In 1990 Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel got together and created a book like nothing anyone had seen before. Breathtaker: Love Death Sex Power was a Vertigo book before there was a Vertigo imprint. Now, more than twenty years later the duo is going back and remastering their original series and preparing to do the long awaited sequel. They have put together an Indiegogo campaign to make it happen. I got a chance to chat with Wheatley about the original series, the remastering and the upcoming sequel.
On your page you have a quote from Mark Waid saying, “…a generation later, remains on the cutting edge of storytelling.” And I agree that the plot for the series seems to fit into today’s world and culture perfectly. What can you tell us about the origin of the concept, where the idea originated and how you and Marc ended up working on it together?
Marc Hempel and I had been working together and collaborating for about a decade by the time I came up with the idea for BREATHTAKER. We originally connected through the comics fanzine I was publishing when I was in high school and college; NUCLEUS. We kept in touch and eventually he moved to Maryland and we became partners in INSIGHT STUDIOS in 1980. We had our first collaboration on the BE AN INTERPLANETARY SPY series from Bantam books. Next was MARS for First Comics. Then BLOOD OF THE INNOCENT for WARP, followed by JONNY QUEST for Comico. Marc and I have been great friends through the years, but by the time JONNY QUEST was winding down, we were pretty sick of collaborating. We were itching to strut our stuff, each on our own. I had quite a few projects going, scripting, inking and editing, with an occasional complete comic under my belt. Marc did the amazing GREGORY for Piranha Press. And then he hit a dry spell – just the usual feast and famine of freelance life. His studio was across the hall from mine at INSIGHT STUDIOS and we would hang out and talk just about every day. But it took me a while to realize that Marc had time on his hands. One of the ways he was filling his time was to produce some sexy and disturbing paintings of beautiful girls. They all had an other-worldly quality about them and would have fit nicely at HEAVY METAL. At the time I was taking two days a week away from the bustle of INSIGHT STUDIOS, to write my comics scripts. Once I knew Marc might be ready for a new project, I took my next available writing day and tried to imagine a story that would appeal to Marc and use his incredible talent to the fullest extent. I was hiking though a state park in my usual creation process when I thought of Marc’s paintings as being “breathtaking”. In an instant that became BREATHTAKER in my mind and I started spinning out a story about a beautiful succubus, a girl so alluring that anyone would be willing to die for her love.
I wrote the pitch when I got home. The next day I made the pitch to Marc. And I told him that I didn’t want this to be a collaboration, not like our previous works. I didn’t want us each editing and correcting and changing each other’s work. I would create and write the tale. Marc would draw and letter. I would paint the pages. And we would stay out of each other’s hair. This was my attempt to get around some of the dissatisfaction we had both experienced in our previous projects. Marc liked the idea and it actually turned into our most seamless collaboration. Marc made a few edits on the script. I requested that the order of two panels be reversed on one of his finished pages. And that was about the extent of us messing with each other! We were quite ready to get to the sequel. But fate took a hand.
In the video for the project you talk about remastering the pages and how some of it included repairing the art or even tracking it down. What types of problems have you encountered so far in either the repairing or the hunting aspects? What are the basic steps for remastering a page from that era?
The three main problems – the first is the same as our original problem of using bluelines to create a painted comic. Back in the day, and today, the watercolor board and the film line art overlay never REALLY match up. Depending on humidity, temperature, how the planets are aligned, the paper is always expanding and contracting at a different rate than the film. The second problem is the damage to the pages. I painted on thick watercolor board – you could build a house out of this stuff. But the laser scanners we were using back then were drum scanners. That meant the surface layer of the art board was stripped from the thick backing and wrapped around this high speed scanning drum. A handful of pages were torn in that process, even ripped in half. But all the pages suffered to some extent, if only due to the now thinner paper being more prone to changing size due to the problems of number one, listed above. So I am using digital manipulation to stitch the torn pages back together. And then I’m resizing them, panel-by-panel, to accurately fit the line art.
The third problem is finding the original color pages. Fortunately, Marc and I have kept a great deal of our work. We have always had an unsavory attachment to our originals. After investing our hearts and souls into their creation, we like having them around. So we only offered a small portion of the originals for sale. About 20% of the original color pages are “out there.” The greatest challenge is to find these. Our work sold for much better prices in Europe and the UK and South America. So most of the missing originals are not even in the US. So we are putting out the word that we are seeking the original color art for BREATHTAKER. And every once in a while, I get contacted by a collector and we work out getting raw scans of the page from their collection. If anyone reading this knows of a color BREATHTAKER original, please get in touch!
In the end – whatever pages are still missing when we have to go to press will be replaced by me with either a touched up print scan or a recreation.
The only negative comment I saw on-line about the book was from a guy who loved everything except the ending because he wanted to know what happened to Chase. Was the sequel always part of the publishing plan? Can you give us an brief idea of where the story is going next? And will that reader get his answers or do you have long range plans for Chase and The Man?
Yes, long ago, the plan was that we would follow up BREATHTAKER: LOVE, DEATH, SEX, POWER with a second BREATHTAKER. I even had the bare bones of the plot worked out. The story was set about twenty years after the first story. I was a little concerned that it would change the flavor of the story to set it in the future. I didn’t want the focus of the story to become a science fiction tale about a future world. But I thought I could get around that. The larger problem was political. The editor, Mike Gold, left DC Comics shortly after BREATHTAKER was published and his projects became orphans. Even though we had exceptional sales on BREATHTAKER and won an award, we couldn’t get any interest in a sequel. Then Vertigo started up and they collected the books under that imprint. It became a constant, ongoing good seller for them and eventually they approached us about the sequel. Instantly I was nostalgic for working with Mike Gold! Because the Vertigo editors were telling us what our next BREATHTAKER story should be. They were telling us who our characters were. They were very intrusive. Now – I’ve worked well on company owned properties in tight cooperation with editors and publishers. But Marc and I created and own BREATHTAKER. We thought the ideas we were being handed were wrong headed and it did not look like a good idea to start a project that could turn into a train wreck. We launched a long process of regaining our rights and about ten years ago they were returned.
The sequel will be all about what happens to Chase, and The Man™ and a new character, another exceptional young lady with many talents but who has the unfortunate ability to get into a lot of trouble. We will also be examining the role of the NSA in the tracking of people with exceptional abilities. This is, of course, a theme from the first book. And it has become a hot button topic these days. Really, BREATHTAKER has never been more topical.
We also want to do a story about THE MAN™. We have a stretch goal to have the chance to do a comic book style tale of our brash super hero. In the context of the book, The Man is commercialized. There is a TV show, movies, toys, video games, you name it. And there is a comic book series. We want to do one story from the comic book series. Just for fun!