Thursday, August 22, 2013

Toons vs. Roger Rabbit: A Brief History of TOONS Pt 2

My comedy series TOONS has a particularly complicated past, so I thought you might like to hear its journey. I'll be discussing how I came up with it, the path of writing, the problems I faced trying to get it published through traditional publishing, and how it ended up self-published. Part one was about how I came up with the idea. Part two, the struggle for publication and complications from Roger Rabbit.

I wrote the original manuscript for what would become Toons back in the early eighties. In the original draft, it was just meant to be an introduction to what I thought would be a long series, so it was a fraction of what the series has become. I knew very little about professional writing back then, so I did some weird stuff like putting whole chapters in italics and calling chapters "reels." But I liked it so much, I even wrote two sequels; The Wonderful Wonderwoods set entirely in the fairy tale world, and The Untoonables set entirely in the black-and-white Monochrome Zone. At that point, I decided to hold off on writing the next book and maybe try selling the first one.

I did some research to find my competition, and couldn't find another book like mine. The closest were Krazy Kat by Jay Cantor, a mostly dramatic and philosophical novel about the Krazy Kat comic strip, and Who Censored Roger Rabbit by Gary Wolf. At the time, the movie adaptation didn't exist, so I read it just as a book. Reading Roger Rabbit actually made me feel better. The novel is so much different from the movie: the cartoons are newspaper comic strip characters, not animated characters, and the story is much darker with Roger's decomposing clone trying to solve his own murder. (I'll post a review of the novel later) The point is, I thought, "Great, mine's totally unique."

When I started shopping the book around, I discovered "unique" is a dirty word in publishing. Presenting the novel, I got back rejection letters that sometimes had comments on how confusing it was. I found the real problem when I met with a local member of a writer's collective for advice and faced absolute bewilderment. The conversation went something like this:

Interviewer: "What genre is this?"
Me: "I dunno. Science fiction?"
Interviewer: "But it's a comedy?"
Me: "Yes, it's supposed to be funny. Ever read Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy?"
Interviewer: "No. Where are all the people?"
Me: "It's a cartoon world. They don't have that many people."
Interviewer: "I'm having trouble imagining what the characters look like."
Me: "They look like cartoons."
Interviewer: "I think you might get sued."
Me: "All the characters are original."
Interviewer: "I'll be honest, I don't know who would buy this."
Me: "Thanks for your help."

At that point, I grew really discouraged. But I kept trying. And then, everything changed.

I remember when I first saw it: a cover story on the scifi magazine Starlog for the new movie Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I thought, "Huh, interesting. They made it into a movie." When I started reading, I discovered they made big changes that made it more like my novel. I read about a movie set in a cartoon world, where the characters interact with human beings. My first thought was that this could be good for my novel, but I worried people would think I ripped off Roger Rabbit. They even used the same word that I used to describe them: "toons."

I saw the movie. I loved it, of course. It captured a lot of the passion for animation that I shared. But when I went back to trying to publish Toons, I had a new problem. I no longer had as much heavy lifting to explain the concept, but the conversations I had with people about the book changed.

Me: "It's about cartoons."
Other: "So it's like Roger Rabbit?"
Me: "No, Roger Rabbit was set in the real world. My story is set in the world of cartoons."
Other: "But it's like Roger Rabbit?"
Me: "No, Roger Rabbit was a murder mystery. My novel is an adventure."
Other: "But it sounds like Roger Rabbit."
Me: "Well, Roger Rabbit was a movie. This is a novel."
Other: "Okay, just saying it sounds like Roger Rabbit."
Me: "Fine. It's like Roger Rabbit."

Almost overnight, Toons went from a concept no one would buy because it was too weird to a concept no one would buy because it was a ripoff. And I admit, I grew bitter that I couldn't escape the shadow of the monumental hit movie. It was a little like trying to sell a TV show set in space, and constantly being compared to Star Trek.

But then one day, I got a call. I finally found a publisher for Toons.

And then the problems really started.

Continued in part three.

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