Feeding the Story Machine
by Gary Phillips
First, big ups to Taffy Cannon who volunteers for Get on the Bus. Most excellent. Secondly, her post and Dusty’s dovetail it seems. Prison and the people who populate them, and what happens to them once they get out, continue to be among the sources of the stories we write. On a couple of mystery blogs lately there had been some comments about the cancellation of the Alcatraz TV show. For those who might have missed this effort, the premise was the last group of prisoners on the “Rock,” 302 men, suddenly disappeared one fateful night 49 years ago. Now they’ve returned to modern day San Francisco, having not aged a day. Great premise, uneven in its execution.
Sam Neill was Emerson Hauser, now an FBI agent who has been anticipating the return of the inmates. He’d been a young guard at Alcatraz back then. Let me add, for a cat who’s supposed to be in his seventies in the context of the show, Hauser was a bad mother. Arthritis nor old man’s eyesight didn’t seem to impede him from shootin’ a fool now and then. Anyway, there was also the young plainclothes cop Rebecca Madsen played by Sarah Jones. Her homicidal grandfather, Tommy, was one of the inmates, running around doing bad things. Rounding out the team was Jorge Garcia (the lovable big guy from Lost) as Dr. Diego “Doc” Soto, who wrote the authoritative book about Alcatraz, and owned a comic book shop.
The bigger mystery of what it all meant was hinted at, it seemed to me the episodes became too much procedural—hunting down the latest returnee who was a sniper, a bank robber, etc. — and not teasing out enough the big story. While Alcatraz didn’t quite gel, series be they television or prose demand a constant feeding of the story machine. The ways in which we’re delivering these stories has changed, but for the characters that capture the public’s imagination, the demand remains. Arthur Conan Doyle was beside himself keeping up with the demand for more Holmes stories. Looking to expand his canon and tiring of the grind, he killed the great detective off only to bring him back acceding to fan demand.
At the height of the Great Depression, The Shadow magazine and Doc Savage magazine were the number one and two bestselling monthly pulps respectively. Walter Gibson, a one-time assistant to Houdini, though he didn’t create the character, is the man who fleshed out the the Shadow’s backstory, the characters around him and so on. Lester Dent had been tasked with creating a rival to the Shadow and did in Clark “Doc” Savage. Where the former was dark and mysterious, the cops after him as well as the crooks, the latter was the golden warrior, a public hero everyone trusted. Riffing on this, Dent was one of Doc’s arch enemies, the only villain to appear more than once in a Doc adventure, named John Sunlight.
At one point due to demand, Gibson had to grind out 50-60,000 word stories twice a month — 325 Shadow stories versus 181 Doc Savage stories all told. There were ghost writers brought in to keep up the pace for both men. There were also some issues of Doc Savage where Dent had written the Doc novel-length story and the short stories, be they westerns, detective, what have you, under different names in the rest of the book.
Star Trek was going to be canceled after its second season in the ‘60s only to get another year due to a letter writing campaign by its loyal fan base. Thereafter Trek was kept alive via fan fiction, first realized in what were called fanzines (mimeographed hand stapled magazines that gave way to typeset, offset printed ones) and appearances by the leads at sci-fi conventions. The show gained cult status leading to big budget films, novels, comic books and TV spinoffs. Back in the day Paramount knew about the fan fiction but looked at this as benign copyright infringement. They realized fan fiction kept the Trekkies happy and wanting more in the wilderness years, so they didn’t, in most cases, pursue legal remedies. Plus it would have just made them look like the big, greedy monster going after a couple of geeky kids.
Another spur in the story machine process has been venerable characters with name recognition entering public domain and being redone in prose and film and TV. Sherlock Holmes and Frankenstein are PD. Abe Lincoln (as in Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter), a public figure, fair game. So too are the earlier works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, that is Tarzan and John Carter of Mars.
Currently the ERB estate is suing Dynamite Comics not for copyright infringement over their Warlord of Mars and Lord of the Jungle books, but trademark infringement. Dynamite has responded that these suits are baseless. One of the publications Dynamite cites was a recent prose anthology called, Inspired by the work of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Under the Moons of Mars: New Adventures on Barsoom. While it’s clearly new stories about John Carter, the collection, published by Simon & Schuster, stated it was not authorized by the ERB estate.
To me the answer to Dusty’s question about putting out two novels a year is more keeping the stream of stories out there in various accessible forms. From short stories done exclusively online, e-book and hardcopies of novels, mash-ups using public domain characters and public figures, writing new adventures of licensed characters (I’m currently co-editing and contributing to anthology using Operator 5 a super spy character from the pulp era wherein each short story is linked to the overarching plot), it’s all in the mix of germinating the idea, writing the tale,m and getting the work out there.
For instance, it turns out everybody’s favorite media uncle, broadcasting giant Walter Cronkite, as detailed in a new bio by Douglas Brinkley, liked him some freebies, had dinner with a go-go dancer (oh my heavens!) and once bugged a GOP meeting. Maybe taking my cue from the aforementioned and the runaway success of the 50 Shades of Gray trio, my next character will be this kindly, fiftysomethng, pipe smoking slightly paunchy guy circa the late ‘60s. He’s unassuming and looks like he might own the corner hardware store. Only of course he’s a contract killer specializing in making his hits look like accidents and a ladies’ man who dabbles in S&M.
A Man Called Cronkite…danger has a new name!
Here’s to our vets past and present on Memorial Day. Send the troops home.