My series of conversations with Cirsova authors concludes with Michael Tierney. Anyone doubting the abundance of great science fiction, fantasy and even horror needs to get acquainted with the Cirsova crew. I wish I had more time to interview all of the Cirsova team but look forward to exploring the stories of the authors I missed. A list of links for this series is available at the end of this post.
Michael’s first Cirsova story was a psychological horror story called Shark Fighter and the latest issue carries his historical fantasy, The Bears of 1812, in which he weaves Sacagawea from the Lewis & Clark expedition into a pivotal role in the War of 1812. It’s a wild story and the reader should keep in mind a lot of the events actually happened.
Recently, there’s been a lot of talk on the CH blog and in social media about “Operatic Science Fiction” so I was excited to learn about Michael’s Wild Stars comic book series. We discuss Wild Stars and Michael’s latest project, Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 Year Art Chronology. Exhaustively researched over Michael’s lifetime, Book 1 will cover Burroughs’ illustrative history in the pulps, Book 2 will cover the hardcovers and paperback in both the US and Britain, Book 3 will cover the newspaper comics plus the Golden and Silver ages of the comic books, while Book 4 will cover the Bronze and Modern ages of Burroughs’ comics as well as their entire history in Britain. Currently, the plan is the series will be released first as art book sized individual hardcovers, then as a limited edition slip-cased set, and finally as a paperback set. Scroll down at trolllord.com for the latest news and go here to sign up for a mailing list and opportunity to get an advanced copy of the first volume.
Update: 5/23 Sales just went live for Michael’s E.R.B 100 Year Art Chronology.
Scott Cole: I hear your Edgar Rice Burroughs 100 Year Art Chronology project is coming out on Kickstarter soon. Maybe this week?
Michael Tierney: May 23rd. But there will be a ‘soft opening’ on May 22nd exclusively for those who sign up for the publisher’s newsletter. We’re working on some kind of bonus for them.
SC: Will all four volumes be released at once or in a series?
MT: All four at the same time. The Chronology is essentially one colossal art book that runs over 1200 pages. The publisher, Chenault & Gray, keeps referring it as ”mammoth.”
SC: Now I don’t see punters only ordering one of the four volumes but let’s say that is a preference? Will someone be able to order only one of the four volumes that interest him/her and how is each volume unique?
MT: That’s something I haven’t gotten a definite answer on yet from the publisher, but know they’re strongly considering making them available as single volumes:
Volume One covers the Pulps.
Volume Two covers the books in both hardcover and paperback, in both the U.S. and Britain.
Volume Three was originally intended to be a single Volume about the Comics, but it was just too big and had to be split in two. So now Volume Three covers all the American Tarzan comics.
Volume Four covers all of Burroughs other U.S. comics, as well as all the British Tarzan comics. The British actually published more Tarzan comics in the 1950s alone than have ever been made in the U.S.
These aren’t just nuts and bolts books with dates and data. There are actually several narratives running through them as well. The history of Burroughs, the artists, Pulp and book industries, as well as the printing and retailing industries that delivered them to readers are all discussed in depth. I’m a former journeyman printer and was a division manager for International Graphics at the age of 22, so I’ve working in every aspect of the publishing industry from creation through manufacture to sales. Gives me a lot of different perspectives to discuss.
Jim Sullos, the President of ERB, Inc., paid compliments about how many times he read something in the pages that was new information to him. He and Cathy Wilbanks also did a fair bit of diving into their archives to research some of my questions about historical events, and provided me with ERB’s original correspondence that cleared up certain historical gaps.
They’ve also given me permission in the opening of Volume Four to use a never before published portrait of ERB that was done by his grandson, John Coleman Burroughs, who was a very accomplished artist and writer himself.
SC: How did the project come about?
MT: This whole project started when I discovered Burroughs’ books in the public library around the age of nine. Loved the interior illustrations by J. Allen St. John and others, but didn’t get to see what the covers looked like until I was an adult.
Long after the books had been read, what kept the stories alive for me is the artwork. ERB’s description of action and exotic places were so vivid that they’ve inspired illustrations by generation after generation of talented artists. Throw in artwork done in other language markets, and there’s always something new to discover.
After collecting everything I could find in the U.S. and British markets, I now have a personal collection that’s museum worthy and decided to share it with others who might not otherwise have an opportunity to see the rarer images. When I first pitched the idea to a publisher, it was astonishing that I got a positive reply in a matter of hours.
Then came the cold call to Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. to ask for permission.
I used to be friends with ERB’s grandson, Danton Burroughs, who provided me with a lot of insight that went into these books. After his tragic death I lost all contact with the company. But new President of ERB, Inc., Jim Sullos, has been hugely supportive of the project since day one. Thanks to his guidance I’ve been able to create a Chronology that is 100% the way I envisioned it. Without the help of Jim, Cathy Wilbanks, and all the other fine folks at ERB, Inc., this Chronology would not have happened.
SC: This reminds me of an Adrian Cole story I read in which he portrays his idea of a perfect library, which happened to contain an extensive comic collection.
MT: We probably have some of the same books. I also used to have a set of 2000 AD in my personal collection, but ended up selling it at the stores some time ago. Being a longtime comic book retailer, what surprises most people about about my personal collection is that I don’t have a single super hero book in it. When I started as a comic book retailer 35 years ago, I had to give up being a collector. You can’t be an alcoholic and work in a liquor store.
Most of my collection at the time, including complete Marvel runs that started with Avengers #1 was used as start up inventory, but I kept the stuff I collected early on as a kid. That was everything Burroughs and Robert E. Howard in hardcover, paperback, magazine and comics. I could easily do a Chronology about Robert E. Howard, as well. I also kept all my Disney Ducks (Walt Disney Comics & Stories, Donald Duck, Uncle Scrooge) comics, mainly because of storyteller Carl Barks. He and Tarzan artist Russ Manning were in a class of their own.
I also have a fairly nice Lovecraft collection and my paperback collection has a wide range of fantasy and science fiction authors, starting with the Ace Doubles in the Fifties.
I’ve been steadily employed since the 4th grade, when I had multiple delivery routes for the local newspaper. Worked my way up to mailroom supervisor during High School. So I was able to invest in my collection at a very young age and turned many a dime investment into a hundred or a thousand dollar bill. While in grade school I was also buying directly from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc. by mail.
That was how I ended up with the collection to be able to create this Chronology. The gathering process took well over half a century. Writing about it, scanning the covers and Photoshop repairing the older images only took all my spare time over the last two years.
SC: You mentioned reading the books in the library but not seeing the cover illustrations until you were an adult? Did your local library remove the dust covers before displaying the books?
MT: There wasn’t a dust wrapper on a single one because they were already all pretty old. What was nice about those library books is they were A.C. McClurg first editions! This meant they had all the interior illustrations which were slowly dropped out of the reprints.
MT: They’re for sale on Amazon.com
Volume One collects all the comics from 1984 through 2002, along with new material, into one large graphic novel. It’s a complicated and multi-layered story called The Book of Circles because once you get to the last page you can go back to the first page and immediately start seeing things you didn’t notice the first time through. Had one customer read it five times and I could still show him stuff he missed. It’s available as both a black & white trade paperback and as a color hardcover.
The sequel to the graphic novel is a novel with graphics.
Volume Two is 82,000 words weaved around my 2002 Force Majeure: Prairie Bay comic book, along with another 8 new pages of comics, along with 50 plus ‘flashback illustrations.’ Whenever there’s a reference made to an event from Volume 1, the art from that scene is shown in virgin form — without any lettering. The book being part text and part comics is a plot device integral to the story. Volume Two is currently only available in trade paperback, as part of a matched set with the current, 30th Anniversary edition of the Volume One paperback.
You can also buy the original comics and earlier editions of Volume One at either of my stores, The Comic Book Store in Little Rock or Collector’s Edition, North Little Rock, Arkansas. You’ll get a better price from me than you can on Amazon, too. Saw a first edition of the Volume One hardcover sell on Amazon for $400! Plus, I’ll be happy to personalize your copies, although I will say that it often shocks customers when I offer. They usually don’t realize these are my books.
SC: Please give the CH blog readers a quick overview of the Wild Stars universe (as quick as is possible to describe a universe created over 20 years and containing multiple story lines).
MT: 75,000 years ago mankind made our first space migration and colonized planets circling the brightest stars in the night sky. These are the Wild Stars. Every story you’ve ever heard about aliens or space gods were just our cousins stopping by for a visit. Volume One opens with the Wild Stars war against a genocidal enemy who have two choices — destroy Earth or recreate our history so that the Nazis won WWII and make us into their ally. Or did things happen the other way around? The opening question is which reality is the real one.
I’d written several Wild Stars novels back in the Seventies, and the earlier comics are based on the novel First Marker. Later issues in the comics came from the prequel/sequel, Under the Wild Stars. Having so much past, present, and future history written out in detail gives me a very large cloth on which to weave stories that are operatic in scale. It was fortuitous that geneticists recently announced the discovery that 75,000 years ago the human population hit a bottleneck where our population became so small that you could fit every person alive on Earth into a single college football stadium.
All the others left for the Wild Stars! That’s my story.
SC: I understand you did some of the illustrations for Wild Stars?
MT: Yes, I illustrated the first two issues in the 1980s. The first one I did on a production schedule, all within a month’s time. Back then I felt like all the images had to come out of my head. Reviewing it after the fact, I realized that using references and taking your time is not a bad thing. With Volume Two #1, I invested all my spare time for an entire Summer. I not only wrote, penciled, inked, and lettered it, I also printed it in my garage. Coming from a printing background, I used a printer’s technique to make each copy unique — by slowing fading a mountain in the background on one page throughout the run. That issue, to my knowledge, is also the first comic with foil stamping and die cutting on the front cover. To date, it’s still the only comic ever made to feature die cutting on the back cover.
In the Nineties I experimented with due-shade paper, which is how newspaper comic strips are often made, and then realized with the advent of Photoshop technology that working directly from pencils had become a viable option. That’s when I started hiring professional artists like Frank Brunner, Dave Simons, Armando Gil, and David Brewer. I took their pencils and used Photoshop to enhance their work — basically painting them in black & white. The human eye can actually register far greater levels of tone and depth in grayscale than you can in color.
SC: This post will contain a couple of covers from your Wild Stars Volumes available. I love the illustrations. Please let us know about the artists.
MT: Wild Stars I The Book of Circles Recalibrated* was penciled and inked by Frank Brunner. Wild Stars II Force Majeure was penciled by Armando Gil. The colors for both were by Tom Smith. All three gentlemen did a fantastic job. I cannot heap enough accolades on the quality of their work.
SC: Any major differences in your idea development and processes when writing the storyline for a comic book series compared with short fiction such as your Cirsova stories?
MT: I tend to get wrapped up in really big storylines with a wide scope of characters and events. Writing short stories make for a nice change of pace, working with a finite set of ideas and characters. Shark Fighter was based on my experiences as a Master certified scuba diver.
The Bears of 1812 was a blend of several different stories. So many crazy events happened during the War of 1812, that I wanted to make a story out of it. When I submitted it to Cirsova, I told Alex that the stuff he’d think I made up were all things that really happened.
While both the stories are stand alone tales, they each do have a connection with my Wild Stars universe, however tenuous. With Shark Fighter, the protagonist had to somehow get off the Caribbean island at the end of the story, which was thanks to the Wild Stars character, Carlton MacKanaly. With The Bears of 1812, a descendant of the Payne family had a cameo in Wild Stars Volume 3 #2.
SC: On the video page I was, for some reason, attracted to a video titled “Girls in Spandex vs Censorship”. Despite the lack of advertised girls attired in spandex the news clips describing how your comic stores were caught in a grey area of a censorship law were interesting. How did Act 858 play out for you?
MT: A state representative foisted a rewrite of Arkansas Display Act 858 to the legislature with the pitch, “We need to protect children from harm,” and 92% of them voted in favor — apparently without even reading the thing. Basically it said that if someone complained about the content of something on the shelves of your store, then you’d broken the law retroactively. The rewrite’s author said on record how he thought it was a good idea that there were no standards, and something that was acceptable in one city might not be allowed in another town.
The local media was all over it, and of course the TV cameras had a field day scanning down the shelves of my stores for all the spandex-clad heroines. What made it even trickier for me was that this was the same time when Marvel and DC abandoned the Comics Code Authority and started pushing mature content just to see what limits they could get away with — all without any kind of warning to consumers or retailers! Around this same time, a Wal-Mart heiress bought the wrong comic for a grandson, and Wal-Mart pulled their comics out of all their stores in the South. They still don’t carry them in the South to this day.
So here I had a bunch of censors who were looking for a chance to make an example out of me at the same time that the publishers were shipping shock content with no warnings. It was pretty tricky for a while, but my customers were great and very protective of the stores. It’s impossible to inspect every page of every comic on shipment day, and they helped identify dangerous comics that I might have accidently sold to an 8 year old child without realizing what was in it. That would have made the censor’s case in an instant. Eventually Marvel and DC realized they were hurting themselves and adopted a target age guideline system and sales across the country immediately began to rebound.
The Arkansas Attorney General finally refused to enforce the law because the wording was too vague, and the rewrite of Act 858 was dropped from the books.
But, as you might have heard, this wasn’t an isolated incident. Minnesota, California, and other states have also tried to pass similar bills. Obviously I took notice whenever that happened and discovered a pattern. There was an old episode of Law & Order where, during the trial of a deranged artist, Angie Harmon comments about how the Supreme Court ruled that it was up to local communities to decide what was and was not considered obscene. Basically, every time that episode aired, someone somewhere in the United States got the idea for writing a new law. The problem was, they all worded their laws with the same vague language as Angie Harmon.
SC: It sounds like you were fighting a two front war in that you were trying to defend yourself from the state and, even though you don’t mention it, trying to get Marvel and DC Comics to see common sense. You already mentioned your loyal customers jumped onboard to help prevent charges but please describe your “strategy and tactics” on how you got through this.
MT: Fighting a two front war describes exactly what I was going through. I felt like a man whose house was on fire and the neighbor was throwing gas on it.
I was pretty vocal at the time about how Marvel and DC needed to establish a universal Target Audience Guideline system which every publisher could use, which is essentially what happened with the age guidelines.
Most people within the industry understood what I was saying and dealing with and were very supportive, but there were a few stores and certain creators who starting referring to my customers as being ignorant and calling them Nazis. Got vitriol laced emails from the pro porn crowd who felt that my stores being shut down and me being arrested would be good for their business, kind of like being Banned in Boston makes for higher book sales. Said I should “take one for the team.”
I’m not a censor. I’ve never opposed a creator being able to tell any type of story they want to. But I want to know what it is what I’m selling. In all reality, they were the true censors. They advocated censoring the information I need to do my job well. When I told them that, it really set off the fireworks.
It all reminds me of an incident that happened in the stores. A fellow came into my North Little Rock location and asked me to order him a copy of Jeffrey Dahmer vs. Jesus Christ. I explained to him about how I felt the book would never be made (which it wasn’t — blocked by the families of Dahmer’s victims), but even if it was made, I wouldn’t be comfortable carrying it in the store since that location is directly across the street from a prominent church where the Southern Baptists held their national convention one year. The next day he called my Little Rock location. I recognized the voice and the question, and once again told him the same thing, word for word. He replied, “I can see where you’re coming from. But let me tell you, that guy in the North Little Rock comic store acted like I was some sort of pervert!”
I never told him that I was the guy from the other store. It’s human nature to listen the second time you hear something that you don’t want to — but that first guy who said it was a jerk.
Ultimately, I had to make a lot of changes to the way I do business. I would never have created an adults only section because I don’t carry adults only products — I’m too close to churches and schools at each location. So I created a kids section. Anything with a “mature readers” label is bagged and taped shut so that young hands can’t get inside.
Nowadays the industry acts in so much more of a responsible manner. I think they finally discovered how much it helps to tell your customers what it is you’re selling. No one wants to buy a can of soup that they don’t know what’s inside until after they open the can.
SC: What is day to day business like for a comic book store owner/ manager, especially in the age of immediate downloads, Amazon Kindle, etc?
MT: When digital came along, everyone thought it was the doom of comic book stores and we’d all fold up and vanish like a chain of Tower Record stores. Instead, my sales went up.
For years I’ve been saying that Marvel and DC needed to do national advertising. Their response was they they were too small. But when digital came along they suddenly found the budgets for advertising. What happened was people realized that comics were still being made (remember, you don’t see them on book racks anywhere in the South anymore) and, once they got a taste of digital, customers came looking for me to get the real deal.
Digital comics and digital music really don’t compare. Music is sound and the delivery system irrelevant, but comics are tactile experience where you hold the book in your hands and flip the pages at your own pace. Plus, the printed page is a delivery system that will never become obsolete. A few years from now digital platforms will change just like computers will need to be upgraded, but the printed page will still be readable centuries or even millennia from now. Then there is the collector’s aspect to owning an actual book which might someday increase in value.
Digital has no future value. You won’t see any prices guides being made for them. <bolded by editor>
SC: Excellent point about the printed page “format” still being readable in the future but digital having to change. At least for your stores in Arkansas how would you describe the popular topics/content of the contemporary comic book reader?
MT: For DC it’s Batman, and has been since the Michael Keaton movie in 1989.
Marvel is a lot harder to say. It used to be X-men, but they’ve really started losing direction on the franchise. All the restarts, one after another, chases away more old readers than it brings in new. That’s why Marvel has been in such a free fall lately.
I sell a lot of independent comics from independent publishers. That’s where all the original content and non-superhero fare comes from.
We also carry hundreds of thousands of vintage comics at each location, dating back to the Golden Age. So many stores today only carry the latest releases, so when people from out of town visit my stores they usually go on a shopping spree. Operating in one of the lowest economic areas of the States, my prices are pretty low compared to other parts of the country.
Something I can’t currently get enough of are comics appropriate for children. When I started 35 years ago, everything in my stores was appropriate for anyone of any age. The problem was that older readers were being ignored. When the publishers finally addressed that readership, the pendulum swung completely the other way and now there’s almost nothing made for younger readers — certainly nothing of any significance from Marvel and DC. I’ve polled a lot of comic creators and store owners in the past about how old they were when reading their first comic. The average age is 8 years old. Youth is where the future of our industry lies.
As you might guess, I’ve always made my stores family friendly environments. Saturdays are when the families all bring their children in. Having a safe place for parents to bring their kids pays off in the long run. I’ve had customers who used to come in as a child now coming in with their children, sometimes with their grandchildren! Makes me feel old when that happens.
Throughout the Nineties and into the New Millennium the local university held a state sponsored Summer Laurette University For Youth (SLUFY), and I was a speaker every year. Anyone who doesn’t think kids still like comics today — just try dragging a wagonload of free comics in front of a bunch of kids. It’s like watching hungry piranha feed. The comics just disappear.
SC: Besides Wild Stars, what are your all time favorite comics or comic series?
MT: Magus, Robot Fighter was a book far ahead of its time. How many science-fiction based comics from the Sixties still seem current today? Russ Manning was one of the all time great comic book storytellers. His work adapting the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs were what I consider some of the best action adventure comics ever made.
Another comics storyteller whose work was head and shoulders above everyone else was Carl Barks, creator of Uncle Scrooge McDuck. The work Carl Barks did on Uncle Scrooge, Donald Duck, and in Walt Disney’s Comics & Stories are all stories that I still love to read today. His comics are the definition of All Ages material.
The very first comic I ever read was Turok, Son of Stone. Still have it, but it’s the absolute worst condition book in my collection. You can tell it was well read. Bought that one at a train station while being taken to Kansas University Medical Center to be treated for what was considered terminal leukemia. Spent the better part of a year in isolation with only Turok and Uncle Scrooge to keep me company. The Uncle Scrooge comic had the Carl Barks story McDuck of Arabia, and I have to tell you, those books were like a drink of water in a very hot desert. That’s when I became an avid reader.
SC: I understand that you are a Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide advisor. Please explain the price guide and how you ended up as one of the advisors.
MT: A list of my industry writings can be found here. I’ve been an advisor for the annual Overstreet Comic Book Price Guide since 1999. Long enough to have updated my picture multiple times and need to do it again.
I’d been writing for their spinoff titles and magazines from other publishers for years before that. Then the internet came along it pretty much shut down all the magazines focused on comics, but the annual Overstreet Price Guide just keeps rolling along. It was the first comic book price guide ever made, and is still the essential reference. There used to be an old joke at comic book conventions that the way to spot a crooked dealer was they bought by Overstreet and sold by Wizard. A price guide is no good if it tells you what you want to hear and then you find out reality is a whole other matter. I can vouch for the prices in Overstreet. Every year I send them lists of all my key sales, and I’ve seen those prices reflected in later editions.
SC: How did you come across Cirsova Magazine? It would be cool if Alex was a regular at your store.
MT: Actually, Alex is a customer! While planning his first issue, he picked my brain some for a few tips. When the first issue came out, I thought he’d done a great job and submitted some work myself.
Alex deserves a lot of credit for what he’s done. He made a strong effort that put not only his time but his financial well being on the line to create a fine publication. I’ve talked to a lot of people over the years who either want to write or draw a comic, or create a publication like Cirsova. Maybe one in a few hundred actually follow all the way through. After that, only one in another few hundred make it to a second issue.
Another success story was a young boy by the name of Nate Powell who asked if I’d carry his Walkie Talkie ashcan comics that he printed on a copy machine. He also made it to a second and a third issue, and then more. He moved to New York City to study his craft. A few years ago Nate won an Eisner Award. Now he’s the illustrator of the best selling March series of graphic novels. Whenever he’s in town he does signings at the stores, and get bigger crowds than he does at New York stores. He developed a local following.
It’s always gratifying to contribute in some small way to success stories like Alex and Nate. I figure Alex should be winning a few awards of his own before too long. He had a vision and made it into reality.
In fact, to support Alex and Cirsova, anyone who mentions this article at the stores will get a 25% discount off Cirsova magazines. I have all the issues stocked at both locations. I’ll even include my own Wild Stars comics, graphic novels and portfolios in the sale.
SC: Any real life bad dive trips inspire the Old Caribe character from Shark Fighter?
MT: I’ve never had a bad dive because of a tour guide. They’ve all been excellent and knew their terrain. Unfortunately, when you’re an experienced diver traveling alone they always team you up with the novices — and they’re usually very foolish. I only need to take a written test to be certified to teach scuba diving, but the reason I stay at Master diver is because the insurance is so much cheaper. If I was a Divemaster instead, and someone died while on a dive with me, then their family could sue me saying that I should have been able to prevent it.
That said, a lot of my diving experiences did make it into the story — things like the locals slipping fish heads into the gear of divers they don’t like. Fortunately, it never happened to me.
Some divers never encounter a shark, but I’ve had shark encounters on over half my open ocean dives. But that’s because I dive places like Shark Alley, Shark Grotto, Shark Junction, and … well, you get the drift. I’ve also been in the middle of two shark feeding frenzies. There’s a video of one of them on my website. There also a close-up photo of a bull shark that came straight at my head.
To me, sharks are almost like puppy dogs. I’ve never felt nervous around them except once, during a drift dive along a cliff wall that dropped off 5,000 feet into the deep blue sea. You know how sometimes you get the feeling someone is looking at you and turn to look them in the eye? I had that feeling and turned to see an oceanic white tip coming out of the deep blue and making a beeline straight for me. I was about a hundred feet in front of the rest of the group and it cut right between us. At that point I decided that maybe it’d be a good idea to drop back and join the group. The joke goes: if you’re ever attacked by a shark, first you pull your dive buddies close, stab them, and then swim away while the shark eats them.
But that wasn’t my most dangerous encounter. I’m an amateur underwater photographer, and one time swam too close to a school of very large barracuda. One reason why you’re taught to never wear any kind of bright objects while diving is because barracuda will strike at a flashing object, thinking it’s an injured fish. When my dive camera flashed, the entire school instantly turned in my direction with open jaws. Needless to say, I didn’t take a second picture and slowly started backpedaling.
SC: The Bears of 1812 is an interesting story and I guess the only fictional piece is Sacagawea travelling to Washington D.C., or is that something I didn’t know about?
MT: While researching Sacagawea, I discovered a lot of speculation about what happened to her after St. Louis. Some say she perished there in a house of the dead, where the dying went to expire. Some say that she did go to Washington, D. C., but there’s no record of that. As you learn in the story, there’s a reason why there wouldn’t be. Others say she returned out West to rejoin her people. Many Shoshone alive today claim to be her descendants. I used all of that.
Sacagawea is an classic American icon. Thanks to her appearance on the $1 coin, she has a face that has been reproduced more times than probably any other Native American — and yet nobody really knows what she looked like.
SC: Thank you Michael for answering my questions.
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