Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Through History with the Knight Watchman

I didn't set out to be a ghost. I don't mean a spook like Casper, but an artist or writer working anonymously to create work credited to somebody else. Comic strip assistants are generally ghosts, working for and generally in the style of whoever created the strip. Jim Davis has a number of assistants to write, letter and draw Garfield for him. Comic book creators carried on the tradition from the very beginning. 
Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster's Superman shop included Paul Cassidy, Leo Nowak, John Sikela, Wayne Boring, Ed Dobrotka and others. Many graduated to doing the strip or others on their own, but Superman was only credited to Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster until 1948 or so.

Similarly, an army of ghosts produced work under the Bob Kane name on Batman over the years. Writer Bill Finger helped create the character and strip but was never credited. Jerry Robinson, George Roussos, Sheldon Moldoff, Dick Sprang, Fred Ray and Win Mortimer all drew Batman, either for DC Comics or for Kane himself.

When Chris Ecker and I created the Knight Watchman and revamped Ultiman in 1992, neither one of us was thinking about ghosting Bob Kane or Siegel & Shuster. Chris Ecker really WAS Tom King, or maybe it's the other way around. As you can see by Chris' early Big Bang work, he was just tweaking his own style. The style that editors were telling him looked like old time stuff. So we were doing old time comics. Just having fun.
At that point, I'd have to say that our biggest inspiration as to what Big Bang could be was the Catalan Communications 1987 trade paperback collection of the comic strip The Cabbie by Spanish artist Marti Riera. In this violent 1970s strip, Marti mimics the artwork, style, and pacing of Chester Gould's classic Dick Tracy of the 1930's and 40's. In his introduction to the tpb, Art Spiegelman said that “other artists, from Al Capp to Andy Warhol, have paid homage to, parodied, swiped from or been inspired by Chester Gould's Dick Tracy. Only Marti has been able to recreate it.”

The idea of doing the retro stories in the styles of the classic writers and artists of the Golden and Silver Ages appealed to us. We wanted to do a Dick Sprang Knight Watchman story, or Shelly Moldoff or Neal Adams. Or a Simon & Kirby style Knight Watchman or one as if by Siegel & Shuster or Curt Swan.

Big Bang caught on pretty fast and the back-ups became more popular than the main Berzerker character. Suddenly, instead of two or three characters we were talking about an entire pantheon of heroes, an alternative universe! Our publisher, Caliber Press asked for a Big Bang Comics series and we were happy to oblige. But it became obvious that Chris wasn't going to be able to draw it all. 

Luckily, we starting getting submissions right away from our friends who enjoyed what we were doing. The first and most inspirational to me was David Zimmermann. His three pieces featuring the Knight Watchman in the 50's, 60's and 70's pointed out to us what COULD be done. 

I believe he drew the Wayne Boring Ultiman figure that became the centerpiece of “Who He Is and How He Came to Be”. Over the years Dave drew some of Big Bang's finest pages, including the cover to Big Bang #12, interior chapters in that Savage Dragon cross-over, the full-length Knight Watchman Meets the Verdict in BB #30 and my own personal favorite, from BB #11, Galahad in “The Library Looter”. Dave Zimmermann started us on the path to really make an effort to nail the ghosting of styles for Big Bang. Thanks Dave.

At the same time I met Mark Lewis who was mining similar ground with Mr. U.S. 50 Forgotten Years in which he was ghosting a number of art style. Mark has been an unsung hero of Big Bang, designing many of the characters and creating a boatload of logos for us. More on him in a future blog. The 1939
Watchman illo below helped set the stage for things to come.

My own other Big Bang inspiration came from the Solar Pons stories by August Derleth, which had originally introduced me to the concept of the pastiche, a dramatic,  literary, or musical piece created in a generally tongue-in-cheek yet respectful imitation of another's style. The Pons stories were styled very closely after Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes. They seemed a bit too much like Holmes to me, where only the names had been changed. 

While we were trying to tell a Superman or Batman-type story, we tried to make the characters as original as possible with their own origins and quirks.  We always aimed for that “left-hand turn” to add a different spin to the archetype. As Mark Lewis said, "whenever anyone asked me to describe Big Bang, my take was that it was 'comics history through a funhouse mirror.' Things were supposed to be familiar, but different. Otherwise, if they were note for note the same, what would be the point?"

Hopefully we accomplished that.  

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