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The Whole History of Grease Monkey

Tuesday, November 11th, 2014

by Tim Eldred

As I write these words, over 20 years have passed since the idea first crossed my mind to write and draw comics about a gorilla in space. In all that time, the thing has never left my side, even when I neglected it. For anyone who likes a tale about the flow of ideas or the rewards of unswerving dedication, here is the story in full. None of the names have been changed, and no one is innocent.


Phase 1 (early 1990s)

It all started on a tiny little creative whim and a great big throbbing pustule of righteous anger.

The whim was this: to create a fun little comic strip about a diverse cast of non-super-powered characters finding their way through life. The anger came from the comic book industry’s lack of concern over the need for such comics – and its occasional hostility toward the very idea of them.

It was 1992, and the future didn’t look promising. More and more of the same old stuff was coming down the pike. More rage-filled superheroes, more soft-core Amazons, and more of the same junk that didn’t appeal to the mainstream public. It was always my feeling that this industry would stagnate if it didn’t work harder to broaden its readership, and it often seemed like I was alone in my concern. What was to be done? Well, everything starts with an act of creation, and as a comic book creator I felt it was my responsibility to come up with something to address this need.

So where did Grease Monkey come from? Several places. First, I’d always loved outer space SF action, so that was my backdrop of choice. Second, I’ve always had a respect for well-crafted war stories. War, like love, forces people to dig deep into themselves and learn the true source of their humanity. Against this tapestry, you can learn a lot about what makes us tick.


The thing about war, though, is that increasingly few of us have actually experienced one, so its value as a reference point is slowly eroding. For writing to endure and find a wide audience, it needs something universal and relevant to our daily lives. Therefore, I started thinking about the role of non-combatants – people living in a wartime environment, but not constantly placed in life-and-death situations. The non-combatant’s life is beset on all sides by bureaucracy, personal politics, stifling regulations, and emotional conflict – not unlike the lives of us “normal” people.

I’d been kicking around this notion for a few years, looking for a way to focus it, when inspiration came from a Stan Ridgway song called Overlords. The narrator of this song was a man laboring under alien domination, dreaming about going underground and “monkeywrenching” for the resistance. This is a term for acts of sabotage, but it also planted the image in my head of a battlefield mechanic whose job it is to keep the machines running. This was a character I could work with.

Still keying off the word “monkeywrenching,” I wondered what it might be like if the character were a gorilla. (Because, of course, as everyone knows, gorillas are the coolest animals on Earth.) That lit the fuse for everything that has happened since.

The next step was to decide where the gorilla came from and how he found himself among humans. I wrote an extensive backstory to explain this, which I’ve tinkered with over the years, to be revealed as the bits and pieces become relevant.


In choosing the setting for the story, I decided to place it inside a spaceship, a giant pressure cooker. And there would be many gorillas working alongside humans, not just one. A whole culture was beginning to form, in which the idea of a diverse cast expanded from gender and race to include a whole separate species. The possibilities for tension and conflict expanded right along with it.

The idea was getting complex enough now require a human focal character who would be immersed in this culture on behalf of the reader. To my surprise, that character turned out to be me. Robin Plotnik is exactly who I saw myself as most of the time, at least back in 1992; a hopeful, optimistic, well-meaning young buck who thinks he’s got it all figured out but is in for a lot of surprises. Robin’s personality and his reactions to things are much more like mine than I first intended, and I was utterly blind to this until other people began pointing it out later on. Once it became clear, the purpose of the project took on a whole new meaning.

I put a few more pieces into place and created the first episode, Art Lovers, in the summer of ’92. (See the liner notes for more detail.)

What continues to amaze me the most about Grease Monkey is the wealth of unexpected rewards it has brought my way. I should explain that I’ve always been a staunch advocate for the creative impulse. Whenever talking with beginning artists who want to draw comics for a living, I always make it a point to value originality and self-determination. Traditionally, the measure of true long-term success comes from how unique your vision is, not how well you follow someone else’s lead. To that end, I advocate that instead of waiting around for a big break, artists should look for ways to satisfy their own creative goals on their own time and use their freedom to their advantage (before it gets overtaken by deadlines).

Anyone who wants to see the value of this approach need look no farther than Grease Monkey. When I started, it only existed for an audience of one: me. I took time off from paying projects just to entertain myself with it. I knew one day I’d offer it to a publisher, but my primary purpose was to have the simple joy of creating it. I didn’t know then that when you risk a break from the daily routine to pursue your dream, you place yourself in the hands of fate, and there’s no telling what fate has in store.


So imagine my surprise when this happened: a few days after I finished drawing the first episode, I contacted a Canadian comics distributor, Styx International, on an unrelated matter and out of the blue they asked if I had anything new they could publish in their magazine, Up’N’Coming. As a matter of fact, I did. A few more days later, the deal was done.

Editors Joe Krolik and Brent Richard loved the first strip and immediately hired me to come up with five more. Fate had rewarded me for taking a chance. And this was only the beginning.

Writing and drawing these six episodes carried me into 1993, by which time I’d moved across the country from snow-locked Michigan to sunny Southern California. This put me a lot closer to Hollywood, the magical kingdom where anything goes…

Phase 2 (mid 1990s)

A year passed, and in the spring of 1994 I found myself at an industry convention in the presence of Denis Kitchen. I’d always respected Denis’ company, Kitchen Sink Press, and was intrigued by the transformation of Mark Schulz’ magnificent Xenozoic Tales into the highly-underrated Cadillacs and Dinosaurs cartoon for CBS. This seemed like an ideal blueprint for Grease Monkey, so I approached Denis about publishing it as a regular series. To my delight, he asked me to colorize the six existing strips, and KSP would collect them into two standard-format comic books. Getting a second lease on life was amazing enough, but having the chance to go back and upgrade the strip was quite a bonus.


Grease Monkey #1 and #2 came out from Kitchen Sink Press in early 1996, and though they didn’t quite set the world on fire, they did open the gate into the world of animation via Kitchen’s Hollywood rep, Brad Neufeld. Developing the strip for animation turned out to be a thoroughly eye-opening, occasionally frustrating, and infinitely educational experience. I gained a front-row view of what TV execs insisted was appropriate for children and acceptable to sponsors. I won’t disgust you with the details just now. Suffice to say, the cart often came before the horse and the tail nearly always wagged the dog.

Nevertheless, this experience too handed me an unexpected reward. The Neufeld connection put me together with an animation writer (Jymn Magon), an agent (Ellen Vein), and ultimately a career in the cartoon biz. In the fall of 1995, Grease Monkey was pitched as an animated TV series to several networks and studios, including MCA/Universal. Producer Ralph Sanchez took a shine to it, particularly the artwork on my presentation boards, and he offered me a job on a series in development called Wing Commander Academy (based on a PC game starring Mark Hamill).

The timing couldn’t have been better. Things were getting rough in the comics industry because not enough had been done to broaden the audience (ah, you could cut the irony with a knife), and animation was the next logical stomping ground. I didn’t have any practical experience in animation storyboarding, but Ralph and Universal took a chance on me anyway, and I didn’t let them down. I ended up storyboarding several episodes of WCA and serving as a character designer for the series during the summer of 1996. The show debuted on USA Network that fall, and it gave me my first official screen credits.

This led directly to a gig at Columbia/Tri-star TV animation. I began as a storyboard artist there at the end of 1996, but one look at Grease Monkey convinced producer extraordinaire Audu Paden that I had the chops to be a director. In very little time, I found myself helming several episodes of Extreme Ghostbusters, which premiered in September 1997.


Phase 3 (late 1990s)

In the summer of ’96, Ralph Sanchez had moved from Universal to Film Roman (home of The Simpsons) and engineered a development deal there for Grease Monkey. This meant developing new concepts for a TV series, and it inspired me to write some new comics. In the space of a few months, I cranked out 18 new stories, bringing the total up to 24. I’d intended to start drawing them right away, but with a full-time job in animation my plate was pretty full. Regardless, more rewards appeared anyway. And this time, they were far more valuable than jobs or money.

Something happens when you place yourself into your own works of fiction, as I unwittingly did with young Robin Plotnik. When your characters are extensions of you, and react to things as you would, it puts you in a rather godlike position. Writing the new stories gave me that experience. When I put Mac and Robin through one crisis after another, it was up to me to work out the solutions to their problems. Unwittingly, I was writing myself a manual for crisis management.

This manual, such as it was, gave me a vital reference point throughout 1997, as I faced trials in my personal life that I wouldn’t have been equipped to handle at an earlier time. This brought me a nice revelation: that not only does life imitate art, my life was imitating my own art. For practically everything that happened to me, I could find some parallel in a Grease Monkey story. In other words, I’d already faced these crises on paper. The chance to live one’s own art must be one of life’s greatest rewards, and all it took was the resolve to break with routine back in 1992. But it wasn’t over yet – not by a long shot.

Something else that happened in ’97 was a surprise connection with Image Comics. Like everyone else in comicdom, I had watched the rise of this aggressive publisher with interest. I had not, however, found much to interest me in their actual comics, which seemed intent on treading where others had already gone. So when my friend Kurt Busiek (writer of such magnificent comics as Marvels and Astro City) recommended that I approach Image’s editor-in-chief Larry Marder with Grease Monkey, it seemed slightly insane. When Kurt told me that there was more to Image than I originally thought, I took his word for it – and damned if he didn’t turn out to be right.

Marder put me in touch with one of the Image principals, Jim Valentino, who was just as passionate as I was about broadening the readership. He had turned this passion into his own sub-group of black & white comics that followed the tenets of DIY creator ownership…but with the Image Comics logo on the cover. This was an idea I could warm to.


Jim was impressed with Grease Monkey, and in a few short months the original stories saw their third time in print (spring 1998). Despite critical acclaim, the sales figures were barely high enough to cover the printing costs, so the series fizzled out before I could begin drawing the 18 stories that were lying in wait.

Disappointing, yes, but not discouraging. There was much still to do. The rest of 1998 and most of 1999 was filled up with work on a graphic novel, which was yet another of the many rewards. Let me back up again to 1992 for an explanation. At about the same time I was working on the first six episodes of Grease Monkey, author Daniel Quinn published a revolutionary novel called Ishmael. Daniel and I had something remarkable in common; the main characters in both our stories were talking gorillas. When I heard about Ishmael, I devoured it instantly and found it to be one of the most amazing books I’d ever read. I contacted Daniel to say hello, and sent him some Grease Monkey comics just for laughs. What I got back was an offer to work together.

Daniel has written a lot of books along the lines of Ishmael, all dealing with the heady subject of where our species is headed. He’d also written a screenplay in this vein called The Man Who Grew Young. It didn’t look as if it would get made into a film, so Daniel asked if I’d be interested in turning it into a graphic novel instead. I thought about it for approximately three seconds and that was that. I’ll cut to the chase and say that The Man Who Grew Young was published by Context Books in the summer of 2001, and I’m immensely proud of it. All the while I was working on it, I vowed that afterward I would return my attention to Grease Monkey and finally start drawing those later episodes. I managed to fulfill half of that vow. I would indeed return to Grease Monkey, but not in the way I’d planned.

Phase 4 (2000 plus)

1999 was drawing to a close, and a brainstorm had struck. By day, I was still working in TV animation, and I had gained a lot of skills since ’96. One part of the process of making cartoons is to assemble the storyboards and voice tracks into an animatic – a sort of slideshow that served as a blueprint for the finished program. Technology had reached a point where animatics could be assembled on a home computer. Hence, the brainstorm: why not make a Grease Monkey animatic and use it to pitch the series again for TV? I had everything I needed, including friends who could supply the voices. The only thing I lacked was a sense of what a monumental undertaking it would be.

In the fall of 1999 I wrote a script for a Grease Monkey pilot film entitled All You Need is Love. I thought it would run about 5 minutes and I could make the whole animatic – start to finish – in a month or two. The script actually timed out to about 7 minutes, so I figured maybe three months. Then I started drawing and the thing just kept growing. The more I worked on it, the more I added. I also decided to do it in full color, which meant even more production time. In the end, it required over 2,000 drawings, took 6 months to make, and totaled 17 minutes of screen time…just 5 minutes shy of a standard made-for-TV episode. But it was so much fun, I had to make another one!


The first cartoon wrapped in July 2000 and a month later I got going on a second short entitled Black Holes Suck. It was more fully animated than the first film, and although it totaled only 6 minutes, it took another 6 months to finish. It became obvious that I couldn’t do this for a living, but I got the job done – both of these animated visions really exist! Now I could march into a Hollywood studio, shove a tape into a VCR, and say “look – here’s my show!” Did it work? Of course not. Why? Lousy timing.

The first time I pitched Grease Monkey, the animation industry was pretty unstable. A lot of studios were being bought by other studios, or management was changing, or execs were just too scared to start anything new. The year 2000 was also pretty unstable. The TV animation biz was shrinking again (it does this every 10 years or so) and everyone wanted goofy slapstick shows like the ones that were successful the year before. I tried internet companies, but they only wanted adult (i.e. shock-humor or soft-porn) cartoons. Once again, Grease Monkey was a misfit. The odd thing was, everyone outside Hollywood loved my cartoons and wanted more. The guy who said “nobody in Hollywood knows anything” must have gone through something like this.

One more thing occurred during the whole cartoon-making experience. Thinking that Grease Monkey could also be pitched as a feature film, I decided to write a screenplay for one. This was easier than it sounds, since I already had the mini-bible from 1996 to fall back on. The 17-minute pilot film worked perfectly as an opening act, so I just took off from there and started writing. This took about a month, and in late July of 2000 I finished a 95-page first draft. I debated whether to turn it into either a long-form animatic or a graphic novel, but there were other things to do first. To be precise, there were 18 other things to do first.

history08In January 2001, I finally started drawing Grease Monkey comics again. Having all those scripts sitting in reserve was often a great comfort in previous times, like having a dresser drawer full of warm socks. I’d often heard that “real” writers had an archive of unpublished work sitting in their files to be discovered after they die, so for that brief time I felt like a “real” writer. (In fact, after I started drawing again I occasionally thought I might not live long enough to finish. Fortunately, this turned out to be simple dementia.)

For reasons that were entirely aesthetic, I decided to continue with the 12-page episodic format that I’d established in the very beginning. Because of this, there was always a charge of anxiety during the first step, where I broke each script down into thumbnail sketches. I placed a rigorous 12-page rule on myself, and like all rules it was bound to be broken. Some stories contained themselves effortlessly. Others fought like demons. The first time I allowed myself to break the rule (on episode 11), all bets were off. So much for discipline.

An interesting aspect of the whole creative process is the transfer of importance from one stage to another. Every story makes its way through script, thumbnail, rough layout, pencil, ink, and printing. Whatever stage I’m on at any given time is the most important. For a while, the script is indispensable. When I finish the rough, the script is old news. By the time I get to the inking, the rough is waste paper. When these things were merely hypothetical, they were priceless. Now that there’s a finished product, they’re just taking up space. Following this premise to its natural conclusion, the end product is just the transient vehicle of an idea. What you’re reading here is less important than the ideas it communicates. If I got it right, the ideas will resonate for a good long time and the comics themselves can vanish. (Not that I want them to, of course…)

By now it should be obvious that getting this work done was quite an undertaking, with a full thirteen years having passed since the start. Book 1’s final phase began when all 24 chapters (plus three vignettes) were finished in 2002, and I decided to approach a book publisher outside the comic book world. This required the support of a canny literary agent named Ashley Grayson, who received my introductory letter at precisely the same moment he thought about adding a graphic novel to his already impressive credentials. Ashley suspected that Tor Books might feel the same way, and about a year later his hunch paid off.


From there, my editor Teresa Nielsen-Hayden took me under her wing and pulled me into this entirely new realm. She knew it would be a challenge, since the production leap from prose fiction to graphic novels brings a huge number of variables into play. To my relief and her credit, there was never any question that it could be done. She was one of those people who “got it” upon her first reading of the book, and her desire for others to have that experience kept the entire project buoyant. I owe a huge debt of gratitude to both Teresa and her mighty crew, and I have no doubt that they committed many untold acts of heroism to ensure that Grease Monkey got into bookstores at last.

Phase 5 (here and now)

Everything you just read was originally published in Grease Monkey: A Tale of Growing up in Orbit, otherwise known as Book 1. From the first indication of a deal with Tor, it took four years to actually turn it into a real book (which was published in May, 2006). As soon as my feet touched the top of that mountain, I was ready to start on the sequel. It already existed in script form; the ideas hatched during the TV development process had bloomed into that screenplay I wrote in 2000. It was time to decide if I was going to keep it that way and attempt to pitch it as a movie, or go with the far more achievable goal of turning it into Book 2.

Any time you have to team up with other people to get something made, the first requirement is compromise. As the cost goes up, the compromises go up with it. As an active participant in the TV cartoon biz, everything I’d learned on the job told me it wouldn’t end well. Even if the concept had enough juice to catch someone’s eye, there’s no way they’d buy a script and not (ahem) monkey around with it. The thing about working on TV cartoons is that you get a lot of revision notes. Good revision notes improve the material. Bad revision notes just make it different. Guess which kind is more common.


Option A was to submit the script to a process that would probably break my heart. Option B was to keep it to myself and pay it off exactly the way I wanted. When I thought about it that way, it was no contest.

One of the side-benefits of getting Book 1 published by Tor was that they funded a website for it, After it left the launch pad, it was up to me to maintain it on my own time and bucks. As 2006 rolled into 2007, I was in need of some new material to keep the site going, and Book 2 was the obvious way to do it. I’d been drawing a webcomic called Star Blazers Rebirth since 2005, so I had already made the break from paper to pixels. When that project wrapped up in the summer of ’07, I decided Grease Monkey: A Tale of Two Species would take its place.


Unlike Book 1, it was a single story instead of a series of episodes. But rather than draw all 200-plus pages before showing anyone, I decided to break it up into smaller pieces (12-15 pages each) and publish them monthly at the website. This took about two years from start to finish, during which time Book 1 earned a profit, won two awards (see the home page at right), and went to paperback. But Tor expressed no interest in a followup.

Clearly, I was on my own again. But I was used to it. The day job paid the bills and gave me the freedom to NOT turn Grease Monkey into a money-making enterprise. It’s amazing how much pressure that eliminates. When you do something for money, some level of your brain is always quantifying it. Constantly think about how much an hour is worth, or how much you’ll make for drawing a page, is the opposite of creativity. In the worst case, it motivates you only enough to scratch out the bare minimum. You’ll hardly do your best under those conditions; if this experience has taught me anything, it’s that everything you do for love is going to come out better than what you do for money. I love writing and drawing, and I love these characters. That’s enough.

The iteration of you’re currently reading is the 2.0 version of the website. With help from the mighty Tom Hakim, it has been upgraded for a cleaner look, a better reading experience, and a stronger platform for future projects. And there will be future projects. After finishing Book 2 in 2009, I returned to the world of Star Blazers to create another webcomic series titled The Bolar Wars Extended. My intention was to start on Grease Monkey Book 3 after that, but another concept has lured me away (keep an eye open for it in 2015). Nevertheless, the full story of Grease Monkey requires a Book 3 and also a Book 4, so they will turn up when the time is right.

Until then, I hope you get to know these characters as well as I do. And don’t be shy about letting me know what you see in them, especially if it’s something unique to you. It’s always nice to get a reminder that Mac and company are out in the wide world making friends of their own.

– Tim Eldred, November 2014

The many faces of Grease Monkey

Monday, November 10th, 2014

As some of you may be aware, Grease Monkey had a lengthy publishing history before it landed here at this website. It made print three times during the 1990s, starting with the first chapter and going as far as possible before circumstances brought the experiment to a close. This experience brought me valuable insight into the workings of the comic book business and made some things possible that might not have happened otherwise. Here then is a brief rundown of what went on during those strange years.


The very first publication to give Grease Monkey a shot was a now-defunct Canadian magazine called Up’n Coming. It was actually a monthly catalogue from a distribution company called Styx International, run chiefly by two magnanimous gentlemen named Joe Krolik and Brent Richard. It was Brent who got it all started when he asked me in 1992 if I had anything that might work as a monthly feature in the catalogue. By a staggering coincidence, I’d just finished drawing the first chapter and it turned out to be a match made in heaven.

We agreed that I would write and draw six chapters of Grease Monkey at 12 pages apiece, and Styx International would use them to draw more attention to Up’n Coming. I should explain that this was quite a different time for comic book distribution, with many companies of varying sizes providing the vital link between publishers and store owners. Each of these distributors offered slightly different services and made it possible for comic books to penetrate widely into a large number of specialty shops.

All that changed in the mid 90s when the second largest of these companies, Capital City, was bought out by Marvel Comics. This severely handicapped the ability of many small independent publishers to get their comics properly distributed. It created a domino effect of shutdowns that resulted in the largest distributor, Diamond Distribution, coming out on top with an effective monopoly on the entire business. They’re still on top today, Marvel’s attempt to become its own distributor was unsuccessful, and alternative companies like Styx International are long gone. I still consider myself extremely fortunate to have connected with them before all of this came about, since it gave Grease Monkey its first push.


The next home for the strip came from an actual comic book publisher (also now defunct) called Kitchen Sink Press. Well-respected at the time for their eclectic variety of beautifully-produced titles, this company was the brainchild of Denis Kitchen, one of the wisest and friendliest visionaries ever to step into the fray of art and commerce. I showed the six chapters of Grease Monkey to Denis in 1994, and in he expressed an interest in reprinting them in a 2-issue miniseries (3 chapters per book). Because they were already written and drawn, he took the additional step of commissioning me to color them, which made possible the color chapters you see in Book 1.

The 2-issue Grease Monkey miniseries was published by Kitchen Sink in 1995 to great critical acclaim but not-so-great sales figures. The distributor implosion was knocking a lot of comic stores out of business, and others were cutting back on what they were willing to carry. However, Kitchen’s Hollywood connections were already laying the groundwork for my next career in animation – another story entirely.

I’d been given a chance to re-examine the art in the first six chapters and some of it left me, quite frankly, horrified. I didn’t mention before that I had a lot of other comic book projects going on in the early 90s. This forced the quality of my work to improve rapidly. On average, I was drawing about six months ahead of publication, which meant that by the time issue 1 of something came out, I was already drawing issue 6. It was not uncommon for me to page through a fresh copy of that issue 1 and wonder what the hell I was thinking when I drew all those distorted bodies and wonky faces.

Two full years had gone by since I’d drawn the first six chapters, and they were full of ugly art that now needed to be upgraded. Fortunately (or unfortunately as the case may be), I still have access to that earliest version, from which I have assembled the gallery below. They’re just about as embarrassing as a yearbook photo, but I’m willing to share them for the sake of education.


Jump forward a couple more years, and I found myself approaching another publisher, this time one that’s still with us: Image Comics. I’d never been a huge fan of theirs since (in the early years) they mostly seemed preoccupied with derivative superhero characters, but my friend Kurt Busiek kept nudging me to call them up anyway, insisting that they were looking for new stuff to widen their appeal. This got me in touch with artist/writer/publisher Jim Valentino, who was about to debut his own line of black and white titles. Jim decided at a glance to make Grease Monkey one of them.

The budget wasn’t there to reprint the color version, but the series would get another chance to be seen and I’d have yet another opportunity to go back in for some art cleanup. Jim asked me to consider picking up where the Kitchen Sink edition left off, but I felt strongly about giving readers chapter 1 all over again in case they’d missed it before. The first issue of the Image edition came out in January 1998 and was followed by issue 2 in March. Each issue contained two chapters this time. Issue 3 was to follow in May, but low sales prevented it from seeing the light of day. (By this time, the distributor implosion was in full swing and nobody wanted to take a chance on anything that didn’t have a pre-sold audience.)

Despite this setback, I decided to keep going anyway. I had a lot of ideas for new chapters and I wasn’t going to let a little thing like cancellation stop me from writing & drawing them. By this time, a career in animation had replaced my career in comics, so I decided to lavish all my free time on the Grease Monkey without worrying about who would eventually publish it. The result of this decision was Book 1.


Grease Monkey: A Tale of Growing up in Orbit was published in May 2006 by Tor Books. (The story of how I hooked up with them is told here.) They opted not to publish the color versions of Episodes 1-6, so those were converted to greyscale. Fortunately, you don’t have to pay for color ink on a website, so they appear in color here. The rest of the book was all black & white from the start; Episodes 13-18, three vignettes, and some text features – all of which are now part of this site. The cover art was new.

The first edition was a gorgeous hardcover that still impresses me whenever I pick it up, just for its sheer solidity. It was only the second time my work ever made it to hardcover, following a graphic novel by Daniel Quinn titled The Man Who Grew Young (Context Books, 2001). It may not be a big deal in the publishing world, but it definitely is in comics. A softcover was published a year later, right around the time Grease Monkey was named a “Best Book for Young Adults” by the American Library Association in 2007.

Both editions are out of print now, but once in a while someone will send me a photo of a copy they spotted in a library or used bookstore, and I’m reminded that my characters are off in the wide world making friends of their own.

It was a long, strange trip that could have ended early if any one thing went differently. I hope you enjoyed reading about it! Now for those yearbook photos…


As you continue drawing a character over the years, his design naturally evolves as you find your comfort zone. Mac’s face, for example, lengthened and gained more symmetry. These panels are from Episode 5. Left: 1992. Right: 2002.


From Episode 6. Mac’s body also went through some changes, gaining more fur and definition. Left: 1992. Right: 2002.


This two-shot from Episode 2 shows both Mac and Robin evolving together. It took three tries to get Mac’s expression just the way I wanted it. Left: 1992. Center: 1994. Right: 2002


Robin’s design changed even more than Mac’s did, becoming much more consistent and refined. Now I view some of those early drawings as Robin’s “stand in,” some kid who tested well but didn’t land the part. Left side: panels from Episode 1. Right side: panels from Episode 5. Ten years passed between each drawing.







Panels from Episode 6. Again, that’s Robin’s ugly stand-in on the left (1992) and the “real” Robin on the right (2002)


More panels from Episode 6. Robin’s stand-in has obviously spent too much time in the company of gorillas, since he’s starting to look like one. Black & white: 1992. Color: 2002.


Drawing highly feminized comic book women has never been my strong suit. Instead, I’ve always tried to stay firmly grounded in reality, where “normal” women far outnumber the busty Amazons that overpopulate the comic book world. Most of my early drawings of the Barbarian pilots show how much I struggled with this, often making them too masculine. Here’s Barbara’s first appearance in Episode 1. Top: 1992. Bottom: 1994.


Here she is at the end of Episode 1, looking more manly than the guy she’s about to shoot down. Top: 1992. Bottom: 1994.







Here she is again in Episode 6. I don’t think anyone could mistake her for a male in the first drawing (1992) but you can see a lot of improvement in the second drawing (1994).


The first reveal of the Barbarians in Episode 1 was supposed to knock everyone’s socks off. (Surprise–they’re all gorgeous women!) And though Robin seems impressed, I was not when I went back and re-examined it. Even the boy needed a face lift in this scene. Left: 1992. Right: 1994.


In these panels from Episode 1, my complete failure to take any figure drawing classes is evident at the left (1992). Two years of steady work made a big difference when I redrew it in 1994.


A lovesick Robin daydreams about all the Barbarians, except Barbara for some reason, while doing their laundry in Episode 4. The headshots on the left side are all my original designs for the lady pilots from 1992. Again, two years were required for me to sober up and do them justice in 1994.


This one, also from Episode 4, is probably the mother of all Barbarian panels. As a connoisseur of monkeys and mecha, fewer things are harder for me to draw than a gang of highly individual women in contemporary clothing – but here they all are anyway. Left: 1992. Right: 1994. I make no apology for the fashions being rooted in the early 90s, since they will probably come back a few times between now and the distant future.

Oddball Art Gallery

Sunday, November 9th, 2014

As described in the Many Faces of Grease Monkey article, the story has a long publishing history prior to its presentation here. I generated a lot of artwork during that time that had one purpose or another (sometimes none at all) but did not appear in the print versions. Every piece has a little story attached to it, so I decided to dig them out of my file drawer and dust them off for the sake of entertainment. Here they all are…

Part 1: Early works


This was the very first inked drawing I ever did of Mac and Robin. It was for the front page of the proposal I sent around to various comic book publishers after I started drawing the comics in ’92. Mac and Robin look a bit different now, but this was the point where I felt like I knew who they were as individuals.




At left are the first headshots I drew way back in ’92 for the pilots of Barbarian squadron. I used them as reference while drawing Episodes 1-6 the first time. When I got the chance to revise those episodes for later editions, these faces were thrown out or modified. The name beneath each head was meant to be a callsign, and these were used in the first version of the comic. I later decided they were just a wee bit pretentious, so I dropped them from later versions.


The drawing above right is a little embarrassing, but I’m including it for the sake of full disclosure. Prior to Grease Monkey’s very first appearance in Up’n’Coming magazine, the editor suggested that a full-page ad with some girly art would be just the thing to catch readers’ eyes. (Obviously, most of the readers were male then.) When I said this really wasn’t the sort of image I wanted to represent the story, he responded that if I just did it once I’d never have to do it again. This art ran with the headline “Look out! Comics are fun again!” Consider this my confessional and personal apology to each of the Barbarians.

Though the cheesecake ad will never be used again, the little drawing at the bottom turned out to be one of my favorite cartoons of Mac, and I’ve found all sorts of uses for it since then. I’ve looked at it over and over, but never felt like I could improve a single line.

Part 2: The Kitchen Sink years


Left: this was my first attempt to design a cover for the Kitchen Sink Press edition of Grease Monkey #1. The concept is the same as the finished version, but the poses and expressions needed some work. Plus, the logo had to go on top. I thought this might make a good ad, though.

Right: the first proof I received from Kitchen Sink for the cover of Grease Monkey #1. They added their own typeset logo, which I nixed in favor of the freehand one I was already using. Tor Books also decided to go with a typeset logo years later on the graphic novel, but I liked their version much better than this one, so no nixing was needed.


Kitchen Sink published two full-color Grease Monkey postcards to promote their edition of the comic. The sketch at left shows one idea I came up with but didn’t finalize.

The art in the center was featured on one of the postcards. (The other used the “first portrait” seen at the top of this page.) I was quite happy with the pose I came up with for Robin, since it has just the right momentum to snapshot the pre-impact. For some reason, Mac seems to have shaved his arms.

Right: This art was also intended for use on a Kitchen Sink postcard, but didn’t make the final cut. Here as well, Mac apparently went a little nuts with the clippers.


This was the first time I ever drew Kara Soki, some time during the long gap between Episodes 6 and 7. This piece was originally part of the pitch for an animated version of Grease Monkey. As that project evolved, Kara slipped out of it and into her rightful place in Book 1. Ten points to anyone who can tell me the pun behind her name.


Left: the first “clean” drawing I did of the F300 fighter craft. This came after I drew Episodes 1-6. If you look closely at early episodes, you can see the design evolving up to this standard. I’ve drawn this thing hundreds of times since then.

Right: the first “clean” drawing I did of a Barbarian pilot’s spacesuit. Betcha didn’t know the nozzles on the helmet were for emergency air tanks stored on the boots. Well, now you can sleep at night. By the way, I later decided to adopt this design for Kim Barnett in Book 2.


It’s a little known fact that when a publisher likes your comic, one of the first questions is usually, “Who is your intended audience?” You have to figure that out to come up with ideas for promotion. Here are two ads I devised for Kitchen Sink, during a time when eight out of every ten comics was about angry & violent superheroes and/or bad girls. They still exist today, but are not numerous enough to warrant the use of reactionary ads like these. And I am ever so grateful for that.

Part 3: The Image Era




Left: I came up with this sketch while developing a cover for the first Image edition, but I decided I didn’t want to cover up the “No Crap” symbol on his T-shirt.

Center: another idea for the first Image cover. I decided against it since I didn’t want Robin’s face to be obscured for his debut. Mac came out nice and beefy, though.

Right: yet another idea for the first Image cover. I went all the way to ink and then changed my mind at the last minute because the chest-thumping motion seemed a little stiff. Plus, Robin’s expression didn’t quite communicate what I wanted. Sometimes you don’t realize these things until a drawing is done.

Far right: had the Image edition lived past two issues, this would have been the cover to issue 3. It’s based on the events in Episode 5, just like the cover that appeared on Kitchen Sink’s issue 2. I think the composition is more dynamic in this version, though. Click on it to see an enlargement.








Part 4: Later works

Left: there was a period of about a year (’97 to ‘98) when I was so deep into my animation career that I had almost no energy left for comics. I drew this portrait of Mac to remind myself that there was no hurry, and my pals would be there for me when I was ready to go back to them.

Center: a random drawing of Mac in which I experimented a little with texturing.

Right: a quickie ink drawing I did to play with line weights. It was one of many pieces I sent to Tor Books for general use. To my complete surprise, they decided to emboss it onto the cover board of the graphic novel. (Look under the dustjacket!)



Left: I did this drawing to console myself once when my girlfriend broke up with me. We got married a few years later, so it all turned out okay in the end.

Right: these sketches were my attempt to work out a body shape for the accelerated dolphin seen in Episode 15. I did away with the support devices when I decided it was necessary for the dolphin to stand on its own so it could look as awkward as possible.


In 2006, a website called ran a contest to give away copies of the graphic novel along with original sketches for each winner. These are the sketches I came up with.


Left: Damon Caporaso, the administrator of, was one of Grease Monkey’s most enthusiastic supporters. I sent him this drawing as a thank-you for all his cheerleading.

Right: since the day I designed the F-300 I hungered to see if my drawn version would translate accurately to 3D. I had the chance to find out for myself in 2000 when I took a class in CG modeling and decided to build it. The first step was to blueprint it, which worked out pretty OK. See the finished results here.

Book 1 Liner Notes and Character Designs

Saturday, November 8th, 2014


First sketches of Mac and Robin, before any story about them was written. The slogan on Mac’s shirt (at right) was cribbed from a line in an episode of The Young Ones, later to be simplified to the “No Crap” symbol.



Left: the first concept for a Barbarians pilot suit, which was later broken up from a unitard to a two-piece. Right: the F-300 fighter evolves over two pages of sketches.


Headshots for all of the Barbarian pilots (second draft). The names were intended as their call signs, but these were dropped for simplicity. (Plus, the first time I used them they seemed pretentious even to me.)


Episode 1: Art Lovers

Debut episodes can be intimidating to write unless you first figure out where you want them to end, with everyone on stage and set up for things to come. Writing this story became a matter of stringing the right scenes together until they reached that point. This simplicity was offset, however, by a truly bizarre series of events surrounding page one. I wrote the script for this page on my first computer, then promptly lost it to the digital netherworld and had to re-create it from memory (not always as easy as it sounds). After finishing the art for page one, I discovered that my then-three-year-old daughter apparently didn’t like one of my panels and lavished it with white-out a mere half hour before I had to ship it to my publisher. Then, three years later, I colored page one on my second computer and lost it AGAIN. I have to say, three times makes it a genuine curse. Now I save computer files frequently and keep the white-out at a safe distance. (By the way, the original art for page one – and every other page of this story – has vanished from the face of the Earth. Make of this what you will.)

Episode 2: The Price

The task for this story was to depict Robin’s rite of passage, his initiation (with all its requisite pain) into the new life that stretches out before him. What surprises me the most about this episode is how closely it follows the structure of the classic hero’s journey myth. I wasn’t introduced to the works of Joseph Campbell until a few years after I wrote this, but all the traditional motifs are here. Robin is still held back by the constraints and preconceptions of his old sphere of existence, represented by his increasingly obsolete attachment to Kevin. Mac is the shaman who has to guide Robin – by whatever means necessary – through a death and rebirth. Robin has to break the chains he was born with. As a writer, I instinctively knew these things had to happen, but I was completely unaware of how universal the concepts were.


Episode 3: Gorilla Tactics

Now that Robin and Mac had overcome their initial teething pains, it was time for them to take a step into their surrounding environment. The Fist of Earth, after all, is a colorful microcosm of all manner of deviants, rogues, and monsters. I should probably explain that although it’s a ship of war, it isn’t at war yet. Everybody has a job to do, but they can also relax and let in some comedy. After years of writing hard-edged SF dramas, it was quite liberating to discover this.

Episode 4: The Gift

Robin does in this story exactly what I would do if I suddenly found myself surrounded by women like the Barbarians: lose my cool, my confidence, and any semblance of self-esteem. Unlike me, however, Robin has a highly sensible and infinitely devious benefactor on his side. And next to some of the other human males on the Fist of Earth, Robin is a standout whether he believes it or not.

Episode 5: The Calling

By this time, I figured any readers who were hooked by the first four stories deserved something of an explanation for exactly what happened to the Earth and why intelligent gorillas are bunking with human beings. I also knew I wouldn’t be satisfied with Grease Monkey until I found some way to render a profile of Mac looking heavenward. Something about that image stuck in my mind as a symbol for the particular sense of wonder I wanted the series to convey.

Episode 6: Rewards

No doubt about it, of the first six episodes this one is my personal fave. When this story came out of my pen, I wished all these characters were actors so I could send them flowers after their masterful performance. After this one, the story had taken over and I no longer considered these to be fictional characters. I was just the guy holding the pen, reporting on their lives. Ask any writer if they are in control of their characters, and they’ll tell you a similar story.


Episode 7: Kismet

I dearly hope that two things from our time will still be around in a future of space travel. First, I hope there are still books that you have to pick up and open to read. Even though it makes more sense in a closed environment to store all your text electronically, I doubt that any piece of literature would have the kind of weight – and meaning – that it gains by virtue of taking up physical space. Second, I hope that being surrounded by ultra-high-tech hardware and exotic circumstances will not supplant a hearty taste for science fiction adventure. Even now, most of us don’t get excited about stories centered on what surrounds us in our daily lives.



These two thoughts tugged at me as I created this story, and I cheerfully addressed them both. Fist of Earth‘s library contains digital books, but they each demand their own package, unwilling to be denigrated. And when Robin declares that the ship is full of stiffs, he is observing precisely what happens when people lose their appetite for imagination. Kara is a casualty of this, someone whose creative mind serves little purpose to the society and goes to waste by running itself in circles. Let’s all promise each other we won’t let it come to this, okay?


Episode 8: Gorilla Warfare

Few obstacles in life are as insurmountable as our reactions to them. Whoever learns how to manipulate our reactions will be the true master of the world. In the time since I wrote this one, that has become more and more obvious.

Trivia: Wes was named after my brother-in-law.



Episode 9: End of the World

This story has a bit of a checkered past. As a fervent NASA supporter, I wanted to be completely accurate in my depiction of a next-generation space shuttle, which for the longest time looked like it would be the X-33 Venturestar. Ever since I wrote this script in 1996, I was on the lookout for X-33 references, but I was never happy with what I found, not to mention annoyed by the ship’s lack of a human crew. This had me stymied for three years until NASA (bless their hearts) rolled out the X-38, a smaller shuttle designed as an escape vehicle for the International Space Station. The shuttle that appears in this episode isn’t exactly the X-38 (its aerospike engine should be a dead giveaway to those in the know), but it’s founded on the same concept, which serves this story far better than the X-33 ever would. Besides, it was announced as I was drawing this story that the X-33 project was finally being scrapped after five years of study. Nonetheless, I hope something like it does eventually fly – with humans at the helm – and that people like Captain H.E. Peffard are among them.


Special thanks to my pal Glenn Swanson at the Johnson Space Center for reference on the vitally important SAFER unit!


Episode 10: Enemies

Political correctness gets a bad rap these days. I see it as a much-abused idea with noble roots. If you accept that words and thoughts can be the same thing, then changing the words we use can have a strong impact on how we think. We struggle mightily against modes of thought that are forced upon us – as well we should – but since we humans have gained a virtual stranglehold on the planet, I think it behooves us to recognize that little will improve until the quality of our thoughts improves. If that means paying closer attention to the words we use, then so be it.



Episode 11: The Rival

So far, it seems to be an inescapable truth that within any group you will find at least one obnoxious jerk who seems unaware of, or uninterested in, the effect they have on the people around them. You know the type. A human hemhorrhoid. One whose primary function is to make life harder for everyone else. If this is indeed a given pattern in human affairs, we can do one of two things in response: either compromise ourselves into ambivalence, or try to find a purpose in it. My thinking is that human obstacles are here to teach us more about ourselves, to heighten our awareness of the impact we have on each other’s lives. And if that doesn’t quite work, they can at least give us an excuse to sharpen our wit and sarcasm (two of humanity’s most vital resources, if you ask me).


Episode 12: Rewards, part 2

When I wrote the first six episodes in 1992, they sort of naturally fell into a story arc culminating with Mac almost getting a date with Admiral Stettler. When I made up my mind to write more episodes in 1996, it felt right to construct the entire series this way, in arcs of six stories that would each end with a follow-up to “Rewards.” And I have to say that although each story is special to me in its own unique way, these episodes stand out because they pretty much wrote themselves. It’s an undefinable kind of magic when your characters tell you what’s supposed to happen to them, like the thing you created is alive and independent of you. It’s just like all the best moments of being a parent, and I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.


Episode 13: Exchange Day

when my daughter was a kid, she went through occasional bad patches where nothing was fair and she never got her way and everybody around her was mean for no reason. One summer, she and I took a weekend off in a major American city (I won’t say which one) and wound up staying in a shabby hotel on the anarchic side of town. Lots of homeless people, an atmosphere of violence, and oppressive cityscapes were just some of the highlights. In the midst of this, she turned to me and said, “You know what, Dad? I really like my life.” Until that moment, I hadn’t quite realized how valuable it is to have context.


Episode 14: Grail Time

Since day one of this project, I’ve always puzzled over how much I want to make Mac and the others like real gorillas from our time. I’ve often worried that they just come off as humans in ape costumes. Beyond the cheap banana jokes and monkey puns, there ought to be many subtle and complex levels of gorilla behavior. As it turns out, they were subtle enough to sneak into the fabric of the story on their own. First, gorilla troops consist mainly of females grouped around an alpha male and one or two juvenile males, precisely the makeup of Barbarian Squadron. Also, since the female gorillas choose which male to join up with, he has to audition for the role. He has to show leadership and responsibility in order to win the ladies’ approval. Which is precisely what Mac does in his long-term attempt to impress and charm Admiral Stettler. So the gorilla culture as we have come to know it is in there, it just took its own subtle and complex route. Believe me, I’m as surprised as anyone by this.

By the way, the philosophy in this story has helped me to cope with some interesting times. Who knows, maybe it will help someone else.


Episode 15: Separation

Here was a genuine case of history overtaking me. When I originally wrote this story, it included this line as part of the VR movie: “Only twice before had humanity been touched by such power.” The two events were the first atomic bomb explosion and the first moon landing. To me, it seemed that nothing could compare with those two utterly different but equally significant moments in history. But that was before September 11, 2001. It occurred to me on that horrible day that my concept of a worldwide alien attack would look something like what happened in New York. But, of course, it had the built-in buffer of being fictional. I drew this story a month after 9/11, and it already seemed historically inept to stick with the original script. I’m hoping I won’t have to revise it in the future to accommodate something worse.


Episode 16: The Long Road

During the first half of the 1990s when I began this project, a few of my contemporary comic book creators suddenly received explosive popularity in return for what looked to me like not very much effort. Those of us in the larger sector of the art form (the lesser known but harder working) kept our heads down and toiled onward, quietly resenting the hell out of this paradox. I know I’m not the only one in the world who believes that reward should be commensurate – not reciprocal – to the time and effort you give to your work. When evidence piles up in support of the opposing theory, when it looks like the manipulation of easy formulas is the fast track to both financial and creative success, you begin to question some of your fundamental beliefs. Some of us were irresistibly tempted, and jumped onto the bandwagon. And nearly everyone who did dropped out of sight afterward. We should all have realized how hollow it actually was. Observing this led me to my short road vs. long road ethic, which I hope I’ve mapped out clearly in this episode.



Perhaps an amusing coda is that this particular story was the most difficult of them all to draw, and it refused to be contained in my preferred 12 pages. In other words, I had to work harder to tell a story that applauds hard work.



Episode 17: The Way of Art

I won’t go on and on about the real-life influences in this story, because I find it’s much better when you can be pointed toward great books and ideas with minimal hype. Instead, I will sing some praises. When I wrote this one, I deluded myself into thinking I could draw the whole thing myself and adjust my style slightly for “the comic within the comic.” With time came wisdom, and when I finally dissuaded myself from the notion I had to figure out who else could do it. This led me to my pal David Hartman, a wicked genius if there ever was one. (Visit his website here.) He also pays his bills as an animation director. His work contains the same wit, irreverence, and silliness with which he lives his life, and he was my first and only choice to stand in for the fictional E.C. Laurels. The writing and layouts are mine, but every grain of character and texture are pure Hartman. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


Episode 18: Rewards, part 3

This one is my favorite.



Episode 19: Politics

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and predict that unless somebody invents telepathy, boys will always find the workings of the female mind a complete mystery whether it actually is or not. Moreover, I’m gonna predict that even when the answers to their most fundamental questions are sitting right in front of them, people will still insist on looking for something else. Try as we might, we still prefer the chase over the prize. But that’s okay, because very few of us know what to do with the prize once we’ve got it. I wish there were more myths about that.

Trivia: the guy at the upper left has just one appearance, but I when I first designed him I thought he might turn into a pal for Robin at some later time. It could still happen. “Stuggy” is short for “Stugerson.”


Episode 20: Stalemates

This was the single toughest story for me to write. Most of the previous scripts were written at a breakneck pace, which came to a screeching halt on this one. It was because I had only a meager grip on the character of the fathers, and looking back, I realized that I had no template to follow. Most of the men in my family did not flow with great passion, and I simply didn’t know what it would be like to live with that. After about a month of creative constipation, I gave up the research angle and just put the two fathers together in their first scene. Imagine my surprise when the finished script clocked in at twice normal length! Those guys just took the stage and ran with it, exhausting everyone in the process. In the end, this probably gave me the experience I lacked before.

Episode 21: Election Day

Although this story was written shortly after the ’96 presidential election, the political views I built into it turned out to have a lot more relevance in later years. If these views are still relevant in a hundred years or so, we will have a lot to answer for as the caretakers of democracy.



Episode 22: Upheaval

There comes a time for all of us when larger forces (vast, cool, and unsympathetic in the words of H.G. Wells) emerge from silence and cast strange, discomforting shadows over our lives. I imagine that each of us has known a time when our fates were suddenly, frighteningly, placed in the control of someone who had little notion or concern about the power they could wield. Bank manager, landlord, employer, whatever. Sometimes it doesn’t take much to crack our armor and make us feel insignificant. This is what happens when a system becomes more important than the people it was meant to serve. You won’t find many laughs in this story, because it’s a topic I don’t find terribly amusing.

Episode 23: The Best of Times

At last, the payoff. What I like best about payoff stories is that they are usually so unique to their context that no other combination of elements could have created them. One of the best things about a payoff story is that it can give a writer genuine opportunities for wish fulfillment. In this case, I had two wishes; that your friends will come to your rescue when you need them the most, and that once in a while your leaders actually do know what they’re doing. I think those are wishes we can all get behind.



Episode 24: Rewards, part 4

Okay, I’ll come clean. The whole reason I did this book was so I could draw that one page of Mac & Evelyn in the park. There. I said it.


At right is the bomber, which makes its first appearance in Episode 24 as a setup for its heavier use in Book 2. It was first designed for the Grease Monkey animation pitch, which can be seen here.

Vignette 1: Chaos

After I wrote the entire Robin meets-and-loses Kara storyline, it all happened to me in real life. The details were different, but the impact on me was the same as on my paper persona, and my reaction was (naturally) just like his. I wrote this in response, bringing together a little formula for dealing with life that still works when I remember to apply it. By the way, my Kara came back to me a couple of years later. Maybe someday the same will happen to Robin.

Vignette 2: End of the Tunnel

I almost always listen to music or have some riff going through my head while I draw. Music is such an energizing, inspirational, creative force, I can’t imagine getting through a workday without it. This made me want to find some way of including music in a comic strip, other than a playlist no one would have a use for. So here it is: YOU pick the music. When you read this story, you can play your own favorite piece behind it (preferably something classical) and maybe you’ll get to have the same experience as Robin.

Vignette 3: Barfly

One year I visited the San Diego Wild Animal Park and was stunned when the tour guide claimed that wild African gorillas were now extinct. It felt like someone had kicked me in the stomach, as if a family member had suddenly died. Gorillas were endangered when I started writing these stories, but it never occurred to me that these most magnificent creatures wouldn’t be around by the time I finished. Fortunately, I was able to learn from the fine people at the Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund that this tour guide was, in fact, exaggerating. The mountain gorillas of Rwanda are most definitely in trouble, but lowland gorillas can still be found in the thousands. So there’s a bit of a relief. Anyway, I cooked up this story while I wandered around the park that day, sick with the shock I felt upon hearing the “e” word and feeling very raw toward my fellow human beings. My mood has improved since then.

For Further Reading

Friday, November 7th, 2014

As a thank you for spending time with Grease Monkey, I’d like to recommend some other things that either influenced it or relate to what happens in its pages. In truth, just about everything I’ve ever read has had some influence, but these stand out for various reasons I will attempt to explain in no particular order. Click on the titles to find them at Amazon.


Designs on Space:
Blueprints for 21st Century Space Exploration

Richard Wagner with illustrations by Howard Cook

Simon & Schuster, 2001

This ambitious little tome is packed with lots of cool stuff – all in illustrated form – that is either currently in use or on the drawing board for future use in space. This is where I first learned about the SAFER unit and the aerospike engine that both appear in Book 1, Episode 9. There is no shortage of space books out there, but the passion in this one leaps off the page.


Amelia Earhart’s Daughters


Leslie Hayworth & David Toomey

Perennial, 2000

When I first imagined the Barbarians as an all-woman fighter squadron, it was in keeping with the grand but little-known tradition of female aviators all the way back to the early days of flight. This fascinating book lays out the full story of those pilots and goes a long way toward describing the obstacles they faced both in the air and on the ground. I promise you, each pilot in Barbarian Squadron has read this book and gives it a place of honor on her shelf.





Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman:
Adventures of a Curious Character


Richard P. Feynman
W.W. Norton & Company, 1985

I didn’t learn about the artist/physicist Richard Feynman until well after I’d started on Grease Monkey, but the more I read the more I liked him and began to think of him as the 20th century human version of Mac Gimbensky. Feynman did more than think out of the box – he redefined what the box was. This book is a collection of stories told by him, each one worthy of stage or screen. (For that matter, if the stage production about Feynman called “QED” ever comes to your town, cancel all your other appointments and see it.)






Daniel Quinn

Bantam, 1992

Okay, if you want to know what all the fuss was about in Episode 17, get this book and lock yourself away with it for a day or two. I guarantee that when you come out again, the world will look very different. Even if I hadn’t met and worked with Daniel Quinn, I would still not hesitate to recommend Ishmael to every human on Earth. I didn’t ask for Daniel’s permission to reference the book or swipe the lead character’s name, but when I told him about it, he didn’t mind one bit.




Last Chance to See


Douglas Adams & Mark Carwardine
Ballantine, 1990

It breaks my heart every time I remember that Douglas Adams is no longer with us, especially after he went and wrote something as wonderfully heartfelt as this after a nonstop string of comedies. Among each of its unforgettable chapters, Last Chance features an amazingly vivid description of a meeting with wild gorillas in Africa. Not even Saint Fossey herself did a better job of it.





The Power of Myth


Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers

Doubleday, 1988

If I were to found a religion one day, this book would probably be the sacred text. There is simply no adequate way to sum up Joseph Campbell except to say that a life lived without experiencing his gift for encapsulating the entire span of human imagination is a life incomplete. This book, being a transcript of a conversation, is a particularly accessible way to enter Campbell’s world and see that it belongs to all of us. One thing’s for sure, Grease Monkey would have suffered greatly if I hadn’t tuned into Campbell.




A Primate’s Memoir


Robert M. Sapolsky
Scribner, 2001

Robert Sapolsky is a primatologist who works mainly with baboons, but his writing style is so sharp and entertaining that I just had to include it in this list. This book recounts his many colorful years in Africa, including an encounter with Dian Fossey and a visit with the mountain gorillas in Rwanda. His description is just as riveting as Adams’ and fills me with gratitude that such an ideal observer would willingly risk life and limb to write about this subject.





Significant Others:
The Ape-Human Continuum and the Quest for Human Nature


Craig Stanford
Basic Books, 2001

This short but very compelling book closely examines the line that is quite arbitrarily drawn between humans and apes, a line Stanford is intent on wiping out. He proceeds from the entirely defensible notion that apes have a culture every bit as complex and valid as our own, and fortifies his point in one well-crafted chapter after another. This book informed a lot of the opinions I included in Barfly, and goes a good deal farther. Mac and his beer buddies would approve.




Songs That Made This Country Great


Stan Ridgway

I.R.S. Records, 1992

This is a compilation of Stan Ridgway’s best songs circa 1992, including Overlords, which had such a pivotal influence on the origins of Grease Monkey. Stan continues to write and perform music to this day, and each of his songs is a full-course meal.





The Ape and the Sushi Master:
Cultural Reflections of a Primatologist


Frans De Waal
Basic Books, 2001

If after reading Barfly you’d like to know who Kinji Imanishi is, this is the book to read. Frans DeWaal writes at length and with great insight about Imanishi and many other pioneers in the study of primatology. The title refers to the wide gap between the mind of an animal and the mind of someone schooled in a very precise art, and much of the book examines the many shades between these two extremes. It’s also an excellent (and much thicker) companion volume to Significant Others.




The Man Who Grew Young


Daniel Quinn, illustrated by Tim Eldred
Context Books, 2001

Okay, this is an unabashed attempt to promote something else I worked on, but what the heck. If you liked Grease Monkey you might want to go looking for this book, too. It’s a story that would have been very hard to tell in any medium other than a graphic novel; the big galactic timepiece has ticked over and everything is flowing backward toward the beginning of history. One man is both blessed and cursed with a full view of human culture as it is dismantled century by century. What waits for him at the end of the journey? I’d be pretty foolish to give it away here…




Woman in the Mists:
The Story of Dian Fossey and the Mountain Gorillas of Africa


Farley Mowat
Warner Books, 1987

If you saw the movie version of Gorillas in the Mist, you only got about five percent of a full portrait of Dian Fossey’s incredible life story. This marvelous book brings it all together in a mixture of biography and very personal excerpts from Fossey’s extensive journals. Mowat says that he couldn’t help but fall in love with her (posthumously, that is) during the writing of this book, and it’s equally hard not to do so while reading it. She fought tooth and nail against such unbelievable odds and such monumental ignorance that I have absolutely no doubt that she would be sainted by a culture of gorillas. So here’s to Saint Fossey.