Writing Comics (and Films): The Story of BLACK SANTA’S REVENGE (a.k.a. Ideas and Stories are Not the Same)

One of my best known creations, Black Santa’s Revenge, started out as a holiday greeting card. For more than ten years I had been designing my own greeting cards—this was back when I still had aspirations to be a comic book artist (but that never quite worked out). Even though I’d given up my dreams of drawing comics to pursue a career in film and writing (equally ludicrous, if not more ambitious vocations), I was still drawing a little bit in the 1990s.

By 1997 I was well into post-production on my first film, Macked, Hammered, Slaughtered & Shafted, a documentary about the history of black exploitation films of the 1970s. I had also begun publishing BadAzz MoFo, the pop culture ‘zine that focused heavily on blaxploitation. With the holidays of ’97 fast approaching, and with my mind immersed in the world of blaxploitation, I had the idea of creating a card that paid homage to films like Black Shampoo and Slaughter’s Big Rip-Off. And that’s how Black Santa’s Revenge first came into existence.

I drew an illustration that would be used for my 1997 holiday card, added some copy that said something along the lines of, “This year there ain’t gonna be no white Christmas,” and sent it off to my friend’s and family. And for all intents and purposes, that should’ve been it for Black Santa. But the character and idea stuck with me, and I knew that I wanted to do something more.

Illustration from the original Black Santa’s Revenge greeting card, drawn by me.

Several years later I was still plugging along with BadAzz MoFo, and planning to do my first comic book (which I’d hoped would turn into a series). The comic was going to be called Funkytown, and it took place in a world that came right out of a blaxploitation movie. I knew from the very beginning that I wanted to turn the concept of Black Santa’s Revenge into a story for Funkytown. It was right around then that I met Peter “Rusty” Beach at the San Diego Comic Con. Rusty was an artist looking for something to draw, and as fate would have it, I was looking for an artist to draw Black Santa’s Revenge.

In 2002, five years after I first created the concept of Black Santa’s Revenge, a six-page story debuted in BadAzz MoFo #7, along with a 32-page Funkytown story. These would be the only Funkytown tales to ever see the light of day. And as it turns out, that would also be the last full-size issue of BadAzz MoFo. But it would not be the last incarnation of Black Santa.

A page from the original six-page story, drawn by Peter “Rusty” Beach.

Three years after BAMF #7 came out, I was again at Comic Con, when my cousin Sean said, quite out of the blue, “We should make a short film out of that Black Santa story. That would be cool.”

“Yeah, that would be cool,” I said. “But who would we get to play Black Santa?”

Before Sean could answer, I had my answer: Ken Foree.

I had met Ken a few years earlier at Comic Con, and we had hit it off. I was a huge fan of his work, especially in George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead. As fate would have it, Ken was at Comic Con that year, and within minutes of my cousin suggesting that I make a live-action version of Black Santa’s Revenge, I’d tracked Ken down and asked him if he’d be interested. The rest, as they say, is history.

In 2005, I set out to adapt the short comic story of Black Santa’s Revenge into a short film. When I wrote the comic, I had been inspired by the visual storytelling of Will Eisner, and I wanted to do a comic that had no text. But when it came time to make a film, I had an incredibly talented actor, and I needed to give him dialog. As a writer, I had to come to peace with the truth that comics and films are two very different mediums, and my job as a storyteller in either of those worlds was to do right by each of those formats. I realized that I shouldn’t be trying to make a straight film version of Black Santa, so much as I needed to make the best film I was capable of making.

In January 2006, with a very small crew, we shot Black Santa’s Revenge in three days (with an additional day of pick-up shots). It was a grueling challenge – on the day we shot the scene at the community center, we had 100 kids on set (100 restless kids, and their parents!!!). It was freezing cold. The Santa Claus suits were crazy expensive (even with the hook-up from a friend’s mom who owned a costume shop). And while he was gracious and incredible talented, it turns out that Ken Foree has a sick sense of humor that manifested in more than a few practical jokes.

Ken Foree in Black Santa’s Revenge.

Post production on Black Santa’s Revenge was completed in 2007, way behind schedule. But it was completed. The film enjoyed a five-year run at festivals, won a few awards, and developed a small but loyal fan base. For the most part, I’m happy with the film. It runs a bit too long, and the nudity is so pointless, it makes me cringe (I wanted to make an exploitation movie, and was convinced at the time that I needed pointless nudity – but in hindsight I see that it didn’t need it).

Both the comic and the short film of Black Santa’s Revenge were learning exercises for me. Expensive learning exercises, that have not made their money back, but learning exercises all the same. I wanted to tell a comic story without words. I wanted to adapt that story into a live-action short film (with words), and prove that I could actually direct something and not have it suck completely. I succeeded in both. Sure, I haven’t been able to get the feature-length version of Black Santa’s Revenge off the ground (and there is an amazing feature-length version to be made), but just because I haven’t done it yet doesn’t mean that I won’t do it some day.

Over the years, I’ve learned much from Black Santa’s Revenge in all of its iterations. I learned that an idea can be nurtured from more than just a concept or a title, but there is a huge difference between an idea and a story. What worked as a joke on a greeting card needed to be developed in order to work as a short comic, which then had to be further refined to work as a short film. And the idea and the stories that evolved from greeting card to six-page comic to short film were not initially strong enough to sustain a feature film. It took a long time to build those earlier ideas and stories into something that would work as a feature film. But I never gave up, and I never rested on the earlier works, feeling that any one was enough to carry Black Santa from one medium to another.

All of this is to say that as a writer/creator your good ideas are not enough. In order for your idea to become something more – a graphic novel, a movie, a television series – it has to evolve into a story. And if your idea is going to become an effective and engaging story, it absolutely must go through changes. Many changes. Sometimes, your idea must go through so many changes that it is no longer what it started out as being. The idea that became a greeting card inspired the story that became a short film. They are connected and inseparable, but completely different. And that’s the very nature of the creative process. The final version of your story will be different from your original idea, otherwise it will not find a true life of its own. Don’t be afraid to let your story grow and change into something much better and different from the than idea from which it was born.

Here is a link to the short film, Black Santa’s Revenge starring Ken Foree. WARNING: This film is politically incorrect. It contains graphic violence, lots of profanity, and pointless nudity. It is NSFW, and intended for mature audiences only.

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