Reigning over comic book world

March 12, 1995|By Vikki Valentine | Vikki Valentine,Contributing Writer

Somehow a time-traveling Billy Ray Cyrus and his roadies are stuck outside a castle in medieval Europe. Baa-ing sheep swarm around them. "Who booked me here?" the country singer demands.

Well, Billy, comic-book writer Paul S. Newman is your man. After 48 years in the business, Mr. Newman of Columbia's Wilde Lake village is boldly taking country-western singers where none have gone before.

His latest work pits such country stars as Mr. Cyrus and Marty Stuart against Shawnee Indian ghosts and alien hillbillies from space.

Though the country stars are entering a new dimension, Mr. Newman, 70, is in familiar territory. From 1951 to 1975, he wrote the plots and dialogue for the comic book "The Lone Ranger." But his 24 years as the man behind the man in the mask make only a small part of his comic book career.

Mr. Newman has been dubbed the most prolific comic book scriptwriter ever by "Who's Who of American Comic Books."

After writing 4,121 published scripts for more than 360 comic book titles, he has become the official King of the Comic Book Writers, said Robin Snyder of Bellingham, Wash., a comics historian and bibliographer who conducted the search in 1993 for the most prolific comic book writer. Mr. Snyder, a former editor for DC Comics, also publishes a monthly newsletter, Robin Snyder's History of the Comics.

Mr. Newman said it's unlikely that he'll be dethroned anytime soon. "Few writers, except old-timers like myself, write all three elements -- plot, layout and dialogue -- of a comic book script," he said. Once he's put those elements in place, he hands over his work to an artist for the last job: the drawing of the comics. Nowadays, he said, writing comic books is more of a collaboration between writers and artists.

Almost every kind of story genre is included in Mr. Newman's half-century career. His 35,600 pages of writing include "Archie," "Bonanza," "Sherlock Holmes," "Buck Rogers," "Flash Gordon," "Superman," "I Love Lucy," "Little Rascals," "Smokey the Bear," "Twilight Zone" and "Mighty Mouse" in comic books. And those are less than a third of his comic book credits.

Despite his prolific writing career, Mr. Newman is not well-known in the comic book industry. For the bulk of his career, he wrote mostly for Western Publishing in New York City. During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, writers' names didn't appear on their stories. It wasn't until 1976 that his name appeared in the credits of the comic book "Turok, Son of Stone," for which he had been writing since 1954.

Mr. Newman never intended to become a comic book writer. When he finished a stint working on a World War II bomb disposal unit -- "Fortunately, it was quiet work for me," he deadpanned -- he wanted to write Broadway plays.

"My desire was always to be a playwright or a movie scriptwriter. Writing comic books was just bread and butter for me," he said. "I wrote very quickly, and my ideas came very quickly." The setup of the comic book industry gave him the time and money to work at home on plays and movies.

Instead of having "beers with my peers" and pushing his name in the industry, he said, he would churn out the scripts at home. His contact with the industry was limited to rushing into the city to turn in a script to one of the 12 publishers in New York City at that time. If one publisher rejected a script, Mr. Newman wasn't crushed. "I just took the story over to the next block, and the publisher there would take it," he said.

Comics then were also a much bigger business than they are today, he said. Comic books such as "I Love Lucy" were selling a million copies an issue. Today, if one sells 70,000 copies an issue, it's considered big, he said. As the number of copies sold decreased, however, the amount writers were paid increased. "Then I was paid $5 or $6 a page. Today how much you get paid depends on who you are . . . and it's astronomically higher," he said. He declined to say how much he commands these days.

Since his beginnings in comic books, Mr. Newman also has written comic strips, children's books, television and radio sketches, industrial video productions, corporate speeches and song lyrics. He has given up writing plays, though. "Broadway's impossible," he said with a sigh.

At age 70, he has one last bastion to take on: Hollywood.

Mr. Newman acknowledges that finding a West Coast movie agent from Columbia, where he's lived for the past five years, has been anything but easy. He's waiting for an agent to pick up his latest movie script, "Motel," which he calls a "wild comedy" about a couple in their 50s who own a motel.

While he awaits contracts on his movie and memoir proposals, Mr. Newman's desk remains clear.

Little about his home, including his clutter-free desk, resembles the image of a zany comic book writer. Large, colorful Latin American art decorates his walls. His office in the basement of his house could easily be mistaken for a family room.

Only a little room beside his office attests to his prolific comic ability. The "Executive Bathroom," as he calls it, is covered with blown-up pages of his work and sketches of him by some of his artist friends.

Until the "Executive Bathroom" can be redecorated to tell of his battle with Hollywood, Mr. Newman said, he is happy with his current niche in comics. Along with the new country western stories, he writes about DarkWing Duck and several other characters for Marvel Comics' "Disney Afternoon" comic books. "When writing DarkWing, I ask myself, 'What would an egomaniac say?' " he says.

No more superhero stories for Mr. Newman, though: "I don't want write for superheroes. . . . You have a hero and his opponent who are both sharing steroids. . . .

"The artists are great at delineating deltoids," he said. "They all come from the school of angst and anger. The only dysfunctional family I write about are Tweety and Sylvester."

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