Tales from ‘The Beard’: TFP Star columnist Jim Beard moves from comics to pulp fictionWritten by Brian Bohnert | | firstname.lastname@example.org
Jim Beard has given voice to some of pop culture’s most heroic creations.
He’s put words into the mouth of the Man of Steel. He’s given dialogue to the galaxy’s most skilled Jedi Master. And he’s even given the Ghostbusters the words to stand up for their country in a patriotic battle against the supernatural.
But the talented local writer has changed his focus from The Justice League of America to The White House in a new story pitting one of America’s most controversial leaders against a force more evil than any re-election scandal.
“The Thing Under the House: A Tale of Dick Nixon and the Swingers of the Unknown” is one of five stories in “Presidential Pulp,” a pulp novel released June 21.
The book reinvents the lives of presidents James K. Polk, Ulysses S. Grant, Richard Nixon and Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt, thrusting them into various action-adventure tales set in their respective time periods.
In Beard’s story, President Nixon teams with a group of four trained operatives to stop what he calls “supernatural menaces.” Taking place at the height of Nixon’s presidency, Beard said it was important to include elements of truth with the fiction and satire of the story.
“It was the idea of taking real-life presidents and turning them into action heroes,” Beard said. “Nixon is an iconic figure of the 1970s. My childhood, in one way or another, was dominated by Richard Nixon. I remember watching him on TV and my dad would call him ‘Tricky Dick.’ He was just an iconic figure, so I didn’t have any second thoughts about who I would choose.”
All four of the story’s supporting characters are, like President Nixon, iconic pop-culture figures of that time period, each with a code name reflective of their real identity: Lizard, Voodoo, Pearl and King.
The 2012 volume of “Presidential Pulp” is the first in what is planned to be a yearly tradition from Pulp Empire, with each subsequent installment to be released around Presidents Day. For future volumes of “Presidential Pulp,” Beard plans to extend his Nixon story into a true pulp trilogy.
From panels to paperbacks
Before the gritty, fast-paced world of pulp fiction seeped its way into his brain, Beard discovered his love for the colored panels and action bubbles of comic books at a young age, thanks mostly to his father, an avid comic collector.
“There were always comic books lying around the house,” he said. “My dad was really into comics and we still had some back from his day lying around. And he would also buy comics for my older siblings, so I always had some lying around that I could pick up and read.”
Celebrating his 40th year as a comic book collector, Beard remembers the first comic book he ever called his own, DC’s Super-Spectacular #14, a 100-page Batman reprint his father purchased for him in 1972.
This comic would lead to the Dark Knight becoming his favorite fictional character of all time.
“It was all reprints. DC used to have these 100-page Super Spectaculars and you usually got one new story and the rest of the book was reprints,” he said. “They give you reprints that stretch through the character’s entire history, so you might have gotten something from the late ’30s, early ’40s and the ’50s and the ’60s, and then a brand new story in the ’70s. And, because of that, I got an appreciation for the history of comics.”
Beard’s appreciation for comic books eventually led to him pursuing a career in the industry. In 2002, he sold his first story to DC Comics. Since then, he has written for DC, Dark Horse Comics and IDW Publishing for some of the most iconic heroes in the world, including Luke Skywalker and Superman. His projects include: “Ghostbusters: Con-Volution!,” “Star Wars Tales,” “JLA/JSA Secret Files” and “Hawkman Secret Files.”
The Marvel method
A few years ago, Beard took his love of comic book writing to a new level, becoming a writer for the Marvel Comics website, contributing weekly articles focusing on the company’s history, as well as what’s new with the brand. Aside from interviewing Marvel hotshots like creator Stan Lee on a weekly basis, he said he is currently providing regular content on a certain wall-crawler’s anniversary.
“I’ve been writing more and more historical articles. This year is the 50th anniversary of Spider-Man, so we’ve been focusing on the character’s history,” he said. “Just next year, Iron Man will be celebrating its 50th anniversary, so I’ll be talking about the character’s history in order, year-by-year for each week, for 50 weeks.”
Beard is also a pop culture and comic book writer for Toledo Free Press Star, as well as his own comic-themed blog, “The Beard.”
“It’s kind of funny. What was originally a hobby has turned into sort of a career for me,” he said. “I feel like I’ve really kind of found my calling. I’ve really found that writing fulfills something in me. It’s something about taking the words in the English language and using them as building blocks, laying them out in different ways and then stepping back and seeing what you’ve created. There’s just something about the way you can line up words and create something more.”
It was through this revelation that Beard discovered his love for pulp fiction, a plot-driven form of fiction that rose to popularity in the early to mid-1900s with American crime and detective stories like “The Shadow,” “Doc Savage” and “Flash Gordon.”
“[Pulp fiction] is a style more than anything. It’s a style of writing that can be adapted to almost any subject matter,” Beard said. “Pulp style is a stripped down, sometimes no-nonsense approach to storytelling that really accentuates the story. It’s like a machine gun burst of storytelling. … Characters don’t generally stop and pause and contemplate the meaning of life. They’re too busy being shot at or shooting at somebody. I think I’ve found some affinity for that and I feel I’ve stumbled into something I can do well.”
To the Batcave, Becky!
From 1966-68, ABC brought one of DC Comics’ most popular characters to the small screen, creating an instant cult classic out of Gotham City’s sworn protector.
With legendary talent like Adam West, Cesar Romero, Julie Newmar and Burgess Meredith, the “Batman” television series followed The Caped Crusader and his boy wonder, Robin, on weekly, half-hour-long journeys as they fought against dastardly supervillains like Catwoman, The Penguin and “The Clown Prince of Crime” himself, The Joker.
Just shy of three seasons on the air, the show was canceled. Since its departure, the series has often been on the receiving end of poor reviews due to its “campy” representation of The Dark Knight.
To Beard, though, the show was a misunderstood gem that represented Batman as the character he was originally intended to be.
In an effort to further explore the series and the culture surrounding his favorite comic book character, Beard teamed with various Batman experts around the country to put together a collection of essays dedicated to the classic series. In 2010, Beard released the book “Gotham City 14 Miles” through Sequart Research & Literacy Organization.
“To me, it’s a big misconception, My whole inspiration was to get people to start talking about it again and to stop thinking it’s a joke,” he said.
“People can’t say it’s not Batman and Robin because it’s all there. They have the mask, the ears, the cape, the utility belt — everything. Those are the things that make Batman Batman. As long as he’s still the billionaire playboy Bruce Wayne who fights crime, it’s the same thing. That’s kind of what I wanted to show people.”
Beard’s wife, Becky, also wrote an essay for the book. Her chapter, titled “Aunt Harriet’s Film Decency League,” discussed the numerous guest cast members who appeared on the show throughout its three-year run.
“It was a great deal of fun for me to contribute to ‘Gotham City 14 Miles,’” Becky said. “I wanted to educate readers about the caliber of these old-time performers, early stars from every field of show business. One of the best things about Batman was that it introduced these greats to a whole new generation of fans.”
Peter Sanderson, comic book historian and superhero scholar, was another participant in the project. His essay, “The 1960s Batman TV Series from Comics to Screen,” compared the series to the Batman comics that were being produced at that time.
“A number of episodes from the show’s first season were adapted from stories in the comics,” Sanderson said. “As a baby boomer, I greatly appreciate Jim’s admiration for and understanding of the great superhero comics of the 1960s, the ‘Silver Age’ of comics. Also, the 1960s Batman show has long been controversial among comic fans since it was, to a large degree, a comedy that made fun of the superhero genre. I applaud Jim for spearheading a critical re-evaluation of the show through his book, his personal appearances discussing his book and his online writing. We now have so many serious treatments of Batman, including the new film ‘The Dark Knight Rises,’ that there is room for a lighthearted treatment of Batman as an alternative.”
‘A little dream come true’
Continuing his dominance of all things comic books, Beard joins fellow Toledo Free Press staffers Jeff McGinnis, James A. Molnar and Editor In Chief Michael S. Miller on a weekly arts radio program called “Eye on your Weekend.” The show, which airs every Friday at 6 p.m. on 1370 WSPD, features a pop culture round-table discussing local and national entertainment news, from movies and music to comic books and upcoming concerts.
The show premiered Sept. 7 and Beard said the weekly gathering stemmed from a mutual desire to “continue the fun” from their occasional appearances on Miller’s own radio show.
“When Michael had us on his show, we had a great time and, at the end, we all said, ‘Man, we wish we could do this regularly,’” Beard said. “Then you could see the wheels start to turn in Michael’s mind and he said, ‘Let me see what I can do.’ Within a couple of weeks, he said, ‘We’re going to do this.’”
While the show offers various windows into the pop culture universe, Beard said he gets his own special segment to discuss his first love.
“I get to regularly talk about comic books. How great is that? How many radio shows do that?” he said. “We’ve done three so far and I love talking to those guys and I hope it shows. I hope we can do this for a long time.”
“Presidential Pulp” was not Beard’s first brush with the paranormal. Published through Airship 27 Productions on May 16, “Sgt. Janus, Spirit Breaker” is an original pulp novel following Sgt. Roman Janus, a former military veteran-turned ghost hunter who spends his life helping those haunted by unwanted spirits.
“It’s like if Sherlock Holmes investigated ghosts,” Beard said. “I wanted to bring a little more modern feel to it. Eight stories, eight people, all clients of Sgt. Janus who are vexed by spirits, and he helps them break their connection to those spirits.”
While diving into many different points of view was an interesting experience that made Beard “feel like God,” he found a challenge in providing unique voices and personalities for eight characters.
“The points of view are a challenge,” he said. “I’m not a fan of first-person, but, as a writer, I’ve found the value in it. Three of the eight narrators are female and I had to put myself in a different mindset to write for those characters, not just in a different time period, but for a different gender.”
Since he is neither female nor an English citizen of the 1920s, dialogue for some of Sgt. Janus’ clients posed quite a challenge. To ensure his writing was as correct as it was entertaining, he turned to his wife, an avid lover of world history.
“She’s a history buff, so I can read her dialogue of a female narrator and ask, ‘Would a woman of 1920 say something like that?’ and she’ll know,” he said.
In addition to his more experimental pulp projects, Beard is featured in another anthology released through Airship 27 in August. “Black Bat Mystery Volume 2” follows the adventures of classic pulp hero Black Bat on various new quests to stop the forces of evil. Beard’s tale, which he called the “most traditional pulp story” he’s written, follows the masked protagonist on an adventure in 1930s Upstate New York in a fictional town terrorized by mysterious foreign airplanes.
“He’s a classic pulp character,” he said. “He’s a public domain character who was in the magazines in the ’30s and ’40s and Airship 27 had a lot of success publishing new stories on him in Volume 1 (of ‘Black Bat Mystery’). He was so successful people wanted more.”
Beard said there was some controversy upon the Black Bat’s arrival into publication because the character made his debut around the same time as another masked mammal of the night who also wore a black mask and cape.
“He came out at the exact same time as Batman and, at one point, those two companies had to put their heads together because they didn’t quite like each other,” Beard said. “But they agreed they weren’t infringing on each other and that they could both stay in publication.”
Not only did Black Bat come close to colliding with the Dark Knight, but he also served as inspiration for a classic Marvel Comics character.
“Black Bat is blind and his alter ego is a blind lawyer,” he said. “So, he served as inspiration for the Daredevil character because he is also a blind lawyer.”
Man of ‘Action’
Beard’s love for the adaptive style of pulp fiction has not stopped at the White House. He recently released his reimagining of another classic pop culture character, Captain Action, a short-lived 1960s toy.
In the character’s first full-length novel, “super-spy and master of disguise” Miles Drake, aka Captain Action, faces off against evil in the “Riddle of the Glowing Men.” In the story, a group of foreign assassins are sent to murder Captain Action. After they are defeated, their evil lives as a glowing green radiation given off by their lifeless bodies.
“It’s a full pulp novel set in 1960s, the same time as the toy,” Beard said. “It won’t just be something within the pulp community; we believe it is actually going to be bigger than that. It will appeal to Captain Action fans, classic toy fans, comic book fans and pulp fans, anybody who loves a really good action-adventure thriller. It’s half Doc Savage, half James Bond thriller. It was really fun to write.”
Created by Ideal Toy Company in the 1960s, Captain Action was a direct response to Hasbro’s G.I. Joe action figure, but with the unique option to transform him into many different heroes.
“Their idea was that you had Captain Action, but you bought costume sets to change him into other comic book characters. It was incredible because [Ideal] got the license from several different entities to use several different characters. Not only did they have Superman, Batman and Aquaman of DC, but also Spider-Man and Captain America of Marvel. They also had popular newspaper comic strip characters like The Phantom, Steve Canyon, Buck Rogers and Green Hornet. It was a really incredible toy but it only lasted a couple of years.”
The complete license for the Captain Action character was purchased a couple of years ago by Joe Ahearn and Ed Catto, the men who approached Beard about the novel. Since the purchase, the two have worked to produce new Captain Action products, including comic books and a reimagining of the classic action figure, complete with a well-timed assembly of other outfits.
“Just this year, they finally were able to reissue the actual action figure,” Beard said. “It’s a redesigned character, with the same basic costume. They even went out and got a Marvel license again. So, not only will they have Spider-Man and Captain America, but now they’ll have Thor, Loki, Iron Man and the Red Skull.”
The new book, published through Airship 27, made its official debut at Pulpfest 2012 in Columbus in August.
Beard signed copies of the book at the event and will also be appearing at the New York City Comic Convention on Oct. 13. As of Sept. 24, the book sits at No. 1 on the New Pulp Best Seller List, the first Airship 27 book to do so.
Coming off yet another big project, Beard looks to the future in hopes that Captain Action, Black Bat and his other works may bring the pulp style to a wider audience.
“Maybe my Captain Action novel is a way to help pulp grow. It’s an experiment,” he said. “Could it possibly bring in people not already aware of new pulp community? Maybe. I don’t know. Hopefully it’ll expand the readership. I’m very excited to be in the middle of it.”