"It's a tale of urban madness. It's a story of the `tabloidization' of our society. It's a story of instant celebrity and responsibility in the media. It's about somebody who liked to watch, but finally decided he didn't like what he saw."
That's the description veteran stage, screen, television, and voice actor Mark Hamill will give you of The Black Pearl if you ask him to describe the five-issue miniseries that he and screenwriter Eric Johnson are developing for Dark Horse Comics. I spoke with both writers via conference call in mid-May.
Bruce G. Costa: It sounds like you speak from personal experience.
Eric Johnson: I still remember the night Mark called me with this idea. He told me about this most unlikely guy who, one night, inadvertently is turned into a vigilante hero by the bloodthirsty tabloid press. He was going to try to live up to this image that the press was trying to create for him, and why he couldn't do that -- why we can't have those kinds of vigilante heroes, why we can't have superheroes in the real world. We started hammering out this story based on that, but as time went on, we realized that what Mark was talking about -- the `tabloidization' of our society and all that -- those were the things that were emerging and that's what we were writing about.
Obviously, Mark understands something about celebrity in America. I've been in an interesting position, too, because of my friendship with Mark over the years and being right alongside with him during most of his career. I've seen what happens to him and how people react to him. So
that's how this was born. It took us a number of years to finally get the story that we wanted to tell, though.
Costa: Years! Then let's discuss the plot of The Black Pearl.
Johnson: A court stenographer named Luther Drake has been sitting in court for 20 years, silently absorbing the worst that mankind has to offer. He lives a very lonely, voyeuristic life. He is obsessed with a woman that moves in across the way from him. One night he sees her leave her apartment, he's out following her, and all of a sudden he witnesses an attempted kidnapping of her. He's not a hero, he tries to flee, and he inadvertently gets in the middle of all of this.
Mark Hamill: He bumps heads with fate!
Costa: Literally -- and then inadvertently kills one of the kidnappers . . .
Johnson: Right -- who turns out to be a wanted killer, one whom the police have been after for a long time and have been unable to catch. Here this guy does it in one night. The press gets hold of this, especially an irresponsible -- he's not even a journalist, really, this guy Jerry Delman, he's sort of a shock-jock -- he turns this guy into an overnight celebrity. There's an image of Luther going over a fence. Delman enhances the photo and puts it on the air. The Black Pearl is born! So this guy Luther is at home witnessing this on television just like everybody else and he decides that he will become the Black Pearl.
Costa: Whether that's remotely feasible or not . . .
Hamill: One thing that we like is the audience seeing things that the characters in the story don't, so that when it's reported it seems much more heroic than what really happened. But in Luther's opinion, he feels he's been given a great gift. He feels that this is his calling. I don't think he consciously thinks, "This is my 15 minutes of fame."
One of the interesting things is that he hears these cases day in, day out, year in, year out. Man's inhumanity to man has got to have an effect. For fate to look on him in this way and give him an opportunity to "make a difference," to allow him to make a positive contribution to society, is one that he can't seem to pass up. Our character does have a very pronounced fantasy life. He's very well read and I think he has the kind of superiority in his own mind over the average citizen to make him feel that he can pull this off.
Johnson: From what he finds around him he builds a costume and weapons. The Black Pearl is really a homemade superhero. He has the information he needs from a license plate to go out and try to rescue this girl who had been kidnapped, which he does. He frees her and flees into the night, which only increases his celebrity. The whole city's buzzing and more press comes in and everybody wants to know who this guy is, who the girl is . . .
Hamill: It all happens so quickly and within 24 hours everybody wants to know who this person is. The combination of a slow news day with a catchy moniker like "The Black Pearl" really sends him into orbit. The viewers watch and the readers read as this man goes out and tries to fulfill the
wildly inflated claims and conjecture that is put forward by, in particular, this one shock-jock. But it's not one man alone who creates the Black Pearl sensation . . .
Johnson: As this guy's star rises, everybody wants a piece of him. Everyone wants to use him for their own means. There's merchandising -- Black-Pearl hats and Black-Pearl T-shirts and Black-Pearl rallies and the Pearl Patrol, who are like the Guardian Angels . . .
Costa: It's not a concept without precedent . . .
Hamill: All along the way there are elements of our plot which should resonate with readers -- the atmosphere of a tabloid television show and this voracious appetite that the public seems to have for sensationalism. One dovetails into another. If Tonya's not smashing Nancy's kneecap, we have Michael Jackson, we have O.J. Simpson . . . it just seems, in the last 20 years or so, partially because of the intense competition there is to be a rating point ahead of you rival, there's a complicity between the public's desire for sensationalism and the media's desire to supply an unending menu of sensationalism.
It occurred to me back a ways in a combination of events. I was doing a show in New York. One of the girls in the show lived in the same building as Bernie Getz. She was consistently late for like four days for rehearsal. We didn't understand why until we looked at the news -- the entire building was surrounded by the media. It wasn't just the rank-and-file, blue collar people in the streets going, "Yeah! They deserved it!" It was, you know, learned professors and lawyers and judges -- I mean everyone, for a certain period of time before everyone sort of came off of this cloud of euphoria. For a while it seemed as though the city had gone insane. So there were elements of Bernie Getz that stayed with me.
Johnson: The story of the Black Pearl takes place in a short period of time -- it's like four weeks. The public is just carried away with this whole thing.
Hamill: It's a frenzy that just could not be sustained much longer. One of the things we tried to do was make it completely plausible to people. In a nutshell, it's why there can't be a Batman. As a child I remember making a distinction between Superman and Batman -- I knew that people can't
fly and have X-Ray vision and have all of these powers, but in my 8-year-old mind, someone could physically perfect themselves and study and become the greatest detective and assemble an array of gadgets that would make him into a super crimefighter. It made me smile when, as an
adult, I looked back on these Batman comic books and knew that at one point in my life I actually thought that Batman was realistic. That's when a million dollars meant something, and I thought that if I had a million dollars, I could build this Bat cave and get this supercharged car and go
out and do these things. I was trying to find a way to dramatize that thinking.
Mind you that it has to be set in the real world. It's not like the Gotham City of the movies which is some Clockwork Orange, surreal, mat-painting city like no one's ever seen before. I want this to be a guy in a costume with no mat paintings climbing the side of a building in real life. What would happen if somebody tried to do that?
Costa: He gets a spunky sidekick and a loyal butler?
Johnson: He does manage to sustain it for a little while before it all collapses in on him. But there's a lot of fun along the way and a lot of humor in this.
Hamill: There's a lot of dark humor throughout this thing. For some reason satire and black humor is not as easy to sell as just an out-an-out thriller or an out-and-out adventure film. But I remind people, as tragic a story as Bonnie and Clyde was, it had some of the biggest laughs I had ever seen.
Johnson: Dog Day Afternoon.
Hamill: A wonderful example! It is a really funny movie and yet, overall, it is a real heartbreaker because the frailties of these characters are so pronounced. Yet, asking Sal where he wants to go when they get out of the United States and he says, "Wyoming" . . .
Johnson, Hamill, Costa: [Laughter]
Hamill: What was it Mel Brooks said?
Johnson: "Tragedy is if I step in a manhole cover, comedy is if you step in a manhole cover."
Hamill: [Laughter] But it's not . . .in other words, if you tell film people it's about a guy who puts on a costume and goes out and fights crime, but there's humor, they immediately think it's some out-and-out, goofy kind of thing. What we'd like it to be is a straightforward thriller with a lot of natural humor in the situation. When you think of it, I mean, it's hard for me to maintain one identity. The idea of having to maintain a dual identity scares the bejeezus out of me. [Laughter]
We decided that somebody who would try to do something like that couldn't be a normal human
being. We told you how this guy literally runs smack dab into an incident that will change his life forever. If it were you or I, we might have fled, but the next morning we'd go to the police station and say, "Look, it was me, and blah-blah-blah." Who knows? They might even give you a medal.
You'd be on the news that night and get on with your life. But fate just happened to pick someone who has been building and building and building a photographic memory of his career as a court stenographer and the things he is privy to in that position down at the courthouse. It's been inside him laying dormant all these years. It's just the wrong guy to have had this happen to.
Costa: He's been in the habit of being a peeping tom, basically.
Hamill: He obsesses on this woman to the point where he believes he is a part of her life. He watches her, he has found a way to listen to her, he follows her. He's got lots of information about her, and he becomes bonded with her in a way that he believes is as legitimate as actually having a
real relationship with a woman.
Johnson: And she doesn't even know she exists.
Hamill: So it's also a tale of obsessed love.
Johnson: Also, because we are sitting in the real world and are trying to deal with it in a realistic way, when there is violence, you suffer the real consequences of violence. It's not like in the next scene your broken nose is gone. This guy Luther, by the end of this four-week period, is a wreck! He's losing his job because he's out at night trying to fight crime, then he's sitting in a courtroom trying to stay awake the next day during these cases and he's falling asleep . . . we try to deal with the real consequences of trying to maintain a dual identity.
Hamill: That was one of the great things about Dark Horse. The few places that we pitched The Black Pearl as a film, you could tell right away whether they got it or not. Dark Horse completely understood, especially that point that Eric just made about, gee, if you get punched, perhaps you'll
have a swollen cheek or you'll have to go to the dentist and get your tooth recapped. We take responsibility for the violence. The violence is not pretty to look at. It's not cool.
Costa: It's interesting to me that you start with the end, or what is close to the end, in a scene where Luther looks desperate, haunted, even destroyed. As I read I had to keep reminding myself of this indication that the Black Pearl crashes down around Luther. I mean, at the end of the first issue, this guy is charismatic, he's in control -- he has transformed from a hermit into a vengeful power in the night.
Johnson: And this will show why you can't really do that. Over these five issues you'll see why that just doesn't work.
Hamill: It's an affectionate look, as crazy as it gets, of comic book fandom. Non-pros and people who aren't tuned in to that world have often said to me, "What's it like with all those weirdos and geeks?" In a way, those people are so much more in touch with their fantasy lives compared to people who aren't into fantasy or science fiction or comic books. They probably save themselves years and years of couch time. And couples, too. I have this lasting image of "The Green Lantern Family." The husband in a Green Lantern costume, the wife in a Green Lantern costume, and pushing a stroller with a baby in a Green Lantern costume! Who is to say who's more well adjusted? I'm sure these people come from all kinds of professions. I have an affection for them because I'm a fan myself. I've never gone quite as far as some of these people take it, but more power to them. Rather than making light of them, Black Pearl is my valentine to people who are that in touch with their fantasy lives. I was sort of sorry to see him not be successful, but again, if you imagine this thing as not in a fantasy world at all, but in our world, there seemed to be no
other way to go. You can't do that. You can't go out and fight crime like that. Was Batman ever deputized by the police department? I guess that's an issue I missed somewhere.
Johnson: Yeah, we don't have a Commissioner Gordon on Luther's side. In our story, Luther's wanted for murder because people die when he goes out. This is something new. It's gonna be a series that's never really been seen before. It's the superhero story told in a brand-new way.
Hamill: Through a fun-house mirror.