Once he actually found Conference Room 23-C and maneuvered himself and his bulky black portfolio through the door, he found his Assistant-Editor nervously chain-smoking across an ornately elegant hardwood table, with the Critic and the Historian sitting on either side of her. The Maker was visibly astonished that two such lofty fixtures in The Company would turn their attention to him.
"Oh hi, Frank," the Critic called, leaping forward to help him with the door and his burden. "Glad you could come in on such short notice. Here, let's just put this aside for the moment. Sit down and relax. Like a coffee? Joel and I just thought it was about time we talked a little about the work you've been doing on the book... "
"Oh, it's going great, Pat, just great! Here.. " he dived for the portfolio, spilling half a dozen pages in various states of pencils, inks, and full finishes onto the table. "I'm already into the first few pages of the next issue! It's Miles beyond the last one! Here, look at this.... and this.... and see that? It's just pouring out of me! I can't work fast enough to get it all down, sometimes. Isn't it great? Isn't it... New! Oh, God, it's just bursting out of me!"
The Critic and the Historian passed the pages from one to the other, non-commitally glancing at each one, nodding as the Maker eagerly pointed out his personal pleasures.
"Well... " the Historian said at last, breaking the long silence, "yes. It certainly is... new, Frank. Nobody's ever taken the tack you have with this character."
"I know!" the Maker beamed. "But it's always been there, hasn't it, just waiting to be explored!"
"Well, that's what Joel and I wanted to talk to you about, Frank," said the Critic, hesitantly. "This is awfully intense stuff you're trying. Never been done before. But it must be hard to work at such a high energy level on a tight monthly schedule."
"Shelly says you've missed a couple deadlines already, Frank. We don't want you endangering your health just to churn out a book!"
"Joel's right," the Critic chimed in. "We wondered if perhaps it might be best for you to take a breather on it for a while. We could get a fill-in team to cover easy. You really look wasted, man! Why not just take yourself off this title for six months -- if you want, do a different character for a while. Or just relax --- recharge your batteries... "
"Oh, but I AM recharging!" The Maker, unable to contain his enthusiasm, jumped up and began pacing eagerly about. "You don't understand, I'm hot! I've made this character totally my own now! And now it begins to SING! Here --- just look at these... "
Sudenly Shelly stopped him by viciously stabbing her cigarette into the brimming tray.
"Frank I've been telling you for months, haven't I?" she shouted. "Haven't I been telling you, for Months now --- 'Please, you Must follow continuity, Frank,' haven't I? Haven't I?"
"Shelly...? What's all this about?"
"I - I did'.. didn't tell you, Frank," she stammerred, "but I made tapes of those conversations. I -- I KNEW this was gonna happen! I knew it!"
The Maker stared at her, incredulous.
"Shelly, I thought you, of all people, understood what I'm trying to do here! I'm doing things no one in the medium's ever thought of trying before!"
"That may be true," the Historian said, evenly. "But we can't let you do them to This Particular character, Frank."
"But I... "
"It's just way out of continuity, Frank," the Critic agreed. "The regular readers, the fans, just aren't going to understand such momentous retconnings. They expect... "
"But I'm just developing what's been There all along! No one's ever looked at him the way I...."
"He's Not YOUR Property, Frank!" The Critic yelled. "The Company owns him, and the Company feels the need to protect their investment here. You're making abrupt, unexpected changes in a story-line that had twenty years of history before you came on board... "
"..And it'll have twenty more, twenty Better years, once I.."
"You're not listening, Frank," the Historian insisted. "You're off the book. Go home, think it through. Take some time off and maybe in a week or two you can do a mini on some other book, give a friend some breathing space.. "
"You can't take it away from me, just when I'm getting to the heart of this guy! Damn it, I'll go directly to Stan on this... "
"That's why we're here, Frank," the Critic interrupted, flatly. "The Man himself blew the whistle on you. And, frankly, he wasn't as generous about it as we wanted to be."
The Historian nodded. " 'Tell him he gets back to continuity, or he walks,' he told us. You're going too far, and much too fast. For the good of the character, for the good of the company, and for your Own Good, Frank, work on another book for a while! We don't want to lose your talent, but that's what Stan said."
The Maker slumped back into his chair a moment, and then a thin, hysterical giggle spurted from him. " 'For the good of the Company'! Heheeeh! 'For the good of the Character' you want me to throw away everything I've made! Here I've reached down deep inside my gut and transformed this Superman lookalike into a living, breathing human being, and for The Good of The Character you want me to quit and throw him back into the mud where I found him!"
Then, as he stared into space, his back stiffened.
"No. " He said it quietly, firmly. "I won't stop 'For the Good of the Company.' I'll keep drawing. I'd keep drawing if you threw me in jail. And if you took away my pens I'd draw on the walls with my spit!"
There was a long pause, during which Critic and Historian glanced resignedly at one another.
"You do as you must, Frank," the Critic said at last, "but if you do, you'll have to publish it yourself."
"Then maybe I will! Others have! Okay, I'm off the book. But I'm not farting around with some other titles. I quit!"
He leaped up, and began shoving his pages back into the portfolio, when the Historian's hand stopped him.
"This is work-for-hire, Frank. We own it. We can't let you take it with you."
The Maker stared at him a moment, then zipped the portfolio viciously shut and headed for the door.
"Frank!" the Assistant-Editor's strangled cry stopped him. "It wasn't ever Me told you to stop. You've been doing magnificent things, Frank, things I'd be proud to have a credit on. I just knew you couldn't get it past all the continuity cops, is all. Keep working, somehow! And... and remember we did have some good times, working together."
The Maker's hand faltered at the knob, and he looked back a moment.
"Thanks, Shelly. I do remember. But, I guess this is goodby. And goodby to you too, gentlemen. It Was fun while it lasted." He waved a feeble hand, hefted the empty portfolio, and left.
Finding the elevator, the Maker descended into the chill of early Autumn evening, thinking Well, that's over. And what do I do now, really? Take my independence to some other Company? What am I going to do now!
As he exited the imposing skyscraper and headed for the subway, a nervous knot of kids nudged each other forward from where they had been standing and blocked his path.
"Gehead Gary, ask'im!" one whispered, shoving a friend forward.
"Auhm, sir?" Gary stammered. "We collected five bucks between us, and we wuz wonderin, auhm, would you maybe draw us a thumb-nail? Please?" His nervous hand thrust the crumpled bills up at him.
"You know me?" the Maker asked, surprised.
"We wuz at the last Con here," Gary amplified. "There wus so many people we never got closeta yer table. But someone seen you goin in, so we decided to wait around till you come out. We," he glanced at his nodding pal, "we like yer stuff an wanted an original."
The Maker stared at them incredulously, then fumbled inside the portfolio for paper and a pencil.
"Sure I'll do you a drawing." He propped the portfolio as a makeshift drawing-table atop a garbage barrel and worked on a full sheet of notebook-paper. "No, keep your money. Here, I've been working up a completely new character, somebody no one's ever seen before. I've never even drawn him, so you're going to see his first appearance anywhere."
"Oh, cool!" Gary's astonished sidekick sighed, eagerly.
Swiftly, spontaneously, the Maker's pencil slashed and flew over the page, shaping a new, dynamic figure, giving him a new costume, a completely different face and features, a proud, defiant stance.
"There," he said, looking at the result. "What do you think?"
"He's cool! He's the greatest!" the Sidekick gushed.
"His face kinda looks like you," Gary said, thoughtfully.
The Maker looked again. "You know, I think you're right."
"When's he comin out?" the Sidekick demanded.
"Well, this one won't be for the Company," the Maker admitted. "I'm thinking of publishing it myself."
"That's Cool!" the Sidekick gushed.
"You wouldn't mind buying him if he was just black-and-white, would you, guys?"
Gary shook his head. "You always do good stuff, no matter what."
"Here, put your names and addresses in my notebook," the Maker insisted. "When I have an ashcan done, I'll send you copies. You'll be his first fans."
"What's he called?" Gary wanted to know.
The Maker looked at his creation again, and then began a logo in rough, block letters. "The Free Man," he said, adding his distinctive signature and handing the page to his young admirers. "I think I'll call him The Free Man."
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