Tuesday, June 12, 2007

Belated In Memoriam: Marshall Rogers

While Marshall Rogers died three months ago, I didn't discover that fact until a few weeks ago. Over whiskey with some fellow comic fans (our own SOL among them), I heard he had died and I nearly went into shock. It's taken a little time to process this information. Many people knew Marshall Rogers as an artist who's pencilling of Batman defined the character for a generation. 13 years ago, I knew him as a colleague and a friend.

Not many people know that during the early to mid 1990's, Marshall spent time in the video game industry as a game designer. He started at a company in New York. In 1994, he came from New York to northern California to work at the company where I was employed in my second-ever programming job. My boss at that time was unhappy with the designer on our game and had worked with Marshall at the comapny in New York. Marshall was invited to come out for an interview in the hopes that he would come to our company, take over the design, and provide the vision necessary to turn our lackluster product into a hit. I have to admit that at the time this was proposed I was reticent to accept it because the then-designer was a good friend of mine. However, I was the most junior programmer on the team so my opinion didn't carry much weight and the truth was my friend wasn't cutting it anyway. Once Marshall came out for the interview and I got the chance to interview him, I was convinced my boss was right and that Marshall was perfect for the job.

I still have a vivid memory of that interview. It was only supposed to last 20 minutes, but it went 3 quarters of an hour. I was actually star struck because I knew Marshall's work on Batman and was a fan, but I put a great deal of effort into not coming across like a drooling fanboy. Our discussion was wide-ranging. We started by discussing his theories on game design which encompassed both ingenuity and pragmatism. He said that game design was a new art form and the intersting thing about it was not only coming up with ideas, but working with technical constraints. He talked about artistic progression and how video games were just entering their Rubber Soul period, and he wanted to help get them to Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. He interspersed these specific thoughts with more general comments about the nature of creativity. I listened rapt to all of this (my techie brain was blown away by all this raw aesthetic talk) and tried to resist the urge to ask a stupid fanboy question. Finally, toward the end, I couldn't resist and came up with what I thought was at least something related to what we'd been talking about: "So, what do you think of Dark Knight Returns?" "That's funny you should ask. Frank [Miller] and I have had many discussions about this. The thing is, my vision of Batman is so different from Frank's that we just have to agree to disagree. Frank sees Batman as sort of 'The Terminator' only with a cape and cowl. Me, I think of Batman as a detective first and a fighter second. It's more interesting that way." If it had been up to me, we would have offered him a job on the spot.

It wasn't up to me, but clearly he impressed the right people and was offered the job. He accepted and came out to California. Over the next 18 months I got to work with him fairly closely. Lots of what I had to do was work directly with him to implement features he thought were important. We put in lots of late nights working on deadlines, and because of that developed that comraderie that people working "in the trenches" together develop.

Very often, after a severe session of implementing and then tweaking some feature or other to get it ready to demo, he'd say, "Let's get outside for a smoke." We'd go and the sun would be coming up and birds would start chirping and he'd say, "Hear that? That means it's 5AM and we've been here for almost 24 hours. Only crazy people act like this. Now let's get coffee." Whenever I pull an all nighter, I'll quote him saying that to whoever's around. There was once a stretch where we pulled 36 hours straight. At one point I walked by his office and smelled smoke. I thought the building was on fire, and then realized he'd lit a cigarette in his office and was smoking while he was working. "Shit, you can't smoke in here can you?" "No, it's illegal." "Damn. Well, can I just finish this one now that it's lit without you ratting me out?" "Of course..." Another night we had to spend 8 hours re-arranging geometry for a rock that some artist had screwed up, and finally he threw up his hands, exasperated, and said "This is a piece of shit! We don't even need a rock that looks like that! Get rid of it!" So I did.

Marshall wasn't just someone great to work with though. Midway through the project my then girlfriend and I started having severe problems. He let me babble on about it to him. Then he told me about how his marriage had been troubled and that things with women didn't always work out, but that it wasn't the end of the world. It doesn't seem all that profound now, but at the time, for me it was a rare insight. It was also good to see that someone I admired wasn't immune to woman-trouble.

After about 18 months of development, the company decided to change directions and cancelled every title under development, including ours. I got fed up and left. I was so fed up that I left my bike there in one of the conference rooms and never bothered to go back and get it. I later found out Marshall had given it to his son, something I was going to suggest he do anyway. After that, we sort of fell out of contact. We exchanged a few emails and ran into each other at a few game developer events, but the days in the trenches were over. When I heard he had died it was also news to me that he had moved back to New York. This wasn't suprising though. His demeanor and attitude were very New York: honest, gruff, highly critical but casual, aesthetic but grounded. Not a year goes by when I haven't thought "I should really get in touch with Marshall and see how he's doing." And it ticks me off that it's now too late to do that.

Still, memory, right? So here's a final one: To me, Marshall always looked like a comic book character. Not a super hero, but certainly someone with an alter-ego. While his smile was nearly always beatific, his eyes and his sideburns said "look out!", like they were the part that made him do the things only crazy people do.
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