May 15th, 2009 at 2:16 am
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It was the beginning of a gig that would last the better part of two years, but whenever I try to remember how it started, the most vivid memory is always my view of Mickey Spillane’s neck.
We’re talking late 1993 or, more likely, early ‘94. I’d just resigned the editor’s post at Kitchen Sink, chugged more antifreeze and left Massachusetts to join Kate in Minneapolis. (The very concept of “Tundra” seemed to haunt me in those days; God, the snow, the ice, the piles of unsold sketchbooks…) I wasn’t technically out of work – I had a Batman story lined up with Archie Goodwin and a handful of freelance editing jobs with KSP – but a nice steady gig was definitely in order.
Out of the blue came invitations for Kate and me to write series for a new company called Tekno. It was the first we’d heard of the operation, but the projects came with intriguing pedigrees. I don’t know who’d proposed my name, but Neil Gaiman had okayed me to work on a concept he’d created called Mr. Hero. Kate was asked to write two separate series – an ongoing thing called The Primortals, based on concepts by Leonard Nimoy and Isaac Asimov, and The Mulkons, a mini-series dreamed up by novelist John Jakes.
We didn’t know going in that the entire line was to be made up of similar “by proxy” titles. (The internet at that time wasn’t all that much more than tin cans and a limp string; for industry information, you frequently had to rely on gossip and whatever snippets your publisher felt like passing on to you.) But the names behind our books were a combination of solid professionalism and good box office, so we had reason to think we were on firm ground.
In the years since, of course, Tekno has come to be seen as the epitome of a certain kind of publishing that reveres the marquee over the content. Most recently, when Virgin Comics did a not-unexpected Hindenburg back in September, commentators all over the blogosphere set about reviving the shambling corpse of Tekno Comix in their search for comparisons.
With celebrity names like Guy Ritchie, Hugh Jackman and … uh… Jenna Jameson attached to some of the Virgin projects, I can see the obvious parallels. And the rumors of financial overreaching certainly ring a bell. But for those of us who actually worked on some of Tekno’s books, the wonky business model was only part of the problem. I don’t know anything about the in-house methods at Virgin, but to this day I can’t help thinking that Tekno might have lasted a little longer, might have had a few really marketable titles, if the suits behind the enterprise hadn’t insisted on micromanaging the heart right out of their comics. In our case, at least, that was what ignited the hydrogen.
Things started well enough, with an introductory meeting at the July ’94 Chicago Comicon with Ed Polgardy, who would be our editor at Tekno. Ed had worked for Jim Shooter at Defiant Comics, and knew how to talk to the talent. A smart and personable guy who didn’t take himself too seriously, Ed made an immediate good impression that left me feeling optimistic about the project and the fun to be had with it.
I knew practically nothing about the project before the meeting, and my biggest concern had been, simply, that they’d asked the wrong guy to do the job. Standard superhero stuff just wasn’t my thing – my only brush with that world, the in-progress Batman gig, was taken on only because of the opportunity it offered to work with Archie Goodwin, not out of any affinity with tights and capes – and I wasn’t looking forward to turning the Tekno job down if that’s what was required.
Fortunately, it turned out that the “hero” in Mr. Hero had a different origin than its typical funnybook usage, and the book was intended to be a lighthearted adventure strip with little relationship to mainstream mutant holocausts. According to Ed, I was the guy they wanted because they were in search of someone who a) could write characters who were recognizable human beings and b) wasn’t likely to indulge in the over-the-top teeth-gnashing sort of stuff that Marvel and Image were cranking out in those days. That kind of flattery works wonders; by the time I’d finished smiling over some terrific samples by Ted Slampyak, the artist they’d decided to hire for the book, they had themselves a writer. In fact, I’d agreed in principle to write not only Mr. Hero, but another book that would be scheduled later after the first wave of titles had been established.
Kate’s meeting had apparently gone equally well, and we were in a pretty lighthearted mood when we suited up for a big launch banquet sponsored by Tekno. I can’t remember everyone who was there at this point, and it’s easier now to remember those who couldn’t make it: Neil was away at some other function (his best recollection is that he was doing something at Minneapolis’ Mall of America), Nimoy was in L.A., Jakes was working in South Carolina, and of course Asimov had been dead for two years. The only person in attendance who’d actually generated any of the ideas the company would be working on was Mickey Spillane.
Spillane was one of those rare famous people who look just like themselves. He was 77 at the time, and still unmistakably the guy from those old book jackets and TV beer commercials. Hell, it wasn’t much of a stretch to recognize him from his portrayal of Mike Hammer in the 1963 The Girl Hunters. We should all age so well. And he was clearly having a lot of fun being the biggest celebrity in the room.
Seated next to him and hanging onto his every word was Max Allan Collins, who’d be adapting Spillane’s old aborted “Mike Danger” comics proposal into a hardboiled-dick-gets-transplanted-into-the-future-like-Buck Rogers series. Max had brought his family, including a young son who – rocking a bowl haircut and thick-rimmed glasses just like his dad – anticipated Austin Powers’ “Mini-me” by several years.
By this time, we’d learned that Tekno was part of a start-up outfit founded by Mitchell Rubenstein and Laurie Silvers, who had previously created and sold the Sci-Fi Channel. The two of them hosted the banquet, and there was a fair amount of snake oil served up during speeches in which we were told how brilliant we all were, how much money everybody was going to make, and – who knows? – maybe we’d all be celebrating one of these days on a lavish Tekno ocean cruise.
I think it was dangling the cruise at us that started Kate’s shoulders quivering – she spun a hell of a fantasy later about a Ship of the Damned whose passenger list of cartoonists and movie people slowly drove each other mad and devoured one another. As for me, I’d been spun pretty lies by self-styled producers more than once in the past – my favorite was the guy who wooed me for weeks to take a meeting about adapting one of my plays to film; when I finally agreed to have lunch with him, he asked me to meet him at Burger King. So I wasn’t so much amused as resigned to sitting through another litany of sky-high promises as the rite of passage to another job.
I spent a lot of time that night hypnotized by the back of Mickey Spillane’s neck. Seated at the table behind him, I couldn’t stop staring at the stevedorean roll of gristle that bulged out over his collar. This was not the neck of a guy likely to be easily led by big talk of cruises and amusement parks and Hollywood money. This was not the neck of a guy you wanted to screw with. I’d never been a fan of his work, but I found myself liking and being impressed by Spillane the man. With Mickey and his neck on our side, how badly could things go?
Unfortunately, Mickey and his neck eventually had to go home, leaving management with no one to impress but themselves. When bean counters confuse themselves with the talent, beware.
We hadn’t gone into our assignments starry-eyed, but – given the caliber of talent assembled – Kate and I had agreed that it would be a hell of a trick for management to screw this thing up.
As it turned out … It was easy.