Tuesday, November 25, 2008

A Huntress page...

In late '93 my comics illustrating career was pretty much on the skids. The fairly critically and sales successful Elementals had come and gone, after a reasonable run of fifty-plus issues (broken into two volumes of 25 or so issues each).
        First digression: Advice to new cartoonists: When you're producing a run of funnybooks, don't let the publisher talk you into finding an excuse to start again at issue # 1, under the justification that it will bump up sales. Sometimes that works and sometimes it doesn't, but the hassle of trying to sort out, for the rest of your years, which Elementals # 1 was the first # 1, and so on, aren't worth it.
        Back to the essay: If I recall correctly, I was still writing and illustrating (and lettering and everything elseing) Ironwood for Fantagraphics' Eros line. But I was finishing an installment of Ironwood less often with each succeeding issue, and the overall sales weren't exactly ripping up the charts.
        Marvel was a closed shop to me by then, following several frustrating years worth of aborted attempts to launch new projects there, as a writer or artist, or both, but always running afoul of the smug, childish and cliquish editorial culture that flourished there at the time -- behaviors for which I never had any tolerance, and was perhaps a bit too vocal in criticizing.
        Second digression: This seems to be no longer the case at Marvel. Based entirely on my admittedly limited interactions with them of late, an admirable level of professionalism and courtesy seems to be the standard there now, rather than the exception.
        Returning again to our essay: DC was mostly a closed shop to me then too, but not due to a lack of professionalism on their parts, but this time based almost entirely on my past failures to deliver assigned pages (I'd worked strictly as a hired-gun artist for them up to then) in a timely manner -- or at all in a few cases.
        But DC had been willing to give me work in the past and hadn't entirely gotten to the point where editors refused even to take my calls. However, more than one editor, upon learning that it was me on the line, began any conversation by saying, "You better not be looking for work!" Unfortunately I was looking for work, needing to find a pencilling job or face the unenviable prospect of getting honest work outside of the funnybook field. So, in late '93 I was calling around the DC offices looking for a book to draw.
        Neal Pozner was editing a series called Showcase '93 at that time. The title was doing double duty, describing both that Showcase was a place to feature new talent and to feature stories about second and third-string DCU characters that had no regular books of their own. Even though I wasn't exactly new talent by then,  Neal had never worked with me before and let me draw a two-part Huntress story that would appear (I believe) in issues # 9 and 10.
        Right away Neal heard from other DC staffers that he'd made a terrible mistake and was likely insane for taking a chance on me. He grew justifyably worried, based on those war stories of my past failings. But he'd already assigned the job and was too encumbered with human decency to withdraw the offer.
        I did the work, buckled down, determined to mend fences, rebuild bridges -- pick your metaphor. There were two hitches in the job though. One was simply fun and silly and one wasn't. First, it was a story about Huntress following a vicious gunrunner to a white-supremacist enclave in the mountains of Idaho. This wasn't a case of hot pursuit, where the hero would have no time to plot and plan. Huntress had a few days to prepare for the mission and then followed the villain out to Idaho, from Gotham, on a later flight. Anticipating this, trying to do a good job with the script and thoroughly think through its implications, I decided to design a cold-weather costume for the Huntress. After all, she was supposed to be a female equivalent of Batman (though operating on more of a budget) and ranked in his general ballpark as far as wit, cunning and intelligence, right? Any moron knowing she was going to a mountainous, snowy environment would outfit herself differently than the standard skimpy little-more-than-a-bathing-suit job that she usually wore in Gotham, right?
        The problems was, if DC let me design a new winter outfit for her, they'd have to pay me a fee for doing so, above and beyond my page rate, and perhaps even open the door for a later legal claim on my part that I owned part of the character, having helped visually design her. That sort of nonsense just wasn't in the sales-meager Showcase's shoestring budget. No matter what the consequences for the story, Huntress simply had to stay in her skimpy costume.
        So I ended up drawing many panels of Huntress in the snow, obviously shivering her bottom off with the cold, trying to keep wrapped up in her cape, and not exactly making a case for the notion that she was a wise and clever superhero.
        That was the fun -- or at least silly -- one of the two problems.
        The other hitch wasn't nearly as entertaining. After I'd completed all of the art for both installments (40 pages in total), which included an extended guest appearance from Batman in the final 20 pages, someone at DC realized that this story would come out after their big event where the original Batman gets his back broken and would be temporarily replaced by a guy named Azarael in a vastly different version of the Batman suit -- which was quite well suited for cold weather operations, by the way, so even this new guy upstart hero had more sense than poor dim Huntress.
        So I had to go back and redraw any of the far too many pages in which Batman appeared. No problem, right? Just change a few costume details and we're golden. But there was a pretty big problem, because the new Batman was a bulky figure, entirely different in shape from the original figure, with lots of extra spiky things sticking out all over. I couldn't simply change a few costume details, I had to completely redraw each of the many panels featuring Batman.
        For that reason DC had to pay me a fairly substantial redrawing fee, beyond my page rate. This didn't win me any new friends up there, when that's exactly what I was trying to do with this job. They couldn't understand why I wasn't thrilled to be one of the first artists to draw the thrilling new Batman. Shouldn't that have been reward enough?
        In any case, the problems were worked out and a redrawing fee was eventually agreed upon by both parties. And even with the extra work involved, I still managed to get the job in early. Neal Pozner couldn't have been happier and made a point to tell me, "I don't care what anyone else says. I'll give you work anytime you want it."
        Mission accomplished. My failing career received the new jumpstart I was looking for.
        Shortly afterwards Neal, that truly good man, died of complications resulting from his long (unknown to me at the time) battle with AIDS.
        I maintain a lingering fondness for this Huntress story, despite the minor (in hindsight) hiccups along the way. Terry Austin inked me on this job, which was quite an honor for me. I'd been his fan for some years. To this day I can still look back at my artwork for this story and not completely recoil in horror -- which is rare for me on any past work. As you might begin to guess by now, I'm not the biggest fan of my own comics artwork.
        Terry and I never got a chance to work together again, which is too bad, because I think something in our styles meshed together well. Then again, his skills and talent went a long way towards covering up my many sins of bad anatomy and worse composition. He's darn good at fixing things.
        Following this job it would be some long years before DC and I got back on track with each other.

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