Saturday, September 17, 2005


The Secret Origin of my Obsessions

I've been doing a lot of reading recently, entering a transitional state between wearing my publisher/editor hat--having sent the last of the MonkeyBrain fall titles to their respective printers last week--and wearing my writer hat--gearing up to finish work on Celestial Empire: Fire Star, my alternate history novel. Most of what I'm reading is for research purposes, but I've managed to squeeze in a few novels in the last few week or two, and those largely for pleasure.

Usually I read for pleasure only in between projects, and typically I can manage only one novel or story collection in that brief span before my conscience gets the better of me and I'm back to researching or writing again. The last two times out, before starting Paragaea and after finishing it, respectively, I chose poorly, and ended up reading books that weren't worth the trouble of picking up in the first place (one of which, though, I so despised that I read straight through to the end, just to be able to excoriate it from a position of authority). This time, though, I lucked out, devouring Matthew Hughes's first two Archonate novels, the highly-entertaining Fools Errant and Fool Me Twice (both sadly out of print), and Richard Bowes's brilliant mosaic novel From the Files of the Time Rangers.

At first glance, Hughes's picaresques and Bowes's skein of stories could not be more dissimilar, but I found in them a commonality, one which I've also discovered in my own writing. There is in them a tendency to take seemingly-moribund tropes of genre fiction and attempt to revitalize them, making of cliches something able to contain meaning. Bowes's mosaic novel, for example, functions both as a commentary on familiar old "time patrol" stories and as a fully functional time patrol story in its own right (the best example is the central section originally in short story form on SCIFICTION). There is a tradition of this kind of thing in genre fiction, of course, but it often trends towards parody (as it also does in film, as in Kung Fu Hustle, which I mentioned earlier this week). There is nothing parodic about Bowes's Time Rangers, and while Hughes's Archonate novels are satirical, they don't lampoon the Vancean dying earth stories which they emulate, but use the Vancean model as a vehicle for attacking more wide-ranging issues.

Recognizing a similar tendency to use (and abuse) genre tropes and cliches in my own work (Here, There & Everywhere was conceived as an attempt to explore every aspect of the time travel genre that I knew, while Paragaea: A Planetary Romance is intended to be one of the science fantasies I grew up loving recast as a strictly rationalized science fiction), I started thinking about what aspects of genre I seem to return to most often, which were the tropes that I couldn't seem to let go.

I came up with a short list, and realized that virtually everything I've written in the last eight years revolved around one ore more of them. Alternate history; time travel; parallel worlds; cultures in conflict; and families & heroic legacies. I realized, too, that my nonfiction obsessions, physics and history, are more in service of my fiction concerns than the other way around.

I wondered where this particular set of preferences came from, and realized almost immediately that they all stem from my life-long obsession: superhero comics.

I discovered superhero comics at an early age, and right on time, apparently. Roy Thomas, who got his start in comics as the first person after Stan Lee to edit a Marvel Comic, and who went on to pen countless titles for Marvel and DC in the following decades, famously stated that "the golden age of comics is eight." I was about eight or nine when I first picked up a superhero comic, which probably was one of the plastic wrapped Whitman sampler packs that used to crowd toy stores and grocery store toy aisles. When the DC Comics Blue Ribbon Digests started appearing on newsstands and at supermarket checkout lines, though, it was all over for me.

The comics companies had tried experimenting with repacking their material in book form before. My first exposure to Superman in print form (I'm certain I'd seen the George Reeves Adventures of Superman or episodes of the animated Superfriends before then) was in a Grosset & Dunlap mass market paperback, entitled simply "Superman," which was composed of five Weisenger-era stories, the panels reconfigured to fit a paperback page and printed in black and white, and having seen Spider-Man on the forgettable live-action series with Nicholas Hammond I quickly followed him into the world of four-color heroics through the agency of Simon & Schuster's Fireside edition "The Amazing Spider-Man," a trade paperback reprinting in full color key stories from the sixties and seventies.

But the Blue Ribbon Digests were something else besides. Priced at ninety-five cents and running to one hundred full-color pages, these little gems were like a crash course in the history of the superhero genre (at least the DC side of things). Starting bimonthly and then soon shifting to a monthly schedule, the digests launched in the fall of 1979, and distorted my worldview forever. I've got five of the first six of them that I ever laid hands on, spread out in front of me now--I can't seem to locate the very first one I bought, The Best of DC #1, featuring Batman, but I know it's got to be around here somewhere--and I realize now that I can't overestimate the impact that these little buggers had on me.

"The Rogue Legionnaire," DC Special #1, Mar/Apr '80 (f. The Legion of Super-Heroes) - Time Travel

"Doomward Flight of the Flashes," DC Special #2, May/June '80 (f. The Flash) - Parallel Worlds

"Secret Origin of the Guardians," DC Special #4, Sep/Oct '80 (f. Green Lantern) - Heroes & Legacies

"The Five Other Identities of Superman," Best of DC #8, Nov/Dec '80 (f. Superman) - Alternate History

The only thing missing from my list of recurrent tropes is the notion of cultures in conflict (I suppose I could stretch and say that the Teen Titans story from Best of DC #3, Jan/Feb '80, "Eye of the Beholder," brings in the notion of culture clash, since the American heroes are forced by circumstance to team with the Soviet hero Red Star, but it would be a bit of a stretch).

Superhero comics were a gateway drug for me. Not only to things like prose science fiction and fantasy, which were certainly passions which followed directly from reading comics, but also to things "worthy." I read Hamlet six times during my junior year of high school, not because it had been assigned--it hadn't--but because I wanted to wring all possible meaning from the chapter titles in Matt Wagner's Mage. I discovered Jorge Luis Borges in college after reading Grant Morrison's "homage" to his "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius" in the pages of Doom Patrol (Morrison also led me to David Bohm, Rupert Sheldrake, and Philip K. Dick, among many others; he's got a lot to answer for).

But unlike most others, before and after me, who read superhero comics as kids, I didn't give them up when I a) discovered music, b) discovered girls, or c) discovered booze and drugs. Somehow, throughout all of the stages that normally account for the attrition of comics readership, I managed to stick it out. Maybe it's just a question of arrested development, and I continued to read superhero comics for the same reason that I continued to enjoy animation and puppetry. (Hell, who am I kidding? Of course it's arrested development. My entire generation is stuck in a state of perpetual infantalism; we started getting nostalgaic for our childhoods before we'd even become adults. But hey, I pay my bills, dress myself, and feed and care for my daughter. What does it matter if my tastes haven't matured appreciably since I was ten years old? At least I have a better vocabulary now, right?)

Every Wednesday, just like I've done every week for the last twenty-five years, I take a break from work and head into town to my local comic shop. (Here is another indicator of progression and growth: when I was a kid I had to ride a bike, and carry the comics home in a paper bag, its topped rolled over and clenched between my teeth--somehow the notion of a backpack never occurred to me--but now I get to drive a car. In the immortal words of Walter Koenig, I'm now "a well rounded person. With my own friends, credit cards, keys.") I read indy comics, and crime comics, and artsy comics, and all of that jazz. But when I'm honest, I admit that what keeps me coming back, week after week, is the superheroes. (And, too, I find that I can read comics in spare moments through the week, even when I'm working on a novel or short story, while I can't read prose without its style "bleeding" into my own.)

I've never written for superhero comics--though I pitched and submitted to DC and Marvel in my twenties more times than I can count--and, considering the contraction of the comics readership and the size of the talent pool, there's every indication that I might not ever do so. And though my prose work often gives me an opportunity to play with the elements that I adore about the genre (things like time travel, parallel worlds, alternate history...), I often have a yen to do something a bit nearer to the source than more serious sf is allowed to get.

(It would be fun, too, to work in the same sorts of trope revitalization and play with cliche that I see in Bowes's Time Rangers and Hughes's Archonate novels, which started this line of thought. Of course, superhero comics have as much of a history of this sort of thing as genre fiction, if not more. Recursion of this sort, and the revitalizing and examination of tropes, has been a hallmark of good superheroics since the early 80s, at least, with works like Grant Morrison's Animal Man, James Robinson's Starman, and especially Alan Moore's Miracleman and Supreme being the preeminent examples.)

I've long said that, given the current state of the American comics industry, it's not long before superhero comics go the way of epic poetry. There will always be people creating new work, and always an audience willing to pay for it, but that audience will shrink to the point where the medium is nothing more than a hobby for everyone involved. (I'd be flabbergasted to learn that anyone in the 21st century could earn a living writing epic poetry; by the 22nd, I'd be dumbfounded if anyone was still paying their mortgage producing superhero comics as we know them today.) But the genre itself has shown a surprising adaptability in recent years, successfully making the leap to screen (small* and silver) and monitor (games and otherwise).

I've been working on it. Aegis, the first in a proposed series of middle reader novels, has been making the rounds of editors' desks for the last year or so, and while it hasn't found a home yet, recently some interest in it has been expressed, so there's always hope. Aegis is an attempt to take everything I love about superhero comics and transpose it into a strictly rationalized science fiction novel for kids. It's got alternate histories, and parallel worlds, and the legacies of heroes; there's family stuff in there, and cultures in conflict, and even a hint of time travel in the mix. I don't think I've ever had more fun working on a project than I did writing it, and I'd love to do more in the series, if the opportunity arose.

In the meantime, I'll keep making my weekly pilgrimage to the comic shop, and that suits me just fine.

* Note: In terms of superheroes really making inroads on television, there are the preeminent examples like the Bruce Timm-Paul Dini universe of DC animation (with Justice League Unlimited being the most recent incarnation), but I think a better indicator of what's possible is something like Butch Hartman's Danny Phantom on Nickelodeon. I thought that the makers of Danny Phantom wouldn't be able to top last season's closer, Reign Storm, but with last night's one hour The Ultimate Enemy they've proven me wrong. Hartman and his writing staff--in particular Steve Marmel, who provided the storyline for both episodes--are to be commended for creating what is probably the best superheroic character originating outside the pages of a four-color comic book since, well, ever.

Hi Chris Roberson

Thank you so much for the mention of Time Rangers. And congratulations on Here, There And Everywhere which I realized was THE perfect name for an alternate worlds novel. But only after you used it.
Thanks, Rick. John Picacio told me for a long time that I should check out From the Files of the Time Ranges, which he said was right up my alley. I should listen to John more often!
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