Shelf Life: And Here's the Pitch...

Thu, March 24th, 2011 at 1:58pm PDT

Comic Books
Ron Marz, Columnist

Dusty Abell's art from his and Marz's Hawkman/GL pitch

The fans want to know. Some of them want to know everything: who's working on what, what's going to happen, what's coming out next. For those fans, it's about what's over the horizon rather than what's here now. It's no coincidence traffic on comic-oriented websites shoots up when solicits are released. I've even seen some fans admit to getting more excited for the solicits than the actual comics.

I'll be the first to admit, I don't understand that level of "need to know" -- the people who would rather read Wiki spoilers than the issues themselves. That's akin to studying the menu instead of eating the meal, but to each his own. I think that mindset is fueled, at least in part, by the ever-increasing interconnectivity of titles in the Big Two respectively, pushing readers toward keeping track of a universe-wide storyline and its myriad tie-ins.

But that's just the stuff that makes it to the shelves. If those "need to know" fanboys ever realized the number of projects that are discussed, planned and even pitched, yet never get off the ground, their heads might explode. Most of the creators I know have projects like that in a drawer somewhere -- stories cooked up via phone and IM and email, creative teams put together over drinks at a con bar. But for reasons as varied as the projects themselves, they never come to fruition. Once in a while, word leaks out and we hear about something like the Mark Waid-Mike Wieringo Aquaman pitch, or the Morrison-Millar-Waid-Peyer Superman revamp. But most of the time they disappear without a trace.

Good projects don't always get approved, and bad projects don't always get turned down. Pitches are killed in the cradle for reasons from quality to scheduling, from budgets to office politics, even just sheer bad timing. My own list of almost-but-not-quite includes:

  • A Hulk-Ghost Rider graphic novel with painted art by Joe Chiodo.

  • A 64-page Batman story with overtones of Poe's tales, set in Arkham Asylum, with art by Claudio Castellini.

  • A Martian Manhunter prestige-format one-shot drawn by Bryan Hitch.

  • A period Hawkman-Green Lantern adventure, set during World War II, with art by Dusty Abell.

  • A companion to the Batman-Tarzan project I wrote at Dark Horse, featuring Superman and John Carter of Mars.

  • A retelling of the Arthurian legends, but featuring the Green Lantern cast.

The one I regret more than any of them, though, is a project called "Altered Egos," by me and artist Cully Hamner, one of my best friends and favorite artists. Here's how it went. And how it didn't.

Art from Marz and Hamner's "Altered Egos" pitch

The germ of the idea started with Cully, I believe, and we each threw in ideas until we had something we both quite liked. The central concept sprang from a simple observation: Superman and Batman became who they are because of their parents, or lack of parents.

Both men are orphans. But Batman is the direct result of young Bruce seeing his parents gunned down in Gotham's mean streets. While Superman is very much the embodiment of the values taught to him by Jonathan and Martha Kent. But what if that's not the way it happened? What if it was Clark who lost his parents as a boy, and Bruce who never knew tragedy? What happens then?

"Altered Egos" was an Elseworlds story. But Cully and I wanted to do something that avoided the continuity nudge-nudge-wink-wink that plays only to the hardcore audience. We wanted an Elseworlds that was completely accessible to anyone who might only know Supes, Bats and their supporting casts from movies or television.

Here are the opening paragraphs of the proposal:

"The purpose is to reexamine the origins of DC's two primal heroes -- Batman and Superman. Who would these men have been if their pasts had been different, if their pasts had in fact been reversed? What if Bruce Wayne's parents had not been killed when he was a boy? And what if Clark Kent had been witness to the murder of this parents at a young age?

"Clark Kent still becomes Superman, but without the guiding hand of his parents, a darker and more revenge-obsessed Superman. And without the loss of his parents, Bruce Wayne's obsessive nature is never given outlet by becoming Batman. So rather than a costumed hero, he becomes a businessman to whom wealth and power are one and the same. Bruce Wayne, in effect, becomes a Lex Luthor-style corporate emperor.

"Inevitably, the two will clash, and from the ashes of their war will be born Superman's most bitter enemy -- Batman."

The rest of the proposal -- seven pages -- detailed the beats of the story, which was envisioned to run about 120 comic pages, enough for a stand-alone collection with a beginning, middle and end. Cully's character designs accompany this column, and I'm still immensely fond of each of them.

In this version, the Kents are slain in a home invasion reminiscent of Capote's "In Cold Blood" account. So a very different Clark Kent is created; not a mild-mannered reporter, but rather a high-steel construction worker. Meanwhile, tragedy never mars Bruce Wayne's life of wealth and privilege.


"Altered Egos'" take on Superman

The familiar casts are present: Daily Planet staffers Lois Lane, Perry White and Jimmy Olsen; WayneTech press secretary Dick Grayson; and Lex Luthor, a former corporate rival of Bruce Wayne, but now driven mad by radiation poisoning and taking on the persona of the Joker. I won't bore you with all the details.

"Altered Egos" never came to pass because...well, therein lies the story. The editor to whom Cully and I originally pitched the project is no longer employed by DC. No, I'm not going to give you a name, because it's not cool to tell stories out of school. The editor was initially enthusiastic, giving feedback and wanting a revised draft of the proposal, which we submitted. But the editor turned his attention to other projects, and "Altered Egos" wound up on the backburner, where it languished untouched. If memory serves, with no light at the end of the tunnel, we asked if we could take the proposal to another office, to an editor who was actively looking for projects.

That editor -- no, not telling you his name either, though he too is no longer with DC -- liked what he read and saw. He gave us great feedback, addressing plot holes and suggesting ideas we incorporated. Everything felt like it was clicking. "Altered Egos" was almost ready to be handed up the chain for approval...when the first editor we'd pitched it to reappeared. He'd cleared some projects off his plate, and now wanted back in.

Short version: the project became a political football in the offices, with two editors both wanting to move forward with it. The eventual decision from above was that neither editor could move forward with it. The pitch was killed.

Sometimes that's the way it goes. Obviously I'm not an unbiased observer, so my opinion of the viability of "Altered Egos" is pretty meaningless. This one didn't happen for me, but plenty more did. "Altered Egos" and the others just get filed away in the "What Might Have Been" file. Sometimes those projects are reborn as something else, as happened with "Wanted" after DC passed on it as "Secret Society of Super Villains." Still, there's a slight twinge of regret when I look at Cully's character designs, or the piece of the "Altered Egos" Batman and Superman he did in my sketchbook. It would've had such a great last line of dialogue too: "Look, up in the sky!"

Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts," "Witchblade" and "Magdalena" for Top Cow, and his upcoming creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image, set to debut in May, 2011. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, ronmarz.com

TAGS:  shelf life, ron marz, superman, batman, cully hamner, dusty abell, hawkman, green lantern, alan scott

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