Welcome to the first installment of Development Hell, a column devoted to the production of comics and difficulties that creators have getting a project from the idea phase to publication. I’m a comics writer myself, and I can attest that getting a comic made is not the easiest thing in the world to do.

Every entertainment industry has its own development hell. The video game world has the infamous DUKE NUKEM FOREVER, a project that was being developed as early as 1997 and now may see release in 2011. The movie biz had THE BODYGUARD starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston in 1992, but it could have had the film in 1976 with Steve McQueen and Diana Ross. Thomas Harris published THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS in 1988, but it took almost 11 years for its follow-up HANNIBAL to appear.

Delays in comics are nothing new. Every fan can tell you a story of how their favorite book’s schedule got screwed up. My own gut wrenching wait was for the final issues of PLANETARY, delayed by a myriad of reasons. It took a course of ten years (1999-2009) for us to see the completion of Warren Ellis’ vision of “archeologists of the unknown”. In the end whether the wait was worth it differs from fan to fan. For me, it was. For others, maybe not.

This week I’ll be taking a look at another Warren Ellis project that could have been, MORNING DRAGONS.

Note the 2000 copyright in the bottom left hand corner of the Image above.

This teaser image appeared December 29, 2000 in Warren’s COME IN ALONE column for CBR. Little was heard of the project as other things took up the writer’s time. In 2000 alone THE AUTHORITY, PLANETARY and TRANSMETROPLITAN were on his schedule. At the same time he was co-writing GENERATION X with Brian Wood, X-FORCE with Ian Edginton, and X-MAN with Steven Grant. 2000 also saw Warren’s first work with Image Comics, CITY OF SILENCE. On top of all of this was the previously mentioned column for CBR, COME IN ALONE. Taking all of this into consideration, 2000 was a busy year for Warren Ellis.

Steve Lieber’s 2000 saw the release of WHITEOUT: MELT, the follow-up to his collaboration with Greg Rucka that was adapted into a motion picture in 2009. This work garnered an Eisner Award for Best Limited Series.

Needless to say, when you have a heavyweight writer like Ellis and an award-winning artist like Lieber, people got excited pretty quickly. The subject of the book was Vikings vs. Samurai, and that seemed exciting too.

2001 saw a collaboration between the two creators, but not the one that everyone expected. Lieber contributed art to TRANSMETROPOLITAN: FILTH OF THE CITY and it seemed like this could be a warm-up to the big show that fans were expecting MORNING DRAGONS to be. In the meantime, Ellis continued his Marvel work, added some work for Avatar Press (BAD WORLD, STRANGER KISSES), produced another Image series (MINISTRY OF SPACE) and went back to the well to produce more LAZARUS CHURCHYARD. PLANETARY was still on track, as was TRANSMETROPLITAN.

Fast forward to June 2002. Warrenellis.com relaunched and the very first post mentioned that a script for MORNING DRAGONS would be completed by the end of the month. By September, Rich Johnston was reporting the apparent demise of the project. Paid work was taking up the majority of Warren’s time, and his priority was to ensure that he was keeping the paid work before working on something that wouldn’t make money until after publication. Steve Lieber was reportedly moving on to some other projects. Things weren’t looking good.

January 2004 saw an announcement from Warren’s mailing list that spelled out doom for the project. The contract with Image was nullified, script unwritten. What was supposed to be a 100 page graphic novel remained as a 14 page synopsis.

Fast forward again to October 2009, with Warren fielding questions on his new Whitechapel forum. Of course someone asked about MORNING DRAGONS, and Warren revealed that he was considering re-starting the project in 2008 only to lose the PC and back-ups containing the aforementioned synopsis.
December 2009 saw an update of sorts on the Whitechapel board with Warren listing the effect of the PC loss on his publishing schedule. Absent from the list was MORNING DRAGONS, but when asked by another poster the final nail was driven in the coffin:

Christopher Ware: “Is MORNING DRAGONS completely dead?”
Warren Ellis: “Yes.”

Checking Steve Lieber’s FAQ on his website further confirms the demise:
“What ever happened with Morning Dragons?
This was a comic Warren Ellis announced we’d be doing at Image. As far as I know, no script was ever written, and Warren eventually withdrew the project from his schedule.”

This isn’t a case like Wesley in THE PRINCESS BRIDE where the project is “only mostly dead”.

With projects in development hell, there is usually movement of some sort. MORNING DRAGONS can almost be said to have never gotten past the idea phase. So how is it that a project announced in 2000 keeps gasping out death rattles until late 2009 with only a teaser image and a 14 pages synopsis ever being developed?

First, you have two comics creators who are amazing. Warren Ellis and Steve Lieber are A-list talents who can sell a book on name recognition alone. Secondly, you have the hook of a great concept in Viking vs. Samurais. Think that wouldn’t make a great book? Lastly, you have a solid fanbase that wants nothing more than to see more work by their favorite creators. Ellis, like Millar and Bendis, has a strong web presence. His forums are legendary among comics fans and creators alike.

I compare MORNING DRAGONS in a lot of ways to Guns N’ Roses CHINESE DEMOCRACY album. GNR was the hugest band on the planet with great music, amazing video concepts, and a strong fanbase. That alone kept the call for CHINESE DEMOCRACY going, even after the whole process turned into a parody in its own right. 15 years later, the album finally came out even though only one original member remained in the band.

Do I think that MORNING DRAGONS is really dead? Maybe. Even after hearing it out of Warren’s own mouth, I know that as a writer your ideas keep nagging at you. Eventually, Warren may have some free time and that concept will pop into his head again. He’s done WOLFSKIN since then, so some of his work has even been in the same ballpark. Could that be MORNING DRAGONS lurking in his subliminal brain?

Would Steve still be willing to work with Warren on the book? I’d say yes to that as well. Working with Warren Ellis is a dream job for many artists, even award-winning ones like Steve Lieber. It was a draw in 2000, so why not 2010? If not Warren could go the Axl Rose route and bring in another artist.

Would Image still publish MORNING DRAGONS after terminating the contract in 2004? I’d have to think so. The Image rule of thumb is that if it’s good, they’ll publish it. Even if they passed, Warren could move it to Avatar or another publisher like Dark Horse or Boom!. Not many publishers are turning down writers like Ellis.

That’s all for this column. If you have thoughts, feel free to reply. If you have your own story of a comic in development hell whether you’re a fan of the book or the creator, drop me a line and I’ll be happy to tell your story. Until next Thursday, so long and have fun waiting on your pull list =)

-Aaron Wilder