Sunday, November 23, 2014

The New Megaton Man Graphic Novel: A Work-in-Progress Year-End Report

2014 has been a year of twists and turns for me. I received my PhD in History of Art and Architecture from the University of Pittsburgh in April 2013, which was followed by a summer and school year of nearly full-time teaching in that department. I also had a major falling out with the same over several very honest remarks I made on social media about my academic experiences, resulting in several professors who know best what a diligent and dedicated instructor I am insinuating that positive letters of recommendation on my behalf were not to be expected. As a consequence, since April 2014 I have been back at the ol' drawing board scraping off the rust of more than a decade of college, and have been putting more energy into that than an academic job search. More recently, I have put more energy into lining up both academic teaching and cartooning work, although it remains to be seen which (if either) of these paths will bear fruit, let alone whether I can find some perfect balance between the two. Stay tuned!

Of all this tumult and difficulty in adjusting to post-college life, by far the best development is in my rediscovery of Megaton Man and related cast of characters. In spring I dusted off several drawings, sketches, story fragments and other minor projects I had set aside during my academic decade, and brought nearly all of them to completion. I also dusted of a large chunk of Megaton Man material that I began in 2002, and inked dozens of pages that had been penciled and lettered around 2005. I have since added to that amount with new material, and am currently scripting even more. At present, I have some 94 pages of contiguous Megaton Man material, all but about 17 pages of which are inked, and more than 40 pages of script beyond that. Certain of this material dates as far back as 1999 or so, and more are ideas I have had in mind for quite some time; still more is all new material. (Much of this material has already been serialized on my blog as Atomic Aftermath.)

I created Megaton Man in November 1982, at the height of Reagan's Neo-Cold War arms build-up in competition with the secretly-foundering Soviet Union. "Minute Man" missiles, "dense-pack" warheads, Neutron bombs and other terms were frequently in the news, including the term "megaton," a unit of explosive force (a million tons of TNT; the average thermonuclear warhead, for example, is about 20 megatons)). Megaton Man alluded to such depressing prospects, coupled with a satire of "Silver Age" comic books, particularly of the Marvel Comics Group of Stan Lee, Jack Kirby, and others in the 1960s. In many respects, Megaton Man was inspired by Harvey Kurtzman and Wally Wood's Superduperman parody from Mad #4 (April-May 1953), which was reprinted countless times in Mad paperbacks and specials, as well as P.R. Garriock's Masters of Comic Book Art (Image Graphiques, 1978), a remaindered book I picked up around that time that profoundly renewed my flagging interest in comics (just as I was outgrowing superheroes) in high school. Superduperman rates not only as the best Superman parody ever done, but perhaps one of the best Superman stories ever done in comics form, official or not, so penetrating was Kurtzman's analysis of the superhero genre. Megaton Man was also inspired by Marie Severin's late-1960s Not Brand Echh (a reprint of which is happily forthcoming in 2015), Marvel's landmark spoof of itself. Sillier and less substantial than Mad, Not Brand Echh proved that Marvel had a sense of humor about itself, something it lost not long after the demise of the equally landmark Howard the Duck phenomenon in the mid-70s. At the time, Marvel was straining to reinvent the magic of the Silver Age, to very little success in my view under the likes of far less creative talents than the original pioneers.

Megaton Man, from that point of view, was thus a much-needed updating of superhero parody in general (although Jim Valentino's normalman was a contemporary entry into the field that beat my by about a year), and a rebuke of the current regime of Marvel trademark perpetuators. In fact, Megaton Man could be thought of as Superman trapped in the Marvel Universe (as someone long ago pointed out), with the overdone cliches and overwrought absurdities of the genre lampooned for good measure, with a few allusions to current events and culture thrown in. (Whether this amounts to satire, as I flatter myself to think at moments I achieved, I leave to other to say.)

Ms Megaton Man and Megaton, epitomizing the more "serious" and "humorous" aspects of the current unfolding continuity.

I created the art and story of Megaton Man #1 over a period of thirteen months, from January 1983 to March 1984, with several stops and starts, and almost pitching the project at one point. It was conceived as a one-shot, and the twist ending, with Megaton Man's two female romantic interests, Pamela Jointly and Stella Starlight, leaving Megatropolis in an act of feminist defiance (for Ann Arbor, Michigan, to be exact). This was intended to be nothing more than a humorous reversal of the typical comic book ending where everything reverts to normal so that the next issue can start all over in the same place again (everything is calm in the fair city; an evildoer disrupts the natural order, the hero restores that order). But when Denis Kitchen actually offered to publish the book and requested an ongoing series, it created a narrative vacuum that I've had to deal with ever since. What was Megaton Man going to do in Megatropolis without love? (In the final issue, #10, he decides to follow the girls to Ann Arbor and has been more or less floundering around the Midwest ever since.)

The sporadic appearances of Megaton Man that followed over some three decades (ten issues from Kitchen Sink; a 3-issue mini-series, The Return of Megaton Man; three more Kitchen Sink one-shots; a preponderant presence in my later Bizarre Heroes series; three more issues from Image; and a couple of team-ups with normalman and The Savage Dragon; the online Megaton Man Weekly Serial published in hardcopy as a back-up feature in dozens of issues of The Savage Dragon; The CBLDF Annual 2010 3-pager and forthcoming War of the Independents #4 just about covers it) can be attributed both to the ups and downs of comic book publishing and personal careers as well as negotiating the strange storyline I had inadvertently set off with the ending of Megaton Man #1. To make a long story short, Megaton Man has been in exile from his fair city of Megatropolis for almost thirty years.

In terms of narrative, what is important about the current block of unpublished material, which at the moment I am calling Megaton Man: Return to Megatropolis, is that I am at long last attempting to rectify all of that. In the new storyline, Megaton Man and company establishes their home anew in New York City. To accomplish this feat, I am using the horrendous September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks as a tasteless and craven plot device to induce my heroes back to the city (early response to this material, that it was "too soon" for such craven appropriation of a real-life tragedy for comic book purposes, in fact contributed to me shelving the pages for many years).

In the meantime, the comic book industry has been transformed almost beyond recognition. The paperback or hardcover, termed "graphic novel," is now the dominant unit in comics print publishing, not the single stapled issue. Print itself has been demoted in favor of online serialization (the aforementioned Weekly Serial amounting to an early pioneer in this category); and finally, there is the comic strip tradition that resurfaces in that serialization.

In fact, I have all three formats - comic strip, comic book, and graphic novel - in mind as I am working on this new Megaton Man material. Each tier or half-page unit, to my current way of thinking, has to function much like a comic strip, inducing the reader to the next installment. In this case, the major difference is that while daily newspaper continuity strips essentially repeats the first panel of today's strip from the last panel of yesterday's, hyperlinking to the previous installment has largely eliminated the need for such repetition in online strips today. Thus, I think of the new Megaton Man as "the great American comic strip" in the mold of L'il Abner or Steve Canyon (two strips extensively reprinted by my old publisher).

I also think of Megaton Man in terms of the comic books I read around 1972, when titles such as The Amazing Spider-Man were frequently referred to as "strips," in honor of the dominant and more prestigious newspaper serial form (although at that time no Spider-Man strip yet existed), the term "book" replacing that only years later. John Romita, my favorite artist growing up, was clearly in the school of Caniff, and many of his pages of civilian characters (Peter Parker in the offices of The Daily Bugle, for example, rather than as Spider-Man in a fight scene), tend to look more like Sunday newspaper pages rather than comic book pages.

"Civilian" pages like this from the late 60s and early 70s seem to owe more to contemporary newspaper comic strip narrative conventions than the more innovative, integrated comic-book page designs of Neal Adams and Jim Steranko.

I also still think of the new Megaton Man material as individual comic book issues. As such, I have almost three complete issues drawn, each of 30- or 32-page chunks (I always took advantage of the lack of advertising at Kitchen Sink to provide as many pages as I could, sometimes to the detriment of the over-all quality of the book, but in any case I still find it difficult to think in terms of shorter issue-lengths). I also think of the new material as a graphic novel, the likeliest form of its eventual print publication, which I hope to total about 160-200 pages (publishing individual issues in the current climate seems not worth the time). Thus strip, page, issue, graphic novel are all format paradigms floating around in my head, sometimes conflicting and negotiating with one another as I now draw more Megaton Man.

I say "more Megaton Man" intentionally, for in terms of continuity, I am not straining to provide some fresh new "jumping-on point" in the narrative for new readers, or relaunching the series as such. Much to my surprise, given my own revulsion toward comics obsessed with continuity over creativity, I find myself nonetheless beholden to my own sense of loyalty to the storylines I have already established, and bend over backwards (sometimes) to honor them. Return to Megatropolis begins where The Megaton Man Weekly Serial left off, with Paul Nabisco, Gower Goose and company, in their VW van, saying so-long to Megaton Man, his son Simon, and X-Ray Boy (these are the tiers that date from 1999 or so). The only abrupt departure is the actual terrorist attack that comes while Megaton Man and X-Ray Boy are attending class in high school (because of an error in his transcript, the Man of Molecules is compelled to repeat his senior year). As such, this hardly amounts to a cheerful new beginning for the storyline, and a dark cloud hangs over much of the twenty or thirty pages following. The tone lightens considerably by the middle of what I term the second issue, as X-Ray Boy is invited to join The Devengers while Megaton Man is snubbed. There follows a humorous sequence in the old Megatropolis Headquarters, the likes of which have not been seen since Megaton Man #2 (February 1985). Slowly but surely thereafter, Megaton Man and company begin to find their feet in their second-time-around home. But nowhere do I intentionally violate any of the story elements I have already established, and indeed am discovering old plot threads I left dangling and intentionally tasking myself with wrapping a few of them up. It is quite a challenge!

In other words, I am trying to remain faithful to past continuity even while progressing the strip, series, book, or whatever you wish to call it into the twenty-first century. At the same time, I am cognizant of the fact that the characters have aged little if at all since the 1980s, but have made no attempt to disguise this fact. Simon, son of Megaton Man, is only about eight when the new material begins, although he quickly jumps to about twelve even though no more than two years have passed over the course of a couple of issues. Similarly, Ground Zero will become the Freedom Tower in an equally implausible span of time. A strict chronometry is not a particularly strong attribute of the current work. The new Megaton Man is carting around a lot of old baggage, as it were. (Aren't we all?)

At the same time, I am also nudging the characters away from parody and even humor to something a little more melodramatic if not dramatic. This seems a natural progression for me. Many of the characters, often originally introduced for the sake of a momentary joke, have evolved into real people in my mind, with grown-up problems and concerns, even if they retain garish costumes and outlandish abilities (my preferred term is "megapower"). Most of my megaheroes still tend toward the lighthearted, with Megaton Man in particularly largely responsible for most of the comedic moments (the title character reduced to comic relief in his own megaverse!). I will probably never include a psychotic "grim-and-gritty" vigilante character (but you never know). Part of this impulse comes from my attempts as a freelancer over the years to convince Marvel or DC to give me mainstream penciling work on one of their major titles, pitches that have fallen flat. If they won't let me revamp their stables, at least I am free to revamp my own. Consequently, a number of cast members of Megaton Man and Bizarre Heroes can be expected to show up in storylines more like the dramatic late Silver Age comics I read in 1972 than either the spoofs I drew in the 80s or the more stoical sober fare of recent years. Consequently, for example, The Devengers become The Doom Defiers, and The Earth Mother becomes a more take-charge character as leader of this new, hybrid team.

The downside of all this is that the more serious Megaton Man might become, the less there might be to distinguish it from the rest of the industry. After all, if all a reader wants is melodramatic superheroes, there are at least two hundred titles that come out more frequently, and are probably better written and drawn, to satisfy that urge. Nonetheless, I remain confident that the new Megaton Man, in whatever form or format, is even more as it should be: a mixture of pathos and absurdity, soul and idiosyncrasy that is on offer nowhere else.

Although I am very proud to have compiled 94 pages of new material, work on the series is necessarily slow. A number of fans are already demanding I launch a Kickstarter or otherwise publish what I have compiled. I have various personal reasons for holding back, which I will discuss at another time. At the moment I have trying to resolve a number of different challenges, career as well as creative. What has been particularly gratifying is the number of private commissions for drawings from fans and collectors and freelance assignments that have arrived from various quarters, which has provided me with both encouragement as well as funds to continue to keep a roof over my head. If you want to see more Megaton Man, please give me more work! And stay tuned. If my current string of good luck continues, the 2015 or 2016 Cartoon Crossroads Columbus seems like a likely and an appealing target for Megaton Man: Return to Megatropolis in printed form.

As Ron Frenz always says, "Thank you for your support!"
Don Simpson
(Donald E. Simpson, PhD)
Pittsburgh PA
November 23, 2014

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