Teenage Mutants (a.k.a “Muties”)
It looks like Caliber Comics will be publishing the Young Adult novel Teenage Mutants: White Knights & Raiders in the future, so I thought it might be a good time to introduce you all to the project.
To begin at the beginning, Teenage Mutants began as a bit of a disaster, one rescued more than once by acts of divine intervention.
Before that, there was divine inspiration, which is as good an explanation as any to describe where people get ideas. I got the one for Teenage Mutants in the shower one morning while getting ready for work. Well, not an idea, really, but a title: Muties.
Maybe I should start by setting the WABAC Machine to 1991.
The comics market’s speculator boom is in full bloom, and few comic books are hotter than Marvel’s X-Men and its mutant spin-off titles. Other publishers have been cashing in on the teenage-mutant/superhero-team craze as well for a few years now, starting with DC’s excellent New Teen Titans in 1980 and Mirage Studios’ off-the-wall Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in 1984, the latter sparking a short-lived black-and-white comics boom from 1985 to 1986 that, in turn, helped ignite the current speculator boom. Now, as best as I can recollect, I wasn’t thinking about any of that when the title Muties popped into my head. What I do remember is being concerned that my comics writing career had run its course. During the previous four years, I had written several comics for Malibu Graphics, starting with my own series Street Heroes 2005 with artist Christopher Jones (Young Justice, Batman Strikes!, Also Known As) and concluding with H. P. Lovecraft in Color, but now Malibu was focusing on their new Image Comics line featuring über-popular professionals like Todd McFarlane (Spawn) and Jim Lee (WildC*A*T*S), and seemed to have little interest in working with any creator who wasn’t an A-List or B-List name in the industry.
So, for whatever reason, out of the blue, I have Muties.
What was I suppose to do with it?
It seemed like a marketable title. But it needed a series to go with it. Which is bass-ackwards from how I normally work. I generally hit upon a concept and (hopefully) concoct a title as I go along, which is as good excuse as any why I fell back on nostalgia rather than attempted to create a distinctive concept that took advantage of the title, the way a series like Malibu’s Ex-Mutants (1986) does. You see, by 1991, many comics fans felt that X-Men was becoming a muddled mess with its ever-expanding cast and burgeoning backlog of dangling plotlines, so I decided to take advantage of what I perceived was an unfilled need and recreate what had made X-Men great with Muties. That might sound like smart business, and maybe it was, but it descended into a wasted opportunity.
When X-Men was in its prime, with Chris Claremont as writer and Dave Cockrum or John Byrne as artists, its characters were unique people you cared about, and, by extension, their adventures were not only intense but unlike anything you found in other comic books. In the original proposal for Muties, I made a point of admitting that my series was “inspired by Marvel’s phenomenally popular X-Men” the same way Doug Moench’s Moon Knight distilled “the essence of what makes Batman so engrossing,” and emphasizing that Muties would feature novel new characters that maintained the attractive qualities of their prototypes.
Unfortunately, I didn’t do that.
At least I started out on the right foot by contacting Chris Jones to ask if he wanted to create Muties with me. Chris and I often share the same brain when it comes to comics, and, I do believe, if I were an artist, my characters would look a lot like how Chris draws them. I also asked if I could enlist one of his characters into the series: Cymion, a super-intelligent gorilla. Chris agreed to both, and I quickly proceeded to muck things up.
Things might have worked out if I had taken the time to populate our nostalgic team with unique characters, but I was so convinced that a Sword of Damocles might be hanging over my comics writing career that I became more concerned about submitting a proposal than taking the time to write the best proposal possible, which is never a good way to create a comic book series
That said, it could have been worse. Quite a few characters from the original Muties proposal appear fully developed in Teenage Mutants, such as Cymion, David and Jonathan Edgewood, Allison Aylward (hero name: Ms. Miracle), Chelsea Winterset (hero name: Tatterdemalion), and Clu Challenger. Almost as many, however, didn’t make the cut, like a run-of-the-mill religious fanatic named August Hall (hero name: Sterling), a telepathic empath known only as Phobia who might be the second-cousin of Cesare from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and a generic street-wise boy named Aaron Thiebeaux (hero name: Fracture) who escapes his ghetto world by slipping between dimensions.
Poor Chris! He did his best to work with what I gave him, pointing out the characters’ flaws even as he made them appear as good as possible in his sketches. I let you down, my friend, and I’m sorry.
I submitted the proposal to several publishers. Each one rejected Muties for basically the same reason: “Great title. Series sucks.”
And that might have been that if not for the first act of divine intervention, which occurred in the summer of 1992.
The speculator boom is turning into a frenzy as Image Comics begins releasing titles, and the folks who run our local comic book shop want to cash in by publishing their own sixteen-page comic book. They knew about Muties and wanted to publish it. Chris and I would create the stories and another local artist, S. Clarke Hawbaker (Nomad), to draw the covers. We agreed, but somewhere along the line the folks in the comic shop lost interest. I don’t remember why. By then I had written the first script and most of the second, Chris had penciled several pages for the first issue, and Clarke had drawn the first issue’s cover.
This kind of stuff happens when you are a freelancer, but two good things did come out of this aborted project. First, after rereading the original proposal with fresh eyes, I realized pursuing nostalgia had been a mistake and Muties worked best as a pure adventure story. I could also now recognize which characters were strong and which were weak, and wasted no time reworking Aaron into Acie Armstrong (hero name: Hispeedscrambler) and then culling Sterling and Phobia. However, for some reason I don’t remember, and honestly can’t comprehend now, I added an adult mutie, an Australian bounty hunter named Steven Lester (hero name: Edge). Lester didn’t make it into Teenage Mutants, but he does appear in some of Chris’ pages and on Clarke’s cover along with Clu and his daughter Ajna.
Once again, things might have ended there for Muties if not for the second act of divine intervention, this time in the summer of 1993.
I was killing time one night while shopping with my wife, Lisa, by perusing the store’s magazine rack. I don’t recall the name of the magazine, but I came across an article on how new technology (e.g., fax machines, the Internet) was changing where self-employed businessmen were running their businesses. It was the dawn of telecommuting! One example was a literary agent who lived in my state of Iowa instead of a traditional location like New York or California. I was looking for a new agent, so I jotted down this agent’s name and city, found her mailing address, and sent a letter asking if she was accepting new clients. It turned out she was, primarily in the Young Adult market, which was starting to experience its own boom thanks to R.L. Stine and his Goosebumps books. I didn’t have any Young Adult manuscripts on hand, but, based on my writing credits, the agent said she would be glad to consider any that I ever wanted to send her way.
That was all the encouragement I needed. I pulled out my Muties file, verified that Chris was okay with me adapting our series into a YA novel, and set to work.
A week or two later, I was home alone writing when Lisa called. She had not been feeling well for a while and gone to the doctor, and was calling to let me know that she did not have the flu like we figured, she was pregnant with our first child!
Pretty cool, huh?
Lisa hung up a few minutes later, leaving me alone with my thoughts, one of which was that I was going to finish Muties before our child came, and I was going to dedicate the book to her or him.
If you read Teenage Mutants, then you will probably notice that it owes as much to the techno-thriller genre as it does the teen-superhero genre. Well, when I finished writing the manuscript a few weeks before our daughter Katie was born, I needed to be sure that I had gotten all the techno stuff right before submitting it to the agent, and the best way I had of doing that was to ask my best friend Wayne Amsler to read it. Wayne was an Air Force veteran, computer programmer, and avid science fiction fan who read an average of one book a day. He was also always brutally honest when it came to telling me what he thought about my stories.
Wayne usually replied pretty quickly whenever I gave him something to read, but this time I didn’t hear back for a few days, and when I followed up he said he had gotten tied up with a work project soon after he started reading Muties. Once that was finished, Wayne wanted to start reading Muties again from the beginning, because he had really been enjoying it and wanted to remember everything as he read it. That remains one of the nicest compliments I have received, and it got better after Wayne finished Muties and told me he really liked the book and was impressed with my techno research.
Finally, I knew I had a solid story with strong characters to go with a great title.
The agent, however, didn’t agree.
She felt the manuscript had potential and was filled with excellent ideas for a YA series, but was too rough and fell into passive voice too often. The agent did offer to consider Muties again if I corrected these problems, which I did, but when I resubmitted it she rejected the manuscript again, adding this time that she no longer was accepting YA manuscripts but had had moved on to adult non-fiction.
I hope it wasn’t because of anything I did.
Which brings us to the summer of 1994 and a third act of divine intervention that takes considerably longer to play out than the first two.
The speculator boom is winding down and forcing several comics publishers out of business. A few companies weather the storm, however, including Caliber Comics, which has published over a half dozen comics I have written since 1993 and will publish several more in the future. In 1996, a new company, Sundragon Comics, braves the market bust and accepts an updated submission for a Muties mini-series based on the YA novel, but, by the time I complete a new first issue script and Chris begins penciling the story, Sundragon is also forced to close its doors.
Then, in 1997, two Caliber titles, Searchers and Dead*World, are optioned for motion pictures, and Caliber’s publisher Gary Reed hires an agency to represent Caliber in Hollywood. Gary invites me to submit intellectual content for Caliber’s Entertainment Library, and one of the properties I submit is Muties. Caliber likes the title so much it attempts to trademark Muties for me, but applying for a trademark can get complicated and expensive if anyone challenges an application, and an independent film studio does just that, claiming they created the title Muties for an unproduced movie. Caliber cannot afford to fight this claim and withdraws its application, but instead of the studio ending up with the trademark, Marvel Comics procures it, although, as of this writing, they have only used it for a six-issue mini-series published in 2002.
Anyway, now I had a solid story with strong characters but no great title, but, again, stuff like this happens when you are a freelancer.
C’est la vie.
As far as I know, no one ever approached Caliber about licensing Muties. Meanwhile, between the collapsing comics market and other business matters, Gary decides in 2001 to close shop at Caliber. Gary and I keep in touch, and neither of us completely abandons the comics medium. Then, in 2007, Gary and writer Rafael Nieves (Tales From the Heart) decide to take advantage of improving print-on-demand (POD) technology to launch a new publishing company, Transfuzion Publishing. Among Transfuzion’s initial offers are a two volume set of my Caliber series Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft and an anthology, The Case of the Twisted Minds, that includes my Sherlock Holmes pastiches The Adventure of the Opera Ghost and The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Holmes. (In 2011 these pastiches are reprinted again, along with some of Gary’s Holmes pastiches, in IDW’s The Curious Cases of Sherlock Holmes.) Then, in 2013, Gary decides to team with Eagle One Media to bring back Caliber Comics and roll the Transfuzion line into it. Gary also invites me to submit other properties to Caliber, not only intellectual content, graphic novels, and digital comics, but fiction and non-fiction prose books.
I told you this third act of divine intervention took a while to play out.
Which brings us to now and Teenage Mutants.
I should probably explain that, a few months before Gary contacted me about the Caliber relaunch, I had decided to sell my books Comics Writing and Muties as Kindle e-books. Only I couldn’t use Muties as a title. Ironically I found myself in my normal cycle of development: concept first, then create a title. In the back of my mind I had always planned on using Seven as a replacement for Muties, but when the time came to submit the first installment of the novel to Amazon, I got the itch to create something more marketable. After a process of elimination, Teenage Mutants seemed the best choice.
And that, as they say, is that.
Except for a couple of personal notes.
As I mentioned earlier, I decided in 1993 to dedicate Muties to my daughter Katie, but this book is also dedicated to Wayne, who died in 2009. Life has a way of distancing people, even best friends. After high school, Wayne entered the Air Force while I eventually went to college, got married, and had a family. Wayne never married, and after he returned home we didn’t see each other very often, but, whenever we did, it was like no time had passed. When someone that close to you dies, a part of you dies with them, because you know you will never have the chance to pick up where you left off again, at least in this life. In any case, of all my books, Wayne seemed to enjoy this one the most, so I hope Katie won’t mind sharing her dedication with the man who gave her the big brown teddy bear when she was a baby.