The comic-book industry has never seen, and will never see again, anything like the explosion that happened in the 1980s, when the proliferation of specialty shops, the influx of maverick independent publishers printing black-and-white books and the rise of collectors and speculators combined to blow the field wide open. Although they were still overlords of the scene, the old-line kingpin companies Marvel and DC found their gates suddenly stormed by upstart titles and creators, often carrying experimental or off-trail content well outside the boundaries of the establishment.

It couldn’t last, of course. And it didn’t. By the early ‘90s, the speculators had fled to other financial opportunities, the comics shops found themselves with stacks of independent product they couldn’t give away, and DC and Marvel were busy flooding the newsstands with so many titles that there was no room left for anyone else. As I once said at a comic-book convention panel discussion, Marvel was Godzilla, DC was King Kong and the rest of us were Tokyo. 

But while it was happening, it was golden, especially to those of us lucky and blessed enough to have been a part of it. My Claremore-based artist partner Terry Tidwell and I got in on the action with the series The Miracle Squad, The Twilight Avenger and The Uncanny Man-Frog, in addition to working with others on separate projects. And because these publishers allowed – and in many cases encouraged – their creators to think beyond adventure and superhero situations, my friend James Vance found an outlet for his brilliant Depression-era tale Kings In Disguise, which had begun life as a play presented by the Tulsa Parks Department a couple of years earlier.

Published by the Wisconsin-based Kitchen Sink Press, which had established itself years earlier as a leading underground-comix imprint, Kings In Disguise went on to win the two biggest awards in the industry, along with international accolades from both within and outside the comic-book community. When it was reprinted by the major New York book publisher W.W. Norton & Company in 2006, Time magazine’s Andrew Arnold wrote, “a groundbreaker of form when it first appeared, Kings In Disguise remains one of the best graphic novels ever published.” 

A tough act to follow? You bet. But Vance and his Kings In Disguise collaborator, artist Dan E. Burr, have done it, and then some, with the brand-new On The Ropes. A sequel to Kings that’s once again published by Norton, On The Ropes finds young protagonist Fred Bloch rolling through the heartland with a WPA circus, and soon becoming involved – as he did in Kings – with the labor-management violence that plagued 1930s America. A sense of impeding tragedy drenches every page, but there’s hope and love as well, all played out in a setting memorably conveyed by Vance’s words and Burr’s drawings. There’s not an inauthentic line, whether drawn or uttered, in the whole book, which reflects the creators’ determination to get it right on every level.

“It’s fiction, obviously, but I felt like I had to know what was going on in the world at the time."

“Everything had to be correct, historically,” Vance says. “It’s fiction, obviously, but I felt like I had to know what was going on in the world at the time. And this two-month period, basically, in 1937 (when On The Ropes occurs) was incredibly full of events. With the labor material alone, we’re talking about the Memorial Day massacre – which is in the book – the Little Steel Strike and other strikes all over the place. At the same time all this is going on, the Golden Gate Bridge opens, and Orson Welles is rehearsing (the controversial pro-union musical) The Cradle Will Rock in New York and losing his gig with the WPA Theatre because of it.

“I just wanted to make sure that the story was not only plausible, but also accurate, and that it was all placed within the correct framework,” he adds. “So if you really cared about these things, you could pick up on the references and find further things to read about them. It’s not a historical document. It’s certainly not footnoted. But you can follow a lot of the threads that are planted in there, and they’ll take you into things that were really happening at the time.”

Like Kings In Disguise, On The Ropes first saw life as a play scripted by Vance and produced in Tulsa. But On The Ropes, although a sequel to Kings, actually came first. 

“It was a play I wrote back in 1979, the second full-length play I’d written,” he recalls. “I was taking some classes and working at what was then Tulsa Junior College, now TCC. I’d been working in theater in the area on and off for some years, and I finally got the nerve to put some things I’d written out in front of the public. Carlton Winters ran the theater program there, and he put on my first full-length play, which was called Fireflies.”

Fireflies ended up winning some awards, and, says Vance with a chuckle, “since the awards came with cash, I thought, ‘Well, I’ll keep after it.’”

So, the next year, Vance and Winters followed up with On The Ropes – which, unlike Fireflies, was a period piece.

“I’ve been asked why I used that setting and subject matter, and there’s really no concrete answer,” he says. “I know I was looking into ‘30s theatrical history, and I’d seen something about the WPA Theatre projects that were being done back then. I was probably checking out Orson Welles’ stuff for the WPA Theatre, but it’s been so long ago that it all runs together.

“I do remember being at a restaurant talking to somebody, and just out of the blue, the image of a guy standing on a gallows talking to a bunch of people came to me. I thought, ‘Well, I can do something with that.’ So that sort of got jammed up with what I was looking into at the time, and I started trying to cobble together a story of the WPA Theatre with a guy on a gallows. It just grew from there.”

That guy, Gordon Corey, is a pivotal character in both the play and the graphic novel. Complex and disturbing, he was in a way inspired by then-TJC director, Carlton Winters, a legendary figure in Tulsa theater, who took the role in the stage production.

“If I hadn’t known Carlton was available when I was writing the play, the character would have been different,” explains Vance. “I probably would’ve written something that was a little safer, that a one-size-fits-all actor could’ve done. But having somebody of Carlton’s ability made it possible for me to just let it go, to pull out the stops and let Gordon be everything he could possibly be.”

And, interestingly enough, Winters’ visual presence is also felt in the graphic novel.

“Dan Burr drew some character designs and sent them to me, and I said, ‘I like Gordon, but he’s going to age back and forth, because there are flashbacks. So let’s do something with his hairline, or his eyes, something to show that he’s aging,’” remembers Vance. “So he monkeyed with Gordon’s hairline and sent it back to me – and it looked just like Carlton!”

Available from W.W. Norton & Company in a beautiful, oversized hardback, On The Ropes can also be purchased from area bookstores as well as and other online outlets. Kings In Disguise is also still available and highly recommended.

And if you have any spending cash after purchasing those two, I humbly direct you to (or, where you can find a collection of my own Miracle Squad stories from the ‘80s in graphic-novel format.

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