Friday, June 23, 2006

Origins Part Three

The Mystery

Who Slew Mr. Mayhem?

Not just the title of our story, but also the central question of the plot. We establish early on that Matt Mayhem, the victim, is more than just an adventurer – he’s an all American, one-man crime fighting army. We establish that, in the greatest pulp traditions, Mayhem’s villains always end up being undone by their own evil. Perhaps they are too arrogant, or they make a critical miscalculation in one of their doomsday devices. Tom’s own creator, Dr. Proteus, is said to have been killed in just such an accident, “blown to bits” on Horror Island, his secret lair.

Of course, every one assumed Tom was destroyed in this same explosion, right? So maybe Proteus is alive as well. It stands to reason, doesn’t it, that if Tom lived, his creator might have survived as well.

Except that Tom acknowledges that Proteus is dead and, as evidence, points to his own freedom to pursue a career as a piano player as evidence of this.

So, if Proteus is dead, who does this leave as a suspect for our crime, the brutal slaying of Matt Mayhem?

Well, when I set up this little mystery, I knew that I was ignoring some central components of your traditional mystery – I didn’t want to Scooby-Doo this mystery and throw out a list of suspects for you to choose from. Ideally, you don’t know who killed Mayhem yet because, well, I haven’t given you enough clues to figure that out.

This would be a cheat, of course, if Who Slew Mr. Mayhem were really a murder mystery, but it’s not. It’s an adventure. That means that, first and foremost, I need to tell an entertaining adventure story – the mystery is just the thing that’s driving the adventure and the action. The truth is, I decided to make Tom’s origin story a mystery because the character is a detective and his roots should be in, well, detecting things. We needed to explain how Tom became a detective – where did he get his hat and overcoat, his detective agency, his side-kick. How did he go from being a doomsday device to a PI? These were questions I wanted to address in his origin. The mystery gives me that opportunity.

Ultimately, though, Tom is a comic action hero, a fish-out-of-water who thinks out of left field and is just as apt to solve a crime with a blast from his atomic eye-beams as he is with the power of his intellect.

Ultimately, Who Slew Mr. Mayhem isn’t really the important question. The real question is: are you having a good time waiting to find out?

Thursday, June 01, 2006

Update 5-31-06

We've posted another update to the comic. Just make with the clicky. We also were recently featured over that the Pulse (thanks to Jen over there, and to the Captain for the kind words).

Monday, May 08, 2006


Pages 9-10 are up!

Saturday, May 06, 2006

Commentary - Pages 1-5

SEAN: OK, so, let's talk about this first panel on page one. This is obviously our homage to Will Eisner and his Spirit designs. I wanted a nice big panel to establish B-City, how it's a metropolis made up of different character-types from multiple genres. I think you did a good job of capturing that here - we have the rocket ship and the zeppelin and the flying cars and what have you.

How did you approach the layout of that panel, because I know I told you I wanted an Eisner-riff, but there are a lot of ways to approach that? Did this layout pretty much come to mind immediately or did you do a few different versions?

JOEY:Well when you originally approached me with the idea, I came up with some rough designs using a few other Eisner techniques, the lampost and shadow wording, I tried fairly unsuccessfully to come up with one of those kickass windblown debris shots, but in the end the decision to have Mayhem Tower loom heavily in the background pretty much nailed down the type of shot I was going to use. And remember, originally the opening page called for a zoom in to Matt's office, a film shot I love to use over and over, so when I went to do the Eisner page, because I wanted to try and fit it in seemlessly with the existing layout choices, it was a gimme.

The rest just came together from a desire to show some art deco-esque buildings and toss in the elements you mentioned, the rocket, the airship (because I have some kind of airship fetish), and the car. Also, I really wanted peoples first color shot of Big City to be big, and crammed with buildings. Even if the perspective is kind of skewed.

I'm glad we went with the stereotypical Eisner shot though, people who know their comics, immediately recognize it and know what we're going for, there's no mystery, there's no suspicion that we are trying to pull something over on the readers by imitating Will's work, it's just a straight homage that I'm happy we got around to doing.

Oh, and I still chuckle when I see that bum's "Humph", nice and down to earth compared to the rest of the crazy elements in the pages to come.

SEAN: I love that bum and his dog! That was really inspired on your part and it's my favorite element on the page.

I definitely wanted that first page to establish not just B-City, but Mayhem's presence there. He had to overshadow everything.

If I feel we've fumbled the ball at all visually, it's solely in the sense that Big City never quite feels big enough and that we didn't push for a bigger visual presence for Mayhem's influence on the culture like we had planned. I know those billboards in the first panel were designed, originally, to showcase some Mayhem product placement, but I felt that with the dialogue at the bottom, I was doing a sufficient job of establishing his character. I'd go for a more visual punch now.

It's interesting, I was watching Mystery Men the other day and was struck by how HUGE they make Champion City in that movie and how they really anchor Captain Amazing's presence into it all. I think the visuals in that film are a lot darker and more hi-tech than what we are going for, but it really hit me how we might have pushed it more.

JOEY: I'd go along with that, in my head I always see Big City as this huge sprawling visual mess, with spotlights constantly flashing in the distance and aircraft ala Blade Runner, except antiquated, flying around. Unfortunately I usually get a little intimidated by big background city shots, so they rarely come out like I see it my head. Ahh well something to work towards I suppose.

Speaking of backgrounds, and to move this along a little, on page 2 we get just about the only shot ever of Mayhem's full office, sadly looking more like a large closet than a grand office suited for Mayhem's ego. I always wished to have more of Mayhem, just because I know as a one of the creators how he really is, how he is perceived and what he's up to and it makes me laugh. Plus as you said before, I think we missed out on being able to establish him as the main man in town. The dialog on these pages gets it off to a good start, but since its all text it doesn't quite sink in.

As always the little references to people and things from our pop culture bring a smile to my face, and it just seems appropriate that the mayor is named after Forry.

SEAN:Oh yeah, I had to have a homage to one of the first and greatest horror/sci-fi collectors. I think B-city is a real reflection of Forry's interests.

I loved the original idea you had for Mayhem having the skinned fur of a weird ass creature for a rug in the first try at this page. It's too bad we lost that, but I like having his logo on the rug now.

JOEY:I figured, being the super self important snob he is, he would have his initials on everything, the tower, the crime monitor, his rug, hell if i had to draw hs bathroom, he would have monogrammed towels.

SEAN:Totally! The man is arrogant, to say the least. I want to move on to the next page, because I think it's the most interesting of the first four. First off, I love the suspense you create here, particularly in that middle tier. That long panel, with the shadow falling across the rug is great. It really draws the eye and extends the time the reader spends on the picture. We move from her turning at the sound in the last panel above, to her in the doorway and our eye moves across, following the shadow.

How hard is it to create suspense in the art, i.e., how much planning and thought goes into it, or do you just feel your way around it?

JOEY: Hmmm, I would say fifty fifty. Honestly, about half the time, I'm trying to recreate something I saw in a movie or picture how something would look if it were shot with a camera, maybe not a direct lift from a scene, but definitely the feel and mood. That long panel in the middle was some of my first attempts to get some of that noir lighting that I completely choked on in the first pass through this, and maybe even some of a Citizen Kane crane shot, because damnitt, you cant go wrong with that! You try and mark out a page like this with beats, so that, if there were a camera, where would it point to drag out the readers attention the longest, before the big reveal. So you have things like the closeup on the switch (in the script though, not really my idea), but by making the top 3 panels roughly the same size, people will dwell on them a few seconds equally, and then move to the big shot, where hopefully their eyes will linger long enough to make the shocking panels at the end actually surprising. Its a serious pain in the ass in comics, considering the reader is just as likely to scan the whole page at once and not be affected at all.

Oh and just for the records, I remember hating you for writing the panel with Matt's head spun around. I know you were going for a big shocking ultra-violent visual, but man was it ever hard to get it to look right. I mean, I even made that panel with all the striped slashes more out of a want to cover up details because I just couldn't get it right on paper, and not so much for the effect itself. Which of course is the feeling around part you were talking about, because that made the shot work I think, and it was completely on accident.

So speaking on that, why did you decide to go with something so graphically shocking, instead of just trying to stylize the murder scene?

SEAN:Well, I could have just had him, you know, strangled, but I started thinking about how bland that would be. From the beginning, I wanted his murder to be a) visually grotesque and b) the kind of murder the average human couldn't possibly accomplish. So,at first, I had him shot with a raygun from across the street, but anyone could have done that (well, not anyone, of course, but a human could have pulled it off). And, for reasons that will become important later, his body needed to be intact, more or less.

I liked the idea of Stella finding Mayhem in a state that was so off, so upsetting, that it would set the tone for the kind of off-kilter violence we'd be throwing up later. This is a violent world with a candy coating.

And, for the record, that broken glass effect on that panel really does work - for me, it was Stella's world falling apart, her entire sense of the inherent justice of the world with Matt being in it. All at once, that was yanked from her. So, cheat or not, it worked for me.

Now, for the next two pages, since they're both more or less the same scene, we have some more exposition about Matt's roll in the city and his celebrity status tied into some humorous dialogue from the police. I love that beat you give the coroner at the bottom of page four. LOL.

JOEY: LOL thanks. I'm a huge huge fan of repetition in comics panels. It can be used to create everything from suspense to comedy, its something that my favorite artists use to great effectiveness and I never get tired of. So its one of those tools, like thought balloons that really only work in comics, (unless your David Lynch I guess) that needs to flaunted from time to time. (although I am still glad at the choice of not using thought balloons in this story).

And man, that whole bit with the leprosy and the "Yeah I'm gonna have to ask you to leave..." made the timing on those 3 panels work. That still makes me laugh when I read it.

So if we're counting 4 and 5 as the same pages, we get to the introduction of what really is the other two main characters of the story, Nick and my hands down favorite character to draw Jarvis. I know most of what you were referencing when you made Jarvis, the hardboiled detective, etc, but I don't think you ever said where you got the inspiration for Nick, was it just a straight laced senior cop, or did you have something specific in mind?

Also, I never got around to asking this, I don't know how obvious it is, but I modeled Jarvis after Edward G Robinson/Peter Lorre on a whim, when you originally wrote these guys, what was the picture you had in your head for them?

SEAN: Oh, you nailed both of those guys. Nick is modeled after Robert Stack more or less and I always saw Jarvus as looking shady and a little smarmy. If they ever make an animated feature, I hear Steve Buscemi doing Jarvus' voice. You really just embodied those personalities with those designs. The interplay between those two characters is a hoot to write.

Well, I think that's good for these pages, don't you?

Monday, April 24, 2006

New Tom Sparks Update

Pages 5-8 of Chapter Two are now up for your reading pleasure.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Origins Part Two

One of the things we knew right off the bat was that we wanted a robot private eye. What he would look like and what his personality would be like was up in the air, though.

Joey did some designs, which I never saw until well after we’d started working on the book.

I’m a big fan of the big, lunky automatons that lumber around with stiff joints and talk-in-stilted-electronic-voices. Still, something told me that working with a robot like that wouldn’t be practical for all the action we wanted to have.

As I worked on the script, I began picturing a slimmer, more agile metal man, one that would have been designed to serve as the model for a future superman. I looked up some prior robot designs on-line and found quite a few that would work as starting points for our robot sleuth’s design. Some of the more obvious references include SCUD the Disposable Assassin and the SuperPatriot.

While writing the initial story, I had this idea that the robot should be a reluctant doomsday robot, someone that never liked being forced to commit crimes – which is why he went to such lengths to distance himself from that life once he believed his mad scientist creator was dead. I thought he should be more like an everyman, more in the mold of Jimmy Stewart or even Gary Cooper – the noble old-fashioned good guy who, when push came to shove, would do the right thing.

Next, I needed a name. Throughout the script, the robot was referred to as Atomo, plain and simple. While it was true that in a place like B-City, a robot piano player named Atomo would hardly raise an eyebrow, I still felt we needed a more detective-flavored name.

Joey and I put our heads together and mulled over the possibilities. The one that stuck was Tom Sparks. Tom comes from Atomo, obviously, and I blatantly took the last name from Jenny Sparks of The Authority.

I did a Google search, saw that the name belonged to a comic character already (A Boy Genius, no less) and used it anyway. Why? Because there are also real people named Tom Sparks. The name alone is not enforceable copyright and I felt our character was sufficiently different from DC’s Tom Sparks and the Tom Sparks who owns a car dealership in Chicago (although I’ve never met him, so maybe I’m off).

Truth is, if I had it to do over, I might name him something catchier and less derivative, but, hey, the whole dang comic is derivative!

So, there you have it – Tom’s true secret origin.

The thing is, that incarnation of Tom isn’t the one who’s appearing in the current on-line version of “Who Slew Mr. Mayhem?” Oh, that stand-up guy still exists in our stories “Hare today, Dead Tomorrow,” and “Mystery of the Cemetery Drum,” both in the Archive section on-line – both of which we completed prior to this current story.

It was while working on those two stories, however, that I started to find the character a little…well, blah. While we may all admire the everyman hero, he’s a bore to write. It makes all the supporting cast infinitely more interesting. To make Tom stand out and make him the most interesting character in the story, I had to rethink his personality.

As much as I love robots, I’m even loopier for mad scientists and evil geniuses. Dr. Doom is one of my all-time favorite comic creations – all that arrogance and contempt for mankind. I knew all along that Dr. Proteus, Tom’s creator, was an old school evil genius, like Doom – so, what if I made Tom more or less exactly like that – a mirror image of his maker – no longer the reluctant monster, but merely a reluctant servant?

Of course, I’m also a big fan of Sideshow Bob. Tom owes as much to Sideshow Bob as he does to anyone else. So, when it came time to rewite "Who Slew Mr. Mayhem?" for the web, I decided to make Tom more like these two characters, Doom and Sideshow Bob, his 'spiritual' godfathers - with a little bit of Professor Farnsworth and C-3PO thrown in for good measure. Turns out now that Tom has become my favorite character to write - even I don't know what fresh insult or random free association he'll toss out there.

NEXT: The Mystery

Thursday, April 13, 2006

Origins Part One

So, let's start at the beginning here.

A few years back (2002), I had written a screenplay called "Bulletproof Soul," a torrid little tale of ghosts, zombies and hitmen with a lot of religious undertones. I wrote all 90 pages in about two weeks and submitted it to the first Project Greenlight, where it was judged by one person as being "irredeemable violent" and I was told that I needed to seek psychiatric help. The script, for what it's worth, was utter crap, but it did have potential - nothing a few rewrites couldn't make infinitely more effective.

Anyway, my friend Joey was doing some work on his own comic ideas at the time, and I was impressed by the art he was producing. Joey has a great eye for body language and he can really capture the kinetic energy of an action sequence. Joey and I both have a common background in comics and movies and we share a lot of the same sensibilities. After seeing how skilled he was with a pencil, I started thinking about turning my "Bulletproof" script into a comic with Joey handling art chores.

During that process, I learned some valuable lessons:

1) Reading comics does not mean you know how to write them.

2) Writing comics is not at all like writing a screenplay. It's much harder.

3) The only way to get better as a comics writer is to write more comics.

Of course, the first pass at turning "Bulletproof" into a comic failed miserably. It was torture. We labored for quite sometime trying to make it work, but it just wasn't coming.

Which, for the sake of Tom Sparks, is a good thing.

On the fourth of July, 2003, I went to the office early, intending to work some more on "Bulletproof." I lit up a smoke,took a sip of coffee, put on my headphones and started listening to the "Truck Turner" soundtrack. And...Nothing. I couldn't do it. "Bulletproof" was just dead in the water.

So, then and there, I buried it in my mind and started brainstorming ideas for a comic I did want to write. I made a list, entitled "Sh*t That's Cool" and, at the top of that list, I wrote "Robots."

From there, it came effortlessly. Item after item of cool sh*t, things that made my heart pound and pulse race. Killer apes, mad scientists, samurai, private eyes, ray guns, flying saucers. I left nothing out. Every genre staple that I could think of made the list.

When I was done, I had a whole bunch of cliches but no story. No kernel of a concept.

But it did help erase the bad taste of "Bulletproof" from my mouth.

Fastforward nine or ten hours. My wife and I are at Joey and his wife's place for a little fourth of July barbecue. After a few beers, Joey and I got to talking about comics (because, much to our wives chagrin, we always get around to talking comics).

"You know, I want to do a comic with robots." He said.

"You're kidding! I was just thinking this morning about doing a comic with robots!" I said and I promptly went out to the car and got the List. Joey read over the list and said "Yeah, I'd love to do a comic with some of this stuff."

We quickly began riffing on weird combinations - robots versus dinosaurs, ninja versus mad scientists, tough talking private eyes versus chainsaw wielding serial killers. We came up with the idea of a city where any and every genre staple could interact with one another, a virtual cornucopia of genre possibilities.

The first character we came up with was this guy:

The Flying Skull, a pool shark who wears a jet pack. After all, people would never suspect a man with a jet pack of being a pool hustler. It still makes me smile.

From there, it was all about riffing on characters we wanted to create. Our friend Peter came up with a few too. By the time I left Joey's place that night, I was so damned excited to start writing this comic it took all I had not to start it that night.

Over the next week, I wrote the complete story "Who Slew Mr. Mayhem?" It was 90 + pages of loose scene descriptions and dialogue, again more screenplay than comics script, but it came from a place of pure adolescent joy. A story that had almost everything I loved growing up as a kid.

There was only one problem.

I still didn't have a name for my robot hero.

NEXT: All about Tom Sparks - his name, his look and his mysterious change of personality.

* BTW, the Flying Skull is still one of our favorite characters, so don't be surprised to see more of him down the road - specifically in Chapter Three and perhaps in a short story focusing on him and his Viking biker pal.