Written by Neil Greenaway
At Fort Collins Comic Con 2016 I had the chance to sit down and talk with Ron Fortier of Airship 27 Productions about his take on publishing indie comics. This interview originally ran on Bleeding Cool on 9/04/2016, and you can read their version of it here.
Ron Fortier is an American author, primarily known for his Green Hornet and The Terminator comic books (from NOW comics) and his revival of several pulp heroes. He is currently writing a Black Bat comic series for Moonstone Publishing as well as a series of novels based around his own pulp creation, Brother Bones – The Undead Avenger.
Neil Greenaway: Today I am sitting at the Fort Collins Comic Con speaking with Ron Fortier. First off, I see several Black Bat comics here today. Can you tell us what you are doing with the current Black Bat series?
Ron Fortier: Yeah, ok. Basically I am working with Moonstone books (out of Chicago), and Moonstone for the last 5-6 years has been doing a lot of prose anthologies and novels featuring classic pulp characters form the 1930’s. Amongst these is the Black Bat, arguably one of the more popular grade B pulp heroes of the 30’s and 40’s. So they’ve done several anthologies with him I’ve had the privilege of writing 1 or 2 fictional stories for him. But then again, knowing my own background in comics, it was just a 1-2 step to say let’s do some Black Bat comics and see if there’s an audience for that. So over the last year I have actually written 2 Black Bat comic projects for Moonstone. One is a three issue mini-series called Guns of the Black Bat, which is available right now in comic shops. The second is a four issue mini-series called The Black Bat / Domino Lady: Danger Coast to Coast that hopefully will be out in November-December of this year.
NG: And are you writing other pulps for Moonstone?
RF: Yes, well I basically manage and run my own publishing house called Airship 27 Productions. We’ve been in business going on 11 years now and we’re primarily in business to do just that, to publish new novels and anthologies featuring classic pulp characters from 1930’s and 40’s. This movement has a tag, it’s basically called the “new pulp movement” and me, Moonstone and maybe half a dozen other publishers across the country are now doing this. Going back to the early pulps and finding a lot of the B characters, who are very much public domain, obviously. You can’t touch the Shadow, you can’t touch Doc Savage, they have always stayed in license. But the heyday of the pulps, if we talk about 1935-1945, literally hundreds of great characters appeared in those magazines. They were the inspiration for the comics that would later come. So you have such great characters as the Domino Lady, Secret Agent X, The Moon Man, The Purple Scar, I mean the plethora just runs wild. Moonstone is doing a whole series of anthologies and people like me who love this stuff have been invited to contribute short stories. To date I’ve done several Spider stories, I have a few Avenger stories. They have even gone as far as to take Lee Falk’s classic pulp comic character The Phantom and done prose anthologies with the Phantom. And I have done several of those stories. The new pulp movement is catching on and it is teaching a lot of the comic fans today a lot of that pre-history of where comics came from, i.e. the pulps.
NG: And are you getting a pretty positive response to these stories?
RF: Very much so. Only because, there has always been a pulp fan base, let’s put it like that. There has always been a pulp fandom that has been around, but pulps are now 70-80 years old and that fandom was pretty much dying out. Unlike comic con, which has sprouted up all over the world in the past 10 years, when you look at the Pulp conventions, there were only one maybe two left in this country. And the attendance was dwindling every year because your average fan is in his 70’s or 80’s. Well that is why people like me, Moonstone and other people who love this kind of fiction and are aware of it began to realize there is a need to infuse pulp fandom with younger writers. This whole movement of saving these characters from obscurity and oblivion was to create new pulp stories with them. I am happy to report that in the last 10 years, because of the new pulp movement, the attendance at the two major pulp conventions in the country, the first being Windy City Paper and Pulp in Chicago every spring in May has almost tripled. And ten years ago Pulp Con disappeared and was replaced by a thing called Pulp Fest in Columbus Ohio which is run at the end of summer, and it as well is seeing a resurgence in attendance. We’re getting a lot of college kids coming in who are finding out through the media marketing that the books we publish are fascinating. Many of them are comic collectors all their lives, have had one of two bits of information about what pulps were and now they want to see for themselves and we are providing the material and the product for them to do that.
NG: And what about some of your comics? What can you tell me about the Mr. Jigsaw books?
RF: Mr. Jigsaw is a comedy superhero done for laughs. He operates out of Maine; Portland, Maine is his hometown because he is not quite ready yet for New York or Boston. He’s a naïve young gentleman, but his unique power is that he can break apart like a jigsaw puzzle, every part of his body. And he can still control them with his mind and reassemble them as need be. Now, he thinks that this is the greatest superpower in the world because he has been brought up by a loving set of parents who have encouraged him all his life. And he grew up reading comic books, so he wants to help people with this thing that he does. Even though it often times gets him into hot water and comedic problems he is such a loveable person and character that over the course of the adventures that we’ve written he’s gathered a group of loyal friends that are always there, always support him and basically are just there for him. It’s a fun strip. We created it almost 30 years ago, myself and artist Gary Kato. It’s always been a little short story backup feature for different magazines over the years. People like the late Don Thompson, who was the editor of the Buyers Guide, the one time newspaper for comic fandom; people like Tony Isabella, the comic historian, are all huge Mr. Jigsaw fans. We have a loyal following. So a few years ago when myself and my artist partner Rob Davis got into self-publishing our own comics and our own creations, Rob was the one who brought up that we had done close to 20 different Mr. Jigsaw shorts over the last 30 years. We set about collecting them, thank God Gary kept Xerox copies of everything he draws! So we began publishing an actual series, Mr. Jigsaw: Man of a Thousand Parts, and we filled the first three issues with those reprints. I started writing number 4, then number 5 and as of now we just released issue number 14. It’s still going great, people absolutely love the series.
NG: That is awesome. It is wonderful that it is getting that type of response after all these years.
RF: Well I was recently at a convention with Tony Isabella. For people who aren’t familiar with Tony, he had a great career at Marvel and DC both. Tony is the gentleman who created arguably one of the first black superheroes in this country, that being Black Lightning. Tony is a dear friend and every time we get together at conventions I have to bring him the newest Mr. Jigsaw because he wont let me leave, he will haunt me. It drives Tony crazy, in his own columns online, his own blog; he is forever saying this is the best comic book series you’ve never heard of. He says this should have a lot more popularity. And of course my wife and I tease all the time, that Jiggy (as we call him) would be perfect on a Saturday morning cartoon show or to be on the Cartoon Network. Who knows? Maybe someday. With the current favor comics have in culture today and Hollywood and television looking for more and more products, it’s maybe just a matter of time before somebody trips over a few issues of Mr. Jigsaw and we find ourselves there.
NG: That would be very interesting to see.
RF: It sure would, it would be a lot of fun.
NG: What can you tell me about the Paradise Falls series that I see here?
RF: Paradise Falls is again an independent black and white comic. It’s a science fiction murder mystery and it came about because thanks to the internet today and thanks to social media, all of us can reach out and meet other creators on a daily basis from around the world. I mean, I have instigated project artists in South America and Australia over the years, so God bless the internet for that. So years ago, again online, I saw the artwork for a stylish artist named John Williams. And his work is very cartoonish. It almost falls off the pages. He doesn’t do straight panels. He does twisted panels, it looks like you woke up with a hangover after a big binge and that’s a John Williams page. What the heck is going on in this page? But it’s all professionally done. He knows how to draw, he just chooses to use this unique story telling style. Now having seen a lot of his work, the challenge to me as a writer (and the one I love the most) is what would I write for an artist who draws like this? Well again, the immediate sense is to scoff it off as too cartoonish. That is all it is and you could never do anything serious with that. My take is, that’s the perfect foil. I can write a serious adult murder mystery using John’s style. I contacted him, I introduced myself to him, we got to know each other. We communicated back and forth until ultimately I suggested my idea for Paradise Falls, which is a futuristic city like Metropolis in the old Fritz Lang science fiction classic.
NG: That is a classic. I love that movie!
RF: So do I. It’s part of the fun of this book. Paradise Falls is this mega-futuristic city, they have robots; they have humanoids, flying cars, and everything. And in the midst of that city they have their own masked avenger, a character called the Red Mask, who goes after corrupt officials, police, government types, whatever. Ultimately though, he meets this young woman and falls in love with her and shortly after they are married in secrecy. Then, he is betrayed by certain people and murdered. His wife is so grieved by his loss; she basically vows vengeance against the people who murdered her husband, the Red Mask. The kicker is nobody knows she’s his widow. She sets about to solve the mystery of who murdered her husband and ultimately to get revenge and bring them to justice. That’s the core of Paradise Falls, the subtext being sex, science and murder. We’ve done 2 issues and the people who have had the courage to pick it up and take it home have been blown away by it. It’s like nothing else you have ever seen. The art sells it, and it really does, because you don’t expect that adult a story in something that looks so cartoonish. John is a real, real genius talent to work with. Whenever I send him a new script, it boggles my mind how he interprets it and how he does his layouts. So we’ve done 2 issues, and to be honest it’s a free flowing story in my mind. So it could wrap at issue 3, but it may not. It may go to issue 4.
NG: I have heard you speak briefly about one of your books, Brother Bones, being made into a movie. Could you give us the premise of that book?
RF: Okey doke. Being involved in this new pulp movement, I had this urge to create my own avenger if you will. A vigilante with a mysterious past and whatnot. And being inspired by classic pulps of the Shadow and Spider, that’s what I wanted to go after, but with a little supernatural twist. So I created a character called Brother Bones – the Undead Avenger. And he operates out of a fictional city in the Northwest called Cape Noir.
The origin is there are brothers, 2 identical twin brothers called the Bonello brothers, Jack and Tommy who live in Cape Noir. They work for the local crime boss named Topper Wyld. Basically what happens is they do a hit for him. They literally are told to go to this bordello and kill everybody in the bordello. The girls, the customers, everybody, because Wyld wants to start a gang war and take over Cape Noir and his two twin boys are the most deadly gunmen he has. So they go to the bordello in the opening story and they do it, there’s carnage everywhere, they kill all these people. As they are leaving the house, Tommy hears something. He goes over and one of the dying girls looks up at him and whispers something to him. Curious, he leans over to hear her better and what she whispers is "thank you". Well they leave the house and Jack looks over at his brother and asks what was that and Tommy says, “She thanked me”. And it starts to eat away at him, what kind of a life did she have that she was grateful to be slain, to be murdered. He can’t get the words out of his head. In the seceding weeks, no matter what he is doing, he keeps hearing the words, he keeps hearing “thank you”. Well, he confides to Jack, and Jack starts to get a little worried because up until this point they have been soulless murderers. They have been monsters. Could he be developing a conscience? And if that is the case, that is totally a detriment to what they do. He knows that if this goes any further Wyld is going to find out and Tommy’s going to be in trouble. But Tommy can’t forget, the words echo and echo driving him crazy. He can’t sleep. Until finally one night driving around town, thinking he’s probably just going to take a gun and kill himself, he actually ends up in a Catholic church.
Desperate, he goes up to the church and an old pastor opens the door and Tommy has a confession. He unburdens his soul and lets the priest know he is going crazy. The priest lets him know, you have developed a conscience for whatever reason. And Tommy thinks, well what do I do? I can’t live like this. So the priest, knowing the danger he would be in sends Tommy to a monastery outside of town for monks. They live in a secluded area, they farm and have a quiet life of contemplation and prayer, and he sends Tommy there. Tommy now becomes a monk and begins to change his life. In the meantime he has disappeared from Cape Noir. Jack, his twin brother, is going crazy. It is assumed he has been gunned down by a rival mob.
So months later somebody sees Tommy at a store near the monastery, goes back to the city and tells Jack. He’s alive, he’s at this monastery. Jack is beside himself, he’s angry. He gets a mob together and they go up to the monastery.
Now, Tommy had been talking to a monk who came from Louisiana, and he had been working in the art shop. He made a skull mask, like the beautiful white porcelain skull masks for Mardi Gras. Here comes the car with all these gunman. Jack gets out and Tommy realizes who he is and runs down the road. He basically tells his brother “don’t do it Jack, please, take it out on me, I’m the one who fouled up, go ahead and shoot me, but leave these men alone, they are innocent”. No way was Jack going to do that. He shoots his own brother and kills him, then proceeds to go in and kill everybody in the monastery and burn it to the ground. Tommy should be going to Hell, but he doesn’t. He gets stopped in this other world between Heaven and Hell. There he sees the spirit of the young girl who he killed in the bordello. She has been chosen to be his spirit guide and she tells him he has to go back to Earth and make atonement for his life of sin. Now he is going to become the avatar, the avenger, the defender of the innocent in Cape Noir.
Weeks later, Jack is about to shoot and kill this young boy, an innocent card dealer for the boss, when all of a sudden out of nowhere comes Tommy’s ghost in midair. Jack laughs, he doesn’t believe it. He thinks, you can’t hurt me, you’re ethereal. Tommy literally invades Jack's body and takes it over. Jack dies, his body dies. So now you have an animated body with another man’s spirit controlling it. So he is the Undead Avenger. The young card dealer he saved now becomes his aide because Tommy saved his life. He sets out to start this mission in Cape Noir. He has the young man drive him back to the ruins of the monastery, and in the middle of the night with the moon hanging over the clouds, the animated zombie-avenger walks around until he sees the white bone mask. He puts it over his face an becomes Brother Bones.
Now, I created that 10 years ago. We have done 2 collections of short stories and another writer who became an avid fan actually wrote a full length Brother Bones novel called Six Days of the Dragon. He came to me after reading Brother Bones and said, “Please, please, I have this novel idea”. So I read his plot, criticized a few things, said we needed to change that, that and that. He adhered to everything I said, so we actually have 3 Brother Bones books on sale right now on Amazon, in Kindle and audio. Amongst all the fans of the series is a young man named Erik Franklin who, with partner Daniel Husser, runs his own film company out of Seattle, Washington. About a month ago I got a letter from them saying they would like to make Brother Bones into a feature length motion picture. And that is where we are at. We have worked out a story plot with them. Erik has written a shooting script. They are in the process now of scouting locations and getting funding. They will probably go to something like GoFundMe to fund the special effects they are going to need for it. And hopefully, by the end of the year they will get into actual casting and start principle photography.
NG: Wow that is pretty exciting stuff.
RF: Yeah it is very much so. When I told my family the news what was going on, one of my grandsons turned around and said “Are you going to be like Stan Lee in this? With the cameo bit?” So in talking to Erik in one of our conference calls I mentioned that and Erik goes “Oh God, Ron, you gotta do that! Please, I will let you know when principle photography starts and you can fly up to Seattle and we’ll get you in a scene”. So you never know where this career is going to take you. I just have so much fun doing it. Its a love of storytelling more than anything else and I continue to do it, like I said it never ever grows tiring. I’ll be telling stories to the bitter end.
NG: That is amazing. I think that about wraps it up for us, I would like to thank you, this has been a wonderful interview.
RF: Thank you I appreciate doing it.