The Bill Show: Episode Eight
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Our Top Story
This time we turn back the clock, to go behind the scenes at the old TSR game company for…
The Erol Otus Files!
Wait. No. Start over. Even better, we’ll call this…
The Erol Otus Chronicles!
Maybe you should file this segment under Insider Gossip (under the guise of fond remaninssances).
We’ve had a special request from one of our regular readers for any fun and juicy anecdotes about Erol Otus, who was another artist working at TSR, at the same time Bill was there. “What was it like meeting him, and working with him?” And so on. We know why he asked this. Erol painted such weird and eclectic things in his D&D illustrations, he must be a weird guy, right?
Not necessarily. Sometimes the weirder the art, the more reserved and button-down the artist. It’s as if some artists get everything (all of their madness) out in their art and there’s nothing left for personal quirks. Or maybe some artists are so damn good in their work, they don’t need the affectations of odd behavior to pretend at being what they know they already are. Who can say?
Two examples: In his attendance at various comic, books, and folklore conventions over the many years of his career, Bill has met quite a few of his artist and storytelling heroes. Two of those he expected to be wild men, based entirely on their artistic output, turned out to be quiet and reserved, almost to the point of discomfort. First was the cartoonist (meaning he wrote and drew the series) behind the madcap over-the-top comic strip: Reid Fleming, World’s Toughest Milkman. His name is David Boswell, and he spoke softly, always wore a three-piece suit, and was as restrained as his character was wild.
The second example is drawn from when Bill met Richard Corben1 for the first time, who wasn’t quite the three-piece suit sort of fellow, but was equally soft-spoken and composed. Judging entirely by his work, Bill expected the fellow to be... well... like his work: swaggering, brutish, naked, with flailing penises all over the place.2 He wasn't.
Bill digresses: “I eventually got to write a comic story for Richard Corben to draw. It was for one of my occasional guest stints writing short-short tales-within-the-tales for DC/Vertigo’s House of Mystery series. No flailing penises in that one either. Since Corben was also known for illustrating gothic horror stories, along the lines of something Edgar Allen Poe might write, we agreed to do a Poe-esque gothic horror tale called The Hounds of Titus Roan (House of Mystery # 16, 2009).
So then, getting back to the subject of our memoirs, Bill’s ribald tales of Erol, Here’s what Bill recalls: “Erol wasn’t at all like his paintings. Despite what Erol might have you believe, with his self-portrait here:
Erol was a reserved and composed fellow, almost aloof at times, and a bit of a fashionista with never a hair out of place. He had no patience for fools, many of which he found in the workplace, and would rhetorically snarl and bite at them, but even then only with well-sharpened verbal retorts.
He once did throw a bit of a fit in Lawrence Schick’s basement (we were play-testing Lawrence’s proposed D&D miniatures battles rules) when the frozen Welsh Rarebit dinner he’d purchased turned out not to contain even a speck of rabbit.3 “It’s just yellow cheese sauce!” he bitterly exclaimed. But even that so-called fit was restrained.
Oh, and he once borrowed (fellow TSR employee/one-of-the-bosses) Mike Carr’s snowmobile, the one harsh winter we were all there together in Lake Geneva, and promptly drove it out onto not-quite-thick-enough ice and right into the lake, where it was lost, never to be recovered. Oops.
Rumor has it he was the guy who fell through the rotting floor of TSR’s ancient downtown offices (or through the ceiling, depending on what floor you were on), but since Bill wasn’t around for that incident, he cannot confirm or deny the story. A quick check with Stephen Sullivan, who was there, confirms that it happened.
And that’s it. That’s the sum total of Erol Otus stories Bill has to share. He wasn’t wild, but thank the elder gods his art is. We’re sorry the Otus antics weren’t quite what you were hoping for, or expecting, but that’s often the way of things.
What We Like
The Sandbaggers. If you’ll recall in last week’s episode, we made the bold statement that the Sandbaggers TV series was not only the best spy show ever put on the screen (big or small) but arguably the best TV show in history. And we promised to defend that statement this week. Well then, here we go:
Some basic information: The Sandbaggers was a British TV drama produced by Yorkshire Television. It ran for three seasons, from 1978 to 1980, for a total of 20 episodes. The series was created by (rumored, but never confirmed, to be a Royal Navy Intelligence Officer) Ian Mackintosh, who also created the Brit series Warship, and who disappeared under mysterious circumstances while on a vacation (whom those in power swear wasn’t a secret mission for British Intelligence). The first two seasons were helmed entirely by Mackintosh. The third season (which lost some of its quality in some of the episodes) were helmed by others, partially from Mackintosh’s plans. The third season also ended on a cliffhanger. According to Ray Lonnen, one of the series stars, the fourth season, his character would have become the new Director of Operations, while Burnside would’ve moved up to the Deputy Head of SIS. But we’ll never know, since they decided not to continue the series absent Mackintosh.
This isn’t a spy drama in the tradition of James Bond. There are few firefights, and what rare clever gadgets one finds in this series will often break down, or have never worked in the first place. This is more in the tradition of John le Carré (a pen name for retired Brit spymaster David Cornwell, since his bosses would never let him write under his real name) thrillers, about drab, tired men in dreary offices. The thrills come from gradually building tensions and dire consequences, rather than men leaping off of buildings and destroying vast hidden villain enclaves. Audiences of this spy sub-genre generally prefer to be stirred, not shaken.
Some opinions to explain the show’s overall quality: First of all, it had a lousy budget, so all of the car chases and action scenes you’d expect to find in a show like this are truncated at best, and mostly missing entirely. Instead it was primarily a story about the dull and soul-crushing corridors of power, and that part is written and performed with perfection.
What makes it better than anything else on TV? The writing. It’s so often the case that crappy budgets have to be overcome with excellent writing (which can often be obtained for the same price as bad writing, because quality of writing is never dependent on the available budget for writing, which is always a pittance, or else it would require the entertainment industry moguls who run Hollywood, or its Brit equivalents, would place any value in the scripts, and could tell good writing from lousy writing, which they’ve never in the history of entertainment been able to do), and this is the exceptional example that proves the rule (see what we did there, twisting the common saying?). They couldn’t afford spectacle in this series. They could barely do action. But boy could they bring the tension and drama through perfect structure and dialogue.
It’s a mean show, in that, these are generally not stories about nice people in nice jobs. It embodies the George Orwell quote: “People sleep peacefully in their beds at night, only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.” If you prefer stories about gentle people being good to each other, which certainly does have its place, this is not the series for you. And sometimes (especially in one key heartbreaking moment) the general atmosphere of meanness turns downright cruel. We won’t spoil the particular moment, but you’ll know what we reference when you get to that episode.
Where can you find it: At one point a complete DVD collection was produced, and made available for US audiences, compatible with US devices. Once in a great while you can find that DVD set in old bookstores. You can also sometimes find it streaming on one or another of the Brit streaming services, like Brit Box, or Acorn. There are also pretty good quality episodes posted on YouTube.
A warning: Watch them in order. Don’t skip an episode, even to continue after the one notorious episode that isn’t often available (for complex reasons we never fully understood). If you do that you’ll spoil the most tense, thrilling and heart-rending moment of TV drama ever put to screen. “No brag. No hyperbole. Just fact” (to paraphrase Walter Brennan‘s famous catchphrase from the quality American western TV series, The Guns of Will Sonnett).
Still not convinced? Get over to the YouTubes and search out the review video done by the ex Hollywood exec whose video channel is Call me Chato (we have no idea why). He has a Sandbaggers video review called: Sandbaggers: Best Spy TV Series of All Time? Being a humble fellow (one supposes) he presented the title as a question, but there is no question. It’s the best. Go see why. We’d post a direct link to the video, but we’re technologically challenged here at The Bill Show, so do please use your own formidable skills. You’ll be glad you did.
We at The Bill Show find it expedient to rewatch the Sandbaggers every year or so, not only because it’s endlessly entertaining, but to remind ourselves what glories can be achieved in the storytelling fields.
What is Bill Trying to Sell You This Week?
The sketchbooks are in, getting signed and numbered even as you read this (Bill’s already whining about how tired his hand is getting), and are available here in the store.
Bill understands most customers consider there’s value placed in obtaining the lowest numbers, when buying numbered items, so the time to strike is now. The lower numbers will go first (because we sell them in order, by the numbers, so to speak) and are likely to go fast.
What is Bill Trying to Teach You This Week?
Only this. From time to time in your career, you’ll make friends out of the people who work at the companies that publish your work. It’s inevitable, because this is still (mostly) a friendly industry. You’ll be tempted to give these friends a discount on your page rates (what you charge per page of writing and/or art). You’ll also be tempted often enough to lower your rates to what they can pay, because the job they’re offering features a character you’ve been dying to draw and/or write someday. By all means, it’s your life and your career. Do this if you want. But keep in mind, the lower rate you accept is now your page rate. If your rate was up to $200 per page, for example, but you let your buddy small press publisher have a job for $50 per page, because he’s a great and fine fellow and can’t afford your regular rate, you’ve just given away $150 per page, which you’d worked so hard, for so many years, to achieve. And also keep in mind, everyone talks to everyone in the publishing fields — even to their enemies. There are no secrets, even when you’ve agreed to keep this bargain rate “just between us.” Word will get around that you can now be had for the lower rate. Something to consider.
Our Moment of Hilarity
A man tried to sell me a coffin today. I told him that’s the last thing I need.
Our Parting Benediction
One of our favorite toasts: “Champagne to my real friends, and real pain to my sham friends.”
Thanks for reading (The Bill Show, and…) These Foolish Games! Consider subscribing (for free) to receive new posts and support Bill’s work.
Fair warning. Any time you mention the name Richard Corben around Bill he’ll break out into an off-key, too, too loud, rendition of the Simon and Garfunkel song called Richard Cory (from their Sounds of Silence album), because he finds the similarity in names amusing, and like a child, never gets tired of the same bad joke endlessly repeated. Also, be careful when you mention Pia Guerra, the penciler of the Vertigo comic book series Y the Last Man, or Bill might break out into the song “If you like Pia Guerra…” sung to the tune of, If You Like Piña Coladas. Beginning to detect a pattern here? Yeah, we at The Bill Show have too. We’ve decided to find it charming.
His stories about the character Den, being a prime example.
It turns out Welsh rarebit was originally called Welsh rabbit (it wasn’t just a common mis-pronunciation, but an intentional mis-pronunciation), because that was just them being playful with their naming conventions. Containing no actual rabbit parts, it’s a blend of melted cheeses and spices intended to be served over toast. In poor Erol’s case, even the toast wasn’t included, therefore all he got was sauce. To end confusion they eventually changed rabbit to rarebit, but admit it: we all grew up thinking it was cooked bunnies, didn’t we?