From The Gutters Let's talk about comics

As a nice bookend to the previous posting about Michael Allred’s work, here is the afterword that I wrote for the Image Comics printing of what I consider a seminal part of my editorial career, Red Rocket 7.

All art (c) Michael Allred
All art (c) Michael Allred


So, there I was, dressed in a silver sharkskin suit that fit like it was my own skin and wearing black lipstick some slightly under-twenty-one girl in the crowd had put on me as a thank you for buying candy-flavored drinks that we could share. We were right in front, just left of center, watching Blur headline in San Francisco. When Damon Albarn looked out at the front row, it was just a bunch of girls and then me, taller than the rest, shinier, a weird smile that was both light and dark. When “Girls & Boys” came on, was it any surprise I would be the one he’d choose to dance with, our arm movements locking in rhythm even with the space separating audience and performer between us? The girls who held the barrier with me were shooting daggers my way. They could not forgive this affront to their teen sexuality.

But I didn’t care. It was 1997, and Jamie S. Rich was on top of the world.

I was twenty-five, and it wasn’t uncommon for me to go up and down the coast from Oregon to California chasing Pulp or up through Seattle and into Canada to see Gene perform. I even jetted to New York City to see Suede, shouting my lungs out at Neil Codling and sneaking my way into the afterparty. It was the apex of Britpop in the 1990s, and though I lived in a virtual wasteland for that kind of music, I was wired in. I was even co-hosting a cable access television show called “@lright,” a high-wire act we did every two weeks, hosting an hour of live television as an excuse to get free music and meet more bands. It was terrible to watch, I’m sure, but we were having fun.

There was one episode where Mike Allred came and hung out. He sat above the cameras, in the stair-ladder that was used to adjust the ceiling lights. I don’t think he ever showed up on camera until the end, when we would dance to the latest import single under the closing credits, but my co-host kept mentioning him, referring to him as “Mike Alright.” If I recall, he was there to see a concert with me after the broadcast. Probably the Dandy Warhols.


In addition to all of this, I was Mike’s editor at Dark Horse Comics. I hadn’t read Madman before arriving in Portland three years prior, but one of the first things I did as an editorial assistant at the Horse was to write half of the first set of Madman Bubblegum Cards. Mike liked what I did, and he asked that I do all fifty. When the second set came around, I was asked to do it again, but for this go-around, I’d do it on my own time and not on the clock. I actually got paid a writing fee! It was my first freelance writing gig.

Eventually, I became Mike’s editor, seeing him through a couple of Madman crossover books before helping him initiate his newest project, his first major creation since the Madman book had become a huge hit. It was this wicked sci-fi epic, a sort of Zelig for the rock ’n’ roll crowd, Forbidden Planet meets A Hard Day’s Night, with, of course, echoes of Performance and The Man Who Fell To Earth and some obscure T. Rex TV show that only Mike ever heard of. It was called Red Rocket 7, and it was going to be seven issues and we wanted it to be 12” by 12” just like a vinyl record. I remember having to go into one of the bureaucratic budgeting meetings where some secret Masonic formula or other was used to decide what books would be a hit and which would fail. I had to look at the decision makers and explain to them why they should do this—me, the goofy kid with anime bangs and eyeliner. The book got approved.

I doubt it was anything I did, though. Like I said, this was Mike’s first post-Madman project, so it had to be a no-brainer, right? Sell it on that, and it’s sold. I suppose it’s indicative of what a hit Madman Comics was that Mike was able to get the company to pony up for an ambitious, three-pronged project that had come to him in a dream. In addition to this comic book series, there was a movie, Astroesque, that was already shot and ready to go, and eventually, there would be the musical album by the Gear, the backing band for Red Rocket 7. It’s nuts to think about now, but we were doing it.

THE GEAR Son of Red Rocket 7 album art

The Red Rocket 7 period was an incredible time in my life. Like I said, I was twenty-five, and though I am not generally superstitious when it comes to age, I did recognize that I was at the cusp of something, some crossroad of life where I expected amazing things were going to happen for me—or it could all fall to pieces. There was danger everywhere. Every good opportunity was also a chance for tremendous folly. It’s a state of being I attempted to capture in my second novel, The Everlasting, published many years later. I’ll leave it up to other twenty-five-year-olds to tell me if I got it right.

It was in this headspace that I rode along with Mike as he completed Red Rocket 7. Being his editor meant long conversations where we mainly talked about music and movies, my job really being to keep him creatively excited more than I needed to provide him with any artistic guidance. (My producer credit on the Gear record, Son of Red Rocket 7, amounted to the same thing; I was never even in Mike’s home studio while he was recording.) His enthusiasm was so infectious, though, I think he probably was getting me fired up more than I was serving him. Sometimes Mike would drive up to Portland from Eugene, a trip of several hours, and we’d go on “research trips.” More often than not, that meant traveling all over town to the different record shops looking for the vinyl copy of the Rolling Stones’ Their Satanic Majesties Request with the 3-D cover. Occasionally, it meant real research, like heading over to Pioneer Square in downtown Portland to take reference photos for Rock ’n’ Roll Heaven. Look at the last page of the book again. I’m actually Keith Moon. I stood in Mike’s photos as size reference, and for the final piece, he turned me into Keith Moon. Freakin’ Keith Moon, people! How rad is that?

It’s not my only cameo in Red Rocket 7. I appear a couple of times as a background character, and I even get a line to say. No less than two of my girlfriends make appearances, as well, which is kind of freaky to think about now. But then, the comic, particularly the last couple of issues, is full of Portland musical landmarks, from the now-defunct Ozone Records on Burnside to the local bands that Mike and I were digging at the time, some of which went on to great things (the Warhols) and some of whom faded (Marigold, anyone?). In its own way, Red Rocket 7 became a snapshot of my life at the time.


But then things were about to get worse before they got better.

Our course was set, and everything seemed to be going right. The first issue came out, and the response was tremendous. We were hearing reports of how the odd size had worked in our favor, and some stores were racking the book in the prime spot by the cash register because the square size didn’t fit in their rectangle racks. The reviews were positive, the fan response was good, we were on a high.

And then something happened before issue #2. All those things we had been hearing were so good were now being used as weapons to flog us for our hubris of daring to attempt such a different project. The record album size was a burden, no one wanted to stock it. Readers started to ask what had happened to Frank Einstein and complain that this wasn’t Madman, why wasn’t Mike Allred doing more Madman? Dark Horse seemed to lose interest completely, biting their lips and just waiting it out. I tried to do some grassroots marketing, personally sending the comics to major magazines, but outside of a one-page profile in Alternative Press, got zero nibbles. The DH marketing department eventually apologized and said we’d get it back on the trade paperback, but I was gone by the time that came out, and I suspect without me there to hold some feet to the fire, the promise went unfulfilled. There were a few Eisner nominations—Best Limited Series, Best Covers, and Best Colorist for Laura Allred—in the summer of 1998, but we didn’t win any of them, and shortly thereafter, Red Rocket 7 almost completely vanished off the radar.


The commercial failure of the book was not my sole reason for leaving Dark Horse, but the general disregard I felt the book received was part of the larger problem that saw me seeking greener pastures. Oni Press was beckoning, as was my own writing career, and I heeded the call. This decision was another that would get worse before it got better, and then after a period of being very good, it got even worse, only for my life to eventually end up being the best it’s ever been (a condition that has, thankfully, hung around). Mike and I have stuck it out through all of that. When he started to self-publish The Atomics, I was on board, we worked together at Oni, and now I am his editor at Image Comics. You can’t pry us apart, even if both of us rarely leave our homes.

Things got better for Red Rocket 7 over the years, too. Gradually, I began to notice a shift in opinion regarding the book. Sure, there were plenty who had never heard of it, but I never met anyone who out-and-out hated it. At Oni, I worked with a lot of young cartoonists. Almost all of them revered Mike, and quite a few of them would tell me how much they loved Red Rocket 7, even detailing the Herculean efforts they went through to get their hands on it. If memory serves, Steve Rolston, who drew Queen & Country for us before doing his own awesome One Bad Day graphic novel, was the first. His talking about it got other people to talk about it, and without either Mike or myself realizing it was happening, Red Rocket 7 became a bona-fide, old-fashioned cult hit. So much so, that whenever the title was mentioned, or whenever the gajillionth reprint of Madman: The Oddity Odyssey would be released, someone would say, “Yeah, that’s cool, but when are you going to reprint Red Rocket 7?”

Well, now you can all stop asking, because here it is. I suppose it’s no longer underground anymore. Fans can start fighting over who was there first, who the real Red Rocket 7 groupie is. Who among you will declare you knew of this comic back when it was cool, before it sold out to the man and all these poseurs jumped onboard?

Go ahead and boast all you want, suckers, because I have you beat. I was there way before all of you! That’s right. That’s me in the grainy video, down in the front row, wearing the silver suit, dancing with Mike Allred. I am Penny Lane, and he is a golden god.

It’s 2008, and Jamie S. Rich is on top of the world.

May 18, 2008
Achieved in the Valley of the Dolls




From The Gutters Let's talk about comics

Well, here we are at the end of our first nine episodes. The Michael Allred interview was saved until last because it’s a gas.

The first two parts feature us gabbing about comic books and life in general; part 3 moves into Mike’s studio to look at some art. There’s also a bonus: Mike’s band the Gear performing a Dandy Warhols song!

Stay tuned to this blog for news on upcoming developments and the lowdown on where we’re taking this project next.

Also, don’t forget to like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter.

Thanks for watching!


From The Gutters Let's talk about comics

This week, instead of writing a new piece about my longtime pal and co-worker, Michael Allred, I’ve decided to reprint the introduction I wrote to Madman Atomic Comics, Vol. 1, published by Image Comics in 2008. It still sums up how I feel about my mentor and one of my favorite comics.

All art (c) Michael Allred
All art (c) Michael Allred

People are always fascinated by what I do during the course of a regular day. At parties or social functions or even comic book conventions, once some new acquaintance discovers that I write for a living, once we get past the questions of what I have written that they might have heard of and how I got into such a profession, invariably the conversation turns to, “So, you work at home? What’s that like? Do you work all day?”

I suspect that they are hoping for one of two answers. Either they have bought into a kind of romantic Hemingway image of a writer who will try anything to get a story and see me as some kind of bullfighting lothario who is consistently in his cups, or they are hoping I will tell them the creative life is arduous and painful and the only reason they aren’t creating comic books or writing novels themselves is that they are too smart to submit to such punishment. The common man sticks his hand in the fire and pulls it away, never to make that mistake again; the creative person sticks his hand in the fire, and once burnt, climbs in, takes a seat, and boots up his computer.

My answer is, thus, always disappointing. I tend to work a variation on the eight-hour day. In the center of those hours are two or three of solid, non-stop writing. On the outer edges are the warm-up and the comedown. Both are very important, and to the untrained eye, they would look like two periods of laziness, but I swear to you, all that surfing the internet is in preparation for what I will do today and what I will do tomorrow.

The day-to-day existence of Jamie S. Rich is not even just not exciting, it’s downright boring. I have a feeling they’d get a much better answer if they asked Mike Allred.


Then again, I am not sure Mike Allred would be able to explain his creative method. I imagine it as a 24-7 process. His brain is like the surface of some distant, fiery planet that has a lava-covered terrain that is always bubbling and boiling, sending explosive flares off into the atmosphere that then translate into new comics for all of us to read. You could ask him the question, “Hey, Mike, what does your average day look like?” and he would make motions up and down his body and reply, “You see this? It’s happening right now. While we’re standing here, I just wrote Madman Atomic Comics #10.”

Mike’s work on this, his third series of Madman-starring comics (and his second with the Atomics, and that’s not counting outside crossovers and specials), is some of the craziest, boldest cartooning to ever fall between two covers. That there are covers that can contain these stories is a feat unto itself. It’s like someone created a giant glass dome to cover the surface of that Allred Brain Planet I mentioned, somehow harnessing this tremendous energy without snuffing it out. I have been Mike’s editor in some capacity or other since 1997, when we put together The Superman/Madman Hullabaloo, and I am still amazed by what he does with ink and paper. It’s why I continue editing these books despite having left editing four years ago and swearing to be a comic book editor no more. If you had the opportunity to read these comics before everyone else, wouldn’t you take it? Mike even pays me for it! What a sucker! (Well, Laura actually pays for it. Mike probably doesn’t know where the checkbook is, because left to his own devices, some shyster would sell him a rocket ship to Mars.)


You may not notice how progressive Mike’s work is at first. In particular, the now-infamous third chapter of the book you currently hold in your hands* may not strike you as anything special on a quick flip-through. It’s not until you savor it panel by panel and realize the scope of what he has done, moving from one artist’s style to another, sometimes packing two into each frame, his amazing wife and colorist matching him blow for blow–that’s when you’ll see the true majesty of this material. The whole book is one gutsy move after another, a complete reinvention of a comic book icon that reconciles the various inconsistencies of the work and the ever-changing nature of the Frank Einstein character, reestablishing the status quo only to yank out the rug once again. Every time Mike turns in a new issue, he swears that he is done experimenting, that next month it’s going to be 22 pages of just regular ol’ comics. And yet, he just can’t help himself…

That’s because Mike is Frank Einstein, and neither of them can sit still. Part of why Frank’s character has suffered from inconsistencies over the years is because humans are inconsistent, and Mike is rejecting the hoary notion that in fiction someone has a “character” that he or she can be “out of.” Most of us couldn’t stay in character from one day to the next in reality, so why should we in surreality?


Actually, it’s funny, this idea of Mike as Frank. People who know my work never ask me where my ideas come from (the most dreaded question for any storyteller). If they do, it’s usually a roundabout way to ask if my stories are autobiographical. It’s a common assumption because my stories are all seemingly so personal, but the truth is, the events in them that I base on my own life are never ones that people manage to find. They always pick the larger happenings, when it’s usually the smaller, inconspicuous scenes that are “true.” Ironically, most readers would never guess that the adventures of Madman are really the adventures of Mike Allred, and if you could get your hands on the secret decoder ring, you’d have his life all figured out. Sure, the way he tells it, the story moves over, under, sideways, and down, getting completely abstracted from fact as we know it on our Earth, but it starts in a place of absolute truth.

What lies ahead is how it all happened on that Allred Brain Planet.

Put on sunscreen. It’s about to get very hot in here.


Madman Atomic Comics #3 in its issue form. All art on this page is from that issue.