Writer Mark Ellis is an accomplished novelist with over 47 science-fiction and thriller novels to his credit as well comics and graphic novels. With a busy writing schedule including the soon to be released Justice Machine in a new mini-series, Mark found time to stop by comicbookinterviews.com and talk to publisher John Michael helmer about his writing career and what projects lay ahead…
JMH: Where were you born and raised?
MARK: I was born in Indiana but raised primarily in Central Florida. I live in New England now. Much preferable.
JMH: Have you had any formal training in writing?
MARK: Except for a useless creative writing course in college and some journalism classes, no. Pretty much self-taught.
JMH: Who are your writing influences?
MARK: Oh, jeez…that’s one of those questions that could actually be a separate topic unto itself. My influences run the gamut from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to Booth Tarkington.
Scattered in between you’ll find the likes of Robert E. Howard, Raymond Chandler, Richard Prather, Donald Hamilton, John D. MacDonald, Edward S. Aarons and even Milton Caniff.
JMH: How did you break into writing comic books?
MARK: In fits and starts…back in the Permian Age of comics (circa 1974-75) a couple of my eight pagers were accepted by Marvel for their black and white horror magazines. But alas, the books were cancelled before they saw print.
Much later, when Deluxe Comics published Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents, a Dynamo story of mine was accepted but again…the series was canceled before it saw print. Apparently whenever a story of mine was accepted, it was the kiss of death for the publication.
In 1987 I was asked to create Star Rangers for Adventure Publications…the legendary Jim Mooney and I collaborated on that short-lived series, which in turn led to Death Hawk which featured Adam Hughes’ earliest full-length work…which in turn led me writing most of Adventure Publications’ comics…which in turn led to a number of other comic-related gigs.
JMH: What is the first comic you remember reading?
MARK: That’s easy to answer, believe it or not. World’s Finest #112, “The Menace of Superman’s Pet”. I was about four years old and had read comics previous to that one, but I never forgot that story because it was my first exposure to Batman and Robin.
JMH: Do you read any of the new comic books that are being published today?
MARK: Not really…I browse and pick up a few issues here and there but I frankly don’t have the interest in reading the 50th reboot of the DC or Marvel Universe. Obviously there are characters I love, but I don’t follow current continuity at all. I have enjoyed the recent run of The Doom Patrol, however. That series balanced the original continuity with an innovative approach. Keith Giffen did a masterful job of writing it.
JMH: You’ve got several projects on the horizon. First off there’s Cryptozoica. What is it about?
MARK: Cryptozoica is a modern-day “lost world” thriller novel, featuring a host of colorful characters in exotic setting–heroes, villains and beautiful women. Fistfights, gunfights, prehistoric monsters as well as the latest scientific speculation in microbiology, archeology, paleontology and zoology.
A high-concept but facile description might be “Dan Brown meets Jurassic Park.” Cryptozoica is a distillation of the
best of my previous 46 novels that comprise the Outlanders, Deathlands and Mack Bolan series.
The book is something of a throwback to the days of Ace Books with iconic covers and meticulous pen-and-ink interior illustrations. Cryptozoica is illustrated by the awesome Jeff Slemons and it’s been very well received.
Check it out at http://cryptozoica.com/
JMH: Can you also tell CBI about The Justice Machine…
MARK: The Justice Machine holds a degree of historical significance in the comics field as being the very FIRST super-hero team title published at the dawn of the independent era, in 1981.
Created by Mike Gustovich, The Justice Machine was a very popular and successful series for much of the 1980s through the early 90s. There are a considerable number of current DC and Marvel titles that probably wish they had the Machine’s numbers from that period.
The title enjoyed its longest run at Comico and then moved to Innovation. They planned to relaunch the title as the “New Justice Machine” mini-series.
The idea was to come up with a different approach from what had been done when it was published under the Comico banner.
Trouble was, Innovation really didn’t have a solid direction for the book. Adam Hughes had been doing covers for the company and since he and I had worked together om Death Hawk (published by Adventure Publications), he recommended me to the then-Innovation editor to take the scripting reins.
So, working with the brilliant Darryl Banks, we crafted a sufficiently different approach to justify the “New” in the title but also kept it grounded in the Comico continuity.
Mike Gustovich inked, lettered and colored the mini-series as well as the subsequent full series.
Unfortunately, the honeymoon didn’t last too long. Both Darryl and I had falling-outs with the then-Innovation editor, so we quit and moved over to Millennium Publications, a company I co-owned with my wife Melissa Martin and a third partner.
At Millennium, Darryl and I collaborated on The Wild Wild West and the best-selling Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, but we often discussed our work on the Justice Machine.
In 1991, Mike phoned to tell me that Innovation’s license on the book had expired and he was casting about for a new
deal, but this time he preferred to sell all rights to the Justice Machine characters and concepts.
So, we reached a deal very quickly and I’ve owned the Justice Machine property ever since. Unfortunately,
Millennium published only two issues before the comics market crashed and burned.
Melissa and I sold our shares in Millennium and Darryl moved over to DC and a decade-long run on Green Lantern. I retained the rights to The Justice Machine as well as several other comics properties.
Over the following 15 years, I was busy with my career as a novelist. I created and wrote the Outlanders novel series for Harlequin and that was my primary focus.
Oh, every once in a while a fan would email me about reviving the Justice Machine, but I was just too busy
writing books to do anything with my comics properties, let alone the Machine.
Then, in late 2006 I was a speaker at a writer’s conference. An editor from Adams Media approached Melissa
and I about writing a book in their how-to “Everything” series…The Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels.
So, we put it together and some of the art we selected for the book was from the Millennium issues of the Justice Machine by Darryl. The Writing Graphic Novels book seemed to jump-start interest in the Justice Machine.
A person from an RPG company queried me about the gaming rights and not too long after that, the publisher of
Dynamite Entertainment contacted me about licensing the Machine, but I would have lost all creative control in the deal and I wasn’t too keen about that. It did seem as if events were pushing us to reintroduce the Machine in some fashion.
So, to test the waters, in 2009 we came out with a TPB compilation of the Innovation Justice Machine series that I
had written: The New Justice Machine, High Gear Edition, Volume One.
The book was well received, favorably reviewed in the Comics Buyer’s Guide and enjoyed decent sales through
comics shops. I was encouraged that there was still an audience for the Justice Machine, even all those years after their last appearance.
Then last summer, Joe Gentile suggested reviving The JusticeMachine in a new mini-series and that’s where we stand now.
I should point out that despite some temptation, the new series is not a reboot. The Moonstone series is part of
the same continuity as established way back in Comico’s The Justice Machine Featuring The Elementals #1 and
carrying forward through the title’s time at Innovation and Millennium.
When all is said and done, the backstory of the Justice Machine remains fairly unique and in fact provides the basic plot for the new Moonstone series.
This is not to say that by the end of the mini-series, there won’t be some changes in continuity. The plot of
the mini-series is directly connected to the Justice Machine’s origins on the dystopia of Georwell and there
are some 30-year-old continuity issues that are addressed.
I’ve developed the new direction for The Justice Machine in a way that is grounded in the earlier incarnations, but not trapped there.
Yes, there are new costumes and I made that decision for a couple of reasons. Instead of each Justice Machine member wearing an individual outfit, we opted for the more uniform look, the characters differentiated by colors. Artist Preston Asevedo designed them.
We’ve gone back to the original colors, however…green for Diviner, shades of brown and beige for Challenger, dark blue and red for Demon. Deirdre DeLay-Pierpoint came up with the new color schemes.
All of the uniforms share a unifying insignia: scales of justice superimposed over a gear wheel, redesigned from a pattern created by Darryl Banks way back in 1991. In the mini-series, the uniforms are made of “meta-material” and the insignias activate special qualities.
From a strictly practical view, it’s a bit easier for artists to render uniforms than individual and somewhat complicated costumes. Also, it’s easier to “brand” them.
Artist David Enebral is doing a fantastic job reimagining the Justice Machine–they’re obviously the same characters who first appeared in 1981 but they look and feel brand-new. He’s been a joy to work with.
Anyway, the overall intent is to reintroduce the team to veteran and new readers and hopefully satisfy both camps.Old enemies and old allies will make their reappearance, as well as a couple of new and surprising characters.
By the time the mini-series is wrapped up, we will have created a solid “Justice Machine Universe” and can move forward from there.
To me, the Justice Machine is the independent comic-publishing version of the Fantastic Four. They have a cachet that few other independently-produced super groups ever matched.
So, I’m taking the attitude that the return of the Justice Machine is tantamount to a situation where the Fantastic Four had mysteriously and suddenly disappeared for years…not just in comic book years but in real-time years, as well.
Then just as suddenly–BOOM!–they’re back and not only are they struggling to come to terms with a new world in crisis, but the world is struggling to come to terms with
The characters are the same, but the conflicts are more intense and the stakes higher. This Justice Machine series is tough, mature and action-packed.
2011 is the 30th anniversary of The Justice Machine’s first appearance and we have several projects planned to celebrate it.
Besides the new Moonstone mini-series and special, there
will be The New Justice Machine: High Gear Edition, Volume Two…in beautiful, digitally enhanced color. There are also plans to reprint some of the earliest Justice Machine issues in TPB form.
Also, there is The Justice Machine Shop at Cafe Press, where fans can buy all sorts of Justice Machine-oriented
merchandise…more items will be added to it as we count down to their return.
With the revival of T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents and John Byrne’s Next Men, this is the perfect time for a retooled and souped-up Justice Machine to regain their position as one of comics’ premier super-teams. Look for the first issue The Justice Machine: Object of Power in August!
The cover by Jeff Slemons is real attention-grabber.
For more information, check out http://justicemachine.com/
JMH: Print vs. Digital. What can you add to the conversation?
MARK: Not too much, really. Although I don’t think digital will ever completely replace print, I’m fairly certain the two mediums can comfortably co-exist. Digital books look fantastic on the Ipad and they certainly are cheaper to produce and therefore will have a lower cover price than print books.
JMH: Both you and Melissa teach writer’s workshops and moderate writer’s groups in the area. Can you talk about that venture?
MARK: About seven years ago, the local Barnes and Noble asked us to moderate an every-other-week writer’s group and attendance expanded to the point where we had to find another venue in order to meet weekly. So, for a couple of years we met on alternate weeks in the Barnes and Noble and the Empire Tea Room in downtown Newport, RI. The group attracted writers in all genres.
We’ve also taught workshops at writer’s conferences in Warwick, RI, Cape Cod and Connecticut.
JMH: Tell CBI about the Newport Round Table, if you would…
MARK: Well, as I indicated, the membership for the Barnes and Noble writer’s group grew to the point where we knew we had to separate the dedicated from the dilettantes. Both Melissa and I are professional writers…that’s what we’ve been doing for a living for many years.
I personally don’t have the patience to deal with writers who are hobbyists or say they are “only writing for themselves” as an excuse not to learn the basics. To me it’s a craft, a career. Although I resist pigeonholing myself–and Melissa–strictly as writers, I think if someone decides they want to write, they should know basics of grammar, spelling, sentence structure and vocabulary.
So, Melissa and I came up with Newport Round Table in order to give more opportunities to give to serious writers. Over the past few years, we’ve helped several people realize their dreams of being published. We’ve helped them develop a disciplined writing practice and develop the tenacity necessary to withstand the rigors of the publishing world. We offer advice on finding agents, querying publishers and even properly formatting for manuscripts. We have members from all over Southern New England and hope to expand our scope with an interactive website for writers worldwide.
One of our members, Leonid Korogodski, has recently been nominated for a Hugo award for his novella, Pink Noise: A Post Human Tale.
The Round Table also publishes an anthology that showcases not just the writing, but also the artwork and photography of our members. I guess it is no surprise that many artists have other creative talents as well, and many are talented artists and photographers.
At this point, I think Newport Round Table is one of the longest-running, continuous writer’s groups in New England
JMH: What is Death Hawk?
MARK: Death Hawk is my favorite of all my characters…he and his protosymbiotic partner, Cyke, first appeared as a back-up feature in Star Rangers #2, published by Adventured Publications in 1987– penciled, inked and lettered by Adam Hughes.
Death Hawk is a self-styled 25th century “salvage expert”, a broad definition that covers both illegal and legal enterprises. He and Cyke appeared in another backup story and the reader response was so positive, the characters were given their own title.
Death Hawk #1 featured Adam’s first full-length comic work. He left after that and went over to Maze Agency, replaced by Rik Levins. Four issues were completed, but unfortunately as was all too common among comic publishers, Adventure went defunct.
Malibu Comics picked up their flagship title, Adventurers, but I couldn’t come to terms with them on Death Hawk.
I really didn’t think much about reviving the title until I became aware of comparisons being made between it and Firefly.
A couple of years ago, we compiled all the Death Hawk material–including the never published fourth issue–into a trade paperback. To learn more, check out:
JMH: Writer’s block. How do you battle that creature?
MARK: There’s no easy answer for that. I actually never experienced until I was writing my 16th novel and that was due to some issues arising from the death of my father and conflicts with the editor at my publisher.
I think when you work as a creator for a living, any kind of block is more detrimental than simply not being in the mood or not responding to your muse, so you get into something of a dark spiral…the more you’re upset with yourself, the stronger the block becomes.
It happens to artists, too.
There’s no single solution…sometimes, it’s best to let it run its course. For instance…after having written 50 books (47 of them novels) over the last 16 years, I find myself less interested in working in cold prose than I used to…so I keep my hand in by writing short stories for anthologies like Moonstone’s The Green Hornet Chronicles and The Avenger: The Justice, Inc. Files.
I’ve always enjoyed working in comics–the “graphic narrative”–moreso than any other medium and I’m glad to be back in it…but I’ll talk myself up to writing another novel in the near future.
Speaking of which, I’m contributing a novel to Lee Goldberg’s and Willaim Rabkin’s new Dead Man series… hopefully it’ll be out sometime this summer.
JMH: Mark, anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t mention yet?
MARK: Just a couple of general observations…not that long ago, a number of my novelist colleagues sneered at comics as a ghetto for the brain-damaged…even though I maintain to this day that the enormous popularity my Outlanders series was due to me bringing certain story-telling sensibilities I had learned from comics. Certainly, the former editor of Outlanders didn’t dig that.
Then, when the publishing industry suffered a massive–and ongoing–meltdown in December of 2008, a number of those colleagues who had sneered at comics contacted me, wanting to know how they could break into comics or graphic novels.
The moral of the story is–don’t pigeon-hole yourself….don’t force yourself into a narrow categoryl. Keep all options open.
JMH: What advice would you give an aspiring comic book or novel writer trying to break into the industry today?
MARK: See above. I prefer to think myself as a creator, first and foremost…writing is just one of the things I do. For example, Melissa is a professional writer–she’s written three non-fiction books, one of which, The Everything Ghost Hunting Book is an international best-seller–but she’s also a professional photographer and graphic designer, too.
So, my advice for those aspiring to be comics writers or a novelists should try to broaden their experiences as much as possible.
I believe one of the reasons the audience for comics has shrunk so drastically over the last 30 years is that so many of them are written by people who have only read comics and have lived in that rarefied fan atmosphere for so long, they have no cultural or literary touchstones to anything else.
In other words, if they can’t come up with a protagonist who doesn’t wear tights or use a sonic screwdriver, they say to hell with it.
Also, a “mature” comic means more than forcing profanity into the mouth of Ben Grimm or finding new ways to airbrush highlights onto Power Girl’s bosom.
JMH: Mark, CBI thanks you for your time. All the best!
MARK: No, thank you…I always look forward to the opportunity to rant!
About the interviewer –
John’s creator-owned properties include: The Leaf, Canada’s Greatest Hero, Sky Watcher, The Armor Guardians, NorthForce, MacSorly – R.C.M.P, and many others.