Monday, 11 June 2012

Don't Fear The Reaper: Jail Bird

I was eighteen years old when the first X-Men movie was released. Love it or hate it, it was the first major super hero movie outside of the Superman and Batman franchises and the first super hero movie that could really take advantage of CG special effects in all of their glory, so when Wolverine popped his claws for the first time on the big screen I had a genuine geek-gasm. I honestly couldn't believe what I was seeing. Now CG is so evolved that nothing surprises me any more and I feel a bit jaded, but at eighteen years old it was the greatest thing I had ever seen.
By the third time that I went to see the movie, I had to go on my own. My Girlfriend had recently dumped me (the day after my eighteenth birthday - harsh) and my friends weren't nerdish enough to want to see it more than once. Never the less, I once again made my way to the Odeon to watch Wolverine pop those claws once more as I gushed like a twelve year old girl at a Justin Bieber concert.

After the credits rolled I made my way to Frankie and Benny's for a drink. It was a regular haunt for myself and my aforementioned ex-girlfriend and it was also the only place in town that served Hennessy cognac, and as I fancied myself as a bit of a hip-hop suburban gangsta at the time, that was my tipple of choice. I made my way to the bar, pulled up a stool and the barman came over and asked me what I wanted to drink. I remembered this particular barman previously serving me as a waiter and being a particularly funny guy, so I ordered my drink, he poured it and we got chatting. All it took was for me to tell him that I had just been to see X-Men for us to bond as geek brothers. He introduced himself to me as 'Hal' and from behind the bar he produced a sketch pad and flipped to a page with a drawing of Wolverine atop the statue of liberty from the climax of the film that he had drawn and proudly showed it to me. I was impressed. It was a little rough and by no means perfect, but I couldn't, and still can't draw for shit and as far as random coincidences go, this was pretty cool. Hal told me that he was an artist and that he would one day like to work in comics. I had just started dreaming about owning a comic shop, so we had plenty to talk about. So the brandy and the conversation continued to flow as we continued to have a good laugh.

Fast forward eight years and two more X-Men films and I had just started my business. I was working from home at the time, selling comics over the internet by mail order and travelling around the country to all of the major shows and conventions. Frankie and Benny's was no longer a regular eatery of mine and as such, I had lost touch with Hal quite a few years previous.
A show was coming up in Birmingham called BICS and we had booked several tables to attend as dealers. The show was more of a traditional comic book convention than one of the pop culture autograph events that had become increasingly popular the previous few years. Big names from Marvel and DC would converge upon the same building as smaller upstart creators in a melting pot of talent. This was my first exposure to a proper comic book show and I fell head over heels in love with it. The show was doubly great with the fact that we made an absolute killing that weekend too.
Myself and Don used to take turns to wander the halls looking for bargains and enjoing the show as best you can when you have the responsibility of a stall. It was during my wander that I stumbled across Hal, who had also booked a table at the show in the small press area. In the years that we had lost touch, Hal had been vigilantly working on creating his own comics and publishing company which he had dubbed 'REAPER COMICS'. He had written and produced the art for a six issue mini-series called 'B.Ex', and two one shots called 'The Elementals' and 'Diba & Rock' and paid to have them professionally printed to Marvel and DC standards. His table was equally as professionally laid out and presented and he was really making an effort to push the Reaper brand. I had told Hal of my blossoming comic shop and how I had spent the last few years building it and our mutual respect for one another went into overdrive. We had taken different paths in our respective journeys from alomost the same starting point and our lives had converged in this spot in Birmingham. We both had doubters, detractors and nay-sayers and we had both proved them wrong. We were kindred spirits, fighting for what we wanted out of life, not content to just roll over and not take what we wanted.

Since then, Hal has continued to work on creating original comics and graphic novels in his own unique style. He continued his B.Ex series with a sequel entitled 'Remnants of Life', written by my good friend Mark Walker and this year put out an ogn called 'TROJAN', written by Baden James Mellonie. He also attends as many conventions and shows as he is able, usually with his brother Rauf in tow, pushing the Reaper brand as best he can. Whether his work is your cup of tea or not, his enthusiasm and desire to succeed is something that warrants merit and is something that I respect to no end.
I had always wanted to write comics myself, but my work in the shop was all consuming, but from time to time I would find myself talking to Hal in the shop about story ideas and plot points, knowing that one day we would collaborate on a project.

And then the shop closed...

Hal was one of those few friends that stayed in touch after the shop shut and I don't just mean with the occasional Facebook message or text, but would pop in for a cup of coffee and a chin wag after finishing work. I had no more shop and nothing to offer him to help push Reaper anymore, but that wasn't important to Hal, that wasn't the motivation behind our relationship. I've lost touch with several people since the shop closed, people who I thought were friends but then skedaddle as soon as there wasn't a cool place for them to hang out. But Hal, a genuinely decent human being, remained my friend because he wanted to, not for any ulterior motive.
I began writing scripts almost immediately. In a strange round abouts way, this was a good opportunity to put some effort into becoming a storyteller and I didn't want to waste that time by procrastinating. Hal saw something in me and the work that I was doing and we started to discuss working together on a project. He had an idea for a comic that he wanted to illustrate called 'Chat Noir', which is French for Black Cat. The basic idea was for a woman, who is a professional thief, to be roped into a dangerous game show running through Paris with hunters trying to kill her. I hated it. I hated everything about it. The name was derivative of Black Cat of Spider-Man comics, who in turn was derivative of Catwoman from Batman lore. The idea just screamed Running Man. I began to despair. I wanted to work with Hal, but not on this book, or at least, not in this way. I also didn't want to hurt Hal's feelings by dissing his idea, but I knew if I wrote this the way he wanted it, as the writer it would be me that would be slated for the work. We had a frank and honest conversation and decided to take the book in a different direction. The challenge was to keep the main character a professional thief, but not a Catwoman style cat burglar and to keep the dramatic chase scenario of a woman on the run, but not in the Running Man game show style. Finally, we decided to change the name of the book to 'JAIL BIRD'.

With a new plot outline in mind, I went away and wrote the first scene. A twelve page character piece that introduced the two main players in the story in a dialogue heavy jailbreak scene. Hal was delighted with it. I was delighted with his delight! Everyone was happy and I am now knee deep in the story. I am currently working on issue #4 as we speak.
Whatever happens with this book, however it is received, however successful it is or isn't, I am just extremely grateful to be able to work with someone who I have such a deep respect for, both professionally and personally and who has respect for me too.

Please keep a look out for Reaper Comics, Hal Laren and the upcoming comic - JAIL BIRD!



  1. I'm really excited to see the story too Mario sweetie, but please promise me AGAIN that she won't have a distractingly big cleavage! Loves ya!

  2. Sounds a cool vague plot. Look forward to seeing it published