Big-name writers trying hand at comics

THE BALTIMORE SUN

When you think of comic books, names such as Mickey Spillane, John Jakes and Leonard Nimoy don't often come to mind.

But they will. The three successful writers have moved onto the pages of comics designed to attract older, more affluent readers.

They are part of a new breed of comics with celebrity signatures. The so-called signature comic books, bearing the names of media stars or writers established in other genres, are the latest attempt to expand readership.

The idea is simple: Celebrities create characters, a concept and sometimes story lines and dialogue for a six-book series. They lend their names to the project in exchange for a royalty agreement that encompasses all of the possible marketing variations, from CD-ROMs to films. Comic book companies supply writers, artwork and other technical support, and are responsible for marketing. The books usually are released in monthly installments.

Driving the trend is Tekno-Comix, which has released seven monthly series since November, according to Tekno-Comix co-founder Mitchell Rubenstein. The company hopes to add six more titles each year.

"These are not traditional superhero comics, so we're not gearing them to a young, teen market. They are much more sophisticated and have more depth to them than just trying to create the next Superman or Batman," Mr. Rubenstein says.

He says attaching a celebrity name to a comic book makes the project more commercial: "Without that, it's a shot in the dark whether the concept will carry itself or not.

"We went to media celebrities like Leonard Nimoy, John Jakes, Anne McCaffrey, Mickey Spillane and so on, and recruited them to create original stories and concepts for us," Mr. Rubenstein says. "We don't need for them to have a grounding in comics, but they must have a grounding as great storytellers because what we're doing is not just comics, but developing content for all media. As long as they're good storytellers, that's the main thing."

Storytelling is the stock in trade of Mr. Jakes, the author of such historical epics as "North and South" and "Homeland" and whose "Mullkon Empire" Tekno-Comix series began in May.

Mr. Jakes says his first short story sale was to The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction -- "$25 for 1,500 words" -- in 1950.

"In the 1960s, when I was in the advertising business, I was moonlighting at night writing paperback novels," he says. "I think I did a couple of dozen science fiction novels, most of which mercifully have sunk from sight. But a couple of them weren't too bad, and it's one of those many fields I've always loved."

He calls "Mullkon Empire" "a science fiction version of what I've been doing for the last 20 years: a family saga of the future." He describes the story as " 'I, Claudius' meets 'Dallas' 600 years in the future -- it's that kind of skulduggery and scheming and back-stabbing. These are very good, melodramatic figures. . . .

"This was the first really rotten family I've ever created. These are basically, with a couple of exceptions, really not very nice people -- and that was the idea from the word 'go.' "

Tekno-Comix is part of BIG Entertainment, a publicly traded multimedia company based in Boca Raton, Fla., founded by Mr. Rubenstein and his wife, Laurie S. Silvers.

The couple also created the Sci-Fi Channel (they sold it in 1992 to USA Network). Mr. Rubenstein says his company will use celebrity-signature comics as a springboard for licensing and marketing agreements based on the characters and stories.

Mr. Rubenstein says the quality of the project must be maintained throughout its various forms:

"Having the celebrity name attracts the widest possible consumer market. Just the celebrity name without a good concept and the right execution of the comic book is not going to work, but the combination has been working very well. . . . You need a good underlying concept, you need a good title, and then you also have the celebrity name attached to it."

Whether celebrity-signature comics will also appeal to traditional comics readers is uncertain. "I don't think you're going to see a lot of regular comics fans buying them," says Buddy Saunders, owner of Lone Star Comics, Books and Games.

"A lot of those buyers tend to be teen-agers and young adults who don't know who Mickey Spillane is, or John Jakes, for that matter," Mr. Saunders says. "If they pick the comic books up, they're going to pick them up more because they find the comics look interesting."

Series by science fiction writers such as Harlan Ellison and the late sci-fi icon Isaac Asimov do well in comic books, Mr. Saunders says. "We have a very big base of people who come in and don't normally buy comics. . . . They buy the newest Stephen King novel, or a science fiction novel by whoever the hot author is right now. We carry a lot of Harlan Ellison, and some of these people -- because they are Harlan Ellison fans rather than comics fans -- will pick up his comics."

The same is true for Leonard Nimoy's comics, and comics based on William Shatner's "Tek" books, because they draw fans who know the writers from their roles on the classic TV series "Star Trek."

"They've done pretty well," Mr. Saunders says. "There's a crossover between the fans of the TV show and the movies. They're pretty much interested in anything tied to the series, so they'll check out the comic books."

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