Just a quick note to wish everyone a very happy and safe Hallowe’en!
LITTLE DRAGON IS AVAILABLE IN MY GRAPHIC NOVEL ANTHOLOGY HEROES & HORRORS! CLICK HERE TO READ MORE ABOUT IT AND ORDER A COPY!
Any writer submitting pitches and proposals to publishers is going to stockpile anecdotes along with rejection letters. An excellent example of this in my case is my series Little Dragon, created in the spring of 1982 and currently represented by Caliber Entertainment.
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A holocaust on a parallel world drives refugees to Earth, where an underground hides their numbers by creating Terran identities for them. One refugee enlisted by the United Nations Intelligence Agency (UNIA) gets involved in international intrigue and espionage.
What It’s About
The main character of this series may be the first person to have dual citizenship on two different worlds.
World #1 is homeworld, a parallel planet of graceful and fantastical structures scattered under an opaque sky among plains and mountain ranges as wild as the Mongolian outback. One day, an infant Negro girl is found in a temple and baptized TAYM, which means “citizen of the cosmos.” Taym is reared by a temple avec, a scribe and teacher, and, like most people on homeworld, is given a pet that becomes her best friend: a white-skinned, blue-eyed dragon that can manipulate its size that she names ADAMS.
World #2 is Taym’s birth planet, Earth. Taym returns to Earth as a young adult, one of many refugees fleeing a holocaust on homeworld. She adopts a new identity as a Sino-African student named Lee Jun Fan (“little dragon”), and four years later is hired out of Peking University as a field operative for the United Nations Intelligence Agency (UNIA), which leads to adventures around the world.
DOYLE McCULLAY is Lee’s UNIA partner. Doyle is athletic, scholarly, worldly, and sometimes seems to know a bit about Lee’s secret past. Handsome, solemn, secretive, and attentive, Doyle personifies the romantic hero.
AUSTIN HALL (RAF, retired) is UNIA’S Operatives Division commander (ODC). A proud Scot and natural leader, people respect him because of his courage, intelligence, and know-how.
CHARLES ANDERSON MESMER is the avec who became Taym’s proctor and guardian. Leaving homeworld for Earth disillusioned Charles, but his position as the trustee of the refugees’ dragons while on Earth has buoyed his spirits.
Little Dragon was originally called Dragon and was the second comic book series I created. It was inspired by an instrumental piece of music called “The Dragon” by Vangelis. Clive Cussler’s Dirk Pitt adventures, and Austin Hall and Homer Eon Flint’s novel The Blind Spot were major influences as I developed it.
Originally I hoped to interest the owner of a local comic book shop, Peter Stark, to publish the series. A friend of mine, Dennis Stick, was the store’s manager, and he and Stark had been discussing publishing a comic book. Dennis liked Dragon, Stark was willing to consider my pitch, and his wife, Elaine, a graphic artist, liked the series enough to draw a concept sketch of Lee. In the end, Stark decided to pass on Dragon, but Elaine gave me permission to use her sketch in my submissions.
I believed the best chance for a non-superhero series like Dragon to catch on was as a back-up feature, in the “non-tradition” tradition of series like Archie Goodwin and Walt Simonson’s Manhunter in DC’s Detective Comics and Dave Stevens’ The Rocketeer in Pacific Comics’ Mike Grell’s Starslayer, but about this time DC announced plans to launch an anthology series in 1984 that would feature new creators and new characters (New Talent Showcase). I mailed DC a letter asking when they would start taking submissions, and in June I received a reply from assistant editor Ernie Colón telling me to go ahead and send in a script that “should deal with adventure, or science fiction[.]”
A few days after I submitted Dragon, I called Colón to verify that he had received my package. To my delight, he instantly recognized my name, and said he not only liked Dragon, he was putting my submission on the top of editor Marv Wolfman’s must-read pile.
I don’t mind saying, I was thinking, “This is it! My big break! I’m getting my foot in the door at DC!”
Did I presume quite a bit there?
Sure, but, hey, I was young, and it wouldn’t be the last time I made that mistake.
Six months passed, during which time DC sent out occasional mass-mailers to let contributors to New Talent Showcase know that the editors were still going through all submissions. Then, in December, talent coordinator Sal Amendola sent me a letter to say that DC was “backlogged to the point where we won’t be able to buy any [new scripts] for some time … the ironic aspect of a successful new talent search.”
“Oh, well,” I thought, “at least DC liked Dragon, even if they couldn’t use it.”
Again, was I presuming too much?
A few years later, I was reading an interview with Wolfman where he commented that DC had printed every submission sent to New Talent Showcase that had been worth publishing during the book’s run.
Before submitting Dragon elsewhere after DC, I thought it might be a good idea to get some honest feedback about the proposal. I asked a friend, Dan Jurgens, who was beginning to make a name for himself at the time as the penciller on Grell’s The Warlord, if he would read it, and Dan kindly agreed.
Dan recommended a couple of minor changes, but, to my delight, he not only liked the series, he gave me one of the best compliments I’ve ever received. Dan explained that he usually isn’t one to cry or get choked up when reading comic book stories, “But you got me.” Dan paid me another compliment when I mentioned that I was thinking about submitting Dragon to a new publisher called First Comics. First had been hinting that they would like him to draw something for them, and Dan suggested I tell the editors at First that, if they accepted Dragon, he would be interested in drawing it.
I don’t mind saying, I was thinking, “This is it! The big break! No way First can turn that offer down!”
And they didn’t.
They just never responded to it.
All anyone at First ever told me was, “Trademarking a title like Dragon is next to impossible. We had a lot of trouble with trademarks for one of our series, Mars.”
Looking back now, as cool as it would have been to have First accept Dragon, it would have been just as neat to see how Dan would have drawn the story.
That same spring, I read that independent publisher Aardvark-Vanaheim, best known for publishing Dave Sim’s Cerebus, was considering publishing more titles. I thought Dragon might be different and intelligent enough to interest A-V, so I submitted it. A few weeks later, I received a letter from the publisher Deni Laubert (who was Deni Sim at the time) to tell me that Dragon “has sat on my desk for a good while” because “although I liked the story well-enough [sic], I can’t make a decision without an artist.” Laubert didn’t know any available artists, so “I am sending your script on to Mike Friedrich, an agent who brings together writers, artists and publishers.” Being a pro-active type, I called Laubert to ask if I could search for an artist as well. To my delight, she not only didn’t mind, she confided that, if A-V did decide to publish Dragon, she was considering making it the company’s first full color book.
I don’t mind saying, I was thinking, “This is it! The big break!”
Dan’s offer to draw Dragon had only been for First Comics, but he suggested that I contact Grell to see if Grell could recommend an artist from his network. As it turned out, Grell highly recommended a young lady from Los Angeles named Cris Palomino. Long story short, Grell made the introductions, Cris liked Dragon, I liked her art, and we sent samples to Laubert. A few weeks later, Laubert wrote to say she had decided to pass on Dragon: “The work is good, just not, when finally seen, what I want to publish.”
The following spring, I happened to meet another artist who I believed would do a terrific job on Dragon. So terrific, in fact, that I thought it might be worthwhile to submit the series to A-V again with his art samples. Laubert was kind enough to reply that she still wasn’t interested, but also made an enlightening confession. Even though my submission had initially sat on her desk for quite a while, “I had pictured the story as a very lightly-handled fantasy, something that someone like Lela Dowling would draw. What I see here is a Science Fiction Adventure with some superhero overtones.”
Laubert was always gracious and encouraging, so I mean no disrespect when I say that misunderstandings like this happen when you’re submitting, even when both parties have the best of intentions, and it’s something freelancers working in all media should be prepared for.
Now about that artist I happened to meet …
What had happened was, my friend Dennis Stick got a call from a young artist named S. Clarke Hawbaker asking if Dennis knew anyone looking for a comic book artist. If Clarke’s name sounds familiar, he would eventually go on to draw Marvel’s Nomad, but on that day Dennis told Clarke about me, Dragon, and A-V, so Clarke contacted me. We talked, Clarke drew some character sketches, and I submitted them to A-V. When that didn’t work, we discussed checking out to see if we could publish Dragon ourselves, but soon after that Clarke started getting nibbles from DC Comics and other publishers, so he couldn’t continue with Dragon. Nevertheless, I’ve always been grateful for the time he spent on the series.
Which leads to kind of a funny story.
While Clarke and I were considering the self-publishing route, we and some of our friends attended the Minneapolis Comic Book Convention, where Grell happened to be one of the convention’s guests. Grell is one of Clarke’s biggest influences, so I thought I could thank Clarke for the wonderful work he was doing on Dragon by having Grell draw a sketch of Lee and Adams to give to Clarke.
Now, for this story to make sense, you need to know the convention took place around my birthday, because, just as I was pulling out my wallet to pay Grell for the sketch, my girlfriend scooted up, dropped her own money on Grell’s table, and said, “I’m buying that for you for your birthday present.”
What did I do?
What could I do?
Fortunately, Clarke was very understanding when I told him the story and gave him a super nice Xerox of Grell’s sketch.
They say you’re getting old when you can’t remember the important things. Well, call me old, because there are two things in my Dragon file that I can’t remember how they got there.
The first are a pair of pencil sketches by David Day for what I believe should be a cover for the first issue cover Dragon. David’s brother Gene was a friend of Dave Sim, so my best guess is that Laubert requested these sketches and sent them to me. But I could be wrong. I do sort of remember seeing the first sketch and liking it very much, except that Taym looks a tad Nordic for a Sino-African, but that is corrected in the second sketch. To be honest, though, if not for artist’s signature and some notes jotted at the bottom of each sketch, I would have no idea who drew these or why.
The second thing is truly embarrassing. It has been several years since I went through my file on Dragon, and while I was assembling material for this piece, one artist conspicuous by his absence was Christopher Jones. Chris and I have been friends for over 30 years, and I frequently and sincerely call him my brother from another mother. We even broke into the comics industry together in 1988 with Street Heroes 2005. So, with everything that went on with DC and First Comics and A-V, why didn’t I ever ask Chris to draw Dragon?
Well, apparently I did.
Chris drew a cover piece, two character sketches, and four pages of artwork from the first story. Judging by the art and lettering style, I would guess he drew these around 1986. As you can see in the samples below, Chris did a wonderful job, and hopefully, being younger than me, he will remember the backstory to this artwork and fill me in.
That was that until 1996, when my friends David D. Arnold and John Olson launched their own comic book company, Sundragon Comics, and David asked to print Dragon in their anthology series, Scales of the Dragon. I said sure, but, remembering what First Comics had said about Mars, I decided it might be a good idea to change the title to Little Dragon. (Why didn’t I do this sooner? I don’t know.) Next, I contacted an artist friend, Rob Davis (Deep Space Nine, Quantum Leap, Scimidar) to see if he would be interested in drawing the series. As a big fan of Rob’s, I was thrilled when he drew “The Picture in the House” for my anthology series Worlds of H. P. Lovecraft a couple of years earlier, and I thought his character-driven style would work wonderfully on Little Dragon. Rob said was interested and drew some sketches to show how he would handle the characters. (Rob liked the series so much, in fact , he used himself as the model for Charles, which I think works beautifully.) David, John, and I thought the sketches looked great, and, before I knew it, Rob had drawn the first two stories of the initial four-part story-arc. Unfortunately, before Rob could start drawing story number three, Sundragon was forced to close its doors.
Not very long after that, though, Gary Reed at Caliber Comics asked if I had any intellectual properties that I would like to contribute to a content library he was building to pitch to film, television, and gaming producers. I did, and among the content I sent was Little Dragon.
And that, as say they, is that, except that some of my properties, like Nightlinger and Blood and Bullets, have had producers ask about them, but as of this writing there have been no nibbles for Little Dragon.
Maybe some day …
Now you might be asking, “Is there a purpose for all this reminiscing and namedropping?”
To which I ask, “You mean besides reminiscing and namedropping?”
Well, yes, there are a couple of reasons.
First, in my book Comics Writing, I advise people wanting to write comics that they should get used to disappointment. I include a few examples of my own disappointing experiences at the end of the book, and am now offering these anecdotes as further examples of the frustrations that can be experienced when submitting to publishers. If you can’t put up with this kind of stuff, then writing comics is probably not for you.
Second, I wanted to say THANK YOU (in alphabetical order) to David Arnold, Ernie Colón, Rob Davis, David Day, Mike Grell, S. Clarke Hawbaker, Christopher Jones, Dan Jurgens, Deni Laubert, John Olson, Cris Palomino, Gary Reed, and anyone else involved with Little Dragon that I am forgetting or overlooking. Things have not worked out so far for Little Dragon, but these people provided me encouragement or assistance or both along the way, and that is awesome. This ind of consideration is something else that people wanting to write comics should learn to be prepared for.
I also have to admit that I am surprised by everything that happened involving Little Dragon. What started out as a little blog about a couple of interesting anecdotes led me to remembering events and art contributions I had honestly forgotten. For a series that has yet to be published, Little Dragon certainly had a lot of things happen to it!
Finally, besides the reminiscing and namedropping and gratitude, I wanted an opportunity to tell the world how proud I am of Little Dragon. The first eight-page story in particular features some of my favorite moments from anything I have written, and I believe it is one of my strongest stories.
And that is as good a place as any to stop. But if anything more happens with Little Dragon, believe me, I’ll let you know.
Clive Cussler’s most famous novel, Raise the Titanic! is a landmark of late 20th Century adventure literature and one of the first techno-thrillers. A phenomenal bestseller, it was adapted into a motion picture starring Richard Jordan as Cussler’s indefatigable hero Dirk Pitt in 1980, but before that it became the first novel to be adapted by Universal Press Syndicate’s newspaper strip anthology series Best Seller Show Case, running from August 15 to October 9, 1977.
The adaptation’s author is believed to be Elliot Caplin (Little Orphan Annie, The Heart of Juliet Jones), the noted newspaper strip writer and editor, as well as the brother of Li’l Abner creator Al Capp. The artist is book illustrator and comics veteran Frank Bolle (Doctor Solar, Apartment 3-G), who split adaptation duties on the anthology series with Gray Marrow (Tarzan, Buck Rogers). Of particular interest to Cussler’s fans, with the possible exception of Jim Sharpe’s cover for the first published Dirk Pitt adventure, The Mediterranean Caper from Pyramid Books, the Best Seller Show Case adaptation of Raise the Titanic! features the first print illustration of Pitt.
Bolle’s Pitt comes closer to Cussler’s depiction than the brawny, bearded Pitt portrayed by Jordan, but it is missing Pitt’s trademark shaggy black hair, cruel-yet-friendly features, and penetrating green eyes. Bolle’s Pitt could just as easily be James Bond, Secret Agent Corrigan, or any other dark-haired hero from a Sixties or Seventies newspaper adventure strip. Also missing are Pitt’s friends, Al Giordino and Rudi Gunn, their boss, Admiral James Sandecker, and their place of employment, the National Underwater and Marine Agency (NUMA). Most of the novel’s supporting cast is likewise nowhere to be found, all victims of space limitations.
Like most of the adaptations in Best Seller Show Case, Raise the Titanic! ran for eight weeks, which is not a long time to adapt a novel given a newspaper strip’s three-panel-a-day format where Panel One recaps the previous installment, Panel Two pushes the story along, and Panel Three presents a tease or a cliffhanger to entice the reader to return for the next installment. On the other hand, a press release by Universal Press Syndicate’s managing editor Lee Salem explains that the purpose of Best Seller Show Case was to give readers “enough of a taste to go out and buy the book,” and its adaptation of Raise the Titanic! does that.
The adaptation deviates very little from the prologue to Cussler’s novel, wherein a passenger named Joshua Brewster forces a young officer (called Bigalow in the novel) at gunpoint to guide him to the hold of the sinking Titanic. Once there, Brewster locks himself inside the ship’s vault as he confesses to killing eight men to get whatever is inside the vault. Seventy-five years later, America needs a rare mineral called byzanium to power an impenetrable missile defense system (“the Sicilian Project” in the novel), and, as coincidence or Fate would have it, Brewster’s diary has recently been discovered with the frozen corpse of an American miner named James Thornton on Novaya Zemlya, an island near Soviet Russia. The diary indicates the only known supply of byzanium in the world lies in the Titanic’s vault.
The President orders Pitt — who is identified as a secret agent, government agent, and salvage chief, but never by his actual title of Special Projects Director for NUMA — to raise the Titanic. At the same time, the crew of the US research submersible Sappho I is dispatched to the North Atlantic, where they search for and locate the sunken liner. Soon after, CIA Chief Warren Nicholson informs the President that the Soviets have somehow learned about Pitt’s mission, so the President and Nicholson decide to leak small doses of information about the operation to the American press in hopes of distracting Soviet intelligence long enough to allow Pitt to complete the salvage.
When Pitt arrives in the North Atlantic on the salvage ship Capricorn, he is notified that Sappho I’s navigator is dead and foul play is suspected. Worse, without its navigator, the crew of the Sappho I has managed to get the submersible tangled in cables on a deck of the Titanic and have less than two hours of air remaining. Pitt instructs divers from the Sappho I to plant over 80 50-pound charges of dynamite beneath the Titanic’s superstructure to blast the liner free of the ocean floor. Pitt’s plan works and the ship drifts to the surface, bringing the Sappho I with it, but its flooded boiler rooms are causing the Titanic to list. Pumps are installed to keep the liner afloat, but then news arrives that a hurricane is headed towards the Titanic.
Captain Andre Prevlov of Soviet intelligence takes advantage of the storm to lead a team of soldiers onto the Titanic. Pitt eludes Prevlov’s men, but when he tries to escape in a helicopter it is swept overboard. Pitt manages to exit the helicopter before it tumbles into the ocean, climbs back aboard the Titanic, and reveals that two members of the salvage crew are Russian infiltrators. Prevlov orders his soldiers to kill Pitt, but an American rescue squad hiding in wait cuts them down and captures Prevlov. It turns out that a lieutenant aboard the ship that transported Prevlov and his soldiers to the Titanic, the Mikhail Kurkov, is a US agent.
All is not well, however, because the captain of the Mikhail Kurkov has orders to sink the Titanic if Prevlov does not signal him by midnight. Fortunately, the captain is spared the distasteful task of sinking the Titanic again when a communication arrives from the US submarine Dragonfish, stating that it will retaliate if any action is taken against the White Star liner.
After the Titanic arrives in New York, its vault is opened, but there is no byzanium. Playing a hunch, Pitt takes a team of men to a cemetery in Southby, England, where they find a grave for Thornton. The grave is exhumed, revealing a case filled with byzanium. Pitt remembered a March 12, 1912 entry in Brewster’s diary explaining that Brewster was returning home on the Titanic and the byzanium “will lie safely in T’s vault in Southby.” Like everyone else, Pitt had assumed the “T” stood for Titanic and ignored the reference to Southby. The byzanium is packed up and transported to the United States, where tests of the missile defense system are a success.
Caplin’s script does succeed in giving a taste of Cussler’s novel, but it suffers from lapses in logic. No reason is ever given why the Sappho I’s navigator is murdered, or how Pitt deduces who the infiltrators in his crew are, or why Pitt tries to get away in the helicopter if he knows a rescue squad is waiting to repel Prevlov’s invasion. One can also only marvel how the Sappho I’s divers survive swimming two and a half miles beneath the ocean, or wonder why any submersible would be carrying 80 50-pound charges of dynamite. It is also a letdown that Pitt is not aboard the Sappho I when the Titanic is located under the Atlantic. Instead he reads a newspaper article about the discovery to the President. Even more disappointing, Pitt exhibits hardly any of the wit or audacity that he does in Cussler’s novel. Despite these shortcomings, Caplin succeeds in being faithful to the source material, incorporating as many of the novel’s plot twists as possible without forsaking understandability. This attempted faithfulness is also evident in some of the adaptation’s little details, such as giving the President a mustache and making the US agent aboard the Mikhail Kurkov a lieutenant, the same rank as Pavel Marganin, Prevlov’s assistant in Soviet intelligence who turns out to be a mole for the United States in Cussler’s novel. Best of all, unlike the film adaptation, which features very little adventure, the newspaper strip does not downplay the Cold War tensions between America and the Soviet Union in Raise the Titanic!
On the art side, Bolle draws a wonderful Titanic, creating many memorable images of the liner as it sinks, lies on the ocean floor, breaches, during the hurricane, and finally arrives in New York. Bolle also draws great action scenes, two of the best being the opening with Brewster and Pitt escaping the helicopter during the hurricane. In the opening, Caplin and Bolle encapsulate the novel’s prologue into six exciting panels with a total of only approximately two hundred words, showing readers only what they need to know while leaving other details about the sinking ship to the imagination. The hurricane scene likewise takes place in six panels over two installments, but the full impact of Bolle’s action cinematography cannot be appreciated unless the two strips are stacked on top of each other as Pitt’s helicopter tumbles off the Titanic only to get snagged by cables on the deck, giving him time to extract himself from the helicopter and then climb back aboard the ship. Bolle’s camera never stops moving during these six panels, panning in and out as it rotates what seems like 360°, creating a dizzying effect that accentuates the difficulty of Pitt’s peril.
From start to finish, the pace of the adaptation rarely lets up, until, in the final two panels, a military officer telephones Pitt to inform him that tests of the defense system have been a success, and then adds, “Too bad you had to raise the Titanic for nothing.” Pitt could be speaking for many of his fans as he gazes out a window at the White Star liner in New York Harbor and tells the officer, “I wouldn’t say it was for nothing. I wouldn’t say that at all.” After all, impenetrable defense systems can come in pretty handy, but recovering a legendary and elusive treasure like the Titanic … now that’s priceless.
Creature Features have gone the way of the drive-in theater. Not dead, but not as prevalent they once were. These paeans to classic, not-so classic, campy, so-bad-it’s-good, and just plain trashy monster movies were often locally produced and broadcast on Friday or Saturday nights starting in the late Fifties, and featured a variety of creepy though often comedic hosts, many of who live on in the hearts of their viewers to this day.
I’m hardly the first person to point this out, but before there were Netflix, downloads, BlueRay, DVDs, or even VHS, Creature Features were the most accessible way monster movie fans had of seeing these films, and, in exchange for these favors, we bundled our adoration for monster movies with these programs. Many of us cannot remember watching The Vampire Bat or The Mole People without thinking of hosts like of Zacherley (The Cool Ghoul), Ghoulardi (Mr. Ernie Anderson before “The Loooove Boat!”), or Bob Wilkins (“Watch Horror Films … Keep America Strong”).
Growing up, I was blessed to be able to watch two terrific Creature Features.
My parents frequently took me and my brothers back to my hometown Lincoln, Nebraska, when we were boys for weekend trips to visit family, giving me ample opportunities to watch Creature Feature with Dr. San Guinary on KMTV-Channel 3 in nearby Omaha. Guinary (“Don’t call me Canary”) was a traditional horror host played by the late John Jones (no relation), a mad doctor who kept a monster named Igor in a cage (and mostly off camera) and had a penchant for humor, which is evident at the end of this outtake for a commercial for the Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon featuring Jones, Omaha anchorman Jeff Jordan, and Lewis. Creature Feature left the air in 1983, and Jones passed away in 1988, but the program and Guinary have been resurrected and can be seen again on Omaha’s Fox channel 42.
As much as I love Guinary, the Creature Feature for me will always be The Acri Creature Feature which ran in my town on KCRG-Channel 9 as well as other surrounding areas when I was a ‘tween and early teen. According to the Wikipedia entry on “Creature Features,” the ACF “may have had the widest distribution of a local, hosted TV horror program in the U.S.” Several years ago I was honored to be asked to contribute a reminiscent about the ACF to the House of Jitters website, where it has remained ever since, but with Halloween decorations showing up in the big box stores as well as Hobby Lobby and Michael’s, I got the urge to dust off the piece and share it on my own website.
And so, without further ado …
“The Acri Creature Feature debuted one Friday night without warning on KCRG-TV 9 in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
“I don’t remember the exact date, although I’m confident it was during October 1972, which would have made me twelve years old at the time. I am also sure the first film played on the ACF was the 1931 Dracula with Bela Lugosi, because seeing that movie was a huge deal to me. Although I was a lifelong fan of Count Dracula, I had never seen the Lugosi film, so when I read in TV Guide that KCRG was playing it, I circled my calendar and began counting the days. My older brother Tom decided to watch Dracula with me, so we were both surprised that night when “Windmills of Your Mind” started playing and a guy named Chuck Acri, who looked and acted a little like our Dad, walked down some steps into his basement dungeon and welcomed us to The Acri Creature Feature.
“I don’t think I’ll surprise you if I admit that I was an instant fan.
“I don’t remember exactly when, but I eventually began taping the ACF on audio cassettes to listen to them later. Which I did, over and over. (More on that in a sec.) I do know I must have started after Chuck’s on-set sidekick, Bernie the Skull, joined the cast, because I don’t remember ever listening to Bernie’s debut, although I will never forget watching it. It was classic!
“You see, one Friday night, Chuck came down to the dungeon to find a box the size of a bowling ball on his table. (How did the box get there? I don’t know. Nobody ever said.) Something inside began talking to Chuck in a weird echo-y voice, and it wanted Chuck to open the two doors on the front of the box. Chuck refused, which proved he was smarter than a lot of the characters in the movies he showed, but he did eventually to open the box the following Friday night.
“I have to congratulate the ACF for taking the risk of making its fans wait seven days to see what was inside, because it could have backfired. This teaser was a variation on the classic ‘monster behind the door’ gimmick, which, as any monster movie fan knows, can be a double-edged sword. Getting the viewer wondering what shambling nightmare is scratching behind a door never fails to induce goosebumps, but, when the door is opened, anticipation usually leads to disappointment because the monster is rarely as frightening as the ambiguous terror our imaginations has been conjuring. But what did the ACF give us fans after that week’s wait? A talking skull! One with a sense of humor! Super-fan-tabulistic!
“Anyway, about those audiocassettes…
“I don’t know what inspired me to start taping the ACF. I didn’t even own a cassette recorder. I had to borrow … okay, confiscate … Tom’s recorder every Friday night. (He complained for a while, but I eventually wore him down and he ended up giving me the darn thing.) To tape the show I had to … uh … tape the microphone to our color television’s speaker. The reproduction quality was not half bad, and after a few weeks I had a nice little collection of programs that I eventually started binge-listening to while I banged out stories and stage plays on my electric typewriter in my bedroom.
“Yes, I estimate Chuck and the gang on the ACF kept me company for approximately one zillion hours during those formative years.
“Okay, maybe I’m overestimating, but becoming a writer means putting lots of lonely hours writing. I spent a lot of that prep time listening to those tapes, and I am grateful to everyone at the ACF for their company.
“I am also grateful to the ACF for showing so many wonderful horror films I might not have seen otherwise as a kid. Horror films, particularly the Universal classic horror films, are one of my biggest writing influences. As a boy, I owned the entire Aurora monster model line. Even The Prisoner of Castle Mare! I also collected and read horror comics and Famous Monsters of Filmland. I wallpapered my bedroom with scary posters (and worried my mom half to death), and, while other boys were pouring over Playboy, I was reading Dracula, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Edgar Allan Poe (which, I suppose, might have also worried my mom). Today I own nearly every Universal horror film that was released on VHS or DVD, but as a kid in the early Seventies the only place I could watch these and other monster movies was on the ACF.
“Besides showing monster movies, the ACF was a fun show. The only thing it seemed to take seriously was entertaining its viewers so Chuck could pitch his home siding.
“And it worked.
“Like thousands of kids in the KCRG viewing area, I knew all about Acri’s exclusive Thermo-Insulation Board®, genuine redwood siding, and how anyone buying siding between Memorial Day and Labor Day received a free trip for four to the Lake of the Ozarks.
“By Grabthar’s Hammer, what a deal!
“Perhaps more than anything, the ACF is important to me because it gave me an invaluable boost of encouragement. Fellow ACF fans will remember The Creep of the Week Award, a weekly contest where fans mailed in anything they created, so long as it was spooky, and the best entry won one of two Creep of the Week awards, one for kids eleven and younger, another for kids twelve and older. In May 1974, I submitted a play and won. Two weeks later, I submitted another play and a poem. I won again and Chuck read my poem on the air. By October of that year, I had won five Creep of the Week awards, which made me a minor celebrity with my peers (i.e., other geeky eighth-graders.) Winning also let me know, ‘Hey, kid, you can write!’
“How do you say thank you for something like that?
“But nothing lasts forever, and one Friday night in November 1974 the ACF vanished the same way it debuted. Without warning. I tuned in as usual, but there was no Chuck, no Bernie, no ACF.
“I wrote the Acri Company to ask what had happened, and a very nice lady whose name escapes me wrote back to explain producing the show had become too expensive, but maybe someday it would return.
“Which it did, very briefly, in 2005, although not in the KCRG area. The new ACF was broadcast in the Quad Cities, which is the home base for The Acri Company. Nevertheless, somehow one of the ‘monsters’ on the new program heard about me, the young fan who grew up to become a real writer, and asked if I’d be a guest on a future show. I’m sure you can imagine my excitement, as well as my disappointment when the show was cancelled again before my appearance could be scheduled. And this time, like Boris Karloff and Vincent Price and Lon Chaney, Jr., the ACF was gone and never coming back.
“I have other memories about the ACF. Like how I took my Acri tapes and made a Best Of compilation that included Bernie the Skull’s incredible mile-a-minute carnival barker’s siding pitch. Or how two friends and I took photos of ourselves as a band called “The Creeps of the Week” and mailed them to the show, hoping Chuck would invite us on to perform. (He didn’t.) But enough already.
“But that was then.
“This is now.
“Monsters and horror are still a big part of what I love and what I write. Among the over seventy comic books I have written are adaptations of Bram Stoker’s Dracula, the films Invaders from Mars and Re-Animator, and nine H. P. Lovecraft weird stories. In Invaders from Mars, I renamed the main character Josh Acri. I also created the original horror-adventure series Nightlinger, about a mysterious masked man who protects people against supernatural threats, and the second issue of Nightlinger is about a Creature Feature host being stalked by monsters from the movies he shows. I dedicated that issue to the whole ACF gang.
“Yes, The Acri Creature Feature means a lot to me, for all these reasons and more. So if Chuck or anyone who ever participated in the program happens to read this, please accept it as a ‘Thank you’ and a ‘God bless you all’ from a grateful fan.”
A campaign against H. P. Lovecraft took advantage of his 125th birthday on August 20th to rear its head again, and it ticked me off, so I’m going to vent.
This campaign stems from Lovecraft’s racism, and there’s no two ways about it, HPL was a racist, although, to be fair to Lovecraft and the campaigners, HPL is not the only pulp writer having his literary status reappraised because of racism. For one example, see this article on Edgar Rice Burroughs.
That said, it’s one thing for a group like the one behind the World Fantasy Awards to consider changing its statuettes, which look like Lovecraft, because at least one recipient and other authors have made it clear they cannot bring themselves to forgive Lovecraft’s “fundamental racism.” Whether or not you agree with this protest, the awards belong to the group, so what they do with the statuettes is their business. It’s another thing, however, to write an article like “The Unlikely Reanimation of H. P. Lovecraft” that appeared on Lovecraft’s birthday on The Atlantic website. The writer, Philip Eil, does a nice job of summarizing HPL’s rise from obscure writer of weird tales to current literary and culture phenomenon, but he also twists himself into knots trying and failing to rectify his admiration for Lovecraft:
“My feelings on Lovecraft—as a bibliophile, a lover of Providence history, a Jew, a fan of his writing, a teacher who assigns his stories—are complicated … [M]y admiration is always coupled with the knowledge that Lovecraft would have found my Jewish heritage repugnant, and that he saw our shared hometown as a haven from the waves of immigrants he saw as infecting cities … I haven’t made peace with this tension, and I’m not sure I ever will.”
I have a suggestion for Eil and anyone else suffering from such tension: get over yourself.
Yes, Lovecraft was a racist, but articles like Eil’s are more about Eil than Lovecraft, but even that isn’t what ticked me off.
HPL’s racism is not a new criticism of the gentleman author from Rhode Island. It was public knowledge during his lifetime, and Robert Bloch acknowledges it in his 1982 introduction to The Best of H. P. Lovecraft. Until recently, however, Bloch’s “product of its time” explanation for Lovecraft’s racism may not have been a satisfying excuse but it was acceptable to most folks, especially those who lived during the pulp era.
If reading racist remarks makes you uncomfortable, I believe that is evidence you have a healthy conscience; but I pray I never become so enlightened that I forget that reading racist remarks is not the same as accepting them, and, when it comes to Lovecraft, it’s impossible for me to read even his most detestable remarks and not remember that he was a bit of a blowhard. Maurice Levy explains this better than I ever could in Lovecraft, A Study in the Fantastic:
“[Lovecraft] declared himself essentially a ‘Teuton and a barbarian,’ a Nordic son of Odin, brother of Hengist and Horsa, ready to drink the hot blood of his enemies in the freshly hollowed-out skull of a Celt. If we are to believe this, we have to forget the New York episode of his life when he threw away the mousetraps after each use to avoid touching the corpus delicti! … He is to be more pitied than blamed. His racism, like his political extremism, was a direct consequence of his philosophical views, which were totally nihilistic. We are astonished that he even took the time and trouble to express his distaste so vigorously, for he felt nothing ultimately is of any great importance [p. 30].”
I am a Lovecraft fan, but that doesn’t mean I ignore the ugly and reprehensible comments in his stories. I acknowledge them, and in this way I make sure not to overlook that the world we live in today is very different, and, in many important ways, so much better than it was only a few decades ago.
Getting back to Eil’s article and his tension, I found a couple of facts about Lovecraft interesting by their absence.
Lovecraft’s racist remarks in his stories and letters tended to be directed in the aggregate and not individuals. By all accounts, Lovecraft was gracious and courteous to everyone he met, regardless of race. Lovecraft also married a Jewess, Sonia Greene, and retained a Jewish literary agent, Julius Schwartz. (Yes, comic fans, that Julius Schwartz.) And, for what it’s worth, Lovecraft’s racism softened as he matured, until, as Bloch points out, “the racist element of earlier efforts is muted or absent in later tales.”
None of this excuses HPL’s racism, but nothing excuses oversights like Eil’s, either. What has me ticked off is, berate Lovecraft if you must, but be fair about it, and realistic.
“Tradition needs storytellers.”
– Dave Kindred
Books on Writing and Comics Writing (in no particular order):
- On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King
Actually let me recommend that you read any article or interview that you can find where King discusses the craft of writing. Besides being a bestselling author and one of the most influential writers of the past half century, King is a former high school English teacher. The man knows his stuff and knows how to communicate what he knows.
- If You Want To Write by Brenda Ueland
Ueland, a notable author in her own right, taught writing for several years with the philosophy that, “Everybody is talented, original and has something important to say.”
- Zen in the Art of Writing by Ray Bradbury
Not your usual how-to book. Unparallel advice about the craft of writing from one of the grandmasters.
- Screenplay: The Foundations of Screenwriting by Syd Field
The basics of filmic writing by a former script reader. Simple and straight forward. Field’s lessons are applicable to fiction writing in all media.
- Backstory edited by Pat McGilligan
This series features interviews with screenwriters beginning with Hollywood’s golden era up through the Seventies. While some interviews spend too much time painting blacklisted screenwriters as persecuted victims, this is an excellent and enlightening series for writers or anyone who enjoys good movies.
Since sometime back in the Thirties (I believe) “The Writer” magazine has reprinted selected articles from the previous year’s issues in an annual compendium called “The Writer’s Handbook.” The magazine is notorious for publishing cookie-cutter articles, but it does also publish the odd insightful piece by a bestselling author or some lesser-known writer respected in his particular genre or medium, and these pieces are the ones that tend to end up in “The Writer’s Handbook” each year. This makes going down to the library and reading the annual Handbook more cost- and time-effective than subscribing to “The Writer.” And for what it is worth, of all the “Handbooks” I have read, far and away the best edition is the one copyrighted in 1987. Stephen King’s introduction and the articles by Clive Cussler, John Jakes, John D. McDonald, B.J. Chute, and Elizabeth Peters are invaluable reads.
- How to Draw Comic Strips for Newspapers and Comic Books! By Alan McKenzie
- The Storytelling Art of the Comic Book Analyzed as the Medium Approaches a New Golden Age by R.C. Harvey
For anyone who wants to learn about writing for comics, you cannot do better than kicking off your research with these two books. McKenzie’s book is the best nuts and bolts book about creating comics that I have found. He gives you the big picture. After reading McKenzie, move on to Harvey, who has been analyzing comic book communication better than almost anyone else for decades. Any book or article by Harvey is worth reading, but this 1996 book is as good as any place to start. One caveat, though, and that is Harvey’s books tend to be difficult to find (this one is published by the University of Mississippi Press). In case you come a cropper, I suggest you then go to any retailer bookstore or comic shop and buy a copy of Scott McLoud’s excellent “Understanding Comics.” You might also want to check out my book “Comics Writing: Communicating with Comic Books.”
Read “Basic Formulas” first and then read “Basic Patterns” before plotting anything. Just do it.
- Elements of Style by William Strunk, Jr. and E.B. White
Read this book before reading either of Harris’ books. And if you do not own a copy of this book already… why not?
- The Chicago Manual of Style from the University of Chicago
Put this beside your dictionary, thesaurus, and music collection.
- AP Stylebook by the Associated Press
Put this beside “The Chicago Manual of Style” for balance. Essential guidebook for any journalist or any writer who wants to go Hemingway and write like a journalist. Also includes a short but helpful “Briefing on Media Law”.
Steve’s Pearls of Wisdom
Practice. Practice. Practice. But learn about the craft of writing before you begin practicing.
Reading one or more of the books I suggest is a good place to start. You do not need to be an expert, just familiarize yourself with the basics. Otherwise all the practice in the world will just be wasted effort.
Besides practicing and reading about writing, the best advice for any beginning writer comes from Clive Cussler and Robert Louis Stevenson:
- Cussler: “Copy.”
- Stevenson: “Damn it, it’s the only way.”
Writing teachers howl at this advice. They insist that new writers avoid imitating other writers and develop an unique voice (i.e., style). Well, you do need to develop an unique voice, but not right away.
I am not suggesting you plagiarize. But I do encourage you to imitate. Imitation is one of the best ways to learn how to do anything. As time goes by your own unique voice will develop.
What far too many writing teachers fail to realize is that young writers are usually drawn to authors whose styles are similar to the voice the young writer will develop as he becomes more experienced. This was the case, for example, with H. P. Lovecraft and Lord Dunsany (see T.E.D. Klein’s introduction for the Arkham House edition of Lovecraft’s “Dagon and Other Macabre Tales.”) And if your favorite author happens to be a New York Times bestselling writer … well … he must be doing something right! If you’re going to imitate anyone, I say imitate a winner.
Besides Cussler and Stevenson’s advice, I would also suggest you read as many books as you can about writers. I highly recommend any selection from the Twayne Author Series. There is really no more pleasurable way to learn the craft of writing than reading about an author’s life along with how and why an author wrote what he wrote.
I would also add that you should not listen to advice from people who say, “You can’t do that.” These naysayers may have logical reasons for being negative, but no one succeeds by not trying. For good advice, talk to writers who have succeeded. The best advice comes from winners. Remember Sean Connery in The Rock: “Losers whine about doing their best while winners [become better acquainted with] the homecoming queen.”
Finally, if any of this prep work sounds like drudgery to you then don’t do it. Writing is not fun unless you love to write and sometimes not even then, but the love of writing is the sole reason to become a writer. Now you can ignore my suggestion and plug at it anyway, but in the words of Edward Van Sloan from James Whale’s Frankenstein, “Well, you’ve been warned.”