So in previous posts I’ve given you a short course in the history of Teknophage; or at least my part of it. Last fall, after being nearly twenty years out of print, SuperGenius brought out handsome new collections of the material.
The collection includes mine and Brian’s six issue run as well as Paul Jenkins and Al Davison’s four issue follow up. The book opens with a 20 page crossover special called Wheel Of Worlds that provides the backstories and origins of all the Tekno characters. I found this a little out of place as the reader is introduced to dozens of characters who never appear in the actual Teknophage comic. But beyond that, the material is presented beautifully and the Veitch/Talbot and Jenkins/Davison stories neatly dovetail.
The political edge to the concept holds up rather well, considering the massive transfer of wealth from the middle-class to the super-rich which the world has witnessed since 1995. The indignities of modern corporate employment are clearly, if insanely, predicted all through Teknophage. Cup of Koffup, anyone?
SuperGenius has not been able or, perhaps, willing to tackle the marketing problem. To the uninitiated, the book appears to be written by Neil Gaiman. Bryan’s and my credits were on promotional images of the front cover (see below) but left off of the final version. Neil Gaiman’s Teknophage is in wide distribution (by Macmillan) and I’ve seen copies in pretty much every bookstore I’ve been in. Sadly, the whole exercise has the scent of a publishing sleight of hand that exploits Neil, as well as his fans.
Not to mention the actual artists and writers who created the material. And I had to ask SuperGenius to get a single comp copy. It has not escaped me that perhaps a book about a rapacious business predator almost requires the exploitation of its creators.
Please don’t let all that get in the way of your enjoying Teknophage though. It actually is a very cool book and I am proud of my part in making it.
When it came time for Tekno Comics to introduce the Neil Gaiman line, including Teknophage, to the world, it presented an interesting problem. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the comic book industry was undergoing a sort of business apocalypse. Hundreds of thousands of reader/collectors had abandoned comics and many who remained felt betrayed by years of slimy marketing techniques aimed at making slipshod material “collectible”.
Tekno Comics business plan was based on properties with famous names attached, (such as Issac Asimov, Mickey Spillane and Leonard Nimoy). But launching a “Neil Gaiman” line of comics that Neil wasn’t actually writing was suicide considering the fan fatigue and resentment in the marketplace. And since none of the books tried to mimic Neil’s distinctive storytelling style, even his own dedicated fans were left confused.
It was just too easy for fans to ignore the line as more phony crap being done to fleece them. Which is a shame, because the opposite is true. Behind the scenes Neil had been up to his elbows working with creators; helping them speak with their own voices, not his. I think it would have been better for all involved if Tekno could have rethought their strategy by giving Neil a more formal creative role such as “story editor” and pitched the line as “edited by Neil Gaiman”.
Instead Tekno relied on the same “collectibility” approach that had just gutted comic book publishing.
Another inspired addition to our Teknophage team was letterer, Todd Klein. Without question, Todd is the very best letterer working in comics today (as he was when he signed on to make my writing fit perfectly with Brian’s storytelling).
I’ve had the great good fortune to work with Todd on a lot of projects. Many of them, like Supreme and the ABC stuff, demanded he reach into his historical bag of tricks to uncannily duplicate period correct lettering styles from all the eras of comics.
Todd discusses designing the Teknophage logo here. Anyone wishing to learn the art of lettering comics could not do better than to explore the tips, tricks and essentials as explained on his site.
Another wonderful thing about seeing Teknophage come to life, was the astounding color by Angus Mckie. The year was 1995. Computers were slow, Photoshop was crude, but dedicated artists like Angus were making dazzling color comics that made all previous processes seem dowdy and old fashioned. I was already a fan of Angus’ existential SF masterpiece, SO BEAUTIFUL AND SO DANGEROUS, which had run in Heavy Metal. I loved his use of rich contrasted color. It is pure eye-and-mind scorching comics and he pulled out all the stops on Teknophage.
In my mind Teknophage always had one foot in the horror genre and the other in the world of cartoons. Bryan Talbot and Angus Mckie perfectly caught this spirit, with a lush gooey detail and relentless visual integrity.
Above is the first page, which I think nicely sets up the mood of the book. The opening caption, “The blind-piggers and vatmen all swear it to be true.”, was inspired by one of those sketchbook challenges we used to pull on each other back in the day. Can’t remember who it was, but at a convention someone handed me a sketchbook with the title BLIND PIG and challenged me to draw a pig with my eyes closed. Somehow it made it into my script.
I will always be eternally grateful to Dave Gibbons for suggesting Bryan Talbot as artist on Teknophage. If anyone was born to do steampunk, it was Bryan. Hell, he pretty much invented the genre in comics with his Luther Arkwright opus. Bryan was the very sharp leading edge of a whole generation of incredibly talented U.K. writers and artists who would take American publishing by storm in what became known as “The British Invasion”. On one hand he was a cultural anarchist with roots in the underground. On the other he was a consummate professional who could keep a regular series on schedule and under budget without any side dramas.
We showed Bryan what we’d worked up and he liked it enough to join the party. When his first pages started coming in I was grinning from ear to ear. Bryan hadn’t been intimidated by my script with its overwhelmingly long panel descriptions. In fact he seemed to take perverse delight in bringing in every last crazy detail I larded them with. More importantly he caught the tone I was shooting for: Grand Guignol by way of Looney Tunes.
This, of course, was so far away from a normal Neil Gaiman comic that readers must have thought Neil had little to do with Teknophage. I’m here to tell you the opposite is true. Neil was hands on story editor for every one of my scripts; making terrific suggestions and egging us on as we gleefully skewered what was then an emerging corporate culture. He challenged me to add more dimension to my characters; especially the human leads, Rob Nichols and Claudia Cassidy. He shared subtle tricks he’d developed in his own writing such as: “Imagine some life altering event that happened to your character but don’t share it with the reader.”
Bryan breathed life into Rob and Claudia, the facial expressions he gave them always reflecting whatever internal emotions they were feeling in a given situation. Rob and Claudia’s first scene together, when they meet cute over a string and tin can “telephone”, is a master class in staging by Bryan.
After Ed Polgardy and I worked out all the contractual stuff, the next step was for Ed, Neil and myself to develop Teknophage into a character. If memory serves there was a short typed out description from Neil, and long phone calls exploring who and what Teknophage could be. Neil has a master writer’s grasp of genre characters and what makes them work. Sculpting Teknophage and all his trappings out of the ether with Neil was a pleasure for me.
Even though I was signing on as writer, I worked up various graphic interpretations, faxing stuff back and forth to Neil and the Ed. A steampunk flavor emerged early on and the concept of the Phage Building, a monstrous moving skyscraper, caught everyone’s fancy. From this developed the idea that Teknophage’s top predator status carried over into the world of business and economics. We started calling him Mr. Henry Phage and dressing him in Edwardian power suits. I did one painted collage based on John D. Rockefeller.
The financial predator theme seemed entirely ripe for exploration in the wake of the very recent collapse of the Soviet Union and what historians were calling the triumph of capitalism over socialism. Everyone was wondering what would happen next on the world stage. Would capitalism, in the wake of its historical victory, begat a new financial totalitarianism? Or would the lives of ordinary citizens improve? These were big questions that seemed ripe for the kind of take-no-prisoners satire I like to write sometimes.
And so the Teknophage comic book started shaping up into a political tract. And Neil, god bless him, got it.
So did Ed. And very quickly we found the perfect artist to bring our Bohemian nightmare to life.
Below a page from the Italian edition, with Mr. Henry Phage devouring a Karl Marx kind of guy.
I think it started with a phone call from Neil. Something about him needing to raise money to buy a house and cutting a deal with a new comics publisher for a brace of characters. The publisher was planning to go ahead with a rather broad publishing plan and Neil wanted to make sure the stuff was good. He asked me if I’d be interested in writing one of the characters, an ancient reptilian predator called Teknophage. “I always like to lead with my villain”, he said.
It was 1994 and the comic book market was just coming off a glorious expansion by way of a disastrous market bubble that made the Dutch tulip frenzy seem normal. Readers, who had been suckered into believing their comics were valuable collectibles, were bailing out in droves and stores, publishers and distributors were going out of business right and left. To describe the comics business as a smoldering crater would be very close to accurate. I was self-publishing my art comic, RARE BIT FIENDS, which was creatively engaging but struggling financially in the weak marketplace, so to subsidize it I was open to a side gig writing a mainstream book.
Better yet was that Neil wanted to be active behind the scenes in the creation of these titles. We’d both come up through DC in the 1980’s and talked regularly but had never had an opportunity to collaborate in any meaningful way. We might not have seemed like a good fit creatively, with Neil being the master of a distinctively subtle less-is-more writing style and myself being known for over-the-top satires such as BRAT PACK. But we were simpatico in a shared belief that the fuse of creativity, once lit, could explode gloriously and in unexpected ways.
Neil put me in touch with Ed Polgardy, editor at the brand spanking new Tekno Comics. I’m not sure if they named the company after Teknophage, or visa versa. The publishing arm was an offshoot of Big Entertainment, which had hopes of developing a stable of characters to exploit in all media. They seemed like decent folks, if slightly unaware of the market headwinds they would be facing.
More to come.
I just received a copy of the collected TEKNOPHAGE from Super Genius. It includes my and Bryan Talbot’s six issue run on the title along with a follow up six by Paul Jenkins and Al Davison. It was great fun to read the thing again after twenty years; especially because it brought up delicious memories of working with a pretty amazing group of creative people. I’m going to try and post some of the behind-the-scenes history of the development and execution of TEKNOPHAGE over the next week, along with a few choice scenes that catch the flavor of a kick-ass take-no-prisoners comic book from the days when such things were possible.
You can probably find a copy of this new edition at your local retailer but if that fails it’s on Amazon.