When senior year of college got started, not only did I have enough money to pay tuition and keep a roof over my head (thanks to Aliens: Colonial Marines), but I also traded up after-school jobs. I had spent junior year toiling away in the somewhat off-color world of Spencer Gifts, but the final year of my under-grad degree in English saw me working as an editor at Student Note Service - a place that, little did I suspect at the time, would figure prominently throughout my twenties.
The way Student Notes worked was that they’d put an ad in the school paper along the lines of, “Want to get paid to study? Call this number!” Students invariably came in, and they’d explain the drill: you go to class, take good notes, then come in and type those notes onto one of their computers. An editor - usually a grad student, but in my case, just a big nerd - would go through and polish the notes up. Then the business printed them up and sold them to other students in the class as “supplemental study guides,” with the understanding that they were not to be used in place of going to class, and that if there were any discrepancies between your notes and theirs, you were to use your own.
Did students use the notes in place of going to class? Of course they did. But if they bought notes that I had edited, they could at least count on them being factually accurate and grammatically flawless.
Working at Student Notes paid better than working at Spencer Gifts, but it was hardly what you’d call a gold mine, and I was still keenly interested in making an extra buck if I could. If that extra buck involved making up a story or two, I was all over it. So when Dan Thorsland called me up not long after school started and offered me another job, I said yes before he’d even explained what it was.
If I had heard all the details first, considering what it turned out to be...I still would’ve said yes.
Here’s the thing I was quickly and thoroughly learning about being a fledgling freelance writer: when someone asks you, “Can you do _______?” the answer is always, “Why yes! Yes I can!”
THEM: “Can you come up with a story about a unicorn and a time-traveling toad?”
YOU: “You bet I can!”
THEM: “Can you fix the dialogue in this story so that it sounds appropriate to late 19th-century England?”
YOU: “No problem.”
THEM: “Can you create a character that will fit into an established superhero universe who is NOT a) a martial artist, b) an expert marksman, or c) an ace computer hacker?”
YOU: “Consider it done!”
(That last one actually happened, and led to my creator-owned DC series Bloodhound.)
And of course you may have NO IDEA at the time how to do what they’re asking you to do - but are you confident that you can figure it out? Why yes! Yes you are! (And if you’re not, you should do your best to get that way.)
When you get hugely successful, and make a publisher enormous gobs of money, then you can afford to pick and choose what you want to do. But when you’re first starting out - even when you’ve been at it a while - every job you get is an opportunity to get better at what you do, make some money, and further establish your reputation. Maybe your philosophy differs from mine, but I don’t turn down paying work. I’m not sure I’d know how to.
In any case, what Dan Thorsland offered me that autumn day was a job writing little tiny miniature comic books that were going to be packaged with several new kinds of Aliens toys. If I recall correctly, I did the Rhino Alien, the Snake Alien, and the Giant Facehugger.
I also did one starring a new Colonial Marine who wore a special kind of armor that let him disguise himself as an alien and move among them unmolested. I think he was known as “A.T.A.X.” I don’t remember what that stood for.
These comics were only twelve pages long, and that wasn’t the only thing about them that had been lopped off short: the pay was a good bit less, and the target audience was considerably younger than what I’d aimed for on my otherAliens work. The toy company said they wanted the stories aimed at 8-year-olds, but in my humble and not at all biased opinion, what they really wanted was Aliens meetsTeleTubbies.
But it was paying work. Collectively those three mini-comics paid for another quarter’s tuition, plus I got to work with my favorite artist again: John Nadeau. He did brilliant work, as usual, though I suspect he was less than impressed with my stories on the mini-comics. John is one of the more low-key people I’ve ever met, so it was hard to tell; he usually makes the comedian Steven Wright look like Jim Carrey.
So we did the comics, and out they shipped with the toys, no doubt to be flapped about and ripped up and trod upon by very small children across the country.
By this point, John and I had actually met and hung out, at the Dragon*Con convention in downtown Atlanta, and decided we got along pretty well.
Well enough, in fact, that when he started doing some work for Valiant Comics, he offered to introduce me to his editor, Jesse “Hurricane” Berdinka. That led to a series of events that would prompt me to ask, “What exactly is an ‘inventory story’?”
NEXT: WHAT EXACTLY AN INVENTORY STORY IS