This article originally appeared in Strangehaven issue issue #16, June 2004.
It’s not often that anyone gets the chance to have an input into an iconic series, however small; it’s not even very often that a serial self-publisher that’s used to controlling his own creations gets to run around in the corporate playground. So it was very much a thrill to have the opportunity to write and illustrate a one-off 14-page Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror strip for Bongo Comics’ 9th annual Halloween special, which was published in the US last October.
At first, in the days when The Simpsons animated series was gaining its initial TV screening in the UK on the limited audience Sky satellite platform, I wasn’t impressed. All that I happened to see of the show was an animated music video of a precocious saw-headed, crudely drawn young boy doing the “Bartman” on Top of the Pops which did nothing to convince me that The Simpsons would be worth investigating.
In fact, it wasn’t until a couple of years later, and well into the run of terrestrial airings on BBC2, that I chanced upon the second series episode, “Three Men and a Comic Book” Which blew me away. What the hell had I been missing? It was shortly afterwards that I realised the show had been created by Matt Groening, the same Matt Groening that had written and drawn the Love is Hell book which just so happens to be one of my favourite cartoon collections.
I soon became, like so many before me, a Simpsons devotee, religiously taping all the shows from TV, which I am now currently replacing with the excellent new DVD box sets. So how could I turn down the opportunity to add my own small brick to the towering edifice that The Simpsons has become?
I pitched the idea of a Simpsons/From Hell/Jack the Ripper parody to Bongo Comics editor Terry Delegeane at the 2002 San Diego Comic-Con. My proposal was less than professional, scrawled hurriedly by hand, due to my PC holding my original neatly-typed manuscript hostage on my hard drive following a power supply failure a week prior to my departure to sunny California.
Fortunately, Terry saw through my poor presentation and hired me to write, and – to my surprise – to pencil and ink the strip (which I also ended up lettering) for Bongo’s annual Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror – a comic version of the TV’s show’s yearly Halloween special. With Treehouse, Bongo had started casting their web a little wider, offering work to creators not normally associated with Simpsons comics, like Dan Brereton, Peter Kuper, Garth Ennis, Jeff Smith and Peter Bagge to name a few.
So I got to work on my story – “From Hell and Back” – a parody of the classic From Hell graphic novel by Alan Moore and Eddie Campbell, or more specifically, the worthy attempt at the movie adaptation starring Johnny Depp.
My only problem was the schedule – by the time my full script had been approved by Bongo honcho Bill Morrison, I was knee deep in editorial duties for the mammoth Alan Moore: Portrait book and Strangehaven #15, both of which were scheduled for publication in May. So instead of taking a break after a year’s slog on those two projects and the Bristol Festival, I ploughed straight into the artwork in order to get it to Bongo in time for them to get it coloured before the print deadline.
I attempted to ape Eddie’s scratchy chiaroscuro backgrounds and nine-panel page compositions while combining it with a slightly roughened classic Simpsons cartoony look for the characters themselves, which to my relief kinda worked.
I really couldn’t fault the Bongo editorial guys; they were very understanding of my scheduling problems and had I pretty much a free reign to do what I want regarding the artwork after Bill and I had discussed a few issues with my original script.
The Twentieth Century Fox/Bongo work-for-hire contract was a bit of an eye-opener though, with all kinds of bizarre restrictions limiting my use of the Simpsons characters to, well, no use at all, really, no sketching any Simpsons characters at conventions, and, get this, no sketching any Simpsons for my own “personal use” (?)! It was also difficult to have to sign away all the rights for ownership and reproduction for all eternity and for the entire known universe (and any subsequently discovered universes) with my sole recompense being the fee, which, although very generous, was a difficult thing to do for someone who otherwise is used to owning all their own material.
But the final result seems to have gone down well with the readers, especially the Alan Moore fans. It was a project very rewarding both financially and in terms of experience of working under corporate restrictions, but best of all was being able to contribute my own teeny tiny piece to the Simpsons mythos.
Bart Simpson’s Treehouse of Horror #9 (Bongo Comics) October 2003
By Paul Dini, Ted Naifeh, Gary Spencer Millidge, Ian Boothby and Dan Brereton
48 pages, full colour, $4.99 US.