Mike Friedrich Reaches for Stars
I first met Mike Friedrich in early 1977 at Continuity Studios. He came in to New York from his home base in the San Francisco Bay area to make arrangements with writers and artists for production for the 12th issue of his black & white independent comic book anthology, Star*Reach. I had barely finished my first year as a professional artist at that point. The comics scene outside of the current DC and Marvel universes was still new to me – and also a bit overwhelming to absorb in such a short time.
I had seen a few issues of Star*Reach at the studio by then, but the influence it would eventually become was an elusive notion to most everyone in the industry at the time. There were a few other such attempts that rose on its heels, like Sal Quartuccio’s Hot Stuff, though none came close to matching Star*Reach for talent and content. So, when Mike came into the back room I shared with Marshall Rogers, and asked if I’d like to write and draw his first 8-page color installment for the 12th issue, my overwhelmed mode kicked into overdrive. Still, I took it in stride and accepted the offer.
Some time later, Mike called from California to ask about progress on his story. Being buried in work from DC and Continuity, I had to stall him a bit until I could come up with a premise. When it became difficult to stall, I finally outlined an idea on the phone. It was a sci-fi short about an alien fugitive being hunted by an inter-galactic law man. The two would fight it out on Earth in the best tradition of bang-pow-boom action. It was easy to tell that Mike wasn’t thrilled about the direction. But I had been immersed into a skyrocketing pop-comics career at that point, and along with my lack of familiarity with the other-than-mainstream content that Star*Reach preferred, it precluded my ability to step out of that mode for a more substantive story. I tried to console myself that I’d draw it so well that no one would notice that aside from the flashy action, there wasn’t much of a tale there. Last time I talked to Mike on the phone was in mid-October. Deadline was getting close and I still had nothing to show him. No script, no art, no character designs. The entire affair seemed to be heading towards an inevitable train-wreck.
In hindsight of years and history, I sometimes wondered what got into Mike to offer this story to me. I was a rising popular mainstream talent at the time, that’s true. But I was also an inexperienced rookie, certainly not known for the type of work he liked to publish in Star*Reach. And there were countless other candidates more suitable to adorn the color debut for such a watched and followed publication. I was certainly not on par with the likes of Frank Brunner, Howard Chaykin, Steve Englehart, Gray Morrow, P. Craig Russell, Dave Sim, Walt Simonson, Steve Skeates, Mary Skrenes, Jim Starlin, Mike Vosburg, Len Wein, Barry Windsor-Smith or Roger Zelazny, and others who’d all graced Star*Reach with the type of work that made it distinctive. There was a definitive air of excellence to the publication, which rose above the norm, where the intellectual narrative was no less significant than the art. The stories did not hinge on action-adventure as a primary plot vehicle. Star*Reach had set the tone for a more mature comic book that was a breath of fresh air for the medium. And here, in this most critical junction, after 11 issues of an outstanding black & white journey of distinguished graphic storytelling, and for its first installment of an 8-page interior color story, Mike does a seeming about-face and goes for the a relatively inexperienced pop-mainstream artist, who’d not yet shown signs of writing skills that would measure up to the challenge, and who was mostly considered a clone of the DC Comics house-style that Star*Reach aspired to stand in contrast of. Now, in hindsight of years and history, it all seems somewhat odd and inexplicable.
Events that followed our last conversation in October were also an about-face for myself. By mid-November, I had declined previous work I was scheduled to do for DC and Marvel, and left New York in pursuit of a new chapter in life. It all inadvertently led to producing something entirely different for the first color installment of Star*Reach, than the story we’d agreed to. Part of the events that led to it are in the links below, which give a rough enough idea, when read with a grain of salt.
A more comprehensive overview of my career, that led to this incident, is in this two-part interview with comics chronicler Bryan D. Stroud, the Silver Age Sage.
Comics historian Richard J. Arndt wrote an in-depth analysis of the impact Star*Reach has had on the comics medium. He considers it the first truly successful grass-roots predecessor to the graphic novel. Arndt bestows on Star*Reach the honor of having opened the door to the burgeoning independent comics market we enjoy today. His interviews with Mike Friedrich reveal a vision held by the consummate writer and pioneer, who pushed the comics medium forward in a way that perhaps no other single independent publisher could boast.
In one of those interviews, Mike mentions that my first color installment is the only one of the Star*Reach stories that hasn’t been reprinted in later collections. Beyond the fact that the vignette artwork had no text, it was actually much more of a mission statement than a story, though a story does certainly weave through it, between-the-lines, as Mike said in the issue’s editorial. The wider issue of why this work carries an air of tense silence about it, is perhaps that it does not truly fit into, or match the excellence or intricacy that Star*Reach became known for. It doesn’t really belong next to such works as Howard Chaykin’s Cody Starbuck, P. Craig Russell’s Parsifal, Frank Brunner’s Elric Of Melnibone – or the myriad other more plot intense stories that saw print in Star*Reach. It is mainly a thing onto itself, spawned in a time of personal upheaval and extraordinary transition. A bump in the timeline of comics history that was perhaps better left in its own corner of solitude.
The decision Mike made to publish the offbeat piece, did not seem to be logically contrived, or made with other reasonable options on the table. But I would venture that he would not have published it, had it not somehow complimented his own aspiration and vision for Star*Reach and the comics medium. Mike was in a situation where he could either decline the story altogether, and wait until the next issue for the debut of a more suitable color work – or he could reach for the stars like the 8-page story itself did, in its offbeat way. Like in so many other junctures in his career, Mike decided to go for it and publish The Old, New and Final Testament. He took a considerable chance on the fallout that could come from it. The thrust of the work was sure to irritate many raw nerves in a diverse comics readership, not to mention the oddity of breaking the fourth wall in the personal way the story alluded to.
In deciding to publish it, Mike preserved a small piece of comics history that continues to roll on today, as evident by this website complex. It might never be suitable for collection or reprint next to other stories it shared a space with. It will remain an item unto its own, that’s perhaps best left to be what it is. A bastard child of a tumultuous time, but also inspired by Mike’s own vision for the comics industry in its reach for integration into the world it thrives in. A vision that’s become verified now, decades after Star*Reach debuted, with the flourishing independent comics market and the profound proliferation of the medium into modern culture. Mike Friedrich, pioneer and visionary, reached for the stars - and brought the comics heaven a little closer to the Earth.
New addition to Portraits of the Creators Sketchbook.