Screenwriter and graphic novelist Tom Simmons
is a five-decade Edgar Rice Burroughs fan. "I read my first Burroughs
novel -- Pirates
of Venus -- at the age of 12 back in the 1960s, and Iíve been
an avid devotee ever since. I always thought it would be great fun to adapt
a Burroughs book to the screen or other format, so when the chance came
to work with ERB, Inc. on their web comic strips series in mid-2014 I jumped
at it. There was never going to be a question about my enthusiasm for the
project," says the Colorado-based writer.
The ERB, Inc. gig resulted from Tomís long-held love for
the novels of Edgar Rice Burroughs and his screenwriting interest. "In
2013, I contacted Jim Sullos regarding the concept of writing a
film script for an ERB novel -- it was Tarzan
at the Earth's Core, as I recall. Although Jim politely informed
me that the license was taken, we stayed in touch and eventually came up
with my involvement with the online comic strips project. Things grew from
there." Working with two artists and a letterer/colorist, Tom creates three
of the current 19 online weekly strips which are adapted from Burroughs
Regarding the stories themselves, Tom admits experiencing
"a somewhat eerie feeling" as he adapts The
Monster Men, which turned 100 years of age in 2013. ďQuite
apart from the distinct privilege and honor, as far as Iím aware this story
-- perhaps ERB's answer to Shelley's Frankenstein or
Island of Dr. Moreau -- has not been published in any format other
than that of the 1913 All-Story Magazine serial version and
the 1929 hardcover book illustrated by J. Allen St. John. Thus,
there's an uncanny sense of being a direct link back to Burroughs himself
as I do the adaptation."
A student of medieval history, Tom welcomed the challenge
of adapting Burroughs' 1914 novel The
Outlaw of Torn into comic strip format. "This story was
actually his second novel, written between A
Princess of Mars and Tarzan
of the Apes. And itís the first of just two historical novels
ERB ever wrote. I see parallels between Norman of Torn, who preceded Tarzan
by a year, and the iconic ape-man himself. Itís as if ERB is experimenting
in order to get things just right."
In mid-1941, with personal health issues mounting and
the world once again at war, Edgar Rice Burroughs penned I
Am a Barbarian, his second and final historical novel. "Not
published until 1967, the story is dark and often X-ratedÖ decidedly un-Burroughs
like. This makes adapting it a challenge Iím always very excited about,"
says the scriptwriter. Tom looks forward to the time when the online strips
are wrapped up (planned for the end of 2018) so that his adaptations can
hit world bookshelves as printed graphic novels.
"First, I think most writers would say adapting a Burroughs
novel to any format can be challenging. He provides so much rich detail
in his action sequences that the writer is left to 'pick and choose' what
can best fit into the limited size of the strip. Secondly, often there
is a paucity of dialog, or the dialog comes across as archaic compared
to modern speech -- so the writer is challenged to modify it or fill in
the blanks and yet make the dialog ring true to the story setting."
"Of course, Iím talking about 'straight' adaptation here;
some writers choose to take the stories in different directions, 'recreating'
rather than 'adapting,' etc. It's a personal decision a writer must make.
My own approach for each weekly episode is to scale down and modify the
text, striving to retain as much of ERB's verbiage as possible so that
it fits into the series of panels. For pacing, I use the writer's rule:
ensure a beginning, middle and end for each series of panels. I visualize
each panel and describe what I see to the artists, leaving the rest to
"They then draw rough art 'maps' and run these by me.
I can choose to comment or not on the rough art, and sometimes changes
are made. We ensure the text fits and if not I edit it. Finally, the artist
draws the completed art, and it is lettered and colored. Often Iím pleasantly
surprised by how an artist renders a scene differently than when I visualized
it. On rare occasions we're unhappy with the result, but at that point
it's often too late to go back and re-do things so we strive to nail it
the first time."
A rather surprising aspect of this kind of storytelling
is that Tom has never personally met any of his team members. "It would
be nice one day -- but it isn't essential to the work. We live in different
parts of the world. Jake Bilbao, who draws both TMM and TOOT, lives
in the Philippines. Letterer/colorist/graphic artist Jamal Walton
lives in North Carolina and Lovecraft Award-winning IAAB artist Mike
Dubisch lives in Arizona. We use the internet to communicate and things
mostly go well."
Tom took the less-traveled path on his way to a writing
career. "Just out of high school and with a semester of college under my
belt, I found I was about to be a dad. My neighbor had just joined the
U.S. Coast Guard and said he liked it, so I enlisted." Six years later,
family man Tom received his honorable discharge as a senior petty officer
-- and rediscovered the need for employment. "My mother worked for Ma Bell
and knew someone in the h/r office; that's where I applied. Little did
I know at the time it would become a 32-year career."
Tom learned computer programming, working with "the big
mainframes" the bulk of his time, and finished work on a university degree
in History. But he always harbored a penchant for writing, and hoped one
day to have the chance "to launch a new gig, something entirely different."
In 2009, with the phone company job winding down and his
three sons grown and gainfully employed (two of them having served enlistments
in the U.S. Navy), Tom turned his attention to screenwriting. "Iíd had
several ideas for film scripts, but hadn't done anything with them. Next
thing I knew, those ideas were turned into films by other people. At that
point I knew my concepts were good -- so I grabbed Syd Field's book
on screenwriting and Dave Trottier's Screenwriterís Bible and taught
myself the ropes."
2010 saw the completion of Crispus
Caesar, Tomís first feature-length film script. Set in the
4th century, the story centers on the eldest son of the first Christian
Roman emperor who was mysteriously executed on his fatherís orders at the
height of his popularity. In 2015, Tom published a graphic novel adapted
from the film script.
New projects beckon. "I wrote a screenplay in 2016 entitled
Eddy about the final weeks in the sad, tragically short life of
Allan Poe, and currently on my writing desk is a TV series pilot about
the little-known German army conspiracy to kill Hitler before the Valkyrie
plot that I titled The Nessus Shirt. Also getting underway
in 2017 is a Flash-Gordonesque story entitled Epoch, a collaboration
with Canadian artist Nik Poliwko that will result in both a limited-run
print series as well as a graphic novel."
Tom was nominated in five screenwriting categories at
the 2010 Action on Film Festival. He lives in Castle Rock, Colorado with
his wife Kim and an aging French bulldog named Reggae.