Editor's note: Chris Bolton is not only a former Powell's employee, he was also once the primary writer for this blog. So we are particularly proud today to post the following essay by our former coworker and friend as he promotes the publication of his first book. Congratulations, Chris!
As is so often the case in life, the conception of Smash was a whole lot easier — and faster — than the birth.
A bit of background first. My younger brother Kyle and I grew up loving comic books. The monthly trip to the comic shop was our mecca. We spent our $20 allowance in a heartbeat — although our poor, sainted mother, waiting in her hot car, might argue it took many, many heartbeats. The comic books of the 1980s influenced our creative growth: Kyle became an artist whose style bore a distinctly comic-bookish flavor, while my writing was heavily influenced by the serialized storylines and cliffhanger endings of comics.
Several years into reluctant adulthood, while Kyle was attending the Art Institute of Seattle, I took the train north for a visit. We were walking around downtown Seattle when we spotted a comic book store. Feeling a twinge of nostalgia for the childhood love we'd left behind in our late-teens when friends, cars, and dating took prominence over superhero sagas, we took a trip down memory lane into the familiar, comforting environs.
What happened next must be a lot like how it feels to walk into your childhood home, only to discover it has been taken over by squirrels, owls, and skunks.
We staggered out of the comic shop feeling dazed, asking ourselves, What's happened to comic books? We recalled them as fun power fantasies, where brightly clad good guys made lame jokes while beating up darkly dressed bad guys.
But in the 1990s, all that changed. The good guys dressed dark and acted darker than the bad guys. It wasn't enough simply to punch your enemy — you had to hit him so hard, his head exploded like a piñata full of brains. But worst of all, the comics we saw weren't fun anymore. They were grim and tortured, sometimes outright sadistic.
Kyle and I looked at each other and asked, "If we were 10 years old today, would we even start reading comics?"
Over several days of talking about it, we decided the solution was for us to create the comic we wanted to read — and would have loved as young kids. And what was the one thing we wanted more than any other at that age?
The answer hit me like a blast of gamma radiation that changes a 1960s scientist into a superhuman crime fighter. We wanted to be superheroes! With our own powers and costumes! And not when we grew up, not as adults — but right then, when we needed them most, as little boys who had no control over our lives and felt powerless in a world we were only barely beginning to understand.
A 10-year-old superhero. That's what we wanted to see.
That was the conception. The quick and easy part.
Over the following weeks and months, we tossed around ideas for costumes and names. The sad fact is, pretty much every superhero name humanly possible has been used at least once since Superman leaped his first tall building in a single bound. The years following his instant success saw a host of imitators with names like Captain Justice, Mr. Terrific, and Dr. Cape Man.
Add to that every graphic novel in the vein of Watchmen, where the characters are meant to be recognizable analogues to popular heroes like Batman and Spider-Man, and you'll find yourself quickly running out of adjectives, animals, and elements that someone, somewhere, hasn't attached to a muscular character in a cape and tights. Soon, the names you jot down take on surreal, Simpsonsian qualities like Super Nuclear Fantastic Hero Lad (an early discard).
Luckily, the costume design came together much easier. Kyle saw a pair of World War II goggles with red lenses and liked the distinctive look. We wanted a simple mask, something iconic that could be recognized at a glance without maddening details that had to be drawn over and over, like those webs all over Spider-Man's mask. And, of course, we needed a cape, because The Incredibles hadn't been made yet and demonstrated once-and-for-all the suicidal lunacy of the superhero cape.
I don't recall Kyle drawing more than three or four faces before he hit on the simple but eye-catching design for our hero. Right away we both wanted that face on T-shirts and Underoos — not to sell, but so we could wear them.
Smash's body design was a bit more problematic. At first, Kyle drew him as a tween, which meant he was short but lanky. Like most boys stumbling through early puberty, Smash looked pretty awkward, as some parts of his body sprouted while others stayed small. I felt we needed something more compact and roundish. I'd always liked the short, squat build of the Peanuts characters, Calvin from Calvin and Hobbes, and the Smurfs. Once Kyle sketched that version a few times, I fell in love. Luckily, so did he.
The more I thought about our hero's identity, the more it seemed to me he needed to be relatable. I couldn't recall wanting the ability to shoot energy bolts from my fingertips or turn different colors or shape-shift. All my childhood superhero fantasies (and, I must confess, the adult ones, as well) involved the simplest, most elemental powers: running too fast to catch, superhuman strength, and the ability to fly.
Flying was the big one. Who wouldn't want to lift up off the ground and soar over rooftops, hills, and lakes? Nobody I knew. The often-asked question of whether you'd wish to fly or be invisible really only had one acceptable answer; anyone who wanted to be invisible seemed a little creepy, and nobody wanted to talk to them after that.
While I was thinking about these basic powers, I also considered the tropes of comic-book storytelling — namely, sound effects. Every time a newspaper published a story about the state of comic books, the headline read, "Bam! Pow! Zap! Comics aren't just for kids anymore." But we wanted comics to be for kids again. Our comic, at least.
And we wanted those silly sound effects. The one I liked best was SMASH. It just felt good to say the word out loud — and your mouth ends up making a smile formation when you pronounce it.
In just a few months, all the pieces came together. We created Smash... but he still wasn't in the world yet.
Smash became our Bigfoot: blurry, unfocused — barely a rumor, never to be captured or proven. We wistfully revisited the project every few months on the phone:
"You know that Smash idea? We should start making that someday."
"Yeah, someday we should."
"Is someday today?"
On occasion, Kyle sent me a sketch or a full-paged illustration out of the blue. I would drool and get excited. But it was just a tease. Kyle was far too busy with a new marriage, a house, and working as a Flash animator for numerous start-ups and game companies.
I held on to the idea, as I usually do — always recycling, finding ways to strip the best parts of a defunct concept and reuse them in another — but I spent most of the next 10 years pursuing my movie-making dreams. While I worked in the Powell's marketing department, I spent my nights and weekends writing screenplays that I hoped to sell in order to finance my own feature films. I tried to get an agent or manager, made some unlikely connections, had a few close calls, but got the same response over and over: "I like the writing, but the story doesn't work for me. Got anything else?"
Finally, when I ran out of "anything else" to send — not to mention patience — I turned back to the Smash idea that always seemed so full of potential. I called Kyle up: "Hey, I really love that Smash idea, and I want to get started on it right now. I know you're too busy with other things, so I'm going to post a notice at the art schools in Portland, looking for an aspiring comic artist. I just wanted to get your permission to go ahead with someone else."
There was a long pause on the other line. Finally, Kyle said, "You know, actually, I've been thinking... maybe now is a good time to take a shot at Smash."
Do I know my little brother or what? Someday had finally come.
Well, almost. It took a few more years of working at it — actually, about 10 more years. After comic publishers rejected Smash because they said there was no market for kids' comics, we decided to post the adventures of our superpowered boy as a free webcomic. Then we found the world's greatest literary agent, Bernadette Baker-Baughman, who promptly wrangled a book deal with Candlewick Press. Even then, it took a couple more years of editing, rewriting, and redrawing — adding more than 30 new pages to our webcomic and revising most of the other pages — before our long-gestating baby finally entered the world.
And now, at long last, Smash: Trial by Fire goes on sale everywhere. I couldn't be a prouder papa.