Longbox Graveyard on the Long Shot

Social Interaction: a relation between living organisms (especially between people).  In the sociological hierarchy, social interactions are formed by a pair of social actions and themselves form the basis of social relations, defined by symbolic interaction.

Nigerian poet and novelist Ben Okri said “the most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”  That was my first tweet ever, when my curiosity eclipsed suspicion that the social platform was just another means for people to share their eating habits or kvetch.  When i created my account, i felt like a stranger in a strange land.  Not quite a pariah, nor too late to the game. i’d punched a ticket to a digital destination foreign to me.  Like stepping outside of Victoria Station for the first time, this was a moment that imprints on the psyche.  You can read about a place, but you can’t wrap your head around it until you’re there.

So i felt like i had to put my best foot forward.  i didn’t want to come out of the gate with something blasé.  That being said, i’d be lying if i told you that’s one of my favorite quotes and i live my life by it or anything too syrupy like that.  No, rather it was the closing quote on an episode of Criminal Minds that i’d seen earlier that evening.  Those are always so poignant.  The bit about our capacity to create is what took root in my mind more than the other stuff.  At the time i was working on a comic book and felt very creator-y.

One of the people i started following really early on was Longbox Graveyard, which shares insightful comic book material through his blog.  He had me at Batroc the Leaper.
i’ve enjoyed following Longbox Graveyard and reliving the great comics of the Bronze Age through the lens of nostalgia worn by the blog’s author Paul O’Connor.  When the idea for sharing media creator’s stories on The Long Shot came about, his was one of the first names i put on the list.  Here is a guy absolutely prolific on social media – on Facebook, Flickr, Tumblr, Twitter – you name it.  If i’m honest, i was hesitant to write and ask to speak with him.  Most of the others on my list, and the few i’ve spoken with already, are people i know face-to-face.  On top of that, i’m no professional, credentialed journalist representing some publication.  Just a dude with a fledgling blog and a few questions.  Okay, i’ll throw it out there and see what happens.  The worst possibility is a no.  Maybe a C&D.  Instead, i received a warm response from O’Connor that he’d be happy to help, any time i liked.  Yadda, yadda, yadda a few weeks later i’m talking to him on the phone, bundled up against the ashen-skied windy Cleveland November day in my Chevy Aveo parked in the Cleveland State University parking lot.  i had to stay on campus all day and it was the only place i could think of to keep interruptions and outside noise to a minimum.
  Score one for putting anxiety aside.  The beginnings of backpack journalism?
If you’re already one of the crowd who follows Longbox Graveyard’s Marvel and DC comics and pop culture reviews, you might think it’s author is a reclusive comic book aficionado, pouring through a musty trove of yellow-paged books and waxing philosophical about the era of comics characterized by traditional superheroes facing relevant social issues.
What you’re really experiencing is the full time hobby and vanity project of Paul O’Connor, brand director for Appy Entertainment, developers of social-mobile games.  From their offices, situated above an Irish pub near the beach in Carlsbad, California, the team at Appy designs, playtests, and publishes games for Apple’s iOS.  All of their games are free to download and play, like Face Fighter Ultimate, physics launcher Trucks and Skulls, or their newest game Animal Legends.
“You could play our games almost forever without actually spending any money,” O’Connor said.  “I feel almost like we’re street musicians.  People don’t ask for what we’re doing.  But if you walk into a subway station, and someone’s playing nice music, maybe it’s not such a bad thing to drop a dollar in their hat and express thanks for bringing a little happiness into our lives.  I think we do the same thing with our games.”
Games, and game design, are O’Connor’s profession.  At age 12, he moved with his family to Hollywood.  During that formative time of emerging adolescence, which he considers literally our Golden Age, his interest in games really took off when he discovered science fiction-themed tabletop games.  Tabletop war games had already captured the attention of this military history buff.  And as a fan of literature like Lord of the Rings and Conan, the idea that he could explore those worlds through more than the printed word, through an interactive gaming experience, really floated his boat.
“I am interested in games as engines of social interaction,” O’Connor said.  “Games give people an opportunity to come together and have shared experiences that transcend who they are and where they are in society or in life.”
“You could probably go to any country in the world and play chess or checkers with someone even if you can’t speak their language.  They’re these formal constructs that draw a box around you and your friend and where you are and give you all these rules for interaction that trump whether you’re a rich person or a poor person, or speak someone’s language, or you’re male or female.  If I have a passion in my gaming life, it’s to find ways for people to come together and understand each other and find common ground through gaming.”
O’Connor made the decision to make games for a living when he was 17, when he left high school and moved to Arizona.  He got his first job in game design in 1980 with Flying Buffalo, makers of the fantasy role-playing game Tunnels and Trolls.  There, he created his first published game.  Grimtooth’s Traps, a classic compendium of diabolical dungeon dangers, has seen numerous revisions and updates since it’s publication in 1981.
Reminiscing about his early days as a game designer is like taking a trip in the WABAC machine for O’Connor.
“I’d left school and basically run away to join the circus,” O’Connor said.  “It was crazy, fun times.  I got a job with Flying Buffalo.  I had a friend there who was making this role-playing game.  They hired me in to work the game store in the front.  I was also writing part time and doing production work for them, doing editing, writing a column for their magazine.  It was a great opportunity for a kid.”
“They had a project at the time called ‘The Great Traps Book.’  They had this file of 30-40 ideas.  The editor there Liz Danforth, great lady, handed it to me and said ‘why don’t you see what you can do with this.’  That’s where the Grimtooth’s project came together.  Those books have been pretty successful. They’ve gone on and published seven or eight of them. They’ve probably been read in more languages than anything else I’ve done.  I’ve been dining out on Grimtooth’s for about 30 years.”
When Grimtooth’s Traps was published, there was a sense of validation in seeing his name in print. But the gaming supplement wasn’t O’Connor’s first published work.  At the time, there was a robust print scene for gaming-related news and material, and Flying Buffalo had its own publication called Sorcerer’s Apprentice.  Part of his position at the game company involved writing a column for the magazine.

In those days, seeing your name in print was a pretty big deal, as O’Connor recalls.  The landscape is different these days because of online opportunities that make writing available to everyone.  When he was writing his column, the magazine would turn up in the mail well after he’d submitted his work.  It was a magical, exciting moment to receive the publication and see his name in print.

“I thought ‘hey, I’ve done it,” O’Connor said.  “I’m a writer now.  I’ve written something, it’s been printed, I’ve been paid for it.  I’m in business.”

This special double issue of the mag actually had two O’Connor-penned items.  In addition to the article, he wrote a T&T module called “Tomb of Axton.”  That module was accepted for issue #9.  The article, called “If You Can’t Trust Your Banker…” was slated for issue #10.  Since the issue was a special double size, both pieces appear in the same edition.
O’Connor continues to work professionally in the game design industry.  He’s watched it grow and converge over time.  The gaming experience is egalitarian, as he puts it – in everybody’s hands now thanks to mobile technology.  As he and his business partners at Appy often muse, there are more cell phones in the world than toothbrushes.  He believes that gaming is something everybody will be doing if they’re not already.  Being a part of that, as a creator, is exciting not only as a provider of fun diversions, but as a means of social interaction.
Those interactions, achieved through the games he’s helped create over the years, is what O’Connor considers his biggest accomplishment.
“Even if Appy went away tomorrow, people would still remember us for the games we made,” O’Connor said.  “It’s been a great privilege to be involved with video games that people do remember and that have touched people.”
One of the most well-known games O’Connor has been involved with is the Oddworld series.  The first game in the series – Oddworld: Abe’s Oddysee – was released for the Playstation in 1997.  O’Connor served as a game designer for the title, and was involved in creating the series that emerged from the seminal game.
Creating games like Oddworld, and later Darkwatch, taught O’Connor a valuable lesson about artistry and creativity.  They don’t always go hand-in-hand.
“The market doesn’t owe you a living,” O’Connor said.  “As an artist it’s a privilege to be able to create, but it’s not a right to be paid for it.  The ability to create and make a living off it is a rare thing.  You always have to remain cognizant of your audience and realize they have lots of choices.”
“Part of the thick skin of a creator is that you could do really great work sometimes and it won’t necessarily be successful.  You can also do work you think isn’t so great and it ends up taking off, because it’s not always about the work.  It’s also about being lucky, and being in the right place at the right time.  You need to be able to sense opportunities and pivot towards them, and move to what your audience is telling you they want.”
O’Connor describes his work in game design, particularly Appy’s focus on iOS games, as a humbling experience.
“I’ve become very accustomed to giving things away for free and seeing what comes back,” O’Connor said.  “If I can do that with games that we work on for 8 or 9 months, and have budgets in the 10’s of thousands of dollars – sometimes even hundreds of thousands – then it’s a short walk to say ‘I can write a blog or a story and put it on the Web.'”
That’s a short walk i’ve become quite familiar with over the last couple of years while following Longbox Graveyard, O’Connor’s blog that focuses on his great passion for comics.  The first post, from June 2011, eloquently lays out the impetus behind the project.  It succinctly reveals not only a sincere admiration for the medium, but about the man behind the posts, and the cyclic nature of his experiences with comics.
Back in 1974, at that Golden Age of 12, O’Connor discovered comics, particularly Thor.  Like untold masses of youth before and since (myself included) he shared in the fantasy that the most average, and sometimes less-than-average Joe could suddenly find themselves flush with incredible power.  All it took was a bite from a radioactive spider, or unearthing an ancient relic long-forgotten, and BAM!  That could be you, web-swinging through the labyrinth of Manhattan skyscrapers or calling down lightning from Asgard.  That’s the real appeal of comics – on our pathos.  We want to believe such a world is possible, and that we could be a part of it.  And to any detractors who want to squelch those thoughts, well, Thor has something to say about that.
  
Yea, verily.
“I don’t cross the streams a lot,” O’Connor said.  “I don’t talk a lot about iOS development in my comic book life.  Likewise I don’t talk a lot about comics in my iOS life.  They’re my secret identities.”
The worlds of game design and comic books do share a link in O’Connor’s case – his longtime creative partner Chris Ulm.  Back in the 80’s and through the mid-90’s, Ulm was the editor-in-chief at Malibu Comics.
“Comics was something that just kind of fell into my lap,” O’Connor said.  “I was always interested, but I didn’t have an ‘in’ to write them.  When my friend Chris wound up in the editor’s chair over at Malibu, they were looking for new writers.  So I pounced on that too.”
From his first published book for Malibu in 1987 to his last, published by Marvel Comics after their buyout of Malibu, in 1996, O’Connor doesn’t consider his run in comics as a long one and remains humble about his contributions.
“I wrote maybe 60 or 70 scripts for Malibu in those days,” O’Connor said.  “So I’ve had some experience.  I’ve had more experience than success, let’s say.”
Dual identities would again intersect in 2005, when O’Connor was VP and Design Director at video game developers High Moon Studios.  Darkwatch was in development, and the studio had launched an multimedia marketing campaign to support the release.  Part of the promotion was a graphic novel titled “Innocence” that was published in Heavy Metal magazine.
“I haven’t done any comics since then,” O’Connor said.  He did hint at the possibility of future work.  “Something may come up in the next year, but right now there’s nothing.”
Just for the record – you heard it here first, True Believers.
With his success or *ahem* experience in the two worlds of game design and development, and comic books, O’Connor naturally offers a unique perspective for anyone hopeful to break into the respective industries.
“They’re similar, but different,” O’Connor said.  “For a long time, you were frozen out.  For a long time, the only way to make games was to get a job at a competent studio and work you way up from a QA position or something.  That’s all changed now.  Anybody can develop a game for Android or iOS now.”
“It’s really almost like the way it was in the 1980s, where you really could make games in your garage with just three or four people.  Go out and make games and put them in the market.  And don’t expect to make money off of them, but damn you’re going to learn a lot.  Just go out and make it.”
Innovations in technology that make game development more accessible provide the same sorts of opportunities for comic creators as well.
“The future of comics – your next billion comic book readers – are going to be mobile digital readers,” O’Connor said.  “Get into that market.  And don’t be too concerned about whether you’re getting paid for your comics.  Your first concern has to be to create great stories and characters that people love and remember.  And own them.  People may steal the individual books that come out, but the characters should belong to you.  Control the IP, and play for the long game.”
“My partners here at Appy and I say ‘IP is forever.  We’re seeing stories of characters that are coming back after 50, 75, 100 years.  There’s a Lone Ranger movie, or a Tarzan movie, or another Spider-Man reboot. The characters are the gold.  You have to be patient.  But what could be greater for a creator than creating the next significant pop culture event?”
Finding a balance between creativity and a career is a delicate procedure.  For people like O’Connor, a strong sense of delineation helps him keep an even keel while navigating those waters.  Comics is what he does for fun, and game design is his profession.
“The problem with an artist is, if that’s your only means of making money, you become increasingly desperate to prostitute your art, to make the rent, and that leads you down a pretty dark path where ultimately you may be successful as an artist, but you’ll be miserable as a human being,” O’Connor said.
“You need to be able to make your money doing something, and then do your art.  And eventually maybe your art will make you money.  But you can never go into it anticipating that’s where you’re going to be winning the bread.  It’s just not gonna work.  Longbox hasn’t made me a nickel.  I do it just for love of the form.  Not because I make any money off of it.  I lose money on it, every week.  If I was trying to make a living off it…it would be just a miserable experience.  So frustrating.  Instead, I can decide ‘I’ll write about a Shang-Chi comic from 1977.’  It’s just fun for me.  And that opens other doorways to meet interesting people and other opportunities come your way.”
“It’s just such a crooked line.  You can never anticipate where the path is going to lead you until you start on the journey, right?  You’ve got to trust the journey is worthwhile.”
*     *     *     *     *
So went my conversation with Paul O’Connor.  Whatever anxiety i might have before an interview may never go away completely, but experiences like this one go a long way toward alleviating them.  Paul was super cool not only to take time out of his day to talk to me, but he was friendly, open, and honest to boot.  One of the most important things i learned through doing this interview was always do your research.  i’m not going to lie – up until just a couple of days prior to speaking to him, i thought Paul O’Connor was primarily a comic book creator.  Thank goodness for strong Google-fu.
What i took away from our talk was that if you truly have a passion for something, you should absolutely pursue it.  But you should definitely recognize that the thing you pursue might not be the thing that you make a living from.  However, if i’m honest, i will say that i look at Paul with some admiration since he is fortunate to experience opportunities in two things he’s passionate about – games and comics – that both happen to be pretty darn fun sounding professions.
i hope that readers follow some of the links to Paul’s work like Longbox Graveyard and Appy Entertainment.  The former is really fun and funny and just plain excellent writing, and the latter are free games, so what’s not to like there?
Thank you!

5 thoughts on “Longbox Graveyard on the Long Shot

  1. I remember my first meeting with Paul O'Connor. Dave Olbrich and I had just started gathering the projects for the launch of Malibu Comics. We had some projects that were coming to us as complete packages but were opening up the process to take pitches from writers. I knew Dave Olbrich, Dave had worked with Chris Ulm at Sunrise Distribution and Chris and Paul were best friends, so Dave and I went out to lunch (at a Carrows near the Sunrise offices just south of Los Angeles) with Chris and Paul and we bought two pitches from him right away.I'm not a hardcore gamer, but during the Ultraverse years, Paul developed a card game engine for an expandable superhero game that I loved. Using a test deck of homemade cards, he taught me the game in less than 5 minutes ("easy to learn, hard to master") in the lobby of the Hilton in New York. It remains one of the best games I ever played.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Tom, and as always you have details that I forgot … like lunch at Carrows. Carrows! Nothing but the best!My New York trips are all a muddle, too, that whole crazy collectable card game project I did for you guys (that ended with a kill fee from Fleer — they bought my silence!). Remember being in New York with Dan on that trip but don't remember teaching you the game. I must have been in demo mode overtime. Damn, so much hustling comes to naught.

  3. Pingback: The Best of the Worst, part 2 | The Long Shot

  4. Pingback: Where the magic happens | The Long Shot

  5. Pingback: Just a guy who played D&D | The Long Shot

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s