Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sink Or Swim

I have to admit that I love these 'behind the scenes' stories. For a fair while now I've found more fascination with learning about the stories behind the stories. This essay comes from Steven Bove, who worked at DC for a while back in the '80s. If you don't instantly recognise Steven's name then don't feel bad - he did most of his work behind the scenes and a lot of what he did was either uncredited, or credited to other people. The good news is that he's been working on his excellent newspaper strip, Rock Opera, for a while now and he's a damn nice guy to boot. Check out Rock Opera, it's more than worth a look.
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SINK OR SWIM
by Steven Bove

"If you want a comic series you have to find a character no one is using and pitch it." Keith Wilson, the assistant art director at DC Comics, said this to me when I was complaining about not getting comic strip assignments. After being passed over for a new talent project, due to my presence as a production artist, I was in the very frustrating position of either leaving my post and striking out as a freelancer or creating the circumstances to get work based on little used characters.

How it worked was simple enough. Find a character that was attractive to use but had little or no visibility in the DC universe. Find an editor willing to option the character while the writer and artist developed the pitch and finally, accepting the pitch, give the team the green light to move forward. I already knew the character I wanted to use. That was easy, as I had been carrying the memory of her in my head for years, Dolphin.

Showcase #79 came out in 1969 and featured one of DC's most unusual covers. The cover had a woman dressed in cut-off jeans with a sky blue shirt diving through a green ocean. She filled up a good deal of the cover and the solid black lowercase type that spelled out Dolphin was effective at getting the readers attention. I'm not sure what captivated me the most about the story. It might have been the attractiveness of the lead character (lets not forget the long flowing white hair) or the lack of a real origin. It could have been that Dolphin wasn't the focus of the story or maybe it was the downbeat ending. I was too young at the time to really grasp what was going on but years later I would know that this was really a romance story set in fantasy terms. Jay Scott Pike was the creator, writer and artist and looking at it now I can see the influence of then editor Dick Giordano on Pike's art. Not that Pike needed any help, as he was at that time an accomplished pin-up and romance artist.

When I told Wilson about Dolphin (late 87' or early 88') he was hooked and within a few days he was caught up in her spell tossing out ideas as to her background and possible future. Wilson was extremely good at plotting a coherent path for characters. I was content with that as I just wanted to pencil and had no desire to be involved with scripting (later as the script developed I would start to insert my own ideas). So I had my character, now it was a matter of finding an editor. Wilson approached Mark Waid who was editor of Secret Origins who immediately said yes. I was good with this as Waid was the only editor at DC that was really excited about his job. His enthusiasm at that time was infectous.

My original intention was for the Dolphin strip to utilize the talents of DC's production department. Suggestions were made as to who would write the script and I tossed out the name Bob Rozakis (Production Manager and writer of cult favorite 'Mazing Man). Waid was not very receptive to this and suggested Richard Bruning (Art Director and writer of Adam Strange). Wilson thought this was great as did I but I sensed that this would be putting me in an awkward position, working so closely with editorial. But I learned very early on not to argue with a good idea.

To celebrate, Bruning, Wilson and I went out for a drink. We talked Dolphin and started to divide labor. When it came to the plot both sets of eyes turned to me. It was their consensus that since I brought the character to their attention and was the most familiar with her that I should write the plot. I thought they were both out of their minds and they did have to talk me into it. I kind of got the impression that I had no choice in the matter. I wasn't really alone in creating the plot as Wilson had already given me some valuable ideas that made sense to the character and I certainly had an approach in my head so I threw myself into it.

I don't remember much about writing the plot but I do know it followed the final printed version closely. I did have two particular points that ended up being discarded and in retrospect I still feel these points would have made for a better story. I focused on navy diver Chris Landau and his obsession over Dolphin from that original 1969 feature. In the final pages Dolphin leaves Landau as she feels she is more fish than human. As I saw it Landau would never have forgotten his encounter with Dolphin and would spend years searching for her. He'd give up his commission and friends just to wander the seas hoping to find her once more. His search would end at a Miami, Florida aquarium where he'd find Dolphin looking exactly as he'd remembered only now he was an old man. She had become a tourist attraction performing several shows a day. He'd breakdown asking why did this happen to him and that's when Aquaman would appear to tell him Dolphin's origin. Aquaman would approach Landau dressed as a naval officer and the reader wouldn't know who he was until the end. I thought the inclusion of Aquaman made sense as he is the King of the Seven Seas and would certainly have known about Dolphin (I was also bouncing off of Showcase #100 and Kuppreberg and Levitz's curious dialogue on page 20 of that issue). During the course of the story Aquaman reveals the circumstances surrounding the strange tattoo (my idea and I'm damn proud of it) that Dolphin and Landau share and its significance to their entwined lives. Wilson's alien origin (with the kind assist of Tom Joyner) was perfect and set the stage for a Joyner and Wilson team series that never happened. As the story progressed we learned that Dolphin had the mind of a child and could only speak through sign language (I really wanted this as it played well against the genetic splicing idea that I contributed). Having learned all this and more Landau losses what's left of his fragile mind and wanders off down the beach a broken and bitter old man. At this point Aquaman removes his naval uniform and dives into the ocean as the story ends.

That was a perfect resolution to the original story and I was very happy with it when I turned in the 3-page plot. It wasn't long before the editing scissor came out and Bruning cut out the downbeat ending and Aquaman. I was really more concerned about editing out Aquaman than the ending, as he was the narrator of the story. The problem was that Aquaman was still a character in transition and that meant he was off limits until his post Crisis origin could be established.

Bruning started to write the Dolphin script and I began to consider how she would look. Immediately I started getting feedback from editorial, as they obviously felt scooped at not latching on to the sexy water-breathing girl in the first place. Not that there was any shortage of sexy women in the DC universe but Dolphin just seemed to hypnotize everyone who found out about her. It would be problematic in the months to come. I envisioned a swimsuit for Dolphin with a strong graphic. This caused concern as the fanboy element at the company wanted her to remain in cut-off jeans. This was 1988 and as usual fanboys were hopelessly out of touch with the modern world.

One of the things I learned from Richard Bruning was to expand my design horizons by looking around at what was happening outside of comics. This made sense because one of comics' greatest assets was to pull ideas and events from everyday life and spin them for their own use. In the eighties comics were quickly becoming a very small pocket division of publishing and this narrow vision almost closed the industry off from the real world. Since I was sometimes freelancing outside of the comics industry I was able to remain observant to new trends and one of those was the increasing presence of swimsuit magazines on the newsstands. Women bought these magazines as swimsuits became far more decorative and fashionable. Were comics an inspiration for this and the then emerging ice-skating outfits? It was all inspired stuff as far as I concerned. I bought tons of them and finally created Dolphins new costume. Everyone in the office loved it but tagged it as her performing outfit. No matter how hard I tried I could not get editorial to see the marketing potential of appealing to women readers by addressing their likes and interests. They just wouldn't let go of the cut-off jeans.

Since Dolphin was a side job for all parties time would pass as we worked on the deluge of material the company was producing. It was an amazing period as graphic novels and prestige books were dominating the monthly output. Some of the stuff was just beautiful and the experimentation was impressive. Better still, the general audience was finding comics in highly visible places like bookstores. However the production work required was painstaking. With quality printing came the necessary articulation and precise production techniques that had to be honed to absolute perfection. Not everyone in the production department was capable of this level of craft. I was one of the few and that meant that I was constantly in demand. I never knew a weekend where I didn't have 20 pages of comics that needed tweaking of some sort in my home studio.

When the script for Dolphin arrived I read it and thought it was good. I had reservations about the happy ending and the new character that was created to replace Aquaman but the compromises didn't seem to hurt the story so I decided to focus on the visuals. I was certainly at the creative point to pencil my first job and reviewing it today it may seem a little claustrophobic looking but it still holds up pretty well. It really was a 20-page story told in 15 pages. As the script began to circulate around the office problems started to surface. Robert Greenberger wanted to know why I was ignoring the Forgotten Heroes concept. I said because they were best forgotten. The joke didn't go over well and there were several days where this issue had to be rectified. Did the Crisis dissolve the memory of the Forgotten Heroes? How could Dolphin be what the new origin proposed when she was obviously part of that team? There were more questions and I didn't have an answer for any of them. Dick Giordano, Executive Editorial Director, stepped in and said, "Continuity is something to use or not. Just write a good story." With that the issue died…but not for long.

At some point I flew down to my old home city of Miami and made a trip to the Miami Seaquarium where I shot photographs for reference use in the strip. Since the setting was Miami I wanted it to look like I remembered. At that time in the late 80s the facility seemed a bit rundown but that just made it more attractive to the story.

Peter David wanted Dolphin for his Atlantis Chronicles series. Greenberger asked me to relate the Dolphin story to him and see if it could be fit in. This was really weird to me; all David would have to say is that he wanted the character for a project and that would be that! I certainly didn't know how a production worker could say anything to change his mind. So there I was telling David the story on the phone one afternoon and he said, "Well that won't work with what I'm doing but good luck with it, it sound good." That was one of the most gracious and professional moments I can remember about the whole Dolphin saga.

As time went on Bruning would leave DC to form a media company and Waid would also shortly depart. Dolphin needed a new editor but before that could happen editor Art Young snagged Dolphin for an issue of the Animal Man series. Grant Morrison had made inquires about Dolphin and her use for Animal Man so he could reintroduce the Forgotten Heroes concept. Keith Wilson (who was also transitioning out of DC) said not to worry about it as we still had a lock on her. Once Waid was gone Young swooped in and managed to get her for a one-month period. I read Morrison's short treatment of how he saw Dolphin's origin and was confused as to how it had gotten that far. Morrison was a heavyweight and I knew he could get the character with one phone call. I'm not sure how it resolved itself or who might have intervened but Morrison did get Dolphin for an issue and nothing more (his origin concept was unused). The Animal Man issue ended up not being very good when it was finally printed. The story and art just seemed to reinforce all the old fanboy concepts that just forever stigmatize the industry. I went to Young, with issue in hand, ready to tell him what I thought when Dan Thorsland, Editorial Assistant, jumped in and pretty much did it for me. That was unexpected!

During all of this I was doing layouts for the story and penciling. When the penciling was completed Wilson did all the figure inks while I helped out on background inks. It was a good arrangement as we had worked like that in the past. When we finally turned in the artwork there was real concern as to whether the strip would ever see print. Secret Origins was losing readership and it was obvious that cancellation was imminent. But Waid had a backlog of stories ready to go so he decided to do issue #50 as a big 96-page farewell and included Dolphin. I liked the idea of it but hated the cover concept. Waid was famous for his sense of humor at DC and it often got him in trouble but the guy was funny and it sometimes manifested itself on his covers. I remember an issue of Secret Origins that focused on gorilla characters and the cover headline read, "Because I demanded it!" How could you not love that? Unfortunately he came up with the final Secret Origins cover that depicted all the characters in the issue loading a cart with DC icons and the such as if to suggest they were closing up shop and moving on (Wilson may have had a hand in it as well). I just hated this and said so. And as easily predicted there was Dolphin in her cut-off jeans.

Michael Eury replaced Mark Waid as editor and he inherited Secret Origins. I wasn't thrilled with this as Eury was just too nice of a buttoned-up guy to be mixed up with the cutthroat atmosphere of the editorial world. I say this because I've seen editorial in all of its forms throughout NYC and it remains the most demanding and frustrating field I've ever been involved in. You have to be made of Iron and possess a take-no-prisoners attitude. That was not Eury at all. Eury pretty much left the final issue as it was and that was fine as during the editorial transition I took over the book in production.

I had worked out the overall interior look of the book. I wanted to pay homage to those classic giants and annuals from DC's past but I also wanted the book to look current. I still hated the cover but the interiors we're solid. I should also point out that all the stories were great! As it went to press I was actually happy to be done with it. It had been a very long haul. Disaster struck when the workload finally caught up with me and I contracted the flu that escalated into pneumonia. I was out of commission for 2 weeks.

When I returned to the office I was just drained. I felt like hell and worse I had no love for the job of production artist. When the printed Secret Origins issue came in I was excited and depressed (the issue itself went unnoticed and I still feel that Morrison's Animal Man issue ruined the character's reintroduction). The experience of Dolphin had left a stale taste in my mouth because of the factory mentality of producing the work. There were too many cooks in the kitchen and I'm still surprised that the end results were as coherent and focused as they were. As it was I had realized my goal to draw a comics' feature but there seemed to be no further opportunities to continue. I sought advice but it was all the same, I was seen as a production artist and that was it.

I quit shortly after returning.

Looking back it was an exhilarating time of creativity that led the way for me to create my own concepts and embrace the styles I really found exciting. Though I never returned to mainstream comics I did find that I continued to use everything I learned at DC comics throughout my 20 years in commercial art.

I never read the books Dolphin appeared in after Secret Origins #50 but I understand her origin remains somewhat intact and that alone is vindication enough considering all the drama surrounding the creation of it. Of course I'm sure that elements of the origin have been altered, as they should be to meet the demands of a new generation of readers, but it's good to know I did make some small contribution to the DC universe.

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