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Writer of Death Hawk & Nosferatu: Plague of Terror

by Richard Vasseur - (Posted: 4/14/2007)

Mark Ellis

Richard: Why or how did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

Mark Ellis: I’d like to say it was because I couldn’t stand getting up early, but since I get up early now, that reason doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. I suppose I was always a creative type. Writing was the easiest and cheapest way to express those creative urges…I’ve been working at it professionally in one capacity or another for over 20 years now, although at this point, I prefer to think of myself as a "creator" rather than limit myself to just being a "writer." I tend to think writers get kicked around more than creators, although that’s probably a misconception.

Richard: What was it like working on "Star Rangers" with Jim Mooney?

Mark: Well, Jim is one of my two best friends…I’ve known him for over half my life now, since I was in my 20s and he’s more like family. When we first met, he was still under exclusive contract to Marvel and although we had always wanted to work together on a project, he was looking forward more to retiring. A year or two after he did so in the late 80s, a series of unfortunate events made him realize he had to start working again. About that time I had been asked to write/create the Star Rangers series for Adventure Publications. I asked Jim if he was interested in working on the series with me and he agreed, much to my relief. Although we basically created Star Rangers, by the time editorial hands had been laid on our original concept, the series itself really didn’t reflect our combined vision of a "Lonesome Dove in Space."

Although the actual process of collaborating with Jim was fun, we both were a little disgruntled and disheartened by the way our concept had been jerked around with.

We were much happier with the short story, "A Trip To Necropolis" that appeared in the horror anthology, Angry Shadows. I’m proud to say that Jim considers it his best comics work. The graphic novel Lakota is my particular favorite of what we’ve worked on together.

Richard: Do you have any fond memories you can share of your comic book work?

In my collaborations with artists, I’ve been pretty lucky. I never really had any creative differences with any of the artists I worked with but I enjoyed the best rapport with Jim and Darryl Banks. They always exceeded my expectations and both of them were true professionals. I still consider it an honor and pleasure to have worked with them. I enjoyed working with Adam Hughes, Franc Reyes and Rik Levins very much, too.

Other fond memories are those of working with artists I admired while growing up…Don Heck for example, who as far as I’m concerned was a wonderfully accomplished artist and a good guy who was treated very poorly by the industry toward the end of his life. Doug Wildey was another creator with whom I enjoyed interacting …Will Eisner was another fabulous creator I had held in great esteem for many years…we actually discussed doing an illustrated Spirit novel, with me handling the prose end of it.

I admire artists enormously…so as a comics writer, I always tried to play to their strengths and give them the opportunities to do what they did the best. I never viewed artists as drone-like extensions of my imagination.

Richard: You have done a number of adaptations, do you find it hard to interpret them without changing them from the original to much?

Mark: With Doc Savage, The Wild Wild West and to an extent, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., I found elements that hadn’t been played up significantly in the original incarnations and emphasized them. I didn’t change anything, I just focused on different aspects of the material that was already there, like making Doc Savage’s growing disenchantment with the life he was leading a major plot point…that was mentioned in several late 30s novels by Lester Dent. It seemed to work, since the first Doc Savage mini-series that Darryl and I did is generally regarded as the best comics adaptation of the character.

The Comics Buyers Guide Catalog of Comic Books called our version the one "to come closest to the original, capturing all the action, humanity and humor of the original novels."

I adapted It! The Terror From Beyond Space, too….that was a little different since it was a straight adaptation of a pre-existing work. I didn’t have a script…I recorded the movie and just listened to the dialogue over and over again until I nearly went mad. About the only change I made from Jerome Bixby’s original screenplay was that the first Mars mission found the creature in a state of suspended animation in the so-called Great Pyramid of Mars and accidentally revived it.

.Richard: How do you feel about your work on "Nosferatu: Plague of Terror"?

Mark: I set out to write a vampire tale that featured a "real" vampire, so to speak…the folkloric vampire, one that was nasty and dirty and associated with disease…not the prettied-up, ruffled-shirt Anne Rice version which was so popular at the time (early 1990s). Overall, I’m pleased with how the storyline came out. The artwork by Rik Levins, Richard Pace and Frank Turner is great and actually Rik paid me a high compliment when he read the first script—he said it was the only comics story that actually creeped him out while it was still in script form..

Richard: You and your wife Melissa have collaborated on the book "Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels" how has it been making it?

Mark: It’s been a relatively simple process so far…we looked over a number of other "how to" books dealing with comics production and made notes in the areas we felt they were lacking and tried to fill in those deficiencies. Since Melissa is an accomplished graphic designer and artist as well as a writer, the book has quite a bit of useful advice in it, particularly with time and money-saving tips about publication production. Also there’s a lot of art in the book that shows the various stages from rough pencil layouts to completed pages, ready for printing.

Richard: Would you like to work for Marvel or DC?

Mark: A tentative yes…obviously I would enjoy writing some of their characters that I have affinity for, but by the same token I’m not too keen on getting wrapped up in corporate-owned characters when I’ve got my own to exploit— and I mean that in a good way, of course. But, if a Marvel or DC editor wants to talk to me about it, I’m certainly open.

Richard: Why have you decided to collect your comic mini-series into graphic novels?

Mark: The advances in POD technology have made it a reasonable investment in both time and money. Rather than embark on the time-consuming (and often times frustrating) submission process with publishers, it seems to make more sense to do it ourselves. Between Melissa and I, we’ve got the know-how and the wherewithal and to an extent, the name recognition as creators. And, the material is solid and has worth. Not too long ago, we were approached about selling the film rights to Nosferatu: Plague of Terror and that’s what gave us the idea to repackage our properties as graphic novels.

Richard: Who is James Axler?

Mark: Hah. Trick question. At this point, James Axler is me, for all intents and purposes. Actually, James Axler is a house pseudonym used as a byline for the Deathlands and Outlanders series published by Gold Eagle. The late Laurence James, who wrote the first 33 books in the Deathlands series was the first James Axler…I’m the second, but I’ve also written far and away more books as Axler than anyone else, including Mr. James, who stopped writing as Axler in 1995. Also, unlike Mr. James and the other "Axler" writers, I’m the only one who has created an ongoing series for Gold Eagle (an English writer named Christopher Lowder (under the name Jack Adrian) actually created Deathlands).

Richard: How did you come up with the idea for "Outlanders"?

Mark: I’d written several novels for Gold Eagle, including contributions to the Deathlands series, and in late 1995, I was asked to create a new ongoing series for them. The first version of what I came up with was surprisingly close to what Stargate SG-1 evolved into...this was of course, well over a year before SG-1 premiered on Showtime. I was inspired far more by the Silver Age Challengers of the Unknown, the Fantastic Four and even X-Files more so than I was the Deathlands series....which even though I had written, I felt was hopelessly low-brow, deliberately geared to the lowest knuckle-dragging common denominator.

However, the editorial staff of Gold Eagle wanted it to be set in a similar post-nuke environment like Deathlands—which I didn’t care for—but I did the best I could with the limitations.

Inasmuch as they had launched and seen fail about a dozen series in the previous five years, I was cautioned not to hold out much hope that Outlanders would last beyond three books…that was over 40 novels and over ten years ago.

A while back with the novel, Children of the Serpent, I sort of "reinvented" the Outlanders series to bring it closer to what I had initially envisioned and to shake off the last of the Deathlands "stank".

So, at this point, Outlanders is one of Gold Eagle’s longest-lived, best-selling series. Part of the success is due, in my opinion, to applying my comics story-telling sensibilities to prose. I intentionally set out to differentiate Outlanders from the low-key, dumb-downed Deathlands series by writing very high-energy, colorful stories full of extreme characters and even epic situations. Super-villains, gods, Lovecraftian monsters, smart-ass remarks, femme fatales…all became part of the Outlanders lexicon.

Richard: Do you think Death Hawk was a partial inspiration for the Firefly TV series?

Mark: Yeah, to a point…there are some definite resemblances in some areas…not to mention the Adam Hughes/Joss Whedon connection. However, since I love Firefly and if Death Hawk did directly inspire bits of it, that doesn’t bother me. What influences there might have been were mainly visual in nature, although there are similarities in backstory. But anything overt was pretty much submerged by Joss’s powerful imagination. Certainly, any resemblance was nothing like the Xerox "different only the same" version of Star Rangers which appeared as the short-lived TV series Space Rangers in the early 1990s.

Richard: How is the "Death Hawk" graphic novel coming along?

Mark: So far so good…we’re still doing the final production on it…I received the introduction from New York Times best-selling horror author Douglas Clegg just the other day. It’s on track. Hopefully, Death Hawk: The Soulworm Saga Volume One will be available by late spring, early summer.

Richard: What projects are you presently working on?

Mark: Other than the Everything Guide and Death Hawk, we’ll probably come out with a Nosferatu graphic novel, followed by Lakota, a project that features Jim Mooney’s last full-length comics work as a penciler and inker…you can see samples on . In the near future we’re planning to release The Miskatonic Project and The New Justice Machine.

I also have a new novel project that’s moving ahead but I’ve learned not to talk about these things until the deal is signed, sealed and the advance check delivered.

Richard: How does one stay married 27 plus years?

Mark: I could say "practice" but that would be a little arch. In the case of Melissa and myself, she’s my wife, my best friend, my collaborator, my editor…basically my world. Everything else is just window dressing. I could never have accomplished anything without her. Creating what I have created, writing all these books over the years…the whole reason for it, the entire point to it all is not to gain riches or fame…it’s so we can continue to have a good life together. I’m proudest of what we have accomplished as partners and of our daughter, Deirdre.

Richard: How can someone contact you?


Richard: Any final words of wisdom?

Mark: Kind of … if you’re involved in a creative endeavor, don’t make it the whole reason you get up in the morning. Try to gain some perspective and understand that your talent doesn’t make you any better than anyone else…do your best to find enjoyment the simple things of life, try to make them as equally important as the complicated things.

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