Monday, March 11, 2013

Beowulf: a lot of mileage since 1984.

(A lot of mileage since 700A.D.—before most Brits knew there was an A. or a D.).

(But I kid.)
A fan sent a couple of recent articles that I thought I’d share with friends (see below). I know many who’ve been with me since the beginning will mutter, “He’s still plugging that old dog-eared thing?” But no, the book has been out of print for over twenty-five years so I’m not hawking a thing here. I just thought it was fun. Besides, the dog-eared books are the best. It means they’ve been enjoyed. (My own ears are way too perky still.)

And it is still the most rewarding book I’ve ever been involved with—if not monetarily—as every year or two, even all these decades later, I still get letters from teachers across the country thanking me and telling how they used my book in their classrooms. All ages.

The first time I said, “Wow! Neat-o!” (or whatever the slang of that era might’ve been) was about a year after publication when a high school teacher wrote me a great letter saying he bought a whole case of my books for his classroom. This is something I never imagined when I was originally trolling through my head in search of ideas to work on. There were other letters.

I was further amazed, at the San Diego Comic Con, being told I had just won the first Jack Kirby Comics Industry Award for Best Graphic Album. Much of that amazement came when I learned there was such a thing as a Jack Kirby Comics Industry Award, then that some of the industry big shots who voted for me were the same guys who rejected the book when I was shopping it.

Then in 1994—I remember the L.A. Valley had just had the big earthquake, I had just undergone my first hip surgery, so I was flat on my back in bed, unable to even roll over, wondering if we’d get an aftershock that would level the house on top of said bed—when the phone rang. I used my long, hospital approved, grabby-stick to drag the receiver to the bed.

It was a conference call from Rutgers University—huh? I couldn’t have owed them anything; I’d only taken a smattering of college courses over the years and I was sure none of them spelled Rutgers. The callers claimed to be the two preeminent professors of ye olde English languages in the US (see, I knew the lingo). They said they wanted to create an original language version of my book for university studies. “Holy crap! (I didn’t say.)” Sadly that never came to pass, but I was gob-smacked that after ten years, and being out of print for much of that, the book was still getting that kind of attention.

The letters continued over the years.

About four years ago came the best. The mailman knocked on the door and handed me a large, padded package... wasn’t explosive. I opened it to find school projects, many of them. An elementary teacher had used my book in her classes and she had all the students create a project around my graphic novel. Cards and letters of "thank you, Mr. Bingham," from each of the kids. Dozens of drawings, some in crayon, poems, several had created whole kits where they included, strips of cloth, chain, clippings and pictures of early Celtic and Viking dress and ornaments. I gotta admit, it nearly brought tears to this olde guy.

I started on sketches, intending to send them to all the kids—sadly, life and living expenses interfered and I realized by the time I finished answering all of those kids they’d have graduated college. So I sent the teacher my best thank you email.

RE: “…when I was originally trolling through my head in search of ideas to work on—“

What has worked for me in my life (and I admit, that may be a short list) has always come unexpectedly. I can plan grandiose schemes and projects to match Citizen Kane (well, that might be a slight exaggeration) but these projects pile up, fill cabinets and accordion folders, drawers and cardboard boxes and only end up rewarding me with remorse for all the trees I’ve felled in my life.

Success inevitably comes when I am too busy working, trying to just do something good, noticeable. Something to get the eye of enough people that it might help to prolong my career so I wouldn’t have to “…join the fire department…” as my dad used to tell me.

It was early days. I was married, had bills, I had been a working professional (I use that term guardedly—I was getting paid for my comics), for about six years. The quality of my work was still “developing” and I was bouncing around a lot, company-to-company, comic-to-comic, mainly because, I believe, I wasn’t very good. (You can only fool an editor so far.) I had apprenticed under veteran Dan Adkins for my first two years, and with his insightful, never-ending voice of encouragement he’d always said, “Bing-haam,” (he always pronounced it that way) “Bing-haam, you’re never going to make it. You either have It, or you don’t, and you don’t. Look at Frazetta, look at Buscema, they always had It. They were good from the start. You’ll never get there.” And he’d follow it up with, “Besides, you have beady eyes. Nobody trusts someone with beady eyes.” Well, I could hardly fault him on that one.

But I was determined, if I couldn’t alter my own genetics, I could at least work on my drawing.

So after the first six years of finding direction, I decided I needed to prove something to the comic book world…as well as myself. But how to do it? Up ‘til then, all of my print work was rushed, and I was seldom paired with an inker who inked my pencils “the way I penciled them,” if the inker was competent at all.

(Photos intentionally omitted.)

I had gotten a smattering of paperback covers, but I wasn’t much of a painter in those days either. So, digging through my stack of Playboy magazines (I swear they were there for reference photos) I started playing with ink wash (I bet you thought I was going somewhere else with that). As the maidens were sans clothing, how to make them work for me? (Figuratively.)

Okay, yeah, I was a big fan of Sword & Sorcery and there ya go…some chain mail, a sword here, a spear there, a little sponge cake…

Thus spending the next few years wondering when I'd receive that lawsuit from Playboy...

I painted seven of them and finally found a publisher to put my portfolio together. Malevolent Maidens it would be called. (As good a title as any.) But this would not further my career as a comic book illustrator. I knew it.

Then it hit me. My next project. I was in the middle of my second reading of Tolkien’s trilogy. I, like many virile young men back then, loved the Conan movie (the first one), I’d read all the Howard books so I was starved for anything Conan, and my favorite artist was drawing most of the Conan comics. I had also had a life-long love of English Lit (thanks again to mom). So…

…I decided to show the young Tolkien and S&S and comic book fans where all these stories originated. I clawed through my library and found my copy of Beowulf. Tolkien was the Beowulf expert, after all, and spoke on the subject often. He’d admitted much of The Hobbit, especially the conversation with the fire-drake, Smaug, the thief in the night, came from there.

So ta-daa! It took a bit of doing, trips to the library, every translation was different—most were difficult to understand for those who would rather read Stan Lee’s Shakespeare-isms. But I managed to cobble together something I considered readable and began with my page layouts. Fun stuff. No pay, I was living off piece-money, but fun to do my own thing.

In extreme retrospect, I wish I had done more research on the visuals, tried to incorporate more of the historical accoutrements of the time, but I was deliberately trying to keep the “Conan” look hoping familiarity would help get exposure. Imaginary tradeoffs? The inking was the most difficult for me. I had never really inked with a quill, apart from butchering a number of panels Adkins was working on in my earlier days. But I studied as quickly as I could from some of my favorites. Took my cues everywhere, from Dick Giordano to Hal Foster to Jean Giraud and Victor De leFuente. And after a couple years of extreme poverty, and much rejection by the major companies, I found a buyer. Yeah, I had to bargain like a Casablanca street peddler, agree to work on one of their comic book series for six months or so, but my Beowulf would see print. It got my struggling career off the ground (in a Kittyhawk sort of analogy—the Wright Brothers didn’t fly far either).

The rest, as they say, is…all the great stuff aforementioned on this page.

My sincere thanks to all the fans and everyone who has kept my translation alive. And passed it on. And to the wonderful students who so enthusiastically shared their lovely work with this humble scribbler, you kids made my year.


"I think I understand what military fame is; to be killed on the field of battle and have your name misspelled in the newspapers."
—William Tecumseh Sherman

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