The Tangled Trails of Nathaniel Dusk, Alexander Risk, Sebastian Edge
The origins of series often have tangled histories. One trip starts and suddenly dead-ends, as another trip unexpectedly appears in an area where there appeared no openings.
There were just three words, printed in dark blue pen, lined up under each other:
Three words I had hand lettered on the back of a notebook, that probably was for hand written portions of Sabre, or some other series. Three words that were last names for three different series that I was flirting around with in my head, not sure if we’d ever get on a first name basis, or if the names would endure.
Some of you have experienced part of “Alexander Risk” in a magazine called Fantasy Illustrated that Peter Gillis was editing way back around 1981, which was illustrated by Tom Sutton. I haven’t tried to locate my yearly diary books to get exact dates on any of this, or this Riding Shotgun piece will never get into a finished written stage at this point in time. If I’m ever given a serious offer to write about my personal history in comics, I’ll pull out all the diaries, and notes in calenders, and start exploring through the files. But for now, you have hear a little of the tangled trips that overlap one series or another, and that are influenced by sources totally unexpected in your life, and why one series makes it, and another, just as vibrant and important to you, doesn’t.
“Alexander Risk” only saw 20 some pages printed. Tom Sutton actually did breakdowns for the second installment in blue pencils. I still have those pages somewhere, with, if I recall correctly, my penciled copy in the panels.
Alas, that book never came out.
There was no second issue of Fantasy Illustrated.
Now in the beginning I had those three words, and I was placing first names for the characters. I believe I first put the name Nathaniel for Risk. But it just work for me. I didn’t like the soft ending for Risk. But it was perfect for Dusk. I liked the soft “L” sound going with the hard edge of the “D”. And Dusk fit the character and the series perfectly, just as I felt Risk fit Alexander’s character.
One was a character who lived in a world that was virtually always at dusk, if only morally and methaphysically, while Risk was someone who had taken a risk with his life (and so had his wife, Penelope) in a time of great risk, the early 1940s and the Second World War.
And I had talked to Archie about “Alexander Risk”, but he already had a series underway that had a Holmesian connection, so despite the fact that he liked it, it wasn’t feasible for Epic to be doing two series that, while wildly different, had such an iconic connection.
At the same time, Gene Colan had arranged for me to meet Dick Giordano at DC comics.
Gene Colan poses as Nathaniel Dusk
Dick and I spent time talking in his office, and I mentioned “Sarge Steel”, which Dick had done while at Charlton comics in the 1960s. We were both talking about our passions for private eyes. I told Dick about Nathaniel Dusk. Dick said, Go work it up. I told him I wanted to do a realistic 1930s hard-boiled private eye, no costumes, no powers, my version of that kind of genre. He said, “What are you trying to do, talk yourself out of a job? Work it up and let me see it.”
Well, now it was more than a concept, and I had to develop the entire series as well as Dusk. I researched the time period, knew the tone I hoped to accomplish, and plotted and structured the entire story, working hard on the people who would populate that world in that time and place, skeptically figuring DC is never going to go for this.
When I brought the thick proposal in, with all the scenes and all the major characters, Dick laughed and said, “You didn’t have to do all this, Don. I trust you.”
And I told Dick that yes, I did have to do it, because I did have to know the story.
I left the proposal with Dick and DC.
In many of the tangled trips of a freelance writer, there often seems to be feast or famine along the wayside of the journey.
Archie said yes to Questworld.
Okay, now I really have to put this all together! The mugwumps and the leads and all the targets I wanted to lampoon in one fashion or another.
The phone rang. It was Dick. He had approval for Nathaniel Dusk, and they were ready to laun
ch right away, with Gene Colan ready to draw it, as soon as I had finished script pages. Sooner would be better than later.
I really, really liked Questworld. Still do. Well worth my doing as far as I was concerned. But I never thought I’d get to do Nathaniel Dusk as I saw it in my head, and certainly not at one of the Big 2 companies.
Dick had said the series wouldn’t have a editor that we didn’t both agree upon. Alan Gold had recently joined DC, and we had known each other before he was in comics. Alan had no rigid ideas about private eyes, so I think on a genre like this he was more than willing to let me have my head and do whatever it was I was going to do.
The problem was I couldn’t write both series at the same time. Even with all the work I’d done on the proposal for Dusk, there was so much more research to do, and Gene had a quota to fill at DC, and this series would be part of that quota. And while I had ideas for the various places that would be lampooned in Questworld, I had a long way to go before knowing how those places would work, and developing the balance between humor and outrageous satire and yet keep the characters human, and when things got serious, making the audience wonder if they could get out of a dangerous encounter, and care if they did or didn’t. Al Capp, when he was at his best on LIL ABNER, as a story-teller, did this in superb fashion, there often would be a real question as to how is Capp going to get Abner out of this.
I called Archie and put Questworld on hold.
There were two Nathaniel Dusk series, “Lovers Die at Dusk” and “Apple Peddlers Die at Noon”.
As I neared completion of “Peddlers”, I already had a third plot in my head, and a title, “Hookers Die at Midnight”.
I had a heart attack at the age of 40.
Okay, just from personal experience, I will state, I’ve come to the conclusion you shouldn’t diagnose yourself when you’re feeling bad. I’m not stating that I don’t still ignore those words and do it, just that many times you might be better off if you didn’t.
I had a terrific time writing the second Dusk, everything went right where things hadn’t during the first one. When I realized I would be far from the Apple Peddler’s assassination I asked Bruce Bristow if we could have a double-sized first issue. I thought that was a possibility because it had been done with other series, and as long as it has been done before you have a shot in hell of getting “Yes.” But Bruce not only thought that was a good idea but thought the entire mini-series should be double-sized volumes, and thus, I didn’t have to worry about room mto fit all the themes and characters I wanted in the story. DC also let me edit the book. I have no idea why, but that meant while I was spending months researching the series I could voucher the editorial fees and not have to worry about money coming in while I put the entire series together. Everything in those books on the days that are recounted are what the weather was like to what was happening in New York City. I timed action sequences arnd storms. A horse lying dead in the middle of Times Square on a hot day, it really happened right at the time it is in the book, I just added Dusk chasing murderers right into the chaos, the killer’s getaway car crashing in the steed’s corpse.
I had to come up with something to put Dusk through. I’d shot him up with rat poison in “Lovers”, and I knew a lot of the fans would expect some terrible ordeal for Dusk to fight to survive. It should be something memorable. But what? How do you top rat poison injection?
I’d had shortness of breath for awhile, which I put down to sinus problems. I was going to a Jewish “Y” in those days, swimming in the pool, and using the steam room to clear my sinuses. The older Jewish men would spit cold water onto the steam room regulator and there was so much steam you couldn’t see anything. And then I came up with the idea of Dusk locked in the steam room. So, how would one get out? I would try to record how that scalding heat felt. Good for the sinuses, too, right? Day after day, I went through it, tried to get as close to the reality of the heat as possible, drenched in sweat, skin feeling like needle pricks jabbing in every part of your body at the slightest movement. The hiss from the metal sphere chilled the heat with the idea of death chambers.
Of course, I didn’t know I was heading for a heart attack, and steam rooms probably weren’t the best regimen for that.
One night, I was in the pool and went to take a stroke. It felt as if a muscle would tear apart from my rib cage! Reach too far, too fast, and something would rip loose!
I told myself not to push it!
There were problems with the penciled artwork for Peddlers. The art needed to be sprayed with a fixative so that the soft, dark pencils by Gene wouldn’t smudge. Gene lived in an apartment in Manhattan and said he couldn’t do it. DC’s production department felt it wasn’t their job. When I found out that there was a stalemate, and that the art stood unprotected, with nothing being done to fix it, as the deadline neared, I told them to find me a place to do it, and I’d come in and spray the pages.
I did it after hours by the storage elevators in the back.
Sprayed almost 200 pages.
Thick mist. Sharp in the nostrils and eyes.
Playing Hell with my sinuses.
The fumes were so thick I had to keep running out the space every dozen or so pages.
My shortness of breath was pronounced.
I was gasping for air before I was a quarter of the way through. But it needed to be done so Gene’s art wouldn’t be ruined.
I would plunge back into the fumes to add more.
The night I had the heart attack, I was really tired. I was turning over in bed, ready to fall asleep, when the pain hit, and turned me right back onto my back. Adrenalin pumped like wildfire! I was wide, staring in the dark awake! Marsha was asleep beside me.
I thought, “What the hell is this? A heart attack?”
My body was soaked in the kind of cold sweat you’re always reading about in hard boiled private eye novels.
A thought managed to get through the pain and panic, something like, “Am I not going to see morning light?”
And absurdly, because I’m a writer, I guess, “Is this the last story I get to write?”
I’d never get to finish “Alexander Risk”? Or do another Detectives Inc..?
I went out to the couch and picked up a copy of Jack Kirby’s Hunger Dogs graphic novel (I think that was the title) and tried to distract myself, looking at comic pages and all the while convincing myself, hey, I’m only 40, this can’t be a heart attack.
By morning, I’d convinced myself, sort of, by dawn light.
In the morning, I told Marsha to make a doctor’s appointment for me. She knows me well enough to know I wouldn’t do that for no reason. But I needed to get into DC and go over APPLE PEDDLERS before it went to press. And I was supposed to meet Tom Carlyle at MGM on some James Bond interviews I’d done for STAR LOG.
I had a mantra: It couldn’t have been a heart attack. Part of me was positive. Another part knew, yeah, it was, but rejected it, wouldn’t accept it, couldn’t
accept it. And if I did end up in the hospital who would make sure Dusk got off, and nobody fucked with it. This was the day the book went off to become reality, and all it needed was for me to be there to check it out, make sure everything was right, all the corrections done, and watch it make its way out of the offices.
I hope I would be smarter these days. I’m probably lucky to be writing these words today.
I trekked into Manhattan and saw Dusk safely off. But it was as if my feet were encased in cement. I had to trudge everywhere, with each step I was on my way to meet with Tom Carlyle, who at that time was Cubby Broccoli’s personal overseer on the promotion of the James Bond films.
I had a wonderful dinner with Tom, who told me great stories about working with George Stevens on Shane, and about the early days of the Bond films and trying to sell them in the United States, and about Jane Fonda andBarbarella.
I never saw Tom again. He died of cancer.
The next day Doctor Adesman told me, “Don, you no longer have a virgin heart.” His exact wording. I don’t have to look up no stinking diaries for that.
Marsha thinks Sabre was to blame, because I’d said at one point, “This book is breaking my heart.”
Sabre was being held for ransom in Spain. Another tangled trail. If I ever do that book on comics I wrote about at the beginning of this trail,I’ll go excavating through all the notebooks, all the scripts, all the diaries, all the notes in calenders, including the Marvel one in 1978 where I hand-wrote the threat that someone was going to make Sabrewhite!
Get me a deal, and the book is underway.
And now, some folks, if they read this, could wish it would never happen.
Anyhow, I was laid up for quite awhile.
I worked up “The Batman: Night of the Child Stealers” and I think it was a strong story for the Batman, and might have helped some kids, and familes going through this kind of thing. I came home to find one of the DC elder statesman had called, yelled at my wife. I hadn’t been paid a dime for the story. I told him you don’t ever scream at my wife; you have a problem with me, you talk with me. Send the story back.”
The learned head said, “Send me a Batman gimmick story.”
Gimmicks! People may love or hate what I do, but gimmicks isn’t one of the things I do.
Now, Questworld did come back into play, because Dick decided DC would do it.
Alan Gold would be the editor, but his comment was “Don doesn’t mind people talking to him before he starts to write it, but once he does, he doesn’t want anybody in the sandbox with him.” Probably pretty accurate. The thing was Alan really loved this genre, and I was really taken apart many of the sacred totems on that kind of story.
Tom Sutton drew a lot of the series. Alan left DC, not over Questworld, I think he found some other kind of work he liked more.
I’m not sure what happened after that. I know one time I was in DC helping look for the art, because no one apparently knew where it had been stored.
I think maybe about three issues had been drawn. Done! Which means the scripts were totally written.
Or at least two issues. Those are the kind of details I would have to look up. Who got me in there? Where we looked. That kind of thing.
One book was definitely finished. I think with lettering and everything, but that, again I would have to check to make certain.
I suspect I have a Xeroxed version of that with my hand lettering so I could check everything, with the copy shot down to comic book print size so I could check how the eye tracked it when the reader finally saw the book. I kept managing to find ways to make this more work. But it lessened the chances of unforeseen screw-ups in the books.
I have no idea whatever happened to Questworld.
As I wrote, I think I have a stapled first issue of the art and copy placement, although I haven’t seen it in years. The scripts would still be in one of the filing cabinets, but some of them aren’t easy to reach.
As for “Alexander Risk”, I would finish writing the series for Marvel’s new Epic line, with Terry Kavanagh as editor. It had gone through three separate approvals.
I believe it has at least 3 sequences as strong as anything I have ever written.
It dealt with abortion as it was in the United States in the 1940s. It dealt with sexual repression and the consequences. Dwayne Turner was set to draw it. It was beautiful. I’d had such pleasure working with Dwayne on “Panther’s Prey”. And with Terry, who always kept his word to me, even when the pressure was on him for Panther’s Quest.
And then Marvel cancelled its Creator Owned line and Alexander and Penelope were adrift again.
In a later time, Mike Mayhew would draw sample pages of the series, but I never managed to get it to paper reality. Mike did some superb work on Risk and Pen.
You can see some of it on the donmcgregor.com website.
Mike and I had just come off doing ZORRO together. Two wonderful artists at one time or another attached to a series I so dearly loved.
A finished script of nearly 200 pages and really, less than a half dozen people in the world have yet to experience it.
Some of the tangled trips go on into a horizon that is never reached.
“Alexander Risk” and Questworld were two unfinished tangled trails.
I still look toward that horizon.
Copyright © 2011 by Don McGregor