Writing Comics = ?
I guess I’ve written four or five dozen comic books during my stay in comics. Not that many, compared to some writers. Some of the books were kind of crappy but a few of them were pretty damn good.
But it seems like the one comic that people always seem to connect me with is the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #20. People seem to really remember that issue and they have nothing but good to say about it. So it really kind of sucks that working on that book was one of the most horrific experiences of my life.
In the early 1980s I decided I wanted to write comic books. I had never written anything more ambitious than a grocery list, but Jim Shooter had announced in the back pages of Marvel Fanfare that Marvel Comics was looking for new talent. He said Marvel needed people to write, pencil and ink comic books. I knew that I couldn’t pencil or ink, but when Shooter reprinted a portion of a ‘Marvel style’ plot I had a funny kind of feeling that I could do something like that. How hard could it be?
I borrowed my friend Dale’s typewriter and pecked out three stories.
The first one featured Spider-Man fighting Electro in Chicago. It was an ambitious story that was packed with all sorts of action and it culminated with Electro being drawn into the power source of the television antennas atop the Sears tower in Chicago. In a flash Electro’s ‘essence’ is broadcast to every television in the Chicago land area. So whenever you turned your television to channel thirteen you’d see Electro. He’d be kind of like Max Headroom and he would swear at you, demand that you release him, and curse Spider-Man.
The second story featured Marvel’s CB-slingin’ mother-truckin’ superstar US1. If memory serves me, the character had a metal plate in his skull that enabled him to receive and broadcast CB radio transmissions. My story had something to do with US1 pulling his big rig into a small town where nothing is what it seems. Most of the houses and storefronts were props. It wasn’t a real town at all. I think I had some villain/villains taking advantage of lost travelers who happened to pull into the phony town. I have no idea if the bad guys ate the tourists or sold them into slavery. Whatever the deal way, US1 busted up the racket and used his CB skull radio to alert the authorities.
The third story I wrote puzzles me even to this day. It was crystal clear that Jim Shooter wanted to see stories featuring Marvel characters, but for some reason I wrote a story that featured Harry Harrison’s sci-fi hero, the Stainless Steel Rat. The story took place in the spaceport of some distant planet and there was lots of action in the exhaust tubes from a nearby launch pad. It was a pretty good story. I don’t know what possessed me to write it and send it to Marvel. But I did.
I sent the bundle of goodness off with a zingy cover letter and tried my best to forget about it. I was working at the time as a graphic artist. During the day I did paste-up and darkroom duties at a print shop, and at night I did package design for Sears—mostly kitchen and bathroom goods.
Four or five weeks later my SASE arrived back from New York. Jim Shooter (or some editor posing as him) wrote a bunch of encouraging notes on my Spider-Man and US1 stories. The only note written on the Stainless Steel Rat adaptation was GOOD—BUT WHY DID YOU WRITE THIS?
The encouraging notes on my other two stories from Shooter, or whatever editor or intern wrote them (when I worked at Stan Lee Media I wrote enough notes and letters in Stan’s “voice” to know that what you see is seldom what you get) piqued my interest enough to sit down and write a few more stories. More encouraging notes came back.
Somehow during all this I decided that I really wanted to be a comic book writer and it had to be at Marvel. Subconsciously I had created a reasonably unrealistic goal for myself. I had decided deep down that WRITING FOR MARVEL = SUCCESS + HAPPINESS. Nothing less would do.
By this time a local comic book shop owner had introduced me to Tom Morgan, a talented penciller and inker who was also trying to break into Marvel from the friendly confines of the Midwest.
Flash cut to a couple of years later and Tom and I have moved to the east coast. We’re living in Bridgeport, Connecticut. New York City and Marvel are only a quick train ride away.
We’ve done our share of networking and have befriended a handful of comic professionals. We get out first break doing comics for a new company called Spectrum Comics. We become so involved with Spectrum that we move to the town where they are located. An investor in the company has just bought a big house in Bristol, which is roughly in the center of Connecticut, and we are lured there by the prospect of free housing. New York and Marvel are still reachable; it’s just a longer train ride.
Tom Morgan finally gets a toehold into Marvel. Mike Carlin hires him to do draw a Dazzler inventory story. I accompany Tom when he goes to Marvel, just in case an editor screams out that he needs a writer.
Mike Carlin and his assistant Mike Higgins are saints. They know we are scrambling to get anything that we can. I pitch some Dazzler stories to Carlin, which are atrocious. He compliments me on how neat my typing and pages are.
Things were starting to get ugly where Tom and I were living. Spectrum was suffering a meltdown and it was getting uncomfortable living in the basement of one of the investors. But we were broke and pretty much out of options.
Good fortune came to the rescue. A few years earlier, when I was still living in the Midwest, I was in a pinball arcade with a friend of mine, Rob Dahlberg. The place was dark, lit only by the pinball machines and video games. I tripped over a power cord that was snaked out where it shouldn’t have been. I fall face first into pinball game, I think it was 8-Ball Deluxe, and wound up on the floor not able to feel my hands or feet. Cool, eh?
After the whiplash wears off everything is back to normal. My doctor, who was trying to soak the insurance company for every penny he could, kept me in the hospital for a week. I was sharing the room with a guy who got totally wrecked in a motorcycle accident. He was on a morphine drip and we spent our days watching soap operas. I read a lot of Phillip K. Dick.
So after I get out of the hospital I go to the arcade owner and ask him to pay for my hospital bill and pony up for my lost wages. I didn’t go after any pain or suffering because my insurance had already paid the hospital, so if I could soak him for that I’d call it even. But for reasons I don’t understand, the guy turns into a complete dick. He says he’s not giving me penny one. I’m flabbergasted for the first time in my life. He tells me that if I want anything from him I’m going to have to take him and his insurance company to court. Can you believe that?
I lawyered up with a local firm who sent me to a bigger outfit in Chicago. Lots of paperwork and several months later I get called into give my deposition. I’m living on the east coast at the time but the deposition date coincides with a wedding I have to attend, so I make the train ride back. My friend Rob and I show up at a really fancy lawyer’s office to give our story. My lawyer coaches me and I tell it like it happened. The other guy’s lawyer asks some questions and I can tell by the look on his face that he thinks I’m some sort of scam artist. I finish up and then it’s my friend Rob’s turn. He has to give his statement because he was present when it happened. The other guy’s lawyer is snotty with Rob as well. Rob tells them the same story I just told. For the record they get Rob’s name and address and occupation. That’s when the other shoe drops. Rob informs them that he is an Illinois State Police Trooper. The snotty lawyer visibly pales. He may have even blanched. Everyone in the room that is with the opposing lawyer quickly closes up things. That’s all for now, boys.
Outside on the street my lawyer hoots with delight. And why wouldn’t he? A cop as my witness? He tells me that we’ll certainly win in court, but that the insurance company for the arcade with offer cash settlement a day or two before the actual court date. Good for me, I think, until I learn that the courts are so clogged up that my case is scheduled for eleven or twelve months from then.
I return to the east coast as poor as when I left, and more or less forget about the matter. There are comic stories to write and landlords to dodge and such.
So there Tom and I are living in this fellow’s basement. We don’t want to be there and we’re getting the distinct impression that he doesn’t want us there either.
Then I hear from my lawyer. The case is scheduled or on the docket or some such thing and the insurance company wants to settle. The problem is that I am suffering no ill effects from the incident. I’m not paralyzed or stuck in a wheelchair. What I suffered is known as a soft tissue injury. No broken bones. No apparent damage. They want to settle for eight or nine thousand dollars. The lawyer tells me that if I limp into the courtroom and tell tales of suffering that I might get more from the judge, but the lawyer says he doesn’t think it’s worth the effort. Besides, I’m currently a thousand miles away without a dime to spare for transportation to Chicago. I take the settlement and after the lawyer takes his chunk and assorted bills and liens are taken out, and I share a little with my family, I wind up with a couple thousand bucks, which is exactly the amount of money Tom and I need to get out of uncomfortable guy’s basement.
I don’t know the reasoning for us staying in Bristol. We really should have returned to Bridgeport or closer to New York, but we didn’t. We stayed in Bristol. Tom and I found a woman who owned an apartment building and we charmed her into letting us live there. Neither of us had any sort of steady income. I think we wound up cinching the deal by paying a couple of months rent in advance.
Through all this mess Tom continued to hone his skills and he was starting to get some real notice. I couldn’t get arrested, but I really wasn’t doing my best work at the time.
Then Mike Carlin came through again. He let me know that Jim Owsley had taken over the Spider-Man books and was looking for some new talent.
I pestered Owsley politely but persistently. I went up to Marvel to meet with him for what I guess turned out to be pitch meetings. Other writers would be in his office and the stories they were pitching were insanely horrible. Owsley liked some of my ideas and I would go back to Bristol to flesh them out. He said my stories had good nuts and bolts and that I should really work for DC.
Around this time Tom Morgan hit gold. John Romita senior offered him a staff job in the art department doing corrections and such. Tom and I both knew that it would be insane for him to turn down the job because he lived almost three hours away. He found someone in New York who needed a roommate so we parted ways. I missed him but I was very happy for him. So there I was alone in this massive two-bedroom apartment, two months late with the rent.
I hit on an idea that Owsley really liked. It involved Spider-man battling a mega-terrorist who builds a mega bomb that is capable of leveling Manhattan. The terrorist triggers the bomb with his retina pattern and in twelve hours New York will be no more. Spider-man does something stupid and accidentally kills the guy and burns his face off. Now there’s no way to deactivate the bomb. Spidey does his research and learns that the reclusive terrorist was last seen in public when he was just a boy. Spidey convinces Ben Grimm to let him use Dr. Doom’s time machine so he can go back in time and grab the infant terrorist-to-be long enough to scan his retina pattern so he can come back to the future to deactivate the bomb.
There was more, but that was the gist of it.
Owsley suggested that we could really soup up the story by incorporating the character of Iron Man 2020. Owsley had been Larry Hama’s assistant editor when they produced the Machine Man series that introduced Iron Man 2020. Owsley figured that since we were playing with traveling around in time, we could incorporate the character of Arno Stark, the man inside the armor. Maybe figure out what turned him into the extreme badass he was in the Machine Man series. Anybody who knows me knows I love Iron Man, so I jumped at the chance. The only problem was that I was running out of time. And money. And to make matters worse, Owsley was having troubles of his own, so he’d tell me to come in for a meeting, which was an all day affair for me and twenty or thirty bucks that I didn’t have for a train trip, and I’d get there and he would tell me that he was too busy to meet with me, that I should come back tomorrow. Most of the time I could count on Mike Carlin or Higgins to come out and escort me into the bullpen. I would hang out in their office until Owsley’s door would open and then I’d try to talk to him.
Another problem was that the telephone company finally got wise that I wasn’t going to be paying my bill anytime soon, so they saw fit to shut off my service. This meant that I had to go to the Bristol library and call Owsley from the pay phone. He would want to give me extensive notes on my story and I would be popping in quarters until I’d run out. Then I’d have to ask him to call me back. Of course there was nowhere to sit or nothing to set my notebook on. It was not an optimal situation.
Near the end Owsley said that enough was enough and we needed to put this story to bed. Finish it up and get it drawn. I was all for that. We set up a meeting. I was poorer than poor at this time. The only thing I owned that was worth anything was an old Honda 350 motorcycle I had bought at a yard sale for fifty bucks. I used it to scoot around and run errands. It leaked gasoline but the guy I bought it from told me where to buy the gasket set to fix it. I bought the gasket but I never had the tools to do the task and I wound up returning the gasket set to get the cash in order to buy Tom Morgan a birthday cake. Pathetic, right? The cake had green frosting on it and I had them write HULKY BIRTHDAY on it. I left it in the car when I was running an errand and some bastard actually stole it right off the front seat. Can you believe that? Sure, I left the car unlocked, but still, who steals a birthday cake? Honestly!
So anyway, all I had that was worth anything was the motorcycle. I still had Tom’s car, which he couldn’t use in New York, but he would have been sore it I’d sold it. So I go to the local motorcycle shop in town and they laugh at me when I ask if anyone wants to buy my ride. Finally I convince a mechanic to buy it. He says his grandmother wants to learn to ride. I get forty bucks out of him and a ride home. I have just enough to get into Manhattan. I show up and Owsley says he’s too busy to see me.
I’m almost in tears. I think one of the Mikes happened to walk by and they let me into the bullpen. Inside his office Mike Carlin is furious. He is such a nice guy he refuses to see me treated this way. He goes over to Owsley’s office and tears into him.
Things get blurry from her on. Owsley is having some serious problems and realizes that I’m getting screwed and says he’ll find the time for me. I recall spending a night or two at Tom Morgan’s apartment. His roommate is a royal prick. I think I spent a few nights there, typing away revisions on the roommate’s typewriter. What I’m writing is crap. The story has been so twisted around that nothing makes sense. I meet with Owsley and he plays with a Transformer toy that turns into a gun. He keeps pointing it at me. I don’t know if he’s doing this consciously. He’s put red film over the overhead lights so the office takes on the appearance of some sort of fiery den. I meet and talk with him but he’s not focused on the story. I’m so broke and busted that I’m far from focused myself.
I return home to Bristol, Connecticut a wreck. The mailbox is full of notes from the landlord. I sit in the living room silently as she comes by each day and knocks on the door. She wiggles the doorknob. Somehow she doesn’t have a key to the apartment; otherwise she would have barged in by now. I can’t sleep and I suddenly get it in my head that perhaps a former tenant had been one of those skinflint packrats who doesn’t trust banks. I open the light switch and electrical power outlet covers, looking for wads of hidden cash. Thinking perhaps there might be something hidden away in the ceiling tiles I pile furniture up to precariously check for loose tiles. It dawns on me if I fall it might snap my neck and this would be a ridiculous way to die. I spend a few more hours searching nooks and crannies in closets and the bathroom and come up dry.
I go to the grocery store down the block and use the pay phone to call home. I talk to my sister Marcia and she hears the defeat in my voice. She suggests that I come back home. I tell her that I probably would, but I’d have to hitchhike. It turns out that I don’t have to. Back when that lawsuit with the arcade was settled I gave my dad and my sister a chunk of money. Marcia still had hers and she sent it to me via Western Union.
I packed my clothes, brought all my books to the library to donate them, and left everything else I had for the landlord (who would later track me down in Chicago and try to sue me for lost rent. She would have won but she never showed up in court. The judge told me that there was a good chance that she was never intending to show up—that the very threat of a lawsuit would have convinced me to pay her out of court) and hitched a ride into Manhattan with my friend Bob Lewis, a friend from my Spectrum days. I spent a night or two sleeping on the floor in Karl Kesel’s apartment before I hopped a train to Chicago. Bob was a friend of Karl’s and I think they were inking some project together,
I left without saying goodbye to Tom Morgan. Which I regret doing. I think a part of me was mad at him for getting all successful and leaving me behind. Who knows? But it still bugs me that I left without getting together for him. By this time Tom was a full-fledged Romita Raider and he was picking up all sorts of odd jobs from editors, which lead to him having a fantastic career at Marvel.
Back home it took me a while to sit back down at a typewriter, but I did and not too much after that my friend Paul Mounts yanked me into the world of Now Comics.
A couple of months after I was home something weird showed up in the mail. It was an envelope from Marvel Comics. A No Prize, perhaps? No, it was a check for like three or four hundred dollars. Owsley and Marvel had paid me for the story I had written. I have no idea how they got my home address. Maybe from Tom Morgan. I don’t know. I cashed the check and bought a really good pair of boots.
Four or five months later Tom Morgan calls me and tells me that my story is going to actually see print. It was going to be featured in the Amazing Spider-Man Annual #20. All these years later my jaw is still sore from it hitting the floor.
Not long after that I picked up a copy of said comic in my local shop. The cover was astonishing. I believe it was drawn and inked by Bob Wiacek. I paged through it and it looked stunning. It was reworked, but I could recognize entire chunks of my original story. After five or six pages I didn’t see any credits. I felt a little heartbroken. Finally I got to the last page and the typeset credits were there, looking almost like an afterthought. The penciller was Mark Beachum and the inker was Bob Wiacek. There’s a writing credit for Ken McDonald, but from what I’ve heard the book was scripted by Owsley and Jim Shooter. Finally there’s me: Original Story by Fred Schiller.
I made it. I had the comic in my hands and the boots on my feet. I’d made it at Marvel, which had been my dream and aspiration. So why wasn’t I happy? I had done what I set out to do—in sort of a backhanded way.
Years later it happened again. This time there was nothing backhanded about it. I was hired to launch a new X-Men comic. I was the writer of Professor Xavier and the X-Men, part of Marvel’s ninety-nine cent comic line. I should have been as happy as a clam---a really happy clam. WRITING FOR MARVEL = SUCCESS + HAPPINESS, right?
I’m not certain what does equal success and happiness, but it sure isn’t writing for Marvel. What an ass I was.
I’m lots smarter now, though.
P.S. Toward the end of my employment at DC Comics, Jim Owsley came on board as an editor. We talked about the whole train wreck that was my story and he apologized. It seems he was getting grief from every possible direction once he took over the Spider-Man books. He acknowledged that he probably passed along some of that grief to others. It was nice to have that closure. After Owsley left DC he changed his name to Christopher Priest and has been writing some fantastic comics. I wish him continued success.
Tom Morgan is no longer drawing pictures of the Hulk slugging Thor, although he may do that in his free time. Tom has made the transition from drawing comics to working in animation. That makes sense. He’s a pretty animated guy.