Off Model, and Off on Our Own at CrossGen
We had no editors at CrossGen. The creative teams were responsible for supervising themselves. Yes, there were schedule-makers, and a production team to keep things on track, but in terms of the story and art, the creative teams were allowed to do their jobs. And it was great.
From my perspective, there was more creative freedom afforded at CrossGen than in a lot of places where you're working on company-owned characters. We turned in multi-issue outlines. There was a weekly writers lunch, at which we discussed where titles were headed. But there were really no editorially-driven stories, because there were no editors.
Yes, sometimes there were random edicts from the boss, Mark Alessi. The dog in "Sojourn," for instance, was his... well, suggestion isn't quite a strong enough word. He wanted a dog in the series ("People like dogs," was his reasoning), and he wanted that specific dog, and that specific dog's name. So he got a dog, and we made it work as best we could.
More often, though, we were largely left to our own devices. And I generally followed the motto that it was better to ask forgiveness than permission. So when it suited the storyline, I wrote occasional "off-model" issues, stepping out of the usual sequential model to do something different. "Scion" #26 and "Sojourn" #19 were prose and illustrations. "Mystic" #11's pages followed a rigid structure, every page was either a 16-panel grid, or a two-panel page. These pursuits were made easier by having the creative team under the same roof, including letterers. We could talk about how we were going to execute the issues, and make the process truly collaborative.
Breaking out of the usual format allows different creative muscles to be stretched. But because it's not standard sequential storytelling, publishers can be resistant to it, for fear of possibly upsetting the audience. But at CrossGen... well, like I said, better to ask forgiveness than permission.
Two "off-model" jobs in particular remain among my favorite issues I've ever written. One was "The Path" #5, which actually wasn't drawn in the studio, but was a "relief" issue drawn by Walter Simonson, one of my comics heroes. The other was "Scion" #39, the finale on the title for me and Jim Cheung.
Jim and I started the book together from issue #1. Jim designed the whole world from scratch. Like me, London resident Jim was among the first wave of CrossGen hires. I remember picking him up at the Tampa Airport around midnight and going to Denny's, because there was no other place open. Welcome to America.
I'm pretty fond of all the books I worked on at CrossGen. But gun to my head, if I had to pick one above the others, it would probably be "Scion," because of the number of issues we were able to produce, and because of Jim's work on the title. So I wasn't keen on continuing the book without Jim, despite the great Luke Ross -- with whom I'd later create "Samurai: Heaven and Earth" -- coming on to draw "Scion." It felt like "our" book, so if Jim was departing, I felt like I should too.
I wanted to do something memorable for our finale, something to put our stamp on the run. I suggested to Jim that we do the entire issue in the style of a Hal Foster "Prince Valiant" Sunday page, since "Prince Valiant" was originally such an inspiration for "Scion." Jim said, "Sure, that sounds good."
I set about writing the script, knowing we'd be turning the printed book on its side to approximate the dimensions of the broadsheet newspaper format of "Prince Valiant." Each sideways spread would be equivalent to one Sunday page. What I didn't know -- and what Jim would admit to me only when we were about halfway through the issue -- was that growing up in London, Jim had never seen the "Prince Valiant" Sundays, and had only a passing familiarity with Hal Foster. He'd agree to take on an homage to one of the 20th century's great illustrators without really knowing what he was getting into.
In retrospect, maybe it's better Jim didn't know exactly what he'd agreed to. Even getting in the same ballpark as Foster would be daunting to any artist, and terrifying to most. Jim set about educating himself on Foster's Sunday pages, borrowing the complete set of "Prince Valiant" reprints from the shelves in Alessi's office.
Jim's pages were amazing, evoking Foster's lush illustration, while still being very much his own. The inks by Mark Morales and color by Jason Keith were perfect complements. A lot of people around the office felt "Scion" #39 was worthy of Eisner Award consideration. Truthfully, I thought it was pretty damn good too, so we were disappointed when the issue didn't get a nomination for Best Single Issue. Then we found out the guy in the office in charge of sending in CrossGen's Eisner submissions, Tony Panaccio, had never bothered to send any submissions, much less one for "Scion" #39. When I, rather pointedly, asked him about it, he said, "Oh, yeah. Sorry. I didn't get around to it this year."
I still keep a copy of the issue in my desk drawer. Same for "The Path" #5, which was a "relief" issue for the regular art team of penciler Bart Sears, inker Mark Pennington and colorist Mike Atiyeh. In-house art teams at CrossGen were expected to produce five consecutive issues, skip an issue that would be produced by an outside art team, and then produce another five consecutive issues. In other words, ten of the year's dozen issues were produced by the regular, in-house art team, and two were produced by a relief art team. Since the regular team had started "The Path" series with a Prequel issue, #5 was slated to be the first relief issue.
We hated the term "fill-in," since it implied that issue was somehow lesser. We tried to make sure the artists who stepped into the breach were as good or better than those on staff. We aimed high, which is why Walter Simonson was tops on the list.
As I recall, Butch Guice first reached out to Walter, who had the time in his schedule and interest in the samurai subject matter of "The Path." Walter's "Temple of the Spider" samurai tale with Archie Goodwin, from "Thrilling Adventure Stories," certainly qualifies as a "secret-handshake" comic.
I was thrilled at finally getting to work with Walter, whose "Thor" run is my all-time favorite. My plan for the issue was to tell the story of how Wulf, essentially a Norse warrior, had come to the shores of the Japan stand-in that was the setting for "The Path." I had the notion that the flashback part of the story could be drawn in a Japanese woodblock style, in the tradition of the master of the form, Hokusai.
"The Path" was a "spread" series. Like CrossGen's "Ruse," the entire book was laid out in multi-panel double-page spreads. Since there were no paid ads in CrossGen issues, we knew we could place spreads anywhere we wanted. So in the detective adventure "Ruse" and in "The Path," each set of facing pages became a spread; only pages 1 and 22 were single pages. The French reprints of both titles actually printed the books in beautiful landscape hardcovers; each spread became its own horizontal page.
I finished the script, writing the flashback scenes in particular as more of a Marvel-style plot. I gave Walter the elements that needed to be on each spread, but let's face it, Walter Simonson sure as hell doesn't need me to tell him what to draw. Though I have to admit, I did pat myself on the back for the notion of using the woodblock style. I even made sure the first stylized spread included a depiction of Odin and Thor because... wouldn't you?
Of course, Walter went me one better. After reading the script, he called and asked if I'd be okay with him basing the earlier spreads of the flashback, set in Norse-style lands, on the Viking-era artifact Bayeux Tapestry. Then over the course of the flashback, as the story moved from Norse lands to Japan, the art style would subtly transform to Japanese woodblock. It was a genius idea, of course. That's why he's Walter Simonson.
We sent Walter a box of CrossGen's spread art board. Traditionally, double-page spread originals are two pages of art board butted together and taped on the back. Because most of the art was generated in-house, we didn't have to worry about shipping around the ungainly, oversize original art boards. The artists loved working on the spread paper, and not worrying about having a seam down the middle.
Walter sent back the entire completed job in one package, and it was glorious. The Bayeux Tapestry-to-woodblock evolution was brilliant, and the framing sequence was classic Simonson. Mike Atiyeh turned in one of his best color jobs ever over Walter's work. Letterer Dave Lanphear worked overtime to gracefully integrate the letters into the Bayeux/woodblock spreads. Everybody was pretty thrilled with the finished issue (though "ecstatic" might be a better description of the writer's reaction).
It gets better. Walter, who famously keeps nearly all of his original art, invited me and Mike to each pick a spread to keep, before sending back the rest of the originals. Again, ecstatic. Mike and I would arrange the pages out on a table, poring over them, trying to decide which to pick. A classic Simonson spread? Or one of the stylized spreads? Invariably, we'd be unable to make a decision, so we'd put the pages back in the flat file, and think about it some more. After a few weeks, we really needed to return the other originals, so we had to decide. I picked a classic spread from pages 2-3. It's one of my prized possessions.
I've said previously that I don't regret the CrossGen experience. It didn't end well, but I learned a lot, I still have great friendships from it, and there's a whole stack of comics I'm proud to have written, including these off-model issues. Plus, I got a Walter Simonson original out of the deal. Not bad, huh?
Ron Marz has been writing comics for two decades, and thinks it's pretty much the best job ever. His current work includes "Artifacts" and "Ravine" for Top Cow, "The Protectors" for Athleta Comics and his creator-owned title, "Shinku," for Image. Follow him on Twitter (@ronmarz) and his website, www.ronmarz.com.