My Friend Steve Perry:
Remembering the Man & His Work, Part 2
Ah, hell, I don’t want to write this — I don’t want to post this — but here goes.
Though the Zephyrhills, Florida police still haven’t said anything conclusive, the headlines are becoming dire.
Kevin writes, “The disappearance of a writer for a 1980s cartoon series now is being investigated as a possible homicide. A man and woman who live with Stephen J. Perry — and who also initially were listed as missing under suspicious circumstances — are behind bars on unrelated charges.”
“Now Perry was missing, and possibly murdered…” writes Sullivan; more chilling still, he quotes Steve‘s estranged former partner (and Leo‘s mother) thus:
“Saturday, [Krystal] Carroll talked of Perry in the past tense. She would not say what detectives told her, as she doesn’t want to hurt the case.
But she did say her son ‘knows that Daddy is in heaven.’…”
[Steve and Leo Perry, photo compliments of Meredith Randazzo, taken on March 17, 2010 at Steve Perry's home in Zephyrhills, FL; ©2010 Meredith Randazzo, all rights reserved, posted with permission. Please do not take this photo for your own use or publication.]
To understand who and what Steve is and was – without revealing any particulars about his childhood – you must know that his childhood was irrevocably marked by adult betrayals. Abandonment, neglect, betrayal: this was just some of the baggage he had survived but carried into his own adult life.
From the time we first met, he always seemed to expect, dread the worst. Our friendship was shaped in part by the fact that I never, ever did anything but my best for or with Steve. Oh, I inevitably let him down many a time — I’ve let a lot of people down in my lifetime — but I always did my best not to.
Still, there was a blindspot there. Steve had a knack for alienating those who did their best for him, while drawn inexorably to those people, plans, schemes most likely to do him harm.
OK, enough on that, for now.
You must also understand a few basics about the business of comics. These are things freelancers know from hard experience, but those who only think of TV and movies and comics as somehow being money-machines for anyone involved simply don’t know, or care to comprehend when the realities are described to them.
Yes, there are wealthy cartoonists and writers working in the comics industry. We could name some of them – but I guarantee that a few of those you name aren’t as ‘wealthy’ as you might presume they are.
The majority of those working in the comics industry and TV animation industry (such as it is and has been) aren’t wealthy at all. Ever. They are, in fact, often living between scant paychecks, making due in lean times as best they can, occasionally earning good money in the fat times. Unless they are under exclusive contract or salaried employees (which is another kettle of fish altogether, with its benefits and problems), even the hardest-working freelance writers rarely enjoy anything resembling ‘stability’ or ‘a steady paycheck.’ It can and does, however, add up to ‘a living,’ albeit one fraught with peril and the need to refine certain rarified survival skills.
The illusion of wealth attributed to those who earn their livings creatively is too often just that: an illusion. Despite some healthy paychecks and steady output in the mid-1980s, Steve and his family (a household raising three boys) were still living modestly, and times were often painfully lean.
The problem with freelancing for a living during even the most prolific stretches is budgeting: no money comes in for weeks, even months (Steve sucked at budgeting — no dis there, a lot of folks suck at it). When checks do arrive, however fat they may be, the bills already due or overdue too often wipe out whatever’s just come in.
Know, too, that comicbook work-for-hire – which most comics work remained during these years, and all animation script work most definitely is and was – didn’t pay particularly well, and rarely offered royalties or dividends of any kind. (When it did, those checks were rare and always a surprise; they were nothing to be counted upon. It’s always a feast-or-famine lifestyle, and Steve was never good handling money when he did have it.)
Creator-owned or co-owned work paid even less. Though one was investing in one’s own property, the fact that Steve wasn’t an artist meant he had to work collaboratively, and this meant low page rates were divided to still lower shared checks split with penciler, inker, and sometimes letterer and colorist. A black-and-white creator-owned venture – like Salimba – for a black-and-white publisher – like Blackthorne (an imprint launched by former Pacific Comics publisher Steve Schanes) – paid precious little up front, and even less on the back end.
It’s inappropriate for me to get into what I might know about the division of payment on each project, but suffice to say here that Steve’s ongoing efforts to assert the primary position and import of the writer’s role also began to take a toll. “There’s nothing to draw without a script,” he started to say, with that quiet drawl only Steve could muster between his 19th and 20th cigarette. This new philosophy asserted itself after an evening spent with comics and TV writer Bruce Jones, who convinced Steve writers should be paid equal to or more than artists (Jones was, at the time, just coming off having editing and scripting Twisted Tales and making his move into scripting for television and movies).
This further strained relations with already underpaid creative partners on some projects, and was another factor in Timespirits coming to an end.
I am not vilifying Steve here: every creative team has to work out their respective division of labor, and how the paychecks – be they advances, page rates or royalties – will be divided, and why. While there are industry standards one can readily determine, each case is unique in and of itself. Did the writer originate the concept fully? Did the writer create the characters, including their visual design? Did the writer contribute more to the initial concept than the artist, or vice-versa? Did the writer sell the project first, and then bring in the artist, or did the artist do that legwork? Etc. Etc. Etc. – you get the idea.
And this gets back to that blindspot of his: Steve didn’t take care of his partners, in part because Steve rarely took care of himself. There was no malice in it, though there was a touch of greed, but Steve expected others to damn well watch out for themselves, too. That’s business, the American way. Short-term immediate gain trumped long-term relationships; if seeing to his needs first meant his partner was compromised or momentarily left out in the cold, well, that’s life. Or that was life as Steve had experienced it throughout his childhood.
As Steve began to feel the rush of some success, he began to assert his importance. This was natural; it was also problematic at times.
I was a steady friend, and when he would give me that “there’s nothing to draw without a script” line of bullshit, I would laugh and whip out four drawings in a few minutes to prove him wrong. In fact, in the methodology we’d evolved to work, there usually wasn’t a script until some drawings existed, and those fueled our best collaborations. I did character model sheets and/or portraits before scripts existed. I laid out pages and cranked out ever-refined thumbnails to feed Steve’s scripting process. In recently preparing a Center for Cartoon Studies lecture on how Steve and I created the story “A Frog is a Frog,” I found no less than four complete sets of roughs I’d completed (among sketchy intermediary stages) and over six drafts of Steve‘s scripts. We were rigorous in our process, despite tight deadlines, and Steve agonized over every single caption, sentence and word.
I also didn’t have any problem with Steve splitting the income: depending on the circumstances, 50/50 was fine with me, unless I needed an assist (from Rick Veitch or John Totleben), in which case we’d do a 1/3 to the writer, 2/3 to the art end split so I could properly pay Rick or John for the help. I didn’t let egos get in the way, and I had no problem asserting my will when I thought I was in the right, or the artwork required the additional income to get the job done on time. Steve would make those concessions with me fairly easily. I understand it didn’t always go so well with others.
Furthermore, Steve usually preferred work-for-hire. Many writers do, a fact I’ve taken some heat for over the years for stating – but it is a fact. It makes it easier to resolve the ‘who owns what?’ and ‘who should earn more?’ issues. If both creators are employees, neither is cast in the uncomfortable role of employer. For Steve, work-for-hire simplified equations and negotiations: the editor and/or publisher had already established the page rates, royalty split (if there were royalties) and so on.
This was fine with Steve. On work-for-hire jobs, there was no friction between team members; for the most part, the editor was the traffic cop, and jobs went smoothly.
Work-for-hire also paid more generous page rates, by mid-1980s standards, and Steve always went for the higher page rate if there was an option to do so. When we worked together on “The Saurian Remains” for editor Carl Potts and Amazing High Adventure, Marvel made a rare offer: we had the option of retaining our copyright ownership at a lower page rate, or selling the story outright to Marvel for a higher rate. Steve was in need, per usual; bills were overdue. We opted for the work-for-hire rate, and that was that. The check came in, and the money was gone in a heartbeat.
It usually was.
But we were being paid to make comics — and that, my friends, was the dream.
As long as Steve was fulfilling his dream of working in comics, he was able to sustain his momentum.
Throughout the mid-1980s, Steve had a pretty good run, but the demands of family life, the instability of freelancer income, the work time poured into projects that didn’t sell, and his own inability to responsibly handle money – well, it all added up. In time, all this took a toll.
Steve was bummed when Timespirits fell apart, and those last couple of issues were rocky going for Steve, Tom and editor Archie Goodwin. Steve had played a pivotal role in its eventual fate — the division of income remained a sore point to the end — and he knew that, but still, it was a loss.
His tougher negotiation stance in trying to squeeze the best possible deal for himself job to job, at times at the expense of a potential creative partner, also exacted a price, and fewer freelancers chose to work with Steve unless page rates were already set.
But the key nail in the coffin of Steve’s mid-‘80s comicbook writing career was the loss of the Thundercats scripting job.
We all have disappointments and setbacks, but this happened after Steve‘s working so hard to make it possible for issues to be scripted with prior approval on issues adapting existing Thundercats TV scripts.
I am not implying, by any stretch of the imagination, that that Marvel editor was single-handedly responsible for all that followed, right up to this past week’s tragedy. All freelancers deal with such things, at one time or another. It’s an old story with countless variations. Hell, I’ve seen Marvel do it to their own fucking editors: my first Marvel editor was fired between the time Marvel shipped him off to a major convention to promote Marvel Comics and his return to Manhattan to find his desk cleared, his office no longer his office, his job gone and someone else in his chair.
Comicbook publishers eat their own young at times. They’ll shrink their own mother’s head for a dollar. They have no problem doing the same to mere freelancers from hick towns in backwoods Bugfuck VT.
But it was a reprehensible act, typical of the kind of corporate shilling that thrives each and every day in American business: a salaried editor wielding power over a freelancer who did not earn a paycheck every Friday, who was utterly dependent on scoring that next issue scripting job, who went above and beyond to help the editor, to streamline the working process and ease of meeting deadlines – a salaried Marvel editor canned Steve for making that editor’s job easier.
Instead of being rewarded for using all his inside connections at Rankin/Bass (the producers of the Thundercats animated TV series) to accomplish what no other Marvel editor or staffer or freelancer had, Steve was effectively punished.
The editor assigned the remaining year’s inventory of issue scripting to the editor’s friends and associates – other writers.
It was a major hit to Steve’s freelance income, his family’s next year of making ends meet, Steve‘s ability to work and bring home the bacon, an irrevocable blow to all he had worked toward.
It also demolished, with a single act, his lifelong dream: to regularly write for Marvel Comics.
Who needs a boss that fucks you over? He had just done a major favor for Marvel Comics, and he’d been fucked over. Shafted. Dumped. Screwed. He’d made the editor’s job easier, and the editor ‘fired’ Steve without firing him.
After all, when you’re an editor, you don’t have to fire freelancers.
You just don’t have to return their phone calls.
You don’t owe them an explanation; you don’t have to tell them what happened, or why.
You just have to let them dangle.
You just have to let them figure it out, which they eventually will when the phone doesn’t ring and the increasingly desperate calls to the person they thought was “their editor” aren’t returned, and the news that other writers are writing what you thought was ‘your’ comicbook series slowly reaches you.
You just have to lock your door and hide under your desk when the freelancer shows up at the office.
They go home with nothing… sans a next job, either. More nothing, coming right up!
The editor, of course, still goes home with a paycheck that Friday.
After the loss of Thundercats, the fire went right out of Steve’s eyes.
Something childish but essential had been extinguished: even in the realm of comics, yet another major adult betrayal of his hopes and dreams had rolled him into the dirt.
As I say, it happens all the time — but Steve didn’t have the wherewithall to deal with this blow.
It was the end of a fertile creative run, a tombstone on his career, such as it was, and I’m sorry to say I never saw Steve regain his footing from that day onward.
This precipitated a downward spiral Steve never recovered from. The chips fell pretty quickly thereafter, loss upon loss, calamity upon calamity, disaster upon disaster, and it never seemed to let up. His marriage dissolved and he lost all sense of purpose and direction, abandoning freelance and working odd local jobs with no greater goal in sight.
Mind you, Steve had worked odd jobs all through the 1970s, including grunt work, day jobs, editing a specialty paper in Waterbury, VT, working for a newspaper in Burlington VT – but that was OK, he had a higher goal: he was really a writer, he was really going to write comics.
But after Marvel so unceremoniously dumped him from Thundercats, there was no higher goal. The odd jobs – including delivering WIC diary and food to needy families – were an aftermath, what came after. There was no future: he would not be writing comics again. He’d worked and jockeyed and positioned himself to the goalpost over years, to arrive at scripting a monthly Marvel comicbook – and he’d been punished for it. Betrayed. Disposed of.
Steve repeatedly told me at the time, “I am a failure; who did I think I was?” By 1991, he was eking out a feast-or-famine living of sorts as a flea market dealer. He badly mismanaged his initial partnership with our mutual friend Alan Goldstein on the launch of First Run Video, the first video superstore to open in southern Vermont; by the time First Run Video opened its doors to business in November 1991, Steve was no longer part of the venture (with no fault to Alan, I hasten to add). It was another failure, another loss, another betrayal – the worst kind: a self-betrayal. He’d fucked himself out of co-owning a business he himself had initiated and named.
Steve sustained a hand-to-mouth lifestyle that continued right up to this month. With the exception of a fairly recent period of time he was caretaking an apartment building for a few years, his life became scoring and selling, well, junk: lots of junk, spiced with the occasional genuine collectible. He was forever in search of ‘the big score’ — and those times he did score, he squandered the rewards, or lost them completely, or even had to return the income. It seemed endless, the variations on the theme.
And all through this he essentially abandoned writing completely, only occasionally returning to the keyboard, including stabs at writing genre novels (crime and/or horror) and comics, but he had burned many bridges behind him. When he’d tell me of his latest insane real-life escapades (and there were some doozies), I’d urge him to use it as the springboard for a novel. If he’d simply written what he’d lived, as fictionalized autobiography, he’d have easily sold his first novel. I still believe that to be true.
When he showed me the initial two chapters of a horror novel he’d begun, I thought it was good stuff. It made me cringe, laugh, and there was one zinger grossout. Damn my eyes, I made the mistake of praising it – and I was praising it! – by evoking the pleasures Steve used to find in the prolific British writer Guy N. Smith’s novels (author of the infamous Crabs novel series). I thought he’d get the connection; after all, he was the friend who’d turned me on to Guy N. Smith’s work back in the 1970s and ’80s, and his bookshelves were once peppered with Smith’s most lurid tomes (Steve’s favorite title of them all was The Sucking Pit). Unfortunately, Steve took it all wrong; he was offended at the comparison, though those opening chapters reveled in a setting (a beach) and grue evocative of Smith’s Crab novels. The younger Steve would have laughed and it would have lit a fire under him to crank up the horrors to come; but he was now a sliver of his former self, lacking all confidence and self-esteem.
I never again compared anything he wrote to any other living author, but the damage had been redone, much to my regret. “I’m no writer,” Steve told me repeatedly during this period, “that was some other fellow I no longer am.”
Throughout all this, Steve was a father. With his first wife, he had three boys; their first son was born in 1983. He had a fourth son with his second wife in a marriage that lasted less than a year and ended acrimoniously. Sometime after 2000, he began working with an Eastern states carnival, joining the nomadic Maine-to-Florida circuit where he eventually sired another child who is now five years old — his son Leo.
Over the past few years and months and weeks and days, he dedicated his life wholeheartedly to this youngest son.
Somehow, on that journey, the spark to write was rekindled.
During the last two years, Steve occasionally returned to the keyboard. He collaborated with artist and long-time friend Jim Wheelock on a semi-autobiographical carnival-set series entitled Red Eye Gravy (as yet unpublished). In 2009 Steve pitched a crime series proposal to Vertigo Comics (which was politely declined by series editor Karen Berger) and scripted a one-pager for a forthcoming Hero Initiative benefit comicbook.
His involvement with Hero Initiative really fired him up to tackle his dream of writing for comics again, though he did so tentatively and constantly belittling his efforts, girding himself for the inevitable denial of the dream or pending betrayal. In 2010, Steve scripted a new story, “The Battle of Dulce,” for Surprising Theater #4 (forthcoming, SuperGraphics, September 2010), and also completed and delivered a new Salimba short story, “Baby: A Salimba Tale,” after clearing ownership rights with his former Salimba partner Paul Chadwick and selling the property series to AboutComics publisher Nat Gertler.
That was Steve’s final professional writing effort.
I’m still reeling with the shock of this week’s news.
Whatever happened to Steve – and we still don’t know what it is or was – it’s horrific, savage, violent.
Steve was a gentle man. Though he was often his own worst enemy, battling his own worst instincts, various addictions (including alcohol), and was locked in the end with a life-and-death struggle with cancer that consumed his organs and this entire past year of life, I maintained my friendship with Steve and did all I could for him because he was, at heart, a good man. If I honestly didn’t believe — know — that, it would have been easy to walk away long, long ago. Many people did.You love your friends for who and what they are, and you do your best — or you don’t remain friends. We remain friends. Given his formative years, Steve lacked certain skills that might have kept his head above water and even allowed him to thrive. But he was, at heart, a good man. He was a gentle man.
As many of you know, over this past year of his life, Steve battled cancer with the help of aid from the organization Hero Initiative, and the donations and contributions from fellow comicbook professionals and an international fanbase that rallied to help him. He did so with more determination and tenacity then I’ve ever seen from him.
This communal effort, along with a harrowing near-death experience after a particularly grueling surgery a little over a month ago, awakened Steve to a new sense of self-worth and appetite for life that he hadn’t expressed in over two decades.
He was hopeful, despite the overwhelming odds against him.
His lifestyle during his last 20 years constantly put him in the proximity of sketchy characters, and I fear that blindspot – his uncanny inability to recognize those who might do him the worst harm, even while he always expected everyone was capable of doing him harm – has taken terrible toll. Perhaps, I fear, the ultimate toll.
Steve Perry is my friend.
He’s no longer talking to anyone. He’s no longer answering his emails. He’s no longer there for his youngest son, or his older sons.
I fear I’ll never be talking to or drawing for or with Steve ever again…
God, I miss him.