A Conversation with Writer and Indie Comix Legend JAN STRNAD - Part Two
Cereal At Midnight sits down with writer and indie comix giant Jan Strnad to talk about the early days of comics, sci-fi, fantasy, and horror fandom, his years at Disney TV Animation, writing Star Wars, and his decades-long friendship and working collaboration with illustrator Richard Corben.
(Continued from Part 1)
Cereal At Midnight: As someone who cared enough about genre entertainment to publish Anomaly, a fanzine filled with the work of great creators (including your long-time friend and collaborator Richard Corben) do you have any thoughts on the current state of fandom? You said there's an incredible amount of first rate material out there. Is it harder to find that material now that we're being super-served with genre entertainment? And does the fact that so much of this genre entertainment is coming from major corporations and not independent voices have any impact on the conversation?
Jan Strnad: I’m certain that I enjoyed the genre material of my era, the 1950s to mid-60s, so much because I was young. That’s when your brain is soaking up everything you see and hear and it’s all new and wonderful. Material has to be incredibly lame not to impress a ten-year-old.
I know that a lot of the stuff I loved and continue to love is lame as hell, but I still see it through the eyes of that young boy who thought it was marvelous. Well, I have to backtrack on that statement a bit. I knew that much of it was second-tier. I watched the Flash Gordon serials from the 1930s on television, and the effects and sets and costumes didn’t measure up to movies such as Forbidden Planet (1956) or This Island Earth (1955) or even The Day the Earth Stood Still (1951). Still, I loved them, so maybe it’s just that there was such a dearth of science fiction and fantasy material that I gratefully took whatever I could get, like Oliver Twist holding out his empty plate and begging for more.
Any movie or TV show that comes after that golden period--say five years old to twelve or so--has a higher bar to clear. I was sixteen when Star Trek debuted, and that show pressed my buttons. It wouldn’t be until Star Wars came along in 1977 that I got that old thrill again. That was the same year I got married. We used the throne room music as the climax to our marriage ceremony. We’d stolen some railroad ties from the side of the road and made a stage in the back yard, and I rented some large Altec Lansing “Voice of the Theatre” speakers. When the preacher--an old high school friend of mine--pronounced us “man and wife” the Star Wars music blasted out of those speakers and my wife Julie’s son from a previous marriage set off bottle rockets. It was a wedding ceremony fit for an adolescent in an adult body, which is how I see myself.
We drove from Wichita, Kansas, to Los Angeles to see Star Wars for the first time on the big screen at the Chinese Theatre. From the opening shot, I was hooked. It was a pulp serial rendered with the best effects the modest budget could provide, guided by a visionary director. 20th Century-Fox had no idea what they had. They let George Lucas buy the merchandising rights for peanuts, and they opened the movie in a piddling thirty theaters. No idea.
There’s something appealing about loving something great that hasn’t penetrated the mass consciousness yet. It’s like knowing a secret, and you feel important and privy to secret truths. You see the same thing with bands you like before they get famous. Then the films or the bands break through and everybody knows about them, and sometimes they start pandering a bit to the taste of the masses, and the magic disappears. The magic is so fragile, it can’t stand up to success. Like people who become stars, I guess. The magic can’t handle the fame.
In mainstream comics, I liked working with characters nobody cared about. The Silent Knight. Man-Bat. Even The Atom. The whole Sword of the Atom mini-series came about because DC needed an Atom project to retain the trademark. They didn’t care about The Atom, but Gil Kane had a pitch and tagged me as writer, and we were off and running.
The more “important” the project, the more executives who get involved, the less fun it is. And it usually shows in the work. Projects driven by individuals can often suck horribly, of course, but just for myself, I like working under the radar. I don’t care about the budget.
Like MEAD, which is 99% Jeffery Williams’ movie that I helped write. It’s a science fiction epic with a budget under $100,000. That’s absolutely insane. But it has spaceship battles, a giant robot, explosions, even dinosaurs fer Chris’sakes! Is it the best movie ever? Of course not. But dang, it’s like nothing you’ve seen before because Jeff is a nut. He loves all of the s-f stuff we all love, and he adds his own measure of Jefferyism to it. I wish so much that Rich Corben had lived to see it. I think he’d appreciate what Jeffery has wrought based on our sixteen-page underground comic. I’m sure MEAD was more fun to work on than a Star Wars movie would be today. The Star Wars budgets are too big, the stakes too high, and the fandom seems meanspirited. I’d rather work on a project with no fandom than one with fans as cruel and intolerant and misogynistic as Star Wars fans can be.
It’s interesting watching characters evolve over generations. They change in part because of societal changes, but a large part of their evolution is due to the creators growing up and trying to force the characters they loved as kids to grow up, too. In some cases it’s like rendering an orchestral or metal version of “Teddy Bears’ Picnic.” A character like Batman can make the transition, but a sillier character like Green Lantern is more problematic.
Then you have the technological changes that affect the stories. Special effects wizard Phil Tippett, who’s a master of both stop motion puppetry and digital effects, says that stop motion looks fake but feels real, while digital effects look real but feel fake. I agree, but that might be an artifact of his (and my) age, since we grew up with practical effects and stop motion puppets. I don’t know that younger generations feel that way. Modern filmmakers have remade Jason and the Argonauts and Clash of the Titans with digital effects but, for me, I don’t know that the movies are made any better for it. Maybe the kids who grew up with digital effects will prefer them.
Everything passes, you know? Tastes change. That’s why I try to keep physical media of the old stuff I like, because there’ll come a time when you can’t find it streaming because there’s no demand for it. It’s already a challenge with a lot of titles.
On the plus side for today’s genre fans, budgets are bigger and the material is produced to a higher standard. On the negative side, franchises do tend to go pear-shaped when the studios don’t understand the material or, worse, misunderstand it. Alien, Jurassic Park, Robocop, Tremors, Star Wars… the franchises have all been uneven.
As you suggested, there’s just so darned much of it, it isn’t as special as it used to be back in the day. When you don’t have much, you naturally appreciate what you have all the more. We have so very much these days, we take it for granted.
Cereal At Midnight: It's also worth mentioning that you've worked on massive franchises yourself. You were writing Star Wars stories for Dark Horse Comics long before the sale to Disney was even a pipe dream. Your X-Wing and Droids stories helped to flesh out characters and concepts we already knew, but your run on Star Wars: Republic is part of the reason I enjoyed the Prequel films as much as I did. Can you share your experience working on one of pop culture's most famous (and divisive) franchises? Was there a feeling of responsibility? Trepidation? Did Dark Horse and Lucasfilm give you a long leash to tell your stories the way you wanted to tell them?
Jan Strnad: Thanks for the kind words!
I wasn’t cowed at all going into the Star Wars comics because I knew and loved the material and felt confident that I could add to the mythos. Lucasfilm was great to work for. They laid down some ground rules--notably, that the main characters of Luke, Leia, Darth Vader, et al. were off-limits--but I had tremendous leeway to write stories about the secondary characters. That limitation fit my preferences perfectly.
It was nice going to a comic book signing and having fans lined up out the door and down the sidewalk for a change. I’ve been to signings for my independent comics where nobody showed up. It drove home to me how important the property is. Those fans weren’t lining up to get close to me; they wanted to get closer to George Lucas.
It’s that way in the comics business as a whole. If you want to make a name for yourself as a comics writer, you get hold of a popular character or super group and stick with it for a few years, long enough for some of the glitter to rub off onto you. Dick Giordano offered me a monthly Atom comic after the successful run of Sword of the Atom but I rather stupidly turned it down because I wasn’t that interested in writing a super-hero book.
Writing television cartoons was a different animal. The credits go by so fast, and the audience is so casual, that there are hardly any “big” animation writers as far as the viewers go. I’d love to have written on Batman: The Animated Series but I wasn’t in with that group, sadly. Instead, most of my work was with Disney and Darkwing Duck, Aladdin, Goof Troop, and other Disney brands. Plus I worked with smaller studios on series that most people won’t remember. Skeleton Warriors? Biker Mice from Mars?
I was having lunch at a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant one day and I happened to be wearing my Disney TV Animation jacket. A young man came up to me and asked who I was, and when I said I was “Jan Strnad” his eyes went wide. “You’re one of the good writers!” he said. Turns out he was a Disney TVA fan, one who recorded the shows and single-framed through the credits, which is the only way to read a name because they flew by so fast. That was my only brush with fame as an animation writer.
The trade-off in working on high profile Disney characters was, as usual, executive direction. Because they cared about the characters, they felt obliged to keep a tight rein on the idiot writers. So you end up with people who couldn’t write a script if their children’s lives depended on it telling people who can write a script how to write their scripts. Quality of editing is replaced by quantity. When I was writing eleven-minute cartoons for Disney’s 101 Dalmatians, I had twelve people giving me notes on each script. That’s crazy! If I needed that much supervision, they shouldn’t have hired me in the first place. The two editors, Steve and Cydne Granat, were experienced and excellent professionals and should have been all the guidance I needed--I do believe in the value of a good editor, and I’ve had some great ones in comics and animation--but the Disney machine didn’t trust them to do the job they’d done so well for more than a decade.
Now that Disney owns Star Wars, I’d be hesitant to take on any Star Wars project. Not that they’re banging on my door.
I met some great people at Disney, though. Writers, artists, directors. These people were just unbelievably talented and overall terrific people to know. They made my time at Disney TVA memorable. I’ve lost touch with most of them, unfortunately. They live in the San Fernando Valley and I live over the hills in West L.A. where we moved when my wife, Julie, was working at 20th Century-Fox. Just getting together for lunch is a major endeavor in a city as sprawling as Los Angeles.
To be concluded in Part 3!
Jan Strnad is an award-winning writer, known for five decades of sci-fi, horror, and comics tales. He has also written for almost two dozen animated television series and is co-creator of the underground comic Fever Dreams, which has been adapted into the feature film MEAD.Read the whole conversation!