Mission to Mars

In the early 1980s, Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel joined forces for Mars, a limited series from First Comics. Ever since, they've been asked when Mars will be collected. "Year after year, at every comic convention I go to, people beg me for it," laughs Wheatley. The time has finally arrived and IDW is releasing a trade paperback and limited hardcover collection of this classic title.

So what is Mars about? "It's a ground breaking, innovative title that we didn't necessarily set out to make groundbreaking or innovative," explains Wheatley. "It was the result of a combination of Marc's and my styles and interests which are rather wide and diverse. We were able to create a series that was both serious, heavily researched science fiction, but had a Dr. Seuss/Popeye/Krazy Kat visual context. Mars was bit ahead of its time in the sense that we were telling one long complete story. So it is a graphic novel, not just a pile of comic issues slapped together. Because this was intended to be a single story with a beginning, a middle, and an end, I think it's more satisfying now as a graphic novel than it was as the original series.

"Mars is the story of an insidious evil that is infesting the red planet. A young, beautiful, brilliant paraplegic girl by the name of Morgana Trace is all that stands between the last surviving humans and this evil."

But Mars was not the first time Hempel and Wheatley worked together. "Marc and I started working together in 1974, about 10 years before Mars came out," says Wheatley. "Marc and I started working together on my comic book fanzine, Nucleus, which was published when I was in high school and college. While we didn't actually collaborate on the Nucleus work, we talked a lot. Later, I represented him in New York selling his work at the same time I was selling mine. In 1980 Marc moved to Baltimore and we officially formed Insight Studios. At that time, we did advertising work together and we were both working for Heavy Metal and Epic, again individually. What we collaborated on immediately prior to Mars, is the comic style Be an Interplanetary Spy paperback book series from Bantam Books that was produced by Byron Preiss' company. We did five books in nine months with 120 pages of illustrations in each one. It was shortly after that we both had our first nervous breakdowns. You may think I'm joking!

"That got us used to working together under incredible deadline pressure, turning out work that was consistent in visual style. Mars was essentially the same working situation."

So how did Mars come about? "Just a lot of concepts regarding mind/body connections and consciousness that Mark Wheatley and I were discussing back in the early 80s," replies Hempel. "Mark crystallized those ideas into what became Mars. It was a project that he wanted to do on his own. I was brought in later in the development. I guess because I needed the work, which is as good a reason as any. That's how it started. I contributed characters and ideas and designs and became a full-fledged co-creator."

"Mars came about because of my love for science fiction, more precisely my love for pulp science fiction," explains Wheatley. "I was frustrated that we had reached a point in science and exploration of the solar system where we understood that there was no way all the worlds were going to be full of green, purple, and chartreuse men and women with civilizations on every moon and piece of rock along with an atmosphere. All that was a mainstay of the old pulp stories. Still, I loved the wild imaginations that invented those civilizations. While I was researching what the potential of Mars was I could see that we have the technology to terraform that planet and turn it into something far more habitable. So like Ray Bradbury said, the Martians could end up being us. With that in mind, I set out to create a modern hard science fiction series - not that it's difficult, but it's hard science fiction - that would give us the freedom of finding a sense of wonder once again in the solar system."

Once he was brought on board, Hempel says he refined some of the character designs that Mark had done. "The character Ray Madera I actually designed from scratch. Throughout the series there were other things like secondary characters that I would design completely depending on the needs of the story. Aldo the worm man was mine. A couple other things; secondary characters, villains, things like that."

How did the two of them work together on the series? "Very well thank you," jokes Hempel. "It's detailed in the notes that are going to be in the book. It's fairly complex. I don't think we'd do it the same way today. Mark was the main writer and instigator on the series. It was basically him writing, me doing the breakdowns, Mark penciling, me inking, Mark coloring, me lettering. Here and there there'd be trade offs throughout the series, but that was the basic way we did things."

"These days, we've found a very comfortable way of working together which is I essentially create something and write it and maybe even doodle out a couple character designs and then hand it over to Marc and let him do what he does best," continues Wheatley.

"We don't get inside each others heads as much as we used to, but we know each other so well that I anticipate Marc's strengths when I write. I think he's one of the most brilliant people who's ever done comics and if he had been around at the time of Harvey Kurtzman, I think you would have seen him reshaping the field the same way, but these days, the industry has not been so moldable. I think comics is a language unique unto itself and I think Marc is one of those few people who were born speaking that language. He can tell a story better than anybody I know visually, his ability to choose the exact right image to communicate a concept really opened it up for us. When we were doing Mars, Blood of the Innocent or Breathtaker we could deal with subject matter that a lot of comics normally don't because Marc comes up with ideas to say visually what others usually need a huge caption block to explain. I think that's vital for a visual medium."

Mars has gained a strong following over the years. To what does it owes its appeal? "I don't know," says Hempel. "It's hard to say since I've never experienced it the way readers would. But there is a lot of appeal in the conflict of it, the concepts, and especially the characters; the way the characters interact and deal with things. Who knows? It's the magic of comics."

Wheatley comes at it from a different point of view. "Larry Marder actually said it best. He said it was the only alternative comic being published at the time," he laughs. "Just because it was a complete left turn from everything else that was being published I think it attracted attention. The mere fact that it is unique. Once we stopped doing Mars, there was not much left in the market to fill the void. There was nothing else like it. The best bets at the time would have to be books like Scott McCloud's Zot! , and DC's answer to this left turn in comics was Thriller. I'm trying to think if there was anything else that had that kind of left turn quality to it."

What about the odd 1970s Marvel books like Howard the Duck and Jim Starlin's early Warlock stories?

"That was an earlier iteration of what we ended up picking up on," he replies. "Those are things that did influence me as well. Those are definitely precursors to what we ended up doing on Mars."

But this new book is more than just a collection of the series. There are over 30 pages of additional material and plenty of new pages as well. "Probably the best way to describe the pages is that they are 'unseen'," says Wheatley. "There was a comic story in the proposal that we put together to sell Mars that was 5 pages. These pages have never been published because we eventually did the first issue it in a different way. We changed point of view. In the original version, the media reporter, Ray Madera is doing a documentary on the Mars team in the context of the story. The proposed first issue would have been all his overview. We felt that distanced the characters too far from the reader. Those pages were tossed even though they were completed, even colored in many cases. So those pages will be seen for the first time.

"When we started actually doing the series, I think I got a kind of stage fright. About 8 pages into the story I had a change of heart and decided I had made another wrong turn. So there are two false starts that will be included. There's also a number of elaborate character sheets like you would do for an animated film for all of the characters. There are covers that we did for other magazines, featuring the characters. There are a couple swimsuit issue things from the old Amazing Heroes that we'll be including in color for the first time. Preliminary work, sketches, designs, a lot of finished work that was never seen. Marc and I are pack rats. Unlike a lot of folks from that period who didn't see the value in their own work, we worked very hard to own our work and we've done that through our entire careers, and because we know the value of our work, we've kept originals where possible. Where people have bought the originals from us over the years we've kept reproducible quality line art. We have a warehouse bulging with this stuff. The only things that I haven't been able to find, which is very frustrating, are the wonderful letters I got from Andre Norton and Will Eisner telling us what they liked about the series back then. Honestly, even though we have over 30 pages for the additional material, I'm having a very hard time finding room for it all."

The question that hasn't been asked yet is why, after all this time, is now the right time to release the collection. "We had a publisher who was interested?" suggests Hempel. "Now's the time. All the planets are aligned and Mars is cool again."

Wheatley agrees, but adds some thoughts. "Beginning about 5 or 6 years ago a number of extremely talented people would come up to me at comic conventions. Typically they were just starting to get their work into publishing, into comics and books and movies and all sorts of fields of creative endeavor. They would start gushing about how our work on Mars and Be an Interplanetary Spy, a lot of stuff we were doing around that time, had inspired them to go into their fields and do the work that they were doing. While we had gotten that to some minor extent through the years, the wave hit when these guys were getting out of high school and college. So we were reaching people in their younger years and apparently influenced them. And I can understand that. I was influenced the same way. Mars is a result of my infatuation with the works of Heinlein, Andre Norton, and all the comic artists I loved at the time I was growing up like Nick Cardy and Frank Thorne and very much Steve Ditko. What's happening now is the public has caught up with the leading edge of the creative folk and they're once again reliving those wonderful stories of yesteryear. Boy I sound creaky when I say that! I think it's part of the same thing that brought back G. I. Joe and Thundercats and Conan and all of these things that are cycling around again. A certain hint of nostalgia.

"And like Conan, Mars is a timeless story. We were writing about something that takes place 10,000 years in our future and it hasn't dated at all. Now we are painting all of the pages as opposed to using the rather frustrating flat color in the old newsprint comics. Not that we got horrible treatment at First, but they just were not doing what we were seeing in our minds. Part of that is my own limitation. I was coming from painting stories in color in Heavy Metal and Epic and it was a very hard transition to limit my palette to the available flat colors. We're finally making it look like it should have been in Heavy Metal or Epic, which was what we were aiming for. It was often said that Mars was the most European looking comic book being published at the time. If it had truly been a European comic book, it would have been in painted color."

If this whets your appetite for more from Hempel and Wheatley, where else can you look? Even though there aren't any projects planned as a team, you can find work by the both of them. More of Hempel's work can be seen "as a regular artist on Mad Magazine replacing, at least in part, the great Dave Berg."

As for Wheatley, "I have the new Hammer of the Gods graphic novel which will be coming out this summer as well. That'll be out from Image. Mike Oeming and I have put a lot of extra work into that too. There'll be a lot of cool stuff in there. That's called Hammer of the Gods: Back From the Dead. It ties in to the new statue featuring Modi that is being issued by Dynamic Forces. It's a beautiful statue that is like looking at a three-dimensional come to life version of a Mike Oeming drawing. Also, we've got the Frankenstein Mobster statue which has just shipped from Reel Art. It turned out exceptionally cool as well. And people should check out the SunnyFundays.com to see whatever it is we're working on just at the moment at Insight Studios because we're able to pop stuff up there at a moments notice."

"I did Mars because I wasn't reading any science fiction in comic books," Wheatley states. "Yet comics is such a visual medium, it seems like the perfect place for it. In the time since we did Mars, there's been a lot of science fiction in comics. But at the time, all we had was something that was more like philosophic space opera. We could point to Warlock and some of the things that Jim Starlin was doing, but not too many comics were exploring science in science fiction. That's what we did with Mars and that's what I think we did a pretty good job of because a base of our readers were precocious young people and nuclear physicists, doctors, and even rocket scientists. What can I say? We appeal to techno geeks. Which is cool. Because unlike 20 years ago, today techno geeks rule!"

"Mars was a cool project to work on," concludes Hempel. "It's exciting to get back into the material again and see it take shape as a book. It was a lot of fun doing the first new Mars piece in over 20 years, which is the new cover. Like everybody else, I can't wait!"

If you still need a reason to buy the Mars collection, how about this? Every copy sold through Westfield this month will include a print signed by both Hempel and Wheatley.