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Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Men in Black: Inspiring a Franchise

Imagine you’re driving along the highway with your friend, when he gives you an idea for a comic book series that will later become a multi-million dollar film franchise.  Well, that’s not exactly how it happened, but it was the start.  

Lowell Cunningham was driving through Tennessee with his friend.  When a large, black car passed, his friend quipped: that car could belong to the Men in Black.  “The Men in Black?” he asked.  “What are they?”

His friend went on to tell him stories about the Men in Black, people who investigate strange, “unearthly” occurrences.  They show up after a UFO sighting or a paranormal event, and after questioning the witnesses, make sure that “the truth” of what occurred never reaches the outside world.  As agent K would later tell his would-be protégé J in the first film, “A person is smart, but people are dumb, panicky, dangerous animals.  Fifteen hundred years ago, mankind saw Earth as the center of the universe.  Five hundred years ago, the human race believed that the Earth was flat.  Five minutes ago, you believed that we are alone on this planet.  Imagine, if you join us, what you might know tomorrow.”

But I’m getting ahead of myself.  Back in the 1980s, Lowell Cunningham was an unpublished writer.  He couldn’t know that movies based upon his work would be made, or that they would prove extremely popular.  But he was inspired by his friend’s tales, and thought they might make a nice weekly TV show.  The only problem?  How could he, a man in Knoxville, Tennessee without a single writing credit, get the Hollywood studios to look at his work?  So he asked himself what might be more achievable, and eventually hit upon the idea of a comic book series.  He had never penned a comic book either, but he believed he could.  

Lowell Cunningham: Comic Book Hero

He not only believed in his capabilities and in his ideas: he did something about them.  He submitted proposals to all the comic book companies.  Although they aroused varying levels of interest, all were eventually rejected.  Then he happened to talk with someone who had worked for Aircel Comics out in California, and his friend suggested, “If they’ll print my work, why not yours?”  So he sent them his proposal, and found that they not only liked his idea, but were willing to commission him to write a three-issue miniseries.  His comics proved so successful that he was asked to write another, and the following year Aircel, now Malibu Comics, published another three issues.  

As we all know, change can be both good and bad.  The bad news was that Malibu Comics made a business decision to concentrate their efforts more on the superhero market.  Lowell’s series, while popular, simply didn’t fit in with the company’s new direction.  Still, they liked him, and hired him to write for several more of their comics, including a series related to the “Alien Nation” franchise and some superhero work.  But his brainchild, “The Men in Black,” was seemingly forgotten.  Until, that is, Malibu’s publisher, Scott Mitchell Rosenberg, looked through what he had published and created several proposals of his own.  He sent them out to the Hollywood studios, and in 1992, Columbia Pictures purchased an option to make a Men in Black movie.

As the movie took shape, great names like Tommy Lee Jones, Wil Smith, Barry Sonnenfeld, and Steven Spielberg signed on to the project.  (In the case of Tommy Lee Jones, he committed to playing Agent K before any of the above, or even a script existed: he read the comics, and fell in love with the series).  Often star power isn’t enough, and the most promising projects falter before production can begin.  In this case, “Men in Black” was not only made, but proved so successful that it spawned a TV series and a sequel.  A third movie will arrive in theaters later this year.  And all because Lowell Cunningham believed in his idea, and persisted in submitting his proposals until someone finally agreed to publish his work.

Lowell Cunningham makes a little money in comparison to the above-mentioned Hollywood personalities.  He still lives in Tennessee.  He’s still a relatively unknown artist. “The Men in Black” miniseries never became a long-running, monthly comic.  But his brainchild has been used and shaped by others to bring pleasure to millions.  He has created something greater than himself.  His agents J and K have become cultural icons.  The “Men in Black” movies will surely influence future generations.  

Stories such as his inspire me to carry on with my own great work of writing fiction.  Whatever your interests, may his example lend you strength to keep pursuing your goals.

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