I just put up a shelf in my studio and am at last able to have the majority of my favorite comics-related titles and collections all available at a glance. It’s a bit intimidating to share my studio so palpably with the likes of the giants upon whose shoulders I (along with the rest of the artists and writers making comics today) stand. It’s also exhilarating and inspiring to see the massive range of talent and vision that this field has accommodated and nurtured, and to know the Trekker has been and continues to be fed by that rich landscape.
From the early masters of the form– like Kubert, Raymond, Eisner,Foster and Toth (sorry I didn’t squeeze Caniff in here!) to some of the most vibrant storytellers working today, every artist is well-served to seek the richest creative pools to drink from. The good news is that this is hardly a difficult task–there are more delightful stories told in a wider variety of settings and styles than ever before.
I’ll be dipping deeper into some of those sources starting next week when the first page of Mercy’s latest story posts. For “Jekka” I was drawing from classic sci-fi adventure. But starting Monday, “The Volstock Payoff” will need to look to grittier, urban crime sources. It’s a good thing I got such a tall bookshelf….
Here’s a #Protip: when you are asked to draw a Star Wars miniseries, say yes first and ask questions later. At least, that’s my advice based on the experience I had working on “Shadows of the Empire: Evolution”. Granted, I had pretty ideal conditions to work under, so that should be taken into account.
Back when I was away from Trekker for those long years, and when Dark Horse had the Star Wars license, I got to hook up with a key Star Wars writer, Steve Perry. (No, not THAT Steve Perry, THIS Steve Perry.) He was crafting a miniseries featuring a deadly, beautiful human replica droid assassin who might or might not become capable of achieving a soul. I could hardly believe my luck– it was virtually an invitation to join in creating a Mercy St. Clair-like character in the Star Wars universe.
Steve was great to work with, soliciting my input on plot, character and setting ideas and together we created a miniseries that has, for me the flavor I love in Star Wars– high energy, galaxy-spanning context, and characters with heart at the center of it all. In “Evolution”, I was able to play with all the great, classic Star Wars elements– the Luke-Han-Leia triad, Darth, the Falcon, Imperial forces, blasters, light sabres, the works. And it was all a joy. But the best part was working with Steve and my then-studio mate Tom Simmons who inked much of the series to contribute the design of Guri to the mythos of the Star Wars Universe. It wasn’t Trekker– but it helped to hold me over till I could get back to my own Sci-fi world.
At the risk of seeming too self-referential, it’s past time for me to give credit to another contributor to Trekker’s origins. Yes, those are my own drawing up above, but I’m talking here about the writer of “The Barren Earth”: Gary Cohn.
Back in 1982, I was tapped to draw a new back-up series in DC’s Warlord comic. (Warlord was an Edgar Rice Burroughs-inspired romp created by Mike Grell. It was one of the first huge successes that had been created, written and drawn by the same hand at a major comics company and it really established that model as a precedent which other creators were then able to follow. It all lead to several great individual titles which came out in those days and which and re-shaped the comics landscape.But that’s another story…)
For the book’s back-up, DC picked a young, brash writer, Gary Cohn, to craft something that would sit comfortably within the same covers as Warlord, but have a flavor of its own. What Gary came up with was a sprawling sci-fi opus with notes of ERB, Dune and Star Wars, but with his own twists as well. And I got the job of drawing it all.
It was a great fit for me– then as now I loved a classic tale of high adventure. And Barren Earth was well-stocked with stuff any sci-fi lover wants to see– strange creatures and races, exotic settings and compelling characters. It was a type of comic story that you didn’t see on the shelves in 1982 and I jumped in head first, using all my still-developing skills to realize it all and make it as compelling as my powers would allow.
It was Gary would put a young, gifted and driven woman at the center of the drama. Jinal ne Comarr was one of the first action-adventure lead female characters in a comic series. And while I can look back and see elements in the work that clearly date the project, I can also still feel the exhilaration I felt then in trying to capture and convey her power and personality on the page.
Just a few years later, a lot of those feelings were still broiling inside me when Dark Horse asked me to create a character and a series for them.
Working with Gary on The Barren Earth right at the beginning of my career was a stroke of rare luck. It helped confirm me in my belief that sci-fi comics had nearly limitless potential for great stories with great characters at their core, and it also gave me the chance to see that a female-driven series had every right to be treated as any strong adventure-based series should be– hard-hitting, fast-paced and driven by characters who, while flawed, command our attention and draw us into their stories and their lives regardless of the presence of a Y chromosome. It’s astonishing to me that even now that concept isn’t as widely embraced as it should be. But my perception is that things are at last and at least moving in the right direction. And Gary’s work on The Barren Earth was a quiet little nudge, a long time ago, that helped get that ball rolling.
Digging deep into my personal past, which is where our strongest inspirations come from I am convinced, I can’t avoid commenting on the powerful impact the ground-breaking, prime-time cartoon show Jonny Quest had on my young imagination. Jonny’s breezy, globe-trotting adventures gave me a taste for that sort of exotic setting and high adventure storytelling. At the time, I had no idea that a key to making the show so compelling was the strong sense of design in the characters and settings. I was just caught up in a great “yarn”. Looking back, it’s so clear that the design and layout work of Doug Wildey (along with some guy named Toth that I’ll have to talk about another time…) is what set Jonny apart from all the other “Saturday Morning” cartoon fare, and it’s also why those early 1960’s cartoons, primitive animation and all, remain revered and a source of inspiration for storytellers throughout this industry.
In the early ’80’s, the late, lamented Comico Comics printed a delightful run of new Jonny Quest stories that were faithful to the spirit and standards of the original TV series. How faithful? The got Doug to to several covers, and even better, a number of interior issues as well. If you come across these gems, pick them up and savor. I think Wildey was a cowboy at heart. And that’s where his real passion was. So it’s no surprise that he created his own, completely unique western character, Rio, and returned to telling his adventures whenever possible. I know something about having a “passion project” that keeps its hooks in you, and brings out all the commitment to craft and artistry you can muster on every page. And Rio serves as a work of power and inspiration for anyone who wants to master the art of great comics making.I met Doug once, briefly, at the San Diego Comic Con. It was in the mid-eighties. I was just starting Trekker, and Doug was already a past master and legend by then. He shook my hand and said the most complimentary things about my work on Trekker. I was floored he’d even seen it. Maybe what he was responding to was another artist who, while still rough around the edges,had been bitten with a similar love for telling a great adventure tale. A love he himself had done so much to spark in me from some of my very earliest memories. Funny how life circles around like that.
I haven’t looked back to acknowledge a source for the inspiration that lead to Trekker for a while. I realized that while I dropped Alex Raymond’s name when I talked about Flash Gordon in an erlier post, I really passed over him in favor of Al Williamson, who was my personal entryway into the character. Al did some stellar, signature work on Flash, no question. But he had been inspired by Raymond, who created the strip back in the ’30’s and in doing so helped give birth to the whole adventure strip phenomena and turned artists like himself, Al Capp, Milton Caniff and Hal Foster into cartoonist superstars– virtually household names. Raymond achieved this by creating characters, situations and worlds that were iconic and yet also vivid and immediate to the reader. Some of that was taken care of by his breathtaking figure drawing and inking techniques, his over-all peerless draughtsmanship, and his eye for the dramatic image. But nice visuals will only take you so far if your task is to tell a story. For a reader to embrace a series and stick with it through a long, twisting tale, you need a world that lives, and characters that feel true. And for his time and era, Alex Raymond created those as well as any of his peers.Trekker is my shot at doing the same, in my own way and given the times I swim in as a comics creator. A lot has changed in the culture since the pre-WWII days of Flash Gordon. But while the trappings might have undergone some minor updates, the impulse to create a solid story that entertains with each twist and engages the reader through strong characters that they connect with remains the formula that I believe in and strive for on each page.