Contemporary comic book superheroes are steeped in history – virtually all of the heroes at the top of today’s sales charts were created decades ago but have managed to endure over the years. But what about the forgotten heroes like the Red Wraith, The Shield of Justice… or better yet – Coffin Fly?
What, you’ve never heard of them? Well, you’re like a lot of people that don’t remember those heroes from the Golden Nugget publishing company of the 60s. But in the upcoming Image miniseries Bulletproof Coffin, we’re going on a psychedelic trip down memory lane, through the long boxes and long memories of a unique kind of comics fanboy into the strange world of Coffin Fly and his fellow heroes.
Bulletproof Coffin is coming from a pair of old friends and UK comics alums Shaky Kane and David Hine. Hine is well known in American comics circles for his work at Marvel and DC, but he comes from a rich history of independent work such as the recently reprinted Strange Embrace book. Cartoonist Shaky Kane has lesser recognition to American comics fans, but for a subset of UK comic fans his art is a welcome sight after years of infrequent output. Kane’s unique line owes much to the works of Jack Kirby and artists of his era, but through the lens of independent comics like Jeffrey Brown or Mike Allred. Together they’ve created this new miniseries and Newsarama has the scoop.
Newsarama: What can you tell us about Bulletproof Coffin, guys?
David Hine: I’ve already said too much. I described the story outline on the Millarworld message board and someone instantly wrote us off as 90’s post modernism. I would have liked to be as enigmatic as possible about what this series is going to be, so people come to it without any particular expectations, but I guess you can’t expect either the readers or the comic stores to invest in a book blind. This comic is the book Shaky and myself have always wanted to buy, but no one was really doing it. It’s a satire of all the comics we love from the last 60 years, including the post modern comics of the 90’s. We mock but we do it with deep affection. It’s like taking the piss out of your Grandad. He may be old and smelly but you still love him.
Shaky Kane: It’s a six-part series recounting the events which surround Steve Newman, who’s life follows the path of obsession to the extent where reality and fantasy overlap to such a degree that he finds himself torn between the two, with life threatening consequences.
And of course being, a collaboration between David and myself it’s about a whole lot of other stuff as well!
It’s about dead superheroes, stone-age girls in chamois leather bikinis, eyeball-headed psychics, bulletproof coffins with spiked tires, spirit walkers, secret attic rooms full of comic book collections, and resurrected GI’s!
Nrama: The lead in this is a guy named Steve. What’s he about?
Hine: Okay, you’re twisting my arm, so… Steve Newman is a collector of Pop ephemera, who comes across a collection of comics that shouldn’t exist because the books were cancelled in the sixties. These comics smell of fresh ink, and he realizes that the creators must still be turning out their depraved stories. Things get weird when he’s contacted by the ageing real-world versions of the comic characters, who are convinced that someone is trying to kill them. Meanwhile Steve finds that his own memories are getting confused. Is this really his beautiful wife? How come he can’t remember how they met? And why does the family’s pet dog have no genitals?
Nrama: In Steve’s big comic collection, the one he holds highest is called Coffin Fly, and is about a hero of the same name who travels around in a makeshift ship he calls “bulletproof coffin”. Can you tell us more about this fictional comic and its star?
Hine: Every issue of Coffin Fly opens with these immortal words`: “In the far-flung future, the Earth has been reduced to an arid wasteland! Here Coffin Fly wages a lonely war against those who would plunder and desecrate mankind’s heritage!”
Coffin Fly wanders through this desolate graveyard planet in the Bulletproof Coffin, trawling up forgotten artifacts. He’s trying to preserve the history of human culture – the important stuff like the McDonald’s Happy Meal toys, X-Ray Spex and of course, comic books. When he’s not doing that he’s battling Giant Radioactive Insects, Mutant Nazis and Vampire Aliens. We’ll be featuring his epic battle with the Vietnam Veteran Zombies, a.k.a. The Hateful Dead.
Nrama: These comics are put out by a publisher named Golden Nugget that went under in the 60s. But you’re featuring these “lost stories” in the back of each comic. Can you tell us about these characters, and their style?
Kane: The origin of the characters, featured in the 8-page section stems from an idea I had, maybe ten years ago, certainly before the zombie thing had become such an overused genre. I put together a strip entitled Cease To Exist, a sort of disjointed narrative wherein once-dead superheroes ‘Now walk the Dead Beat’!
The idea lends itself to a gothic melodramatic, yet conversely B-Movie treatment.
The name ‘Coffin Fly’ sprang to mind along with ‘The Red Wraith’, and the idea of a drowned cop. A lawman dredged from the murky Hudson, on a hooked pole. The idea surfaced in a small press magazine entitled Dream Factory.
I find thinking up these ideas relatively easy. David, of course is able to take the ideas and make them into something much more complete, and I hope, reader-friendly. In fact amazingly so.
Ramona, Queen of The Stone Age, is a real crowd pleaser! I’ve always been a sucker for ’In A Savage Land’ type characters, Queen of the Stone Age/ Jungle girl, it’s a mix and match item!
The painted coffin was manufactured out of biodegradable compressed boxboard. It was called an ‘Earth Sleeper’. It featured my Missile Elvis character from Deadline magazine. I painted it up to look like Japanese robot packaging! It would make a cool bookcase and of course a final resting place.
Nrama: From what I’ve read, this has a bit of satire of comic collecting and the industry itself. Did some of your own experiences as a comics reader or professional impart any nuggets of knowledge for this?
Hine: Well, the creators of the Golden Nuggets characters do coincidentally share our names. Here is an extract from their biography, taken from the ashcan edition of Bulletproof Coffin, which will be available exclusively at the Bristol Comic Expo in May. This describes what happened after Big 2 publishing bought up Golden Nuggets and sacked Kane and Hine.
Clearly this bears no relationship to our real world experience.“Kane disappeared into obscurity. Occasionally illustrated pamphlets would appear – pseudo-religious rants that have been described as 'Scientology meets Ayn Rand'. More recently there were rumors that he was producing pornographic comics under the pseudonym Destroyovski, financed by an eccentric Russian oligarch. But the man himself was rarely seen and no new comic book work was officially produced by Kane for more than three decades.
"Meanwhile Hine endured years of poverty and alcoholism before eventually returning to Big 2 Publishing. Kane in his Esquire interview described his former partner as 'A sell out! He went crawling back to beg them for work and he’s been churning out crap for them ever since.' Hine’s work for Big 2 has had a mixed reception, many former fans regretting his willingness to produce blatantly commercial superhero stories including the mediocre but high-selling Z-Men: Final Meltdown.”</i>
Kane: Well, it’s not exactly Jonathan Swift! But there is a thread running thru the story arc involving the fate of ‘cancelled’ comic book heroes. I don’t know how David approaches writing, but when I mull over an idea certain key phrases leap out at me. Phrases like ‘killed off’. I don’t think it would be spoiling things to say that some of the retro heroes get ‘killed off’ as the story unfolds.
Again, I can only draw on personal experience of the UK comics business, but once you’ve set your heart on following that particular career path, your fate is very much in the hands of editors. It’s a cutthroat business where sales are king
Nrama: If you say so!
Shaky, since this book all started with some stories you had, can you tell us more about?
Kane: Bulletproof Coffin came from an idea I’d begun to formulate during the period of drawing Monster Truck. I was struck by how the popular American culture, that I drew on as inspiration, seemed to exist in the same sub-universe. They sort of complemented each other, in a way that I found all obsessive, living here in the UK, as a child in the mid-sixties/ early 70s.
I’ve always tried to evoke that feeling in the work I produce. As a child I built a ‘Bulletproof Coffin’, or you could say impenetrable barrier between my comfortable inner world and the perceived ‘real world’, which to be honest I still feel at odds with. Gosh! I hope that doesn’t sound too heavy! [laughs]!
Nrama Not too heavy – not for David here at least.
David – how did you get involved and work out the ideas Shaky had?
Hine: We knew one another very well in our earlier careers, then there was a big gap of almost ten years when we lost touch. A couple of years ago we bumped into each other at a comic convention and stayed in touch. About a year later, Shaky gave me a folder of ideas – sketches and ideas for characters. Terrific ideas that set me off on all kinds of weird narrative paths. I actually do have those original notes here, so I can quote you some quotes:
Over the next few months I sent Shaky plot outlines and we went back and forth until we had a story. Last year at San Diego Comic-Con I approached Eric Stephenson at Image and handed him the art for the first issue. It turns out Eric is an Anglophile and big Shaky Kane fan from way back. It was the easiest pitch of all time. I contacted Shaky the same day with the news that we had a six-issue series with Image. Since then we’ve been like kids in a toyshop. For the first time in my professional life I’ve fully realized that you can do anything you want in a comic book - Junkie Beatniks, Ramona the Cave Girl, Dinosaurs, Viet Vet Zombies, Psychotic Kids…everything fans of Shaky would expect…except Elvis. Damn! I just realized we don’t have Elvis!
Nrama: For a lot of Americans, this is the first time they’ve seen Shaky Kane’s work. How would you describe him and his work up to this date?
Hine: Mad, bad and dangerous to read. Shaky’s work is a mash-up of Jack Kirby, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, B-movies and the kind of adverts that promise you spectacles that see through women’s clothes and families of aquatic creatures you can grow in a glass of water. His art looks equally good in a comic book or painted ten-feet high on a wall. As a human being, Shaky is a wonderful husband and father, and I believe he grows his own tomatoes.
Nrama: I’ll ask you about tomatoes another time, Shaky; but I have to ask about this being your informal debut in the U.S. What’s it like?
Kane: For me this is my Jackson ‘This is it!’ moment. To get a book out, and such an uncompromised book, thanks to David’s shared obsessions, in the same America that I spent my whole childhood fantasizing about… I don’t think you can fully appreciate what that means to me as an artist.
Nrama: Shaky’s work is primarily known to be more abstract and not very linear in terms of story. As the writer, what did you do to get it into shape without losing Shaky’s signature style?
Hine: The story is tightly plotted but within that structure there’s almost limitless possibilities, particularly with the inserted ‘Classic comics’. These are the kinds of stories we would have done if we had been working in the 50’s and 60’s – warped horror stories, bizarre superheroes. There will be all kinds of extras too – mock-up ads, pin-ups, maybe the artwork to a series of Hateful Dead bubblegum cards. I guess I’ve imposed a narrative discipline but my scripts are looser than I would normally write. Whatever Shaky comes back with is always better than I imagined it would be. He just sent me a page from issue #4. By day, our guy Steve is a Voids Contractor – a real world occupation that involves cleaning up houses when the occupants die. An entire family has been slaughtered and there’s a scene in the kid’s bedroom where everything’s pink and fluffy and innocent, and Steve’s gathering up all these cute stuffed toys covered in blood. It’s one of the most disturbing things I’ve ever seen.