Wizard #45: Don Simpson

Self-publishing a comic book in the 1990s was a risky game. On the surface it looked pretty easy—just draw some pages, send them to a printer, and then wait for the checks from your distributors to clear. But in reality it was a lot harder than that, especially because the direct sales market that allowed comic shops to thrive was teetering on collapse by the middle of the decade. You can blame the boxes of unsold “hot” comics that retailers were sitting on and Marvel’s insane decision to purchase the industry’s third-largest distributor for the decline in sales that started in 1994 and didn’t let up until the new millennium.

It took 45 issues for Image Comics co-founder Marc Silvestri to get the cover slot of Wizard. By this point in the magazine’s history, Rob Liefeld had already drawn three covers.

When I was writing “Palmer’s Picks” for Wizard, I mostly avoided discussing sales figures or other business-related things and instead focused on the art of comics and shining a light on cartoonists that I admired. So it was a little bit of a surprise when I reread this “Picks” from issue #45 that profiled Don Simpson and his self-published superhero comic Bizarre Heroes. In the original interview, Simpson was fairly candid about the struggles of self-publishing. It didn’t dominate the column, and he didn’t discuss circulation numbers, but he did spend a fair amount of time talking about the challenges he faced getting eyes on his comic. Take this quote from the original article:

[P]eople aren’t ordering stuff unless they have to. I’ve talked to a lot of retailers, and they mention that somewhere around 80 percent of their orders are for store subscriptions. These books don’t get put onto the shelves. I could have the most incredible publicity in the world, but you go into a store and they won’t have the book on the shelf.

Those downsides of pre-ordering are sadly still a problem with the direct sales market today. Simpson was also upfront about the difficulty he faced trying to balance what he wanted to draw against what he felt would sell better:

I didn’t want to do Megaton Man all the time. As popular as he is, I’ve always had this dilemma in my career. My comic would be a lot more commercially viable if I just called it Megaton Man.

This was definitely not a doom and gloom “Palmer’s Picks,” but it is interesting to note how the realities of the declining comics market were starting to hit. Perhaps all of this “real talk” is merely because I was a little late to the game with this profile of Bizarre Heroes. The series had already hit double digits by the time this “Picks” saw print, so maybe if I had interviewed Simpson when he was preparing to launch his series he would have had a different outlook on things.

The gatefold cover for Wizard #45 features Marc Silvestri’s Cyberforce team, which checks off all of the ’90s superhero team cliches: women in metallic and/or skintight costumes, guy with sharp claws, guy with guns (double points for giving him extra arms so he can hold more guns), leader guy with mask open on top so his hair can flap in the breeze, and giant strong guy.

Simpson was one of the hardest-working self-publishers out there. He was a fast enough artist to follow the first rule of self-publishing: make sure you can keep a schedule. And he didn’t slouch on the promotion of his comic either. He put together a regular newsletter (printed out and mailed, unlike the fancy email newsletters of today) and his Fiasco Comics paper hats were a fixture of many mid-’90s conventions.

Despite all of Simpson’s efforts, Bizarre Heroes was another casualty of the market collapse. The comic ended in 1996 with a pair of one-shots (Megaton Man #0 and Megaton Man vs. Forbidden Frankenstein #1) that doubled as the final two issues of the series. Megaton Man and the rest of the cast from the series have popped up in various places over the years, and Simpson has been working away at new Megaton Man material, but any plans to publish it are being kept under wraps right now. He recently started posting chapters of a prose Ms. Megaton Man story online. His science fiction comic Border Worlds was collected in a hardcover edition from Dover Books in 2017 along with a brand-new concluding chapter.

On a final note, if you are curious about the events that led up the creation of Bizarre Heroes, Simpson wrote a three-part essay on his blog that discusses the strained relationship with Kitchen Sink, his previous publisher for the Megaton Man comics that predate Bizarre Heroes. It’s a fascinating insight into the inner-workings of the ’80s and ’90s alternative comics scene.


Palmer’s Picks

Strange Brew

By Tom Palmer Jr.

It is almost impossible to categorize the work of Don Simpson into a simple description like “outlandish parody” or “serious superhero comics.” His comics have ranged from the relentless humor of Megaton Man to hard science fiction in Border Worlds, with notable dips into straight superheroes and even underground/erotic comics. Instead of keeping all of these disparate comics separate, Simpson has decided to bring them all together into one “universe” with Bizarre Heroes, a self-published monthly comic.

Bizarre Heroes is one of the few comics published today that recognizes the inherent fun of superheroes. The comic features Megaton Man, Simpson’s most well-known hero, as well as a cast of unforgettable characters like X-Ray Boy (who got his powers from a pair of novelty X-ray specs), the Phantom Jungle Girl (who could have been pulled from a ’50s adventure comic), and the Meddler (a mysterious character shrouded in bandages and a cape).

The main plotline of Simpson’s new comic springs from a one-shot comic published in 1990 by Kitchen Sink called, oddly enough, Bizarre Heroes. Basically, Simpson’s heroes must overcome Project Mainstream, an evil plot to take over the world with an army of superpowered “megaclones” who are superior to their human counterparts. While the heroes of Simpson’s universe may eventually overcome the evil clones, Simpson states that “they won’t be able to get rid of them all. It’s sort of an underlying theme that there will always be these bad guys out there that will periodically ‘break out.’ I’ve intentionally left the identities of a lot of the clones unknown.”

Simpson has united his characters under one common story, but assembling all of them is not as simple as it sounds. One of the most difficult things for Simpson to resolve with Bizarre Heroes is the difference between his serious superheroes like the Meddler and the Slick and the not-so-serious Megaton Man and Yarn Man. “I can almost date them: The Slick and the Meddler come from junior high school, and Megaton Man came in the early ’80s when I had outgrown super-heroes. For me, it’s neat to have characters I created in high school. There’s less of a parody feel to it than some of the older stuff has. It’s a genuine affection for the superhero myth.”

Simpson relates that with Megaton Man, “I was trying to parody and ridicule superhero comics and exaggerate them. I thought I was being very iconoclastic, but the thing that I’ve discovered is that the whole superhero style today has sort of gone so far beyond what I was making fun of.” Simpson is inspired by the smooth and efficient comic art from classic superhero comics, but he feels that “today’s style has a techno, hard-edged feel. I just can’t do that. I do this kind of brushy, old-fashioned-looking stuff that harkens back to the early ’70s. So, people can’t really tell if I’m being serious or not when I draw.”

With Bizarre Heroes, Simpson is able to emulate the careers of his idols, like Jack Kirby, Neal Adams, John Romita Sr., and other artists from the ’60s and ’70s. “The guys I wanted to be like in comics were guys like Romita or Kirby. They did everything. They’d do Spider-Man for a while and then they’d move to The Avengers. That’s what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to do Megaton Man all the time. As popular as he is, I’ve always had this dilemma in my career. My comic would be a lot more commercially viable if I just called it Megaton Man.” Simpson sees Bizarre Heroes as a compromise. He can switch characters whenever he wants to, but “people will only have one book to follow.”

While Bizarre Heroes sounds like the perfect solution for the fan trying to find all of Don Simpson’s work in one convenient place, there is a downside. “I find myself in sort of a no-man’s land,” Simpsons admits, “particularly with Bizarre Heroes. When I set out to do this, I thought there would be something for everybody. There would be enough Megaton Man for the Megaton Man fans, and some other stuff that would satisfy the fans of 1963, Savage Dragon vs. Megaton Man, Splitting Image, or even Wendy Whitebread and my other [books published by] Eros.” While Bizarre Heroes has a little bit for every fan, most people have a tough time figuring out how to describe the comic. “Is it an alternative comic, is it a superhero parody, or is it a serious superhero comic? It’s all of these things intermittently,” he notes, which has made the series difficult to classify specifically; readers may not be sure what to expect from it each month.

Instead of bringing Bizarre Heroes to a comic company, Simpson decided to form Fiasco Comics and self-publish the series. With many notable and respected creators turning to self-publishing recently, Simpson acknowledges that “there’s the beginnings of a renaissance in self-publishing, but we’re sort of victimized by our own success. There’s almost too much good stuff to choose from.” Simpson finds that he has a hard time getting shelf space in stores because “people aren’t ordering stuff unless they have to. I’ve talked to a lot of retailers, and they mention that somewhere around 80 percent of their orders are for store subscriptions. These books don’t get put onto the shelves. I could have the most incredible publicity in the world, but you go into a store and they won’t have the book on the shelf.”

Simpson doesn’t get sidetracked by the difficulties of self-publishing. He acknowledges that he doesn’t have a simple solution for the problems of the industry, but he promises to “keep my book coming out every month and get the book out there and available.” Yes, Bizarre Heroes is definitely “out there”—a wild, no-holds-barred comic full of outrageous superheroes that’s just plain fun to read. Isn’t it time for you to go a little bizarre?

Tom Palmer Jr. is a 20-year-old freelance writer from New Jersey. He’d like to thank Stan for all of his kind words.

Pick of the Month

Peep Show #7—Just when you thought autobiographical comics were out of fashion, Joe Matt returns with another issue of his thoroughly enjoyable comic. Switching directions from the unflinching examination of every aspect of Matt’s adult life that dominated previous issues, this issue looks at the obsessions of his pre-pubescent life. You can order a copy directly from Drawn & Quarterly Publications, 5550 Jeanne-Mance Street #16, Montreal, Quebec, Canada H2V 4K6 for $2.95.

Don Simpson’s Recommended Reading: Here’s a list of comics that Don Simpson enjoys. It may be short and sweet, but all of the books on the list are top-notch: Jeff Smith‘s Bone from Cartoon Books; Wolff & Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre by Batton Lash from Exhibit A Press; Bill Watterson’s “Calvin & Hobbes” strip, syndicated in just about every newspaper in the country and collected in several book collections; Rick Veitch‘s Rare Bit Fiends from King Hell Press; Tales of the Beanworld by Larry Marder from Beanworld Press; and Steve Bissette‘s Tyrant from SpiderBaby Grafix & Publications.

Tom’s Recommended Reading

Bizarre Heroes: Don Simpson publishes Bizarre Heroes every month through Fiasco Comics. Issue #11 (pictured at right) will be out in May, and a trade paperback collecting the first four issues of Bizarre Heroes will be out in April. You should ask your local retailer to order Bizarre Heroes, but if you have trouble completing your collection, you can order directly from Fiasco Comics at PO Box 44326, Pittsburgh, PA 15205. All issues of Bizarre Heroes are $3, including issue #0— which reprints Kitchen Sink’s Bizarre Heroes #1 from 1990—and the third printing of Megaton Man #1 from 1984. Six-issue subscriptions are also available for $18, and the trade paperback is $12.95. Simpson is also offering a 15″ x 24″ signed and numbered, black-and-white print of 44 characters from Bizarre Heroes for $25. Fiasco Comics also carries select copies of Don Simpson’s earlier work including the original Megaton Man and various spin-offs, Splitting Image, The Savage Dragon vs. The Savage Megaton Man, The Normalman/Megaton Man Special, and 1963). Write to Fiasco Comics for prices and availability.

Tom Palmer Jr
Tom Palmer Jr. is a writer/editor/web developer. He also once had a job filling perfume bottles on an assembly line.

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