Basement Songs: Announcing “Wendover”…

Tuesday night, as I washed the dishes, Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings played on the stereo. While I listened to the fantastic retro soul title track from their latest album, I Learned the Hard Way. Jacob stood at the kitchen table, leafing through one of his many Batman: The Brave and the Bold comic books. When the instrumental, “The Reason,” began, I happened to glance over at him. Oblivious to the fact that his father was watching, Jacob flipped pages while his feet and legs moved to the rhythm of the song. He was in his own world- a place of colorful super heroes and exciting words full of heightened drama. I wish “The Reason” was longer than two minutes and twenty seconds. I could have gone on watching him for another hour.

Comics and music. My son has gravitated to the same passions I had when I was a boy. Toss in his love of animated movies and juvenile humor (lately, there’s nothing funnier than a good kick to the tenders) and you might say that Jake is a carbon copy of me. I have faith that Jake will continue to embrace these art forms and that he’ll never feel embarrassed for his love of comic books. In my youth, I hid my comic obsession from my friends and family, as if there was something to be ashamed of in reading stories of heroism, love, loyalty and family. Granted, they also involved women drawn in incredibly tight costumes and an abundance of violence, but still, there was no reason why I felt I had to sneak my comics into the basement as if they were Playboy.

I found a kindred spirit in the 7th grade when I met a kid named Jeff Marsick. Besides ogling the same girls, sharing the same classes, and both being members of the school band, the two of us both loved reading and talking about comic books. Jeff and I remained friends all the way through high school. He once gave me the inside scoop on my high school crush; I once helped him pick up a girl at a Key Club convention by writing some romantic lines and signing his name to them. Despite the good times we shared and the many long talks we had about Wolverine and the Flash, once we received our high school diplomas we lost touch. Jeff went into the Coast Guard and I wound up in film school and eventually out west to pursue a Hollywood dream. That should have been the end of our friendship.

Then, one afternoon in the late 90’s, Jeff phoned me out of the blue. After tracking me down through our high school alumni association, he called to congratulate me, having seen my name in the credits of There’s Something About Mary. Jeff was out of the Coast Guard, living in Connecticut and starting up his own chiropractic practice. I was amazed to learn during our brief phone conversation that Jeff had a passion for writing, as well. Novels, screenplays, criticism, you name it; the guy had the talent, wit and the desire to have his voice heard. He promised to send me a copy of his unfinished novel and we exchanged email addresses. I never expected to hear from him again.

I was wrong.

Over the next six years, Jeff and I corresponded, sharing story ideas and reviving our conversations about comic books. Occasionally, he would send me boxes full of comics (some of which wound up in Jake’s collection). As the two of us continued on our own creative endeavors (I directed King’s Highway and sold another script; Jeff began writing comic reviews and completed his novel), the idea of collaborating on a screenplay came up many times. However, the challenge of working together when the two of us were on separate coasts proved difficult and nothing solid ever materialized. Then he proposed writing a comic book, nothing serious, just for fun, just for the love of writing.  Our journey to Wendover, Utah had begun.

In choosing a subject for our book, Jeff suggested horror, a growing genre in comics. One idea immediately leaped at us: vampires.

I know, they’re so clichéd right now. However, we didn’t want to explore the soulful, romantic side of bloodsucking fiends; we wanted to examine the darkness, the evil, and the manipulation of the living dead. Personally, I wanted to venture into territory similar to my favorite Stephen King novel, ‘Salem’s Lot. I can still feel the chills that covered my spine when I read that book in the 6th grade. Curled up in my parents basement, with the autumn wind rattling the windows and the furnace turning on sporadically, like the devil waking up, I was scared shitless reading King’s classic vampire tale. The idea of a disease starting in a remote little Maine town and the master plan for it to slowly spread throughout the country was terrifying. And one man, a simple, flawed man with a good heart, stood in the way. Powerful stuff.

While Jeff and I tossed around ideas, I was also working on my own film noir script. In doing research, I kept coming back to Curtis Hanson’s masterful adaptation of James Ellroy’s L.A. Confidential. In the film, Russell Crowe’s “Bud White” and Guy Pearce’s “Ed Exley” are two very different types of detectives; they hate each other’s guts and face off on more than one occasion, As any great story is told, that these two heroes eventually figure out that they need each other and ultimately respect each other in the end. The Academy Award winning screenplay by Hanson and Brian Helgeland paired down Ellroy’s massive tome, yet maintain the essence of his seminal work. Every time I watch L.A. Confidential I think, “That’s the kind of story I want to tell.”

My next conversation with my old friend went something like this:

“Jeff, what do you think of a story that was, say, L.A. Confidential meets ‘Salem’s Lot?”
“Sounds fucking cool! Let’s get started.”

Inspired by a 2007 article in the L.A. Times, Wendover, Utah became the setting of our mystery story about a small town on the Utah/Nevada border, the new casino across the state line pulling in tourists from around the country, and the evil that lurks in the shadows.

Jeff and I challenged each other, cheered on our best writing and reluctantly pointed out our weaknesses. We made each other better storytellers in the process. Along the way, Jeff discovered Jonathan Burkhardt, an art teacher with an interest in drawing comics. What a discovery this turned out to be! Jonathan’s black and white renderings of our script perfectly create the world that Jeff and I envisioned. Even if you can’t read the words, Jonathan’s artwork tells the story. It’s stunning work.

Two and a half years after we began, the first issue of Wendover will be on sale this weekend at the New York Comic Con (booth 344, if you happen to be there). On Monday (10/11/10) the Wendover website will go live (where you can buy a copy). And of course, anyone can email me (malchus)  if you want to support us by spending $4.00 (notice a theme here?)

As thrilling as it is to finally have something tangible to show for all of our hard work, my greatest hope is that the work endures. I hope that people will complete issue one and be clamoring for subsequent issues. In the best of all possible worlds, when Jake is old enough he’ll curl up in his room, as he does with his books and comics, and give Wendover a read. And maybe someday, when he has his own kids, one of them will be standing at the kitchen table while he washes dishes, tapping a foot to whatever music Jake’s playing, and flipping through the dog eared pages of their grandpa’s comic.

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Scott Malchus
Scott Malchus is a writer, filmmaker and die hard Cleveland Indians fan. His memoir, “Basement Songs,” is available in paperback and Kindle. He wrote and directed the film “King's Highway." His family is heavily involved in fund raising to find a cure for cystic fibrosis. Scott Malchus is an employee of Cartoon Network and Turner Broadcasting. The opinions expressed on Popdose are his own and do not reflect those of his employer. Email: Malchus@popdose.com. Follow him @MrMalchus