New York City
My first day on the job and I was already working late. Granted, a retirement party isn't exactly hard work, particularly when you're single and always on the hunt for a free meal. But it was just too good an opportunity to pass up--the retirement party to end all retirement parties--in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf Astoria for none other than Matt Payne, the artist who created the Mighty Centurion; a living legend who gave birth to the comic book industry.
After fifty years, Payne was finally calling it quits with Excelsior Comics, which as of nine o'clock that morning, just so happened to be my new employer. And I couldn't have been more excited to be on board. Comic books were in my blood. How I got there is a long story. Like most of the kids I grew up with, I devoured just about everything I could get my hands on--from Captain Marvel to Wonder Woman and everything in between. Then, after graduating from college, I stumbled into the business by accident. I developed a superhero of my own that captured the industry's attention, and parleyed it into what I thought was going to be a cushy job for the company I'd idolized as a kid.
So there I was--Richard Stewart MacAllister, Excelsior's newly minted senior writer--living out a childhood fantasy in a business of childhood fantasies. Little did I know this really marked the beginning of one of the most bizarre chapters in my life.
It is only now, years after all the grizzly details have come to light, that I can finally convey this story in its entirety.
You should know from the start that while I had a front-row seat for most of this adventure, I was not privy to all of the back-room conversations, hidden agendas, and underhanded schemes that led to many of the tragic events that occurred while I worked for Excelsior. But in comic book companies there are no secrets--at least not for very long. People talk, the walls talk, and sometimes even the characters themselves have a few things to say, too. In piecing together this account, I have endeavored to draw upon the experiences of all three, while bringing something of myself to the story, too.
It all began that warm spring evening as Matt Payne was closing the book on his amazing career. Fifty years in a business that relentlessly demands new ideas and fresh approaches was much too long for a temperamental prima donna like Payne. I don't know how he did it. But this much is certain: The end hadn't been easy, even for a tough old bird like Payne. On a night that should have been filled with joy and celebration, he felt worn out and tired--tired of dealing with the mental midgets and pencil-pushing bureaucrats who had slowly reduced his mighty Roman Sentinel of Light to little more than a caped clown. He was plenty angry, too, over the path he was now being forced to take, and it consumed him at every turn.
Others, like Sterling Sanborn III, the renowned British publishing magnate who had recently become Excelsior's new owner--and the man most directly responsible for Payne's involuntary departure--saw things a little differently.
"In my esteeee-mation, there is no single person, no one indeeeee-vidual, who has done more for this business than Matth-ewwwww Payne," Sanborn proudly proclaimed from a podium at the head table, in such perfectly British English that everyone in the packed room--myself included--paid more attention to the way he was saying it, than what he actually said.
"Matt Payne gave the world the Centurionnnnnnnn. But he also gave us the ideals that the Centurionnnn represents ... honest-eeeeee ... integrit-eeeeeeee ... and, of course," Sanborn bubbled, "jus-tissss."
Polite applause spread across the room. Payne slowly fingered his cigar and nodded appreciatively. Coming from a snake like Sanborn, the accolades meant nothing to him. Absolutely nothing. Payne didn't care that Sanborn had saved Excelsior from bankruptcy. He would have rather seen the company go belly up than become part of Sanborn's evil empire.
By the same token, Sanborn considered Payne little more than a has-been; a rusty relic from another era who couldn't turn out a best seller if his life depended on it. So, all things considered, it would be fair to say that both men hated each other.
"The man is an asshole," Payne whispered to his devoted wife Alix, a silver haired Gena Davis look-a-like, who sat stoically next to her husband of thirty-six years. "A supreme asshole."
Sanborn cleared his throat, inhaled with the force of a giant wind tunnel, and paused. Such fine words wasted on an insignificant asshole, he thought.
"So tonight," he continued without missing a beat, "we are here to honor a giant of a man who has given generations of children all over the world-d-d-d-d an adventure they'll never forget."
To look at his frumpy, pear-shaped frame, you'd never know that Sanborn presided over a media empire that specialized in sleaze and slander. He owned dozens of racy tabloid newspapers and magazines; scores of second-rate radio and television stations; and a host of publishing houses from Toronto to Sydney that made Harold Robbins seem like Shakespeare. On paper, of course, he was worth more than eleven billion dollars.
But it was all funny money; his empire was leveraged to the max with every conceivable financing scheme known to man. That didn't stop him from dressing the part of the self-made, rags-to-riches British press lord. He looked like a cross between Alfred Hitchcock and an overstuffed walrus, a moniker so appropriate that it became his unofficial calling card. But his appearance was merely a ruse--a carefully crafted public persona that was designed to keep his foes off balance.
Tonight was no exception. None of us knew it then, but Payne's retirement party really wasn't for Payne's benefit at all. Heaven forbid! It was meticulously choreographed--right down to the 60-piece orchestra and sparkling crystal--to impress one Jack Morgante, a buttoned-down, no-nonsense senior vice president from Pinnacle Studios in Hollywood, who had just flown into New York to wrap up negotiations on a Centurion movie.
Why Hollywood wanted to do a film on a long-time loser like the Centurion was beyond Sanborn. But with American action hero films cleaning up at the box office, Pinnacle was anxious to nail down a bankable comic character of its own and Morgante was just the man to pull off the deal. He was Pinnacle's "A" Team, the go-to-guy who specialized in finishing off difficult deals.
So far, Sanborn had presented a formidable challenge. He was a ferocious negotiator, particularly when the odds were stacked in his favor. That was his trademark. He preyed on companies in dire straits--companies like Excelsior--with one foot in the grave. He cared nothing about the people who worked at these firms and made no pretenses about it. People, he often said, were "our greatest renewable resources."
What he really wanted (and got) was unlimited access to the company's multi-billion employee pension fund, which he needed to continue financing the operations of his cash-hungry, debt-ridden empire. But even that wasn't enough. A movie deal would mean millions more in royalties and licensing fees. Not to mention a passport into Tinsel Town, where Sanborn could finally go head-to-head on the big screen with his arch-rival, Sydney Lockwood, the Australian entertainment and media mogul, whom he hated even more than Payne.
Sanborn peered down at the carefully crafted notes his assistant had prepared for the evening.
Insert name here, it read, We will all miss you!
Sanborn cleared his throat. "Ahhh-hemmmm, Matth-ewwww Payne, we will all miss you!"
More applause filled the ballroom.
"The Centurrrrrionnnn is the legacy that you leave to the world, and I can assure you that he will be in good hands--"
Again, right on cue, he was interrupted by applause.
"Please, please, pleassssse." Sanborn raised his stubby right hand until the room was silent. "Matt, yours is a talent that cannot easily be duplicatated-d-d-d, nor can it be magically reincarnated like the Centurrion-n-n-n--"
This time, the room erupted in laughter, and the Walrus, fully in command of the situation, planted his hands on his belly and roared like Fezziwig on Christmas Eve.
"But Matt, before you go, we would like to present you and your lovely wife, Ali-i-ixandra, with a small token of our appreciation for all the sacrifices you've made for Excelsior Comics over the past fifty years."
Sanborn reached deep into his suit pocket, retrieved an envelope containing a pair of tickets, and held them up over the top of the podium for everyone to see.
"We're sending both of you on a cruise!" Sanborn grinned. "An around-the-world cruise!!"
With that, a chorus of "ooohs" and "aaahhs" gushed forth. Robin Leach couldn't have played it any better.
Alix grabbed her husband by the shoulders and planted a big kiss on his lips. "Finally," she said to him, "I was beginning to think the only way I'd ever get to see the world was on a senior citizen's tour."
When the applause ended, Sanborn moved in for the kill. "Matt, you've spent fifty years here at Excelsior saving the world from evil and I don't think you've ever taken a vacation. Now a grateful world is finally yours.
"Ladies and gentlemen," Sanborn said. "It is a great honor for me to present to you the man of the hour--Excelsior's real-life super hero--Mat-t-t-t-t-t Payne!!"
The ovation was deafening. Everybody in the room stood and cheered, and the old ballroom soon looked like a political convention on fire. First, the orchestra snapped to attention and promptly launched into a mind-blowing rendition of the Centurion fanfare, the same blaring theme that had opened the old black-and-white Centurion television serials years ago. Then a giant caricature of the Roman Sentinel of Light rose from beneath the stage as thousands of red, white and blue balloons cascaded down from the ceiling onto the stage.
Payne took a long drag on his cigar and slowly rose to his feet.
"Now dear," Alix grabbed him by the hand, "be gracious."
Payne winked--a devilish "wait-'till-you-get-a-load-of-me" wink if ever there was one--and scrambled up to the podium next to Sanborn.
"Matttt," Sanborn grinned and wrapped his pudgy arms around him. "On behalf of all your colleagues--on behalf of all your friends at Excelsior Comics--I want to say congratulations and bon voyage!"
Flash bulbs and strobe lights sparkled around the stage, as the Walrus waddled back to his chair next to Morgante.
All in all, it was quite a spectacle, particularly for someone like me, having just bolted from cross-town rival Renegade Comics--Sydney Lockwood's Renegade--where such excess would have qualified as a capital offense.
"I've dreamed about meeting this guy and working with him since I was a kid," I said. The guy sitting next to me, Mike Billington, one of the best story line artists in the business, didn't answer.
"But wouldn't you know it," I continued, "the day I come in he ups and retires before I even get a chance to introduce myself."
Stone silence. Billington was a man of few words and many rules. And Rule Number One was explicitly clear in these kinds of situations. Never say anything worthwhile to anyone who has been with the company less than a week. It wasn't anything personal against me. Having survived two tours of duty in Vietnam, and the equivalent of two more in the jungles of Excelsior, Billington knew that trusting a rookie could get you killed.
"Puh-lease!!!" Payne pleaded from the podium as the applause continued. "If you don't let me speak, I may never leave!"
Finally, after several minutes, the cheers fell silent. Payne closed his eyes and soaked up every inch of the room.
"Friends! Romans! Countrymen!" he crowed. "Behold my retirement!"
The room erupted once more. It was vintage Payne, the egomaniac everyone loved, poking fun at himself and his beloved Centurion all at the same time.
"Years ago, we had something special here," he continued. "We built this company one page at a time, one character at a time, and one comic book at a time. We did it with imagination and guts. It was all wonderful stuff, too. Our books had great stories. They had character. Good triumphed over evil. You knew the difference between right and wrong. All for a nickel. Now everything's different! Today, we're big business. We're driven by demographics, psychographics and polls. Instead of values, we give kids these slick graphic novels at seven or eight bucks a pop and what do they get? Super heroes that look like hoods. Heroines that dress like cheap whores. And villains that give new meaning to terms like 'sick' and 'demented'."
Billington winced. His own comic character--an Arnold Schwartzanegger look-a-like with a passion for laser warfare and voluptuous love slaves called "The Silencer"--was exactly what Payne was referring to.
"In our day," Payne resumed, "superheroes didn't have nervous breakdowns. They didn't have identity crises. They didn't get their faces bashed in or their capes ripped apart. And God knows, they certainly didn't question their own sexuality. Hell, we wouldn't have been caught dead using that word in a comic book to begin with!"
The room suddenly fell silent. Dead silent. And Sanborn's stomach started to churn. What the Christ is he trying to prove?
"Nowadays," Payne continued, "everything is team work. We've got a team that thinks up ideas. We've got a team that massages the ideas. And then there's another team that screws up all the good ideas. We even have a retirement team. Yeah, that's right. We've got a team that looks at your age and your salary, and when they add up to a certain number, they say 'that's all folks.' And you know what? It really stinks!"
By now you could hear a pin drop in the ballroom.
"We are very fortunate because our crack retirement team is here with us tonight, and I want to introduce you to the geniuses who decided that it was time for me to float away on an iceberg. First, I'd like to you to meet Malcolm Evans. Comptroller Malcolm Evans at the very end of the dais. Malcolm and I go back six, maybe seven weeks now. He is the guardian of our budgets."
Evans, a very methodical and proper British fellow Sanborn had imported from his London office to reign in costs at Excelsior, looked as if he was about to wet his pants.
"One day, about three weeks ago, Malcolm comes into my office all excited," Payne gushed. "He tells me, 'WEEEE must shave an eighth of an inch off the page.' I said, 'Excuse me?' Malcolm slaps a comic book on my drawing table and says, 'WEEEE must shave an eighth of an inch off the page. ' Why, I ask, would WEEE want to shave an eighth of an inch off the page? Well, it turns out that Malcolm, here, had gotten out his little solar-powered calculator and figured out all by himself that if WEEE cut the page size WEEE could save about three-hundred thousand dollars on an average press run.
"'OK, Malcolm, buddy,' I says, 'I'll cut the page size. I'll redo all the illustrations, but I'll cut it. And I did! You know what? WEEE would have saved three-hundred thousand dollars on the issue, except for one little thing. The front cover had already been printed in the larger format. So WEEEE had to run all the covers over again, and instead of saving three-hundred thousand dollars, WEEE spent an extra half-million bucks."
Sanborn, hearing this for the first time, nearly popped a fuse.
"But, hey, what's a half-million bucks among friends, huh Malcolm, old pal?"
Evans buried his face in his napkin and started to cry.
"Now," Payne resumed, "Let me introduce you to another esteemed member of our retirement team--Marty. Marty Robinson."
Payne waved to Robinson, who was also sitting at the head table next to his wife. Robinson, being the schmuck that he was, waved right back.
"Marty, God bless his soul, he's Mister Family Values. His job is to make sure that all of us creative types are setting the proper moral tone in our work."
Robinson, a neurotic workaholic with a terrible stutter that Payne loved to mimic, sat there nodding his head in righteous agreement, oblivious to the fact that he was being roasted over the coals.
"Three weeks ago, my assistant and I were working on this scene where the Centurion saves a cow from a raging inferno. Now this wasn't just an ordinary cow. It was a SACRED COW with very special super powers. And it belonged to the big cheese--Jupiter, the chairman of the board of all Roman gods. So we took special care to ensure that this was a cow befitting a god. It was big. I mean REALLY BIG! And you know how it goes with sacred cows--nothing can touch them. When the fire starts, it's a job that only the Centurion can handle. So that's what we decided to put on the front cover--the Centurion saving this sacred cow.
"No sooner do the boards go into Marty for approval than he comes rushing out of his office so upset he can hardly talk. Finally I says, 'Marty, is something WRONG?' Marty points to the cover, going 'L-L-L-Look at this!' So I look at it and I ask, 'What's wrong?' Marty goes, 'the-the-the-the the udder. L-l-l-ook at the udder!!' It's an udder, all right. Marty says, 'it's too-too-too b-b-big.'"
A few hoots and howls broke out from the crowd. And Payne paused for a moment, a very long, dramatic pause, and just stared at us in silence.
"Then Marty says, 'G-g-g-get r-r-r-rid of it.' I looked at the illustration again, and it suddenly hits me. 'My God, Marty, you're right. I don't know what could have come over me. In this day and age, when we've got front covers featuring mutilations, human sacrifices and bondage, not to mention half-naked women, the last thing a kid needs to see is a cow's udder!'"
Robinson, still oblivious to the chorus of laughter that was spreading throughout the room, continued to grin. He actually believed that he had made the world a little less filthy than the day before.
"Marty," Payne looked directly at Robinson's table, "I can't thank you enough. I've been drawing cows for years now, and when I think of all the young minds I've corrupted along the way, it just tears me apart inside."
Payne paused for a moment, pretending to fight back tears. "Marty, you made me see the light. As long as I live, I'll never, EVER, mess with a sacred cow again. I want you to know just how much this means to me. You've got to be the luckiest guy on the face of this earth. You've got a great family--a beautiful wife and kids--"
Robinson's wife, a tall brunette, waved to the crowd.
"And you've got two Cracker Jack secretaries, who were so nice to me whenever you'd send them over to shred my illustrations. I couldn't let this occasion pass without introducing them.
"First, there's Barbra Gordon. She's been with Marty for fifteen years--at five different companies. And she's one of the best kept secrets in the business. Barbra, would you please stand up and take a bow--"
The spotlight technician in the balcony frantically crisscrossed the room looking for Gordon.
"She's over at table twenty-two," Payne pointed. "Way back there in the corner."
Gordon finally appeared in her seat, about as far away from Robinson's table as you could get, all dolled up like a cheap stripper in an extremely low-cut, crushed velvet gown that revealed most of her forty-inch D bust. The applause suddenly stopped, and this time Robinson went numb. At first, Gordon refused to stand.
"Now don't be shy, Barbra," Payne said. "Stand up so everyone here can see you."
Gordon slowly rose to her feet and waved.
"Ladies and gentlemen, Barbra Gordon. Let's give her a hand."
We all hesitated at first, but eventually everyone obliged. Yet Payne wouldn't let it go.
"Barbra, why don't you take a bow? You deserve it."
Gordon shook her head from side to side.
"C'monnnnn," Payne egged her on, with the help of a few slightly inebriated friends at the back of the room who started chanting her name as if they were at a hockey game.
"Bar-Bra, Bar-Bra, Bar-Bra ..."
Gordon finally caved in and leaned forward at a ninety-degree angle, providing everyone with a panoramic view of some of the most magnificent cleavage east of the Hudson.
"Now," Payne continued, "sitting right across the table from Barbra is the equally lovely Lisa Ivendetti, who also works for Marty. Lisa has one of the toughest jobs in the business. Every night, when we go home, she meets with Marty in his office to personally review all the changes that he's made in our work and to sort of, you know, give it her own verbal stamp of approval. Lisa, why don't you stand and be recognized!"
The spotlight inched over a notch to Ms. Ivendetti, a nineteen-year-old vixen from Yonkers who aspired to a career in the adult film industry. Unlike Gordon, Lisa wasn't shy in front of a crowd. She jumped up from her seat, like an eager young gymnast, extended her arms above her head, so that it was impossible to miss her ultra-tight black blouse, matching leather mini-skirt and fish-net stockings.
"Marty," Payne snickered, "I think I'm going to miss you twice as much as everybody else, old pal."
Robinson, now white as a ghost, wasn't smiling anymore.
"Of course, there's one more member of Excelsior's retirement team that I simply can't ignore," Payne said. "You all know him. He's the jerk who gave me these tickets."
Every eye in the room immediately zeroed in on Sanborn, who at that moment was on the verge of exploding with rage.
"Ladies and gentlemen, I can't think of anyone who did more to force me out the door than Sterling Sanborn the Third," Payne continued, the venom pumping through his veins at warp speed. "And I would like to propose a toast to him now--"
Sanborn buried his head in his hands. There wasn't much he could do, not now, not with Morgante sitting there next to him, taking it all in. So we stood and raised our glasses in his honor.
"To Sterling Sanborn the Third. Lord Sterling Sanborn the Third. Without his insight, without his wisdom and intelligence, none of this tonight would be necessary."
Payne then promptly hoisted a glass of champagne and swallowed it whole. And before anyone could sit down, he let it all hang out--the bitterness, the resentment, and the fury that had been bottled up inside him since the day Sanborn first arrived at Excelsior.
"This used to be such a fun business," Payne said. "Now all that's changed, thanks to our exalted imperial leader here. But one thing hasn't changed--people still want stories that are driven by emotion and intellect.
"The next time you go out and kill or maim one of the good guys, the next time you beat one into a pulp--all for the sake of higher sales volume--think about who you're really hurting. Somebody out there, somebody maybe just seven or eight years old--your son, your daughter or maybe your grandkid--is watching you rub out a character they believe in. Someone they care for."
Payne looked out across the room, fighting back tears. And we all stared back in a stunned silence.
"I say screw the accountants! Screw the lawyers, screw the pencil-pushers!! And screw the bastards who think they know how to run this business by the bottom line!! Don't let them take the fun out of the comics. If you give kids a good product--a good story with heart--the bottom line will take care of itself."
Payne shook his head in disgust.
"For Chrissakes people wake up! Don't let Sanborn do to you what he's doing to me. Don't let him ruin your characters like he's ruining the Centurion and everything else here!"
Then he turned and spoke directly to the Walrus. "Now for you, Lord Sanborn Almighty, I have a special going-away gift of my own. A few of my friends have decided to join me in retirement."
As Payne stepped away from the podium, suits and gowns at three tables near the front of the ballroom stood and walked toward the dais--artists, writers, illustrators, pencilers and story liners--some of the most talented and experienced people in the business.
"I don't believe it," Billington whispered, "half the creative staff is walking out with him."
One-by-one, they paraded by the head table in a stony, bone-chilling silence, stopping directly in front of Sanborn. Then, with the precision of a military drill team, they all raised their right arms and collectively popped Sanborn the bird.
It didn't last long--maybe fifteen seconds tops--but for Sanborn it must have seemed like an eternity.
"Let's get the hell out of this Mickey Mouse organization," Payne said.
And with that, the entire ensemble turned and marched out of the ballroom single-file, leaving Excelsior a crippled company of comic book orphans; a factory of make-believe characters with no one to bring them to life.
Those of us who remained just stood there, gazing up at the stage.
Finally, Sanborn lumbered up to the podium, grabbed the microphone, and for the first time in his life, the Walrus who spoke like Churchill, didn't know what to say. He would have still been there had it not been for the quick action of Leo Corbett, his Brooks Brothers aide, who instinctively knew how to enflame a really bad situation without even trying. Corbett ran up to the podium, placed his hand over the microphone and frantically whispered into Sanborn's ear.
"He took the tickets," Corbett said, completely unaware that Sanborn had been using a lapel mike that was still live.
"Whatttt?" the Walrus bellowed. "The son-of-a-bitch took the fucking tickets too???"
Sanborn's shouts echoed throughout the ballroom, into the kitchen, up through the balcony and clear through to the lobby. When he realized what was happening, he grabbed Corbett by the shoulders and flew into an even wilder frenzy.
"Jez-us Christ! This thing is still on, you idiot!"
Sanborn ripped the microphone from his tie and tossed it to the ground, as Corbett dove for cover.
He latched onto the podium with both hands, as if he was about to heave it across the stage, and yelled at the very top of his lungs: "Everybody just go home--now!" Then, with all the grace of a stampeding heard of buffalo, he charged off the stage until he finally disappeared through a rear doorway.
And just like that it was over. Confusion reigned everywhere. Two tornadoes had passed in the night, leveling just about everything in their path. But for me, the real storm was just beginning.