and Death Rattle led to the demise of the Kitchen Sink color line, I had been presented with the option of continuing Megaton Man in black and white or devising some new series better suited to black and white treatment. I opted to go with Border Worlds, which had run as a back-up feature in Megaton Man since issue #6 in color, but I thought would lose nothing and perhaps gain immeasurably in moody black and white.

Again, I was surprised when the publisher offered to publish the new issues of Megaton Man color, since its experience with color had been rather mixed, although Megaton Man had been its one consistently profitable title in color. Since I had colored the covers and at least 1/3 of the interiors of Megaton Man since issue #7 (mostly the Border Worlds back-up feature and the entirety of issue #10), we planned that I would supervise the Cel-Vinyl painting of greylines in Pittsburgh.

More important than these technical logistics were the new ideas that I wanted to explore in Megaton Man. Whereas the first ten issues had largely centered on the characters located in the hyper-heroic environs of Megatropolis (New York City), #11-14 would follow the characters to a communal off-campus house in Ann Arbor, where Megaton Man’s ambivalent dual love-interests (Pamela Jointly, the critical journalist who had always spurned him, and Stella Starlight, the hitherto airheaded sex-object who was now pregnant with his child) had retreated at the end of Megaton Man #1. This would take the storyline from its more mainstream big-city setting to what I considered a more “underground,” quasi-Doonesbury or Big Chill milieu. Complications would inevitably ensue as the characters’ Megaheroic past caught up to them and invaded their idyllic exile, dragging them back toward their usual costumed antics.

However, unlike the editor, who was excited by the narrative developments and personally encouraged me to explore the potential of the characters and relationships more deeply, the publisher seemed more interested in maximizing profits. Over the course of that spring and summer, his less-than-subtle hint that my first new issue of Megaton Man be renumbered #1 became an increasingly implacable demand. As this sunk in, I grew more and more angry, because from my point of view, maintaining the sequential numbering was important to my own sense of adding to a body of work, and because the publisher had already tacitly agreed to publish Megaton Man #11 as Megaton Man #11.

Earlier that year, Scott McCloud had followed up his 10-issue color series Zot! after a two-year hiatus with a black-and-white issue #11 at Eclipse Comics, and Kitchen Sink Press itself had a tradition of maintaining the numbering of even sporadically-issued series such as R. Crumb’s Mr. Natural (three consecutively-numbered issues over seven years) and the underground anthology series Dope Comix (five issues over six years). Kitchen Sink had even maintained the numbering of The Spirit Magazine when it inherited the title from Warren Publishing, beginning with issue #17. (An exception to this was Death Rattle, which was christened with a “volume 2, #1” when the black-and-white underground anthology was revived in color.)

In any case, it was important to me to maintain the numbering of Megaton Man so as to stress the organic unity of the unfolding narrative that I now sought to extend, more important than seeing new issues published in color. This may have seemed a bit naïve, but I wanted to resume the series somewhat under the radar, with little fanfare, or at least as a resumption of normal activity as far as possible, and did not want a hyped-up, artificial event or otherwise be obligated to contrive narrative developments to justify a new #1 on the cover. I’m sure I was delighted with the prospect of color, but in retrospect, black and white might have served the more mundane Ann Arbor interlude quite well. In any case, it was never put to me that I had a choice between a black-and-white Megaton Man #11 or a color Megaton Man new #1; in Denis' mind, it could only be the latter.

I also had long been advocating that Megaton Man #1 and #2, issues that had sold out within weeks of their initial release, be brought back into print, and thought that the occasion of Megaton Man #11 would be the perfect time. Affordable reprints would allow new fans to read the unfolding narrative from the beginning without paying collector’s prices (issue #1 had commanded $12 and #2 as much as $9 in the summer of 1985, several times over the original $2 cover price), and grow the readership for the series. As Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and later Bone was to prove, multiple reprintings of early issues, even of quantities as small as a few thousand at a time, were key to growing the readership to quite large numbers, paying dividends of enormous print runs on subsequent new issues.

But these were black-and-white series, and Megaton Man #1 and #2 had been published in color. The publisher had rejected the idea of second printings for these issues during the original ten-issue run, citing color as too costly and black-and-white (at least for Megaton Man) as déclassé. Denis in fact believed that having sold-out, high-priced back issues on the collectors’ market brought a certain prestige and cachet to the series.

I was also concerned, given my experience with Border Worlds, that I might run into financial trouble while producing new issues of Megaton Man, and face the humiliation of placing another series on hiatus while I was forced to take on freelance assignments to keep a roof over my head. I therefore wanted to explore the possibility of some sort of guaranteed advance against royalty. I already knew from experience that Kitchen Sink couldn’t come close to matching even the “beginner” rates I was already earning at DC Comics for illustration alone. What I had in mind was less than half that, to cover not only writing, art, and lettering, but coloring as well, and to assure me of a roof over my head for the duration.

Above all, I was upset that the publisher had eagerly accepted Megaton Man #11 for publication when I first proposed it, but was now insisting on a new #1 on the cover, after having secured my commitment and setting me to work on writing and drawing the new material. In the fall of 1987, I wrote to the publisher that while production of the new art and story for Megaton Man #11 was flowing smoothly, the issues of renumbering, reprints, and revenue were bothering me. “None of them are major stumbling blocks or unreasonable, yet they have had the effect of dampening my enthusiasm for more Megs and generally slowing me down.” I wrote,
Foremost is this renumbering bullshit. If nothing else, continuing with #11 would give me the feeling of extending an existing work, of continuing an organic, life-long project. Let’s not forget I’m only 25, and feel very strongly about [not] establishing a precedent that every [new] episode of MM activity be somehow packaged with a new #1 every 2-3 years. [...] I can’t help believing that this #1 business just goes to point up your impotence as a publisher, not a feeling I cherish having.[3]
I also requested that long-overdue second printings of Megaton Man #1 and #2 (with new covers that I volunteered to draw) coincide with the release of Megaton Man #11, which would also assure me of more revenue. Further, I wrote, “I would like to explore the possibilities” of either an increase in royalty and/or cover price or some sort of guaranteed minimum advance so that I could confidently budget my life and guarantee uninterrupted production of the new material.

As I mentioned above, I was particularly wary of repeating the humiliating experience of Border Worlds in which low sales forced me to take on outside freelance assignments and ultimately suspend the series. I did not want to announce Megaton Man #11-14 and then once again be unable to see the project through to completion. Further, I noted that a T-shirt and promotional poster the publisher was discussing was not something I had demanded. While such promotional efforts were indeed welcome as evidence of their enthusiasm, I considered these “vanity items,” as I termed it in my letter, extraneous to the production of the book. Much as a new #1, I considered such efforts somewhat extraneous ballyhoo that I did not expect nor did I want to go through every time I “felt like” adding new issues to the Megaton Man narrative.[4]

The day before Thanksgiving, Denis responded to my concerns, scribbling “Aargh!” in Sharpie across the top of a photocopy of my letter, and composing a separate typewritten response. “Another confrontational letter filled with complaints and demands,” it began. Numbering as well as pricing, he asserted, were both considerations “that happen to fall under the traditional publisher’s domain,” and over which I had no right to expect any influence. “[Y]our blood lust for continuity” and “moaning over numbering is [nothing more than] prima donna posturing,” Denis declared, motivated only by “an enormous and insecure ego.” After a two-year hiatus, a Megaton Man #11 would be an excessively risky proposition, although the publisher might be open to inserting the number #11 into the indicia, or including it as part of some double-numbering scheme in which the new #1 took clear priority on the cover and in marketing. Furthermore, Denis wrote,
[Y]ou just dropped Border Worlds when you tired of it, without regard for those loyal Simpson fans we’re trying to sell the revived Megaton Man to. These poor saps invested $14 in the first 7 issues of the series you entered into so enthusiastically such a short time ago. They deserved better treatment. Normally a publisher cancels a title because of poor sales. I twice gave you “pep talks” when your spirits were lagging and I encouraged you to continue. Sales were actually starting to turn around and I wasn’t willing to pull out. It was not a good sign of your stick-to-it-tiveness. It’s twice now you’ve abandoned series and I can tell you that some of those diehard fans we touched on earlier are going to “think twice” themselves before they invest more of their dollars in a heralded new Simpson adventure series. Now, I can’t charge you up if you irretrievably lost the impetus to create the remainder of the Border Worlds saga, but you never gave us a single good reason for it. I feel cheated and I know readers will feel cheated.”
Further, Denis interpreted my request to discuss the possibility of some form of guaranteed minimum advance or royalty for new work, coupled with my warnings that these unresolved issues were dampening my enthusiasm and that production might be slowed in case I had to resort to outside freelance again, collectively as a blatant work slow-down or threat to withhold Megaton Man #11 altogether until my demands were met, actually the furthest thing from my mind. He likened this tactic to that of “star basketball players” trying to “blackmail club owners into altering legally binding contracts.” He scoffed at my aversion to “a new #1 every 2-3 years,” particularly seizing on my glib phrase of adding to the Megaton Man narrative “whenever I feel like [it],” remarking that by such a timetable, “we can expect Megaton Man #15 in 1991. I can see the lines forming already.”

He concluded,
I don’t want to prick your ego to be cruel, I just want you to look at the world in a realistic manner. You just killed a series for no good reason. It makes you and us look bad. You’re hacking out stuff for DC. That doesn’t make you a candidate for fanboy heaven. Your prestige is at a low point, man.[5]
I was not prepared for this monstrous barrage of verbal abuse, if only because I had not filled my letter with “complaints and demands” in the first place. I had been attempting to communicate honestly and deal in good faith, all within the context of having just completed 500 pages of material for the publisher and wishing to add more. The publisher had agreed to publish Megaton Man #11 and was flatly reneging on this promise; I wanted him to understand that maintaining the numbering was important to me creatively and to my sense of adding to a body of work. This sentiment did not deserve to be belittled. The matter of second printings of out-of-print issues and of guaranteeing financial compensation sufficient to enable the completion of the new Megaton Man material were completely reasonable issues to discuss, and as history has borne out in the case of other works, might have been a very wise move.

None of my concerns had been framed as demands constituting existential threats to Kitchen Sink Press, and particularly after completing 500 pages of comic book material issued 17 consecutive bi-monthly issues for quite modest compensation and making a good faith effort to secure the means of creating more, I did not deserve to be called a prima donna, a hack, or a spoiled athlete holding a gun to anyone’s head. It was unfair to characterize the end of Megaton Man, which had been extended from what had been a one-shot into 10 issues, and had been brought about as much by the demise of the color line as much as the fulfillment of my creative ideas up to that time, as “abandoning” the series. I above all did not deserve the extended and distorted lecture on my painful suspension of Border Worlds, the sales of which had not “turned around” but were still falling with its final issue, particularly since Alien Fire, another black and white series simultaneously published by Kitchen Sink, had been discontinued by its creators for similar reasons, and not been blithely “killed” because their respective creators had simply “tired” of it.

It is worth noting that it took Daniel Clowes fifteen years to create 23 consecutively-numbered issues of Eightball for Fantagraphics, (averaging 1.6 issues per year), and Mark Schultz nine years to create 14 consecutively-numbered issues of Xenozoic Tales/Cadillacs and Dinosaurs for Kitchen Sink Press (averaging 1.5 issues per year). Denis scoffed at the prospect of “Megaton Man #15 in 1991,” but 15 issues of Megaton Man over a six-year period beginning in December 1984 (averaging 2.5 issues per year) in fact compared very favorably to these other examples. If every new “episode of MM activity” consisted of 4 issues, as I had proposed with Megaton Man #11-14, this would have constituted a rate of 1.3 to 2 issues per year, very much in line with these other cartoonists.

In any case, in the retrospective view of the publisher, I had unilaterally “abandoned” Megaton Man, simply “tired” of Border Worlds, never finished a single thing that I had started, had intentionally cheated my publisher and fans, had turned to “hackwork” (collaborative experience from which I actually learned a great deal) on a whim, and was now attempting extortion, motivated by my insatiable ego. Never mind what any of this had to do with the publisher accepting Megaton Man #11 but going back on his word and now demanding a new #1.

I was so benumbed by this horrendous bullying and willful distortion of my motivations that I immediately capitulated on all issues. Renumbering no longer seemed important to me at all. I no longer lobbied for the company to reprint Megaton Man #1 and #2, [6] and I did not bring up the issue compensation. I resolved to fulfill my commitment as best I could under the circumstances. But instead of four more issues averaging 33 pages each as I had planned, The Return of Megaton Man would now be a finite, three-issue mini-series, numbered #1-3, with 24-page interiors plus a cover (a net loss of 57 pages). This shortened the length of my commitment to the publisher and made the prospect of completing the project without interruption more likely, and also allowed me more time to subsidize this work by accepting outside freelance. By keeping the same cover price and assuming sales approximating those of the original 10-issue series, it also held out the prospect of a slight raise for my labor. Moreover, my original concept for the cover Megaton Man #11, featuring my beleaguered hero exclaiming, “I’m Back! Now I quit Again!” was even funnier under a logo that emphatically proclaimed The Return of in the subhead, and at the same time had gained added personal significance.

“[H]e’s not in control of anything he does—he’s manipulated and used. […] Yet he still goes forth and faces what he has to face.” See previous post.

The three-issue mini-series was released in 1988, to modest success, achieving sales in the range of 90% of the original series, and my tense relations with Kitchen Sink eased somewhat. Again, I found that I had more Megaton Man ideas, and discussed these with the publisher in the course of completing the mini-series. However, there was no doubt that from now on, any new installment of Megaton Man had to feature a new #1 on the cover. As Denis wrote,
I do urge you to seriously pursue the ‘‘hit and run’’ parody one-shots we discussed. From talking to people at different levels of the comics biz, I’m more convinced than ever that this could result in very respectable sales and still permit you to do what you want, retain ownership, and sting some deserving targets.
Among the suggested “targets” were the X-Men, Spider-Man, Batman, Superman, and Marvel’s Punisher (soon to become a Dolf Lundgren movie vehicle). Of the latter, Denis remarked, “Good excuse for lots of mindless excessive fight scenes between [Megaton Man] & [The Punisher].” He also suggested an actual crossover with The Teenage Mutant Turtles, since we both knew that Kevin Eastman was a big fan of Megaton Man. In Denis’ view, “The one-shots offer the best opportunity for maximum publicity” and “it's another way to keep Megaton Man." He chirped, “You’ll make more money. I’ll make more money. My attorney will make more money.”[7]

Presumably, these last remarks had been made half-jokingly. In any case, I went with the joke, creating the one-shots Megaton Man Meets the Uncategorizable X+Thems #1, Yarn Man #1, and Pteranoman #1, along with another Border Worlds issue (Marooned #1) and a dramatic superhero comic, Bizarre Heroes #1, all of which appeared in 1989 and 1990. Of these, the obvious allusion to Marvel’s X-Men was the most gratuitous; unlike earlier issues of Megaton Man, in which I had parodied the Silver-Age comics I had grown up reading, and in contrast to the later Splitting Image series, for which I studied early Image Comics issues, I had no particular feeling at all for Marvel’s ubiquitous mutants one way or another. The X+Thems were merely a generic team with only a few specific parodic gestures aimed its putative source.

Nonetheless, in The Return of Megaton Man and the subsequent one-shots, I was able to further the Megaton Man narrative and to deepen the characterizations and relationships of the core cast somewhat, much as Dave Schreiner had urged me to do, albeit at a much slower pace and in a more fractured way than when I initially plotted Megaton Man #11-14. Many of these post-Megaton Man #1-10 issues are fan favorites, and I had managed to create them while appeasing the publisher with a total of four new #1s and “lots of silly fight scenes.”

But over the long term, as I had warned, the renumbering dictated by the publisher had a detrimental effect on my sense of creating and adding to a coherent, ongoing body of work. I found the pretense of packaging each new installment of the Megaton Man narrative as a self-contained one-shot an additional hurdle to my imagination, one that quickly grew tiresome. It was becoming difficult for me to keep track of exactly how many of issues of Megaton Man I had created without resorting to my fingers and toes. Moreover, each new #1 to my mind was not merely an expedient marketing device, but presented a significant creative challenge requiring at least some kind of narrative justification within the storyline, if only in terms of deciding which character, such as Yarn Man, deserved a “solo issue” next.[8]
The unpublished, colored greyline for Ms. Megaton Man #1, planned as the next Kitchen Sink Megaton Man one-shot (see note 8 below). The Kitchen Sink logo in the upper left has been scratched off the film.

More significantly, the devastating verbal abuse that had been leveled against me, all because I had the temerity to stand up to Kitchen Sink’s reneging on its agreement to publish Megaton Man #11 as Megaton Man #11, while accomplishing the publisher’s short-term goals had, in the longer term, done far more lasting damage. I was a hack, I never finished anything that I started, my “blood lust for continuity” was not a legitimate creative consideration but simply “prima donna posturing.” More importantly, I was simply not in the league of Crumb, Eisner, McCloud, Clowes, Schultz, or any of the artists who was accorded the respect of consecutively numbering their series. Megaton Man was nothing more than a cash cow to fund other, more cherished projects, and if this potential could not be maximized, it simply was not worth being in the Megaton Man business.

I created Border Worlds: Marooned #1, a continuation of the previous series, and Bizarre Heroes #1, a dramatic superhero concept, both released in 1990. I had created a total of 25 comic book issues over a six-year period, averaging over 30 pages per issue, or more than 750 pages of story and art, a singular achievement by a creator under the imprint. It might have been a lot more, but I simply reached the point where I would rather have thrown the original art for my next comic book in the river than see a Kitchen Sink Press logo on it. Inevitably, I parted ways with Kitchen Sink Press, and the only wonder is that it took so long.

Needless to say, Dave and Denis each sought to emphasize quite different aspects of Megaton Man, and their advice to me, if not diametrically opposed, was certainly in stark contrast. While it is true that Dave never suggested that I eschew parody altogether, he urged me to consider the character over the long-term, and to develop an organic supporting cast and believable world, while Denis advocated hit-and-run topical parodies with new #1’s on every cover, and plenty of “silly fight scenes” to make him and his lawyer maximum profits. (I hasten to add that it never occurred to me to enlist Dave’s support in the Megaton Man #11 debate, nor to place him in such an awkward position; after all, despite his minority ownership in the company, it was not named Schreiner Sink Press. I have no idea what he thought about Denis’ dictate to renumber the series.)

Unfortunately, I internalized Denis’ values for quite some time, regarding Megaton Man as my own personal cash cow, useful only in subsidizing my other, more artistic endeavors. This could be said of the team-ups at Image Comics, although The Savage Dragon vs. The Savage Megaton Man #1 with Erik Larsen and normalman vs. Megaton Man #1 with Jim Valentino (and several other contributors) are works of which I am extremely proud, and are highly regarded by fans. But it was even more true in the case of my self-published series Bizarre Heroes, which initially included Megaton Man as a guest-star in the early issues only as a kind of “booster rocket” to get the series off the ground.

It wouldn’t be until the Megaton Man narrative unexpectedly but inexorably had begun to supplant the Megaclone storyline mid-way through the 17-issue run of Bizarre Heroes, culminating in the doubly-titled Megaton Man #0 that brought my career full circle, that I realized Dave Schreiner’s insights were of far more lasting value to me than those of Denis Kitchen. Despite everything, I had formed long attachments to the characters in the Megaton Man narrative, ones that I wanted to continue to explore in the online Megaton Man Weekly Serial of 1996-2000 (which simultaneously ran as a back-up feature in The Savage Dragon #52-80).

For quite some time, the brutal suppression of Megaton Man #11 has not seemed a significant hurdle to my conception of the Megaton Man narrative as a coherent, unified body of work. For one thing, I chose to go back to college for a decade in order to earn a PhD, and in the wake of the internet and digital technology, the business model for the print comic book industry itself has changed almost beyond recognition, and those are no doubt bigger obstacles for a “come back” for either me or Megaton Man at this point. I admit I still can’t add up how many Megaton Man comic books I’ve done over the years, and I hope that collected volumes of Megaton Man, along with new material I am developing, will one day render that difficulty moot. Still, I can’t help but looking back at the Megaton Man #11 episode without recognizing a moment in which I might have been coaxed into returning to Megaton Man full-time, and instead was senselessly bludgeoned into curtailing production and ultimately ending what had been a productive collaboration with Kitchen Sink Press. Four issues every 2-3 by 2015 would have added up to ... well, someone else can do the math.

As Dave Schreiner said of my hero, “he’s not in control of anything he does—he’s manipulated and used. And yet, he retains a “good heart”—he wants to do the right thing. […] Yet he still goes forth and faces what he has to face.”

Sometimes, creating the Megaton Man narrative has been like that.

Next: Part III: God and Megaton Man at Image Comics

Read also: Megaton Man #11 from Plot to Print

Read also “How Megaton Man Has Evolved in Thirty Years and Why I’m Still Creating Him”
[1] I also colored the covers of Megaton Man #7-10 along with the Border Worlds back-up feature in those issues, and all of Megaton Man #10.
[2] Dave Schreiner, letter to Don Simpson, February 15, 1987.
[3] Don Simpson, letter to Denis Kitchen, November 18, 1987.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Denis Kitchen, letter to Don Simpson, November 25, 1987.
[6] Kitchen Sink Press did eventually issue a black-and-white reprint of Megaton Man #1 in 1989, and later collected the first four issues of the series in a slightly oversized black-and-white hardcover and trade paperback in 1990 in the lavish format reserved for Will Eisner and Mark Schultz, but these measures came too little too late in my opinion to translate into audience growth, since the Megaton Man series by then had become hopelessly fractured and fragmented, much as I had predicted, into a bewildering plethora of #1s. In any case, it did not have the effect that I believe keeping all issues in print all along, or at least reprinting issues #1 and #2 in tandem with Megaton Man #11 in 1988, might have had.
[6] Denis Kitchen, letter to Don Simpson, October 19, 1988.
[7] Ms. Megaton Man #1, the next planned Megaton Man one-shot, was advertised as “Coming in April [1990] in a full page ad with the cover illustration in the back of Yarn Man #1 (October 1989), and is also mentioned in the indicia of Yarn Man #1. The back cover of Yarn Man #1, featuring Ms. Megaton Man and Megaton Man in a “Batman and Robin” pose with display lettering reading, “The Dork Nuke,” also functioned as a preview for Ms. Megaton Man #1. However, a complete Ms. Megaton Man solo comic book never materialized. Instead, the short story, “The Dork Nuke,” featuring Ms. Megaton Man and Megaton Man fooling around in The Dork Cave, was one of three short stories that made up Pteranoman #1 (August 1990), the final Megaton Man one-shot to appear from Kitchen Sink Press.