Steve McQueen is one of Hollywood’s most mythic actors, and for car fans, he’s inextricably linked to some of the coolest car movies ever produced. But his entire life story is worth of a biopic, and that’s kind of the intention behind the new graphic novel Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool that hits the shelves today. We spent some time with the author, Dwight Jon Zimmerman, to talk about his history, and how he came to work on this book.
“Today they’re called geeks. Back then, the descriptive word was: nerd,” he says. With another high school pal who exhibited similarly nerdy tendencies, Zimmerman published not just one, but TWO fanzines. “One [was] a combination science-fiction and comic book fanzine and the other was a biographical one based on the life of pulp fiction author Otis Adelbert Kline. I always wanted to get into publishing (preferably as a writer) and went to trade school to learn the printing trade. In effect, I wanted to break in using the side door, instead of the front. It was my print-production skill (along with some connections and luck) that opened the door for me at Marvel Comics. This was in the late 1970s. From that point on, I was off and running.”
A quick look at Zimmerman’s resume at Marvel is impressive. Beginning with Spidey Super Stories #27 in October of 1977, he’d spend the next 18 years working on Marvel comics, including a lot of Wolverine stories, a She-Hulk, an Iron Man annual and the entire run of the comic book version of Hanna-Barbera’s The Pirates of Dark Water series.
He’s also a military historian, presiding over the Military Writers Society of America, and his work has included a history of America’s Medal of Honor recipients in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a New York Times #1 best-selling book on Abraham Lincoln’s last days that he co-authored with Bill O’Reilly. “I love history, and I love reading,” he told us.
At the same time, he’s a huge fan of motorcycles. “I owned a 1974 Norton 850 Commando that I rode across the nation. That ride down the California coast highway from Oregon to San Francisco was absolutely heaven! Getting caught in a hail storm just west of Yellowstone National Park, on the other hand, wasn’t as much fun. Though I still have my motorcycle driver’s license, I don’t own a motorcycle now. My wife would kill me.”
For a motorcycle fan, writing about Steve McQueen might be the coolest gig ever. He worked on the book with illustrator Greg Scott, who Zimmerman worked with on a cool graphic novel that covers the history of the United States Air Force’s Area 51, but the idea to produce a graphic novel came from another source. “We were commissioned by Howard Zimmerman (no relation, we’re long-time friends), who owns a small book-packaging company called Z File. Howard and his company contract with publishers to produce books and deliver them completed and ready for print. He then finds and signs the talent–writers, illustrators, designers,” he told us.
“Z File was approached by editors at Zenith Press and Motorbooks. Talk about small world, they got to Howard through another illustrator I’ve collaborated with for Z File books, Wayne Vansant, who had two two graphic histories published by Zenith.
So, Wayne told Howard about Zenith, and Zenith about Z File. Howard got in touch and discovered what was needed, and put me and Greg together as his team for AREA 51. Everyone loved our work on that, so when Howard was approached to produce a second title, the Steve McQueen bio for Motorbooks, he pitched it to me and Greg, and we were delighted to get the call,” he says.
Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool details McQueen’s entire life history, in a way that’s fun to read if you know quite a bit about Steve McQueen’s biography, or if you’re just learning about this enigmatic movie star for the first time. “The fascinating thing I discovered was that there was a bifurcation regarding McQueen biographies,” says Zimmerman. “Basically, there were the acting bios that pretty much just summarized his racing careers car and motorcycle, and then there were the gear head bios that pretty much just summarized his acting career. I’m happy to say that our graphic bio is the first I know of that gives equal time to both.”
It’s illustrated in black and white. Especially in the car movies, colors are important — the green Ford Mustang fastback from Bullitt, the Gulf livery on the Porsche 917 in LeMans — but the vibrant black and white illustration sets a super-cool tone for the entire book.
Zimmerman’s research into McQueen’s history is highly detailed. For example, there’s a brief segment about the film The Thomas Crown Affair. In that movie, McQueen’s character drives — among a garage-full of other cool cars — a Meyers Manx dune buggy.
Its largely forgotten, but McQueen did a fair bit of work on that dune buggy himself, and the book makes mention of it. “Quarto was very generous with providing McQueen books it had published, and I bought additional books online. As for other research material, thank god for the Internet and YouTube! In my online searching, I was able to find a lot of clips, and in some cases whole television episodes and movies. As I screened them, whenever I came to a good visual moment, I’d key the time-stamp. Then when I was writing up the full script, I’d include in the art instructions the link and time-stamp so Greg could zoom right in and get the reference he needed,” he says.
As a motorcyclist, Zimmerman was attenuated to making the cars and motorcycles in the book correct. “The last thing a reader needs to see is the text in a panel about a 1960 Harley Sportster and the image is that of a BSA thumper.”
In one chapter, Zimmerman and Scott dig into McQueen’s time competing in the 1964 International Six Days Trial — a grueling six-day motorcycle enduro in East Germany. It’s something a few people have seen in the motorcycle documentary On Any Sunday, but doesn’t get a lot of attention anywhere else. “I don’t remember how long it took, but I was a maniac searching for everything I could about the event,” Zimmerman says. “And I was thrilled to find the logo, badges, photos of the race, all manner of stuff! It was great! I even found photo reference of the van the team used. And, because I’m also a military history writer, I made sure to have the right uniforms on the East German border guards.”
Steve McQueen: Full Throttle Cool covers McQueen’s entire acting career, and delves into his personal life, too. For kids that have gotten a look at Bullitt on TCM, or saw a bit of The Great Escape, this is a welcome introduction to one of the film industry’s most enduring actors. But it’s a great companion for anyone who has seen the movies and would like to learn more about his history. “While there are other biographies that go into greater depth than we do regarding his careers in racing and acting, I believe that we captured the essence of why he became such an iconic individual,” says Zimmerman. “His is an exciting story and I think our graphic biography is a great introduction.”
The book hits the shelves officially on July 7, 2015. You can get it from Amazon.com, where it’s currently the #1 New Release in Automotive Racing.