I didn't know if our paths would cross again once Buddy sold his stores a few years ago--and then I discovered his novel The Martian Legion, published by Russ Cochran (another person I got to know through his books, then later in person when our paths crossed at various conventions and gatherings--it's a small world, isn't it?)
The Martian Legion is a massive, lavishly produced novel--not only an adventure-fantasy fan's dream crossover event (starring such heroes as Tarzan, John Carter, Carson Napier, Alley Oop, Doc Savage, the Shadow, and--I suspect--a few additional characters drafted to fill in for Flash Gordon and Ming the Merciless), but it's also a stunning presentation highlighting the artistry of book-making. As such, it's also an extremely large and extremely heavy book--don't plan on lying on the sofa and balancing this one on your chest while you read it unless you want to suffer the fate of Giles Corey. This is a book that pretty much requires a table-reading--but it's worth the extra effort!
After reading the book, I wanted to find out more about how, when, and why Buddy created a work of this scope and size. Thankfully, he was willing to chat about his new literary endeavor.
Most people immediately associate you with comics, not with ERB, sword and planet, or pulp hero adventure. These are obviously long-time interests of yours as well. How far back does your interest in and involvement with these authors, characters, and concepts go as a fan and reader?
I first discovered Tarzan while in junior high school. Arlington was still a small town in the early 1960s (about 20,000 people, now 380,000), but it had one small bookstore. My mother would take me there every week and I'd spend some of my paper route money. One Saturday I came upon a set of the nine Grosset and Dunlap Tarzan hardback editions. My eyes zeroed in on the dust jacket for Tarzan the Terrible. Gee, I thought, I never saw a Tarzan like this at the movies! That cover still gives me chills of pleasure--Tarzan grappling with a black-furred was-don upon a cliff side. I bought the book, read it, and the next week I was back at the little bookstore. I marched right in, picked up the other eight Tarzan novels and took them to the checkout counter. The lady remembered me from the week before and said--and these are her exact words-- "You must have really enjoyed the first one." At that point I didn't know there were more Tarzan novels than those nine or that there were also Mars novels and a whole lot more, but a few years later I was disabused of my ignorance when Ace Books began reprinting just about every book ERB ever wrote, all in affordable paperback! The Frazetta and Krenkel covers were icing on the cake. By the time I graduated from high school in 1965 (my high school 50th reunion is this summer) I had read them all, and was an ERB fan for life. And somewhere in there I also discovered Doc Savage and The Shadow, again through reprint paperbacks.
I also don't think most readers knew you were a writer--it's that tendency everyone has to categorize people in specific niches. When did you begin writing? You did fanzine work in the 1960s, correct? And you've written SF as well--including a story that earned a Nebula nomination. Why didn't you write more?
Yes, I did a lot of fanzines and some writing there, but in that period my ambition was to be a comic artist. My interest in writing developed out of that. I never did any professional comic art, but I did write 20 or so stories for Warren's Creepy and Eerie magazines, the best story of the lot being to my mind The Comet's Curse, which was a reworking of a Demon super hero story I'd done earlier for one of BilJo White's fanzines. A good friend of mine beginning in high school, Howard Waldrop, who remains my best friend to this day, and I both decided we wanted to be writers. By the time we hit college we were hard at it, and both members of the writing group, Turkey City Rodeo. Howard and I co-wrote The Texas-Israeli War: 1999 which was published by Ballantine Books. It went through two further paperback editions, and saw several foreign editions. Howard went on to a very successful career as a writer, producing mainly SF stories. I got sidetracked by Lone Star Comics. It wasn't until the early 1990s that I resumed some writing. But before I put aside writing altogether for close to a couple of decades, I also had written a few short stories, and one, "Back to the Stone Age," was as you noted nominated for an SF Nebula, an honor even if I didn't take first place.
This is an incredibly ambitious work. Would you mind describing the premise of the book, and what characters are involved in the story, both in primary and in supporting roles?
The Martian Legion: In Quest of Xonthron, is something like the Iliad on Mars. In The Martian Legion, the reader will meet familiar faces, some of them developed well beyond what ERB did, plus new faces from the mind of Jake Saunders.
Tarzan, John Carter, Doc Savage, the Shadow, Alley Oop, Carson Napier... there are a lot of classic heroes in this story! What brings together such a diverse group of characters?
John Carter needs help in dealing with the therns who are again up to no good, in this case threatening to destroy Barsoom. The Warlord calls upon the heroes of Earth--Tarzan, other ERB stalwarts, plus The Shadow, Doc Savage, and another tough guy that will likely surprise many readers. Tarzan's younger son, Conan (one of my creations), plays an indispensable role, being the human thread that ties all the parts together.
Any time you mix a group of characters like this, it's a fan's dream come true--but it also has to be a challenge to get all the rights and permissions. How did you get everyone to sign off on this?
I can thank my editor, Russ Cochran, for securing the necessary rights. Russ' reputation as a quality book publisher is well established. He published the three-volume Edgar Rice Burroughs Library of Illustration, a truly beautiful set of three books in a slipcase. More recently he did the Hopalong Cassidy book, another stunning production. Russ knew the folks at ERB, Inc. He secured the ERB rights and likewise the rights to the other characters, pretty much on the basis of his reputation. None knew me from Adam, but I think the various parties said to themselves, "We'll trust our characters with Russ because he wouldn't be in this deal unless he had confidence in the writer and the quality of his work." I'm sure the process wasn't as easy as I now make it sound, but from my perspective it seemed so.
Was there anything specific that inspired you to write The Martian Legion?
It all began as a short story I promised my son. Even before he could read, my wife and I would read to him every evening. As soon as Conan was old enough for Oz, The Hobbit, and Tarzan and John Carter, we were reading those things along with the Carl Barks’ duck stories and John Stanley's Little Lulu. It didn't take Conan long to ask the question every new ERB fan asks, "Did Tarzan ever go to Barsoom and meet John Carter?" No, I said, he hadn't, but I'd write that story, just a little short story. Well, that "little short story" just grew and grew like Topsy until it hit half-a-million words. And I had a blast writing every bit of it, getting to live every scene. I had the story outline in my head, but I didn't know what all went on between every point A and B. So it was like I was reading my own book for the first time as I wrote it. That, my friend, is one fun experience!
When did you begin writing The Martian Legion?
I began writing it in 1992 when my son Conan was twelve, the same age as Tarzan's son Conan (what a coincidence!) when The Martian Legion begins. Within the year I finished it. Then it sat on a shelf until about three years ago when I dusted it off and showed it to an initially skeptical but kind-hearted Russ Cochran. I knew Russ loved ERB as much as I did. He knew the material, respected the material as I did. He read the manuscript and told me, "Let's do this!"
How long did it take you to get the manuscript into the format that you wanted?
Having "finished” the first draft, it took about two years of part-time editing to get a tight manuscript. Keep in mind, all during the writing and designing of this book, I was also running Lone Star Comics full time and involved locally with a citizen's group trying to improve governance in our city. But I'm a really quick writer, and computers make me a lot faster than when I wrote on an old Underwood manual or later IBM Selectric. I did a lot of rewriting, and the book passed through innumerable rewrites. In one pass alone I cut 30,000 words, then ended up adding back 30,000 different words. Chapter 12, The Mystery of the Toonolian Marshes, was added to tie up loose ends that resulted from our failure to secure the right to a non-ERB character. After some brainstorming, Russ and I came up with a replacement from within the ERB pantheon. I wrote the new chapter in a single week.
This is not only a wonderful sword and planet adventure, it's also a stunning example of book design. How did you and Russ Cochran end up working on this project? Did you initially envision something this elaborate and impressive, or were you seeing a more traditional book when you envisioned the print edition? Did you and Russ make plans for the format before the book was completed, or did that come about after the manuscript was done?
From the beginning, I had a deluxe format in mind, and Russ was quick to sign on. Russ brought in Zavier Cabarga, whose book design skills are just incredible. We three conferenced as things went along, coming up with ideas, designs, formats, etc., all of which finally resulted in the book you now see. Some ideas had to be abandoned. At one point we hoped to produce a metal presentation book (not a tin box but something substantial like case aluminum) with a hidden catch, but we couldn't find anyone who could produce what we wanted--at any price. Two of the type fonts used in the book--Sword and Jake--by the way--were created by Zavier, and the Jake font (used for the spot illustration titles and elsewhere in the book) was designed exclusively for The Martian Legion and any further ERB novels I will be writing.
The plan to create multiple formats and editions at various price points is likewise unique. Whose idea was that?
That was my idea--that and the book registry. After fifty years as a retailer, as well as a reader and collector, I’ve learned a few things, and like my dad before me, I have a good promotional sense.
You and Russ have issued a rather impressive guarantee to readers and buyers: this book will never be sold more cheaply or via wholesale rates, ensuring that readers don't have to worry about buying it at full price now only to see it discounted in the next few months. As someone who has supported small press publishers only to be "bitten" by deep-discount offers a few months later, I appreciate this. Whose came up with guarantee, and what inspired it?
The guarantee was also my idea. The integrity of the book matters a lot more to me than the money. As a longtime collector myself, nothing annoys me more than to pay full list for a nice item, telling the wife it's also a good investment (sometime we collectors have to say these things), only to see the item discounted or remaindered. That will never happen with The Martian Legion. The book is likely the most costly per copy to produce SF/fantasy/adventure book ever published. And with current publishing trends, it may forever hold that title. But that said, it is totally paid for. Russ and I don't owe anyone a dime. Even though Russ warned me that we might be producing filet mignon for a hot dog market, we were determined to produce a book Edgar Rice Burroughs would be proud of. At every step, Russ and I put quality over bean counting, and I think it shows in the final product.
Will there be further books in this format, or was this a standalone concept for you?
My Martian Iliad is done. There'll not be another. But I will be writing other ERB novels, the first being a new Tarzan.
You've made it clear the current edition won't be discounted under any circumstance. For those who can't quite afford the current edition, is there a less expensive edition planned?
I saw on one of the blogs that someone described the current edition as "pricy." Russ and I won't argue that. It is an expensive book, but while "pricy," it is not overpriced. Those who can afford a copy are getting fully their money's worth. We are sorry not everyone can afford the current format and with that in mind, it is our hope that a mass market publisher will come along and do a much more affordable paperback version. Such an edition wouldn't have the over 125 pieces of art, but all the story would be there. Russ and I think a mass market edition would bring the deluxe edition to the attention of thousands of potential new buyers, so such an edition isn’t something we oppose.
Any characters you wanted to include but were unable to?
Yes, the other half of the characters not already in the book! Well, maybe that's an exaggeration, but I did use a lot of ERB's characters even as I leavened the story with some of my own. For example, I wish I could have done more with Ras Thavas. But the writing had to stop somewhere, and at a quarter-of-a-million words was a good point. There will be future books--Tarzan, Mars, ERB's other worlds--so as I continue to write, additional characters will get their turn upon the stage.
Lastly, the story is very cinematic--lots of scenes that would work in a movie. Would you want to see The Martian Legion go there?
Only if it were done right. When Hollywood respects the source material, a movie version tends to be much better, even outstanding, the recent Marvel movies and the Lord of the Rings trilogy being prime examples. The special effects artists can now do anything and make it real, including anything that happens in my book. But will it happen? Only time will tell.
It's not too late to add The Martian Legion to your library; if you'd like a copy, you can learn more about it and place your order here at themartianlegion.com. (And if you get a chance, let 'em know that I sent you!)