In my career as a comic book editor-provocateur, I have had the privilege of assisting the birth of several remarkable projects. Two such projects were offered to me by the same team: writer/artists Mark Wheatley and Marc Hempel. Oh, sure, they went on individually to do brilliant stuff such as Blood of the Innocent, Tarzan, The Sandman, Gregory, Frankenstein’s Mobster and The Escapist, but all that happened after I received their pitch for Mars.
I was editor-in-chief at First Comics, and I was specifically looking for a project that was completely original and produced by “newcomers” (quotes are due to that “overnight sensation” thing). Joe Staton and Bruce Patterson, our art director and production manager respectively, tossed the Mars proposal onto my lap and said “read this.” Not “read this, please” or “I think this is what you’re looking for;” nope, just read this.
I did, and then I called Wheatley and Hempel. As I recall, their agent was noted comics writer, marketer, publisher, and all-around swell guy Mike Friedrich. Quite rapidly, we had a deal.
After the first issues were finished and we started our promotion work, one of the major comics distributors – there actually used to be over a dozen! – told me I was making a big mistake. Nobody heard of these guys. I pointed out that nobody had heard of Mark Twain until he got published. I was told the story lacked commercial appeal. I responded, “how do you know they aren’t mutants?” Yeah, back in those days I could be quite stubborn or, as I prefer to think of it, an asshole for the cause of good.
We published the series and it became a cult classic. My definition of a cult classic was a highly regarded comic book whose sales were outflanked by the comp list. Mars did well enough and if it sold in those same volume today it would be a twice-weekly book, but the numbers weren’t likely to confound Alan Turing. It had enormous word-of-mouth going for it as well, and that inured to the benefit of the First Comics legend.
Flash forward six years to 1990. Despite the fact that Hempel was hospitalized during his time on Mars, they pitched me another project. By this time, I was a group editor and director of editorial development at DC Comics, and my job was to boldly acquire weird shit that no one had acquired before. I heard their pitch for Breathtaker in a backroom at some huge comics convention. I went for it in a heartbeat, my boss Dick Giordano was ecstatic about it (Dick had a great eye for weird shit), and we produced and published Breathtaker… Despite Hempel’s return to the hospital.
But that’s when things got dicey. Our publisher, Jenette Kahn, a fine person who had earned my respect several years before she got into comics, took one look at the cover and said it seemed like we were mocking concentration camp victims. It’s 30 years later, and I still don’t get that. But word got out that Jenette didn’t like the book. Well, that’s not true. She didn’t like the cover, and she could have called for a new one, or she could have canned the book outright. She did not, but our crack marketing department saw the onus as clear as day.
DC’s marketing director had a reputation for not putting much muscle behind comics that didn’t have a batcape and didn’t kill off anybody important. When Breathtaker was released the only people who knew about it were Wheatley and Hempel’s relatives and those friends of mine who remained amused by my incessant bitching. Despite this, the books sold well, and it got itself a trade paperback collection, which I believe went through a few printings.
Still onus-laden, Mark and Marc got the rights back – eventually. We reprinted it over at IDW in 2005, which was about the time something really interesting happened. The Normal Rockwell Museum was putting on an exhibition of some two dozen graphic novels, and Breathtaker was among those selected. We had an entire wall in their truly breathtaking museum. We were invited to the opening and they even threw us all a wonderful feast – after which many of the museum curators brought out their personal comics for us to sign.
From time to time, the museum put together a travelling version of the exhibit, and it’s still going on. According to the press release,
“Wheatley and Hempel’s Insight Studios Group will mount the “Breathtaker Exhibition,” which was created by the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts and will appear at McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland. With more than 90 original works of art, the exhibition explores the creative and physical processes that were undertaken during the original production … The exhibition will be on view August 24, 2020 through October 30, 2020.”
I should point out that McDaniel College in Westminster, Maryland is just outside of Baltimore, near the abodes of the Breathtaker creators. That is sweet.
I should also point out that Breathtaker is being rereleased in collected edition by my old, old buddy Nick Landau (thanks for the sexy Hitler comic, Nick!) and his Titan Books imprimatur. Oh, and while I’m at it, I will point out that Titan is issuing an all-new companion comic, I guess for those of us who have all-new companions.
For me, this is seriously cool. Mark and Marc have been two of my closest friends, and I remain in awe of their work. If you haven’t read Breathtaker, Landau is about to make it easy for you to correct that.