When Words Collide

Wed, October 29th, 2008 at 2:28pm PDT | Updated: October 29th, 2008 at 6:43pm

Comic Books
Timothy Callahan, Columnist/Reviewer

IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME

Larsen Juvenelia Revisited

A couple of weeks ago, during my chat with Barry Lyga, we talked about some of our embarrassing teenage comic book writing -- Barry, with his Legion of Super-Heroes fanfic, and me with my grim and gritty concept for an Inferior Five revamp. Well, it turns out (not surprisingly) that Barry and I weren't the only nerdy kids who spent their summers planning really terrible comic book ideas, and I've been talking to others in the comic book community who shared similar experiences of those pre-internet days when we were off in our own little fictional worlds, often reforming the media around us to conform to our own preferences and experiences.

In other words, we took the stuff we liked and tried to change it into other stuff we liked.

There's plenty of precedent for this in the world of comic books, of course. I promised myself to cut back on my Legion of Super-Heroes references this week, but we can't ignore the case of young Jim Shooter, who, as a teenager in the mid-1960s, redefined the Legion based on the Marvel model, many years before he worked for the "House of Ideas." Shooter wasn't some teenage hobbyist, creating virtual worlds on typing paper and throwing them in a pile beneath his racecar-shaped bed. His approach was more pragmatic, taking the concepts that worked -- Stan Lee's hyperbolic portrayal of emotion and the Jack Kirby dynamism -- and applied them to a comic from another company that he thought was corny and old-fashioned.

I'm a big fan of the pre-Shooter Legion, but I wasn't a teenager until twenty years later, and if I were born in 1951, I probably would have found the Legion of 1965 (or 2965, as the comics told us), to be as silly and juvenile as Shooter did. Teenagers are concerned with stuff like "being cool," and the John Forte-drawn Legion was a lot of things, but it wasn't what any teenager would call "hip."

The Ultimate in Adolescent Comic Creations

So Shooter took his pencil to paper and drafted a story about a new group of Legionnaires, super-teens with names like Karate Kid and Princess Projectra. And he drew the story on typing paper and sent it in to Mort Weisinger. The surprising thing isn't that Shooter went to such an extent -- many young readers, over the years, have sent their very bad amateur comic book stories to publishers -- but that Weisinger published the story. He even had the brilliant Curt Swan pencil over Shooter's rudimentary layouts. And, as we know, that was just the beginning of Shooter's long career, and his simple teenage rationalization -- if Marvel comics are better than DC's, then I can make the DC comics better by using the Marvel approach -- worked to give the audience exactly what it wanted.

Most comic book creators started much like Shooter, with stories written and drawn as kids, although with few exceptions (like Cary Bates, for example, who also ended up working for DC while still a teenager) most young comic book dreamers didn't strike the mother lode until much, much later. But some didn't abandon their childhood creations.

Take Erik Larsen, for one. His "Dragon" character from childhood -- the star of many a wide-ruled notebook epic -- eventually evolved into the Savage Dragon that we know today. Or take the teenage Kurt Busiek and Scott McCloud, who collaborated on "The Battle of Lexington," in which the assembled Marvel heroes rampaged through the creators' home town. Both Busiek and McCloud have drawn upon that formative work in different ways over the years, as McCloud used that kind of innocent, amateur approach to superhero narrative to inform one of the characters in his "Zot!" run, while Busiek has made a career out of costumed slugfests for the Big Two.

Curious about this phenomenon, and perhaps more curious about the ideas that never saw the light of day -- the ones that were abandoned and forgotten, or, better yet, the ones that were abandoned and not forgotten, but remain as youthful indiscretions -- I tracked down some of the real-life characters who make up our comic book world today. Would these current creators and comic pundits have any really, really bad comic book ideas hidden away in "Dukes of Hazzard" Trapper Keepers?

So I scoured the Earth, looking for answers. (Or, maybe I just e-mailed people. Or maybe both. You can imagine it in whatever way works for you.)

You Create the Heroes! (Maybe)

I started with someone who I knew had created many a comic book character in his pre-professional Silver Age days, long before he even had a chance to watch "Dukes of Hazzard" or own a Trapper Keeper: "New Teen Titans" creator Marv Wolfman. We know that Wolfman original conceived of his famous Monitor character as someone called "The Librarian," although his notion of the character changed from the time he was a teenager to the time the character finally appeared in the lead up to "Crisis on Infinite Earths," but did he have other, much more embarrassing teenage comic book ideas that he never showed the public. Was there, perhaps, a sci-fi revamp of the Shining Knight sitting in storage somewhere, along with a rusty old Roy Rogers cap gun?

I asked Wolfman what he remembered about the embarrassing ideas of those teenage days. He admitted, "I have nothing that I can think of, but all my really embarrassing stuff has actually seen print, and I'll be darned if I say what that is." I'll say it, then: Danny Chase, the proto-Harry Potter of the Teen Titans set. Although I doubt that was a teenage creation by Wolfman, as the annoying character appeared during the Macaulay Culkin era of mass-media. Of course, this just goes to show that teenage would-be comic creators aren't the only ones with bad ideas. See Reilly, Ben and Down, Count for further examples.

In my search for other embarrassing ideas from the past, I probed the Draper-Carlson/Carlson house, thinking that perhaps Johanna or KC, with decades of work in and around the trenches of the comic book industry, would have some buried treasures of comic book badness that never saw the light. It turns out that -- gasp -- "Comics Worth Reading" guru Johanna wasn't a regular reader of comics as a teen. "The closest I got [to creating anything embarrassing] was coming up with concepts for favorite TV shows, most of which involved crossing over various characters," says Draper-Carlson. Since this site isn't called TELEVISION Book Resources, I didn't pursue the line of questioning. Although a "Fall Guy"/"T. J. Hooker"/"St. Elsewhere" crossover does sound like the greatest idea ever, does it not? Is it too late to pull that off? Maybe on a reunion show?

The Gilbert Influence

Former Superman editor KC Carlson came through with memories of a comic book relic from his past, though. "Alas, I had no teenage aspirations for creativity," says Carlson, "but somewhere in a deep dark box I have something I did from when I was about 8 or 9. It was called 'Super-Blob' and it was exactly what it sounds like -- a man-sized Proty-like blob that wore a cape. Oddly enough it was obviously inspired by Batman, as he slid down a pole to get to his 'Blob-Cave' and drove around in his 'Blob-mobile.' Remarkably, I must have been self-aware enough at that age to know that I had no drawing ability whatsoever -- mostly by my choice of a blobby looking character that took all of three seconds to draw. And it didn't take long for me to tire of the idea, as I only ever completed 1 and 1/2 pages." Carlson's experiences resonate with all of us, I'm sure. How many of us have created Batman-esque characters, and how often has our ambition lasted for more than a page or two? Perhaps that's the lesson of Carlson's anecdote: the difference between the professional creator and the amateur is the willingness to stick with it even after you grow bored. Or maybe the lesson is: blobs can't drive. Let's be honest, the blob idea was doomed from the outset, what with his lack of opposable thumbs, or any kind of appendages of any sort.

Carlson's blob-tastic approach typifies a lot of budding comic creator's attempts at mimicking their favorite costumed characters in original stories, but my research uncovered a startling fact: one of today's most popular superhero writers wasn't even fanatically obsessed with superhero comics as a teenager. Matt Fraction, writer of "Invincible Iron Man," and a potent force for good in the Marvel Universe, was actually the kind of kid who preferred independent, creator-driven comics. Fraction says, "I made a bunch of comics I'm embarrassed by, but it was all either 'autobio' stuff or like weird Jim Woodring/Gilbert Hernandez things…I'm shuddering just thinking about them. And, no, nothing I'd ever share with anyone." Surely his adolescent comics were at least filled with Frank-Caves and Luba-mobiles. Or maybe not.

Jason Aaron, of "Scalped" and "Ghost Rider" fame scoffs at the notion of writing teenage superhero pitches like my doomed "Inferior Five" revamp. When asked about his own teenage dalliance, he says, "I can't really think of a lot of pitches I had. That makes it sounds more serious than I ever really got about it when I was young. When I was a kid, I wrote and drew my own comics. My friend and I had our own company, and we each had our own series, just drawn on notebook paper and then stapled together. My flagship title was 'Trash Guy and Kid Garbage.'" Aaron gets plenty of much-deserved credit for his down-and-dirty approach to comic book storytelling, and I'm sure that's a direct result of his formative experiences in the rubbish removal sub-genre of superheroes. But Aaron was never one to stick to a single genre, even as a kid. He not only created a "Groo" pastiche called "Moof," but he also worked in a Tolkein/Henson vein: "[When I was] a bit older, I had an elaborate fantasy world mapped out, though I can't for the life of me remember the story's name. I just know it had something to do with a bunch of magic crystals. Yeah, real original, right?" It's a shame Aaron abandoned this line of thinking because I've often wondered what would happen if Johnny Blaze battled the dark elves for possession of the mystic runes of West Memphis.

Valhallaballoo from Inferior Five #4

But like those of us who grew up in the Bronze Age of comics, there was one particular outlet for adolescent creativity that offered the possibility for fame and fortune to all: "Dial H for Hero." The 1980s incarnation, created by our pal Marv Wolfman and the great Carmine Infantino, featured reader-created heroes who would appear whenever Chris King and Vicki Grant used their H-dials. Readers who created such memorable characters like Dragonfly and Silver Fog got credit boxes in the panels in which their heroes first appeared. I know I wasn't the only one to wrack my brain trying to come up with the coolest name for a tornado-inspired hero, or a hero who shot darts out of his eyes.

Jason Aaron couldn't resist the chance at comic book glory in those days, either: "I know at one point I submitted a character idea to DC Comics for their 'Dial H For Hero' feature that ran in 'Adventure Comics.'" Alas, Aaron reveals, "mine didn't make the cut. I wish to God I still had a copy of that. Maybe DC has some dusty old file drawer somewhere with all those submissions in it, so I can dig mine out and finally give my overlooked character the spotlight he so richly deserved."

My own genius creations, like Cycloniac and Dr. Dart, never showed up in the pages of "Adventure Comics" either, and the world is a much sadder place for it. I don't know if I actually got to the sending-them-into-DC part of the submission process, to be honest, which would have made their appearance highly unlikely indeed. And I don't remember actually submitting my grim and gritty revamp of the "Inferior Five" either, although I know I typed out character descriptions and a formal proposal on my Commodore 64. For the record, the series would have been called "The Five" and it would have taken place 20 years after the E. Nelson Bridwell-scripted series. The conceit was that their original series was just the Inferior Five playing roles for the younger crowd -- they were actually much rougher around the edges, like ex-child stars -- and when a secret government conspiracy led to the Five getting assassinated one-by-one, Dumb Bunny (known, in my pitch, as the Dominatrix) had to assemble the remaining group to uncover the conspiracy and save the world. It was "Watchmen" meets "Pee-Wee's Playhouse."

Yeah, it was obviously the worst idea ever.

Worse than other late 1980s comics? Worse than "Chuck Norris and the Karate Kommandos"? Maybe not. (Okay, yeah, it was probably a lot worse. But who wouldn't want to see Merryman as the Rorschach character?)

He is Heavy (and Not My Brother)

But I also developed some other stories for other DC characters, around that same time, and those I did submit, even though my dot matrix printer probably didn't make my teenage submissions look particularly impressive. I vaguely recall a story about the "real" King Faraday, who learns that his spy adventures were all staged by a secret organization, and then there was the Green Lantern story that I recently found in a stack of school papers from my high school days. It must have been inspired by the 1980s reprints of the Denny O'Neil/Neal Adams "Green Lantern/Green Arrow" comics, because it was heavy, reading, man. Real heavy. The story began with Hal Jordan stopping a purse snatcher in the opening scene, slapping some emerald energy handcuffs on the guy as Green Lantern raced off to a ribbon-cutting ceremony. The handcuffs didn't dissipate when GL left, so the rest of the story alternated between the hero's much applauded public exploits and the purse snatcher, whose energy handcuffs left him more and more vulnerable to the assaults by others. The story ended with the minor criminal beaten to death and Green Lantern never having a clue how his actions affected the fate of this seemingly insignificant character.

I told you it was heavy. I can't imagine why DC passed on such a whimsical tale of Green Lanternry. Perhaps, like Jason Aaron's Dial H character, my grim Green Lantern submission still lingers in a drawer somewhere, ignored but not forgotten.

It's definitely better that way.

In addition to writing reviews and columns for COMIC BOOK RESOURCES, Timothy Callahan is the author of "Grant Morrison: The Early Years" and editor of the recently-released "Teenagers from the Future: Essays on the Legion of Super-Heroes" anthology. More of his thoughts on comics can be seen every day at the Geniusboy Firemelon blog.

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TAGS:  jim shooter, kurt busiek, marv wolfman, jason aaron

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