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Baker's Dozen
Original short interviews with notable, rising or overlooked
figures from comics or the larger entertainment field by Bill Baker.

Current Installment >> Installment Archives | General Forum

BAKER'S DOZEN for 10/08/2003
Dead Man -- and Woman -- Driving

Steve Goldman on Styx Taxi

The first interview in this bonus installment of Baker's Dozen focuses on a book that many folks might overlook when placing their order this month. Which would be a real shame, as they'd be missing out on a wild and strange and beautiful ride unlike anything I've encountered lately, at least inside the covers of a comic book. The main creative mind behind that title, Styx Taxi, recently set aside some time to answer a load of email questions about the book, with results that are every bit as interesting and revealing as reading the comic itself.

Styx Taxi Cover

Bill Baker: This book is quite different from a lot of what's currently on the market. How would you describe Styx Taxi, who are some of the main characters, and what's their universe like?

Steve Goldman Steve Goldman: Styx Taxi starts from the idea that the afterlife is a wholly personal construction, that your faith, your beliefs, what's in your heart dictates what happens after you flatline.

Styx Taxi itself is a rogue spiritual operation, a service that shouldn't exist, as it interrupts The Flow (soul energy returning to the universe). The drivers offer souls wrapping up one lifetime a last chance at redemption, or at the very least, a sense of completion. Styx drivers are walk-ins, spirits that inhabit the bodies of the living, souls who've either chosen to serve or have been pressed into service for violating the rules of Styx Taxi.

Everyone gets two hours, a little slice of corporeality, and one stop. The laws of physics can be bent or broken, you can go anywhere in space (but not time), and do pretty much anything.

"Pastrami for the Dead" was, for me, a pilot, a chance to introduce readers to the concepts and characters of Styx Taxi but also wind them up in a whirlwind story that would leave them a little breathless. It's about an office contest between a team of drivers, each of which has a quota they're trying to beat, as well as each other. But since Styx drivers can't leave the cab for any reason (unless changing bodies), the prize is one of the most tempting ones Dispatch could offer: 12 hours' corporeal freedom on Earth.

Our drivers: Dom's the resident wise old man -- he was a Italian slumlord in 1910's NYC, and chose to work for Styx after he passed. Charon was a thug-for-hire, formerly Irish mob. Circe's been an earth mama for most of her lifetimes -- she's sexy, smart, and the kind of tough you become having large families.

As Gnosticism posits, the universe is fundamentally flawed and fluid, much more objective and natural (i.e. subject to supernovas and plagues and flash floods) than theology would like us to admit...but there's still a lot of hope and striving in every form of life, and that's what I tapped when writing Styx. If there's a plan, we're not in on it, so we need to make our lives matter to ourselves and the people around us.

Styx

BB: So where did the basic idea for the book come from, and how did it develop into its current form?

SG: My brother Dan (the other half of FWD books) and I have been co-creating and co-writing projects since 1999, and this was one of the two-line wonders we came up with in 2001 over too many cups of diner coffee, taking the myth of the ferryman on the river Styx and updating it with the energy of Jim Jarmusch's Night on Earth, Charon as a cab driver who takes you on your last journey.

When I first approached Dan in last January about working on this for San Diego 2003, he was too bogged down with freelance design gigs and development work for his first graphic novel (coming out next year!). I asked if he wouldn't mind me taking this concept and running with it solo, and he gave me a little silent Brando-esque/Godfather slap on the cheek and a smile (but no kiss).

The Charon-as-one-and-only-driver concept didn't cut it for me though, because the Charon of myth was in a fixed metaphysical location, and the world is a far bigger and richer (read: more populated) place than it was in ancient Greek times. I don't like the idea of a single entity as omnipresent and omnipotent. Also, we live on a culture that thrives on convenience and a multiplicity of beliefs -- almost none of which include the ancient Greek conception of the underworld -- so a door-to-door service that caters to all schools of thought appealed to me (and probably the entire Upper East Side).

I knew there were a lot of stories hiding in Styx, but I wanted to come out the gates with something accessible, that you didn't need any explanation to enjoy, but also that left the field wide open for future one-shots. I had to pare one character out of my initial outline for "Pastrami for the Dead" and a couple of fares, but once the entire shift was mapped out, I hit the gas and prayed for all green lights. There were a few speed bumps, but that's all.

BB: Since you live in NYC, I've got to ask what's sadly become a cliché question: How much of an impact did 9-11 have upon this book? Is it in any real way your response to that event and its aftermath, or is there little or no relationship between that day and the title?

SG: I wasn't consciously trying to tie it into 9/11, but I doubt you could find anyone in NYC who lived through that day and hasn't remained affected by it. The city's always been full of ghosts and history, and for me, it always seemed natural to place Styx here.

I can't say I ever get away from it, though. My day jobs for the last two years have been in the Financial District...the air's never smelled the same since. I was on a job interview that day, and when I got to the top floor (where the company had their office), they just ushered me out to the terrace, where I looked up and saw the World Trade Center on fire...I got there just after the second plane had hit. We saw people jumping or blown out from the top floors; I saw one tower fall from the roof, the other from street-level. I walk the path I took uptown once or twice a year so the memory doesn't fade.

Styx

BB: While the series could easily have become a one-note project, there's a number of levels, and interesting characterization choices you've injected into it. How difficult was it to steer the book away from being merely schmaltz and into that edgier territory, and how did you arrive at those choices?

SG: Schmaltz is something you work off at the gym, not an ingredient in comics. At least, it shouldn't be.

I knew going into this that I didn't want to jump through a lot of the same hoops I've seen other writers going through: no misanthropic anti-heroes who talk in short, choppy sentences, smoke enough to have throat cancer in a single issue, and live to kill and deliver witty banter; no unrealistic saints; no rehashes of Christian theosophy for the millionth time; no demons romping through the cityscape or opening nightclubs.

In other words, I wanted to write a book that was spiritual as opposed to religious, focusing on each character and their individual needs, not vague stereotypes like "random Pakistani guy and his needs as a Muslim". Aaron, one of the first fares, dies at the age of 4; a little kid's not going to want the same things as a Wall Street tycoon or a Buddhist priest, nor is he immediately going to cry and scream for mama.

I also didn't want to insult the intelligence of comics readers by drawing on moral absolutes. Superheroes deal in absolutes; people live in all the gray areas, including Styx's drivers, so they had to be human and flawed as the rest of us. If a fare wants to do something that they don't approve of, they'll chime in.

The rules of Styx Taxi aren't there to legislate the behavior of the fares (with the exception of the no-kill rule)...they're there to make sure that Styx goes unnoticed by the rest of the universe, something I'm going to go into in the next story.

BB: What are your future plans, if any, for Styx Taxi as a comic? How about in other media?

SG: For right now, I'm self-publishing, which slows down the production schedule dramatically. I'd like to have two one-shots out a year, more if I can swing it. I'm aiming to do another short book for early 2004, then another by the San Diego Comic-Con to coincide with the release of Dan's first book. I'm dying to get other creators on board for a jam section, illustrating short pieces a la The Animatrix.

Other media? Well, I've always approached Styx as though it was a TV show, the first book being the pilot, but each being self-contained and intelligible enough on its own that new readers can pick up any of them and get started. Carla McNeil does an amazing job of that in each arc of Finder between on-the-fly exposition and footnotes. But I'd love to have a crack at developing Styx Taxi for television. We need well-written, non-sappy TV with heart that isn't on PAX.

Styx

BB: What else might you have in the works that you can talk about at present?

SG: I'm back to work on a play that I put on hold to work on Styx Taxi. It's a Brooklyn ghost story, a full-length three-character piece with no breaks, all coming back to the idea that you write a story in the medium that suits it best...in this case, it's stage. One of the best matching of story and stage I've ever seen was Jeffrey Hatcher's two-person adaptation of Turn of the Screw that Actor's Express in Atlanta put on back in '97 or '98, where a woman played the maid and the man played everyone else. They staged it on a tri-level stage with two staircases, the man changing roles every few minutes (if not more often)...I've never seen such an energetic presentation of what can be a pretty staid story.

Dan and I are also collaborating on a series of short comic stories that'll showcase his art -- which is unlike pretty much everything on the market right now -- as well as a graphic novel we're co-writing for FWD that I don't want to spoil, target date late 2004.

BB: Let's say there's a reader out there who's still on the fence about ordering the book. What might you say to help convince them that Styx Taxi is worth their time and money?

SG: As I said before, it's got heart, something often left to the wayside in the rush to Mamet-ize and overplot comics. An ex of mine used to call the things she enjoyed in life "simple and necessary." I hope this is that kind of story.

BB: What do you hope readers get from the book?

SG: Some ideas about conscious living. A lot of factors in our culture push us to run on autopilot, lead us to accept whatever our lives become without question, as much as we may hate the forms they take...but we can change them anytime we want. It's just a choice.

I mean, I'm writing and publishing comics. You think I dreamt when I was 10 years old that I'd be actually doing this?

BB: What do you get from doing this work?

SG: I get to tell stories. I get to make people think, feel, and question. If I pull off that hat trick with my work, I'm a happy camper.

BB: Anything you'd like to add?

SG: Thanks to everyone who's supported me, Dan, FWD and Styx Taxi so far, especially my girlfriend Leslie, who's been both my cheering section and my harshest (yet necessary) critic. (She's the best!)

As for Styx Taxi, there's definitely a lot more in the cards as well as a ton of other work from FWD yet to come.

*****

You can still preorder Styx Taxi, which is on page 303 of this month's Previews catalogue [Diamond order code OCT03 2478]. You can also buy it directly from the publisher by visiting the Goldman brothers' website at http://brosgoldman.tripod.com/buystyx.html.

*****

Monstrous Fun

Mark Wheatley on Frankenstein Mobster


Our second, bonus interview focuses on Mark Wheatley, who's been providing comic readers with his own particular brand of visual storytelling for something like three decades now. From his early days creating art for those "Choose your own adventure!" books, to the breakthrough Breathtaker and Radical Dreamer graphic novels, all the way up to his more recent efforts as a publisher of fine art and comic books under the Insight Studio Group banner and as the writer of Hammer of the Gods, Wheatley has repeatedly proven that he's possessed of a talent for creating comics that are incredibly entertaining.

His latest endeavor, Frankenstein Mobster, promises to extend that long run while it develops a new legion of fans interested in his work.

Frankenstein Mobster and Vampirella

Bill Baker: The idea for this book has been around for a while, hasn't it?

Mark Wheatley: Yes. I actually did it originally as part of a line of comics we were developing as a studio, back in the beginning of the 1990s, back in the previous century. And that line of comics, unfortunately, came to bear fruit at the exact moment when the industry started crashing. The major player who was on the hook at that time to buy into this line of comics, suddenly found that they actually had no money to spare. [Laughter] So they paid us off and told us to go our merry way, and we ended up with all these properties we had created -- about sixty -- and one of those was the Frankenstein Mobster.

When I originally created it, all I had was a handful of rough plots, a very obvious pun, and I knew I was going to have Marc Hempel draw it. Then it went back on the shelf, and every year or two I would come up with this idea again, and think, "This is just too good to let it sit here!" And I'd be in a car driving somewhere with my buddy, Alan Gross, and I'd start talking about it. Well, after a while he got tired of me just talking about it and said, "You know, would you just go ahead and do this?" So I did. I got busy and drew thirteen weeks of a much longer daily strip and, I had just gotten that much of it done for our website -- www.SunnyFundays.com. We had a number of daily strips running art that time and the page was doing very well. Frankenstein Mobster had gone on the page as a preview while I worked up the daily strips and it was about set to launch when I realized that our books are selling so damn good that I had to spend all my time publishing. I had attempted to ignore the warning signs; lack of sleep, fading memories of just what my wife and cats looked like. But it was obvious that I had way too much on my plate.

So I put the thirteen weeks in a drawer, and only brought it out and showed it to people when I went to San Diego that year. Because I just wanted to prove to my art friends that I actually had drawn something in that previous year. [General laughter] Now, I had the Frankenstein Mobster binder laying on my table at San Diego while we were shoveling books out, and a guy reached around and grabbed it and looked through it. And I thought, "Oh, what the hell, I'll just keep an eye on him so he doesn't run off with the thing." Well, it turns out he was one of the producers over at Jerry Bruckheimer's [studio]. He really fell in love with it, and wanted to know if he could get the rights to it for a movie. I told him I didn't know fully what it was yet, and I didn't know if I wanted to sell it. [General laughter] So he gave me his card, and said, "Well, let me know." Then, about an hour later, a guy from Paramount came over and went through the same song and dance. And I thought, "You know, I've really got to do this!" And at the same moment I'm surrounded by crowds of people purchasing our books, distributors begging for more titles and talented creative people pushing me to publish their works. I was even fielding offers from other publishers who wanted me to draw comics for them, to write comics for them, to illustrate books for them. Oh, how I wished for the 48 hour day!

So I talked to my friends in the movie industry, and they said, "Look, if you really want to do Frankenstein Mobster as a film, you're right. You definitely figure out what it is before you sell it, or it'll never end up being anything close to what you want it to be." And they suggested I write it as a film script. This seemed reasonable since I happened to be writing for a television series right at that time. So I had the experience of working in television, and I knew the form of screen writing, and I figured, "Well, I'll just write the script. How hard could it be?"

Well, eighteen months later, I had the script done and put it back on the shelf and went back to publishing full time. Because that's all I had the time for. [Laughter] But the process of writing that script had my creative juices going again. I kept going back to the script, thinking that it was really good, but that it should be a comic book. So I ended up turning the movie script into seven issues of the comic book. I rewrote it slightly to make it more episodic, more stand alone, on an issue by issue basis, moved a plot thread forward or back so it could conclude in a single issue, stuff like that. And then said, "Well, you know I can't introduce a new series with something that's this long an arc." So I created Frankenstein Mobster issue #0, which is what I've been showing around to people for the last two years. And that's gotten such tremendous response that I've had all these opportunities dumped in my lap to let people know the book was coming out.

Frankenstein Mobster

Which includes, by the way, the daily strip that I just finished with Vampirella as the co-star. That ran on the Internet from August 4th through the end of August, [2003], and our website was not active for the previous year. We had intended to re-do it the previous year, and that was right about the time that my father died. So I had skipped an important thing. I had not updated our website or done anything to it for a year. It was dormant and gathering dust and, because of that, there was no reason for people to go there. So we were getting only about 800 people coming through our website on a given day in July this year. But on August 4th, when my Frankenstein Mobster-Vampirella strip hit, we jumped up to 17,000 a day. By the end of the month, between August 4th and the end of the month, we had done over 350,000 hits, with over 55,000 unique visitors. And this strip was distributed across the Internet by tooncasting, which means it was on many other sites. Now, I can't track those sites. But if their traffic was anything like ours, well...

BB: Wow. Has that translated into preorders in any way?

MW: Oh, probably not! [General laughter] But we don't know yet.

That's the interesting thing about trying to work in our direct market; it is fairly easy to reach the readership, especially with the Internet, and let them know something's there. And it's quite easy with the Internet to see the response immediately. If you've ever worked with a website, you know you can look at the stats. And I can look at a graph showing me very clearly when folks liked what I was doing. It's almost like standing on stage and hearing people laugh or clap -- you know what they are responding to.

The other side of the coin is that retailers, for a lot of good reasons, resist like hell being sold anything new. And so what we have to do is show them that this response curve has been happening, and that's the tough thing to do. It's very, very hard. The only thing they're going to believe is having their customers come in and ask them for the book.

BB: And, ideally, they'll have copies on hand to sell those customers.

MW: That would be the ideal. I'm not sure it will be the reality, but it would be ideal! [General laughter] And we're doing everything we can to make sure that happens. For instance, Image is over printing the book and it will be available for quick reorder through Diamond. So if that crowd of fans shows up at the local comic book store and asks for their copies of Frankenstein Mobster #0, Diamond should be able to get copies to the store in less than a week.

Frankenstein Mobster

BB: Well, what can you tell us about Frankie and his world, without giving too much away?

MW: It is interesting how you ask that question, because I do see that Frankie's world is as much of a character in this series as the Frankenstein Mobster. I've developed a city, called Monstros City, that, is complete with a back story going back to Revolutionary War days. I followed the leading members of the leading families of that city all the ways up through that history. It's a port of entry, so there's a lot of immigration. Most of the immigration these days is in the form of werewolves, and vampires, and mummies, and all of the magical creatures that came from the Old World trying to seek a better life over here.

Unfortunately, it's also a mob town, and the mobs love the fact that they have somebody worse off than them. The monsters -- they like to be called "the Exceptionals", but most people refer to them as monsters -- are the second class citizens of the town, and they're a cheap work force. I mean, the ghouls basically run the entire garbage collection industry, and the landfill is not a problem. Usually the garbage trucks are empty by the time they get there because the ghouls eat everything. It all works out. The mummies are taxi drivers, and it works out pretty good for the local economy.

The problem, though, is since the mob basically runs the town, crime is rampant, and the police force is pretty dirty, too. Most of the police force is on the take, and the one good policeman -- who actually had been looking out for the monsters -- ended up getting killed. This is Terry Todd, and he has now been sewn up in a new body with three of the worst mobsters who ever worked in town. They all share the same body, and it's a war of conscience for the Frankenstein Mobster, because there's this good cop who wants to do the right thing, and three nasty mobsters who want to do the wrong thing.

I guess it's my version of what [William] Faulkner always said, which was that the only thing worth writing about is the human heart in conflict with itself. In this case, I've got the human heart in conflict with three other selves. [Laughter] What's that film with Lily Tomlin and Steve Martin in it?

BB: Man with Two Brains?

MW: No, he gets her heart or something?

BB: Oh, right. All of Me.

MW: Yeah. And so he ends up acting with both halves of his body as different persons? Anyway, I get into some of that. [General laughter]

I'm really enjoying the thing a great deal. I mean, there's incredible possibilities for drama. But, at the same time, the characters are so real to me, and so rich, and so full, that I'm getting a lot of humor out of it, as well. Because I see all of their aspects. They're not one dimensional people at all.

I've got a very big cast of characters, and that's one of the reasons I did the issue #0. To introduce the cast of characters before I start focusing a lot of attention on the Frankenstein Mobster, almost to the exclusion of everything else for a while.

Frankenstein Mobster

BB: It sounds like this is a project that could become something you do for the long term.

MW: I've got too many ideas for that, but I'll bet you still see me working on this seven or eight years from now.

BB: Without a huge gap between the arcs, I hope!

MW: Well, it's an ongoing series. And I've already talked to, I think I'm up to ten movie producers, now, in the last six months about this thing. So we'll see.

*****

Head on over to www.InsightStudioGroup.com for more information on the activities of Mark Wheatley as well as his studio mates, Mark Hempel and Mike Oeming. Here at World Famous Comics, you can catch online Mark's Frankenstein Mobster and Vampirella. And you can also catch Mark on his "My Favorite Haunts" tour at one of the following venues:

Frankenstein Mobster Wednesday, October 8
Haunted Chapel Comics and Games
12 Noon to 2 PM
115 New Canaan Avenue
Norwalk, CT 06851
203-847-2008
contact: Daniel W. Cisek

Wednesday, Oct 8 from 5 - 7
Jim Hanley's Universe
contact: Vito
Phone 212 268 7088
NYC

Wednesday October 15
Geppi's
1 pm to 4 pm
email gdoug@diamondcomics.com
(410) 788-0900
1116 North Rolling Road
Baltimore, MD 21228
(Exit 15 West off I-695 Baltimore Beltway & Turn Right onto Rolling Road)

Oct 18th though the end of the year
True Believers Comics & Gallery
original art from FM #0 on display - limited signed prints on sale
Contact Laura Marsh (505) 99-2TRUE
435 S. Guadalupe
Santa Fe NM

Thursday, October 30, 2003 through Saturday, November 1, 2003
Maryland Fantastique Film Fest
Chesapeake Arts Center
194 Hammonds Lane
Brooklyn Park, MD 23225
Contact: Susan Svehla at 410-665-1198
http://www.midmar.com/MFFFindex.html

November 13-16
4th Annual Midwest Entertainment Industry Conference
Hyatt Regency, Lexington KY
Stephen Zimmer
President, MEIC/MEII
859.223.1560
http://www.midwestentertainmentconference.com/

Nov. 29 & 30, 2003
Mid-Ohio-Con
Hilton Columbus
Easton Town Center,
Columbus OH
http://www.midohiocon.com/

<< 10/01/2003 | 10/08/2003 | 10/15/2003 >>

Discuss this column with me in World Famous Comics' General Forum.
Read my weekly blog, Speculative Friction, on my website BloodintheGutters.com.


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