Cartoon and Illustration, Cartoon and Illustration by James E. Lyle

Days of T.h.u.n.d.e.r. (part 2)


Artwork copyright © James E. Lyle.  T.h.u.n.d.e.r. Agents property copyright and trademark John C. Productions.

So my last posting was such a big hit (Wow!  Six views in one day) that I have decided to follow up with more postings on what it was like working on T.h.u.n.d.e.r. back in the 80s.

Let me give you some history.  I had been drawing a book for Phil Hwang called “Escape to the Stars” (or ETTS as the fans called it, all 5 of them).  We collaborated on that book from early spring of 1983 until sometime in 1986.

We went through several publishing entities with that series, all of which were created in an effort to make our efforts look more legitimate.  What we didn’t know at that time was that there really isn’t such a thing as a “legitimate comics publisher”.  Even the big guns are basically working on a shoestring most of the time, and so we were just as competent as practically any company out there in the “alternate comics” business.

That’s probably worth mentioning.  Back in the 80s anything that wasn’t DC, Marvel, or Archie was called “alternate press”.  That was done to distinguish us from “underground comix”–a name which had the taint of drugs and pornography all over it.  So we were the “alternative comics” crowd in those days.  But there’s alternate and then there’s Alternate.  The term “small press” had not caught on in those days, and we didn’t really want to be called “small” because it seemed demeaning.

Moving on.  Phil and I had a pretty good run on ETTS.  We’d turned out 5 issues by the spring of 1985.  In the process of doing that book I’d moved into a studio, downtown Waynesville, NC, and begun looking slightly more professional in the process.

Phil and I, however, had our creative differences, and ETTS number 6 never went to print.  We broke up our creative partnership, Phil went his way and I went mine.  QED, because he was going to school in College Station, Texas and I was still living at home in the mountains of NC.

Thing is, Michael Sawyer and I had originally intended to build our careers in comics as a partnership, and Mike had been lurking in the background all along.  So about the time that ETTS came to a halt (limping onto the shoulder of a proverbial comic book highway) he had a concept or two waiting in the wings.

I’ll leave the telling of that to when we get to Mike’s inside cover introduction, which I’ll be reproducing and annotating in a later post.

Today I’m posting the pitch artwork for T.h.u.n.d.e.r. The image above was actually used to pitch the artwork to SOLSON Publications.  If you think it looks like a bad photocopy of some pencils filled in with Dr. Martin’s dyes and color pencil, then I’d say you’re a pretty perceptive person with an eye for art.   But along with the single page type-written pitch (which I’ll be showing soon as well) we managed to convince Gary Brodsky and Rich Buckler that they should do T.h.u.n.d.e.r. as a series.

But it wasn’t as cut-and-dried as all that.  We actually pitched the book to Will Shetterly at SteelDragon Press first.  They were the publishers of the series “Captain Confederacy”, which had something of a following back in that day.  Will passed on it due to the notoriety of the lawsuit that was then raging between John Carbonaro and David Singer over whether the title T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was in public domain or not.

Long story short, T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents was NOT in public domain.  But at the time we began work on our version we assumed it WAS.  As did a lot of other folks.  Will passed on the book with the suggestion that we “change it some” and then resubmit it.  But we were too dogged in our determination to get it done as a T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents spin-off to give that more than a moment’s consideration.

Somewhere in all of this Chuck Wojtkiewicz suggested that we might want to pitch it to SOLSON.  Which we did.  Chuck did warn us that SOLSON seemed “kind of fly-by-night” (perceptive guy that he was and is), but we saw it as a step up from paying to publish our own work, so we submitted.

The providential thing was that Rich Buckler had been working with John Carbonaro just months earlier while they were working in tandem at Red Circle and JC Comics respectively (both imprints of Archie Comics).  So Rich was easily able to reach John, and hammer out a deal for us to do the book.

This is where things get a bit tricky.  Yes, there was a lawsuit going on between John Carbonaro and David Singer’s Deluxe Comics due to the title “Wally Wood’s T.H.U.N.D.E.R. Agents”. Because of this situation John wanted to better secure his claim to the copyright of the characters.  Characters he had legally purchased from Tower Publications (at considerable cost to himself) back in the 1970s.

John Carbonaro’s legal council apparently told him that by getting SOLSON to pay a licensing fee for the T.H.U.N.D.E.R Agents characters and subsequently getting such a book published would help convince the court of the legitimacy of his claims.  Those basic claims being:  A. that the characters were his to license, and B. the property was worth all this fuss in copyright court.

So John cut a sweet deal with Michael and I (through Rich) for our use of the characters for the next four years.  SOLSON paid the licensing fee.  (Keep that “right of use clause” in mind.  It will come up again later).  We (Mike and me) got to keep the rights to our variation of the characters IN PERPETUITY.  So long as we were willing to pay John the licensing fee we could renegotiate in the future.

This is one reason why you have never seen our book reprinted.  We never had the money to pay the licensing fee after that.

Keep in mind that this all went down in winter 1986. I was 21 at the time, and Michael just 23.   At that time 1990 seemed a long way off…

Cartoon and Illustration

Days of T.h.u.n.d.e.r. (part 1)


Artwork © James E. Lyle.  T.h.u.n.d.e.r. Agents is a registered trademark of John C. Productions.

First off, sorry, but this blog has nothing to do with NASCAR or any movies inspired by auto racing.  It’s about a book called T.h.u.n.d.e.r. done written by Michael Sawyer and drawn by me in the 1980s, and based on the 1960s series T.H.U.N.D.E.R. AGENTS.

Yesterday (8/18/16) I finally scanned this artwork and combined it into (more or less) what it was supposed to look like if it had ever been published by a company called Syncroncity Comics.

If one looks closely at the signature you’ll notice an ’88 as the date.  This is where the tale gets a little complicated.  This is not the original cover for T.h.u.n.d.e.r. #1.  That book WAS published in 1986 by the defunct SOLSON Productions.  This is the replacement cover I did for the book after SOLSON had gone out of business and we’d supposedly been picked up by Syncronicity.

In ’88 Solson was two years past.  I was living in Glen Ellyn, Illinois and looking forward to marrying Karin Guldbeck.  I won’t go into all the details of my housing here and now, but by that time I was living in the attic space above the garage at my fiancées’ family home.

Karin’s dad, Ernie Guldbeck, was a commercial artist and comic and cartoon fan as well, so we were beginning to bond (though he was somewhat resistant to that at the time).  All summer long I had been dying to see his studio upstairs in the house proper.  But Ernie had refused.  That is, until Karin’s step-mother, Eunice, stepped in and told Ernie he couldn’t keep hiding the place from me.  I was, after all, going to be marrying his baby daughter!  (I’m thinking that “baby daughter” thing was what kept Ernie somewhat aloof during that summer.)

So after a couple of weeks of Karin helping her Dad clean up the studio, I was finally allowed in to that sanctum of sanctums.  Not only that, but I was encouraged to do some artwork there!  I had just gotten through attending my first ever Chicago Comic-Con (back before it became Wizard World Chicago) and seeing all sorts of exciting new artwork displayed there (as well as receiving the profuse encouragement of fellow artists and moderate discouragement of many publishers).

In something approaching a fit of creativity I made this artwork.  It’s a combination of pen and ink art on Craftint board (which I’ll explain later in this series), painted with Dr. Martin’s Dyes, and some acrylic paint for highlights.  That design was then attached to a canvas covered board that I had painted with the corresponding purple and magenta streaks.  Then I created the type overlay on a sheet of frosted acetate, with photocopied logo and vinyl rub-down type (Chartpac, I believe).

Now if one ignores that fact that I placed the logo funny (I corrected this in Photoshop), and that the letter spacing on the rub-down type is goofy, AND one ignores that the yellow acrylic paint was not very opaque, AND that the Craftint chemicals have continued to react over the past 28 years with all the other materials–it’s not a bad piece of work.

Obviously, the mixed-media approach was inspired by the work of Bill Sienkewicz.  The light streaked background was copped from Steve Rude’s cover paintings for Nexus.  And it all has a vaguely early Vertigo feel to it, akin to the Black Orchid trade paperback that was among the first books released by that DC imprint.

(The reason for all this borrowing of style being that I wanted to distance the art from the original release.  That cover was a none to subtle homage to Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns.  Being 23 by this time I had “matured” beyond simply swiping from two popular books and now was going for “subtle” homage–swiping from at least three sources!  What was I thinking back when I was 21?)

That day of creativity was almost exactly 28 years ago.  I know this because Karin and I celebrate our 28th Anniversary tomorrow!  (This is how comic artists track time, by means of projects completed and other significant events.)

Next to getting married to Karin, I think that day in Ernie’s studio stands out in my mind as one of the watermark events of 1988.  Ernie was working on something over at his drawing table, and would come by from time to time with words of encouragement.  It was great being accepted as a fellow artist by the man I came to call “Pop”.

Karin decided she wanted to be involved as well, and so stayed in the studio with us all that afternoon, doing a truly amazing color pencil drawing–of Cher.  She’s really no slouch when it comes to artwork–though she devotes most of her time to music now.  But she proved that day she had the ability to do almost photo-realistic work when she wanted to.

I knew I was in deep.

Next time, I’ll bring you up to speed on what the original collaboration was like.  I’m planning to post artwork from the original pitch and probably the whole first story (I still have a lot of the pages).  I also have pencils from issues 2 and 3, as well as some pages inked, toned and lettered.  Right up to the point where Syncronicity pulled the plug.  I will annotate those with thoughts about the process.

I’ll also tell you my opinion on why I’m glad that T.h.u.n.d.e.r. wasn’t more of a success.