Layouts and Finished Pages
A decade and a half after NOT BRAND ECCH ended, Marvel Comics took another shot at self-parody with WHAT THE--?!. Originally launched as a four issue limited series, the Marvel bigwigs eventually deemed it successful enough to run an additional twenty-two editions.
The original plan was to divvy up the first four between two editors, Carl Potts and Jim Salicrup. As I've mentioned several times elsewhere on this site, Jim and I have had a very good working relationship over the years, and upon hearing the news of WHAT THE--?!'s impending assemblage, I pretty much took it as a fait accompli that I'd be able to weasel my way into Senor Salicrup's pair of parody publications. And I wasn't wrong--happily, I made it into both of his issues! Luckily, there was no question about my being included in Carl Potts' plans, since, hey, HE was the one who alerted me to the project's existence in the first place! The good news came, you see, when he called attempting to enlist my, ahem, creative assistance!!
I'd met Carl on several previous occasions, mostly at mutually attended comics' conventions held in the early eighties. He seemed to be a nice enough guy, but quieter, less demonstrative than the average comics' professional. My most vivid memory of him remains the Ottawa show we were both guests at. Oh, not the show itself, the dinner afterward. Local hero Dave Sim had invited Lynn and I to join him for a bite, and the other invited dining partner--Chris Claremont, then at the height of his popularity with the X-men, albeit, post Byrne--brought along his Marvel buddy, the aforementioned Mr. Potts. As it turned out, Lynn and I, Carl and his lady friend--we all combined to form a massive third wheel during the repast. Dave and Chris talked and talked and talked some more!! THESE guys were more like your typical pros, lemme tell ya! As a majority of the discussion seemed based on the philosophical underpinnings found in the first, oh, thirty or so issues of Dave's groundbreaking CEREBUS THE AARDVARK title, there really wasn't a lot for the rest of us at the table to contribute, because it soon became painfully obvious--at least to ME--that no one else there had READ the dang book!! (Okay, I'd read the first half dozen, but not long afterwards I got lost amongst the interior monologs that were taking up entire issues. Over the years, I've had many fine folk recommend the series to me, but I've never quite been able to get back on that horse--or aardvark, if you will...) Dave had been very kind to me, and I was concerned that my non-participation in the discussion might be seen by him as some sort of slight. I needn't have worried. Squiggly elbows weren't on the agenda that eve! The two scribes were so enamored of each other that magic night that they planned an X-MEN/CEREBUS crossover, an idea that got as far as being reported on the front page of an edition of the COMICS BUYERS' GUIDE, but no further. Yup, Carl and I were present that night when comics history was ALMOST made, doing our best not to let on to our Canadian host and his new-found partner that we didn't have half a clue about most anything they were jabbering on about!! That was Carl--even in my best anecdote about him, he's downright low-key!! And then, years after the notion of the mutants meeting the mammal had long since faded away, here he was, calling to offer me work!

I don't think he was entirely sold on my artwork, though, because he very specifically asked for a script only from me. That's okay--I'm not always sold on my artwork either!! And besides, considering what he had in mind, my pencils and pens were definitely NOT needed--the legendary John Severin was on board to illustrate a Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. parody, and I had but to say "yes" to afford myself the privilege of writing it!? Well, there are some jobs you think about, and some jobs you don't even need to spend a millisecond mulling over, and folks, this was clearly one of the latter! There was only one catch--Carl requested I turn in a full script. For you novices out there, that's when all the dialog and all the stage directions for each and every panel on each and every page of a proposed comics story is clearly spelled out for both editor and artist to examine before pencil is put to paper. The only trouble was, I'd NEVER done that before, and had severe doubts about my ability to do so!! As it is, I'm usually a one-man band--words, pencils, inks, letters, everything except the coloring--I do it all. Oh, sometimes I'd have an inker foisted on me, or a slicker letterer on the occasion where my standard scrawl made some legible-minded editor nervous--why, I'd even drawn a handful of scripts penned by authors other than myself. And, in several rare instances, I had other artists illustrate MY ideas, but only, please understand, in the Marvel sense. That is, they work off a plot supplied by yours truly, and upon my receipt of their pencils, I add the words. The few times I've tried that method, it's seemed to work successfully enough for me. But full script? I fretted, I panicked, and, frankly, I almost bailed, so totally convinced of my absolute inability to master--or even minor--this long traditional form of graphics story storytelling. And then, it hit me! The solution to my dilemma! It was SO obvious--I'd give Carl his story fully scripted, all right--AND fully drawn as well!! Am I a genius, or what? (As always, votes for "or what" are discouraged by the proprietors of this site.)

When I proposed my idea to my newfound boss, initially he was a bit reticent to get on board. After all, he couldn't pay me any extra money for this unsolicited artwork--there wasn't enough in the budget to cover the added expense, he explained. No problem, I assured him--I didn't WANT the additional cash. (Okay, sure, I would've TAKEN it had it been offered, but...) I just wanted the flexibility of SEEING what I was writing, and if I was the one who had to scribble up the scenes to make that happen, fine. So be it. Slowly he came around to my way of seeing things, but once he was convinced that this would vastly improve the yock-ratio of the still-unwritten story--AND that this wasn't some sleazy ploy to pad my pockets--he agreed to let me turn the tale in in layout form. Yeah, yeah, yeah--I know that, in the short run, I undersold myself, but in the long run, just look what I've got to show for it!! And you know what? To this day, I've yet to EVER write a story full script!?! Whew--dodged THAT bullet!!

So I sat down and wrote "The Retirement of Knick Furey, Ex-Agent of S.H.E.E.L.D.!" (I don't recall for sure, but the retirement angle may well have been Carl's--the rest I'm certain--for better or worse--is all mine.) After considerable initial brainstorming, dialog scrawled with a Bic pen onto typewriter paper, and thumbnail layouts roughed out in pencil, I settled in at the kitchen table, opened my 11" by 14" Morilla 100 page sketch book, and armed with a red Flair Pentel, produced the final copy for submission. The whole red line thing is a bit of an affectation, I'll admit. For those of you who aren't aware, the color crimson reproduces black, perfect, as it turns out, for copies. This way, you see, I'd have TWO versions of my artwork--the red originals and the black copies!! I did this for many years--ALL my KIDZ layouts are in red, for instance--and still do it upon occasion, though these days, in an effort to crank material out for you, my panting public, the layout phase is oft-times skipped. But not back then, not back on October 19th, 1987.

That date sound familiar to any of you? No? Well, amongst Wall Street wranglers, that particular day came to be known as "Black Tuesday". It was one of those bad, bad ones, y'see--a fact I was blissfully unaware of since, in order to better concentrate on the task at hand, I uncharacteristically had the radio turned off the entire afternoon. My first CD player was still several years in the future and I was still deep into my AM talk radio phase, but that day Soupy, Howard, and the ever-irascible Bob Grant were silenced by my need to pump out parody. Hey, I'm sorry a lotta folks lost their shirts, but at least I wasn't the ONLY one losing money that day!?!
Although certainly I hoped Carl would be happy with what I turned in--and I have no memory of it being otherwise--I really don't recall exactly what I truthfully expected to be done to my layouts by the tale's assigned artist. Naively, I vaguely remember an assumption that my work would be torn apart and then totally reassembled by the far more experienced illustrator. Which would've been fine--how could I not defer to John Severin? When Carl sent along a set of pre-publication black and white copies of Mr. Severin's interpretation of my script, I was stunned! Stunned and elated!! The legendary cartoonist had barely changed a thing on any of the seven pages of my story, save the odd minor alteration here and there! Wow! Wow again! It was THEN that I had my Sally Field moment--"He liked it, he really liked it!?!" As the years passed, I became a bit more pragmatic--it was probably just EASIER to follow my all very explicit directions. But, I suppose I'll have to grant that he didn't HATE it, at least not enough to feel the need to completely overhaul it!! Fact is, I was honestly surprised how GOOD it looked!?! Geez, I never realized my stuff could look that snappy when it was in the hands of somebody who REALLY knew how to draw!?! As an editor, Herr Potts apparently knew his craft well, as this once-in-a-lifetime pairing of Hembeck and Severin unabashedly proved!!
Because, folks, this is IT--my all-time favorite collaboration!! True, it's a small pool to draw from, but this one makes me swoon on so MANY levels! Like, it's my Harvey Kurtzman moment, dig? Big John was well known for being the long-time backbone--and the main reason to buy--CRACKED magazine, MAD's oldest competitor, true. But think back just a little bit further and you'll recall that Sir Severin was one of the original four artists found in the trend-setting comic book version of MAD, famous for among other things, his rendition of the fabled "Melvin of the Apes". Like his stable-mates, Severin illustrated his assignments by closely following detailed layouts provided to him by editor/author/legend-in-the-making Harvey Kurtzman--JUST THE WAY HE DID WHILE WORKING ON MY STORY!?! And, beyond that sweet little parallel, when he rejoined Marvel in the mid-sixties, the very first character he worked on was Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D.--THE VERY SAME ONE (SORTA) AS IN MY STORY!?! Yow! And that initial Marvel script was turned in by Stan Lee, while layouts from the King, Jack Kirby, were provided for him to follow--MAKING ME, IN SOME STRANGE WAY, AN AMALGAMATION OF THE (YES!) LEGENDARY LEE/KIRBY TEAM!?! AND--AND--AND (take a breath, Fred, take a breath...) and as a contributor to the first issue of NOT BRAND ECCH--a Sgt. Fury parody in that particular instance--I somehow found myself following in the footsteps of earlier satirists in teaming up with the fabled John Severin!?! Whew!! That's a whole LOTTA fan-boy dream assignments to stuff into one slight seven pager, but they're all there!! While making no claim to being anywhere NEAR on par with any of those Hall-of-Famers that went before me, I think the idea of pulling a Kurtzman while utilizing a Lee/Kirby creation is the notion that tickles me the most! I'm also happiest in the knowledge that I actually came up with a story almost worthy of this lavish treatment (better by far than the two I came up with for Salicrup--sorry, Jim, I tried, but maybe if you'd found someone BETTER to draw 'em, well...). What's saddest about this whole affair is that I never got to meet the great Severino and tell him face to face--or even via phone, the post, or smoke signals-- just how MUCH I loved working with him! Y'know, maybe I should drop him a note care of that RAWHIDE KID series the new regime at Marvel roped him into doing?...

On an unrelated note, a word about the names in this story--when you finish plowing through this morass of back story to plow through the front story (and yes, we offer up both the version as printed in the second issue of WHAT THE--?! and the red lined layouts shot directly from my yellowing sketchbook for your viewing pleasure, affording folks a rare before and after take on the very same tale)--you'll notice our protagonist is known as "Knick Furey" and NOT "Knock Furious", the accepted, NOT BRAND ECCH name hung on our one-eyed star. Notice too that everyone else in our little skit (save the Contessa, who has a special gag all her own attached to her title) goes by what amounts to phonetic respellings of the characters actual names. The reason I did this is because I've always found those silly MAD inspired switcheroos--"Flawrence of Arabia", "The Man From AUNTIE", "Odd Squad", and their seemingly never-ending ilk--to be juvenile and tiresome. I mean, I can tell from the swell Mort Drucker drawing that that's supposed to be Robert Vaughn--does he HAVE to continually be referred to as "Napoleon Polo" to get that point across?!? (...That's instead of "Solo', youngsters...) No, my theory was that with the intentional misspelling that nonetheless remains phonetically correct, the reader is detached just enough to realize that this indeed isn't the REAL Nick Fury, but isn't driven to distraction by repeatedly reading silently--save for the occasional subtle moving of the lips, of course-- the silly name hung on our object of derision over and over and over! We GET the joke already! Yeesh. In all fairness, this was hardly my own bright idea--when Harvey Kurtzman (there's THAT name again!) and Bill Elder did their "Goodman Beaver" series for HELP! magazine, they arranged for their leading man to encounter such pop culture icons as S*p*rm*n, T*rz*n, and the gang from R*verd*le H*gh. You KNEW just exactly who they were supposed to be, but the asterisks kept them at just the right distance for making fun of--AND had the added benefit of keeping the lawyers happy!?! With this in mind--and knowing that asterisks wouldn't work well with the hand lettering still employed by Marvel way back in the late eighties--I concocted the system you see before you. Turns out Carl Potts was an easy sell on this radical, if ultimately minor, revamp of parody protocols, but ironically, the man who I could usually get just about any idea past--Jumpin' Jim Salicrup--WASN'T on board with me this time. Thus, the reappearance of Dr. Deranged in my very NEXT WHAT THE--!? entry. Sigh. I still think I'm right, Jim, but who am I to fight tradition? After all, I was only Kurtzman for a day...(…oh, but WHAT a day!...)

Sadly, when WHAT THE--!? graduated to regular publication, neither Messers Potts nor Salicrup were at the reins. Instead, the editor in charge happened to be one who didn't much like my stuff, and I never darkened the pages of that magazine again. Hey, not everybody has the same sense of humor, I understand that, but I've always sorta regretted being shut out of the almost two dozen subsequent issues. Face it folks, my stuff doesn't fit in mainstream comics easily, and here was a perfect showcase for it!! Ah well, no use crying over spilled ink. Regrets? I've had a few. But I've got me a truckload of CEREBUS back issues to catch up on, so who's got the time to fret? And when I finally do finish, I think I'll take Dave and Chris out to a nice fancy restaurant for a lively round table discussion! If I can't scare up Carl to join us, maybe I can enlist the aid of someone ELSE who can guarantee that the conversation doesn't stagnate, like, say. DON KING?!? Only in America, folks, only in America--and Canada, too, I suppose...

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