Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Steel Ring - Rise of the Centaur Universe

Today it gives me great pleasure to present this interview with comics and novel writer R. A. Jones. Some of you may remember him as the writer on many Marvel and DC comics. Others may remember his public domain inspired series from Malibu, The Protectors.

 What prompted this interview is that I discovered RA has written a prose superhero novel called The Steel Ring which features many of the Centaur Universe superheroes. (The Clock, Amazing Man, The Ferret, The Eye, The Blue Lady, ect…)

 Being a fan of public domain heroes, I eagerly devoured the book. Afterwards, I found myself curious about a couple of things, so I reached out to RA for an interview. He graciously accepted my offer and here’s what he said:

Jim: The Steel Ring is set during World War II which sets it apart from many modern superhero prose novels in a nice way. How did you happen to take that approach?

RA: Credit for the story in The Steel Ring being set in the time of World War II in large part should go to editor Jeff Deischer of Westerntainment, the company that published the novel. Jeff had been a fan of the work I did using the old Centaur characters in the Protectors comic book series I wrote back in the 1990s.  He contacted me a couple years ago and asked if I would consider re-visiting the Centaur heroes used in that series, only this time in the form of a prose novel.  His only other request was that I consider setting any such story during the time period when the Centaur comics had originally been released: the late 1930s, early 1940s.

The more I thought of it, the more excited and interested I became at the prospect and challenge such a book would present, and accepted Jeff’s generous offer to work with him. Deciding early on to tie the plot of the story into actual events of the time, it became evident that the biggest event of 1939 was clearly the start of WW II, when Germany invaded Poland.
From there, I was off to the races!

Jim: Of the characters involved in the story: Amazing Man, The Witch, Man of War, The Fantom of the Fair, The Clock, The Ferret, Iron Skull and The Eye, who did you enjoy writing about the most?

Amazing Man, Man of War, The Clock
RA: All of the Centaur characters hold their own appeal to me, but naturally I do have my favorites.  Ferret was probably the most fun for me to write in the comics, and he’s just as enjoyable in the novels. Fantom (that character’s original name: we called him “Gravestone” in Protectors) has also proven to be an intriguing character for me; as has the Witch. And I’m actually enjoying using Amazing Man even more than I did in the Protectors.

Jim: I also remember you wrote about many of the same characters in Malibu's Protectors from the 90's. What is it about the Centaur heroes that you find so attractive?

RA: As you mention, I used all these same characters when I was writing the Protectors comic book series back in the 1990s. But The Steel Ring is not just a rehash or continuation of those stories, and not just because it is set in a different time period. Westerntainment has graciously allowed me to essentially make this a total reboot of the Centaur heroes and their universe.

As I described it to Jeff: You can essentially consider the original Golden Age comics and stories to represent Centaur’s “Earth-1.” The version I wrote in the ‘90s could be thought of as Centaur’s “Earth-2.” And the stories I plan to tell now, in an entire series of novels, can be thought of as Centaur’s “Earth-3.”  It is similar in many ways to the first two versions, but significantly different in other ways.

As was common in the Golden Age, some of the Centaur heroes never had what we would consider to be real “origin stories.”  I’m giving them one now (or expanding and embellishing those origin stories that did originally appear in the comics).  With the help of my old friend Tom Derenick (the first artist on the Protectors comic book series), I have even redesigned the visual look of the heroes.

My hope is to stay true to the spirit of the originals and never disrespect them or their original creators – but otherwise to produce a new Centaur universe that could be said to be more truly and fully “mine.”

It may surprise you to learn that, until I began my preliminary work on the Protectors – I had never even heard of Centaur or its heroes! The editors at Malibu Comics had somehow gotten word of this stable of old heroes and the fact that they had been allowed to lapse out of copyright and into public domain, and decided they would serve as an excellent vehicle to launch Malibu’s first full-color superhero title.

I was flattered and grateful that they believed I was the freelancer on their roster who would be best suited to write such a series. Initially, all my knowledge of the Centaur heroes came from a sort of essay comics historian Ron Goulart had written. Additional assistance came from my old pal, writer Michael Vance.  He had donated a collection of Golden Age comics on microfiche to one of our local universities; among them were reproductions of a few Centaur comics.

It was actually in one of these that I discovered the Ferret character (he had not been mentioned in Goulart’s overview).  Anyone who has ever read one of the original Ferret stories will realize just how much I changed him for the new version.  In fact, Malibu initially thought I had created Ferret just for our series (as I did for most of the female characters who appeared in that book). And I also actually know more about Centaur’s Golden Age characters now (Thanks, Internet) than I did when I was writing the Protectors!

Part of what makes them attractive to me is the raw energy they possessed, shared in common with many of the Golden Age comic book heroes who took their cue from the pulp characters of the time but then moved off in directions unique to them.

I hope to capture that same “primitive” appeal, while presenting it in a form and style that will be attractive to a 21st century audience.

Jim: Do you plan on writing a sequel to The Steel Ring? If so, might we see some other characters from the Centaur universe?

RA: I have indeed written a sequel.  It is entitled The Twilight War.  It is now in the final editing stages.  Tom Derenick has kindly agreed to again supply us with cover art (as he did for Steel Ring), so we hope to have the book ready for release by early Fall of this year.

In Twilight War, we have moved forward in time to 1940; a great deal of the action revolves around the pivotal Battle of Dunkirk. Several heroes I used in the Protectors, but who did not play a role in the previous novel, now make their first appearance in this “new” universe I’m creating: Airman, the Arrow and Prince Zardi, the Eternal Man. This book also introduces my version of a Centaur hero who never appeared in the Protectors series: Phantom Princess.

 Also for the first time in this book, I make use of a couple of Centaur super-villains. I’ve had so much fun working on these two books that, Westerntainment willing and I live so long, I hope to write several more sequels that will not only carry our heroes through the entire length of World War II but also continue to (re)introduce additional Centaur heroes and villains along the way!

Jim: Are there any other projects you have in the works you can tell us about?

RA: For the last several years, most of my writing has been done in the form of prose novels.
As mentioned above, I’ve just wrapped up Twilight War, the sequel to The Steel Ring.
Like most of my novels, those who are interested can find them for sale on Amazon and, in some cases, Kindle.

Among the novels I’ve done are three that I co-wrote with Michael Vance (with whom I also collaborated on the 1980s comic book series Straw Men): The Equation, a modern day suspense thriller; Global Star, a sort of sci-fi parody of tabloid journalism; and Motor City Manhunt, a 1930s crime drama due out later this year from Airship 27.

Also for Airship 27, I wrote the solo novels Deathwalker, which is a bit in the vein of Robert E. Howard’s sword-and-sorcery writings – but featuring a hero who is a Cheyenne Indian in the days before Europeans came to America; and Gun Glory, the story of a bounty hunter in the Old West.

I am currently well into writing Comanche Blood, a sequel to the above-mentioned Gun Glory.
Nor have I given up on attempting to contribute to the comic book field.  Tom Derenick (who not only drew Protectors but also the Wolverine & Capt. America mini-series I wrote for Marvel) and I are currently shopping around a proposal for a new, original comics series.

Jim: As a writer with experience working at Marvel, DC and many independent publishers, who did you enjoy working with the most?

RA: As you say, I’ve been fortunate enough to do at least a little work for several of the major comics publishers of my day: Marvel, DC, Dark Horse, Image and Malibu. As with all companies, in all fields of endeavor, there is an upside and a downside to working for just about anybody.  In general, though, my experiences have been pretty good. But without a doubt I enjoyed my best (and longest) association with Malibu Comics.

It was very fulfilling creatively, because they allowed me to tackle such a diverse spectrum of genres: superheroes, sci-fi, fantasy, adult-oriented, manga-inspired, Westerns, pulp adventure.  I loved being able to jump back and forth from one type of storytelling to another. And I also enjoyed a great personal relationship with them.  Besides showing appreciation for my work, they made me feel like I was part of the “family.”  All of them – from publisher Scott Rosenberg to Dave Olbrich, Tom Mason, Chris Ulm, Dan Danko, Mickie Villa, Roland Mann and others – treated me not just as an employee but as a friend. And the feeling was definitely reciprocated. And still is: to this day I try to maintain contact with some of the old gang – both staffers and freelancers with whom I worked!
I still consider them all to be friends.

Jim: Do you have any thoughts about the current comics scene?

RA: Whether they like me as a person or as a writer, I don’t think anyone who knows me at all would deny that I possess a true love for the comic book art form. I have been deeply involved in comic books – first as a fan, then as a commentator, editor, writer and retailer – for 50 years!

I still love the medium and try to keep up with what’s going on in the field: including visiting one of the local comics shops virtually every week and reading several different titles each month.
While I’m delighted to see so many comics-inspired movies appearing and doing so well at the box-office (I know I never miss one!), I really wish the actual books themselves could regain the strong sales they once enjoyed.

One of the things I check out each month in the Diamond Distributors ordering catalog is their listing of the Top 100 selling titles. If the market was truly strong, the Top 10 would be composed of whatever the current issues were of the various regular monthly titles (Batman, X-Men, etc).
All too often in recent years, though, that Top 10 is actually heavily dominated by the current “Big Event” book and its spin-offs.

Remember the Fear Itself event?
I’m not wise enough to know how it could be accomplished, but I wish that consistent and strong sales could be achieved without the need for such nearly continuous “blockbusters” – for fear that if the buying public ever tires of them, they’ll stop buying comics all together.

That’ll never happen to me, though – I’ll remain a supportive fan of comics till the end!

In closing, let me just say thanks, Jim – for showing an interest in my work and me.
I hope some of your followers will check out some of that work and that they enjoy reading it as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it.

Jim: Thank you RA for that fantastic interview!

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