Talk about an uncompleted story! d’Arc Tangent appeared in 1982, a black and white magazine in the format used by the very popular Elfquest. It was co-created by Phil Foglio (already a well-known cartoonist in SF circles) and Freff, a working name for Connor Freff Cochran, a writer-artist with no previous and no subsequent credits. The duo also had the benefit of an editorial consultancy by Chris Claremont, then riding high as writer of the X-Men.
I was recommended to the title by a friend who couldn’t speak highly enough of it, and when I read it I agreed with his opinion. The story combined expansive space opera with slapstick humour, and set up the engaging situation of a robot imprinted by an alien being’s thoughts, feelings and memories, and faced with becoming his stand-in in an intense symbiotic relationship with the dead man’s mate.
It was planned as a sixteen-part series, though I wasn’t then aware of the limited number. It promised much in so many ways, and completely failed to deliver: there was never a number 2.
The explanation for this was simple: there was a rift between Foglio and Freff, and I heard that Foglio had threatened to go to law if Freff attempted to do d’Arc Tangent without him. Until recently, when researching this piece, that was all I know, but in recent years Freff – who states that the story will be completed, in some format or another – has gone online to deliver a vicious attack on Foglio, laying the blame 100% at his door and accusing him of all manner of arrogance and laziness.
I have not found any comment from Foglio on either this piece or indeed about d’Arc Tangent in general, except the most oblique yet public of statements that appeared in issue 1 itself! Each issue was intended to include a space for one or other of the co-creators to do their own thing: Foglio chose to draw a cartoon of himself demanding to know of Freff when he’s going to finish his part of the work, whilst Freff lies on his back on the top of scaffolding, painting pages onto the ceiling, Michaelangelo-style, whilst languidly pronouncing “It will be ready when it is ready…”
So what was it that made d’Arc Tangent so good?. The single issue ran for 46 pages. It’s the only piece of Freff’s work that I’ve ever seen, whilst I’m familiar enough with Foglio’s work over a sufficiently long period of time to find the majority of the issue in keeping with his interest. It’s not difficult to tell which parts are most influenced by young Claremont either.
The creators use the first ten pages to draw up five prologues, the last two of which will be of direct relevancy to the ensuing story whilst the preceding three plant clues and forebodings as to what is intended to come later. An alien warlord flees a rebellion, leaving death and destruction behind him, swearing return and revenge, an ambassador approaches an unbelievable and unbelievably immense structure in space known as the wall and an undetected derelict spaceship drifts somewhere in the Solar System, occupied only by a cartoon caricature of Phil Foglio that identifies that visitors are coming.
There is the seeming irrelevance of two Breton idiots arguing their interminable rivalry in front of Jean-Jacques d’Arvieux, Duke de Villayer, in 1671 and the slow building to the beginning of the story in the growing professional and personal relationship between Stuma M and Pavilar T, Krithians and Agents of Starsift. The pair bond as Avari M and Avari T, a much more intense version of marriage involving soul deep empathy and telepathy, before leaving on a routine, innocuous, three year mission designed to be an excuse for a prolonged honeymoon, allowing the Bond to devlop to its furthest extent.
Until Avari M and two of the three Arc series robots, Sine and Cosine, descend to update his prior report on a quiet, isolated planet of harmless class-three lifeforms. Except that the planetary inhabitants are now volatile, dangerous and lethal. They attack without provocation, killing Avari M and destroying the robots, and delivering what will be a fatal blow to the in-orbit Avari T, unless she can abort her mission and receive medical aid.
Which is highly unlikely.
Apart from the personal aspect, the disaster is highly unusual. With one exception, the Universe favours empathy and reason ahead of random violence. That anomaly has an irreplacable agent installed. It is, of course, the nearest planet, three months away, to which Avari T must trvel to make her report. Is anyone surprised to find that this is Earth, specifically Brittany, in 1671.
The journey sees the ongoing deterioration of Avari T, though the creators are clever in not letting us into her head, but instead to watch it both in body language and in the discussions between Arc Tangent and the main mobile Psi-Dwelve shipboard computer. On achieving orbit, she insists on travelling to rendezvous with the robot agent, Imrak, who poses as the wise hermit, Folgoet, despite the increasing evidence that she is cracking, descending towards madness and death.
Her descending lander, crossing the sky like a flame, is seen by the two squabbling French idiots, Alphonse and Raphael (pure Foglio, these two), who follow it to Folgoet’s cottage, where they see his robotic face, and worse, Avari T without the mask that covers her over-large eyes.
The report this to d’Arvieux who, between the Church’s insistence that Demons be burnt, and his own German mercenaries’ fears of devils, is forced to act. Any hope that the calm, and experienced Folgoet can defuse the situation, and talk the crowd down, is dashed when Avari T snaps, her anger and pain driving her towards wanting to kill. Both are exposed as what they are and d’Arvieux, despite his own fondness for Folgoet, does the only possible thing and orders their burning.
From orbit, Arc Tangent observes. It is his task to rescue the mission and, to improve his chances by giving him local knowledge, the Psi-Dwelve implants d’Arvieux’s personality profile onto his memory circuits. This has to be done at express speed, and a computer that has seen several disasters affect its mission, and had to carry an additional burden after losing two-thirds of its robotic assistants, makes a tiny error in billions of computations.
And d’Arvieux’s personality is permanenty imprinted onto Arc Tangent, transforming him into a Seventeenth Century swordsmaster with great swordplay skills (you can so tell Claremont here, can’t you?). He swashbuckles in, rescues the girl and Imrak, and returns them to the spacecraft without harming anyone, least of all d’Arvieux.
There, Imrak finds that the Psi-Dwelve has burnt itself out. Moreover, the distortions that affect d’Arc Tangent and the Psi-Dwelve match entirely the distortions inherent in the two anomaly planets. The breakdown is not due to Avari T’s advancing telepathic madness, but something else, something vital to his mission, that sends him back to Earth.
But that is not all. Against all expectation, Starsift has responded, lifting Avari T’s duty to the mission and calling her to a redezvous with a medical ship. The flight should last five weeks, making the timing to her utter breakdown very tight but there is one last sting in the tail: the Bond is there once more. Weak, feeble, but still sustaining: that essential oneness of mind is restored… with d’Arc Tangent. Even as it saves her life, for now, Avari T responds with disgust…
So, there it was. Come back in three months for issue 2, except that thirty-two years later there is still no issue 2 and never will be.
That single issue of d’Arc Tangent is both immensely fascinating and immensely frustrating. Whilst certainly not flawless, the opening issue set up a situation full of potentil whilst hinting at deep background that would, in time, come to be explored in depth. And Foglio and Freff had created the intriguing prospect of a swashbuckling robot with and empathetic bond with an organic being: where would you go with that?
One of the perennial issues that makes comics different from any other form of publishing is that it’s largely a collaborative medium. Writers and artists make different contributions that go to make up the whole of a work. Most writers can’t draw, a large proportion of artists can’t write well enough. From the outset, for commercial reasons, publishers split the creative task, both to speed along the physical creation of work, but also to compartmentalise the artistic aspect, diminishing the importance of any single creative person, and impressing upon them their interchangeability.
Disputes between creators, antipathies between writer and artist were unimportant. Both were subject to editors who told both what to do. Most of the time they never met.
But from the Eighties forward, with work made for hire no longer the only game in town, with creators retaining ownership of their own work, or even publishing it themselves, the inherent weakness of being dependant upon two, potentially diverging, creative minds became apparent.
I don’t know what caused the Foglio/Freff partnership to disintegrate but it put paid to any more d’Arc Tangent. Foglio’s cartoon, berating his partner for blowing many deadlines, indicates a substantial difference between the pair about the speed of their respective work. Freff’s recent slam at Foglio confirms this: he claims that Foglio was careless, hasty and lazy, bringing in half-hearted pages of semi-scribbles that he then expected everybody else to do the work on to render them publishable.
Freff also painted himself as the true creative force behind the story, minimising Foglio’s part to such extent that you begin to wonder why he involved Foglio at all. The rumour in the mid-Eighties was that Foglio had threatened a lawsuit to prevent d’Arc Tangent continuing without him: Freff claims that Foglio did start a lawsuit, claiming ownership of virtually everything to do with the series, but being thrown out with nothing.
Freff also says that d’Arc Tangent will be completed, in some format or other. On the other hand, having defeated Foglio utterly, destroyed his claims to any ownership of the project, how come it’s thirty-two years later and there has never been the least part of d’Arc Tangent in any way, shape or form from Mr Conor Freff Ferguson?
d’Arc Tangent 1 was copyrighted to ffantasy ffactory, who published it. ffantasy ffactory was publisher Melissa Ann Singer, and never published another comic. Melissa Ann Singer is a Senior Editor with the long-standing SF publishers, Tor Books. I suspect that the rights to d’Arc Tangent are still divided between Conor Freff Ferguson and Phil Foglio.
Long ago, that noted writer/artist of highly individual opinions, Dave Sim, proposed an in-passing solution. Sim thinks at right angles to most of the rest of us, and he has a refreshing approach to copyright, in that he believes that it should be enforced basically by public opinion.
In short, let everyone in. Let anyone who thinks they can do a Cerebus story try it: Sim was rightly confident that no-one could do a better Cerebus than him and that would settle the hash of copyists. So Foglio and Freff can’t work together anymore: let both of then put out a d’Arc Tangent 2, and see where each of them goes with it.
I admit it: I love Foglio’s work, and have followed him for the last twenty-five years. The only work of Freff’s I’ve ever seen is, as I said above, d’Arc Tangent 1. I know which one I’d buy first. But then again, the whole point of collaboration is the synergy of minds, the creation of something that the individual minds would not, individually, be able to produce.
It’s all moot now, and has been for a long time. d’Arc Tangent is not so much an Uncompleted Story as a Barely Started Story: in either form it’s a glimpse into what might have been and never was: except maybe on Earth-2, when Foglio and Freff stayed friends all the way to issue 16 and the end of a story not to be read.