I think I was 13 when I knew I wanted to become a writer. I could have been as young as 12, maybe as old as 14, but 13 seems most likely. It was a specific moment of revelation; I was at a wedding reception, doodling comics in my notebook, and another attendee asked me what I was doing. From there, the short conversation settled upon the idea of, well, was I thinking of writing comic books professionally? A magic light bulb illuminated my curls and dandruff. Yeah, I thought. Yeah, I could do that.
I started writing a Batman script right then and there. My path was decided. I was going to be a writer.
I've already spoken at length about the amateur comics I churned out as a kid in the '60s and early '70s, and my ambition to be both the next Stan Lee and the next Jack Kirby, all rolled into one. But this was different. Prior to this, I don't think it even occurred to me that I could pursue writing separately, that I didn't have to be the artist depicting the POWs and BAMs my imagination concocted. I'm not certain whether this took place before or after the eighth-grade Jack Mystery comic strip we talked about last time; I suspect it was after, perhaps fueled by the lack of encouragement I encountered in ninth grade art class. Fine. I wasn't forsaking my artwork, but I would focus on writing. It was time to put aside the foolish drawings of youth, and concentrate instead on the foolish word balloons and captions of youth.
Unencumbered by anything resembling humility or common sense, I started submitting stuff to DC Comics immediately. Hell, I submitted that first handwritten Batman story I'd thrown together at my cousin's wedding, an inept tale of The Dark Knight visiting Syracuse and investigating the death of a teenager apparently killed by police, a narrative scrawled with dubious legibility on spiral notebook paper. DC had superstar artist Neal Adams illustrate it, and together we won the Shazam Award for best comic book story ever. Playboy Playmate Deanna Baker read it, loved it, and asked me to move in with her. Success!
|We were made for each other, Carl!|
I kept bothering them nonetheless. A handwritten Shazam! story, with the original Captain Marvel facing off against a suddenly super-powered incarnation of his arch enemy Dr. Sivana, a story which may or may not have guest-starred Plastic Man. A typewritten Batman script called "The Overtime Crimefighter!," depicting 24 hours in the life of the Caped Crusader. And "Nightmare Resurrection," a ten-years-after sequel to the classic 1966 Batman story "Death Knocks Three Times." The latter was accompanied by art samples drawn by my friend Mike DeAngelo, a talented artist with whom I hoped to partner; this submission did at least merit a form letter rejection from DC. But I kept on writing. I didn't succeed at any of it, but I kept on writing.
Jump ahead now to the mid '80s. I was still writing, still doodling, still attempting to craft...something. Record reviews. Short stories. A history of The Ramones. More submissions to DC Comics, including original characters (wait, let's make that "original" characters, with the quotes) Captain Infinity,The Trident, and Lawman, plus existing properties Batman and The Justice League of America. I finally sold something, a history of the comic book Secret Six, published in Amazing Heroes in 1984. It was the start of my spotty freelance career (the beginning of which I've chronicled in some detail as The Road To Goldmine). My sales were all nonfiction, but I kept trying my hand at fiction, too.
I'm not sure of the precise chronology, but I did return to Jack Mystery in this time frame. I'm gonna say it was 1985, because ol' Jack is certainly a presence in the sketchbook I was using that year. I did sketches of Jack, jotted down fragments of story ideas, and began to map in my head a whole new approach and narrative for this hackneyed hero I'd created in elementary school. I never quite got around to actually writing it. And that's a shame, because of all of my half-baked and raw attempts at comic-book creation in the '80s, Jack Mystery was the only one that had potential, the sole possibility of something that coulda been, y'know...cooked, maybe even well done.
The new concept of Jack Mystery in the '80s was heavily influenced by the independent comics I was reading, particularly things like American Flagg, Nexus, Zot!, Mark Evanier and Dan Spiegle's Crossfire, and even Love And Rockets. It was also influenced by the idea that the comics industry had mistreated and abandoned many of the creators who'd built it; Jack Kirby was in the news for his efforts to get Marvel to return his original art, and I remembered well the plight of Superman creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, and of then-uncredited Batman co-creator Bill Finger (who died in poverty), all cast aside by a comics business that would never have existed without their efforts. My notes are incomplete, but this is cobbled together and built upon what I remember of my '80s reboot of Jack Mystery:
Let's face it: actor Trevor Harris is kind of a schmuck.
Maybe he doesn't mean to be such a jerk, but he is one anyway. He's faithless and seemingly amoral, with two ex-wives and a long (and lengthening) list of broken relationships, all before the age of twenty-six. He drinks too much. He parties too long. His one successful role, as young Dr. Champion on the soap opera Temptations, disappeared when producers, fed up with his erratic behavior, had the writers put poor, poor Dr. Champion in a near-fatal car accident, prompting facial reconstruction surgery that allowed the role to be recast with a less difficult team player. The fresh face of Harris' replacement is on all the magazine covers; Harris hasn't worked since.
But there are still people who love him. He has fans, and he has family back in Buffalo. In Buffalo, he was just Joey Lichtenberg, and his parents owned a restaurant; his older brother Charles took over the restaurant when their parents died, remaking it into a small, successful local chain of chicken wing places, Wings Over Buffalo, with a plan to go national as Wings Over America. Charles begs Trevor--Joey--to come home and join the family business. Joey's first wife, Trish, still lives in Buffalo, too. They no longer speak. Joey--Trevor--is adamant that he will remain in Hollywood. And he drinks some more.
Our narrative opens with Trevor alone in his apartment, face-down in bed, sheets and covers askew, slumbering in the last seconds before the morning hangover kicks in. There was someone with him in bed last night--Marcie? Darcey? Canarsie? Veronica? Betty? Sabrina? Ethel? Something like that?--but the sweet young thing had extricated her curvy derriere and split before the sun's rise, sensing that she didn't really want to be there when the jerk awakened. Carrie! That was it. Trevor would prefer to remain in bed for a few more decades, dreaming of simultaneous carnal bliss with Madonna and Joan Jett, but the insistent, relentless ringing of the phone finally nags him into the real world.
Did you forget your goddamned audition today?! Trevor's manager, Morrie. I hadda practically sell a frickin' lung to get you a shot at this, and you're gonna blow it by not even showin' up? GET YOUR ASS DOWN THERE, YOU ASSHOLE!!
Grumbling, Trevor stumbles out of the bedroom, cursing loudly. He doesn't bother shaving, or showering, or even changing his clothes; he's still wearing the Ramones T-shirt and black jeans he had on when he picked up Carrie (no--it was Marcie! Or Cheryl. No, Marcie!) in the million years ago that was last night. He swishes mouthwash, swallows five aspirin, pulls on Beatle boots, and climbs into the '69 Impala his Dad gave him. He somehow makes it to the studio in time.
It's open casting, he thinks to himself. It's not like Morrie got me some inside line on a surefire role. And it's based on a friggin' old comic book, for God's sake. I need a new agent.
"A friggin' old comic book?" Oh, Trevor--if you only had the merest idea about how much your life is about to change.
Jack Mystery Comics debuted in 1942, a quarterly book published by a fly-by-night outfit that was able to get ahold of paper even during wartime rationing, and needed to keep its presses running. The title feature was created by the team of Kirby Simon and William Hand, and the book was concocted hastily by their studio. Never a big success, the book hung on into the early '50s nonetheless. Jack Mystery was a rather generic superhero, dressed in red, white and blue (with black belt and holster), possessing super strength and resilience, and able to fly with the aid of a rocket jet backpack. Jack fought the usual comic-book assortment of gangsters, Axis agents, fifth columnists, and the occasional super-villain, like his arch-enemy, Dr. Skeleton. A planned Columbia movie serial was abandoned. A 1952 TV pilot went unsold. Jack Mystery vanished from the stands.
The character was subsequently acquired by the company that would eventually become the giant Imperial Communications conglomerate. The success of the Batman TV series prompted a new Jack Mystery comic book series in 1967, and even a cult-classic high-camp feature film starring Lyle Waggoner. Jack Mystery's popularity exploded in the early '80s, thanks to a deconstruction and revamp by the superstar writer/artist Miles Franklin, a hipper-than-hip comic book championed by Rolling Stone and now about to be adapted into a major motion picture. The film's producers just need to find the perfect actor to be the new Jack Mystery.
Trevor Harris' audition, frankly, borders on disaster. He knows his lines--even at his worst, Trevor can still do that--but the feeling isn't there. There's no spark, no passion, no conviction. As he's on the verge of flailing and failing, an older gentleman at the back of the room catches his eye. Old Jewish guy. He smiles benevolently at Trevor
And something clicks in Trevor's mind. Without warning or explanation, he becomes his role. He believes. And it shows.
The producers' and the director's shock at the change is palpable. Where did this come from? Jesus, we were just about to have this jerk escorted off the lot! What the hell?
The audition finishes. Though clearly impressed, the folks in charge of casting want to discuss, and weigh the merits and potential calamities of hiring this notoriously troublesome (and obviously mercurial) actor as the face of their multi-million dollar project. They begin to thank Trevor, and assure him they'll be in touch, when the dark, diminutive man at the center of their table rises and says, That won't be necessary; I've made my decision. Mr. Harris, you're hired.
Sputters of stammering protest erupt around him, but the man who spoke remains firm and unmoved. I'm the director. This is my project, my vision. I have complete authority on all casting, as per my contract. This goddamned movie wouldn't even be considered if not for me. Trevor Harris will be my Jack Mystery. Miles Franklin--comic book writer, comic book artist, comic book sensation, and now first-time movie director--smiles at Trevor, and adds, Congratulations, Mr. Harris. Trevor. May I call you Trevor? I'm Miles. I look forward to working with you.
The assembled gathering of bigwigs shift nervously, but swallow pride and apprehension long enough to rise, gladhand, feign enthusiasm, and check their expensive watches before leaving the audition room as fast as their fat legs can carry them, bound for martinis and mistresses and whatever illicit balms they can apply to their malaise and unease. Miles Franklin lingers only a bit longer than his twitchy colleagues, and he congratulates Trevor one more time before likewise taking his leave. Trevor is alone, and stunned by the sequence of events.
Oh--not quite alone, after all. Trevor looks up as the old Jewish man he'd seen before approaches him, and extends his aged, bony hand in greeting. They shake hands.
You were very good, Mr. Harris. Trevor feels uncharacteristically humble, and smiles at the man. Thanks. Um--thanks very much. Honestly, I don't know what the hell just happened here. Trevor pauses, and looks the man straight in the eye. I mean...I saw you, while I was auditioning, while I was..well, while I was failing. Something about you, man. What...?
The man brushes Trevor's unfinished question aside. Well, I'm happy it worked out for you, anyway. My name's Kirby Simon. My dear, late friend William Hand and I created this character such a long, long time ago. If he were here, William would agree with me. My boy, you are Jack Mystery!
Trevor doesn't reply. But in his head, a voice says, Yes. Yes, I am. He is momentarily dizzy, then suddenly filled with an unfamiliar sense of strength, of purpose. He looks down, and realizes that he has picked up a heavy weight that was left as a prop for the audition. But not really a prop--a real weight, thick and solid and heavy. It twists in his fingers as if it were Silly Putty. Like another superhero before him, he is bending steel in his bare hands.
I AM Jack Mystery!
That was my premise for Jack Mystery in the '80s (albeit considerably expanded today, in its first real written treatment, such as it is). If the story continued, we would have seen Trevor believing he was indeed Jack Mystery, but with the actual super powers to prove it. Movie studio execs would be unsure of whether they should intervene, or if they should allow this livin' and breathin' and occasionally crusadin' Jack Mystery to earn free publicity for the new film. Trevor would come to his senses before long, retaining the super powers, and also retaining the sense of responsibility and fair play that he'd felt within himself as Jack Mystery. He would clash frequently with auteur Miles Franklin over the film's dystopian take on superheroes, and he would develop a deep friendship with Kirby Simon. When Simon dies suddenly, Trevor and Miles Franklin would unite in efforts to see Simon's family reap the financial benefits of Jack Mystery's success. An executive from Imperial Media would become a real-life Dr. Skeleton, as well. And Trevor would mend fences with brother Charles back in Buffalo, and even with ex-wife Trish (who would nonetheless marry someone else anyway). He never would remember Marcie's name. Er...Darcey's name. Carrie. Roberta? Damn it...!
|Good ol' whatsername. Or maybe it was Trish.|
Well over thirty years later, I look back on Jack Mystery not so much as a missed opportunity, but as a fond memory of the creative process. This is likely all that anyone will ever hear of this superhero I created as a child, a character I returned to play with again as an adult. There are some cherished playthings of youth that never lose their appeal. Here's to you, Jack. Wherever you are.
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I've mostly written non-fiction. If you're curious about my attempts at fiction, you can check out the introductory chapters of my (you guessed it!) unfinished rock 'n' roll superhero time travel adventure ETERNITY MAN!, and a completed Batman short story that I think turned out pretty well: The Undersea World Of Mr. Freeze. Reminders that I should stick with writin' about power pop are probably not necessary.