You may not be familiar with the name Buzz Dixon, but you’re definitely familiar with his work. Buzz has worked on everything from the Transformers and Dungeons and Dragons cartoons to Penthouse Comix! Since his novella “Q’a the Librarian” appears in the DMR Books anthology Death Dealers & Diabolists, I thought this would be a good opportunity to learn about his storied career.
Before you became a writer for cartoons, you’d written short stories. What genre were they? Were any of them ever published?
I was a sci-fi / fantasy / horror fan from my early teens (even earlier if you count Famous Monsters and dinosaur comics), so almost everything I wrote fell in one of those genres. While I placed several articles in fanzines in the late 60s / early 70s, and reviews in pro & semi-prozines such as Science Fiction Review, Locus, and Cinefantastique, I hadn’t sold any fiction prior to being discharged from the Army in 1978.
To make a very long story short, I came to L.A. with the intent of attending USC’s film school, looked for a job in the industry in order to get my feet wet while waiting for school to start, knocked on doors until I worked my way down to Filmation Studios and met Arthur Nadel, who was the live action producer there.
Arthur was a wonderful, nice man and when he heard my background asked to see some of the stories I’d written. He recommended me to studio head Lou Scheimer and while I didn’t crack the live action field at that point, I did end up as a staff writer on their animated series.
Never did make it to film school, however.
You were one of half a dozen people listed in the credits for “story” for each episode of Thundarr the Barbarian. What was the writing process like? Did one person come up with a script and the others added their ideas to it, or was it a more collaborative process?
Most animation studios at that time used “gang credits” for writers and storyboard artists. That’s to say everybody who worked on a show in a particular capacity got lumped together in the credits, regardless if you just sold a story idea (two or three paragraphs) or wrote several full scripts.
Steve Gerber as the co-creator and story editor was the driving creative force in the writing department on that show, but as you note we also had Roy Thomas, Marty Pasko, Mark Evanier, Ted Pedersen, Chris Vane, Bill Wray, and Jeff Scott contributing to it, all of whom had extensive animation writing credits.
The writing process was typically a group meeting with producer Joe Ruby and maybe the late John Dorman (head of Ruby-Spears’ storyboard department), and Jack Kirby (whom Steve Gerber persuaded Joe to hire to help design the look of the series; good call, if I say so myself). We’d kick around several story ideas, everybody chipping in suggestions, then we’d divvy them up among the staff writers (freelancers typically got to write at least the first draft script of any idea they pitched to Steve and sold).
One time Jack came in with a sketch of a vehicle that would be seen in the background of one episode, an aircraft carrier flight deck lashed to a giant log raft. I took one look at it and said, “Oh, no, we’re not wasting this on a throwaway shot” and built an entire script around it, “Treasure Of The Moks”.
You worked with Roy Thomas on both Thundarr and The Plastic Man Comedy/Adventure Show. What was it like working with the creator of the Conan comic books? Any funny or interesting stories you’d like to share?
I had very little contact with Roy on Plastic Man; he was writing the main portion of the show and I was doing Mighty Man & Yukk segments (Mighty Man was a doll-sized superhero and Yukk was the world’s ugliest dog, a canine so hideous he had to wear a doghouse on his head or else wreak havoc on society).
When Steve came on board, I got to meet a lot more of the comics creators through him.
Roy and his wife Dann were animal lovers, and the house they had in San Pedro had been converted into a haven for small animals and birds. They removed the ceiling in the living room so it now extended up to the peak of the roof, and draped a large net to form a giant tube from floor to roof in which dozens of parrots, parakeets, and cockatoos could fly freely. They built an observation deck across the top of the roof you could reach via outside staircase, and converted their backyard into a near-jungle environment.
They’re wonderful, sweet people and a delight to know.
The Dungeons & Dragons episode you wrote, “Quest of the Skeleton Warrior,” seems to have struck a nerve with a lot of viewers. What sort of reaction were you hoping it would get?
To be honest, the one we got!
One of my frustrations in animation writing up to that point was that there was very little emotional weight to the stories we told. To use an extreme example, on a show like Super-Friends the Joker might steal the Eiffel Tower and Batman & Robin would have to get it back.
I’d ask, “Who’s going to miss a meal if the Eiffel Tower is stolen? Who’s going to have their life significantly changed?”
While I tried to have a little more emotional resonance to my Thundarr stories, it was still absolute good vs. absolute evil. When the Dungeons & Dragons show came along, I saw a chance to do a story with a little more depth, forcing our heroes to face their greatest fears, and an adversary who, while working for the bad guy, nonetheless possessed a rational and understandable reason for doing so.
It was a great opportunity for me to stretch as a writer, and to my delight it did indeed strike a chord with many fans.
Were you familiar with the D&D game before you wrote “Skeleton Warrior”? Why didn’t you write any more episodes for the show?
I was aware of the game, and by that time had met Flint Dille, with whom I worked on a number of TSR related projects later.
I forget the exact sequence of events, but I seem to recall I was one of the last writers to pitch to the show; in fact, it may have officially closed to pitches at that point but they let me come in based on my reputation and (to be honest) my working relationships with Mark Evanier (who wrote the pilot) and Michael Reaves (who story edited the show).
A lot of people who later ended up at Sunbow working on G.I. Joe and Transformers first passed through Ruby-Spears and also the Dungeons & Dragons show, so those experiences were kind of a funnel for shaping the rest of my career.
In general, how much creative leeway did you have? Did you have to butt heads with network executives or censors?
It varied, and I had a reputation in the 1980s of being somewhat of a firebrand when it came to trying to push the envelope on shows.
When we started work on the second season of Thundarr the Barbarian, we were told we’d have to tone the violence waaaaay down for the next batch of episodes. Joe Ruby fretted over this, realizing that would disappoint the show’s many fans.
Based on my experience at Filmation (where CBS approved rotoscoped footage of Tarzan judo-throwing a guy in one season, then rejected the very same rotoscoping only with a different color costume in the next!), I told Joe we had to give them a season opener that was so crammed with over-the-top violence that no matter how badly they censored it, we’d still be left with an action packed show that we could point to in the future and say “You let us do that in the season opener.”
“Who can we get to write that episode?” Joe asked, and every eye in the room turned to me…
So I wrote “Wizard War”, a script so violent that even Joe Ruby blanched and said “We can’t send this in” and trimmed it before sending it out.
Well, they did hack it to shreds, but as planned we kept the action level high enough to get us through the rest of the season. Steve Gerber edited the script and told me I was the only person he knew who could write a 45-page fight scene without repeating himself once.
You wrote a couple episodes for the Garbage Pail Kids cartoon, which was infamous for being cancelled before it ever aired. Was the show as gross and outrageous as upset parents assumed it would be?
In the mid-‘90s you started writing for Penthouse Comix. Worlds away from what you’d done before! Were you sick of children’s cartoons, or did you just want to try something different?
Another long and involved story, and I’ll try to keep it short.
After Sunbow’s G.I. Joe and Transformers, I hit a serious lull in my career. A couple of projects I was slated for did not get off the ground, I was fired and subsequently blackballed at another studio for basically doing my job when the line producer had us sitting around twiddling our thumbs.
I had a house to pay for, a family to feed, and when George Caragonne, an animation writer I knew who left L.A. with some mutual friends to crack comics publishing in NYC, sold the concept of Penthouse Comix to Bob Guccione, he called me up to come on board.
I did so reluctantly, not really wanting to leave L.A., but needing the money (and Penthouse promised to pay me more than I’d ever made before in a single year). Unfortunately, in the intervening years between when I last saw George in L.A. and meeting him again in NYC, he’d gone from a big, goofy fun-loving huggable bear of a guy to a really dark and depraved individual fully consumed by his inner demons.
He was a genuine bona fide drug fiend, literally. There was not a chemical he did not smoke / snort / drink / swallow / inject / or otherwise ingest. His weight ballooned up to 450 lbs., and with his drug buddies in the company (about 1/4 to 1/3 of the staff & regular contributors) he grew more and more unpredictable and dangerous.
I describe my time there as a 90-day bathyspheric excursion into the bowels of hell. I realized somebody was going to end up in jail, in the hospital, or in the morgue and it wasn’t going to be me.
I finally told him I liked him too much to stay until I started despising him, quit, and wished him good fortune. About ten days later he jumped off the top of the Marriott Marquis atrium, plunging 44 floors to his death.
Out of all the cartoon episodes you’ve written, which are your favorites?
“The Traitor” for G.I. Joe probably tops the list, followed by “Quest of the Skeleton Warrior” for Dungeon & Dragons, and "C Flat or B Sharp" for Tiny Toons. That was the weirdest story I ever wrote, at least in terms of format. I pitched it by saying “The Tiny Toons deliver a piano to the tune of Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2” and they bought the idea immediately. The problem came in how to write it so it fit the music. I bought an LP of the Franz Liszt composition and recorded myself describing the action in time to the music. They handed that tape to the animators who did the show based off that!
I have to say there are two things about "C Flat or B Sharp" that irritate me to this day, however: First off, somebody goofed on the title card and ruined the joke; it was supposed to be “C Sharp or B Flat”. Second, it was selected by the L.A. Philharmonic to be shown with live musical accompaniment at a special concert at the Hollywood Bowl and nobody at Warner Bros. told me about it!
Was it difficult to adjust from writing TV scripts to prose?
Not really. You get to open up a little more of the interior landscape by describing what a character thinks or feels, but it’s still the same basic discipline.
The biggest challenge is finding your “voice” in prose, a way of expressing yourself that comes across as natural and unforced. You can gravitate to the extreme loquaciousness of H.P. Lovecraft or the pure simplicity of Ray Bradbury, but it has to sound right for you.
Your story “Q’a the Librarian” features wizards who sell their services as demon summoners, acting as middlemen between the demons and the customers who wish to make pacts with them. How did you come up with this idea?
There’s a couple of cartoons floating around the Internet labeled “Conan the Librarian” showing Schwarzenegger in full Conan regalia sitting behind a modern library desk or something similar.
I got to thinking, “Well, what kind of library would Conan work in?” Obviously, if set in a mythical ancient world it had to be something on the scale of the legendary Library of Alexandria. Why would a library need Conan? Well, if it’s a magic library they want somebody on hand to deal with any entities they might summon up that need putting down.
Problem: Conan is trademarked. All the best known heroic adventure characters are, so I realized I needed to create my own. Since I didn’t want to do a flat out copy of Conan, I created a female barbarian character from the equivalent of sub-Sahara Africa: Q’a.
When I started writing it, I thought it would be a fun little short story 2,500-3,000 words long, 3,500 tops.
Instead it clocked in at 16,000+ and inspired an as yet unsold 29,000+ sequel!
I’m planning at least two more novellas to finish off her story and possibly a stage play in which she and a party of travelers are trapped in a cave in a blizzard, only the cave is already claimed by a very unpleasant inhabitant…
What new projects have you been working on lately?
I have two Young Adult novels coming out soon, plus a mainstream social satire I’ve been working on for some time. This year I set a goal of trying to write one short story a week and while I haven’t always met that goal, I’ve got three dozen stories in circulation and so far this year have sold five (including “Q’a the Librarian”). The stories range from sci-fi to fantasy to horror to mystery to crime to just plain off the wall.
Name one newer and one older book you have read and enjoyed recently. (“Newer” meaning from the past year or so, and “older” meaning written before 1980.)
I’m reading Call Me Burroughs: A Life, by Barry Miles, a biography of William S. Burroughs, one of the legendary Beat Generation writers (I’ve long been fascinated with the Beats). For an older book, I recently re-read Dangerous Visions, edited by Harlan Ellison, and plan to be blogging about that at length.
Any final words?
“Zoo” and “zygote” (those are the final two words in the reverse dictionary I keep by my writing desk).