Tuesday, November 25, 2014

How Megaton Man Has Evolved In Thirty Years and Why I'm Still Drawing It/Him

In my previous post, I discussed the Megaton Man graphic novel on which I am currently at work (I have some 94 contiguous pages in the can, with all but a handful inked at this point). I also discussed how I see this new material simultaneously as a comic strip (particularly a certain language or idiom that I identify with the classic newspaper continuity strips such as L'il Abner and Steve Canyon, among others), a comic book (both as a printed page and as a 30-page installment or issue), and a graphic novel (the only financially viable print format I see today). I would like to elaborate a bit on that and also take a longer view and discuss how I see Megaton Man as having evolved since his published debut in December 1984 (the 30th anniversary of which being only days away).

In terms of strips, books, and graphic novels, I am thinking of the new material I have generated recently (and really since The Megaton Man Weekly Serial that I created online c. 1996-2000) as needing to work in all three ways. When I was doing the serial, which amounted to half a comic book page in full color per week, I quickly had the realization that each installment had to give the reader some incentive to return for the next episode' there had to be some "payoff" to reward their effort. I did not always achieve this goal, but I realized that this was what I should strive for. I recognized that in too many cases in the past, when I was preoccupied merely with filling comic book pages with dazzling (or even adequate) art and making deadlines, any given page might lack that incentive. In other words, by drawing comic books, I had, over time, become somewhat flaccid in my storytelling, and lazy as a cartoonist. Thus, the comic strip served as a model in my mind to tighten up my cartooning and storytelling, compress my pacing, and strive to make each episode or half-page count for something, and meaningfully move the narrative along.

At the same time, these half-pages obviously had to function as full pages in the print environment, since I always had in mind repurposing the episodes as printed comics (the Serial in fact ran in a local Pittsburgh magazine for a brief period in the late 90s, and subsequently Erik Larsen was kind enough to offer me the slot as the back-up feature in his Image title The Savage Dragon, where Megaton Man ran for numerous issues). For the new material, I am creating full (splash) pages, half-pages, and sometime three-tiered pages, and this sometimes requires a bit of negotiation to make it all even out. It would be easier if one only had to consider one or the other formats, but I don't think it has resulted in any major traumas to the storyline or material; only more clever planning on my part.

The Savage Dragon vs. The Savage Megaton Man #1 (Image Comics, March 1993), embossed gold-foil variant (most of which were imperfectly manufactured).

While the online format of the Serial made me more aware that each half-page had to deliver something substantial to the reader, much like a daily newspaper comic strip (whereas in a comic book one can pace oneself more leisurely with "payoffs" coming less frequently, say every two or three pages), I also recognized the advantages of tighter scripting. In the old days, I worked approximately "Marvel style," which is to say, I would visually thumbnail an entire comic book issue, then draw it, adding dialogue and text only after I had penciled and before I inked. The only writing I did was a series of notes on a legal pad. Such a method produced no end of problems for me; I could thumbnail and entire issue in an afternoon, and while the inspiration was still fresh, for the next several days, the five or so pages of art I would create would be the best. But a week or two into production, as the thumbnails seemed to grow stale and I forgot what I had found so fascinating in my initial ideas, it became harder to churn out pages. This problem hit home when I thumbnailed the entirety of Yarn Man #1 in 1989, then traveled for several weeks and handled other freelance assignments. When I sat down to draw the book, I looked at the scribbles I had produced and could not figure out for the life of my what I had had in mind! I was forced to entirely rethink the entire story, and while I succeeded in conforming to the original thumbnails very closely, it was exceedingly difficult.

Now I find that a full script works best. Describing a scene or a panel in words is far more efficient even than a quick stick figure or thumbnail sketch. "MM leans in from the left of the panel; we see The Contraptoid, distal, full-figure, over his shoulder, about to attack. This panel is wide and takes up the full tier. Megaton Man is surprised to see his enemy recover from the previous blow so quickly." Such a description calls to mind a visual image and sense of the scene for me much more reliably than a quick doodle (which risks either devolving into an incomprehensible scribble or being overworked, spoiling the fun and spontaneity of actually drawing it later). And I should add that I have no problem deviating from the script, improvising, or modifying on the fly (or cutting material out entirely) if it is not working on the drawing board.

Megaton Man #0 [Bizarre Heroes #17] (Fiasco Comics Inc., June 1996).

I hasten to add that I was also painfully aware that doing half a page a week was not like doing a daily comic strip, and that because I had other obligations away from the drawing board, my slow production was not going to gain much in the way of a regular audience. Nonetheless, I used the comic strip model to make the improvements that I could, in the belief that this would lead to stronger material and greater success at a later date.

In addition to the 94 pages or three issues worth of unpublished Megaton Man material that I have stockpiled, I have completely scripted a fourth issue and am in the midst of drafting a fifth. I intend to script a good deal of material, perhaps several issues, before I begin drawing it. I do not have a particular endpoint in mind, except as I mentioned in the last post, approximately 160 or 200 pages total, which I feel will make a substantial book or graphic novel.

This brings to mind a recent experience. At the 17th ICAF (International Comics Arts Forum) held in Columbus, Ohio November 13-15, 2014, I got to see Tom Spurgeon interview Jeff Smith. I asked a rather silly question (I noted how Bone, Rasl, and Tuki were all four-letter titles, and if you removed the "A"s from Shazam!, you'd have SHZM!), and I wondered if Jeff had a conscious philosophy about this. It got a laugh, especially when Jeff revealed his fascination with Jaws, Spielberg's four-letter titled film, but I wish I had gotten the chance to ask a more substantial question. Jeff said that he always had the end of Bone in mind, but felt free to improvise on his way there. This sometimes caused him trouble when he would follow a sudden inspiration and find himself painted into a corner.

Jeff created Bone issue by issue on a quarterly basis, and had the practice of revising certain moments in the story (especially foreshadowing later developments that he wished he had the presence of mind to do initially) when he compiled his paperback collections and later his Bone compendium. What I would have asked him was whether now, when he has the leisure to create a several-hundred page story all at once prior to serialization or publication, whether he works smarter, or whether he is still creating each installment as he goes. Does he still need serialization as an incentive to produce, even if it means he will have to slightly revise later? I have no idea how Jeff is working these days (perhaps he has discussed this somewhere). But my interest is in relation to my own work.

I have always created Megaton Man without a clear endpoint in mind (this was slightly different in the case of  Border Worlds). The way Megaton Man unfolded, it was always a matter of what happens next? As I discussed previously, this often resulted in situations in which a humorous moment I concocted for a laugh would have far-reaching implications going forward, such as the departure of Pamela Jointly and Stella Starlight from Megatropolis. Another example would be Clarissa James discovering that she is Ms. Megaton Man (at the time erroneously attributing it to sexual transmission from Yarn Man).

Obviously this is a very different way of working as what Jeff describes on Bone. Nonetheless, I have increasingly seen the virtue of scripting out longer and longer stretches of storyline, to be able to better anticipate plot entanglements in advance, and to rectify them (along with inserting proper foreshadowing and preparation for key developments). The issues that I am now scripting represent the largest quantity of script I have ever attempted before drawing. At forty or so pages, this is nowhere near the 160-page average that many graphic novelists now consider a minimum.

A friend of mine who is accustomed to writing such long-format works recently commented to me that he thought creating "more Megaton Man" was not necessarily the best career move I could be making. He advised me to develop something more cutting edge that would give the public a new look at my career. This was unexpected advice since any number of people over the years have advised me to stick to Megaton Man while I stubbornly insisted on pursuing other ideas (in fact, I have been a particularly negligent creator when it comes to my most famous property). After all, harkening back to ICAF 17 once again, I recall Bart Beaty's remark that autobiographical memoir is held in the highest esteem among comics scholars, most of whom are ensconce in English departments, and thus bring to bear a certain literary snobbery to their analysis of comics (at the expense of more popular genres). Doing something entirely un-Megaton Man would seem to make a great deal of critical and perhaps even career sense.

Thus it is worth reflecting on why I have considered it important to draw "more Megaton Man" recently. In the first place, as I mentioned, I am coming off a long layoff from the drawing board (being preoccupied for over a decade with school). I set aside the 9/11 storyline I began in 2002 in part because of early reaction from creator colleagues who considered it "too soon" to deal with such material; I have a strong desire to finish what I start. Further, I see possibilities in Megaton Man and the supporting cast of characters that I did not see thirty years ago, or even twenty.

When I created Megaton Man #1 (December 1984), it was intended as a one-shot in which I would purge myself of the myriad influences that came from all of the comic books I read as a youngster. So cleansed, I planned to try out several other story ideas. In fact, I wish I had done so; if I had it to do over again, I would have drawn a space comic book, a straight superhero comic book, an underground comic book and so on. I would have taken two years or so to try my hand at different single-issue ideas and find my voice. Instead, Denis Kitchen requested that Megaton Man be a regular bi-monthly series, and I tried to exploit that opportunity as best I could at the time. Still, I always felt my conception of the character and series, as a superhero parody, was limited, and could only be a minor work in my career. I subsequently did a space comic (Border Worlds), a straight superhero comic (Bizarre Heroes), and an underground comic of sorts (the Anton Drek comics), and returned to Megaton Man only intermittently, when I felt I had new ideas.

Megaton Man #1 (Kitchen Sink Press, December 1984).

I always admired the career of Sylvester Stallone, whose Rocky, we tend to forget, was an obscure film rescued by the critics that went on to great commercial success. Rather than immediately begin Rocky II, which Stallone also wanted to direct (he wrote and starred in the first film), he cut his teeth on a couple of flops: F.I.S.T. and Paradise Alley (two low-budget productions that did not garner good reviews or make any money, and which I have yet to see). Only then did he write, direct, and star in Rocky II (although this seemingly interminable film franchise and now Broadway musical has long since become a joke to many of the same critics who championed the first film). Anyway, I've often wished I had done something like this with Megaton Man, rather than attempt a series right away.

In any case, intermittently return to Megaton Man I did, usually to diminishing sales figures (except notably for the Savage Dragon and normalman team-ups). Paradoxically, as fans seemed less and less thrilled with what I was doing with the character, I was discovering deeper meaning in the Man of Molecules and the supporting cast. It was the late Dave Schreiner, my editor at Kitchen Sink Press, who was the first to point out to me that Megaton Man wasn't about superhero cliches and funny fight scenes, but about a genuinely likeable cast of characters. I did not realize this all at once; it was only when the cast of Megaton Man took over Bizarre Heroes, the series I had begun primarily to showcase ideas for characters I first had drawn as far back as junior high school, that I began to recognize them as old friends.

Originally and conventionally, Megaton Man is the over-muscled, under-witted macho jock who blunders his way through life. Over time, I've realized that Megaton Man is not so much stupid as hemmed in by his own preconception. He's the most powerful character in his universe, but he never asked for that; other people expect him to fulfill a certain role or perform a certain function (most obviously Preston Percy, copy boy-cum-government agent who manipulates the Man of Molecules in the early issues). Megaton Man's predicament is that he is convinced that Megaton Man is something he has to be while failing to realize what he is. Thus, over time, Megaton Man has been less and less about directly parodying the superhero genre, comics industry excesses, or mindless trends running rampant therein (this is beyond my capability anyway, since I have increasingly have less and less interest in keeping up with the business), and more and more about the relationships among a tight cast of characters.

The Megaton Man strip (and here I am thinking of it as an open-ended, newspaper-styled serial) to me these days is no longer a parody but the thing in itself. I like to think of it as my attempt at the Great American Comic Strip, a kind of cartooning that has not been prevalent in more than a generation. No longer am I pastiching the styles storytelling language of 1971; I am emulating them. Because, in part, they just aren't making American comic books like that any more. A crucial scene in the new material comes when Megaton Man and X-Ray Boy survey Ground Zero, only to see that every other hero in Megatropolis has been killed in the collapse of the towers. This will strike many as a tasteless, disrespectful, and mean-spirited, and one can argue about the various ways such a moment might be toned down or elided altogether. But it is not intended to be gratuitous; it was important in my mind to establish that, no, Megaton Man is not a parody of a comic book character, he is a real comic book character, and Megaton Man is a real comic book (or comic strip or graphic novel). This is my fictional world, and it won't do to take a back seat to other fictional worlds, regardless of what criteria is used. (Whether I obscure the clearly identifiable characters shown in the rubble with dark colors, or substitute generic superheroic costume elements, or cut that tier altogether, it will remain a necessary gesture to have performed in my mind.)

As I mentioned previously, there are a number of temporal and narrative problems that I have to contend with in doing more Megaton Man, especially the lack of aging in my long-running characters. But these seem relatively minor. We don't think of fictional characters as aging because we don't perceive our own aging for the most part; in any case this simulated aging is compensated for by a more complex, adult view of the relationships between the characters, and a more fraught view of the world.

In summation, I am doing more Megaton Man (or still doing Megaton Man, or returning to Megaton Man, whichever you prefer), while at the same time revamping, updating, and progressing the characters and storylines), first and foremost because I find the cast to be useful vehicles with which to comment on the world in the twenty-first century, and on life in general. I prefer to let the work speak for itself in that regard, as it unfolds, but suffice it to say that I find I have much to say about global and societal challenges we all face, and I hope that some of that will emerge going forward. I did not see all of these possibilities thirty years ago, and for that I apologize to longtime fans; they have only dawned on me over time, and I hope there is time enough left to realize a little bit of that potential.
Don Simpson
Pittsburgh PA
Thanksgiving Week 2014


  1. That's a very interesting read, thanks!

  2. Hey, Don, here's a question I've been wondering about for a while: Are the MegatonMan.com strip, the WorldFamousComics.com strip, and the Savage Dragon back-up serial all the same story?

    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

    2. Yes, although not all of the online stuff appeared in Savage Dragon in print.

  3. Go Don. Can't wait to read the graphic novel!