How Comic Books Saved My Life

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September 2, 2010. Long Center for the Performing Arts, Austin, Texas.
I'm sitting in the audience along with eleven-hundred other people in attendance for the premiere of a new kind of live performance. Three actors (Mical Trejo, Shana Merlin and Christopher Lee Gibson) behind microphones stage right. One Foley artist (Buzz Moran) behind two enormous tables filled with hundreds of sound-effects gadgets center stage. Austin's most renowned local composer, Graham Reynolds, sitting at a Steinway concert grand stage left. Upstage, a two-story-high movie screen blasting forth comic-book images panel by panel. Suddenly the music swells. The title appears on the screen. The audience erupts into cheers.

True story. And one of the most amazing days of my life.

June 2, 1996.
Buzz Moran and I are setting up the "stage" at Little City Espresso Bar and Cafe for a 9 PM performance of the premiere of a new live radio drama we've both helped create. I say "stage" in quotes because really our stage is just the raised back smoking area of the one-room totally-not-a-theatre venue. It's been a crazy week. Initiated by an idea that our spoken-word-genius pal Ray Colgan approached me with, my theater company Salvage Vanguard Theater (dedicated to developing new plays for a 20-something audience) is producing our poor man's version of Star Wars and Raiders of the Lost Ark--a serialized radio drama called The Intergalactic Nemesis. Today we're presenting and recording the first two fifteen-minute episodes in a ten-episode series. It's been a quick and dirty process. Ray wrote the first episode on Monday and Tuesday, passed it off to Jessica Reisman who wrote the second episode on Wednesday and Thursday. She passed the two episodes on to me on Friday. I rehearsed with a group of actors on Saturday. Buzz and I grabbed a bunch of crap from his kitchen on Sunday to approximate the myriad sound-effects (with which the writers had too-good of a time). And here we were Sunday night. Only one thing was missing. Would anyone actually show up to hear it?

A trickle of people started coming in around 8 PM. Then a few more. Then at ten-till-nine, a flood. Not only did they show up, but we couldn't fit the number of people into the room and people watched from open french doors on the sidewalk.

I said to Ray: this thing should play the Paramount. I'm going to stick with it. If it takes ten years, we're going to play the Paramount.

Or the Hogg Auditorium, Austin's other period 1,200-seat theater.

September 16, 2006.
The national tour of a heavily-edited and condensed radio drama called The Intergalactic Nemesis launches to a sold-out crowd at the Hogg Auditorium on the UT campus. We tour to 30 cities and towns over the next three years.

But this entire time I'm thinking about the inspiration for the project--Star Wars and Raiders--and how they're both movies. Every time I tell someone I want to make Nemesis into a movie, they ask the same question: "What, would you film actors in front of microphones?" I'd tell them, no, it's about story and character. They'd say, "But the show is an auditory experience and film is visual. It could never work."

Enter Tim Doyle.

Tim and I had met through a mutual friend who loved the show. She had suggested that because Tim's style as a painter reflected comic-books, we might bring him on to create a backdrop for the live show. I thought it was a cool idea, Tim agreed, and ruined the floor of his rented apartment painting the first one in 2001. Then, when we had created what was then the third part of a sci-fi trilogy, Tim painted a second backdrop. Then when we launched the tour, the scene shop at the UT Performing Arts Center took an 18-inch by 18-inch mockup Tim painted and professionally recreated it as an 18-foot by 18-foot comic-book-style masterpiece that dropped jaws. I thought, well, comic-books are a visual format, maybe Tim would be interested in making one with me of the Nemesis story. Tim was. And we released the first issue in January 2010.

But let's back up a few months.

July 14, 2009. The office of Cliff Redd, Executive Director of Austin's new performing arts center, the Long Center.
About a year before this, I had left Salvage Vanguard Theater, the company I founded, to pursue Nemesis full-time. It looked likely that we were going to open commercially in New York and I wanted to devote my full attention to making that happen. A major Broadway producing office was keen enough on it to fly the cast to New York for a presentation to investors even. Then Lehman Brothers collapsed and the economy with it and the project died a slow, painful death. I was out of work for months and there were no jobs. The Dow was down to 6500. My marriage, as a result, was on the rocks. (This is really true and was a horrible experience for me.) The only jobs available that matched my experience, all five of them, were outside of Austin, my home for 15 years. So, I had put together a resume and, hat in hand, had set up a meeting to beg Cliff for a job. Literally, anything that might bring some income.

Cliff looked at me and said, "You're too talented to work as an administrator in my office. There has to be another way. What if we presented The Intergalactic Nemesis in the big hall?"

My heart stopped. Was he serious? The big hall was a 2,400-seat theatre. If we did well, the project (and my life) could be revived. He was. I almost burst into tears.

But it would never work. 2,400 seats is just too big an audience for the intimate experience of watching the performance of a radio play. I said no. And then...

A vision of a performance I had seen years ago came back to me. It was a screening of Dracula, the 1931 Universal picture, with a brand-new live score by Philip Glass. The screen was huge, the size of the proscenium arch at Bass Concert Hall. Behind the screen were Mr. Glass and the Kronos Quartet and you could see them through the screen. It was one of the coolest things I had ever seen. I loved it.

What if I were to do that with the comic-book art? Project it on a huge screen while the performers did some version of the radio play? Of course, the script would need rewriting to get rid of all the descriptions of what you'd now see. But it could be spectacular. And it would play to the very back seats of a 2,400-seat theatre.

I blurted the idea to Cliff and, amazingly, he was game, even though at this point we had created exactly two pages of the comic-book series.

Fourteen months later we premiered the show. Over two nights, 2,100 people came. We sold 700 comic books to the audience. Ten days after that I was at a booking conference for touring and now have a 25-city tour of the Midwest and New England. The Long Center brought it back for one night in January and another 2,000 people came.

A couple of weeks after the premiere, my 11-year-old daughter was e-chatting with her friends on gmail's "buzz" and she started having the feeling like some of the things one of her friends was typing sounded familiar. Then it hit her. "Hey," she typed, "my dad wrote those words!" Awesome.

Last week I was in Los Angeles talking to the offices of a major star, talent agencies, and even a producer. I'm not expecting anything to come of that, but damn it was pretty cool to meet with those people.

The comic-book series itself has done pretty well, too. In print it's available in stores in Austin and from our web site, but at Book People, Austin's biggest independent bookseller, the series was the best-selling graphic novel for three months running. Which means somehow I've become a best-selling author too. Graphic.ly just started releasing it as well, so it's now available everywhere.

None of this would be happening if the project were still only a radio play. It's all because of comic-books. So it was particularly cool to be invited to write my story for you, the fans of that medium.

I'm still pretty new to writing comic books and I'm still figuring it out. But since I've started writing them, my career has been relaunched, my marriage is back together, my kid thinks I'm a hero, and I feel like I'm at the beginning of a whole new adventure. Yes, I can say it: comic-books saved my life.

For more information on the Intergalactic Nemesis, read Jason Sacks's review of the series.

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