An Interview With Mark Ellis
What is your background as a creator and a writer?
I’ve pretty much made my living at both for the last 20-plus years…I’ve written everything from feature articles for magazines, to copy-writing, to journalism, to novels. I’ve been a full-time novelist for the last twelve-plus years. As for comics scripting and creating, I was the most active from the late 1980s through the mid-90s. I wrote for several different publishers, most of them independents.
What are some of the titles you have worked on?
I’m probably best known for scripting what’s considered the most faithful comics version of Doc Savage, The Man of Bronze/The Monarch of Armageddon mini-series, working with artist Darryl Banks.
Other titles include The Wild, Wild West mini-series that was very well received, again with Darryl …
…H.P. Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, Ninja Elite, Warriors, Star Rangers, The Justice Machine…I’ve probably forgotten a few credentials.
How did you come to create Death Hawk?
Pretty simply. In 1987 I was scripting a comic series called Star Rangers, published by Adventure Publications. I worked with Jim Mooney and we envisioned the series as “Lonesome Dove in Space.”
It was a “space western”, but the series dealt with a number of different themes. In retrospect, it comes off more as Gunsmoke than Lonesome Dove. Anyway, the actual page count of the Star Rangers stories didn’t fill out all of the issue, so I was asked to come up with a back-up feature…basically dealing with an outlaw as the main character, which I thought would be an interesting counterpoint to the main feature about futuristic law officers. So I hammered out a six page story, “Five Footsteps to Hell.”
As a recall, the editor wanted Death Hawk to be an assassin type, but that kind of character never set well with me…even though the story showed him acting as a hired killer, he didn’t actually assassinate his target.
In the next story, “What Rough Beasts”, Death Hawk exacts revenge on a man who betrayed him and his group, but again—he doesn’t actually kill anyone, he just sets up the situation so poetic justice can take place.
I came up with the concept that Death Hawk was a “Salvage Expert”, sort of like a futuristic Travis McGee. That covered a whole gamut of enterprises, from the legal to the illegal.
How did Adam Hughes come to be involved as the artist?
Star Rangers was one of four titles published by Adventure Publications…the only one I didn’t write regularly was their flagship title, Adventurers. One of the series was a fantasy anthology called Warriors and Adam had contributed a short story to that.
After I saw the story, I asked that he be given the inaugural Death Hawk script to illustrate…in fact, Adam did it all on that first story, from pencils, to inks—including zip-a-tone, to the hand-lettering…which has been replaced in this edition. I was very, very impressed with how he interpreted the script, since it was a “puzzle box” type of plot, with a minimum of characters and locales.
More than anything, Adam captured an EC Comics kind of feel, I gave him the basics and he ran with his design of Death Hawk, going back to the space-western tradition influenced by Al Williamson.
In the next story, Adam again exceeded my expectations and captured the precise mood and atmosphere I had in mind. Reader response to the character was very positive, so after the second story appeared, the decision was made to put Star Rangers on hiatus and give Death Hawk his own title.
That inaugural issue was Adam’s first full-length work as an artist as well, as I recall.
So Star Rangers and Death Hawk shared the same universe?
Yes, a 25th century dystopia. I postulated that space exploration would be privatized, the purview of multi-national corporations in the future. So, 500 years from “now”, a solar system in the Orion Spur became the equivalent to the Oklahoma Territories of the 19th century, with various factions trying to stake out their own claims, through terra-formed colonies and such.
Most of the planets were claimed by corporations that had their own security forces, so the Star Ranger Corps, which I conceived as operating like the Texas Rangers, became obsolete.
I introduced a few recurring Death Hawk characters in
Star Rangers, such as BioTek, Anton Chane and his genetically engineered Amazon, Freya…
Not mention concepts like the mercenary, mohawk-wearing Arcturans and crazy Lord Rogue…
Jim Mooney intentionally drew the Star Rangers strip looking as if most of the ships and equipment were outdated, even in the future. I always thought that was a great touch. Jim was truly one of the undisputed Masters of the whole comics field, in that he could draw anything and make it look easy.
How did Cyke come about?
I needed a character for Death Hawk to talk to, in order to cut down on the internal dialogue. A pet was suggested, but instead I decided to create a partner, but one that wasn’t anything like Chewbacca. So, I came up with Cyke…in the words of Adam, “an intelligent blob of goo.”
Although Cyke is a synthetic life form and essentially genderless, Death Hawk refers to him as “he”.
What is Cyke, exactly?
A protosymbiote, a genetically engineered creature that is a metamorphic lump of protoplasm, but he possesses several psychic abilities. Cyke is very intelligent and he’s far more knowledgeable in some areas than Death Hawk…and he’s not above rubbing his nose in this fact.
It’s funny…I concocted Cyke essentially at the eleventh hour and in a review at the time, he was called one of the most original sidekicks in comics.
Why didn’t Adam stay on with Death Hawk?
Greener pastures…Death Hawk was a black and white book put out by a small independent publisher and he wanted to get more exposure, so he went over to Comico and a stint on the Maze Agency, which brought him to the attention of DC. Although a couple of DC editors take credit for “discovering” Adam, that’s revisionist history.
And then Rik Levins came aboard?
Yeah…although Rik had some large artistic shoes to fill, he did a great job on the subsequent issues. Some of his detail work was beautifully and meticulously rendered.
Did you work full script?
At first I did…but beginning with the second issue of Death Hawk I opted for the thumbnail layout method. Rik preferred that to full script because I could give him an idea of page and panel layout and cut down on some of his labor. It was a little more work for me, but I found over the years that this method works best for me and my collaborators.
Did you ever have an origin for Death Hawk?
A loose one, which I alluded to in “What Rough Beasts.” Death Hawk is the last survivor of a group of former settlers who had been displaced from their colony world by the corporations.
They took up residence in an old space station, like an abandoned deep-space fueling center. He was born there and when he was old enough, he joined their outlaw/pirate group called the Death Hawks, preying on corporate shipping and such.
They were betrayed by one of their own and wiped out, so Death Hawk became a man without a country or a home except for his ship, the Peregrine. Adam indicated places on Death Hawk’s coat where insignia patches had been torn off, either in disgust or self-preservation.
That sounds a little like the backstory for Joss Whedon’s Firefly.
Maybe, but the similarity doesn’t bother me. If there is an inspirational connection, I’m more flattered than anything else. Several people have pointed out the similarities between Death Hawk and Firefly to me over the last few years. Not all that long ago, an EBay comic’s dealer was selling the issues by claiming Death Hawk was, and I quote, “A fun sci-fi adventure very similar to Joss Whedon’s Firefly.”
The conceptual similarities are pretty obvious to people familiar with both properties. The ships, the Peregrine and Serenity are superficially alike, not only in configuration but also in the fact they’re both old rattletraps.
The planets of Amicus and Persephone are basically interchangeable…both Hawk and Malcolm Reynolds favor long western-style duster coats and handguns that fire bullets instead of energy beams…fans of Firefly are familiar with Saffron, the red-haired con artist who chose the name “Brigid” as an alias…
Even so, the similarities between the two properties are pretty superficial compared to the ones between Star Rangers and the Space Rangers TV series from 1993. That show was basically a clone, from the concepts to the characters…right down to the embittered, headband-wearing female pilots. But my embittered headband-wearing female pilot came first by about six years.
How popular was Death Hawk during its first run?
Hard to say now, all these years after the fact. I know the series garnered a generally positive reader response. And I did see a guy dressed up as Death Hawk at a SF convention, with a green balloon filled with colored water perched on his shoulder.
So, Hawk and Cyke filtered into popular culture on some level back then.
So there were two short stories of Death Hawk and three full issues?
Four issues were actually completed, but the fourth one was never published…until now. Adventure Publications went defunct and Malibu Comics picked up their flagship title, Adventurers, but I couldn’t come to terms with them on Death Hawk.
Didn’t you intend to publish it when you were the editor and co-publisher of Millennium Publications in the 1990s?
My partner (and wife) Melissa Martin and I considered it…we went so far as to commission a cover and some incidental/recap artwork from Darryl Banks.
We solicited for the never-published fourth issue, but the distributor orders didn’t justify printing it. Not that they were terrible, they just weren’t high enough to expend the time and effort to put it together, since we had several other titles that were pulling down very high numbers, in the 50K range.
Ironically, the orders for Death Hawk in those days were probably about what they are now on a second tier DC title. Besides, I always wanted to collect all the material as a graphic novel, since that’s how the storyline was basically constructed. We just weren’t set up to do that at the time.
You created the Outlanders novel series for Harlequin Enterprises, right?
Right…after I’d written several other books for them, like in their Executioner and Deathlands series.
Outlanders is a SF action-adventure series, although unlikeDeath Hawk, it’s fairly Earth-bound. It’s very popular and has been consecutively published for nearly 14 years, which even if I so say myself, is a pretty unique accomplishment in today’s book publishing climate…especially considering how little promotion has been done for it.
At this point I’m the author of over 45 published novels. As of July 2010, my most recent is Cryptozoica, a big epic that sort of jump-starts the “Lost World” thriller. It’s illustrated by the awesome Jeff Slemons.
Do you intend to return to the comics field in a significant way?
I don’t know about significant, but I do know I’ve been fortunate. I scripted critically acclaimed titles like the Wild, Wild West, Doc Savage and Nosferatu: Plague of Terror.
I also had the privilege of working with enormous talents like Jim Mooney, Darryl Banks, Don Heck, Doug Wildey, Adam Hughes and of course, the late Rik Levins…I became friends with great guys like Will Eisner. Collaborating with Jim and Darryl was especially meaningful.
My wife Melissa and I created our own publishing imprint and we’ve come out with some of my comics properties as trade paperback compilations like Nosferatu: Plague of Terror, The Miskatonic Project, The Justice Machine and of course, Death Hawk.
In the future we plan on publishing Star Rangers and Ninja Elite TPBs.
With all of these years of hindsight, what’s your opinion of your work on Death Hawk?
Hmm…at the time, there was sort of an editorial edict to keep the stories “simplified”, which is a euphemism for dumbed-down, as far as I’m concerned.
I really couldn’t explore everything I wanted (note to aspiring creators: editorial interference is not the same as collaboration). Anyway, if I were starting over, I’d make the character of Death Hawk a bit more introspective and wittier.
But having said that, I’m generally pleased with the work as whole…the characters are engaging, the art by Adam and Rik is excellent and the story values are solid. It holds up as a strong graphic narrative, featuring elements that have since become my trademark…beautiful women, strong adversaries and very bizarre events.
Death Hawk himself is a hard-luck hero, one of those who somehow manage to pull defeat out of the jaws of victory. I enjoy writing that kind of character.
Although I don’t consider Death Hawk to be my best comics work, I think it had the potential to be. I’m still very fond of the character and concepts, even though it’s pure, unadulterated space opera…which is what I set out to create.
But I’ll go out on a limb here and state that out of all the characters I’ve created or written–and they run the gamut from vampires to The Green Hornet–that Death Hawk and Cyke remain my favorites.
What goes on in Death Hawk: The Soulworm Saga Volume Two?
Basically, it will tie up the quest as well as reveal the truth behind Anton Chane’s obsession with the Soulworm …and it’s not pretty. The storyline takes a darker turn.
The plan at the moment is to present Volume Two as a web-comic, here on this very site. So stay tuned for announcements.
Death Hawk and Cyke will be back!