Friday, July 6, 2012

A VALIANT EFFORT: What a Long Strange Trip It's Been, Part 10

Most of the events I talk about in this entry -- the comic book-related ones, in any case -- have taken on a very hazy quality, for reasons that I will explain later on. If anybody who worked with me during this time wants to correct the sequence or details of this stuff, by all means, please feel free.

The year was 1994. I had been getting paid actual money to make %$#& up and write it down for two and a half, maybe three years at that point, but I was still firmly in "scramble mode" as far as getting more work went.

Almost every freelancer out there knows exactly what I mean when I talk about "scramble mode." It's that gut-churning time when you either don't have any more work coming in, or you can see a definite end to the work you're doing now and realize you'd better line something else up ASAP. (The only freelancer I know of who has never had to scramble is Gail Simone, who was asked to write the "You'll All Be Sorry" humor column that got her noticed, and was then asked to write for DC Comics. I only hate her a tiny little bit for that.)

This was in the wake of the God-awful GALAXY 799 debacle, and took place at least in part during my comically unsuccessful foray into Journalism school. John Nadeau, with whom I had worked a handful of times, had started doing some penciling for Valiant Comics, and offered to introduce me to his editor there, an enthusiastic fellow named Jesse Berdinka.

(Everyone at Valiant referred to Jesse with some regularity as "Hurricane," and for months I figured that was either because he was full of destructive energy, or because he really liked the University of Miami. Turns out he had an affinity for a mixed drink known as the Hurricane. I felt only slightly let down.)

Jesse gave me the lay of the land around Valiant at the time. They had a list of core titles, including Bloodshot (the gun-toting, sword-wielding hardass you see up there at the top), Rai, Shadowman, Harbinger, X-O Manowar, Ninjak, The Second Life of Dr. Mirage, Secret Weapons, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Eternal Warrior, and Magnus, Robot Fighter. When I started writing for them, Valiant's sales figures were a thing of beauty, and had made them major contenders, right alongside books like Batman and The X-Men.

There was another editor there, for whom I would soon do some writing as well, named Maurice Fontenot, and he and Jesse reported to senior editor Tony Bedard. All of my scripts had to get approved by either Jesse or Maurice, and then by Tony.

Aside from John, the only other artists I remember there were Bernard Chang and Sean Chen. I got to meet them and Jesse and Maurice in person when I went down to MegaCon in Orlando, and everyone was really cool and friendly. It was a great atmosphere, and I was thrilled to be a part of the company.

"But Dan," some of the more astute comic book readers in the crowd might say at this point, "I don't remember you writing any of the Valiant titles!" And those astute readers would be correct, because what I wrote for Valiant were inventory stories.
INVENTORY STORY (noun): A one- or two-issue story that stands alone and does not affect the continuity of a comic book series in any way. Used to fill in production gaps when the regular creative team on a series falls behind schedule.
Mainstream comic books are published on what is supposed to be a strict monthly schedule. In general, an artist can do about one page per day, so, allowing for him or her to have at least a little bit of a life, a standard 22-page comic book will take about a month to draw. That way you get a fresh new issue of your favorite title every four weeks.

Unless something goes wrong.

Most comics are produced on the razor's edge of going off-schedule. They shouldn't be; if everything were perfect, you'd have somewhere between six and twelve fully completed issues in the can before the first one ever comes out. But that doesn't happen very often, and what does happen very often is that the penciler gets the flu, or the inker has to drop everything and go out of town, or the writer takes an extra two weeks to turn the script in.

(That's still completely alien to me. I just cannot imagine holding up production like that because the script isn't done. I'm told that puts me in the minority.)

Anyway, if/when something goes wrong and the editor doesn't have a book to send to the printers, he can pull out an inventory story that was done a week or a month or a year earlier, and slot that right into place, no muss, no fuss.

So I boned up on my Valiant comics and started sending pitches in to Jesse Berdinka. I don't remember which one got accepted first, but I do remember that I wrote inventory stories for Eternal Warrior, Turok: Dinosaur Hunter, Secret Weapons, and Bloodshot. In fact, as I recall, the one I did with John Nadeau was a two-parter, and featured a crossover between Bloodshot and Secret Weapons. I wish I could remember what that story was called.

It involved a distress signal from an orbiting research satellite, and for whatever reason, Bloodshot and the Secret Weapons crew (which consisted of three men and one woman wearing super-suits, sort of like Iron Man) hopped on board a Space Shuttle and rocketed up to see what was going on.

I've mentioned before in this blog how significant seeing the movie Pulp Fiction was for me as a writer. Pulp Fiction came out in 1994, I had seen it not long before I started writing these scripts for Valiant, and because of that my dialogue underwent a serious shift.

The two guys in the cockpit of the Space Shuttle in my story were Bloodshot and Tank, the biggest, toughest member of the Secret Weapons team. Before 1994, if I were going to write a scene in which some superhero types were on their way up to a space station to investigate Something Bad, the dialogue would have been really stilted, really on-the-nose, and supremely awful -- something like this:
BLOODSHOT: There's no telling what we might encounter up there. I hope you're prepared for anything.
TANK: Of course I'm prepared for anything. This is the kind of danger the Secret Weapons face every day.
BLOODSHOT: Good. Everyone's counting on us to figure out what's gone wrong.
Ugh. Just...ugh. Those words would never be spoken by anyone, under any circumstances, ever.

Because Pulp Fiction gave me a crash course in natural-sounding dialogue, though, I decided to open that scene up -- same setup, Space Shuttle blasting off, zooming up into the Orbiting Unknown -- with this exchange instead:
BLOODSHOT: Are you serious?
BLOODSHOT: There is no way Spinderella is hotter than Janet Jackson.
TANK: I know what I like, man.
Is that award-winning dialogue? No. But it's a HELL of a lot better than what I would have written pre-Pulp Fiction, and at least sounds as if actual human beings might have said it. I don't regard Quentin Tarantino as the same kind of cinematic demi-god that a lot of people do, but I do owe him a debt of gratitude for that movie.

So I did my inventory stories, and continued learning things about writing, and really thought I stood a good chance of maybe picking up a continuing series and getting regular work for the first time. Everyone seemed happy with the work I was doing, so why shouldn't I join the Big Boys Club and really start getting my name out there?

Well, as it turned out, 1994 was also the year that Acclaim bought Valiant outright and re-booted the entire universe, rendering all of my inventory stories inapplicable. Not only that, but the new people in charge were also thoroughly uninterested in talking to me. So I was dumped right out of the whole Valiant experience and back into "scramble mode"...which slowly turned into "well, I've got a day job, so I don't guess I have to scramble too hard"...which turned into a great big depression-filled writing slump that lasted a full two years.

Not the proudest time of my life.

Plus, the reason the whole Valiant thing is all a bit hazy now is that, not only did none of the scripts I wrote for them ever get published, but at this point I've changed computers and moved households often enough that I don't even have any of those scripts anymore. All of that material has just evaporated.

Maybe I'll try to track down Jesse or Maurice and see if they kept any of it.

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