June 19, 1995: Seven AM. After my usual five hours of sleep I hauled myself out of bed and let our Labrador retriever out to drench the pitiful remnants of surviving grass in the backyard, sat down with the morning paper and my first of many glasses of cranberry juice for the day: with a tight deadline hanging over me, my body had chosen to up that pressure by manufacturing a few kidney stones nine days earlier and I had been plagued with cramps ever since. It was a hell of an accompaniment to my daily drawing The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers.
I had never expected to be working on the Power Rangers. Like many of my freelance jobs, the assignment had dropped into my lap unexpectedly; in this case only an hour before sitting down for our family's annual Passover dinner. Inasmuch as the publisher was willing to pay major money per book for five issues, this particular Passover was pretty jubilant: man, financially, was I ever out of Egypt!
I'm not principally interested in the super hero genre (although today's superstar writers Alan Moore and Warren Ellis have beautifully reinvented the field), nor am I that adept working in it. What initially attracted me to the comic book field is an approach to humor and adventure that's hard to find these days. Still, I like to think that I have enough on the ball to do a passable job at depicting those folks in the tights and capes as they endlessly engage in their cosmic fist fights. Up until The Morphins, I had penciled and inked issues of four different comic titles, often in under three weeks time (with "Doc Savage" it really showed, unfortunately). That being the case, I wasn't worried about making a similar deadline just doing pencils.
Until I got the script, that is.
For those of you not familiar with the old-style Morphins (there's a new generation, evidently) there were six of them. They had two sidekicks, a mentor, and a cute robot. There were three major villains with their numerous mutated minions and all these had intricate costumes. The scripter had broken almost each page into six panels and written a majority of the characters into each panel. And then, just to take things a step further, he frequently divided panels up by the use of a "viewing globe" that depicted a separate scene that the Morphins and their friends were watching, for example, a fireman on an extension ladder rescuing a bunch of orphans from a burning building. To top all that, one of the villains might be using a telescope to spy on our heroes in a cutaway at the top of a panel. All in one sixth of a page.
I began to see why the regular penciler had bowed out of this assignment. But, hey, I was certainly being well paid for the extra effort!
Down in my basement art studio I went over the script. By my calculations I had to draw nine panels a day to make the deadline for each issue. My next step was to go to my filing cabinet full of clippings to pull the reference material, trucks and dirt bikes, needed for that day. Next I did very rough breakdowns on typewriter paper and, because the panels were all crowded, I character counted the copy to see how much space the dialogue balloons would take up. Then I laid out the page and sharpened pencils. After about two hours of all this, I was finally drawing. Judging from past experience I would be finished with the last panel sometime after midnight.
Whether or not my kidney stones would allow me to get much sleep that night was another question: it felt like two bulldogs were gnawing away in there. I drew the evil Lord Zedd posturing from the balcony of his lunar hideout in the first panel. The second panel was more interesting: Skull and Bulk, two comic relief characters from the Morphins' high school, were being blown off their dirt bikes by Pirantishead. Five Morphins materialize in the lower right of the panel while Rita Repulsa looks on gloatingly from an upper left insert.
I liked Rita Repulsa; she was fun to draw. It's strange that The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers show had many critics. From them I had formed the impression, before ever seeing the series, that the show was a blood-drenched preteen equi-valent of a Charles Bronson movie. But when I actually caught the show I discovered that the action scenes were choreographed slapstick, the monsters laughably tongue in cheek. The Morphins themselves were squeaky-clean-cut, fitting heirs to the likes of Tom Swift and the Bobbsey Twins. If I had seen the show as an eight year old, I know I would've loved it.
By my forth panel I had decided to turn on the radio. After days of listening nonstop to albums I was satiated with music. I tuned into the local right wing radio show, an action akin to lifting up a rock to check out the wet squirmy things, and found that Louis Farrakhan was being trashed rather than Bill or Hillary. A novel change.
It had started to rain, a really heavy, violent downpour. I felt uneasy; we lose electricity with monotonous regularity during storms. Then, upstairs, the dog began barking; somebody was at the door.
It was a friend of ours; I'll call her Deborah. Elaine and I had known her and her husband for some years and we occasionally got together for dinner, cards, or a movie. But one look at Deborah on our doorstep, drenched to the skin from the storm, told me this was no social call; her expression was intense, twisted with fear and grief, tears mingling with the rain running down her face. Putting Dickens in another room, I invited her in.
From various past hints we knew that Deborah suffered from manic depression, kept under control with medication. Although inclined to be withdrawn, Deborah seemed little different from an average introvert, and Bill was quietly genial and rather fannish. Both had suffered numerous financial setbacks over the years (Bill was a former physics instructor from Johns Hopkins) and their various attempts to make a living had been a long uphill struggle; it gave us something else in common.
Lately Deborah had been working in a Maryland funded computer agency that provided communication services for the speech and hearing impaired but, being shy and the only Euro-American in the place, was having a hard time fitting in. One individual in particular, she felt, was going out of his way to prove that racism can be a two way street and she was ill-equipped to deal with the cheap-shot hostility, real or imagined.
The afternoon wore on. I found myself an impotent observer of a kind of personal hell that I hope never to experience, painful just to witness. Deborah was in the deepest anguish, unable to trust anyone, least of all herself. She had quit taking her medication and was now hearing voices. Weeping, her hands twisting together so tightly that her knuckles stood out in white relief, she broke down again and again.
She was fully aware of what was happening to her but was just as sure that her medication was poisonous, that her husband and psychiatrist hated her, that everyone was plotting against her, and that her head was literally in danger of exploding.
I had no idea what to do. If I attempted to step out of the room and call a doctor it meant leaving her alone. If she discovered I was calling some "enemies" I was afraid it would send her into hysteria, or, worse, send her away into a severe storm while not in full control of her faculties.. I also knew Bill was still at work and I didn't have his number.
I kept talking as calmly as I could, trying to be upbeat as possible, always trying to reassure. I talked about mental strategies that had worked for me when I had been through bad times, about Judaism, zen, self-help techniques --and felt like a futile ass even as I did so. My little stresses and her state of mind weren't in the same ballpark; my solutions were like band aids for a skull fracture. Still, during the next five hours, Deborah began calming down by degrees.
The storm had at last passed and the sun came out. We sat on the back porch and drank tea while my cats buzzed around her legs, allowing her to pet them. Finally Elaine gotten home from work and the three of us took a long walk through our local park. I was hoping to be able to call Bill now. We suggested that she wait for him or let us drive her back to her place. Deborah insisted that she was well enough to drive and against our judgment we had no choice, short of physically restraining her, but to let her leave for the short drive back home.
I had given up all thought of drawing for the rest of the day. I had once kept on deadline when yellow jackets were swarming through the studio, but that was piffle compared to what had just gone down. I took a long hot bath and then we went off to a favorite restaurant. Later that night Bill called us to let us know that Deborah had arrived safely. She was back on her medication and was scheduled for an early session with her therapist that next morning.
She never made it. Instead she left work and drove nonstop straight to South Carolina, where she got into a collision with her car. The authorities kept her under observation for three days. Fortunately there were no serious injuries.
All this happened some years ago and Deborah was able to stick it out on her job and to our knowledge has been able to function normally. The bully at work got fired. As for my saga with The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers, I finally finished with the kidney stone pain after my first issue--just in time for one of those toothaches that goes on for ten days and the dentist can't locate the offending tooth. That was my second issue; there would be a third, my last: another publisher, one of the Big Two, had negotiated with The Morphins' owners to take the title away from my little guy publisher. They then proceeded to publish a few issues and then-- plotz!
(Spider-Man would be ashamed.)
I'm of two minds about that whole experience. On one hand, I made twenty four thousand dollars in a little more than nine weeks. And on the other hand, I lost sixteen thousand dollars worth of work. (I should take it in stride; after all, every few weeks Elaine and I lose millions of dollars playing the lottery--well, we don't win it!) It's one of those perception things: is the glass half full or half empty. In this case, I think my glass was half full.
Only nobody ever asks --full of what?