When I last spoke with Mark Wheatley, he was in the early stages of putting together Les Vamps, his rather revolutionary electronic anthology of fan fic inspired by his art. But that’s certainly not the first time he’d been working on the bleeding edge where art, culture and technology intersect.
For proof, one really need look no further than Breathtaker, the award-winning, highly influential serial graphic novel that serves as one of the more significant artistic achievements in the earlier stages of both his and co-creator Marc Hempel’s respective careers. Sadly, despite being a solid seller with strong critical and fan support, the collected Breathtaker has remained out of print for years.
But that’s all going to change in the near future.
Recently, Wheatley and Hempel have launched an Indiegogo campaign to underwrite some absolutely necessary pre-production work for a planned release of a newly-reconstructed and remastered edition of Breathtaker. But they really need the support of both their long-time fans as well as new discerning readers like you if they’re going to make this all happen, and Mark Wheatley is here to explain why.
Why don’t we start off with your elevator pitch for the book?
Breathtaker, a beautiful succubus, a girl so alluring that anyone would be willing to die for her love.
Well, why bring Breathtaker back—and why now?
Long ago, the plan was that we would follow up Breathtaker: Love, Death, Sex, Power with a second Breathtaker. I even had the bare bones of the plot worked out.
What can you tell us about that follow-up without giving too much away, and why didn’t that book ever see publication?
The story was set about 20 years after the first story. I was a little concerned that it would change the flavor of the story to set it in the future. I didn’t want the focus of the story to become a science fiction tale about a future world. But I thought I could get around that.
The larger problem was political. The [book’s original] editor, Mike Gold, left DC Comics shortly after Breathtaker was published and his projects became orphans. Even though we had exceptional sales on Breathtaker and won an award, we couldn’t get any interest in a sequel.
Then Vertigo started up and they collected the books under that imprint. It became a constant, ongoing good seller for them and eventually they approached us about the sequel. Instantly I was nostalgic for working with Mike Gold!
Because the Vertigo editors were telling us what our next Breathtaker story should be. They were telling us who our characters were. They were very intrusive.
Now—I’ve worked well on company-owned properties in tight cooperation with editors and publishers. But Marc and I created and own Breathtaker. We thought the ideas we were being handed were wrong-headed and it did not look like a good idea to start a project that could turn into a train wreck.
If you already had that sequel roughed out, why didn’t it come out under another company’s imprint—or even your own Insight Studios banner? Why hasn’t that come out before now?
We launched a long process of regaining our rights, and about ten years ago they were returned. Since then we have optioned the property for a film and went through the process of the studio changing leadership and dumping us. That wasted some time. And then we just got busy with life and other projects.
Along the way, Breathtaker was featured in the Norman Rockwell Museum’s LitGraphic show, and then ended up touring museums across the US for several years. And every time we talked, Marc and I continued to want to do this project. And finally our schedules lined up and we could see a way to do it. We got a publisher on board and that’s when we could see how a schedule to get it done would work.
Your primary creative partner in this endeavor was Marc Hempel, someone you’ve done many a project with before and since. But I don’t know if I’ve ever heard you talk about Marc’s work.
So, why do you like working with him? What about his approach makes him such a storyteller, not to mention good artist, and what are some of the other qualities that help mark him as a good creative partner?
Nah—Marc is a real pain to work with. I mean—he insists on only doing his very best work! I mean, how do you work with somebody like that? [Laughter]
To me, there are just a few people who have created comics like it was a language that was their native tongue. Will Eisner, Harvey Kurtzman and Bernard Krigstein are the prime historical figures. I’m not talking about favorite artists or creators of favorite characters. I’m talking about people who can bring static image to life and make us feel every emotion of a story. Well, for my money, there is no better living example of this kind of comics creator than Marc Hempel. I will work with Marc anytime and anywhere.
What else can you tell us about the titular character and her story without giving too much away?
Siren. Temptress. Man-eater. Call Chase Darrow what you want, but whatever the label, the truth is that she is the Breathtaker: a nice young woman who possesses the power to love a man to death. Chase Darrow might be the only real, living example of a succubus.
Breathtaker is part horror story, about a woman with the power to drain men of their very life force... part romance, because her lovers are her willing victims... part crime story, as Chase is on the run from a government that has branded her a criminal... and part superhero story: she is pursued by The Man, a popular television and merchandising figure who also happens to have extraordinary powers and abilities that he is using to hunt down and capture Chase in an effort to boost his sagging Nielsen ratings.
That last, prescient line concerning The Man’s actions being driven by his ratings is but one of the aspects that still fascinate me about that book. In fact, as much as I enjoy and admire your other efforts, Mark, Breathtaker has always held a particularly fond spot in this critic’s heart. And it still stands, for me at least, as a real high-water mark in your early career, as well as an informal yardstick to critique the rest of your work.
So I was wondering, what place does it hold in your catalog, personally, and just how important was this particular project to you artistically, professionally and even personally?
Breathtaker is tied with EZ Street as my personal favorite graphic novel project.
I created and wrote Breathtaker and was thrilled with how Marc Hempel designed and brought it to life. At the time I wrote Breathtaker, I had only just reached the point where I felt I was in control of my writing, that I could chart a course for my story and characters and see them reach that ending at the pace and intensity I wanted. After that point it has been more of a deepening of detail and character. Before that, it had been an undisciplined smash of imagination and energy. But my only regret has been the long interruption of the story of Chase Darrow!
Both here and on the book’s Indiegogo campaign page, you’ve described Breathtaker as part horror story, part romance, part crime drama, and partly superhero tale. Which begs the question, where’d this chimera come from? What were the circumstances surrounding its birth, and what influenced its unique genetic makeup?
Marc and I had just finished collaborating on Jonny Quest for several years. Before that we had done Blood of the Innocent, Mars and Be an Interplanetary Spy together. Those projects had all been very close collaborations, usually due to tight deadlines. So we were involved in each other’s territory. I was often writing with Marc heavily editing. Then the art was a combination of each of our pencils and inks.
On Spy I had to come as close as I could to imitating Marc’s style because the contract was with Marc. On Mars I was penciling, but Marc was doing layouts and inks. By the time we were free to think about a project like Breathtaker, we were burned out for working together that closely. We had intended to head into our own directions. But the freelance life is all about feast or famine. And I soon saw that Marc was at loose ends. He was working up a series of exotic and erotic paintings and had no income project pending. So I decided to create something that might make us some money.
On my next writing day, away from the bustle of Insight Studios, I came up with the name Breathtaker and in just a few minutes the idea of a lovely succubus spun into an elaborate plot. I wrote it up and pitched it to Marc. We spent a month or so working up a proposal with plots and character designs. Then we pitched it to Mike Gold at DC Comics. He called us inside an hour after getting the proposal and we started negotiations. It was the fastest acceptance I’ve ever gotten on a project.
On the other hand, we were then setting up the creator owned contract at DC Comics and it took their lawyers and our lawyer over 14 months to work out the final language of the agreement. And it took us about a year to do the work of creation. So almost three years after I came up with the name, Breathtaker reached the public.
Considering that you worked closely with him on so much prior to Breathtaker, how much influence did Marc—and Mike Gold, for that matter—have upon the final shape of the book? And how much changed between your original conception and the final product?
We stuck very close to the plots in the proposal. But Marc originally started drawing the book in the Jonny Quest style. I knew he had a much more interesting personal style and I had a long talk with him after he was about eight pages into it. We scrapped those pages and Marc started over in the style you know today.
And Mike Gold is a great editor. He is able to get more results from a few careful comments than many editors who have written pages of direction.
In the case of Breathtaker, he gave us a safe place to work and encouraged us to push the limits of our creativity. He also asked me what would happen if Chase had a pet dog she loved. That single question deepened the character and directly resulted in the elk sequence.
Now, the fact is that you have an established publisher lined up to reprint and distribute the book in a variety of formats. So, could you explain again why you guys need to do fundraising to put the book out? I mean, you just upload the old files and your work’s done, right?
The publisher is on board to get the book into the hands of the reading public. They have extensive worldwide distribution and excellent book store penetration. And they are using their credit with the printer to get sufficient quantities of the book into print. That leaves us with about eight months of restoration work to put the book into shape.
Breathtaker was a pre-digital book. There was no good way to save over 200 pages of color art, except to keep the art. We have about 80% of the color pages in storage. But we need to make that work fit for print.
Age has not been kind. The line art no longer fits the color art. A lot of digital manipulation is needed to get this to print quality. Some of the art was even torn in half in the process of scanning, back in the day. And the pages that are missing will need to be reconstructed. So the money we are raising is going to pay for the rent and electricity while we work to re-create these pages. If we reach our goal, we should have some budget left to get started on the sequel. For me, that will be the real reward.
Playing the devil’s advocate once again, I gotta wonder how hard this digital cleaning process and such really is. I mean, don’t you just scan it and then push a couple buttons and it’s done? And if it’s not that easy, could you describe what the process of salvaging a page requires, and how long that typically takes?
I wish it was that easy! [Laughs again]
Each page is two pieces—except for the torn pages—so two scans at least. Then the work starts of matching color and fitting the line art to the color art. The line art is on film and the color art is on paper. Film and paper respond to temperature, humidity and age in very different ways. They really do not match. It comes down to panel-by-panel manipulation to align the line art and color art—and then have the page look correct as a whole. I can paint a page from scratch in almost the same amount of time. And, as mentioned, we don’t have all the art.
Actually, this is a good place to ask anyone out there to contact us if you have access to a color original Breathtaker page. We have been lucky to get several pages scanned and returned to us from collectors. But we still need more!
Okay. That all sounds reasonable, but I still need to ask: Isn’t all that stuff you just talked about the job of the publisher to do that work for you, or to pay you to do it? After all, most people would likely assume that that kind of pre-production cost is supposed to be borne by the publisher, and not the creators, right?
You make me nostalgic for the old days—back when publishers had high sales and were able to make substantial advances for production.
In this case, we are pretty much financing this work on our own. We got a small signing fee, but nothing approaching what we need to have the time to do this work to the quality it deserves. We will get a royalty of course, and in a few years of sales that might amount to something. That doesn’t help us now.
Let’s say that there’s someone reading this who is still unconvinced that this is a cause worth supporting. What might you say to that might help sway them to support your efforts?
Well—your money is not vanishing into thin air. We are giving you high value rewards in return.
Take a look at all the books and original art that a very little money will buy. Marc Hempel and I don’t often do commissions. But this is an opportunity to have us draw anything you can imagine. One of my publishers saw a good deal here and has used this opportunity to get a low cost cover for one of his publications. And I applaud his willingness to help out!
What did you get from the experience of creating Breathtaker that might have been a surprise, an unexpected development or even the gift of a lesson that you’ve carried ever since?
It took about 15 years before the young, new exciting artists in comics and animation started coming up to me at conventions to let me know that Breathtaker had changed their lives and inspired them to create their own comics and TV shows. Really, that kind of feedback is priceless. And I never expected it.
What do you hope that readers get from Breathtaker?
A very entertaining evening of reading and some insights into how many ways people can love.
Anything you’d like to add before I let you get back to it?
And thanks for the great questions!
Completely my pleasure, Mark!