I have to tell you a story. When I was a kid…probably between six and eight years old…I forced my mom to buy a can of spinach one day while we shopped at the grocery store. To my mom’s confusion (and probably her chagrin as well), the fresh spinach in the produce section wouldn’t do. It had to be canned. Fortunately, I had grown up in a household with parents who weren’t overly enthused by the green vitamin-packed veggie. I’d never suffered the horror many children have gone through of having the stuff forced down my throat. That was about to change. For you see, my mom did buy that canned spinach and as I watched her prepare it in that pot over the skillet, my mind began to play out one scenario after another in my mind:
The bad guy would be carrying away the damsel in distress over his shoulder. She would scream and holler for help that no one would heed. Enter the hero (me) stage right. Seeing this brute manhandlin’ the maiden so, I’d reach into my shirt, pop open a can of spinach (with my bare hands no less), and munch down on nature’s own form of super steroid. Then, I’d proceed to give the villain a wallopin’ he’d not soon forget.
That’s right. I’d begged and pleaded with my mom to buy me a can of spinach because I had one goal in mind. I wanted to BE Popeye the Sailor. But, oh the humanity!!! When it came time…when that heapin’ portion of steaming green seaweed-looking stuff was set down at my plate, I reeled at the foul stench wafting up to my nose. And the taste!!! Egads! How on earth can I describe the taste?! Well, needless to say, I’ve never touched the stuff ever again and my dreams of being the coolest sailor in history ever was dashed against the rocks like an inferior sailor’s vessel.
Yes, I’ve been a Popeye fan for many years now. I’ve loved him in all his media incarnations: the comics, the old Max Fleischer movie reels (those are my absolute favorite!), the tv shows, and yes, I’m in the minority, I suppose, but I even love the live-action movie with Robin Williams. I just love Popeye. So when I heard that my Facebook pal and comic book/graphic novel writer Martin Powell was working with IDW comics to do a One-Shot of Popeye my ears perked up. When I heard the same comic book was going to be a cross-over mashup with the classic 1960s trading card series MARS ATTACKS, I was nearly beside myself with anticipation! Absolutely love those ugly green martians (and yes, loved Tim Burton’s movie about them as well). The very thought of Popeye battling those guys was just too much fun not to be part of. So, I ordered it the day it was released. Got the book yesterday. Read it. And absolutely LOVED it!
Martin brought a simplicity to the story that was so authentic. In a world where everything seems to try to be overly sophisticated, violent, and dark, Powell remained true to the wondrous innocence of the bygone age of the “funny books”. Upon reading it, I felt like a kid again, just laughing at Popeye’s silly speech patterns and his sense of justice. His bravery. His sense of loyalty. Of course, artist Terry Beatty’s artwork helped bring me back into the past as well. The attention to detail of the characters was spot on. Plus, the added touch for me…I loved the colored dots–used for coloring the panels, of course–that covered the page, just like the old comics used to be. And the story itself? What can I say, so much fun seeing the spinach-eatin’ sailor bringing the smack-down on the evil Martians and the even more sinister Sea Hag! You’ve got to see this book. Your inner child will be giggling with delight.
Now recently, I had a chance to talk to Martin about not only Popeye and an alien invasion, but about his other works in comics, graphic novels, and fiction in general. Here’s what he had to say:
1) Mash-ups are always fun. But one mash-up I never imagined seeing was Mars Attacks and Popeye. I have to know…what inspired you to write this story? How did it all come about?
POWELL: Well, it’s all sort of a blur. Everything happened very fast, sort of out of the blue. The MARS ATTACKS POPEYE cross-over concept was IDW Editor-in-Chief Chris Rydell’s brainstorm, and when I was first approached about it I immediately responded something like, “I’m in love”, realizing, of course, that most writers would probably have said – “Say what–?!”
Popeye has been my all-time favorite comics character ever since I can remember. I don’t recall ever being introduced to him, he was always there. My favorite toy when I was little was a Popeye musical jack-in-the-box, and I would take it with me to bed every night, carrying on weird conversations between me and the sailor, using both voices. I’m sure I creeped-out my older brothers. Of course, I watched the cartoons on TV, had stacks of Popeye comics and coloring books. He was my hero and, in a way, perhaps my first friend. Popeye was brave and strong and funny and good. I just adored him. Still do. I sez I duz.
As for the story itself, I quickly dreamed up a two page plot for the yarn, rapidly wrote it all down, and enthusiastically sent it off to IDW the next day. A couple weeks later my proposal was accepted by IDW, King Features, and Topps. Big sigh of relief. You cannot imagine. I was a nervous wreck for about a hundred hours. I’ve dealt with many other licensed characters before and I was worried from several different directions all at once. Happily, there weren’t any problems at all. They all liked my story. If that wasn’t already great enough, my long-time pal Terry Beatty was drawing my story—a bombastic bonus. Terry and I are both fanatical fans of the original E. C. Segar Popeye comic strips. Wish I had a nickel for every time we mused about all the cool things we could do if we ever got the chance to work on a Popeye book. Suddenly, that had actually happened for both of us. It was a dream come true.
2) Popeye made his first appearance way back in 1929 in the Thimble Theater comic strip by King Features. Since then, he has continuously remained in comics (in one form or another), been made into cinema shorts and later into several TV cartoon series, and finally into a live-action film in 1980 (which, by the way, I think gets a bum rap…I actually love the movie). A new CGI feature film by Avi Arid is apparently in the works too. My question for you is…Popeye is such a simple character. A brute by today’s standards. But we love him just as much today as back in the 30s. What do you think captivates us about his character? What makes him so popular?
POWELL: There are a million reasons! The main one is that Popeye is a phenomenally realized character. It’s a shame that most people today only know of Popeye from the animated cartoons, where he’s watered down into a very simple five minute format. The real Popeye of Thimble Theater is funny, but also capable of genuine pathos. He’s tremendously powerful, but also kindhearted. He’s comfortably predictable, yet can still take us by surprise. He’s ornery, and gentle. Fiery tempered, yet also possesses great tenderness. He has more depth of personality than the characters from most best-selling novels. Also, I gotta admit that I love the fact that Popeye looks so funny, and that he knows it, which is quite endearing. One glance at him and I can’t help but smile.
5) Okay. An unusual question, but one I’m sure, that many of my readers have asked over the years…what the HECK is a Jeep (as in Eugene the Jeep)? Where does he come from?
POWELL: I think it’s best to allow E.C. Segar himself to explain. When you read MARS ATTACKS POPEYE you’ll recognize a somewhat similar scene I wrote in tribute to this one. Segar was brilliant.
4) Now besides Popeye and Martians, you have had a very long career as a comic book writer. I know for a fact that you’ve had the good fortune to work on comics of my personal favorite superhero…Batman. But what other titles/characters have you worked on in the past? Feel free to share a few of your favorite experiences and why.
POWELL: Oh my. I’ve written a bit of everything, I suppose, which is a useful sort of schizophrenia to have if you want to make a living in this crazy business. I’ve written for Batman, as you’ve said, also Superman, Lee Falk’s The Phantom, The Spider, The Avenger, Professor Challenger, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Frankenstein, Houdini, a successful series of fairy tale re-tellings for kids—with an added “Girl Power” emphasis— plus Hercules, Sinbad, Paul Bunyan, Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, Pinocchio, a series of educational science comics, and translations of Shakespeare into graphic novels. Whew. I have to pause to catch my breath. Used to be I was probably best known for the several original Sherlock Holmes adventures I’ve written over the years, both comics and prose, and most recently THE HALLOWEEN LEGION, an original critically acclaimed property which I created and own with illustrator Diana Leto, which is gaining in popularity. I’m a lucky writer.
5) You and I are Facebook friends and I always enjoy the posts you make about your many eclectic interests. One can’t help getting the sense of almost childlike wonder you have for so many amazing things…from the classic horror films you watch to dinosaurs to classic pulp characters. Could you take a few minutes to talk about these interests? What draws you to old fashioned toy dinosaurs or a Boris Karloff film-fest or any of these things? Imagine this as your one opportunity to proselytize the masses toward your favorite things.
POWELL: When I was just starting out as a writer, when I was about nineteen, I had the tremendous good fortune to meet Ray Bradbury and, amazingly, we became friends. In all seriousness, I was in awe of him of course and he recognized and patiently nurtured an obsessive drive in me which I was too stupid to fully realize at that time. Ray became my mentor, even though I wasn’t looking for one. Amazingly, he generously offered to read my frantic, early fiction and suggested invaluable advice. That was quite courageous of him, since the first million words or so that came out of my typewriter had a peculiar, unpleasant odor to them. Ray didn’t mind the rotten-egg stench; he just held his nose with one hand and turned the pages with the other. This happened at an important time in my life because he was really the only person who supported me and believed in me. And, well, he was Ray Bradbury. If he said I was going to make it, no matter how much of a failure I felt I was, then who was I to argue? Creatively, Ray was the most important person in my life, a sort of spiritual father. I owe all of my professional success to him.
He always invited questions, always answered fully and frankly, was quick to sternly scold me when I’d frequently lose faith in myself. Ray strongly stressed to follow my passion, to pursue what I loved, and never to grow up. “Live forever!” he would say. When people decide to grow up, their souls start to dissolve and they begin to die. I detected the truth in that early on with my own eyes. I still glance around at the people walking on the street around me and I see animated dead people going through the motions and mimicking life. Their sense of wonder and sense of self has evaporated. You can see it in their eyes. It’s so sad.
6) Now besides Mars Attacks Popeye, you have a few other titles my readers might be interested in. Your work tends to take classic figures from literature or pulp fiction and place them in graphic novels. You’ve done this with any from the classic Christian allegory Pilgrim’s Progress to Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein (which was just recently released). Would you care to tell us about some of these great stories? Share two or three of your favorites and why they’re your favorites?
POWELL: I greatly appreciate you mentioning my FRANKENSTEIN, with art by Patrick Olliffe, as that’s still one of my very favorite books I’ve ever written. Its recent edition is actually a fifth printing, which is sort of surreal. Sherlock Holmes will likely always figure somewhere in my professional life and there was a time when I was afraid he’d take it over entirely. Not the case, I’m relieved to finally discover. I’m not as scared of him as I used to be. There’s even a new book featuring the Great Detective, a graphic novel of THE HOUND OF THE BASKERVILLES, which I did with artist Jamie Chase, to prove it. It’s due out in late February from Sequential Pulp/Dark Horse Comics and it’s already gotten rave reviews.
THE HALLOWEEN LEGION, probably my most personal fiction to date, makes the move from prose to graphic novel form this year in an all-new creepy adventure also from Sequential Pulp/Dark Horse Comics.
Speaking purely of favorites, my THE TALL TALE OF PAUL BUNYAN is also very special to me. It won the Moonbeam Golden Award for Best Children’s Graphic Novel in 2010. My older brothers used to read Paul Bunyan stories to me when I was a little kid and I suspect my affection for Paul and Babe the Blue Ox shows pretty plainly in that book.
7) The majority of your body of work could be classified as pulp. My readers know how much I love the pulp genre (my books can easily be classified as such as well). Although pulp has never truly gone away, there has definitely been a resurgence of the nostalgic formulae for pulp in recent years. What do you think draws people to it? Why is it enjoying such an increase in popularity lately? What is it that particularly draws you to it?
POWELL: People have always been drawn to the pulps because of escapism. That’s the purpose of any fiction, really. Video games and reality TV have largely taken the place of that, sad to say. As far as books are concerned, “pulp” is just a convenient label; it doesn’t mean the same thing as it used to. Actually, I don’t consider myself any particular kind of author. I’m just a writer. Period. Or, as I sometimes refer to myself, an insomniac hack from the Midwest. If my fiction fits into one specific genre or other that’s usually more by accident than design. And that’s fine. I do love the classic pulps, like Doc Savage, The Spider, Weird Tales, etc., but I’ve written more children’s books and adult mysteries than anything else. And while I don’t think of myself as a children’s book author or necessarily as a mystery writer, or a pulp writer, I certainly don’t mind when I’m described as such. I’m just happy to be known at all. It’s a privilege to be a working writer. I’m thrilled to have an audience, and very lucky that they are so loyal to me. I’ve been a full-time writer for years and I write primarily to entertain, and to pay my bills. I also strive to educate when given the chance. If I’m managing to do all three things at the same time, then I reluctantly admit to myself that perhaps I’m properly doing my job.
8) Finally, I ask you the same question I ask everyone on this blog. If you were only able to offer one piece of advice to aspiring writers out there, what would it be?
POWELL: Write every day, about whatever you wish. This business is plagued with rejection, so be brave. Listen to criticism carefully and then reject it, if you feel you must. Follow your dreams. When people say you’re wasting your time, pick up your dinosaurs and go play in another sandbox. If you give up, then you never wanted it badly enough. The surest way to fail is never to try.
First of all, thank you Martin for taking the time to talk with us today. You really are uber-talented and I’m in awe of your imagination!
Now for the rest of you, my friends, I hope you’ll support Martin by picking up one of his great graphic novels, comics, or prose! I’m sharing the link to his website and his Amazon page here if you’d like to to learn more about him and his stories…as well as pick up a few copies for yourself. I know Martin would appreciate it as well!