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Panel by Panel: I've No Business in Show Business

Updated: Oct 30, 2023

It's a fine line between the comic book business and show business... one I wasn't destined to cross. An excerpt from my comic book career memoir, Panel by Panel: My Comic Book Life, a work in progress, coming soon to Kickstarter.

The group was kind of a catch-all for projects that didn’t fit elsewhere in the DCU, Vertigo, or the alternative comics imprint Piranha (later Paradox) Press, including adaptations of movies not made from a DC property. One such movie was Cool World, a 1992 hybrid live action and animated film in the style of the 1988 hit, Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Cool World was a Paramount Picture starring Kim Basinger, Gabriel Byrne, and Brad Pitt, directed by Ralph Bakshi for which DC would produce the one-shot double-sized Cool World Movie Adaptation (November 1992), adapted by Michael Eury, pencilled by Alan Kupperberg, inked by Stan Shaw, and with a cover by Bakshi. We followed that with the miniseries, Cool World #1 – 4 (April – September 1992) prequel to the movie, written by Eury, with art by Stephen DeStefano, Chuck Fiala, and Bill Wray, and covers by Bakshi and Stan.

Bakshi had cut his animation teeth on shorts and late-1950s/1960s TV animation like Heckle and Jeckle, The Deputy Dawg Show, Mighty Mouse, and Spider-Man before making his breakout feature length X-rated animated Fritz the Cat, based on the Robert Crumb character. That was followed by Heavy Traffic, Wizards, The Lord of the Rings, Fire and Ice, and others. Cool World was Ralph’s first big budget Hollywood film and Paramount, anticipating a Roger Rabbit-level avalanche of marketing and success, invited DC, one of the first licensees on board, to send a representative to their big licensing meeting in L.A. As the editor, I was the obvious choice, so I jetted out to the coast, checked into a hotel adjacent to Universal Studios, and drove my rental to the Paramount Studios lot for the meeting.

Driving onto a movie lot is a surreal experience, especially one as iconic as Paramount. I’d grown up seeing those famous gates in movies and TV shows, now I was driving through them with a visitor’s pass on my dashboard. I parked where I was told, and walked to the office building where the meeting was being held. I had to pass soundstages and several standing outdoor sets that were almost as familiar to me from a lifetime of movies as some of the real places they represented. I turned the corner onto the “Lower East Side” set, a street that could have come out of lower Manhattan but was, that day, dressed as a 1950s Brooklyn street, filled with kids in snowsuits romping through piles of artificial snow. They were shooting a scene for the pilot of Gary David Goldberg's Brooklyn Bridge (CBS, 1991 – 1993).

The meeting itself was uneventful. My big contribution was to smile when Ralph pointed at me when he talked about DC’s involvement. We spoke a bit after the meeting broke. He was an old time comic book fan and we knew a few people in common, including the late convention promoter Phil Sueling, who voiced a character in Fritz the Cat, and writers Roy Thomas and Gerry Conway, who had written the screenplay for his Fire and Ice. Ralph was a frenetic engine of wildly gesticulating hands filled with lighted cigarettes with long dangling ashes and dangerously sloshing cups of coffee and non-stop fast talking with a stammer and moist lateral lisp and the vocabulary of a Red Hook longshoreman.

Ralph Bakshi in 1992.

Several months later, Ralph called me at DC. He was in New York and wanted to drop up to say hello and see the offices. We arranged a time, and he swept in like a chain smoking hurricane in a raincoat. I took him around, introduced him to a few people, and then we settled in my office to talk. Even though DC was located, like practically every other office in the United States of America in 1991, in a non-smoking building, that didn’t stop Ralph from filling the cup of coffee I’d given him when he arrived with soggy butts. Ralph ranted. I listened. He wasn’t a studio kind of director and was going through unparalleled hassles with “those fuckin’ guys,” and showed his displeasure by punching producer Frank Mancuso in the nose.

Cool World came out to a cool reception, much like the comic book adaptation and miniseries, although I thought we had done the comics well enough. With a U.S. box office of under $15 million, no one ever even bothered to ask why the comics’ ending was so tame compared to the explosive superheroic finale of the film, which was rewritten and changed by the studio at the last minute without anyone bothering to tell us.

That wasn’t the last I heard from Bakshi. A year or so later, he called to invite me to lunch at his downtown production office in the city. I invited (fellow DC editor) Brian Augustyn to come along, and on the appointed day we headed out for our lunch with Ralph. He had a bustling little concern going in those offices, planning for a series of films loosely based on (mostly the titles) cheesy old 1950s hot rod movies for Showtime. We had lunch at a nearby diner, with Bakshi sitting across from us in a haze of cigarette smoke, crumpled napkins, and a rant about “those fuckin’ guys” at the network “busting my fuckin’ balls.” But his greatest ire was reserved for “these fuckin’ writers, man!” These screenwriters were killing him, he told us. They knew how to construct scenes, but “they don’t know how to tell a fuckin’ story, man.”

“You fuckin’ comic book guys do it every fuckin’ month, what’s so fuckin’ hard about it?” he asked.

We allowed as it didn’t sound all that tough to us. Neither Brian nor I had ever written a screenplay, but we had seen enough poorly written movies to get his gist. And we’d both written enough comic book scripts to understand the three act structure and the importance of character to drive story.

Then Ralph asked us to pitch him ideas for a hot rod film.

If I had a buck for everybody who’s ever asked me to pitch them stories or contribute ideas to a work in progress or serve as the writer to bring their great idea to fruition on spec, that would be a buck more than any of them ever offered for the work. But when it’s a real director with a real deal with a real cable network for a series of real films asking, you get down to work. Brian and I came up with a story (it had fast cars and chicks and a tender night down by the lake that went horribly, horribly wrong, but that’s all I remember) and sent it off to Ralph and — wait for it! — we never heard from him again.

Shortly thereafter, the Showtime deal fell apart and that was all she, and Brian and I, wrote.

But that's show biz.

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