Time was, the image of Bruce Springsteen standing before an American flag was ubiquitous, as were parodies thereof. The Born in the U.S.A. album had been released in the summer of 1984 and ultimately achieved the feat of seven top ten singles throughout 1984 and 1985. In 1986, seeking to honor Springsteen and perhaps capitalize upon his success, 19 year old Memphis, Tennessee based writer Philip Hwang and Canadian artist Larry Nadolsky created Hey, Boss!, an independently published black and white comic book featuring parodies of Springsteen.
Although Hwang and Nadolsky's project would last but a single issue, its initial publication made news. In October of 1986, Daniel Perez of the Los Angeles Times wrote:
Thanks to a fan in Memphis, Bruce Springsteen will "tour" the country in late October. Philip Hwang , a "hard-core" fan, has written "Hey, Boss," a comic book that parodies some events in Bruce's life circa 1972 when he was an emerging rock star.
But Springsteen and band-mates Clarence Clemons and Miami Steve Van Zandt won't be identified by name because the author didn't get permission (they'll be called Boss, Big Chief and Miami, respectively).
Hwang and Canadian artist Larry Nadolsky will break the 32-page, black-and-white book into four vignettes. Press run: 10,000.1
The four vignettes are "The Motel" (in which Springsteen and his entourage, including Clemons, check into a fleabag motel, flee from cockroaches, and then find two women at a local bar with whom to stay), "The Binkers" (in which Springsteen and Clemons dine with Archie and Edith "Binker" in an "All in the Family" parody), "The Rogue Gallery" (which features fictional former bandmates who conform to certain rock stereotypes), and "They Call Him Bruce" (chronicling another series of misadventures featuring Springsteen and Clemons).
The experience was to be a stepping stone for its creators. Hwang told the Memphis Commercial Appeal in late 1986 that he was "hoping to become a professional comic-book writer some day" and to do that "you've got to do something spectacular inside the comic world that everybody knows about."3 Featured on MTV News, the book would sell out its initial printing of 10,000.2 Hwang and Nadolksy were on their way to success.
In an email earlier this week, Hwang, now based in San Bernardino, California, revisited the origins of Hey, Boss! and explained why he chose Springsteen to parody:
Twenty one years ago, Bruce Springsteen was one of the hottest music talents around. I was a teenager who had finished a moderately successful comic book series called Escape To The Stars. I think I was breaking even, but my collaborator James Lyle wanted to take the project in a different direction. So that series stopped at issue five.
I still had the desire to produce comic books , and Springsteen was someone I admired very much. His early works really connected with me. Many of them such as "Born To Run," "Thunder Road," and "Hungry Heart" have the romantic theme of leaving your stagnant home to a more dynamic place. I guess a lot of teenagers probably feel the same way.
In addition to connecting with Springsteen's music, Bruce had a persona that was different from the stereotypical hedonistic rock star. He was known for telling little stories during his concerts that really gave you insight into the man. I heard many of these stories on bootleg cassettes. So I took Bruce's concert persona one step further.
I also wanted to reach an audience beyond the typical comic book reader and felt that a comic book about Bruce could be sold in record shops and mainstream book stores.
Lyle, Hwang's former partner from Escape to the Stars, remembers things a bit differently, although he is quick to note that he and Hwang long ago buried the hatchet. The two even contemplated sending complimentary copies of Escape to the Stars to American servicemen during in Operation Desert Storm (although that never materialized). In an email, Lyle recalls Hwang's initial request to assist him in the creation of Hey, Boss! in the mid-1980s:
My sole contributions to "Hey Boss" were the Visionary Graphics logo that appears on the cover and turning Philip down flat when he offered me the job of drawing it.Undaunted, Hwang sought a new artist. Nadolsky responded to an advertisement seeking an artist that Hwang had placed in the Comics Buyer's Guide. The two then created the first issue and a handful of pages of a second issue that was never to be. Below you will find an image (click to enlarge) of Hwang's front inside cover letter to his readers:
He developed the script and pitched the idea to me. I turned him down flatly simply because I was still pretty steamed about how things had worked out on ETTS. What I told him at the time was that I felt it was a "one joke book" (referring to the "Springstine" gag, copped from Joe Piscopo on SNL) and that I wasn't interested. To be honest, I never expected it to get off the ground. I underestimated Philip's drive to succeed.
The first issue arrived in 1986, although a planned second issue never materialized, in part due to fears of a possible lawsuit. (It was to feature Springsteen's attempt to break into Graceland.4). Although no legal representative of Springsteen ever contacted Hwang, the potential threat of litigation, coupled with some other issues, ended the series.
"It was a combination of the fear of being sued and not being paid by the distributors for the first issue," writes Hwang. "Also, I was artistically moving away from comic books."
Nadolsky's fears of legal action were more overt. In an email, he remembers:
I also recall the day a coworker walked in with the local paper (The Winnipeg Free Press) that had a large picture of Bruce Springsteen and a story on how we were going to get sued. Nothing happened, I guess we were too small potatoes.On Saturday, April 25, 1987, Hwang appeared at Memphis Comics and Records on South Highland to promote the release of the first issue of Hey Boss!, a flier for which is below:
Nadolsky feels the issue has a broad legacy.
"I guess it could be considered a important book for the fact that it inspired Todd Loren to create Rock N' Roll Comics and led to me working on a lot of those books," recalls Nadolsky, who drew the first issue (which profiled Guns N' Roses) and many others in that series. (Loren's creation of that notable series, along with his unsolved 1992 murder, are the subject of the 2005 documentary, Unauthorized and Proud of It: Todd Loren's Rock N' Roll Comics. See also here for a MySpace blog entry from that film's site supporting the Loren connection.).
Hwang now lives in California with actress Jennifer Lien (who played Kes on "Star Trek: Voyager") and their young son. Now preferring screenwriting to comic book scripting, he claims not to have read a comic book in over a decade and a half. In 2001, he produced a horror film called Completely, Totally, Utterly, and just recently, via his company Spots B Gone Productions, shot Geek Mythology, the trailer for which is as follows:
Over two decades after its publication, it's difficult not to find the cultural references and humor in Hey, Boss! a bit dated. (For example, there's a Philip Michael Thomas reference.). What's fascinating, however, is how Hwang (then a student at Memphis's State Technical Institute and not even twenty years old) and the far-off Manitoba-based Nadolsky, successfully published an independent comic book in an era long before email and the Internet. They exchanged copy and art via the U.S. postal service. The comic was printed in New York City on newsprint at a total cost of $3,000; Hwang would turned to distributors, to whom he sold the issues (which would ultimately sell for a cover price of $1.50) for 60 cents a piece.5
Hwang (who runs a carpet cleaning business when not producing independent films) isn't quite certain what to think about his creation of Hey, Boss! twenty one years ago.
"Looking back, I am a bit embarrassed that I felt so strongly about an entertainment figure that I would go to the trouble of making a comic book about him," writes Hwang. "On the other hand, it is a great conversation piece that was harmless and hopefully a little amusing."
1. Perez, Daniel. "Section: Calendar, Boss Book," Los Angeles Times, October 5, 1986.
2. John Beifuss, "Hopes hang on superheroes: Comic Book creators view task as serious business," The Commercial Appeal (Memphis, TN), December 29, 1986.