Demon Days...

During my limited time writing comics I was lucky enough to work with two artists who were either dead on or pretty darn near the same wavelength as I was at the time.

The first was Titanic Tom Morgan. Tom and I tried to break into comics at the same time so he read everything I wrote and I saw most of what he drew. Over time I think this practice helped further our almost psychic connection. We would often work on stories together, and in the beginning I was writing Marvel-style, or a paragraph or two of description for every comic page I wanted Tom to draw.

After doing enough stories together I pretty much stopped writing the plots all together. All I had to do was outline to Tom that; the Hulk is acting crazier than ever before, and while not toppling skyscrapers he holds his head and roars in pain. Reed Richards designs a microscopic medical scanner that Ant Man flies up into the Hulk’s nose and detects that the Hulk has an impacted wisdom tooth. Tony Stark gathers the mightiest heroes on the planet to hold the Hulk down while Thor uses his Uru hammer to knock the Hulk’s aching tooth out.

A few days later Tom would have the story penciled, complete with sound effects and dialogue suggestions. Tom would change things, but they were changes set within my sensibilities. It was always fun because he would add amazing things, like move some of the action to the inside of a SHIELD helicarrier. When the Hulk rips the side of the structure open, instead of being one mile up, we see that the helicarrier is rust pocked and missing a rotor or two and is parked in a SHIELD helicarrier graveyard of sorts. After pages of fantastic action Thor would finally knock the aching tooth out of Hulk’s mouth.

I don’t know if Tom and I will ever work together in comics again, but I’m pretty certain that we could pick up right where we left off—having fun the second we hit the ground running.

Besides Tom, the other artist that I was on a parallel wavelength with was the fantastic Tony Akins.

Tony and I met through a mutual friend, Paul Mounts, someone that Tom Morgan had introduced me to. Tom and Paul had gone to high school together. Years after that, Paul Mounts and Tony Akins had worked together doing television commercial storyboards which neither ever seemed too excited about. Paul was also wearing many hats at a new comics publisher called Now Comics. One night Tom and I were visiting Paul who told us about what was going on at Now Comics. They had the rights to do Astro Boy (yawn—never saw the show, didn’t care), plus they had the rights to do Speed Racer and Racer X comics.


I dropped out of the conversation for a few minutes to imagine what I would do with a Speed Racer comic. I pictured Racer X having to steal Speed’s Mach 5 to evade some evildoers in the middle of the desert. At one point he gimmicks the steering wheel controls of the Mach Five and when an enemy helicopter comes in for the kill he pushes the button that controls the buzz saw blades, only instead of sticking just a few feet out in front of the car, the saw blades fly off toward the enemy helicopter like Ninja stars and neatly shear off the copter’s tail rotor.

I came back into the conversation when Paul was telling us about another book that Now was publishing called Rust. It featured a cop who falls into a pit of corrosive acid. He survives, but his body is horribly scarred from head to toe, plus, in times of turmoil or if he’s injured he bleeds acid.

Bleeds acid? That sounded kind of interesting.

Paul continued on that at the end of the first or second issue this horribly scarred and corrosive man climbs into a garbage dumpster in an alley to get out of the rain for a few minutes sleep.

That was a pretty cool visual that sticks with me today, some fifteen years later.

I sniffed around the Speed Racer book but found out that just like they’d gotten Ken Stacey to do Astro Boy, they were looking for more of a ‘name ‘ to write Speed. I think that year at San Diego they talked to people, like Mark Evanier, but came up empty.

Meanwhile, there was some trouble brewing with the Rust book and Paul tossed my hat into the mix to try and help straighten things out. Paul is always doing that and I never thank him enough.

A few issues later Rust was going along on a pretty smooth path. Nobody told me to stop writing new stories so I keep at it, and after a handful of capable but temporary artists, Paul teamed me up with the astounding Tony Akins.

I think I’d only met Tony once or twice by that point. Nice fellow, but fond of talking about his personal demons. I’d never met anyone with any sort of demons. I couldn’t tell if he was serious or not. I sat and smiled like I understood what he was talking about. Today I do,of course. Several of mine are wandering around the room as I type this.

I believe at this time Tony was rooming with Rich Powers, a talented fellow that my path would cross with on more than one occasion during the years that followed. Rich took me out to his studio, which was on the back porch of the apartment that he and Tony were sharing. The view from his studio was the alley of a mortuary/funeral home. A couple of guys were wheeling what looked like a body or a casket into the back door. Rich said that it happened frequently, night and day.

Tony was very excited about working on Rust with me. He hadn’t drawn a large number of comics at that time in his career, but I think he was pretty adamant that I not write it full script, because that might handcuff him. At the same time I got the feeling that he wanted more instruction than a typical Marvel-style plot, so I wrote it in a hybrid style that seemed to work. Each page of art took a double-spaced page of plot. I would give Tony a fairly concrete idea for an opening panel on a page. Then I would write a couple of fat paragraphs of what I’d like to see happen in the bulk of the page, then give him a fairly concrete idea for a closing panel on the page.

Tony took what I gave him, and in some insane and probably arcane ritual he peeked inside my head and saw what I was really looking for. It was always kind of frightening. He would draw things that I'd wanted but hadn't typed in the plot. Have you ever tried explaining something to someone and said, “Well, I think you know what I’m trying to say.” That’s the way it was with Tony. He knew what I wanted to say, based on the plot that I had written and him being so in tune with what I wanted. If a specific scene or plot point was important he would leave it alone and draw it just as I'd written, but most of the time if he knew a shortcut or a scenic route to getting the job done, he’d take it. I was never sorry that he did.

It would always be like Christmas morning when Paul would give me new pages that Tony had penciled. Most time it was three or four at a time, but sometimes it was as many as six or seven. I would have to stop whatever it was I was doing at the time and study each page. I haven’t noticed if he still does it today, but Tony used to be a big one for combining panels. There was rarely a single action going on in a single panel of Rust. Action and elements tended to overlap from one panel to the next. Talk about keeping a writer on his toes!

While Tom Morgan and I connected on something of a Stan Lee/Jack Kirby level when it came to goofy superhero comics, (oh, my, god, did a tanker truck of pretentiousness just crash into the building?) in which we were always just sorta fooling around and having fun. Working on Rust was different with Tony. A lot of it revolved around what Paul Mounts told me that first night he was explaining the comic to me; Rust isn’t a character, it’s a state of mind.

Sure, former cop Scott Baker was horribly scarred and bled acid every now and then, but that was never what the comic was about. It would have been pretty silly if it had. I didn’t know all that much about Scott Baker, but I was deeply invested in the people he encountered along his path in life. Scott was so horribly deformed that once they got over his ugliness they felt unusually comfortably around him. He became invisible and we saw the people who gathered around him through his eyes. We never talked about it and I never described it in the plots, but Tony and I were definitely on the same page with this notion.

And then Tony started to flake. It could have been those personal demons he spoke of, or it could have been the princely sum of fourteen dollars a page that Now was paying pencilers—when they had the money to pay it.

Of all the comic publishers that I’ve worked with that have suffered through a case of the financial shorts, it was never as ugly as it was at Now. I begged people to get them to letter or ink pages knowing full well they weren’t going to get paid for their work. I never knew if Tony flaked because of lack of money or if he had other reasons.

A fan favorite issue came from Tony Akin’s tardiness. It was the Talking Eds issue. The issue was way-late and Paul and I had to fly to New York for a signing with Jim Higgins at Jim Hanley’s Universe. I came up with the notion that Tony would only have to draw five or six full page splashes, and then the remainder of the pages would be 9-panel grids that would be little more than talking heads. We would use the same heads, flipped and flopped and reversed and enlarged on the copier, and then I would write a script that would pull it all together. I know we started in a jail cell with two fellows named Ed who were talking about something that had happened, but I don’t remember what the issue was really about. That’s probably for the best. The capper was us not having a cover, so I typed up a note to Paul Mounts explaining that I wanted exactly what I described in the note that followed to be on the cover to that issue. The gag was that we printed the note from me to Paul on the cover, instead of a rendering of what I described. Funny stuff. I think the cover was yellow, with lettering that started, “Dear Paul, Here is an exact description of what I want to be on this cover of Rust. Follow my directions to a ‘T’ and put exactly this on the cover. I want to see Scott Baker in a bathing suit sitting in a public swimming pool…” But of course there was no drawing of Scott Baker, only the note that I had written to Paul Mounts, which is what I said was exactly what I wanted on the cover.
Things got really weird when Now snagged the rights to do a Terminator comic book. This was well before T2. Somehow the notion came up that if Tony Akins worked in house, in the Now offices, that he would get more work done. We got him a drawing a table and a chair and a tape dispenser and all that, and even so I only saw him there one or two times tops.

I was mad as a wet hen. Maybe madder. He kept promising and kept not showing up. One day I found a stack of cassette mix tapes that he had brought in on his first or second visit. On one of the days that Tony was a no-show I flipped out and started snapping them in half like they were Pop-Tarts. To this day I’m ashamed of what I did. I have never been more frustrated with anyone in my life, but that was still no excuse for my behavior.

Working with Tony Akins on Rust and on the Terminator comic was a standout for me.

If they ever get this whole time travel thing figured out I’d like to go back to that time and tell my self to take more time scripting the pages before getting them off to be lettered in such a hurry. I would give up a lot to be able to go back and script those pages with the attention they deserved. I was writing a bunch of plots and scripts and stuff, most of it on the fly, but that’s no excuse. My run on Rust was fun, the issues generated a lot of fan mail, but I have trouble reading them. The scripts should have been up to the standards of the artwork, no matter how late it was.

Another problem concerns the inker of most of Tony's issues, Jim Brozman. Damn that kid was dedicated. He worked for months without seeing a single penny. He wasn't the most talented inker on the planet, but I have to give him massive props for delivering art fast and when it was needed when no other talent would return my telephone calls.

I’ve got a couple of projects that I’m currently working on that are horribly overdue, and that I just can’t get a handle on, and a thought crossed my mind the other day that maybe I’m being plagued by my personal demons. And sure enough,therethey are. Well, Tony Akins overcame his so I guess I can do a little ass kicking of my own.


Tony Akins said...

What tapes were those?
Better not have been my HackMix #2...Romeo Void, U2, the Cure.
Fred, you have such astounding recall of those events. I tend to block out the things which are the most troubling about those days. Hell, I can't recall anything about high school. I come across Nexus fill-ins that 24 pages of my art INCLUDING cover, and I don't recall doing it.
I do know that RUST stands out. Always will.
I miss rattling around in your head.
It's completely true that our state of mind is reflected in those pages.
I'm recalling that I have something of yours that I need to read. You really have to remind of these things; I'm still flaky, juust not as manic as I used to be (250 mikes of Luvox daily helps).
There are still demons, though. You just have to learn how to ignore them, I guess. Though sometimes ignoring them is the last thing they'll let you do. So maybe I'm a little crazier and sadder than in those days. But age and perspective really help. My first love is my craft. The Craft. If I can quiet myself long enough to work well, I find that that's reward and sanctuary enough. Sometimes that's all I expect out of this life.
My editor Shelly Bond (who was a HUGE fan of RUST) calls me "CrazyAkins" or Crazy8's, which is fine.
Is it something in my voice? Is it what I put on the page?
Who knows...
Thanks for this, for lack of a better word, Valentine, Fred. I feel the same way about those horrible, fantastic days and the wonderfully terrifying work that we put to page.
Again! Again!

Fred Schiller said...

>Is it something in my voice? Is it what I put on the page?

Tony, it's not what you put on the page that makes us stand a few steps away from you at all times--it's what you're NOT putting on the page that worries us.

We all know that you're humoring us, drawing funny people doing funny things, but it's clear that you're holding back.

If you ever got the chance to really let go and show us no-holds-barred what's going on inside your head, you would blow our tiny little minds. We would all be so affected by what we saw that we would evolve and look like John Hurt did at the end of the movie Altered States.

Please congratulate Shelly Bond for spotting what we were doing in the chaff that was clogging comic shelves back in the mid 80s.

Anonymous said...

You guys don't talk about the guy who creted the character Rust, Steve Miller. Tony Craputo stole him from him and he only got the character back when Now went bankrupt.

Fred Schiller said...

Right you are. I rarely mention Steve Miller when talking about Rust. Aside from being introduced to him at a comic convention once and shaking his hand, I’ve never had any interaction with the fellow. He seemed nice enough.

It had always been my impression that Miller and Now Comics publisher Tony Caputo were friends and had perhaps hashed out details of the Rust book together. Tony was a creative fellow, having written and drawn comics on his own.

I certainly did not create the character of Scott Baker a.k.a. Rust, and I’ve never claimed to have. I did cook up a cast of supporting characters for the issues that wrote. One of my favorite characters was a retired porn actress who strikes up a friendship with Scott and joins him on the road for some adventures.

I remember the famous Now Comics bankruptcy. I was living and working in NYC at the time I received the paperwork. In exchange for monies owned me I was invited to return to Chicago to pick up a couple crates of Astro Boy #4. At the time it didn’t seem worth the effort. It still doesn’t today.

Kevin Birge said...

I was a fan of Rust back when you were writing it. I had to haunt spin racks to find it, since there was no comic shop within 100 miles of me. I still have about half the run in my collection, and getting the issues I am missing is on my wish list. Rust never got the traction it deserved, in my opinion. Consider this the long-overdue fan letter I should have sent back in 1988. You guys did great work. Hope you do comics again.

Fred Schiller said...

Thanks a bunch, Kevin. Compliments don't have an expiration date, so yours is very welcome and appreciated.