Adventures in Comic Books!

September 20th, 2006 | Posted in General

When I was a kid, the only thing I wanted to do when I grew up was draw Batman comics. I might have settled for Superman or the Flash, but Batman would have been the coolest. Like many kids I would spend hours in my basement drawing my own comics… I can honestly say a love for Batman and comic books is what started me drawing and developed my love of cartooning. Later the focus of my art would take a turn to the humorous, and drawing comic books wasn’t really in the plan anymore, but I still retained a love for them. Imagine my surprise when my first truly published work ended up being… comic books!

Back in 1989 The Lovely Anna and I moved to Atlanta from Minnesota as I had been offered a job managing the caricature concessions at Six Flags Atlanta for Fasen Arts. One day during the second summer of 1990 Chuck Senties, a long time friend and fellow caricaturist who was working with us there, told me about a comic book company who was looking for artists for some of their titles. The company was called NOW Comics, based in Chicago, and Chuck had sent in samples of his work looking to draw a title called “Ralph Snart”. Chuck had (and still has) a great, cartoony style that was perfect for that comic, and he did indeed get a few issues to draw. He also told me that when he told NOW he could draw caricatures, they asked if he’d be interested in submitting some samples of a title called “Married… with Children”. This was of course based on the TV show, and was a licensed property that NOW paid to have the rights to draw as a comic book. I’d seen the comic and thought it had a lot less of a caricature look than it had a sort of animated Saturday cartoon look. Chuck suggested I send them some work. So, I did a 4 page demo of the cast chasing after the dog who had stolen Al’s wallet. Bizarrely, I was hired immediately (actually it was freelance, not employment) and I started on my first script almost right away. I had zero experience in comics, but a boatload of self confidence. I was going to be doing comic books!

In retrospect, what I was was incredibly naive, lucky and stupid all rolled into one. My drawing skills were very rough… in fact they were no where near at a professional level for drawing comics. There were two main reasons I got the job. The first was because it was 1990, and at that time comics was a hot industry in a relative golden age. The Tim Burton “Batman” movie had brought comics back to the mainstream, “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” had made independent publishing a goldmine, and anything with a #1 on the cover had collectors buying multiple copies and bagging them to sell when they became worth hundreds of dollars. There were hundreds and hundreds of titles produced by several dozen major comics publishers and they all needed artists, so the level of talent was badly diluted. If you could breathe and draw even passably you could get a job in comics in the early 90’s. The second reason I got the job was because (I found this out later) NOW had a very bad reputation of not paying their creators, or paying so horribly late that no one would work for them. That was the reason their principal artist on ‘Married… with Children” needed to be replaced… apparently this gentleman wanted to be paid. Imagine!

Here’s where the stupid and lucky part comes in. I was lucky in that, thanks to the income from my own caricature operations in Underground Atlanta and later at Valleyfair when we returned to Minnesota that fall, I did not need to depend on that paycheck from NOW. So I went on working even though at times it might have been 3 or 4 months before I’d get any money. I was stupid in that I kept letting them take advantage of me, but then again I did eventually get paid… it just often took a long time. In the meantime, I was working in an industry I loved and, best of all, getting a ton of experience under my belt doing 22 pages a month and several covers for NOW. By the end of my run, my work had gone from “embarrassing” to “passable” to “starting to get the hang of it”. The stories themselves started getting more and more bizarre, until we were doing dream story issues that spoofed movies and comics themselves. The last story arc I worked on that got published was called “The Quantum Quartet”, where Bud makes his own comic book with his family as the “Fantastic Four”. That is not a joke.

NOW itself was a troubled company. It had initial success doing licensed properties like “Green Hornet”, “The Terminator”, “The Twilight Zone”, “Ghostbusters” and “Married… with Children”, but eventually ran into problems. It got a bad rep first as a company that constantly published it’s books late, and that was something that wasn’t well received by the direct sales market. You see, the comic book industry has a very bad business model it works from. I don’t know if it’s the same today, but in those days comic book stores (direct market) ordered copies of the comics they wanted to carry from distributors, and had to pay for them in advance of their delivery. The distributors sent their orders to the comic companies, but they did not have to pay the comic company upon delivery. In fact, distributors were notorious for paying late. Therefore, a comic book company had to have a fair amount of capital in order to float the production until distributor payments came in. Production includes paying creators, the printers, staff, advertising, etc. Distributors had the best deal, as they had money coming in from direct market stores for pre-orders AND published their catalogs where comic book companies paid for advertising their titles in order to try and sell more of them. Comic publishers were okay if they sold well and they could afford to keep up production if payments from distributors were late, especially to companies that were not DC or Marvel. The comic shop owners were the ones that got the shaft. They were stuck with any copies of comics they did not sell… there was no returning them (or just their covers) as you do with newsstand magazines or books. A comic book shop owner had to practically be a fortune teller in order to buy just enough issues (and the right issues that would sell) so he would not be stuck with too many, yet offer a good enough selection for his customers to browse. I considered opening up a comic shop once but when I researched the business I quickly ran the other way. It’s amazing they can make it.

NOW tried to follow the business model of sell one issue and use it’s profits to pay for the next. One late distributor payment and there was serious trouble. Creators went unpaid, and at some point the printer NOW was using was holding issues hostage until payments were made. Eventually the publisher found some investors who could provide the capital needed to get the ball rolling again, but by then it was too late to recover. They published again but the comic book industry was drying up and they were never going to get back on their feet. I understand they are trying to get something going again now… more power to them.

In the meantime, I did over 20 issues of “Married… with Children” and even did a mini-series for Marvel called “The Coneheads”. The experience was invaluable, and until you’ve sat at a table at a comic book convention for a weekend next to Mr. T (NOW published “Mr. T and the T-Force”), well, then you’ve never sat at a table at a comic book convention for a weekend next to Mr. T. That’s all I’m going to say about that. It was fun and interesting to be in the comic book world for a few years, though. I must say that today I am quite embarrassed by most of that early comic book work. Maybe it says something about how far my drawing skills have come, but when I look at old “Married… with Children” issues today I see glaring, terrible flaws and just plain bad drawing. On the other hand, if I am lucky, I’ll be looking back over the work I am doing today in 15 years and say the same thing. I hope so.

Here are a few of the later covers that were not altogether bad. The “Married.. with Children” mini-series was a dream Al was having when he fell asleep watching a sci-fi movie marathon on TV. Obviously we parodied famous movie posters. I actually inked the covers for issues #2 and #3, which was rare. Mostly I just did the pencils and an inker did the inks… an artist named David Mowry did most of the inking on my pencils, and he did some terrific brushwork. The last is the cover for Coneheads #1, probably the best thing I ever did in my brief comic book run… it helped that inker Jimmy Palmiotti did the inks on that one:









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