When last we “spoke,” I had just been offered one of my first serious writing gigs: Developing the backstory for a brand-new science fiction toyline, along with writing an in-pack comic book to convey said backstory.
The problem, though, was that I had no idea how to produce a comic book. I could write one, sure, but I didn’t know anything about the production process. I went home and called up my buddy Jeff Vaughn, who worked with me at one of Diamond’s sister companies. I cheerfully broke my NDA and told him about my trip to New York.
“But it’s not gonna happen,” I said.
“They want me to hand them a finished comic book. There’s no way I can do all of that.”
Jeff spluttered with frustration and indignation. “You idiot! If you throw away this opportunity over that, I’ll kill you! I know how to produce a comic book. Bring me on board and I’ll handle everything.”
I wasn’t sure if the Toy Island guys would go for that, but I figured it was worth a shot. I called them up and they were fine with me bringing in an overseer. Now the only question was: What would I get paid?
This was long, long before I had an agent. I had written a handful of comic books, but in those instances the publisher had just told me, “Here’s your page rate and here’s your royalty; take it or leave it.” I’d taken it.
But now I was supposed to tell them what I wanted to be paid.
I still remember negotiating that deal. I was petrified. I was somewhere in my mid-twenties and this was my first serious writing opportunity. I didn’t want to blow it. I also didn’t want to get screwed over. The money guy from Toy Island (his name was Barry, too) was actually sort of gentle, saying to me, “Just tell me how much money. I’m not going to hang up on you.”
Still, even with that assurance, I hemmed and hawed and stuttered for a good ten minutes before I finally revealed that I wanted ten thousand dollars to develop the backstory and to write the comic. He chuckled kindly and said, “We can’t do that. How about five thousand?”
Five thousand dollars to write what ended up being an 11-page comic. That was over $450 a page. At the time, that made my page-rate better than Alan Moore’s! I readily accepted.
Then I put them in touch with Jeff, who negotiated his own deal as a sort of packager — he would get the art together and have the book colored and lettered. I’m pretty sure everyone else on the deal made a hell of a lot less than I did, even though their parts in it all were much more labor-intensive. Still, it was a new venture and it seemed promising and — most important of all — we all had a blast.
I put together some thoughts for the story and as soon as I submitted it, I realized that I loved the ideas too much. I wanted to write a novel about those characters. So when the Toy Island guys came back and said, “This isn’t exactly what we’re looking for,” I was relieved. They then sent me sketches of the toys and I came up with a second notion. This one, they absolutely loved. Here’s the basics of it:
Elsewhere in the galaxy, a group of rebels overthrow the tyrant who rules the Obsidian Empire. During the revolution, the tyrant’s “war chief,” Em Grosser, is critically injured. Near death, Grosser is rescued by his automatons, who drag him to his spaceship and flee the Empire. They repair him with cybernetics and wander the galaxy for years, encountering many strange alien races.
Then they come across Mars. It’s the perfect base from which Grosser can churn out his “shockbot” army…and mount an assault on an unsuspecting Earth. Once Earth is his, he can use its resources to expand his army and recapture the Obsidian Empire.
But the Mars Pathfinder mission (remember, this was the 1990s!) has spotted Grosser’s operations, and the U.S. sends its elite, top-secret Lazer Corps to Mars. Led by Colonel Chance, the Corps includes Howard Brett and Vaughn Jace, as well as a robotic assistant, H.I.R.A.M.1
I named the villain after a guy I worked with, Marty Grosser, who was a huge toy collector. Howard Brett (codename: Howitzer) was one of my college roommates, with his name flipped. And Vaughn Jace (codename: Flyboy), of course, was Jeff Vaughn, who often went by J.C. Vaughn. I don’t know where I came up with the term “shockbots,” but I still like it, to be honest!
At the last minute, the toy guys came up with another character, a very alien-looking one. There was no time to put him into the comic itself, but we could mention him, and at the very least he needed a name.2 I called him Brador Ttosc, again mangling the name of a friend.
At this point, we hadn’t seen a single toy. All we had to go on were production sketches, and they looked terrific. The guys were really living up to their goal of producing McFarlane-level detail and sculpting with a sci-fi aesthetic.
Jeff assembled an artist, colorist, and letterer for the comic, as well as a graphic designer. I put the finishing touches on the script and sent it over to him, and soon enough, we had a comic book!
It ended up looking great. I was so happy with it. Considering that it was a toy for kids, I managed to be a little subversive. There’s a blood slick when a character’s body is dragged away, for example, and I made sure to have a close-up of a character smoking a cigar. (This was smack in the middle of the Clinton impeachment, so cigars were extremely loaded images at the time.) I was having a ball, and so was Jeff.
The guys at Toy Island were thrilled. They told us to start thinking about characters and scenarios for a second series of toys. They also mentioned that they were in talks to possibly spin the toy line into an animated TV series. Jeff and I, of course, would be involved in that. We had dollar signs and success dancing before our eyes.
Well, given that you know me as the author of YA novels and not as a toy/animation guru, you can imagine that this all fell apart. And it did. Hilariously.
And, yeah, I’m gonna leave you hanging on that cliff for now. Come back tomorrow for the conclusion to this trilogy!