Wednesday, June 6, 2012

"KILL 'EM ALL" & OTHER EASILY-FOLLOWED NOTES: What a Long Strange Trip It's Been, Part 6

Aliens: Colonial Marines, Issue 10 of 10. Also, blurry.

As I recounted in my last post, the summer before my senior year of college I was broker than broke and getting more and more desperate about how I was going to pay tuition and stay in school.

Well, Dan Thorsland’s voice on the phone provided the answer (the answer to prayer, if you’re religious, and yes, I had been praying). The money I’d make off two full-length issues of a Dark Horse comic book seemed like a king’s ransom to me at the time. In fact, those 44 pages (22 per issue) constituted the largest writing job I’d gotten up to that point, so for all intents and purposes it was a king’s ransom.

Mainstream comic books paid by the page, and when you started working in the industry, you established what was known as a “page rate.” Page rates varied from company to company; DC and Marvel paid the highest, with Dark Horse coming in right behind them. So whenever I got an assignment, the first thing I wanted to know was, “How many pages is it?” Because the higher the page count, the more I’d get paid for it.

Also, the more you work for a company, and the better they like you, your page rate can go up. That’s another reason to do good work, turn it in on time, and not be a prick.

A writer’s page rate is almost always a good bit lower than an artist’s, and for a long time I thought that was really unfair. After all, it’s not as though the art is more important than the writing (or vice versa). Finally I came to understand that writers got paid less than artists because, in general, an artist can work on one project at a time, with one issue taking up most of a month. A writer, on the other hand, can work on multiple projects, and potentially can make considerably more than an artist if he stays busy enough.

Of course, at the time, I had a good bit of trouble just getting one job every now and then, so I entertained my fair share of uncharitable thoughts toward the well-paid artists.

An aside about page rates: it’s a literal thing. For every page of the script you write, you get your page rate. So if you write a twelve-panel page packed to the gills with crazy action and lots of dialogue, you get your page rate. (And your artist might want to kill you.) If, on the other hand, you write a ONE-panel page, featuring something simple like a close-up of an eyeball, you get...your page rate. At one point I wrote a couple of pages that looked like this:

PAGES 20 & 21
double-page spread

The space station explodes. Go crazy, man. Make it beautiful.

That was it. That was all I wrote for Pages 21 & 22, and I got paid my page rate for those two pages, exactly as if I had packed them full of stuff.

A further aside: some companies (Marvel used to do this consistently) broke the writing down into two phases: plot & script. In this context, “plot” means describing what goes on in the panels and having the artist produce the art before any of the dialogue or captions are written. Once all the art is done, then you do the “script,” which is all the dialogue and the captions - ostensibly so you can tailor them better to the art. You’d get your page rate broken in two for the “plot & script” style of working - plot usually paid a little less than script - and sometimes one person wrote the plot while somebody else wrote the script.

The other way to do it is the “full script” method, which means one person or one team of people writes all the panel descriptions, all the dialogue, and all the captions before the artist ever sees a word. I have always worked in full script. Doing it the other way seems a bit daft to me, but it’s worked for a lot of creators and projects, so hey, more power to them.

Anyway. What Dan Thorsland was asking me to do was to step in and take over the writing on “Aliens: Colonial Marines,” which was supposed to be a 12-issue limited series. The first thing he told me was that they were chopping it from 12 issues down to 10. Now, when he told me this, I truly did not care why it was happening, because I was getting the chance to write for money again, and that money was going to allow me to finish college and graduate on time.

Another bonus was that the art team on the project was also leaving, to be replaced by penciller John Nadeau, whom I’d already worked with on the 16-page “Cargo,” and super-talented inker Jordi Ensign.

Only later, looking back, was I able to appreciate what kind of profound catastrophe must have happened on that project for the entire creative team to be let go in one fell swoop.

I remember a few things Dan Thorsland told me about what led up to my being brought on board, but I’m not going to go into them here because a) my memories of them are a little hazy, b) I’ve never met any of the people who were involved in the project to begin with, and c) I don’t want to get sued. What I will say is that there was apparently some discord among the creative team. I’ll leave it at that.

I was all fired up and ready to go, and I asked Dan, “Okay, do you have any particular way you’d like to see this story end?” And the answer he gave me indicated how much he was looking forward to wrapping up the whole experience. He said, and I quote, “Ahh, screw it, just kill ’em all.”

So I didn’t get overly attached to any of these characters that I had to learn about really quickly. I picked out a couple that I liked, and made them the protagonists, more or less, for all the good it did them.

I also had a lot of fun with the android in the story, a gigantic Japanese-looking guy named Liston. Liston was one of the same series as Ash in “Alien” and Bishop in “Aliens,” except that he’d been designed specifically to fight the acid-blooded xenomorphs; he carried within him reservoirs filled with a super-potent base solution, which he could secrete onto his skin, counteracting the aliens’ acid blood. Dan Thorsland told me about that before I read any of the first eight issues, and I said something like, “Wow, that’s really freaking cool! How many aliens has he killed so far?”

Dan hesitated. “Well, that’s part of the problem,” he said.

It turned out that, even though he’d been designed to combat the xenomorphs, Liston hadn’t actually done any fighting in eight issues. When given the chance, he’d remarked that he was too expensive to waste on such trivial affairs. Do I know why that decision was made? Nope. I don’t have a clue. But there was nothing stopping me from playing with my very own Liston action figure, so to speak, and the first chance I got, I had Liston get all slimy with his base solution and just rip thehell out of a whole swarm of aliens.

That led me to call up Dan T. again and ask, “So, if this technology exists, why don’t they have these anti-alien androids just, like, all OVER the place?” Dan sighed and said, “Try not to think about that too much.”

Questions of logic and creative harmony aside, I had a blast writing those two issues, which also featured painted covers by Joe Phillips, the guy who introduced me to Dan Thorsland in the first place. And when John Nadeau got the scripts, he pulled the same trick he had on “Cargo,” which was to make my story better by adding lots of awesome touches and thoughtful details throughout it.

As far as I knew, everyone at Dark Horse liked my scripts on that project, or at the very least had no problems with them. I figured it could only lead to more work, which was my primary goal.

Little did I suspect that my next foray into the “Aliens” world would be much smaller, in every sense of the word.


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