Intergalactic Robinson Crusoe: An Interview With Mark Askwith
by j.d. lafrance
For those that remember it, Prisoners of Gravity was a television show clearly ahead of its time. It devoted a half-hour every week to the serious (and sometimes not so serious) discussion of science fiction, fantasy and comic books. Every episode was devoted to a particular theme (censorship, time travel, ecology) or to specific topics (Cyberpunk literature, the Watchmen graphic novel, writer Neil Gaiman). It was a show that tackled thought-provoking subjects in an entertaining and informative matter. There had been nothing like it before and nothing like it since.
The primary creative force behind the show was Mark Askwith. He had started off as the manager of The Silver Snail, one of the premiere comic book stores in North America, in 1982. Located in Toronto it was right across the street from Bakka bookstore, a shop dedicated exclusively to fantasy and science fiction books and magazines. This was the perfect area to cultivate a serious love of science fiction and comic books. More importantly, it also gave Askwith an opportunity to meet legendary comic book creators, like Frank Miller, and local science fiction authors.
He left the Snail in 1987 and worked on Ron Mann's excellent documentary, Comic Book Confidential (1988). Its success led to the creation of Prisoners of Gravity, a television program that took the ideas presented in Mann's movie and expanded on them in detail and scope. It was the brainchild of Mark Askwith, Daniel Richler and Rick Green. Askwith conducted the bulk of the interviews done for the show (over 400 guests by the end of its run), Green was the host (and provided the humorous asides and personality) and Gregg Thurlbeck directed each episode. All three worked closely together writing the show and assembling it so in actuality their tasks often overlapped. PoG's budget was very modest, only $23,000 an episode and over the course of its run received numerous awards and accolades.
Prisoners of Gravity first aired on TVOntario, a Canadian public television station, in 1989 where it ran for five seasons and 137 episodes before being canceled in 1994. It was shown numerous times in syndication, briefly on PBS, the Discovery Channel and Space: The Imagination Station (the Canadian equivalent to the Sci-Fi Channel). Over this time PoG developed a small but loyal following.
Recently, I had the chance to conduct an interview with Askwith via email. He is currently one of the founding producers of the Space channel and graciously took time out of his busy schedule to reminisce about Prisoners of Gravity.
How did you get into comic books and science fiction? Were you always into them as a young age or did you get into them later on?
I read the Narnia books, Andre Norton, the Robert Heinlein juveniles, and anything I could get my hands on. My mother ran a children's bookstore in Ottawa called the Bookery, so I had exposure to "the good stuff."
I was given a Tintin album Explorers on the Moon when I was 4. I think it was really what got me hooked on comics. I also ran across a stash of superhero comics when I was 7 - that also was a pivotal event for me... the seeds were sown.
I didn't take comics seriously until a friend with "The Tiny Perfect Collection" turned me on to great comics. This would have been first year university. I've always read every genre, and it wasn't until Prisoners of Gravity that I focused exclusively on genre.
How did you get involved in Ron Mann's documentary, Comic Book Confidential? Was it the blueprint or did it give you the idea for Prisoners of Gravity?
I pitched a documentary to Ron, because his previous documentary was on where I used to work - Coach House Press. He was open to the idea, but then started to mutate it into a valentine to Marvel Comics. Now, there's nothing wrong with that, but I thought that Ron would be more attracted to the work of the underground artists, and I thought we had an opportunity to do something unique and timely - get these major creators before they left us. I gave him some direction, and with BP Nichol, the film happened.
Did Comic Book Confidential attract Daniel Richler's attention and result in the creation of Prisoners of Gravity?
Yes. Much as I loved working on a documentary film, I hated the fact that it took three years to produce. I realized that comics and pop culture really need a faster delivery system - television. When Comic Book Confidential won a Genie [note: this is the Canadian equivalent of the Academy Awards], that caught several people's attention. I initially saw PoG as "The New Music for SF/comics," [note: The New Music is an excellent TV magazine show dedicated to musicians and new trends in music] and as a person who was instrumental in shaping New Music, Daniel was the perfect person to pitch.
I really like that analogy of PoG being The New Music for SF/comics. I remember that program well! What really stood out was the quality of the questions asked of the artists. PoG certainly had the same level of quality and intelligent interviews. PoG didn't ask superficial questions or go for the fanboy response but really put some thought behind what was asked of the interviewee. I also think that what makes PoG stand out, is that it treated the comic book/SF/fantasy genre with respect and legitimacy. Was that an important thing for you to convey in the show?
I think it is important to remember that I am a writer, and was the manager of on of the best comic book stores in the world. By the time I worked on Comic Book Confidential, I had already met/interviewed hundreds of creators, and by the time I created PoG I had published the Prisoner Graphic Novel. Many of the Canadian SF writers knew me, as I hung out at Bakka, so I was "one of them." I had "street cred," or "genre cred" (!?). What I wanted to do was showcase what I saw as a hotbed of creativity, and not some guy in pointy ears at a convention. Interestingly, one of the few complaints I got from fans was that the show wasn't more about them, that we were elitist because we dared to focus on the authors (and didn't I know that fans went to cons to meet other fans, not see the guests). I really felt that if we got to the rich center of genre-ideas - then ANYBODY could watch (I always aimed the show at my mother and father), so I assumed no knowledge of the material. We built the shows so the material added up, and hopefully made sense.
Also, on all the shows I've worked on - whether it was an interview with Margaret Atwood, or John Updike, or William Shatner, my approach has always been to respect the material.
What was your original brainchild/plan for Prisoners of Gravity?
Originally the show was pitched as a 7 minute segment to fit between episodes of Dr. Who. I'd host it, and do the interviews, and use the platform to talk about the latest in genre. TVO lost the rights to Dr. Who, and I talked Daniel into a half hour, theme based show. I think he thought I'd host it (horrors), but blessed as I am with a face for radio, he let Rick Green audition.
How did Rick Green's name come up as a possible host? Was he much of a fan of comics/SF before he did PoG?
Rick was in seeing Daniel about other ideas, but Rick knew about my show because we played ball hockey together every Sunday. That may give Americans the idea that all Canadians know each other, and play hockey, but hey, that's my story...Rick was/is an old school SF fan, into Bova, Asimov, Bradbury...
Did TVOntario give you guys a lot of freedom on the show or did they try to impose any kind of restrictions?
They were great. We didn't cost a lot. we were not on their radar, and because of Daniel's clout, they gave us total free rein. Luckily, I knew what a blessing that was! They were very supportive, not only of the show, but of the producers and Rick.
Was it tough, at first, to get interviews with authors/filmmakers/artists or did you already have connections that opened doors for you?
One of the great things about being first, and getting it right, is that support just grew in the community. Everybody we put on air seemed to like it, so one interview led to another. It does seem crazy that we'd get so many wonderful, famous people (Anne Rice, Ray Bradbury, Jack Kirby), but in a way we were the only game in town. My work in publishing and managing the Silver Snail, and writing for DC Comics meant that I had some credentials... but mostly I think it was the show that opened the doors. It's also hard to remember, but when we interviewed first Neil Gaiman, or Terry Pratchett, or Jaime Hernandez, most people didn't know who they were.
I remember that the first season had a more Cyberpunk flair to it (Commander Rick even had his hair spiky and dyed!) that seemed to be toned down in subsequent seasons. Was that a conscious decision? Did you feel that his look and some of the visual tricks distracted from the content?
Yes, although there were other factors. One, a new director, Gregg Thurlbeck, who went back to my original idea, and the collective realization that film clips and certain visual tricks would date the show, and perhaps mean we couldn't repeat the shows.
You've talked about some of your favourite interview subjects over the run of Prisoners of Gravity in other interviews. I remember that you guys interviewed Harlan Ellison at one point. I've heard that he's an incredible storyteller and he certainly made some memorable contributions to certain episodes. What was he like to talk to?
I love his writing, but Harlan and I never seemed to connect. Gregg did the last three interviews, including the incredible one about censorship, and those two guys REALLY connected! I have no ego about my work, so if I feel another producer should do an interview, I'm the first to suggest it.
I find it incredible that Prisoners of Gravity was canceled even though it was inexpensive to produce and it was getting decent ratings? Did you ever find out why it was canceled at the height of its popularity?
The best explanation came from the Head of English Language Production (way up on the TV food chain), and he felt that other communities needed to be served. He felt that much of the PoG material could be wrapped into Imprint, and a short time later, I became the producer of Imprint. I think I was the least affected by the cancellation, I was the least upset. I didn't take it personally, because I was humbled that we got 5 years and 137 shows out before anybody shut us down. We won some awards, and turned some people onto good reading, so I was happy. Frankly, it never occurred to me we'd last more than a year or two.
In many respects, Prisoners of Gravity was ahead of its time.
Thank you. It does seem to have aged well.
To this day, I'm hard-pressed to think of anything else like it on television. Do you think a show like it would still work today or did it belong to a certain time and place?
Great question. I think it was the product of its time, and the show was a labour of love for the very few people who produced it, and the hundreds of people we interviewed, and the tens of thousands who watched it. Others don't agree, and they think the show could work now. I'm a skeptic, you'd have to convince me.
I would like to think PoG would work now. With the success of Space: The Imagination Station in Canada and the Sci-Fi Channel here in the United States, there is certainly a market for a program focusing on SF/fantasy. Also, I think that with the recent resurgence in hugely successful cinematic adaptations of comic books (Spider-Man, X-Men, Ghost World, Hellboy, et al) there would be a definite market for that kind of show. Especially, if one were to establish it with a strong web-presence as well. That would be the key, because so many fans of comic books and SF have a strong, dominant presence on the Internet.
I'm glad you feel so strongly. I only see two possible markets - SPACE and Sci-Fi... so it isn't as financially viable as I'd like. I have long advocated a web tie-in, so I agree there. Frankly, I wouldn't do another PoG unless it was available beyond Canada.
Do you still get emails/letters requesting Prisoners of Gravity to be re-broadcast or put onto DVD?
We ran the show on SPACE in 1997/98, to great ratings and feedback. That prompted people to ask about further airings (it's airing now on BookTV), and possible DVD's. Oddly, in 1996 there was talk of doing a web-based PoG... with Microsoft (!), but plans fizzled out.
To that end, is there any interest in this area?
Some, but not enough.
The episodes are all available at The Merril Collection of Science Fiction, in Toronto. The raw interviews are not available.
Do you own the rights to Prisoners of Gravity? Is there any chance of this happening or perhaps it being re-broadcast in some format?
It's a murky area that would need lawyers... but I think that the agreements that the authors originally signed would mean "no."
On a side note, seeing as how you are so heavily involved in comic books, I was wondering what you thought about recent comic book adaptations into movies? What are some of your favourite and least favourite in the past few years and why?
I'm not very involved in comics now, although many of my friends make them. I did an eight page story with R. G. Taylor for a benefit book called Drawing the Line (plug, plug), and an eight page story drawn by M.W. Kaluta. I liked Spidey 1 and 2, X-Men 2, Crumb and Ghost World.