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 color superhero parody, and 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 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!

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