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BAKER'S DOZEN for 09/08/2004
Paranoia as a Life Choice
Allan Gross on Doctor Cyborg
Despite his protean talents as a scribe, folks sometime overlook Alan Gross when considering the output of the various folks associated with Insight Studios. You'll typically see stories about the artists, usually bearing their endorsements and recommendations of their studio mate's work ... but not much solid info on Alan himself.
It's my hope that this piece will go a little ways towards rectifying that situation by bringing some well-deserved attention to Gross and his different artistic endeavors, which includ everything from a long hsitory of composing music and playing in bands, to scripting the Tarzan newspaper strip, writing the text for the utterly beautiful IS Art: The Art of Insight Studios, and much, much more. He is, quite simply, one of the more original thinkers in comics, and a great interview subject.
If you don't already know his work, perhaps the recent release of his Doctor Cyborg: Outpatient -- featuring art by Mike Oeming, Neil Vokes and others -- will give you reason enough to track it down and discover his work firsthand. But, just in case you needed a little more incentive or maybe a bit more information on the particulars of the book, here's Uncle Al to lay it all out for us.
Bill Baker: The latest collection featuring Doctor Cyborg hit the shelves recently. What can you tell us about that particular volume, the good doctor and the terribly strange world he inhabits?
Allan Gross: Well, in the world of Doctor Cyborg: Outpatient, there's a strange man who "collects scars", an invisible boy named "Invisibilly", a "Time Tower" where scientists have outlawed wearing ties, and a "Monster Messiah" who is an avowed murderer. So, I would say it isn't any stranger than our world, especially in an election year.
The book really is a collection of web strips, AKA "webisodes". They have been collected and tell a complete story of Malcolm Syberg, AKA Doctor Cyborg.
BB: Now this Malcom Syberg is a character with a pretty interesting history, literally and literarially speaking, since Cyborg was initially conceived by one of of your studio mates, Mark Wheatley. All of which which leads to two concerns: First, will readers new to the series be able to fully enjoy Outpatient without knowing Syberg's past, and, second, could you give us a quick outline of the basic behind the scenes creative and publishing history of Doctor Cyborg?
AG: Outpatient is a complete story. One need not have read The Clone Conspiracy, which was a five part comic story collected in the late 1990s by Attention Publishing. The Clone Conspiracy told the story of Malcolm and his family during The Cold War. This story is set in the present with Malcolm recovering in a mental institute with amnesia. It is the story of his search for his family. There are a few crossovers for readers of the original series, but it is a self-contained and satisfying read in either case - and in either order. Copies of The Clone Conspiracy are still out there and I have a few left I bring to conventions. I can also be emailed at email@example.com.
BB: Were you at all concerned about playing with Wheatley's toys, so to speak, or did you pretty much just jump into it with both feet and start working?
AG: Well anyone who has seen Mark Wheatley's toy box knows it's a strange and scary sight (grimace). And it's easy to get lost in there! Yes, Mark did create Doctor Cyborg - which really amounted to coming up with the name and a general description of the characters. I pretty much did the rest. I can't remember the exact circumstance, but I was probably sitting around the studio twiddling my thumbs (or something). I believe I was between gigs writing Tarzan for Semic International and Dark Horse Comics and writing Tarzan for the syndicated newspaper strip. So I was a little bored. Anyway, Mark threw together the high concept, knowing my interests, and I took it from there. Mark has had more story concepts than most people have meals. If you hang around long enough he'll throw out a bone for you. But seriously, I put a lot of time and effort into it and making it personal.
BB: OK. Not quite as convoluted as I'd been lead to believe, but still interesting. Oh, I have to ask what it's like doing research for a series like Cyborg?
AG: The hardest part was building a Time Tower so I could see what the future would be like. Actually, a lot of the conspiracy stuff was things I enjoyed researching anyway, so it was no trouble at all. I think I have about 100 books on the Bacon-Shakespeare Authorship controversy. So of course that worked its way in. But compared to The Clone Conspiracy, which dealt in more depth with conspiracy issues, this book treats the psychological aspects of the paranoid. In this case, Malcolm, with amnesia is so afraid of the consequences of what "they" might do to him, that he risks losing his family, his chance for love and life. It's not unlike what many people do with risk aversion in their lives but on a grand scale.
BB: So how did the various artists associated with the series get involved with this project, and what about their particular talents made them the perfect fit for it?
AG: I took anyone who could fog a mirror. Actually, I've been really, really lucky to work with an amazing set of artists. I was fortunate that Mike Oeming was available at the start. Of course, then he became huge (and I don't just mean his biceps), so I did end up getting Neil Vokes and Adrian Salmon to help out - which was great cuz they are both fantastic artists and they worked well in a similar style. And then John Staton knocked me out with the coloring. Hey, the book is gorgeous. Mark Wheatley's layouts and book design make the whole thing very eye catching - people at San Diego who had never heard of the series just kept picking it up and buying them. In general, this is how work is done at Insight Studios, it's kind of a meeting place for talented folk. It's a singles bar without the smoke - though in this case it became more like an orgy before it was over. What's nice is seeing what everyone will bring to the table. You never know how it will come out.
BB: How'd the actual series get created? Did you sit down with the artist and plot it out together, then go and write it, or did you handle all the initial idea generation as well as scripting? Oh, and what kind of scripts [full/detailed or the striped down "marvel" style] were you writing for them?
AG: I follow a pretty basic routine. I start thinking about a story idea and let it fill up my life to the point where my wife can't get my attention. She kicks me out of the house. Then, while I'm driving to a hotel, it usually comes to me, so I start scribbling it down on the dashboard. If I don't wreck into housewives driving minivans while on their phones I write it out in full script form.
Also, at Insight Studios we like to do lettering scripts, meaning that after the art is done, I often rewrite the dialog to take advantage of things the artist may have done. Most major comic companies don't give you that opportunity, but I think it's really a great way to do it. Mainly I was trying to really have some fun with the strip, so I mixed in a lot of bizarre situations. I tried to "push" Mike to do a variety of characters and I think he really came through with some beautiful stuff.
BB: Did the webtoon nature of this tale's initial publication have any real or significant effect on the work as a whole, be it creative or format-wise, for good or ill?
AG: Writing online strips - or in the strip format in general - is a challenge.
I learned a lot about the format while writing Tarzan for the United Features newspaper strip. It can be extremely limiting since you often have to recap with the first panel and set up the next day with the last panel. I do think it was great to do as a web strip because it allowed a huge audience across the world access. We were getting over 100,000 hits a month.
And then when we did the collection I even went back again and re-dialoged it so it would read more like a graphic novel than a web strip. It makes it jump around a bit here and there, but I think it still works very well.
BB: A lot of folks might not know this, but you're a musician, and you've written, performed and recorded a CD of original tunes based on the Doctor Cyborg project. Why not tell us a bit about what folks will hear on the disc, as well as what circumstances and coincidences might have lead to this side project?
AG: There's probably only one field of writing that gets less respect than comics, and that's lyric writing. Yes, I've been in bands since the early '80s. I grew up on the Ramones and Elvis Costello and playing suburban garage punk. I've been fortunate to play in some good places up and down the east coast - and a lot of crappy bars as well! Most of the time I was playing with friends from junior high school that I've kept in touch with - under the name "The Suburban Rejects" and "The Philistines". Plus some cover bands for fun. I've written hundreds of songs, either alone or with "Brian X" the guitarist and/or bass player in the band. So, when it came time for the book to come out, I wrote several songs based on the characters and Conspiracy Theory and added some of the old songs that we had recorded in London years ago with a pretty well known producer and put it all together on Doctor Cyborg's Sonic Cyborgasms. It features Mike and Adrian's art on the insert and is a really fun CD. You can hear samples at www.DoctorCyborg.com by following the Sonic Cyborgasms link. And please, when you get the CD, read the lyrics, I consider them my best writing. There's also a picture of me in there from the "bad old days" doing my best Billy Idol imitation. Actually, the CD (as well as signed/numbered print of the cover art) is being solicited now by Insight Studios for December release.
BB: How different are writing music, or lyrics, from creating comics for you? Are there any telling similarities in your creative processes, or do you seem to be using different mental muscles for these different efforts?
AG: Well, I've always said that being in a band is like being married to (at least) 3 other people. Writing comics is much the same way, except you're already separated!
On a personal level, songs come easier to me, but for a good song, the structure is basically the same. You still want to "set up" the story at the beginning - in the first verse - and then "pay it off" in the last verse.
The chorus is like character building - you continually reinforce a character throughout a story through actions.
BB: So where to next for the Malcolm and company, then?
AG: Well, in the near term, the plan is to continue Doctor Cyborg on the Internet, probably with some spin-off characters, such as Slammer; The Monster Messiah and possibly Genocide Jane, the homicidal agent of an unnamed government agency. We already created a Slammer story with a very talented artist named Matt Cossin. Then, we'll play it by ear. Adrian Salmon has signed on to continue the series in book form if we decide to go that way. As for the story line, I have a ton of ideas. Most of them are going in a way that explores both philosophy and politics, but with an in your face very superhero structure.
Well, I understand what it means, but it's hard to explain! Basically, I've been reading a lot of philosophy and Greek and Roman tragedy, so I'll mix that with my Libertarian outlook on the world by creating threats to Doctor Cyborg and the world that involve supervillain-esque powers. Makes sense to me!
BB: How about yourself? Do you have other projects going?
AG: Yes! I'm very excited about a project called Cryptozoo Crew that I'm doing with Jerry Carr. We'll have a press release out shortly with the publication details once they are solidified. It's the story of Tork Darwyn, a Cryptozoologist and his daring and beautiful wife Tara and their adventures searching for exotic unknown animals, like the Yeti and Loch Ness Monster.
Tork may be able to figure out the animals, but he'll never figure out his wife! He may be able to talk to the animals, but he'll never get the last word in with his wife. Getting the idea? It's like "Crocodile Hunter" meets "Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus", except with Cryptozoology. It's been SO much fun to develop and we've had great response at convention with some ashcans we did - as well as online strips. Now, we're finally ready to publish it. What's been amazing about this book is the response from kids of all ages (to Jerry's art) and by women - who absolutely love the stories. I believe this will be the book that every male comic book reader will enjoy and be able to share with his wife or girlfriend or even mother and have them like it, proving that comics are once again fun and relevant to everyone. It's had that sort of wide ranging appeal!
I also have some other freelance work in the works, which I'll be announcing when that is finalized. Should be a very busy year for me!
BB: So what do you get from being creative generally, and from making comics and music, specifically?
AG: I stay out of the psych ward.
Actually, that's probably true. Writing (and publishing) provides an outlet for expression, self-exploration and interacting with others. That's about all there is to life. If those aren't balanced you pretty much go crazy.
You either become too self-absorbed, or you feel like life is empty. Doctor Cyborg is really struggling with that throughout the book. And Gem McKenna, his home nurse often points out his self-absorption. Although I didn't really plan this out from the start, it does turn out that when Malcolm starts to care about others, he has the chance to cure himself (wipes tear from eye).
BB: How about your readers and listeners? What would you like them to get from your work?
AG: I like stories and songs that are open enough and complicated enough that readers and listeners can get a wide range of responses - and responses that change over time. If you put enough ideas and imagery (in songs) everyone filters them through their own lives and picks up on the parts that affect them. That's really cool. I've enjoyed the fan mail I've gotten because I see things in the works I might not have consciously put there. I feel the same way about Shakespeare. If you see the same play years apart you will often have completely different reactions. It's all in there. You just have changed. I do think people will enjoy the action as well as the cerebral nature of the comic and the same can be said for the music. It's very energetic but also has a great deal of craft in the lyrics.
BB: Any last thoughts?
AG: Well I encourage everyone to stop by the website at www.DoctorCyborg.com which leads to the Insight Studios Group page. We have a message board which is a lot of fun where you can interact with the whole gang - which includes Mark Wheatley, Marc Hempel, Jerry Carr, Harry Roland, John Staton and whoever else pops in. From there you can check out strips or contact us if you're having trouble finding any of our books or product. There's always something new and fun going on there - lots of art and idle banter. And please check out Cryptozoo Crew, it's going to be great.
In point of fact, everything that Bill has seen of Cryptozoo Crew is, quite simply, great. Ditto Doctor Cyborg: Outpatient and The Clone Conspiracy. And Doctor Cyborg's Sonic Cyborgasms rocks very, very hard, thank you very much.
All of these -- hell, everything Insight Studios puts out, for that matter -- are on Bill's highly recommended reading list. What else do you need to know? Go buy 'em!
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