Sunday, December 2, 2018

You Can't Go Home (or Back to #1) Again: Retroactive World-Building and the Limits of a Parody Vehicle

Since 2015, I've been working on more Megaton Man material, some of which I have posted in some form or another on my various blogs or in Facebook albums. Even more than these sketches, preliminaries, and finished art in certain cases, I've written a large quantity of words in various texts that serve as working documents. I've come to regard this process as a kind of "retroactive world-building," and while I'm not prepared to announce any new publications, I'd like to let you in on how this process is unfolding.

When I originally created Megaton Man #1, in about a 13-month period in 1983-84, I really wasn't planning anything more than a one-shot. I aspired to create a "masterpiece" in the classic sense of a work demonstrating my mastery of the various skills (penciling, inking, lettering, etc.). Part of the reason I chose a humorous vein was because it allowed me to lampoon various artistic styles that had influenced me (at the time I was heavily immersed in Silver Age artists like Jack Kirby and Neal Adams, not the easiest styles to strike a happy medium with, and an overdose of Burne Hogarth's Dynamic Anatomy series of books). As a parody, I could exaggerate these affectations to the max, and turn a weakness (my obviously misspent youth studying cartooning styles too closely) into a strength.

In narrative terms, I never bothered to plan out the world in which Megaton Man and other character operated, taking it for granted that readers would recognize the basic genre tropes (the newsroom of a metropolitan daily, the headquarters of a Megahero team, the secret laboratory of a mad scientist, the orbiting killer satellite, etc.). It never occurred to me to map out exactly where these assets might be located other than a generic east coast Megatropolis (which was interchangeably identified as New York City). Being from the Midwest, I probably couldn't have located Long Island in relation to New Jersey in those days, anyway.

In terms of relationships, family trees, and timelines, I also made things up as I went along. If a character had to make reference to their age, where they worked, where they went to school, or other data, it was improvised on a need-to-know basis, and hopefully I would remember to look up the back issue if such information were required again.

I proceeded this way through ten issues of Megaton Man in this fashion, rarely sketching a costume design before a new character appeared on the Bristol board page, and only working from the sketchiest of written (sometimes by hand, sometimes typed) plot outlines. I worked in what was widely dubbed the "Marvel Style," after the fashion of Jack Kirby and Stan Lee, where the picture track came first and the scripted text was lettered onto the boards later, before inking. I worked somewhat differently on Border Worlds, often writing more thorough texts before drawing, and over the next three decades, I've employed every variation from completely improvised thumbnail sketches to completely tight, descriptive scripts.

But it wasn't until 2015 that I began to look back over my previous Megaton Man and Bizarre Heroes comics (including various Megaton Man mini-series and one-shots) that I began to wonder how the Megaverse, for lack of a better term, worked, both temporally and geographically.

Again, I'm not prepared to give anything away at this time, but suffice it to say that I have been compiling notes, background stories, family trees, timelines, and the like ever since, in such profusion as to belie my earlier reputation as a satirist who scoffed at all those fanboy "continuity freaks." I suppose when it comes to the history of my own characters, and what they've lived through, it has great value to me in retrospect. In other words, I'm a big, fat, hypocrite.

I've already discussed elsewhere on this blog how Megaton Man #11-#14, at the publisher's insistence, became The Return of Megaton Man #1-#3, and how this was a traumatic moment for me in many ways. Part of this is because of the still-present desire to be able look back over the past thirty years, despite the infrequency of Megaton Man appearances, and be able to count up all the issues simply by looking at the last one (instead, I have to always use a pencil - to make a long story short, some 37 issues between Megaton Man and Bizarre Heroes that take place in the Megaverse).

But the renumbering, which after all I did agree to and now cannot but fully own, was only half the story. The more fundamental issue was that, with the planned issues #11-#14, I had placed the characters on what I thought was a more sound footing that would allow me to go forward. I felt that I had gained a second wind and now saw the characters and situations more objectively, as having value in their own right, rather than as vehicles to parody other icons.

Whereas the first ten issues of Megaton Man took place largely in Megatropolis/New York, #11 showed the entire core cast of character (Trent Phloog without his Megaton Man powers, a pregnant Stella Starlight, Pammy Jointly, Preston Percy, and housemate Clarissa James) in their Civilian (non-Megahero) guises, all in a kind of Doonebury or Big Chill-style communal off-campus house in Ann Arbor.

A sampling of the Ann Arbor trajectory that remained intact in Return of Megaton Man #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, 1988).

This setting, especially with Megaton Man and the See-Thru Girl's love-child on the way, gave a whole new wrinkle to the continuity I had created. The wild days of Megaheroics in the Big City were now in the past; character-driven stories in a counter-cultural milieu would be the new tone going forward. At least this was what I had in mind, whether I could completely articulate it or not.

What was remarkable about this subtle transformation was that it emerged organically out of the previous storyline (Stella and Pammy left Megatropolis at the end of Megaton Man #1 and met Clarissa in Ann Arbor in issue #4, and Megaton Man lost his Megapowers at the end of issue #10), and I though it also fit in with the gestalt of Kitchen Sink Press (a legacy Underground publisher) and the tenor of the times (the late 80s). And as I said, I had my second wind, and felt I could produce a lot more stories in this vein.

In any case, my fans and publisher had wanted more Megaton Man, and this was what more Megaton Man looked like. I thought there would have been some appreciation.

In the end, what was most hurtful about the disagreement that ensued between me and my publisher over renumbering the series was not the so much the new and intentionally deceptive, confusing, and meaningless #1 itself (which I considered at the time to be outright prostitution - and still do), or even that in principle that the publisher had already tacitly accepted Megaton Man #11-14 for publication and was now subsequently reneging, and blaming me for all kinds of character shortcomings in the bargain.

You figure it out: a collection of Megaton Man covers over the decades.

What was really at issue was that, while gimmicky renumbering may have been more easily accommodated in the earlier, more parodic Megaton Man (still with some difficulty), it was even more out of tune with where I was taking the character(s) and storyline in this new iteration.

In other words, asking me to masquerade each new issue of Megaton Man as one-shot #1 targeting the whatever hot trend was going on in comics at the moment revealed that the publisher still saw Megaton Man merely as a parody vehicle (whereas the editor, the late Dave Schreiner, was in fact encouraging me to see the narrative as an ensemble of characters that were original and valuable in their own right).

 The most common misunderstanding about Megaton Man is that it was a parody of current comics, circa 1985. It was not; it never was. I was accessing the comics that I had read largely ten years earlier - the Silver Age comics, the Treasury-sized and Giant Sized reprints, Origins ..., Son of Origins ..., Bring on the Bad Guys, all that stuff. What was going on in the current mainstream titles, beyond being counterfeit perpetuations, didn't interest me in the slightest. The parody of the month - that's what Valentino was doing in normalman, lampooning a different industry imprint or genre each month. Sure, I gave Megaton Man a black costume for a panel in issue #1, a clear reference to Secret Wars; but beyond one-off potshots like that - the endless mutants, the grim and gritty alcoholic suicidal protagonists, all that stuff - I pretty much ignored. I was mainly interested in fusing together my pastiche of influences and integrating it into something organic of my own, if that were possible. What the industry was doing for the most part couldn't have been of less interest to me one way or another.
Lampooning the latest movie or company-wide crossover was not beyond my capabilities, mind you. In fact, the most "pure" parody I ever created, in a Not Brand Echh! sense, was the two-issue Splitting Image I created for Jim Valentino and Rob Liefeld at Image Comics in 1993.

From Return of Megaton Man #2 (Kitchen Sink Press, August 1988).

But what I wanted to do with Megaton Man #11-14 and subsequent issues, which I had shown the editor and publisher in plot form, was more character-driven - still with some lampooning of superhero cliches, but not to the extent the publisher was now demanding.

In other words, the publisher just wanted to publish Megaton Man #1 over and over again, with different current pop-culture references, whereas what I had come up with was a Megaton Man narrative that would actually grow. What a self-indulgent primadonna was me!

The angst of Megaton Man #11 aside, when I came to review the extant material in 2015, I continually returned the one-shots of the late 1980s (and particularly Yarn Man #1 of October 1989) as the point that I began to completely lose any focus on the Megaton Man cast.

Yarn Man #1 is still a fondly-remembered issue by a lot of fans, and others tell me later Megaton Man adventures are equally favorites. But the impetus I had when I plotted Megaton Man #11-14 just two years earlier, by the time of Yarn Man #1, was completely lost. The folowing installment, Pteranoman #1, was an anthology of three short stories, only one of which featured the Megaton Man cast. After that, I gave up trying to advance any kind of coherent, character-driven narrative by means of the onerous #1 one-shots.

Some of this impetus reasserted itself in the following series, Bizarre Heroes, initially about more "straight" superhero characters I had created in junior high school and since. But the Megaton Man cast somehow subconsciously wrote themselves back into the strip, and by the end of the seventeen-issue run, completely dominated it once again.

I'm recounting all this to say that there is still a considerable amount of material from that communal house in Ann Arbor that has been left untold, and after several years of "retroactive world-building," one of many projects and stories that I have identified as needing still to be told is about a five-year chunk of the 1980s in which those Civilian characters are at the forefront.

If and when these tales ever see the light of day, I can't claim that it is possible now to reconstruct what I may have had in mind at the time I plotted Megaton Man #11-14 with any faithfulness. Moreover, I have gained a considerable amount of life experience, and at the same time insight into the characters, that I simply didn't have three decades ago. And yet that era still captures my imagination, at least as much as later time periods in the History of the Megaverse, which have been steadily coming into view.
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