Sunday, November 8, 2009

Wizard Features That Never Were: Red Arrow: Behind the Mask

This is going to take a bit to get to the actual "Wizard Feature That Never Was" part, so bear with me.

I'm a big fan of Brad Meltzer. And when I say that, I don't just mean I dig his comics or novels (though I do, most recently The Book of Lies), but Brad, the dude. He's a quality human being and a good friend.

I may or may not have told at least part of this story here before (does getting married make you instantly age in terms of long-term memory?), but in the summer of 2004 after I graduated college, my friend Tim Stevens and I made a pilgrimage to San Diego for our first ever Comic-Con, both because why not and also because I was looking to make contacts and hopefully get a job. One of my most distinct memories of our trip was attending a panel hosted by Brad, Geoff Johns and Judd Winick called "Fans Turned Pros" or something similar; the name wasn't important as all three guys admitted they had no real theme and just booked a panel because they were buddies and wanted an excuse to talk comics amongst each other and with fans for an hour.

Well, if I hadn't wanted to work in comics professionally before that panel, I certainly did afterwards. Hearing these three successful comic book writers talk about their profession with as much joy and passion as they did was definitely the moment I cemented in my mind this was where I needed to be.

I already knew Geoff going into the show and got to meet Judd as well later on and thanked them both for the panel, telling them how much it meant to me. Near the end of that day, I happened upon a Brad Meltzer signing at the DC booth and ended up talking to Brad for awhile, telling him a bit about my background, and letting him know what an impact his panel had on me, which seemed to genuinely move him; he autographed an Identity Crisis promotional poster for me in silver ink with "Ben, I feel like we're family! -Brad Meltzer" and it has had a place of honor on my bedroom wall through one house and two apartments now.

Brad actually held on to a business card I gave him at that show (many people did not) and ended up putting me on a mailing list so I got an advance copy of the pilot of Jack & Bobby, a rad show he co-created for The WB that never really got a chance to take off. We would exchange e-mails a few times over the next few months, and after I started working at Wizard, Brad became one of my biggest supporters, always willing to do an interview or give a quote at the drop of a hat. He also sent a signed copy of another of his novels (which one is escaping me) one year for Christmas to give to my dad, I bought him the DVD of Rent after he mentioned to me at the first New York Comic-Con that he'd been meaning to see it, he put in a good word for me at Marvel, and so on and so forth.

So with all that as background, you can guess how jubilant I was when Brad got announced as the new writer of Justice League of America some four or so years ago just after I had been promoted to staff writer as well as DC contact at Wizard. I called him immediately to congratulate him and also to express my excitement that we'd get to work together more, which he gave right back in kind.

Little did I know that covering Brad's run on JLoA would prove one of the more challenging assignment of my Wizard career.

Don't get me wrong, I had a lot of fun with it; I got to call Brad monthly (if not weekly) and we'd geek out about DC trivia and Justice League line-ups and the like. He was easy to reach, generous with his time, and everything else I'd expect of my buddy.

The problems came from Brad being very much an old school comics fan when it came to the matter of promoting the book, in that he was very hesitant to tease much about the plot, roster, villains, etc. that he'd be featuring, because he wanted fans to be surprised when they got to those moments in the book, just as he used to be in his formative days of fandom before the Internet, Previews, etc.

I had no problem with this; heck, despite having far less spoiler-free years as a young fanboy than Brad, I agreed with him in most regards that keeping stuff secret would make the reading experience much better. Unfortunately, when you're working for a magazine that is trying to hype a product several months in advance, the folks you're working for expect you to generate features filled with teases, reveals and other stuff they can slap across the cover of that issue.

So Brad wanted to focus more on the rich past of the Justice League while most of the folks I worked for wanted to be able to solicit our mag as having "the exclusive first look at Brad Meltzer's Justice League!" And honestly, neither side was wrong, they were just on opposite ends of the promotional spectrum, and yours truly was the guy in the middle. It led to many months of me playing telephone between Brad and the Wizard powers that be, trying to bring each around to the other side's way of thinking even as I myself was being swayed daily (hey, they both had good arguments), and ultimately getting them to meet somewhere in the middle. We ended up with some pretty cool features that serviced both Brad and Wizard's needs, but getting there was not always easy.

It was thus of no small relief for me when the book started actually shipping and the cast was revealed, as we could then start focusing on those characters in our coverage. In particular, it was great that Brad populated half the team with lesser-known DC stalwarts outside of the typical JLA pantheon because it gave me a chance to use both my imagination and sense of history in telling the stories of these characters. I was quite proud of one article I did about the somewhat controversial history of Black Lightning, speaking to the character's co-creator Tony Isabella as well as guys like Brad and Judd who had used him in more recent times, getting all parties to comment on the others' feelings about the use and perceived misuse of Jefferson Pierce in some cases for the first time in a public forum.

The follow-up to the Black Lightning feature (after another writer other than me did a background piece on Red Tornado) was to be another masterwork from the minds of myself and Andy Serwin called "Red Arrow: Behind the Mask."

As you might have guessed from the title, Andy and I came up with the idea of riffing off the VH1 Behind the Music series, where they used to do biographies of some of the music industry's more compelling personalities in large part using interviews with the subject and also people who knew them. The best episodes of BtM were always about performers or bands who fell from grace at some point--generally due to drug use--but were able to overcome their hard times and re-emerge better than ever or at least alive (for the record, Motley Crue was the uncontested best episode ever, if only because of all the crazy shit they somehow survived, being approached only by the Leif Garrett one where he is reunited on camera with a guy he paralyzed when driving drunk decades earlier).

As newly minted Justice Leaguer Red Arrow--aka Roy Harper, aka Speedy, aka Arsenal--was best known to many fans as comics' most famous recovering drug addict, having been the focus of a famous 1971 issue of Green Lantern by Denny O'Neil and Neal Adams wherein it had been revealed he was taking heroin, we thought if we could somehow make the BtM format work in print, it would be a perfect way to spotlight him.

In addition to the drug thing, Roy had also been in a rock band, helped found the Teen Titans, worked for the government, had a daughter with a super villain, and slept with half of the DC Universe's hottest women; when I rifled off that list to anybody in the office who felt like listening, they all agreed the feature sounded like gold.

However, when it came time to sit down and iron out the specific details of how the article would work, I ran into trouble.

For one, neither me or my editor (it may have been Andy, I'm not sure) could decide if it made more sense to approach the feature as if it were actually a Behind the Music-like show set in the DCU and treating Roy like a real person or if we were better off somehow swiping the format but still making it clear in the write-up that this was a comic book character. Similarly, we couldn't figure out if we were better served having fictional commentary from DC characters (always a tricky proposition since we weren't actual comic book writers and we didn't want to give them bad dialogue), creators acting as "experts" (again, Brad and Judd had both written the character and were both game to play along), or some mix of the two.

Beyond that, it was a tricky feature to design as we wanted to retain some elements of Behind the Music, but everything we mocked up came back looking wrong for some reason. Also, the laundry list of crazy stuff I rattled off about Roy became less a boon and more of an albatross as we were adamant about keeping all of it in, but were concerned about not having the space to do each chapter of his history justice and get all the quotes in and end with something forward-looking focusing on the next issue of Justice League of America (I think we were hoping for at least four pages and could only barter for two).

The deadline crunch kicked in and we threw our hands up as we had nothing ready and felt going with the aforementioned Wizard Insider on Red Tornado (basically a primer article) would be easier. We figured Roy wasn't going anywhere any time soon, so we could still get to the article next month.

But the next month something came up. Ditto the month after that. And the month after that. I'm not sure what order these obstacles came in, but they were things like special themed issues of Wizard (like the Best Of or Year Preview) which didn't jibe with the feature or late-breaking news about something bigger happening in the Justice League book (like the Lightning Saga crossover with Justice Society of America) taking precadence.

And then, before we knew it, Brad's 12-issue stint on JLA was over. Roy was still remaining on the team, but we agreed it would be weird to run a feature heavily relying on Brad's quotes when we really had more of an obligation to focus on incoming writer Dwayne McDuffie. Also, almost right after Brad left JLA, I moved from being DC contact to Marvel contact, so those titles and characters were no longer my primary concern.

I maintain my stance that Behind the Mask could have been not only a really fun focus on the life and time of Roy Harper, but also a decent recurring feature we could have pulled out from time to time for use with other characters. Unfortunately, as seems to often be the case, a perfect storm of problems prevented the story from ever coming together, which was particularly frustrating in this case given how excited everybody involved was to make it happen.

Well, I think I just devoted far more space to what a great guy Brad Meltzer is than to why my article on Red Arrow didn't pan out, but truth be told, that's the more important sentiment to take away from this post anyhow (Awwwwww...).

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