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.