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Panel by Panel: Indecent Proposals

Updated: Jun 23

Even when you follow all the rules , sometimes you learn the game's just been rigged against you.

An excerpt from my comic book career memoir, Panel by Panel: My Comic Book Life, coming to Kickstarter on June 14 (my birthday!). CLICK HERE TO GO TO THE PANEL BY PANEL KICKSTARTER!

Writing and submitting proposals had become an even more long and drawn out process than ever been. Step one: submit proposal to the editor and wait. Step two: tweak the proposal to the editor’s comments and suggestions. Step three: editor submits the tweaked proposal to the DCU Group Editors and editorial director Giordano, and wait. Step four: the Group Editors and Dick make their comments and suggestions, sometimes asking for revisions. Step five: comments and suggestions addressed, the proposal is resubmitted to the Group Editors and Dick, and you wait. Step six: acceptance or rejection.

I wasn’t having the best of luck with my last few proposals. In 1989, after losing The Doom Patrol, I created a character with superhuman tracking abilities with artist Graham Nolan called Bloodhound which made the rounds to no takers. Post-Vigilante, I also pitched an ongoing series for a supporting character I’d introduced in the last few issues, a psycho-killer love interest for Adrian Chase who didn’t think his methods were quite hardcore enough, Black Thorn. Also, a no thank you. I followed that with a proposal for an ongoing Peacemaker series, picking up where the 1988 miniseries left off, but that was a third strike.

I wrote my next proposal at the suggestion of the editor who would then use it in some sort of office political mind games against opponents I found out didn’t even know they were in the game.

The character was longtime member of the Flash’s Rogues Gallery, The Trickster, aka Giovanni Giuseppe aka James Jesse (that’s Jesse James backwards) who first appeared in The Flash #113 (June/July 1960), created by John Broome and Carmine Infantino. A former circus acrobat who turned to crime with a pair of shoes that allowed him to walk on air and a bag of deadly, explosive novelty items, Trickster evolved over the decades and by 1990 was one of the good guys. A direction for the series was obvious when I learned who I was being partnered with on the book: artist Stephen DeStefano.

Stephen is a funny guy and a funny artist who made his professional debut in 1982 at the age of 16, and within a few years was penciling the heartwarming cult classic ‘Mazing Man (January 1986) co-created with Bob Rozakis, with whom he also co-created Hero Hotline (1989). After some more work in comics, including “Thud, Thud, Thud in the Mississippi Mud,” a one-off back-up we did together for the Chicago-based independent black and white TrolLords #7 (May 1987), Stephen went into animation and has worked on shows including Ren and Stimpy, Samurai Jack, Primal, and dozens of others.

Coming up with a funny pitch for Stephen to draw wasn’t that tough, especially when you consider the lead character wore a harlequin costume and pointy-toed flying shoes. My first thought was to separate the character from his previous world, give him a clean slate in a new location. And further, what if I took his transformation from villain to good guy one step further and he decided to hang up his pointy-toed flying shoes once and for all and explore a life that didn’t involve getting beat up and shot at so much?

Step one: It was a thorough proposal that wrote itself. Creating a funny world to tell superhero-like stories in was every bit as freeing as not having to do superheroics at all. With the classic CBS sitcom Newhart (1982 – 1990) in mind, I positioned James Jesse as the only sane voice in a village of buffoons and the inept, creating 20 or more supporting characters and planning out a year’s worth of stories. And then I waited.

Step two: I got back the editor’s notes. He wanted more detail in the backstory and the plot outlines. I thought it was overkill, but I tweaked and rewrote according to instructions and submitted the second draft to the editor. And waited again.

Step two redux: I got back the editor’s notes. He thought the backstory was still lacking here, here, here, and etcetera, and could I be a bit more specific on these several plot points? I tweaked and rewrote according to instructions and submitted the third draft to the editor. As I waited some more, I was starting to smell a rat, but I reasoned that since it had been the editor who suggested the character and paired me with Stephen, this had to be a lock, right? Besides, the more detailed the plot, the easier it would be for me when it came time to write the scripts. I turned in my third draft. And, needless to say, waited.

Step two redux again: I got back the editor’s notes. We were darned close, just a few more minor tweaks and we would have it. I protested that this was beyond nitpicking. It was ridiculous, bits of backstory that had no effect on the stories themselves. The editor even agreed with me, but insisted he was doing this for my own good, to make the proposal rejection-proof. I gritted my teeth and turned in my fourth draft. And, once again, waited.

In the meantime, Stephen had long since drawn a cover sheet for the proposal and six pages of beautiful character designs based on my first draft featuring all the supporting cast wearing Trickster’s air-jet shoes “for no particular reason.” James was depicted in profile in his boxer shorts and socks with arrows pointing to such characteristics as, “Hairy, cuz he’s I-talian, natch” and “Bit of a pot belly. Perhaps he had an acrobats built once, but walkin’ on air is easy on a guy.”

I didn’t stop looking for work from other editors while waited for word on my Trickster fourth draft. When I spoke to an editor who worked in the same group as my Trickster editor, he told me I was wasting my time. He had warned them against hiring me, that I had become problematic because Dick and Paul had been expressing unspecified concerns about me.

This was shortly thereafter “confirmed” by my editor, who told me Dick had rejected the Trickster proposal, as well the suggestion that I be hired to replace a departing editor in his group. I was given frequent updates on the editor’s Herculean efforts to change Dick’s mind on my behalf, none of them successful.

I was just insecure enough to believe it might have been true, but I was desperate, and as much as I hate confrontation, I went to Dick and told him what I’d heard. “If you don’t want me here, please tell me so I can stop banging my head against the door.”

He responded with genuine confusion. “What are you talking about? I haven’t seen any proposals from you.” He assured me nobody wanted me gone and showed me my name on the handwritten shortlist of candidates for that staff position that he took from his desk drawer.

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1 Comment

I have been enjoying these Panel by Panel articles. This one hurts, because I would have enjoyed reading this TRICKSTER series. So many series over the years -- some announced, some not -- that never saw the light of day. I can't help but feel that TRICKSTER would have been as good or better as a lot of DC's efforts at that time.

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