It was a cool day in the summer of 77 on 45th and 9th. The premiere season of the comic book creators' volleyball games in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park. Years before the fences and "Keep Off The Grass" signs dominated the scenery. Amongst the regulars at the games were Berni Wrightson, Jim Starlin, Alan Weiss, Mike Kaluta, Walter Simonson, Len Wein, Marv Wolfman, Jim Salicrup, Roger Stern and Jim Shooter. All players in an all-star cast of the comic book makers, in their heyday of professional brotherhood, enjoying a little weekend fun in the park.
Jim Shooter stood two inches taller than the top of the volleyball net. He was a serious player, as he was a serious editor with eyes fixed on the cockpit at Marvel Comics. Jim Shooter was a serious player who came to help his team win the games. His height and determination dominated the game segments when the player rotation brought him into the front line by the net. On this cool summer day, he'd already spiked a few rocket volleyballs at the opposing team and had rotated again to the front line. Walter asked Jim to moderate his blows - concerned that someone might get hurt. Len agreed and Berni backed them up. Jim insisted that this couldn't happen and even if it did, anyone playing volleyball should be prepared for such a possibility. The rotation had also brought me to the front line of the opposing team, across from Jim, as the ball was served.
The ball volleyed back and forth several times and finally found its way to Jim, who was adamant about his playing method and intended to demonstrate his persistence. He positioned himself to take the pass, cocked his arm in anticipation and spiked a bullet straight into my forehead.
It was a tough hit but not fatal. Still, I couldn't help demonstrate the possible consequences of such aggressive play. Not having much time, I took a queue from a Chaplain routine and allowed myself to go limp, fell straight back on the grass and laid still for several moments without the slightest motion.
"My God, Mike! Are you alright?" Walter screamed from the other side of the court as everyone began converging around me.
"We warned you, dammit!" Len shouted at Jim, who stood frozen and perplexed at the bad turn of events.
Not wishing to overdo it, I opened my eyes and raised my head slightly to see Jim's face redden with the realization that I'd staged the fall. He then quickly turned around and walked off the court in a huff, not to return to the game. It was the last time Jim Shooter played volleyball with us during the summer of 77 on 45th and 9th in the Sheep Meadow of Central Park.
Two years later in the summer of 1979, I was penciling a Spider-Man/Nightcrawler team-up for Jim Shooter, by then captain in the cockpit at Marvel comics. Jim offered this story to me, in his unique graceful style, in spite of my two year departure from regular art assignments and eccentric reputation for pursuing an effort to bring an age of peace to the world through the comics. With only three pages left to pencil, Jim asked me to also produce the cover for the first issue of a new Marvel comic book, Rom the Robot.
"Rom is a fierce and scary robot" Jim said as he explained what he wanted on the cover. "He should be front and center, big and threatening as the villagers cower in fear all around him with lightning flashing in the ominous skies."
I had been back in New York from California for several months during that summer of '79, gravitating back to my mission in the comics. I had just finished penciling Shout of the Archangel, a revision of Whole Parts, which I made many copies of and distributed to churches and synagogues around the city. I was also spending time producing random drawings with no apparent purpose other than to draw things that came to me at a whim. That night, I sat to draw the Rom cover at Continuity. Feeling a need to change the tides of violent images which characterized most of the comics work I'd done, I explored an alternative to Jim's request. By the morning I had an inspiring depiction of Rom standing magnificently on a hilltop, glowing with goodness, as the villagers gazed in awe and reverence at their mechanical savior.
"That's not what I wanted" Jim said when he saw the cover art later that day. "It's not what the story's about. I can't use this, you have to re-draw it."
Although I didn't know what the story was about because there wasn't yet a story, Jim was right. It wasn't what he asked for and my attempt to explain that this cover would serve Marvel's new book well, fell on rejecting ears. I agreed to take it back and try to do what he asked for. That night at Continuity, I drew a Christopher Reeve-like Superman with a horse looming overhead, 15 years before the beloved actor fell off a horse in a tragic accident. Try as I may, though, I couldn't bring myself to draw Rom as Jim had wanted. I put the cover aside, intending to return it to him in the morning, as is.
At 8:00 in the morning, I made my way to Marvel and arrived there before Jim Shooter. Realizing there was no bridging the gap between us on this cover, I ripped the art into four pieces, placed it in the envelope and included the following note:
This was a worthy cover and shouldn't be changed for another depiction of senseless chaos and violence. You've rejected my good efforts for the last time and from me, you'll get no more work!
I slid the envelope under Jim's office door and spent that day in Central Park trying to unwind. By evening time I made my way back to Continuity where Neal and the crew were finishing a rushed storyboard commission.
"Did you rip up your cover art for Marvel?" Neal asked in astonishment as I walked into the studio. I could always count on such news getting around fast in the comics.
"It was a good cover" I said. "They didn't want to use it."
"Everybody here is tired and we need a few more storyboard frames by the morning" Neal offered. "Here, try to do these tonight and we'll talk about this later."
Neal was the last to leave the studio that night. Making sure everyone had left, he stopped by my desk on his way out.
"Listen Mike," Neal said sternly as he towered over me. "I allowed you to come back to Continuity this time on condition that you'll accept regular art assignments and make a living, like everyone else. I also made it clear that you can't work on your religion from the studio." He then leaned into me and raised his voice in anger.
"I've made you what you are today, Mike." He shouted. "Everything you dream of and aspire to do have been influenced by me. I've been your guide at every major step you've taken in your life and I expect you to consider what I'm saying about the situation you're getting yourself into."
"How do you expect anyone to give you any more work when you rip up the art they asked you to correct? Why do I see all of these drawings lying around the studio which no one is paying you to do? Why did you make hundreds of copies of your religion artwork, using the studio Xerox machine, when we agreed that you're not to work on it from here?"
"Listen to me, Michael" Neal suddenly softened. "I'm bending over backwards to help you but you have to listen to me. You have to get back on track with paying projects and you have to stop working on your religion. If not, I'll have to ask you to leave and you can't come back." Neal then turned around and left the studio.
It wasn't the first time I'd leave Continuity not to come back. The same thing had happened a year before and I was all too aware that my time there was running out now as well. I'd already invested two long years pursuing a vision for the comics industry and left behind many stories of rugged individualism in the face of overwhelming pressure to conform to my environment. As I drew the few storyboard frames Neal had asked for that evening, I pondered how I could leave behind one more grand tale for the comics community before moving on. One more story to inspire the comics creators with an adventure that would help break the illusion with which the chains of conformity had bound our thoughts, actions and yes...even many of the comics we produced.
At 3:30 am I locked the studio and headed out to the relative silence of the late night streets of New York. On Fifth Avenue, I hailed a cab and asked the driver to take me to La Guardia Airport. Upon arriving I stepped out of the cab and headed for the terminal. The driver burst out of the cab.
"Hey! Aren't you gonna pay for the ride?" He shouted.
"I don't have any money." I said, walking back towards him.
"You asked me to bring you here and you don't have any money?"
"You didn't ask for money when I asked you to bring me here." I explained.
It was late and he couldn't argue with the logic or the situation. The cab driver then calmed down and pulled out a business card.
"Here's my phone number" he said. "Call me when you have $12 to pay for the ride." I took the card, thanked the driver and entered the airport.
The terminal was silent and empty. Straight ahead was a hallway that led to the administrative offices. A rubber covered chain, such as the ones used in banks, hung between two chrome poles and blocked the entrance. The sign above said: "Authorized Personnel Only". Considering myself authorized, I stepped over the rope and made my way into a maze of administrative cubicles, closed offices and criss-crossed corridors. Several minutes later a light appeared at the end of a hall from one of the open doors in the distance and voices could be heard emanating from the lighted room. I made my way there and found the airport personnel cafeteria with a few night workers sipping coffee and discussing another Yankee defeat in a not too particularly good season.
Across the cafeteria was a door with an "Exit" sign above it. I crossed the cafeteria, straight for the door. No one said a word or appeared to notice the stranger prowling the airport hallways at 4:00 in the morning. Past the door, I found myself at the top of a metal staircase overlooking a hanger housing a parked airplane, several floors below. I walked down the stairway and headed for the giant open doors of the hanger, leading to the airport runways. Arriving at the door, I saw an airplane in a distant runway with its lights on and its tail service door down, forming a staircase leading into the plane from the rear. Heading straight for the airplane, I ascended the stairs and walked in.
The plane was being cleaned by a night worker who vacuumed the carpet midway through the isle. I headed straight towards him and climbed around his industrial vacuum cleaner, continuing to the front of the plane. The night worker didn't say a word and continued vacuuming. Arriving at the front of the plane, I thought about Jim Shooter for a moment, walked straight into the cockpit and sat in the pilot's seat. Half an hour later a man in a suit laid his hand on my shoulder.
"Would you like to come with me and have a couple of words with the airport manager?" He asked.
"Of course." I answered.
We stepped out of the plane and back into the airport and the corridor maze. Arriving at an open door guarded by two uniformed policemen, my escort ushered me into the office. Inside, the manager sat at his desk with a few assistants seated beside him in a tribunal formation. The manager greeted me and asked me to take the empty seat across from him in the center of the office. My escort stood by the door and listened to the deliberations.
"Why did you board the airplane?" The manager asked.
"I wanted to fly to Detroit." I answered.
"Why didn't you simply buy a ticket?"
"I don't have the funds right now."
"Did you think we'd fly you to Detroit free of charge?"
"You might have."
It was late and difficult to argue with the logic or the situation. The airport manager composed himself and continued his questioning.
"Why do you want to fly to Detroit?"
"I intend to gather together some friends who are comic book fans, build a camper bus and travel the comic book convention circuit across the country, raising the awareness of a new leadership coming to America from the comic book creators."
It took the airport manager a few more seconds to compose himself this time. His assistants looked on in bewilderment and waited for the questioning to continue.
"Why did you sit in the cockpit?"
"To study the cockpit controls in case something were to go wrong during the flight. I believed I could be of some help by doing so in such a situation."
You could hear a pin drop in the manager's office as eyes gazed in disbelief at what their ears had just heard. Suddenly the door opened and a man in a pilot's uniform burst in.
"Did you think I'd let YOU fly my plane?" He exploded with dismissing laughter. "You? Flying MY airplane?"
"You might have." I answered softly.
The interrogation was over and the airport manager had but one recourse.
"Would you mind accompanying the uniformed gentlemen outside? They'd like to ask you a few more questions."
"Not at all." I answered.
The manager handed one of the policemen the report that his assistant had written while he questioned me. The policemen then escorted me to the underground parking lot where an ambulance waited. We climbed into the back and arrived, twenty minutes later, at a large complex bearing a sign: "Elmhurst General Hospital". The ambulance deployed at the emergency dock and the two uniformed policemen escorted me inside. We made our way to the elevator and up to the 5th floor where the signage revealed that we were entering the psychiatric ward. Once inside, the uniformed policemen handed the airport manager's report to the head nurse and left the ward. The head nurse asked me to wait with the other patients until a doctor would become available to examine me.
For the next several hours, I mingled with the patients. It was a quiet morning but the ward was beginning to come to life as more patients were awakening and joining the group in the open area. Aside from some small talk about why everyone was there, I spent considerable time standing by a patient lying on a wheeled stretcher bed. Another patient had said that this one was a vegetable who wasn't aware of and didn't interact with anyone in the ward. I stood by him for more than half an hour gazing into his open eyes. At one point he began uttering voices and trying to move his hand in my direction. I took the patient's hand and held it firmly. He raised his voice and began to show strength and excitement at the stranger who stood by him. Other patients gathered around in wonder at how a vegetable had suddenly come to life. The head nurse broke it up as she called me to be examined by a doctor who'd just become available.
Her name was Dr. Seinfeld. A psychiatrist in mid-life who had an easy routine examination to evaluate a patient's level of cognizance.
"What day is it today?" She asked.
"People call it Wednesday."
"Do you know what city you're in?"
"Who's the mayor?"
"Alright." she said, looking over the report that the uniformed policemen brought.
"Where do you work?"
"Neal Adams' Continuity Studios."
"What's the phone number?"
Dr. Seinfeld picked up the phone, called Continuity and asked for Neal Adams. After explaining to Neal what I'd done that night in the airport, she listened to him explain something about me. Dr. Seinfeld nodded and hummed as Neal went on for several minutes. She then thanked him and ended the call.
"You're free to go." She said. "I'm releasing you this time, but if you're brought here again, it may not be so easy for you."
"Thanks." I said, as I got up from my chair.
"One more thing, Michael." Dr. Seinfeld said as we stepped out of her office. "Forget this prophet messiah thing. It'll only get you in trouble."
By the early afternoon I walked into Continuity. Neal looked at me smiling in disbelief at the story he'd heard from Dr. Seinfeld.
"Everybody's talking about how you tried to hi-jack an airplane last night." He said.
"One more story can't do much harm." I answered.
"You know." Neal said. "There's this guy I know who has a great life story."
"He should only live to tell it one day." He added.
I nodded to Neal with a smile.
"I called your mother and told her what happened. She has a bus ticket to Detroit waiting for you at Greyhound. Take some time off and come back when you feel up to it."
"Fine." I said.
"Oh, by the way, Jim Shooter sent you a letter. I've put it up on the bulletin board."
I stood by the bulletin board for long moments pondering the letter.
I'm sorry about the misunderstanding and had no intention of belittling the great cover you drew for Rom the Robot #1.
You're always welcome to work with us again and you'll receive a $25/page rate increase for all future work you produce for Marvel.
Good luck with all your endeavors and please keep in touch.
Editor in Chief, Marvel Comics