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 the format, and I had I opted to go with Border Worlds, which had run as a back-up feature in Megaton Man since issue #6.

Again I was surprised when the publisher offered to publish the new issues in 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 milieu. Complications would inevitably ensue as the characters’ Megaheroic past caught up to them and invaded their idyllic exile, dragging them back to costumed antics.

However, unlike the editor, who was excited by the narrative developments and 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 explicitly 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; for some reason, 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 $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 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 as déclassé. Denis in fact believed that having sold-out, high-priced back issues on the collectors’ market brought a certain prestige and 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 visiblet opportunity for maximum publicity”to maintain the visibility of the Megaton Man property. 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.
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, much as Dave Schreiner had urged me to do. Many of these post-Megaton Man issues are fan favorites. And I had done so 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. 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 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, instead of being 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.

[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 to Denis Kitchen, November 18, 1987.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Denis Kitchen 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 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 functions 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.

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