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Volume 5569
ERB Scriptwriter

Tom and the Boys
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 novels. 

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 Wells' The 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 them."

"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 Darling Eddy about the final weeks in the sad, tragically short life of Edgar 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.

 "Darling Eddy" is undergoing a rewrite as a three-part miniseries; "Nessus Shirt" is on hold (though I may return to it later this year); "Epoch" was put off indefinitely due to lack of funding at the publishing source; The Monster Men and The Outlaw of Torn are on permanent abeyance because the artist dropped the projects. 

On the positive side I AM A BARBARIANô wraps up this year and moves to "graphic reprint" phase, and last Spring I completed a two-part screen adaptation of Edgar Rice Burroughs' dystopian novella THE RED HAWKô on a work-for-hire contract with ERB, Inc. That script is currently being pitched to Netflix and other streaming services. 

Also, I helped with pre-publishing editing tasks for two of my favorite writers: Anne M. Beggs and (Anna) A G Mogan Author. In summary, as with all creative endeavors there are hits and misses; yet we soldier on. Vellet esse magis (Aspire to be more). 

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