CelebrityReviews/Commentary

Meeting Peter David, 25 Years Later

In early August of 2018, the for-profit comics convention firm Square Egg Productions put on their ‘Fan Fusion’ event at the Rivercentre convention complex in downtown St. Paul, Minnesota.

I was going to skip it until I noticed (buried down the guest list) that Peter David – ‘writer of stuff’ – was attending.

A bit of backstory on being a fan of Peter David:  I’d been one since the 1990s, first getting familiar with his work at Marvel on “The Incredible Hulk” and then having an interest in his column writing for “Comics Buyers Guide.”  From there, I branched into his novels and his forays into Hollywood.  I sort of inadvertently became a Peter David super-fan during a period in which I grew out of the art-heavy Image Comics fandom and into his wittier writers-first view of the world.  David was a smart guy and always had a witty comeback ready, someone you wished that you could be as a teenager when being a ‘geek’ was not cool.

I first saw David in Fall of 1993 at the Minnesota State comic book convention where he was the headliner.  He had memorably held court in at least two panels, including a finale for the day on a Saturday that went long.  He also did signings, but I was too nervous at a young age to even approach him.

He was only 36 years old during his 1993 visit.

In terms of peak years, 1993 was a banner year for David.  In July of that year, he’d come out with the “Star Trek: The Next Generation” novel “Imzadi,” which was a rare hardcover release and a bestseller.  I’m not familiar with his “Hulk” comics work past that point but it was likely his peak sales period, given the market crash of the mid-90s.  David also had the screenplay credits on several low-budget Full Moon Productions that were starting to come out direct-to-video.

David’s life would see several ebbs and flows after that banner (Hulk pun not intended) year.  In 1996, he had the television show “Space Cases” on Nickelodeon… a job that he would later refer to as his most-lucrative (although, I got from inference, not life-changing) project.  In the aftermath of that show though, his first wife would divorce him and lingering unpaid taxes from 1996 would bite him twenty years later when he would issue a very-public plea for help in paying off that debt.

As conventions go, I’d say that Minnesota Fan Fusion 2018 was nothing to write home about.  The vendors were pretty lacklustre, with less to shop from than I was used to at other conventions in the area.  Admission was higher than the norm as well, but the guest list was much better than competing conventions had offered in recent years.

The convention opened mid-afternoon on a Friday and I basically went in/out simply to see Peter David.  My I plan was simple:  I brought a couple of books along to get signed and hoped to ask him a few questions.

In the end, I ended up hanging around with him for much longer than I had planned.

David had people regularly coming up to his table and would pause to greet them, sign things, etc. but he kept going on with story after story as I prompted him with questions.   I wasn’t even really prompting him much, mind you.  After he’d tell one story, I figured it was polite to respond and then he’d launch into something else.  I wasn’t about to complain.

Topics included the 1993 ‘Great Debate’ with Todd McFarlane that covered various beefs that David had with Image Comics at the time, Star Trek novels, his “Knight Life” book series (I’d brought a 1987 original paperback along), his “Atlantis Chronicles” series (he was impressed by the bound copy that I had made of the original issues).  Even my kids (!) were mentioned amid a joke about why I didn’t want the signed books personalized… him joking about my immediately selling them on eBay, me promising not to, but not being able to guarantee what my kids might do.  David’s “Hidden Earth” fantasy trilogy had recently completed, and I bought the full trilogy from him at the table (weirdly he only had a couple of sets along for sale… a missed sales opportunity with the rest of the weekend still ahead).

What might film fans find interesting from my chat with David?  Well, I asked him about the mid-90s stuff that he wrote for Charles Band’s Full Moon Productions… specifically “Trancers 4” & “Trancers 5” along with “Oblivion” and its sequel.  He said that he still enjoys the films (I agree, they’re low-budget mid-90s fun) but lamented that Band had taken his expansive screenplay and hacked out anything of cost (not a surprise).  He said that that was why the films are all hilariously short (the “Trancers” run less than 70 minutes each).  I mentioned that I had just assumed that that was the plan all along, since both films’ stories seemed like a long-ish screenplay that had been chopped in two to double-dip on video sales.  David insisted that that wasn’t the case at all.  Pretty wild,

Something of note that well described David’s role to many of his fans was an observation about how the wide variety in his work introduced me to several very different things – you have his “Trek” work jumping to comics to film/TV to fantasy novels and many licensed properties.  That remark seemed to really resonate with him and he talked with pride about how he hears that observation often from fans.

I look back now on David’s work and how weirdly influential he was in my 1990s reading habits with some surprise.  As I said earlier, I became a sort of super-fan for a time without purposefully setting out to do so.  While the primary reason that I eventually subscribed to “Comics Buyers Guide” was to read his weekly often-random columns about his life/opinions at the time, I’d only read a little of his signature “Hulk” stuff and have kind of saved it now someday savor.

Make no mistake, David seems like a guy who cranked stuff out… some things, I’m sure, he’s prouder of than others… to simply earn a living and I’m sure that a bit of fame didn’t hurt.

I can see now how David’s career story is probably very typical of a guy who wants to simply earn what I’m sure wasn’t a crazy income.  But, he has been comfortable and he’s had a heck of a career as a working writer.  Say what you will about the quality of some of his work, he’s kept working, working, working.  I was shocked to learn that he’s written 100 novels on top of all his comics stuff, along with the bits of film and TV work.

Along the way, David raised three daughters and rebounded from his divorce to a second wife who does custom puppet work.  That wasn’t the only public ebb and flow in his personal life, as besides the aforementioned tax issues that he faced, he also had previously dealt with a stroke and lingering health issues, somehow coming back from that as to remain prolific.

The timing of one’s success can lead to a lot of ‘what if?’ questions and I can’t help but think of some questions that relate to Peter David.  In the 1990s, I saw him as a rising star across all kinds of media and his star did rise but maybe not to the levels that we now think possible in a world where mega-budget super-hero movies are a norm.   Maybe if he’s played his cards differently or maybe if he’d been a top-top comics writer who peaked in the past ten years, he would have been more-directly tied into the Marvel Hollywood scene.  Like many of the guys in this latest generation of writers, it isn’t hard to imagine how David would have smoothly transitioned into being a television showrunner (heck, he basically was one with “Space Cases”) or worked on bigger budget films.  Maybe not, but I can’t help but think that his life would be different and his profile even higher.

At 61, David still reminded me of himself at 36, but there had been changes.  While he still has a certain trademark look with a bald-ish head and beard, that hair was now a Santa Claus white.  Personality-wise, he generally seemed to have settled into a bit more of a self-deprecating way that suited him well.  There was a funny moment when I asked him about the cost of the books that I planned to buy and he said $20 each or all three for $60.  I chuckled, sure that it was a not-original-but-amusing joke.  Instead of laughing along, David had an embarrassed look on his face and said, “I meant all three for $50, you must think that I’m an idiot.”  I felt bad for chuckling and told him, “No, I figured that it was a little joke and that was funny.”

In 1993, when I first saw Peter David at that local convention, I’d have said that I wanted that guy’s life.   25 years later, seeing David alone at times at a table on a Friday evening in St. Paul, Minnesota, I can’t say that I would necessarily trade my life today for his.  For the record, I doubt that he’d trade me his life for mine!

You realize the trade-offs that he made, the sacrifices, the luck that didn’t always work his way, the bittersweet sadness of how fame at the highest levels is fleeting and how so much of his work will likely be forgotten in another generation (as is the case with nearly all artists).  In 1993, I was afraid to even approach his table to get some comics signed, too intimidated by him and his razor-sharp whit.  25 years later, he seemed genuinely pleased that I would take time to hear him tell some stories about his career.

Life changes people and perspectives.

I’m glad that Peter David was still around to tell stories though and I’ll look forward to catching up every once in a while, with what he offers.

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