The continuing adventures of Beau Yarbrough

Time’s up for “Chronos”

Thursday, September 17, 1998, 0:00
Section: Geek

This column expands on a story that originally appeared in the September 17, 1998 edition of the Comic Wire at Comic Book Resources.

I know I’m not supposed to be a partisan with this whole comic book thing, but when I got the news that DC Comics‘ “Chronos” was being canceled with issue #11, out this January, I was pissed. I haven’t felt this way about a superhero book since Milestone’s “Xombi,” which also was canceled prematurely (translation: “while I still liked it”).

This was a smart book, one where the character wasn’t poured into the templates so many others are, where the resolution to a conflict didn’t always (in fact, usually didn’t) mean whacking somebody.

But the questions and motivations that drove techonologist, thief and time traveler Walker Gabriel were ones that were easy to understand. He wanted to learn, he wanted to be a success, he wanted to sort out his messed-up family life. Hell, in at least one case, he just wanted to get a little.

So it was with a heavy heart that I read the following (shockingly forthright) letter from “Chronos” artist Paul Guinan, whom I met at the 1998 San Diego Comic-Con International. He and his wife are all-around great people. Yet another reason this all bites …

Yes, John Francis Moore has ‘pulled the plug’ on ‘Chronos,’ and in fact used that very phrase himself.

Among the reasons he gave me were: a deadline schedule that didn’t allow him to spend the time he needed on his scripts, editorial circumstances that contributed to the book going in a direction he didn’t care for, aesthetic disappointments, and low sales.

Before I launch into details, let me make clear that I think John is a great writer. I’ve been a fan since his stint on ‘American Flagg!’ when I was working on staff at First Comics, and my video collection includes all the ‘Flash’ TV episodes he worked on. It was a privilege to co-create a character with him for the DCU, and an honor to be able to depict that character without excessive angst or apathy, obsessiveness or callousness. “Chronos is an ex-thief on a character arc towards hero, providing a positive role model for self-improvement. I was given leeway to depict him and his costume in a highly iconographic style; one lettercol writer compared him visually to a character from the BATMAN animated series, which is high praise to me. Chronos is half-Mexican, half-Chinese. (Let’s see more heroes of color, please!) Best of all, he’s easy to describe: Chronos travels through time. The Flash runs fast. How many characters created in the last decade or so can claim that simplicity of premise?

With that said, here’s the play-by-play of ‘Chronos” demise as I see it.

The book’s production schedule was tight from the very start, with no room for delays of any kind. John’s ability to turn in his scripts on short deadlines was eventually hampered by his heavy workload as well as his family situation. (I hasten to add that I don’t personally resent John for being late, especially since it gave me more time to pencil some issues!)

This had a kind of snowball effect. With periodicals – especially ongoing, monthly comics – once you fall behind schedule, you’re forever playing catch-up. There’s no time to take a breather, the pressure becomes more intense, you start compromising your work to get it done quickly, and sometimes mistakes crop up. (One example was a draft script sent out with a plot hole that wasn’t caught until after the pages had been inked.) If a monthly comic book is running late enough, an unfortunate side effect is that covers can’t be done in time for it to be promoted well. Without a cover graphic, the marketing department can’t “push” a title in the phone book that is the monthly distributor’s catalogue, and the solicitation winds up being a small, easily overlooked block of text.

The passing of Archie Goodwin was a major blow to the book as well as the entire comics industry. The period following his death became an editorial vacuum from the perspective of the ‘Chronos’ creative team. There were communication breakdowns, and no one to “ride herd” on the title for a while.

One result is that the cliffhanger in CHRONOS #8 isn’t resolved until three issues later. Partly due to time constraints, the “DC One Million” plot proved difficult to integrate into the overall narrative of ‘Chronos,’ so instead it was treated as a stand-alone story that didn’t touch on how #8 ended. At about this time, DC’s marketing department arranged for ‘Chronos’ #9 (which came out after the One Million issue) to be overshipped to retailers, in an effort to promote the series and raise sales. Our new editor suggested that since the One Million issue was stand-alone, it could be drawn by a fill-in artist so that I could catch up on the schedule with issue 9. I agreed, and the art team from CHASE was assigned. Because #9 was to be overshipped, the editor decided that it should be a stand-alone story also. This meant John had to swap the events he’d already planned for issues 9 and 10. By the time the plot for #9 was approved by editorial and scripted, I’d had no ‘Chronos’ work for five weeks! (Luckily, the unexpected hiatus gave me time to wrap up my work on ‘Heartbreakers Superdigest.’) On top of that, in the confusion, DC forgot to tell me that Tony Harris had been assigned as cover artist.

John was also asked to make Chronos more pro-active, less swept along by events around him, and in the words of one editor, less whiny and more ‘kick-ass.’ For this and other reasons, ‘Chronos’ wasn’t turning out as he had hoped.

Archie, John, and I all figured the colorist would use a natural palette, taking his cue from the naturalistic story and art. Despite several conversations on this topic, he took a very stylized approach. He repeatedly made choices that didn’t complement the book’s tone (e.g., green skies, purple brick/masonry, blue walls, and orange floors), as well as inconsistent choices (note how many different ways the floor that the Timesmasher sits on is colored). It was demoralizing for me, after all the time I’d spent researching and drawing the settings in ‘Chronos,’ to see printed results like 1872 Metropolis in bright blue, or the 11th-century Chinese city of Kaifeng in dark purple and chartreuse.

My own choices also contributed to John’s aesthetic dissatisfaction with CHRONOS. I’m profoundly disappointed with much of the storytelling in contemporary film and comics, in which the audience’s point of view is almost always in close-up and medium close-up. Extremely few illustrators working in comics today show backgrounds with any consistency or verisimilitude. I therefore like to keep my “camera” farther back than most artists do. I also tend to keep shots at eye-level rather than using dramatic angles. This “proscenium arch” compositional approach results in scenes that sometimes look as if events are unfolding on a theatrical stage. John felt that in certain instances, not moving in to show specific facial expression or body language undercut some of the drama he was trying to convey.

Similarly, John wanted me to bring more expressiveness to some of the poses. I agree that my figure drawing could benefit from being more dynamic. (Blame it on my childhood – I grew up on comics drawn by Nick Cardy, Russ Heath, Gray Morrow, and Curt Swan!) As anyone who’s seen my work on ‘Heartbreakers’ knows, I enjoy changing my illustration style to suit different stories. For ‘Chronos,’ my stylistic template was Herge’s ‘Tintin.’ Because ‘Chronos’ isn’t a superhero slug-fest, and because it spans a wide range of historical locales, my focus was on environments. Being a huge history buff, I doubtless spent more time showing off objects and settings than people.

When Mike Carlin came on board as editor (the third in eight issues), I thought the series was poised for recovery. Not only did it seem like a show of faith from DC, but ‘Chronos’ would now be in the best hands when it came to dealing with questions of DCU continuity and guest appearances by DC heroes. With a new cover artist and colorist, the book would have a fresh look. Inker Steve Leialoha was no longer splitting his time between two projects (which is one reason issues 5 and 6 were inked by four separate people), and could focus more closely on ‘Chronos.’ John’s latest script called for Chronos to remove himelf from history – wiping the slate clean, creatively speaking, and positioning the character for his next phase. Our hero was about to get a shave and a haircut, confidence and maturity.

In San Diego I spent much time at the Comic-Con dispelling rumors of cancellation. I heard from three major retailers that they gave customers money-back guarantees on ‘Chronos,’ and no one had returned a single issue. Mike Carlin demonstrated his commitment to the book, telling me that other titles with higher sales figures had been canceled and that Paul Levitz himself had sat in on a meeting about boosting ‘Chronos”s numbers. Mike and I discussed ways of making Chronos more relevant to the DCU, and therefore fans, by weaving him into the origins of a major DC character. He said that when he got back to New York, he would ask editors to volunteer characters or ideas. He even asked me to submit a couple of plot concepts. One of the scenarios I came up with placed Chronos on a certain rural Kansas road one night, in the back of an old pickup truck just as it’s almost hit by an object from outer space …

I went home to Portland with my batteries recharged, began penciling issue 10, and called John. He told me he was pulling the plug on ‘Chronos’ – that the results were not what he’d expected, and not worth the continued investment of his energy and emotions. I understand where he’s coming from. Next year will be the tenth anniversary of ‘Heartbreakers’, a series I co-created with my wife, Anina Bennett. Sometimes I feel like Don Quixote, tilting at the windmills of the unpredictable comic-book market. I dream of the day when ‘Heartbreakers’ might become my paying ‘day job’ – and I don’t even have a kid to feed, just a house and an action-figure habit.

With ‘Chronos’ behind schedule, low-selling, and plagued by a myriad of minor scheduling and production problems, Mike agreed to John’s request to end the series. Mike joked that now he wouldn’t get a chance to claim credit for saving ‘Chronos.’ He suggested that, considering the current climate of the comics market, perhaps in a couple of years the character could be brought back in a different context, under a different title – ‘Tales of Chronopolis,’ for example.

Regardless of the character’s fate, my run on ‘Chronos’ has been among my proudest achievements in over a decade of working in comics. All the examples of penciling in my portfolio are from ‘Chronos.’ I’ve been told that the work I’ve done on it surpasses my ‘Heartbreakers’ art. Certainly, Chronos is closer to my own personality than any other character I’ve drawn. His wardrobe, furnishings, and taste in music are all taken from my own life. I’ll miss him.

My thanks to Mike Carlin for his handling and support of ‘Chronos,’ and to John Moore for allowing me the opportunity to co-create ‘Chronos’ with him. Above all, thanks to Archie Goodwin, who launched the series. He provided the layout for the image on the ‘Chronos’ poster, which hangs in my studio. I see it every day, I often think of Archie … and sometimes, I wonder what might have been.”

So it’s another series down. This IS a good time for comics, but so many of the good ones just seem to blink in and out so quickly. “Leave it to Chance” comes out in synch with solar eclipses. “Astro City,” while late for all the right reasons, has now had six months between parts one and two of what I seem to recall was a six-part series. And no one really believes either Alan Moore’s ABC books or his previously written “Awesome Adventures” will be timely and regular, do they?

Lord, I hope “The Titans” sticks around. I don’t think I can handle much more of this.

Oh, and buy the aforementioned “Heartbreakers Superdigest” #1. It’s great fun, and it’ll help out with that mortgage.

1 Comment »

  1. Great reading, keep up the great posts.
    Peace, JiggaDigga

    Comment by JiggaDigga — April 7, 2006 @ 20:31

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