Monday, May 11, 2009

History of ROJ - Part 1

PREFACE : In the weeks leading up to the launch of the original "Return of Jetman" website in 2002, I teased the project with a thread entitled "History of ROJ" on the now-defunct OWARI Message Board. This thread outlined the evolution of "Return of Jetman" from its humble beginnings in 1995 up to the then-impending debut of the new site. This "Making of" feature was something that I enjoyed creating, and I feel like it generated excitement for ROJ. This week, I will be serializing an adaptation of that material, with numerous additions, adjustments, and what have you. Special thanks to series creator Lewis Smith and number 1 fan Amy Elam for sharing their insights into the days when ROJ only existed as a special secret among us.

Part 1 - The Coming of "Jetman 2"

"Dear Mr. Elam. I saw your classified ad in SENTAI #5." With those words, I began my association with Lewis Smith back in 1995.

First, a bit of background. After a few false starts, I had finally made my way into Japanese sci-fi fandom in 1994. I began receiving fanzines devoted to the subject and even wrote for a few of them. I was motivated to see new things and learn about all the fascinating movies and TV shows that were out there. In the latter part of that year, I decided to place classified ads seeking penpals and/or video traders in two of those fanzines - G-FAN and SENTAI.

This proved to be an incredibly smart move on my part. Those two ads brought me into contact with a lot of people and opened a lot of doors for me. Probably the most important certainly didn't seem all that momentous at the time.

Lewis Smith's first letter to me arrived from Chowan College (which?) in North Carolina probably sometime in January or February of 1995. I wish NOW I had saved the envelope, but oh well. It was printed from a computer (dot matrix!) and probably the most noteworthy thing he mentions in it is the KAMEN RIDER ZO video game that was released over here. There's nothing within that first letter to give any indication of things to come.

I wrote back to him, of course, and enclosed my video list. I was heavily into video trading at that point in time. Lewis didn't really have anything I needed, but I ended up making a deal with him and taped some stuff after he sent me some blank tapes. It seemed to work out fairly well and those early letters are filled with discussions on all sorts of Godzilla and sentai matters. We later worked out a system where he traded me computer printouts (I was a long way away from computer access) for tapes. We were already talking on the phone too, and we had hit it off pretty well.

Everything was going great, but there was still nothing too out of the ordinary. Our letters were getting longer though, and the discussions were getting more involved. Then, in a letter dated July 1, 1995, Lewis mentions my "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers vs. Godzilla" fan story which saw print in G-FAN #15 (May/June 1995). (NOTE : This story is kind of cute, but failed to be as humorous as I'd intended. I still kind of like it though). Lewis said, "I thought it was really cool, and I might try writing something like that soon. After all, what I'm writing now isn't that much different." He later discusses JETMAN and mentions a couple of times that it is one of his favorite sentai shows.

The handwriting was on the wall. By his next letter, Lewis had something to show me. That letter arrived in mid-July 1995 and starts out much like his previous ones. However, he quickly lets me know he's included a couple of things that would change everything (though neither of us knew it at the time). One was the story "Mysterious Shadow : Guyver 3", a short fan-fiction sequel to the two live-action GUYVER films. The other? Well, this is how he described it then:

". . .a top secret early sketch for a possible H-fan feature. . .Jetman 2!"
(For those of you unaware, "H-fan" refers to a working title for the Japanese sci-fi magazine that would be ULTRA-FAN, later KAIJU-FAN.)

Well, I was duly impressed and let Lewis know in no uncertain terms. In fact, I did more than just that - I asked him to contribute to a fanzine I was planning. I even offered him the guarantee of publishing JETMAN 2 instead of the uncertainty of a blind submission.

I had entertained the notion of publishing a fanzine at least as far back as 1994, but the idea had never amounted to anything. That was mostly because of the work it would have taken to do the whole thing on my own. Now, armed with Lewis' stories, art, reviews, etc. - done strictly for his own amusement, mind you - I knew I could put together a fanzine if he agreed to let me use his work. I was an incredibly prolific writer in those days and combining my work with Lewis' work would give me plenty to publish in the fanzine I would end up naming OWARI.

In a letter dated July 26, 1995, Lewis enthusiastically agreed to my proposal and outlined his plan for the as-yet-unwritten "main story" (i.e., first chapter) of JETMAN 2. He explained in rough detail the new team (such as the fact that they had capes like the heroes in GATCHAMAN, a big influence on us and the makers of the original JETMAN), their adversaries (who were in a constant state of flux), the story (the idea was for it to run 10 parts or so), and his "Jet Phoenix" character (who threatened to steal the show all by his lonesome). When the next envelope arrived, it contained the first draft of THE RETURN OF JETMAN.

Heh, that's another thing. Lewis HATED the name JETMAN 2 almost from the start and was determined to change it. He usually called the characters "Neo-Jetman" in the early going, blissfully unaware then that the series had a team by that name, too. My memory tells me that I was the one who coined the "Return of Jetman" title, but I have no written record of this. One title I DID suggest (because Lewis mentions it) is "Zoku Jetman", which roughly translates as "Jetman Continues." As you may have guessed, it was an unwieldy title that faded away almost immediately. My best guess at this late date is that the ROJ moniker was born in a telephone conversation. It's probably a play on the "Return of Ultraman" English title for KAITEKKA ULTRAMAN (for, like that series, the story focused on new characters rather than an actual return of the original).

Names aside, I really loved the first draft, and was suitably flattered when Lewis insisted on naming me co-author. After all, he was the one doing the really hard work. I took the first draft and decided to do something to earn that title. I did a little reworking on the prologue and added a couple of new scenes. I also wrote copious notes on the story as a whole (they're dated August 10, 1995). This was my first stab at writing ROJ, but it wouldn't be my last. Lewis took what I did to heart and in fact adapted some of it when he turned in the second draft of the story.

The story itself is actually pretty much the same story as the first episode of the current ROJ series. It's somewhat more primitive, of course, and a lot less detailed. More characterization would be added as time went on, and there would be more elements to flesh out the fictional world of ROJ. But the basics of what captured our imagination are all there.

The letters Lewis and I exhanged at that point were running several pages each. We were rambling about much of what we had before, but we were also bouncing all sorts of ideas for ROJ back and forth. It's fascinating to me to see the evolution of concepts which now seem so fundamental to the story. We had to work to get such things as Jetman's base and mecha the way we wanted them. And we were constantly hashing out the development of the plot and the characters.

As it turned out, the single most important element of the story to develop from that give-and-take of ideas was a particular character who would ultimately steer the course of the entire series, not to mention changing our outlook on it in the process. Ironically, I initially thought her introduction into ROJ would be a serious mistake. To paraphrase Lewis from an early ROJ story, I couldn't have been more wrong.




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