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Heartbreak Hotel

I feel like I had a conversation with my sixteen-year old self last night. I was going through a bunch of 3.5" floppy disks I'd found post-move (ha! remember that silly technology?) and, rather than tossing them out, I started looking through to see what was on there.

And ohhhhhh boy, the things I found.

The most important thing: somehow, some way, after 19 years, I found my oldest writing samples not written in crayon.

Let me set the stage for you....

As a junior at the High School of Art & Design in '91, I had a friend who was doing an internship with Marvel, and through him I wound up meeting a couple of assistant editors. Thanks to my friend, I suddenly had an 'in' to talk to people at the company I'd dreamed of working at ever since I was a kid. And they weren't completely dismissive, either, although the fact that they didn't spend every waking moment thinking of ways to kill the Hulk seemed a little odd to me. 

Anyway, one night (funny to think about a sixteen year old running around at night in pre-Giuliani New York, isn't it?) we were at a diner and one of the assistants dropped a bombshell: Walt Simonson, the current writer/artist on the Fantastic Four, was leaving the book abruptly, and they were scrambling for replacements. 

One of the most vivid memories of my life was choking down the mouthful of hamburger in my mouth so I could spit out the words "I'll do it! I can write it!"

With those words, both of the assistants looked at me like I was talking with a mouthful of burger...which I was. But I wouldn't be denied a chance to take a shot at writing what had been one of, if not my favorite, comics.

The look on their faces made it clear what they thought, so I said it first.

"What, just because I'm in high school I'm disqualified? Jim Shooter was thirteen when he wrote his first Legion of Super Heroes story," I went on, not quite realizing that invoking that name to Marvel employees was probably a bad idea. "And besides, I've read all the good runs, the Lee-Kirby stuff, John Byrne's run, Simonson's....I can probably do the job better than anyone else." I then went on to suggest that my friend be the artist, knowing that he was impressing most of the editorial staff with his stuff and hoping that could be the key to making this work (and I'm not divulging his name here for several reasons, most of 'em personal, but if you were to check Wikipedia's page and look up famous graduates of A&D from, say, 1992, you'd have your answer). I was also just a bit too high on myself, which is normal for a nervous teenager, right?

Now one thing I had going in my favor at this point was the fact that I'd spent many hours as a young lad writing up plot outlines, some of them pilfered and retooled from old and obscure science fiction movies thanks to a giant almanac I'd gotten as a kid, and tailoring them to various comic characters. Over the course of a few years I'd come up with a rough three years' worth of plots for the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Hulk, the Flash, and the Silver Surfer. 

So when one of the assistant editors asked me, in all seriousness, "Okay, what would you do?", I launched into a long speech, using the basis of some of those stories to sketch out a rough idea for what a Joe Reiter-scripted Fantastic Four would look like. 

And the look on the assistant's faces was priceless. Not quite as skeptical as they had been, not quite believing it, sure, but I'd made an impression. 

Assistant #1 asked some questions, challenging some of my ideas, a few of which had some obvious plot holes, but in the context of a rough idea, not the end of the world.

After a few more questions, he thought it over. "Well, I don't know....some of that sounds pretty cool...tell you what, write up an outline for that stuff and get it to me, I'll see what Ralph says." By Ralph he was talking about FF editor Ralph Macchio (not the Karate Kid), and I went home that night on a high: a freaking assistant editor was showing interest in the idea of me writing the Fantastic freaking Four??? 

Over the next few days I spent way more time refining some of those old plots on my Commodore 128 (bah-ha-ha-ha-ha) than I did working on my homework, and began dreaming of a year down the road when I graduated high school, prepped myself for college, and worked at my side job, writing the Fantastic Four. 

Obsessed? Jumping the gun? Oh hell yes. 

Less than a week later I handed my friend a folder containing the outline, my various notes on characters to be used and changed, and he promised me he'd hand it over when he was at the offices the next day. 

A week went by without a word. A week after that, and my friend invited me to the Friday night hangout at the diner. When we got there, the assistant nodded at me, but didn't say a word. And since I hadn't quite learned the art of subtlety, I sat down next to him and asked "So? What's happening?"

The look on his face was the answer, but I didn't see it. I heard the following words: "Some really good stuff in there....a lot of potential....showed it to Ralph, he asked who wrote it.....told him about you....he threw it across the room.....shouted 'A fucking high school student is NOT writing the Fantastic Four!!!!'....told you I wasn't sure....kind of sucks I know...."

I don't remember much else about that night, but I know that in the days, weeks, and months that followed, I didn't look at it the way I should have. Instead of looking at the positives that my writing at sixteen had impressed some people, I took the opposite view: that I'd failed, that my writing wasn't good enough, and that it wasn't meant to be. 

A few years later, when my family entered the PC age of computers, I printed out all of the stuff I'd written on our dot matrix printer (bah-ha-ha-ha-ha) and re-wrote them in word perfect on our new Comtrade, and backed it up to a 5" floppy, which eventually was copied to a 3.5 floppy, which is what I was talking about three hours ago when I started this post. 

And what's really funny, looking back at this 'outline' I wrote almost nineteen years ago: at least two of the story ideas I threw out there were later used, sort of, in the Fantastic Four years later. I wasn't reading the book regularly by that point, but if memory serves there was some kind of Latverian civil war during the Mark Waid era, and funny enough, the first Doctor Doom story I'd outlined involved SHIELD providing weapons to an ousted Latverian to overthrow Doom and provided the US government with access to his technology, which wound up putting the FF and Doom on the same side and causing a rift between Nick Fury and Reed Richards, which leads to Fury being canned as head of SHIELD. The first Gulf War served as much of the inspiration behind the idea.  

Not that the idea was stolen from me by any stretch, but it's pretty cool to think that my sixteen year old self hit on an idea that a comics pro used later on. If only I wasn't so easily discouraged back in the day....then again, this is probably the path I was supposed to take to become a writer. 

At some point I'll have to put up some brief notes on some of these plots without giving away too much, I may be able to recycle them into something else at some point. But it's funny to see how far I've come, from a kid who wanted only to write for Marvel using Marvel characters and doing nothing but comics to someone who's a little more....broadminded, and not quite so focused on playing only in someone else's sandbox.


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