Dynamite released the first issue of their new Bettie Page comic on Wednesday of last week and now they’ve sent us a writer’s commentary for it by David Avallone. The book features a cover by Terry Dodson, interiors by Colton Worley.
As always, this one started with Joe Rybandt asking a question and making a suggestion. The question was “could you do a Bettie Page comic?” and the suggestion was “fun and adventurous.” The immediate answer was “yes” and the tone seemed right, in line with her smart, sexy, sassy girl-next-door persona. I was already pretty familiar with Bettie’s life, but I went over the timeline again, and decided on 1951 as a good year to fit in a fictional “secret diary”. I watched the documentary Bettie Page Reveals All – or rather, I listened to it – to hear Bettie’s voice again and length so as to replicate it as best as I could. I thought of all the things I loved about the late forties/early fifties in culture and history. Since Bettie was not a trained spy or detective, I also thought about all my favorite “average person thrown into a pulp thriller narrative” movies, in particular North by Northwest and Charade. Out of all those elements, the story began to take shape.
A word about the covers: I’ve never yet done a comic with so many amazing variant covers. There isn’t space for me to wax rhapsodic about every single one, but there are two I have to single out. Scott Chantler’s was the only cover sent to me for notes and thoughts, and I had just a couple of tiny ones – the basic premise is Scott’s – but he worked in my small suggestions beautifully. My favorite is the strange visitor peeking out from all the way down the street. The other cover I have to talk about is the Buy Me Toys “dealer incentive” cover by Greg Hildebrandt. I’ve had a lot of amazing artists illustrate my work… but most of them have either been contemporaries or quite a bit younger. I had art by Greg (and his brother Tim) hanging on my walls when I was thirteen years old. It’s an honor.
Inside the front cover: an introduction by the mysterious Colonel McKnight, retired. Interested parties might be able to figure out who he is, but I won’t ever tell. McKnight would find out, and it would go badly for me. Let’s just say that back in the day America slept soundly only because McKnight was on the job, watching the skies. But I’ve said too much.
Pages One and Two.
Let’s start with a round of applause for Colton Worley. Right off the bat, his mastery of the period, of the mood, his inventive panel design… truly eye-popping stuff. The moody color palate suggests hard-boiled paperback mysteries, and letterer Taylor Esposito came up with a great treatment for the “diary” pages we’re reading.
Scalawag Magazine is emblematic of a very common thing on newsstands in the fifties. My father’s early books were often serialized in them. Before Playboy came along and demonstrated you could have pretty undressed women and good writing and class, there were dozens of these things, with names like Male and Stag. Bettie appeared in them quite often, and her reputation as a gorgeous model grew from there.
Pages Three and Four:
The Feds raid, inspiring more inventive panel design from Colton. The Fed who corners her in the hall reminds me of the late Dennis Farina a tiny bit. He calls her a “mouse”, a bit of slang I picked up reading John O’Hara’s great novel Pal Joey, later adapted to a musical. This Fed reads John O’Hara, too. He doesn’t look like a big fan of musicals, but you can never tell.
Meet Rick Chaplain. He’s based on two fascinating real-life American men. Richard Arbib was a dashing, handsome industrial designer. He created futuristic watches and cars and lighters. He dated Bettie Page for a little while. John Whiteside Parsons never dated Bettie Page, but he was a dashing, handsome rocket scientist and founder of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I used some of his bio for story ideas later in the series, so telling you any more about him would spoil some of the surprises to come. Of course… if you already know his life story, and you might, there’s plenty of ways what comes next will differ.
Pages Six and Seven:
I’ve always liked the Henry Hudson Parkway. Maybe it’s the view of the River, maybe it’s the rushing chaos of the cars… but Colton Worley captures it perfectly. I don’t even know if he’s ever driven it. I should ask him…
Another stellar page for period detail and feel. The Lockheed Constellation, the Pasadena Craftsman home, the taxi cab… all perfect. A whole different world from Manhattan.
Reading through this, I can’t help noticing how many of these pages must have been a pain-in-the-ass to draw. Sorry Colton. All the guests at this party are friends (or ex-friends) of mine. If you were in possession of my secret diary you’d know who the good guys and bad guys are in this crowd… but I won’t make it easy for you. I would like to point out one pair of these characters in particular, however: Sharon and Steven Skiff. I happen to know a Sharon and Steven who live in Pasadena and she’s a burlesque queen and he’s a rocket scientist who works at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. I couldn’t resist putting them in this story. Their last name, “Skiff”, is inspired by Professor Peter Skiff, my college physics/epistemology teacher, and an incredibly influential person in my life.
I love the detail of Rick’s untucked shirt. Back in the day, this meant you were either a slob (he’s not) or drunk (he is.) Let that be a lesson to you, boys. Don’t untuck your shirt like some kind of slob or drunk.
The back of the magazine is advertising “Sky Science.” That’s going to come back. With a vengeance.
What would no woman leave behind, no matter how big a hurry she was in? I can’t remember what my first-draft answer was, but it wasn’t good. So I asked my wife (as it happens, a Bettie-Page-bangs-wearing burlesque queen by the name of Penny Starr, Jr.) what the clue should be. I think she came up with Chanel No. 5 in less than ten seconds.
The ol’ Benway Wave Modulator. In William S. Burroughs Naked Lunch (written in the early fifties) the arch-fiend who embodies all the darkness in the American soul is named Doctor Benway. Not coincidentally, at one point in his life Burroughs was briefly involved in something very much like the Sky Science cult. I’m sure it’s a coincidence.
The “Wave Modulator” appeared in my last comic book series, and hints at who really designed it. Benway, that patent thief, just ripped it off from a certain file cabinet on the 86th floor of the tallest skyscraper in the world.
The chloroform joke at the bottom of the page is not mine, but I think I did something worthwhile and a little different with it.
“Nothing is true! Everything is permitted!” Mr. Obert is quoting the terrorist-philosopher Hasan I Sabah, who is also quoted in Naked Lunch. The Law of the Thelema Cult – as above, connected to JPL through its founder – was “do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.” Go Google that phrase, and then come back to the comic and take another look at Bettie’s necklace. Sorry. Didn’t mean to blow your mind.
Pages Eighteen, Nineteen and Twenty.
Bettie gets tired of waiting around for Rick to get her note, and takes action. She’s outnumbered but gives it a good try, and P.A.S.T. security and the boss show up just in time.
Next, our tour of 1951 Los Angeles touches upon two cultures near and dear to my heart: low budget film-making and cold war paranoia! Prepare for the Invasion of the Space Commies!
For more on Bettie Page #1, click here.