Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Twenty Years (and more!) of Rob Hanes Adventures

Classic High Adventure Lives on in the Modern Age in the Long-Running Indy Series

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This year marks the 20th anniversary of my globetrotting action-adventure series as a full-size indy comic-book series under my WCG Comics imprint.

For those needing a primer to the series, Rob Hanes Adventures features the globetrotting exploits of the newest agent at Justice International, a worldwide private investigation, espionage and security firm. This simple premise has given me the freedom to put the character in a wide variety of settings, taking him to one international hotspot to another, and just as importantly, tell stories that have varied widely in genre and tone, ranging from straight adventure and espionage to light comedy. Along the way, there even has been a sports issue and a romance story!

I’ve made no secret of my inspiration for the series: the great syndicated newspaper adventure comic strips that had their heyday from the 1930s through the ‘50s, like Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates, Noel SicklesScorchy Smith, Roy Crane’s Wash Tubbs and Captain Easy and, later, Buz Sawyer. Other major influences include Will Eisner’s Spirit and the work of Alex Toth, another standard-bearer of the classic adventure strips epitomized by Caniff, Sickles and Crane.

I'm a fan of modern-day comics too, but for some reason, those classic strips really captured my imagination when I first discovered them in the 1970s in books about comics history. I loved the black and white art and how the stories dove-tailed with real-world events—such as revolutions in South America and World War II—which gave the stories an immediacy I found compelling.

However, Rob Hanes Adventures has never traded on nostalgia. I’ve tried to develop a style of my own while staying true to the genre and creating a fun, forward-looking strip that reflects modern-day sensibilities, intrigue and political realities.

The War Comics Group

Of course, there’s more than meets the eye when it comes to the long-winding history of the series and the character.1994 is the year that WCG Comics officially became a small business and solicited its first title, Adventure Strip Digest starring Rob Hanes in the direct-sales market. In actuality, however, the roots of the character and WCG Comics go back to the 1970s and the early days of the small press of comics fandom.

ABOVE: Cover to War Comics #10 (1974)
When I was still in junior high on the east coast in the early 1970s, I was a huge a fan of World War II comics like Marvel’s Sgt. Fury and his Howling Commandos, Charlton Comics’ Our Fightin’ Army, and especially DC’s Our Army at War featuring Sgt. Rock. Inspired by these titles, I created my own home-made comic-book series, Sgt. Hanes and Hell Platoon, drawn and colored on notebook paper and passed around to classmates at school. I published these early crude comics under an imprint called the “War Comics Group” (or WCG for short). (See cover image at right.)

Shortly after, I discovered Milton Caniff’s Terry and the Pirates and other classic adventure strips in some books on the history of comics and the earliest collections of the series from Nostalgia Press. Using the same character name as my Sgt. Hanes series, I created private eye Rob Hanes as as a potential syndicated adventure strip, hoping to follow in Caniff’s footsteps, even creating very crude sample strips that I submitted to syndicates. Though the series has evolved since then, his agency, Justice International, was there at the very beginning. (And in case you’re wondering, in this universe, Rob is Sgt. Hanes’ nephew, and I’ve always planned to one day feature the character in the series.) By the late 1970s, however, the newspaper adventure strip genre was all but dead, so the character went nowhere.

Becoming Independent

All through college, I continued to draw and develop the character, keeping sketchbooks and story ideas. Following college in the ‘80s, I began to develop the character as a potential comic-book series. By this time, the independent and black and white comics revolution was in full swing, with series like Cerebus the Aardvark, Usugai Yojimbo, and American Flagg! showing the viability of alternative comics.

It was only around this time that I began writing and drawing stories for print and showing the series to potential publishers. Though these early efforts were pretty crude, I actually met with a fairly positive response when I began submitting the work to potential publishers. First among them was early independent publisher Renegade Press, which publicly announced the series. However, in what would be a recurring example of bad timing for me and the series, Renegade closed its doors shortly before the first issue went to press. I soon after teamed with a nascent publisher, Brave New Words, which in 1990 released Rob Hanes #1. Brave New Words, too, soon closed its doors.

Around this time, I stumbled across the small press comics zine community which, in those pre-Internet days, primarily conducted business via mail order and was comprised of a small community of comics fans and aspiring creators. I began publishing the series as a small press zine called Adventure Strip Digest, and quickly gained some recognition for the work.

In those days, the small press comics community was a much smaller pond full of enthusiastic comics fans and creators who were very responsive to other people’s work. Publishing the book as a small press digest/zine gave me an easy outlet for publishing the work while developing as an artist—you can really see the growth of my work from issue to issue during this time.

Cover to Adventure Strip Digest #1
I also began to achieve some recognition in the mainstream, partly because I was sending copies of my small press work to professionals and comics companies I admired. With the self-publisher boom now in full-swing with titles like Jeff Smith’s Bone and Batton Lash’s Wolff and Byrd, Counselors of the Macabre (now Supernatural Law), based on the response to the small press series, I entered the direct-market sales fray with Adventure Strip Digest as a full-sized comic-book in 1994 (which is the 20th anniversary I’m marking this year). This series ran four issues, with issue 4 appearing in 1996. That year also saw the release of the Rob Hanes Archives, a 120-page trade paperback that collected in one volume all of the adventures that appeared in the earlier zine series, funded by a grant from the Xeric Foundation, which was founded by Peter Laird, co-creator of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, for the purpose of providing grants for self-publishers.

After a hiatus and some talks along the way with mainstream publishers, including Image Comics and Caliber, I re-launched the series in 2000 as Rob Hanes Adventures, under the WCG Comics banner. Since then, 15 issues of the series to date have been released, as well as another trade paperback collection, Rob Hanes Adventures, Vol. 0, which collects in one volume the original four-issue run of Adventure Strip Digest.

Though in 20 years this may not seem like much of an output, I’m still proud of the body of work I’ve created, representing a singular commitment to an ongoing series that I think is unique for an independent comic-book series. I’m proud to say that I’ve built a solid fanbase of readers (which extends internationally) who regularly follow the series and patiently look forward to each issue. In return, I’ve made it a point to make each issue complete and self-contained so that readers are never left hanging between issues and can pick up the series at any point.

The World of Rob Hanes Adventures

With more than 30 stories totaling more than 500 pages produced to date, stories have focused primarily on “done-in-one” adventures that have taken the character from one global hotspot to another.

Rob’s adventures have taken him to the Middle East, Eastern Europe, Japan, Russia, China, North Korea, and Europe. While the stories mostly focus on classic high adventure tales—other comparisons to the series are Jonny Quest, Indiana Jones and Tintin—I’ve also mixed things up by playing with other genres like comedy, romance and, as mentioned earlier, even sports! This reflects my own diverse interests in films and books, as well as the influence of Will Eisner’s Spirit, which showed that any kind of story could be told within the context of an adventure series.

As one can imagine, over the years, the series has developed quite a rogues’ gallery of antagonists as well as a bevy of romantic interests.

Chief among the villains is the mysterious Nicolai Korda, an international crimelord who Rob has encountered in the most unlikeliest of places, including Eastern Europe, North Korea, and China; Anthony Cromwell, a ne’er do well who will do anything and sell out anyone for a buck (the Cromwell’s backstory also provides a continuity connection with my favorite strip, Terry and the Pirates); a Chinese crimelord named Wo Chun Pei; Vojislav Bolkan, an Eastern European militia warlord; and a certain (late) North Korean tyrant has even appeared in the series to cause trouble for Rob!

Rob’s adventures have taken him to Russia in search of suitcase nuclear devices; to Africa in search of a missing explorer; to Eastern Europe to help the U.N. protect fuel supplies; to Great Britain for a classic drawing room murder mystery; to the Middle East where he played a role in toppling a military regime; and even North Korea, where Rob was taken prisoner while investigating pirated goods and counterfeiting. He’s even gone undercover on a minor league baseball team to investigate steroid use, getting more caught up in trying to get a hit than solve the case!

Among the beautiful women he has encountered are the forlorn Caroline Wilde, trapped in a loveless marriage with the self-centered opportunistic Anthony Cromwell; Isabelle Corbeil, a French espionage agent who often is at odds with Rob; Katya Vilnius, a doctor who travels the world for humanitarian causes, often bumping into Rob on assignment; and Tiffany Lance, a journalist from Find Magazine.

The agency of Justice International (also known as “JI”) and many of Rob’s friends and colleagues also are central to the series. They include Gabriel Evans Girard, the director of JI’s New York branch who first gave Rob his chance at the agency; Rob’s partner, Abner McKenna, whose main goal in life is to keep Rob (and himself) out of trouble; and his two main CIA handlers, Dennis Winger and Jarret Cox, who both depend on Rob while not completely trusting him.

When I first came up with the idea of the worldwide detective agency Justice International, it seemed more fanciful than real, but history seems to have caught up with the series. Well known information and security firms like Kroll Associates, and mercenary organizations like Blackwater have gained notoriety in recent years, where “private contractors” have played increasingly visible and controversial roles in international hotspots around the world.

Over this time, Rob has remained a bit of a blank slate, intended to be an everyman. The character in many ways is your classic adventurer—the perpetual underdog who believes in justice and fair play, who somehow always finds his way out of a scrape no matter the odds, against bad guys who usually have the upper hand. He often gets exasperated by the bureaucracy and entrenched Cold War worldview of his colleagues and handlers.

What we do know is that Rob comes from a prominent family and was raised by his grandfather after his father disappeared and his mom died when he was young. Rob also learned that his father may have been a notorious mole for the Soviet Union in U.S. intelligence known as “Glowworm.” This background was revealed in a special story, “The Glowworm Conspiracy,” produced for the Rob Hanes Archives trade paperback and brought to resolution in issue 5 of Rob Hanes Adventures, “The Glowworm Identity.”

Back to the Future

Though the character was always intended to be a sort of post-Cold War soldier of fortune, I created the character when the Cold War was still in full swing. Indeed, the character’s earliest stories include Rob grappling with Soviet and East German spies (“The Care Package” and “In the Company of Spies,” both collected in the Rob Hanes Archives). However, as a product of the post-Watergate generation, when films like All the President’s Men, Three Days of the Condor, and the Parallax View raised concerns about the trustworthiness of the government and establishment, I’ve always prided myself on taking a balanced approach to the politics in my “ripped from the headlines” adventure stories, avoiding the jingoistic approach that partly played a role in the decline of the classic adventure strips during the 1960s and after. As a result, when the Cold War ended due to the collapse of the Soviet Union and its eastern sphere, the transition of the series into a post-Cold War world was fairly smooth.

In a dilemma familiar to many long-running series, the world has changed as Rob has remained pretty much the same age. As a result, I’ve begun thinking about the future of the series. Though I’ll be making an official, more detailed announcement in the near future, this 20th anniversary provides the perfect opportunity to re-introduce the series to new generations of readers with a “0” issue that doesn’t do away with past stories, but will re-set the series and refresh the character for readers and the realities of the modern-day world. Stay tuned for more about this soon!!

The More Things Change...

As you can imagine, since the series debuted, comics and the comics industry have changed quite a bit—driven primarily by new technologies and media platforms, but also by changing tastes.

When I began the series, the price of entry for an independent small press comic-book was pretty high: printing costs were close to prohibitive and the distribution system was still fairly closed to small publishers. It was pretty cool to be close to the ground floor of the self-publishing boom.

Since then, digital printing and print-on-demand services have helped lower risks and costs; and the rise of the Web has offered new avenues for promoting, selling and distributing comics, both in print and digital form, outside of the traditional direct-sales marketplace. 

Even the way I produce comics has changed. In the "old days," every line on the printed page was on the original art: the art, the lettering, the word balloons, and the zipatone shading. My earliest covers were hand-colored using markers and I had to depend on my printers to drop in my cover logos.

Today, of course, this is all done on my computer desktop in post-production—while I still pencil and ink much of the art, the lettering, coloring and shading are all digital.

And in another nod to the realities of the marketplace, Rob Hanes Adventures has recently entered the digital world by becoming available at Comixology. (Formal announcement to come on that soon too!)

Nevertheless, let me assure readers that despite all these changes, so long as Rob Hanes Adventures continues, there will always be a print version that will always strive to capture the fun and magic of the classic high adventure comics that inspired me.

Here's to another 20 years–and more!

WCG Comics Chronology and Checklist

Rob Hanes
03/91 1 The Care Package


Above: Cover to issue 2 of zine series

Adventure Strip Digest
11/91 1 Rob Hanes
03/92 2 The Two Lady Agathas
07/92 3 The Princess
01/93 4 EC Express
05/94 5 The Assassin

Rob Hanes Archives
08/93 1 Masks


Adventure Strip Digest
08/94 1 The Princess
12/94 2 The EC Express
08/95 3 New World Order
06/96 4 Hostile Takeover

Rob Hanes Adventures
10/00 1 Where in the World is Rob Hanes?
01/01 2 Back in the Game
04/01 3 Image is Everything
07/01 4 Changing of the Guard
07/04 5 The Glowworm Identity
10/04 6 The Hunt for Octavius Jebru
01/05 7 Death on the Moors
09/05 8 The Last Explorer
07/06 9 Rescue in Koman
06/07 10 The Pride of the Chickenhawks
07/08 11 Rob Hanes and the Pirates
07/09 12 Stranded!
07/12 13 Crime Takes a Holiday / Not Your Father's Private Eye
07/13 14 Regime Change


03/96 The Rob Hanes Archives
09/10 Rob Hanes Adventures, Vol. 0


05/93 Heroic #4 (Jim Main/Main Publishing) / anthology ("guns,drugs and videotape")
03/94 Three Days of the Fanboy (audiotape)
01/95 Negative Burn #30 (Caliber Comics) / anthology ("Bounty Hunters")
08/94 It Magazine #1 ("Pact with the Devil")
06/95 The Small Press Swimsuit Spectacular (Allied Comics) / pinup
07/95 Wolff and Byrd #7 (Exhibit A Press) / pinup
01/96 Negative Burn #39 (Caliber Comics) / anthology ("Pact with the Devil") 07/98 The Factor #0 (Pinup)
02/99 Love in Tights #2 ("The Real Julianne Love")


Craig Powell said...

“Rob is Sgt. Hanes’ nephew, and I’ve always planned to one day feature the character in the series.”
[OK, I’m very interested to see this.]

“the independent and black and white comics revolution was in full swing, with series like Cerebus the Aardvark, Usugai Yojimbo, and American Flagg! showing the viability of alternative comics
[As I said, very heady times… glad I was around for this.]

“ the small press comics community was a much smaller pond full of enthusiastic comics fans and creators who were very responsive to other people’s work.”
[I was grateful for the Comics Buyer’s Guide, at this time in particular, as it introduced me to books and creators that I absolutely loved. The small press books I discovered were for the most part quite interesting and enjoyable… Adventure Strip Digest, Amoeba Adventures, Xeno’s Arrow, etc – good times!]

“Though in 20 years this may not seem like much of an output, I’m still proud of the body of work I’ve created”
[I’ll say it now – Congratulations on 20 years! More importantly, I’d that to say – THANK YOU! – for 20+ years of quality entertainment. I DO indeed look forward (mostly patiently) to each issue.]

“other comparisons to the series are Jonny Quest, Indiana Jones and Tintin.”
[As I hinted above, I love the variety and these influences you mentioned are touchstones for me, as well.]

“Rob’s adventures have taken him to Russia; to Africa; to Eastern Europe; to Great Britain; to the Middle East; and even North Korea”
[I, having lived in Brazil for a time, am still eager to see a Rob Hanes story set there. (hint, hint)]

“ Caroline Wilde, Anthony Cromwell; Isabelle Corbeil,; Katya Vilnius; and Tiffany Lance. Gabriel Evans Girard; Abner McKenna; and Dennis Winger and Jarret Cox.”
[Yep, you’ve created a nice dossier of characters to play with, in your book.]

“ will re-set the series and refresh the character for readers and the realities of the modern-day world. Stay tuned for more about this soon!!”
[I am intrigued. I like the idea of a “reboot” to bring Rob into the modern setting… without completely changing the character(s) I’ve grown to know.]

“there will always be a print version that will always strive to capture the fun and magic of the classic high adventure comics that inspired me.”
[I’m a confirmed fan of the printed version --- aka “old school” or “dinosaur” --- sorry, but the digital comics just don’t give me the same excitement.]

“Here's to another 20 years–and more!”
[Here, here!!]

Craig Powell said...

“This year marks the 20th anniversary”
[I’d like to say I was there at the beginning, but the reality of it is I came in after a few issues – having read a review, if memory serves, in the late Comics Buyer’s Guide. May not have been there from day one, but look forward to being with you ‘til the end. Been a great ride so far.]

“freedom to put the character in a wide variety of settings”
[the variety is one of the things I find attractive about your book. After all, life is variety and it’s good to see different aspects of your interests through “Rob’s life.” How boring it would be to be reliving the same stories over and over.]

“tell stories that have varied widely in genre and tone”
[I find this adds depth and history to the characters in your book. I, too, have a variety of interests besides comics and being able to bring that variety together is pretty awesome… sports, romance, music, food, travel, etc – I’m good with it all.]

“ the great syndicated newspaper adventure comic strips”
[I am familiar with these strips, though hardly proficient. I do recognize the place and influence they have in the comics medium.]

“ I loved the black and white art and how the stories dove-tailed with real-world events”
[It is very cool when a story/character/event strikes a chord in you as a reader. Your book has done that several times to me.]

“ WCG Comics go back to the 1970s and the early days of the small press of comics fandom.”
[My comics experience began around that time. However, living where I did, I was limited to access to a few books from the “Big Two” that made it to the spinner rack at the local drug store. It wasn’t until I’d left comics for a time and happened upon an amazing place several years later – a store dedicated to comic books – that I became aware of comics from other publishers, and comics from independent creators. Those were heady days.]

“an imprint called the “War Comics Group” (or WCG for short).”
[Ah, so that’s why.]

Randy Reynaldo said...

Hey, Craig, thanks for your comments! Yes, South America is a continent I've yet to visit -- though I think I did a short 4-pager somewhere in Latin America (can't remember off the top of my head!)

I appreciate your enjoying the wide range of storylines I've tried to put in the series, which has kept my interest in it as well.