Tuesday, May 12, 2009

History of ROJ - Part 2

Part 2 - Behold! Green Wyvern

Lewis' letter dated July 29, 1995 turned out to be a pivotal one. Midway through page 1, he says, "I've got a sixth member, why not push the envelope and add a seventh?" Well, my fear was that the story might become too crowded and not do justice to all the characters already floating around. Still, it was Lewis' baby, so he had final say. He outlined his plans for a character then named Kujaku. "Kujaku" is Japanese for "peacock" and also the name of a character in GOSEI SENTAI DAIRANGER. Lewis had even gone so far as to design a chariot mecha for Kujaku based on a peacock motif. But he was not satisfied with what he had done and felt it needed alteration. I inadvertently set him on a different path with my unlikeliest contribution to ROJ as a whole - art I did when I was 12 years old.

It's probably not surprising that I loved the cartoon BATTLE OF THE PLANETS as a kid in the late 1970s-early 1980s. I even had my very own BATTLE OF THE PLANETS lunchbox, which went M.I.A. years ago. BOTP was an "Americanized" version of the hit Japanese show GATCHAMAN, but I didn't know that at the time. All I knew was that I loved the style and I loved the characters. In fact, I loved them so much, I did something that was rather rare for me - I concocted my own stories about them.

Oh, I was always making up tales of superheroes in those days, don't get me wrong. But my superhero stories always involved original characters, even if they were blatant copies of established characters. BOTP was the only series where I felt the urge to extend their adventures through my own imagination. I blame my spotty exposure to the show and its comic book tie-in for leading me down that path.

How did this fanfiction lead to an influence on ROJ? I'm glad you asked. It's all due to one of the innumerable characters I made up for my BOTP adventures. His name was David the Green Condor.

David was an ordinary guy who was given powers by Zoltar (Berg Katse) and the forces of planet Spectra to be an evil counterpart to the heroes of G-Force (Gatchaman). Certainly not a bad plan, except for the fact that David was not inherently evil. A bit of a rebel, sure, but far from a villain. Plus, he developed a crush on G-Force member Princess (Jun). David ended up turning on his evil masters and the Green Condor (I thought Jason/Joe was a hawk then, rather than a condor) became a hero. Though he never officially joined G-Force, he was ready to fight by their side whenever they needed him.

Does any of this sound vaguely familiar to you? It should if you remember the early years of MIGHTY MORPHIN POWER RANGERS. I was stunned by the parallels between my BOTP "fanfiction" (it mostly existed in my head) and the Green Ranger storyline as it first played out on MMPR. I don't think it was a case of my idea being ripped off (how?); it was just a lot of odd similarities. This was only driven home when Green Ranger actor Jason Frank started using his middle name - David.

The Power Rangers were going strong when ROJ was being developed, so I told Lewis during one of our conversations about the weird Green Condor/Green Ranger story. I even confessed to having done crude sketches of David and many other of my BOTP characters. Lewis somehow convinced me to photocopy that art and send it to him. I wonder if there was drinking involved?

I suppose my work had an effect on Lewis, because "Kujaku" soon became "Green Wyvern". Her picture arrived in short order and on August 14, 1995, Lewis provided me with a few details (Brackets are additions by me) :

"Green Wyvern's bird is a Japanese RPG standard and was thought up at the spur of the moment because the only bird I could think of that was green was a peacock. It's described different ways, but the best I can describe it is as a cross between a bird and a dragon. Jet Wyvern [rechristened Dragon Wyvern for the current series] is serpentine, like Ryusei-Oh [Ryu Ranger's mecha/robot from GOSEI SENTAI DAIRANGER], and converts to humanoid form. ...By the by, what did you think of Green Condor's final form? It's amazing what you set in motion, huh?"

I'll say. And I was willing to admit that I was wrong to have doubted Lewis' instincts. I liked Green Wyvern quite a bit, even though she tried her level best to be dastardly at every turn. She was a rogue Jetman, with a vendetta against the team. But she turned on her evil masters too and became a lone wolf. Ultimately...well, I suspect you may have an idea of where that was heading. Getting there is part of the fun.

A funny thing happened as ROJ continued to develop. Both of us began to put a lot of thought into Green Wyvern. We pondered her backstory, her motivations - the things that made her tick. As we did so, ROJ sort of became her story.

If you'll recall, ROJ was originally planned as a short fanfiction series for a Japanese superhero fanzine. While Lewis did a superb job of creating it and shaping it, I'm pretty sure that was how we both continued to view it - as a tribute to Japanese superheroes. But as Green Wyvern grew as a character, she somehow became...REAL to us.

This was a significant turning point for ROJ. I can't speak for Lewis, but this was the first time a character I had a hand in took on a life of their own. "Profound" is probably not too strong of word to describe that development. I think the focus on her increased as we went along because we were so fascinated with her. As we focused more on her, the story itself began to drift away from its origins as a Japanese superhero fanfic. This wasn't necessarily a bad thing. Although ROJ still had the trappings and characters, it ceased to be just a fanfiction and was transformed into its own story. Heady stuff.

Of course, there was still the matter of publishing this li'l epic. OWARI soon became a reality, with the first issue dated Oct./Nov. 1995. Strangely, there is absolutely NO "Return of Jetman" in it!

You see, by mutual agreement, Lewis and I decided to "hold" the first installment of ROJ until #2. We felt like the extra time would give us the chance to polish the story and make it something special. While that turned out to be true, it proved to be a double-edged sword.

OWARI #1 did have plenty of work from Lewis, including the story "Mysterious Shadow : Guyver 3". Today, that initial effort is a fascinating artifact, full of vitality but generally poorly planned and laid out. Still, the orders were decent and the feedback was encouraging. I set out to make the second issue an improvement in all respects.

As I sat down with ROJ Part 1 in preparation for OWARI #2, I made the decision to "re-edit" it for publication. At that juncture, all I did with the story was smooth over some rough spots in the narrative. Lewis gave me his approval, so that altered version was the one that saw print in OWARI #2 (May 1996). At last, months of work had led to something tangible. The reaction? Almost total silence.

OWARI #2 was somewhat better in most respects, but it still was a long way from looking good. I had also miscalculated a bit in that the contents were extremely limited (ROJ, two articles, and some artwork). The toughest part, however, was the lack of enthusiasm. Very few people who ordered #1 took the time to order #2. OWARI had failed to grab them as something they needed to continue getting.

Would it have made a difference if ROJ had run in #1? I really don't know, but the story would have reached a far wider audience than it did in #2. OWARI #2 had a print run of 50 copies and I never quite got rid of all of them.

For his part, Lewis was ecstatic to have gotten into print, even if it was only in a cheap fanzine. The stories and art he was turning out just got better and better with each passing month. His artwork especially became more daring. He was really finding his voice as a creator.

I continued to offer Lewis advice and suggestions for the story and, to his credit, he listened - even when they were bad. Despite the discouraging results of #2, I pressed ahead with work on OWARI #3. My "re-editing" on ROJ Part 2 was a bit more extensive in that I reworked portions of the story, but the lion's share of what saw print was Lewis Smith through and through.

While I was laboring over OWARI #3, Lewis was turning out some of his best work to that point - ROJ Parts 4 and 5. I can't even begin to describe how excited I was as I read them. Lewis had taken the story to a new level. Part 5, in particular (completed in two parts on July 11, 1996 & September 19, 1996), upped the ante of the story tremendously. With this new work in hand, I was really eager to see the project reach completion.

Alas, this amazingly fertile creative period coincided with one of the hardest periods of my personal life. I wasn't able to do any kind of justice to OWARI #3 (Nov. 1996). My well-intentioned efforts to cram as much as possible in it resulted in it being cluttered and hard to read in places. My own articles, so promising in my head, fell short of what I wanted. And promotion and distribution? Forget it. OWARI #3 was seen by less than 20 people. It was a disaster.

I felt horrible that not only was my 'zine failing before my eyes, but all the hard work Lewis was putting into ROJ was barely reaching anyone. This wasn't what I had envisioned at all. As I was struggling to figure out what to do, Lewis sent me ROJ Part 6. Unfortunately, that welcome arrival soon compounded our problems.




Get the full story at www.returnofjetman.com!

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