December 31st, 2009 at 3:58 am
Submit to del.icio.us
At the beginning of the decade, writing comics had become something that I used to do.
I can’t tell you why to this day. There was no watershed moment that killed my interest, no dramatic revelation that led me away from the world of funnybooks. When I’d first started writing them ten years before, there had been a genuine thrill in exploring what I could do with them, walking the thin line between the medium’s wide possibilities and narrow limitations. But one day I woke up and the thrill was gone. I’m not sure how long it took me to even realize that.
By the late ‘90s, Kate (Worley, my late wife, for those just joining us) and I had been slowly disengaging from the form for several years. Urgent real-life situations had led us both to putting aside more personal work in favor of concentrating exclusively on a series of quick-money, work-for-hire gigs.
Kings in Disguise was something I’d done ‘way back when; the awards it had won were gathering dust on the walls or stacked in boxes with the books. Despite the continued interest of its many fans, Omaha the Cat Dancer had dribbled to a standstill, the victim of professional misunderstandings and personal hard feelings between Kate and Reed Waller. For the last few years of the ‘90s, Kate and I had mostly worked for a single editor at Dark Horse, turning out scripts that were (on my part, at least) more the product of reflexive momentum and simple application of craft than of personal inspiration. After a final licensed series on which we semi-collaborated, we simply wandered away from the business and didn’t give it much thought.
We were challenged enough by raising a family and finding new things to do with ourselves. I was mostly turning out freelance journalism (some of which eventually led to a full-time newspaper gig that I held until last year’s massive print implosion) while Kate explored the still-nascent world of online writing and noodled with new projects. For awhile, we were both paying the bills and living in a constant state of irony by writing pithy descriptions of crappy TV shows for the Preview Channel, that scrolling blue screen service which would become, God help us, the TV Guide Channel.
The world of comics still cropped up from time to time in unexpected ways. Out of the blue, Howard Chaykin raised the possibility of representing Kings to TV producers. (Despite my respect for Howard, I passed. That book, to me, was ancient history, and I was frequently too stubborn for my own good in those days.) Kate still heard from the legion of Omaha fans, a large number of whom had formed an online group that thrives to this day. Vertige Graphic put out a beautiful – and unexpected – French reprint of Kings, and a Swedish version was reportedly in the works. And Will Eisner hired Kate and me to write a novel about The Spirit.
That Spirit project proved to be a revelation. Kate was a collaborator’s dream, turning out marvelous copy and urging me to take no prisoners in melding our alternate chapters into a uniform style. Though we were adapting someone else’s brainchild, in the process we were also doing real creative work for the first time in years, and it was inspiring to flex those muscles again. Will was happy with the final result, and our agents Denis Kitchen and Judy Hansen were urging us to write more novels of our own devising. I was shocked to find that the part of our lives that we’d packed away so unceremoniously turned out to still be exciting.
The only downside had been Kate’s inexplicable lapses in energy that slowed the process and occasionally frustrated all of us, Will included. But we’d managed to capture the essence of the feature in its late-‘40s prime, and – with an eye toward selling a series of Spirit novels – Will asked us for another. If we weren’t exactly back in comics, we were actively involved with its in-laws.
Around the same time, we learned that a well-known European publishing house was interested in bringing all of Omaha back into print – in color for the first time, in big prestigious volumes aimed at an international market. The only caveat was that Kate and Reed would have to finally provide an ending to the story. Tentative phone calls were made, and to everyone’s relief we learned that all the old hatchets had been buried, and the two of them could work together again with something resembling the mutual respect and fondness that had been a hallmark of their glory days. While I got to work laying out the new Spirit book, Kate went into a frenzy of activity outlining and writing new scenes of the Cat Dancer and her friends.
She was still battling the odd fatigue, and a visit to the doctor on an unrelated matter revealed that she had terminal cancer. I’ve written here about her final days and here about the way friends and strangers rallied around to offer her support; what I haven’t recorded was how hard she worked to finish the conclusion to Omaha during the rare hours when she wasn’t too drained by radiation and chemo to sit at a keyboard. It was hell for her to do and, frankly, hell to watch; but she was determined to finish, not only for the sake of the story but as her last chance to create a legacy for our children. At one point a few months before the end, she turned to me and asked if I’d finish it for her if things worked out so she couldn’t.
She couldn’t, as it turned out, and I found myself writing comics again for the worst and best possible reasons. Fortunately, she left me a strong outline and a scattering of fully- and partially-completed scenes for me to work around.
Shortly after her death, the Omaha deal suddenly went south – the big publisher changed its tune and began demanding full ownership of the property, which had never been part of the discussion. Reed and I mutually agreed to pull the plug (to paraphrase Reed from memory: “Thank God Kate didn’t live to see these assholes trying to rip her children off”) and shop the book around. It didn’t take long for it to land at NBM; with Terry Nantier’s international connections and commitment to publishing quality work, it struck me as an ideal fit. True, the volumes wouldn’t be in color, but I’d always found Reed’s black and white work to be gorgeous as is, so it seemed like a small loss.
Pretty much simultaneously, WW Norton offered to reprint Kings in Disguise with the provision that Dan Burr and I create a sequel as a companion piece. Already facing the terrifying task of following in Kate’s footsteps, my first impulse was to take a pass. But I knew that if Kate were still around, she’d be kicking my ass. Back when I used to wax snarky about my days in comics she would wave a copy of Kings in my face and remind me of what she thought I’d accomplished with it. She always regretted far more than I did that I’d never gotten around to writing the sequel I’d talked about long, long ago. Like completing Omaha, getting Kings and its follow-up into print was one for Kate.
For those keeping score, the second Spirit novel wasn’t abandoned, but it did go onto the back burner for a while. I eventually found a new collaborator in my friend the novelist John Wooley, and we turned out several damned good chapters before the recent Hollywood fiasco ended all interest in anything related to the character.
It was just as well for my sanity, for I was suddenly back in the comics business in spades, and I’ve spent the rest of this decade finishing those commitments. Writing the new Omaha and the Kings sequel – On the Ropes – simultaneously has dragged both out far longer than I would have dreamed, but I’ll have both finished early in 2010. In the meantime, I’ve been amused (and amazed) to see a pile of those old work-for-hire projects coming back into print:
I started the decade by walking away from all this, and – “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in” – now I’m ending it with hundreds of pages back in print and hundreds more poised to come off the presses. I’d trade it all, and infinitely more, to have Kate back…
but, settling for the real world, I think she’d approve of the moments these days when I find myself caught up again in the challenge – and the thrill – of collaborating with talented artists to build worlds on the comics page. Whether it’s to celebrate her memory, like the pieces I’m completing now, or future work done purely for myself, I’m looking forward to the decade that lies ahead.
Welcome to 2010, and all that comes with it.