Thursday, July 16, 2015

Dave Schreiner on Megaton Man: "Yet He Still Goes Forth!"


Megaton Man: The Kitchen Sink Years, Part I

Megaton Man #1 was originally a one-shot comic book that I created over a 13-month period between early 1983 and early 1984, mostly while washing dishes at Union Street restaurant on Woodward Avenue in Detroit. I was 22 years old at the time, and although I had been drawing since the age of 5, and dreaming up characters since at least junior high school, Megaton Man was the new kid on the block in terms of my imagination, created only in 1982. Whereas previous creations had been mostly dramatic adventure characters of one sort or another that never left my sketchbook, Megaton Man was a humorous spoof of superhero clichés that seemed flexible enough to channel my various artistic influences, from Steranko to Neal Adams, which I was struggling to reconcile into my own style, and serve as the basis for my first full-length comic book.

Flying by the seat of my pants, I created Megaton Man #1 a few pages at a time, hoping the final result would demonstrate my skill and versatility as a writer and artist as well as my knowledge of comics lore, and still hold together as a single work. Overworked passages and stylistic self-indulgences which in another context might detract from and disrupt the reading experience could, in a satire, be passed off as comedic exaggerations and actually serve the underlying concept: a deconstruction of the superhero genre. As such, I did not have a 300-issue story arc in mind, or even much of an imaginary world mapped out for the character, and didn’t really need one. I relied on the structure provided by the standard superhero yarns I was parodying, and could count on the reader’s familiarity with formulaic plot structures and play on their programmed expectations to sustain the issue.

I really hadn’t expected Megaton Man #1 to be published, however. At most I hoped just to get my foot in the door with some publisher as a letterer or production assistant. However, much to my surprise, Kitchen Sink Press, a small publisher of underground comix and classic comic book and comic strip reprints, offered not only to publish inaugural effort (in color, no less), but also wondered if I could produce Megaton Man as an ongoing series! [1] Naturally, I jumped at the opportunity, with no clear plan in mind. It would be a learning experience for both parties, since the company was new to color publishing and had no prior experience issuing an open-ended comic book series by an individual creator on a regular frequency, and indeed had no track record of breaking in such a young creator. In any case, from late 1984 to summer 1986, I managed to cobble together a total of ten bi-monthly issues of Megaton Man.

Megaton Man was one of three color series published at the time by Kitchen Sink Press. The first had been Will Eisner’s The Spirit, debuting in 1983 to much fanfare, which reprinted the more artistically accomplished postwar stories of the classic character (a preview of Megaton Man #1 appeared in The Spirit #8). Painstakingly recolored by Pete Poplaski and Ray Fehrenbach using a lavish method of Cel-Vinyl paint on greylines with an additional shading overlay, The Spirit was successful in color but expensive to produce and publish by itself. (Indeed, it is highly implausible that an untested, unknown creator would be given the unprecedented opportunity to produce an ongoing, creator-owned color series on the strength of talent alone; more likely, a superhero parody could be seen as a pretty safe bet in the superhero-dominated marketplace, an yet at the same time did not violate the imprint’s bona fides as an alternative, non-superhero company.) Death Rattle, an underground horror anthology, revived as a rather tepid suspense series, was the last series to join The Spirit and Megaton Man in color. (Rand Holmes’ two-part Harold Hedd: Hitler’s Cocaine, an earlier, costly experiment in color, had already come and gone by the time Megaton Man #1 appeared.) Of the three titles, Megaton Man had been the only series to remain profitable for the publisher for the entirety of its run; the other two titles had started out strong, but sales for each soon fell to an unprofitable level. For more or less a year, in other words, Megaton Man had been propping up the flagging Kitchen Sink color line.

Around the time I was completing Megaton Man #7, Kitchen Sink decided it would discontinue publishing color comics altogether in the coming months, with Megaton Man #9 tentatively slated as the last color issue of the series. In Amazing Heroes Preview, a semi-annual Fantagraphics publication that forecast upcoming industry releases, we had already announced my intention of ending Megaton Man with issue #12, and I had already drawn covers for those issues, although the stories were little more than notes scribbled on a legal pad.  In a meeting with Denis, Dave, and Pete Poplaski (I was living at the Kitchen Sink offices at the time), I was given the choice of finishing out Megaton Man (or continuing the series indefinitely) in black and white, or creating a new series better suited to the black and white format. I already had in mind Border Worlds, an experimental back-up feature I had begun as a back-up feature in Megaton Man #6, as the project I wanted to tackle next, and thought that series would work better in black and white. I also felt that I could comfortably compress the remaining ideas I had for Megaton Man into three more issues instead of five, and we agreed at that meeting that issue #10 would be the last issue of the series and the final color comic book Kitchen Sink would publish for the time being. 


The Search Begins but the Color Line is About to End: A successful year of Megaton Man is not enough to offset losses on the color Spirit and Death Rattle. Megaton Man #7 (Kitchen Sink Press, December 1985).


Border Worlds, a brooding science fiction saga featuring a female protagonist living on a doomed space station, was altogether different in feeling and tone from the relatively upbeat and lively Megaton Man. No doubt, I was asking a lot of my audience to follow me from one series to the other. But sales of Border Worlds #1 were strong, and I was optimistic that I could win fans over, and I put my heart and soul into the series, tapping influences from Ridley Scott’s Alien to Moebius and Wally Wood, along with classic black and white cinema. However, as the series unfolded (and as the market experienced a sudden glut of independent black and white comics), sales of Border Worlds steadily declined, soon falling to a point where royalties could no longer support my extremely modest lifestyle. After seven issues, I made the very painful decision to place Border Worlds on indefinite hiatus while I accepted freelance assignments from other companies, primarily DC Comics and Mirage Studios (I was the only artist to appear in all 18 issues of John Ostrander and Del Close’s creepy proto-Vertico anthology Wasteland, and also drew a couple Flash stories; I also made some minor contributions to the early Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles mythos).

As 1987 rolled around, I wanted to write and draw my own work again, and realized I had more Megaton Man ideas after all, sufficient for at least four more issues, comprising #11-14. I shared a sketchy outline of my ideas with Kitchen Sink Press. Even before the first issue of Megaton Man had appeared, in the fall of 1984 (and before I’d met him), the late Kitchen Sink editor Dave Schreiner (1946-2003) had remarked in an internal memorandum,

I’m optimistic about the character. When I read the initial issue I wondered how long the parody-satire could continue before the well ran dry. Comics’ “Silver Age” is a damn limited field. But I see that Mr. Simpson seems to be moving away from pure satire of comics into social satire. If he keeps moving in that direction, the character has an unlimited future. […] His [Megaton Man’s] naiveté combined with his downright stupidity makes him the perfect character for satire. […] You can do anything with a guy like that, as long as it’s believable within his own frame of reference. I’m looking at Megaton Man as a long-range character. [Continue to] Parody the movies and comic books, but keep looking at how we live in today’s world. [2]

Of my plans for new Megaton Man issues, Dave wrote directly to me in 1987,

I’m glad you’re thinking seriously about bringing him back. [...] I think it’s about time you stopped viewing the character as merely your vehicle to boff on the comics biz, and you should also stop viewing him as simply the comic relief with his “silly fight scenes.” What you have built, quite possibly unintentionally, is a very likeable character that people seem to care about—much more than they care about any of the other subsidiary characters. This is not to say that the other characters are not important, but it is time to give MM his due. He’s dumb; he’s a freak; 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—and he has a lot of spirit. And, to top it off, he has an awareness that he possesses all the aforementioned buffoon-like qualities. Yet he still goes forth and faces what he has to face. None of the other characters in MM have these qualities. [3]

As I made clear to the publisher, it was important to my own sense of creating a body of work that the numbering of Megaton Man continue, despite the hiatus, with Megaton Man #11, and the publisher provisionally agreed. When I sent in a cover sketch and plot notes, Denis responded, “Your MM #11 cover Xerox and letter just arrived. I love the cover – it’ a great pose and gag.” However, he wondered if the new release should have #1 on the cover, possibly packaged as an annual. [4]

Next: Whatever Happened to Megaton Man #11?

[1] In 1984, in response to my submission of Megaton Man #1, Denis wondered, “Is this a one-shot or can a continuity be maintained? If this is a one-shot, we can go for all it’s worth, and then maybe you’ll want to tackle something altogether different.” Denis Kitchen to Don Simpson, March 1, 1984.
[2] Dave Schreiner, undated memorandum to Denis Kitchen, attached to Denis Kitchen, letter to Don Simpson, October 25, 1984).
[3] Dave Schreiner, letter to Don Simpson, February 15, 1987.
[4] Denis Kitchen to Don Simpson, April 2, 1987.

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