Fast Five With Mike Leon

Friday, sweet Friday! And here is the next in my series of quickie interviews with my fellow Indie Superhero StoryBundle authors. We head into the weekend with Mike Leon.

SupervillainousIt’s high-concept pitch time. In 20 words or fewer, what is your book about?

It’s the interview with Baron Hammerspace that I did for Trigger magazine a few years ago.

Why did you decide to tackle a superhero story as a prose novel rather than as a traditional comic book/graphic novel?

I actually have no idea. I never wanted to write novels. I was doing screenplays when I wrote Supervillainous, and I thought the idea would work really well for a cinema verite/mockumentary style film. I was doing a blog back then and I knew nobody would ever read a movie script (because nobody reads movie scripts). So I did Supervillainous on my blog in weekly installments. I didn’t expect anybody to read it, so it was pretty half-assed. There are a few loose ends and gaps in the story if you actually pay attention. And the characters don’t have well defined arcs at all. When people point that out, I just insist I reported what I saw.

One of the notable earmarks of our current Indie Superhero StoryBundle is that “indie” part. Are you an independent author by choice? And what are the big pros and cons of life as an indie author?

Yeah, definitely. I haven’t sent a single manuscript to a major publisher. I never even think about it anymore. I write stuff that’s really pretty crazy. Case in point: KILL KILL KILL has been described as “balls-out insane” and it’s about 200,000 words in length. I knew when I was working on it that no major publisher would ever touch it. It’s fucking poison from a marketability standpoint, but I wanted to write it. So I did. And I think that encompasses the pros and cons of what I do. I don’t make much money, but I get to write what I want.

Superheroes are well-established archetypes, and their stories have their own sensibilities and internal logic. How did you play with or subvert the tropes of superhero fiction in your story?

I get complaints about this all the time actually. Supervillainous throws out all of the usual tropes or deconstructs them to the point where they just look ridiculous. A lot of people hate it for that. Those people aren’t  hardcore enough. Yeah, I said it, and I know I sound like a hipster. Here’s the thing: When you eat, sleep and breathe superheroes the way I have for 30 years, you get sick of those tropes. The obvious flaws in them become glaringly apparent. You stop caring if Superman will return, or if Peter Parker will get his body back from Doctor Octopus, or if Wolverine will come back to life (He will). You yawn the fifteenth time somebody breaks ALL of the rogues out of Arkham and Batman has to round them up in a twelve part mini-series, or a psychic manifestation of Magneto and Professor X turns into an all powerful entity that threatens to crush the Marvel universe. You get sick of retcons, retcons, retcons, and retcons. That stuff has been done to death and it’s boring. All that’s left after that is to start tearing it all apart. Now I just want to read a story about what happens if Batman binge watches Orange is the New Black instead of fighting crime, or the Punisher tries to trademark his skull shirt because he’s sick of seeing every angsty teenage white boy wearing his duds. That stuff is fresh. It’s why I liked Garth Ennis’s The Boys so much. That’s a superhero story for people who have already read way too many superhero stories, and I think my book is too.

Beginnings, middles, and ends. What is your favorite/the easiest part of a story to write and which is the hardest/least favorite?

The beginning is easy. I wish I could finish all the beginnings I wrote in the last ten years. I’d be as prolific as Dick or King. The end isn’t too bad. It’s the middle that sucks. In the middle, you don’t always know where it’s going to go, and you also don’t know if the beginning supports what you’re writing in the middle, so you want to go back and change stuff, and that’s a slippery slope. It’s like trying to tune a floating tremolo on an electric guitar. You tune one string and that puts another string out of tune, so you tune that string, and that puts another one out of tune. Pretty soon you’re playing WoW and eating a burrito because you’ll go insane if you think about it anymore, and you decide maybe guitar playing just isn’t for you. That’s why you have to just finish the whole thing and then go from there, changing and correcting things. I’m a big proponent of outlines in theory, but in practice I always end up forgetting about them or throwing them out.

Fast Five With Matt Adams

Happy Friday Jr., everyone! Here we are with the next in a series of quickie interviews with the authors of the Indie Superhero StoryBundle, and today the spotlight shines on Matt Adams. Yoiks! And away!

Crimsonstreak 1) It’s high-concept pitch time. In 20 words or fewer, what is your book about?

Super-speedster escapes prison to find supervillain father in control, enlists help of superhero-to-be and snarky butler to set things right.

2) Why did you decide to tackle a superhero story as a prose novel rather than as a traditional comic book/graphic novel?

When I read comics, I tend to read collected editions because I like to have the full story. In a sense, I, Crimsonstreak is a collected edition in novel form. I’ve always loved comic art and style, but I wanted to dig a little more into a superhero’s mind. A novel, I thought, gave me the best chance to do that.

The book is told entirely in first-person through Crimsonstreak’s perspective. Since he’s a super- speedster, his mind is always going. He can take the time to make an observation and can’t stop relating circumstances to something he saw in a movie or TV show.

You make a tradeoff when you go the prose route for a superhero story: you lose the art and the dynamic visuals. On the other hand, you give readers the opportunity to get a little closer to your heroes and villains, something you don’t always get in the comic book format.

Author Matt Adams.
Author Matt Adams.

3) One of the notable earmarks of our current Indie Superhero StoryBundle is that “indie” part. Are you an independent author by choice? And what are the big pros and cons of life as an indie author?

My book was released from a small press called Candlemark & Gleam. I always saw I, Crimsonstreak as kind of a “starter” novel for me. The main novel is relatively short compared to some of my other books and special appendices in the back flesh out the rest of the story and the world.

I didn’t know if a major publisher would be interested in the novel given that Soon I Will Be Invincible had been released some years before. I considered going “full indie” and self-publishing the book, but I didn’t feel like I was quite ready to go that route.

Crimsonstreak needed some editing and guidance, and I feel like my small publisher really helped me craft it into a better novel.

Obviously, when you go small press, you’re kind of in that “nether realm” between indie and traditional publishing. You do a lot of your own marketing and spend time setting up book signings and that type of thing. You split revenue with your publisher, although print royalties are higher than what you’d get with a larger publisher. Ebook royalties are higher than traditional pub, but lower than self-pub.

You get some of the benefits of going “full indie” in that you help forge the direction of the book design and that sort of thing. You get a little bit of the traditional publisher world in that you don’t pay for cover design or editing.

Small press really is a balance between self-publishing and working with more traditional publishing.

4) Superheroes are well-established archetypes, and their stories have their own sensibilities and internal logic. How did you play with or subvert the tropes of superhero fiction in your story?

Generally speaking, every superhero story owes a debt to Marvel or DC. I mean, you can’t wrap your head around superhero comics without thinking about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc. At the same time, the genre is really flexible. You can have a Batman comic that’s more of a detective story. A revenge fantasy with the Punisher. A supernatural tale with Ghost Rider. Allegorical social commentary with the X-Men. Cosmic sci-fi with Green Lantern. Spy thrillers with the Black Widow. It’s not all just POW-BIFF-BANG!

So, yeah, my book has Batman-type character called the Crusading Comet. He’s a rich guy with gadgets and gizmos—the real “professional” crimefighter with ridiculous acronyms on his signature tech and a snarky butler named Mortimer P. Willoughby, who’s a smart-aleck version of Alfred Pennyworth. The hero also pays tribute to The Phantom in that there have been several Crusading Comets, with the mantle passed down from father to son over the years.

I have a lot of fun with the Comet (and Mortimer). They don’t really think much of Crimsonstreak, whose superspeed was genetically inherited and not really “earned” in their estimation. And it’s often Mortimer, the prim and proper butler, who gets the team out of jams most of the time.

We’re used to seeing traditional comic book heroes make all the right decisions and save the day on their own, but Crimsonstreak makes plenty of mistakes. In fact, he often makes things worse and digs himself a deeper and deeper hole. He’s imperfect.

Also, much of the action in the book takes place in the Midwest, an alternate version of Indianapolis, Indiana, to be precise. Most of your big-time superhero stories take place in much larger cities (especially New York, the nexus of 95% of all superhero shenanigans), so placing the action in the Midwest, where we live life at a slower pace, was a way to subvert that.

5) Beginnings, middles, and ends. What is your favorite/the easiest part of a story to write and which is the hardest/least favorite?

Let’s just say The Dreaded Middle and I aren’t on really good terms. I start each novel I write with a “road map” that includes a clearly defined start and end with a few key “beats” and subplots ironed out as well.

Still, I get bogged down in the middle, which becomes a poorly paced, cluttered mess no matter how much I try to outline things. However, we all know first drafts absolutely stink, and I manage to fix this mess during revisions.

I’m much more confident in where I start the story and where I end it. It’s just that gooey middle that traps me. I will say this has gotten better over the years as I’ve written more books, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

Super MegaFest!

Yesterday my wife wrapped up her last big show of the year, Super MegaFest. It was a decent show for her, and as usual, I spent my time there cosplayer watching. Here are my favorites…

 

My favorite of the con. The back of the sign reads, "Han Shot First."
My favorite of the con. The back of the sign reads, “Han Shot First.”
The first Gleek cosplay I've ever seen.
The first Gleek cosplay I’ve ever seen.
Doom loves conventions almost as much as Doom loves referring to Doom in the third person.
Doom loves conventions almost as much as Doom loves referring to Doom in the third person.
My wife and our friend Jillian of Emrys Finery.
My wife and our friend Jillian of Emrys Finery.
One of two outfits modeled by Ebony Amber - Living Art Doll. Please note that she is, ahem, "packing." It's all about the details.
One of two outfits modeled by Ebony Amber – Living Art Doll. Please note that she is, ahem, “packing.” It’s all about the details.
Here's Ebony Amber's other ensemble, the Wizard of Oz -- the entire story, not the character.
Here’s Ebony Amber’s other ensemble, the Wizard of Oz — the entire story, not the character.
Steampunk Batman with a kick-ass wing rig.
Steampunk Batman with a kick-ass wing rig.

Action Figures – An Introduction

Hello to what I hope is a readership of thousands (I’ll settle at this point for low hundreds, but hey, hope springs eternal).

Today is the day I officially start ramping up the publicity for my new soon-to-be-self-published young adult novel Action Figures. The manuscript has been fully edited and processed at Create Space, my chosen publishing platform, and is now awaiting its cover (my cover artist Tricia is plugging away at that now…unless her baby needs her, of course. She has her priorities straight).

She has already finished the novel’s logo, which looks a little something like this:

Cover Photo V1 copy

Cool, huh? Nice touch of old-school comic book logo going on there.

(That specific image, by the way, is the cover image on my new Facebook page. Expect a lot of cross-posting between that and this blog.)

To help build interest in the novel leading up to its official release, I am posting the first two chapters on this site, free to read at your leisure. You’ll meet Carrie, the main character, and get a sense of the story’s tone. It barely touches the plot proper, but hopefully this taste will encourage you to buy a copy of the full novel once it’s available — and I do plan to make it available as a trade paperback and as an e-book.

I’ve already posted once about what to expect out of the story, but I’m going to do so again in a question-and-answer format.

What is the novel about?

Smart-ass answer: about 400 pages.

Straight answer: it’s about a group of teenage superhero wannabes who find themselves in over their heads when an actual super-villain starts causing trouble. It’s also about the main character, Carrie, trying to put her life back together after her parents’ unexpected divorce and her subsequent relocation to a new home in a new town.

What can I expect from the novel?

A lot of humor (which I’m sure comes as a shock to no one who knows me), action and adventure, homages to some classic comic book tropes, and a reasonable dose of drama; I’m trying to avoid a teenage angst-ridden quasi-soap opera, so don’t expect “Teen Titans 90210.” Also, don’t expect to see what has become a cliche of the YA genre, the love triangle. I hate ’em and I’m not interested in writing one. This is not to say the characters will not have romantic experiences, but don’t expect Carrie to spend the entire series twisted in knots over whether to love Male Character A or Male Character B. Boring!

Wait, did you say “series”?

I did. This is envisioned as a finite series, of as-yet indeterminate length, and whether the second book happens depends in good part on how well the first one does (not that I’m trying to pressure anybody to buy it. Heavens, no). I say “finite series” because I do have an end in mine, and no interest in writing a series that goes on forever and ever…you know, like superhero comics do.

Hey, why are you doing this as a prose novel? Why not a comic book?

Quick, name three YA series that tell a superhero story.

You can’t, can you?

And that is why I’m telling this story this way. A superhero story told via the expected medium is going to be white noise. As a novel, I’m hoping Action Figures will stand out and really grab prospective readers’ attention.

Why a female protagonist? Shouldn’t a superhero story be told through the eyes of a male superhero?

Again, name three comic book series starring a woman. While you’re doing that, I’ll name ten times as many starring a male character. I won’t even cheat and just list off the multiple titles starring Batman or Wolverine.

The idea that comics in general, and superhero comics in particular, are only for boys (and men) is laughable. I know LOTS of women who dig superhero comics (my wife, for starters) and want to see more titles with female protagonists. Moreover, they want to see female protagonists that are presented well: as fully fleshed-out, well-rounded, layered characters that do more than back up the men while gadding about in impractically skimpy, skintight outfits.

Granted, I am taking a bit of risk here as a 40-something male writer telling a story through the eyes of a 15-year-old girl, but I was fortunate to have some beta-readers who were quick to point out when I got Carrie wrong — and aside from a complaint from my editor/sister-in-law about the cliche of girls being bad at math (which I address here), I made it through the manuscript without anyone calling bullshit on me. Hooray!

Does that mean male readers won’t like it?

Not at all. There are prominent male characters in the book, but that shouldn’t make a difference; I’d like to think male readers would pick this up as quickly as they’d snatch up The Hunger Games series or any of Cherie Priest’s excellent novels, and for the same reasons: they want to read a fun, exciting story, regardless of whether the main character is a boy or a girl.

For that matter, just because it’s a young adult novel, that doesn’t mean adult adults won’t enjoy it. Honestly, the “young adult” tag has lot a lot of its meaning over the past several years, what with us old fogies snatching up YA titles as quickly as the alleged target audience. Young adult novels nowadays are as complex and mature as many a “book intended for adults,” and I think the only thing that makes a YA title a YA title nowadays is the lack of the lack of a gratuitous F-bomb or two. But I digress.

Let’s say I bought a copy. I’ve done my part, right?

And I thank you for it (or will, when you buy one), but please remember that I’m doing this on my own here. I don’t have a publishing giant behind me to promote and distribute the book to stores across America and the world. I don’t have an advertising budget. I have this blog, a Facebook page, and (soon) a presence on Amazon.com. I know how to write and send press releases. It’s a start, but what I will need to make this endeavor really pay off is support from those who took a chance on an unknown writer and shelled out for a debut (self-published) novel.

If you like the novel, please take a couple of minutes to go onto Amazon.com (and/or, if it shows up there, Goodreads.com) and post a review. It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate, just give it a rating and say a few words letting people know why you liked it. Tell your friends and family about it, maybe even give them a copy as a gift (or at least let them borrow your copy). Share my Facebook and blog posts so new readers can learn about it. If you’re feeling really ambitious, shoot your local bookstore and/or library an e-mail asking them to carry a copy.

Okay, I’ve rambled on long enough. Go check out the sample chapters, and they stay tuned for further announcements about the release.

Action Figures – What It’s About

Things are in a bit of a holding pattern while I wait for my sister-in-law to finish her final proofread and for my friend Tricia to start on the cover artwork, so I’m going to take this opportunity to talk a little bit about what my soon-to-be-self-published YA novel Action Figures is about (an what it’s not about).

This is the one-paragraph summary of the novel that led off many a query letter:

Carrie Hauser never expected her parents to get divorced. She never expected to get dragged halfway across the state to start life over in a new town. And she definitely never expected a dying extraterrestrial to give her superhuman powers.

(I hate writing these summaries. They make everything sound so meh.)

But, since I’m not writing a query here, I get to be less formal in describing the concept, so here it goes: Action Figures is a sci-fi edged superhero story focusing on a group of teenager superhero wannabes as they get dumped head-first into their first adventure. The story is told from the perspective of the aforementioned Carrie Hauser, a 15-year-old girl who, as the story opens, is still reeling from her parents’ sudden divorce and getting ready to start her new life in a strange town (“strange” having multiple meanings here).

I chose Carrie as the narrator because, first and foremost, she was by far the most likeable and sympathetic character (and a lot of fun to write), but I also liked the idea of a superhero story featuring a female protagonist.

Joss Whedon once remarked when asked “Why do you like to write strong female characters?”: “Because you’re still asking that question.” That’s especially true in the superhero genre, where male leads outnumber the female leads by a HUGE margin. Batman appears in five titles, Batgirl and Batwoman have one each, and that’s just one of many examples I could cite. The comics industry has gotten better about opening up to female readers, but they still have a long way to go (and, in my opinion, the industry is not doing itself any favors by producing clumsy ‘female-friendly’ fare like Marvel’s new line of teen-friendly romance novels).

One of my goals with Action Figures is to provide a superhero story that is accessible to female readers, especially younger readers, more through providing them with an interesting heroine rather than through some ham-fisted attempt to girly it up. I’m not toning down the action and/or punching up any romantic story elements, I’m just telling a fun superhero adventure story that just happens to star a girl.

I’m also not infusing the story with a heavy-handed morality tale. This is not — at the risk of showing my age — an ABC Afterschool Special. This is not a “very special episode” deal. Sure, it’s somewhat inevitable that the stories will touch on issues that are not unfamiliar to teens, but the adventure elements are not going to take a back seat to exploring the issues-du-jour through the characters. It’s awkward and obvious and detracts from the point of the book, which is to give readers something fun to read.

So, that’s a basic intro to the novel. Down the road I plan to post a couple of sample chapters so folks can get a taste of the story and, hopefully, find it so much to their liking that they want to read the whole thing.

Stand Up, Comics

Ahoy-hoy! Spoilers abound in this post, so proceed at your own risk.

Years ago, during my ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art — an excellent institution, by the way — one of my instructors compared writing for comics to writing for sitcoms, in that the characters are constantly undergoing false growth.

One of the major tenets of fiction is that the characters should come out of the story differently than how they went in. They should learn from and be changed by their experiences, but sitcoms and comics alike defy this principle constantly. Classic sitcoms would in any given episode present the illusion that a character had grown and changed, when in fact nothing had changed — so much so that when a similar situation rolled along later, characters apparently suffered amnesia…

FONZIE: Yo, Cunningham, I’m sacred I’m losing my cool.

(FONZIE illustrates this by striking the jukebox. Nothing happens.)

FONZIE: See? Nothing! …amundo.

RICHIE: Gee whiz, Fonz, what are you going to do?

(POTSIE enters.)

POTSIE: Hey guys! I won some free tickets to the circus! Who wants to go? They have clowns and tightrope walkers and a cage filled with man-eating lions…

FONZIE: That’s it! Potsie, you’re a genius!

RICHIE: What are you going to do, Fonzie?

FONZIE: I’m going to prove to everyone I’ve still got it by jumping my motorcycle over the lions’ cage!

RICHIE: But Fonz, you kind of did that already.

FONZIE: What are you talkin’ about, Cunningham?

RICHIE: The time we were at the beach and you jumped a shark on water-skis?

POTSIE: Oh, yeah, that was cool! A little silly, but…

RICHIE: And there was the time you jumped a bunch of cars in the parking lot.

FONZIE: When did I do that?

RICHIE: Long time ago, back when Mr. Miyagi owned Arnold’s.

FONZIE: Who?

POTSIE: Hey, whatever happened to Arnold? Or your brother Chuck for that matter?

RICHIE: My what who?

FONZIE: Ayyyyyyy!

(Audience applauds.)

For younger readers: See, there was once a show called Happy Days, and it starred the guy who directed The DaVinci Code the guy who played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development

Point is, The Fonz was always losing and regaining his cool, Ricky was constantly letting Lucy perform at the club to disastrous results, Homer continues to overlook Lisa…the characters’ core remains constant and never changes. Even when something earth-shaking occurs like a marriage or a pregnancy or a death, the characters do not change. Their behaviors, quirks, flaws, they’re all firmly in place.

Sitcoms have since grown up a little, abandoning compartmentalized and extremely short-term character arcs for series-wide continuity and, yes, character growth. It’s usual incremental and almost invisible, but look closely and you’ll see it.

Comic books have yet to follow suit, which is ironic considering how, during the 1990s, the media was glutted with stories about how comic books have grown up (biff pow zok).

While classic sitcoms effectively hit the reset button with the start of each new episode, comics play the long con: a title will present a storyline that changes everything you know about (insert character here)! and then, after some time, backtracks to re-embrace the status quo.

Superman? Died, reborn; powers became energy based, got old powers back; revealed identity to and married Lois Lane, Clark Kent is single and Lois thinks Superman is a totally different guy.

Batman? Had his back broken by Bane, handled mantle of Batman to Azrael who later lost it to Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, got better and took it all back; got killed by Darkseid, Dick Grayson becomes Batman (again), Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and becomes Batman again.

Spider-Man? Got an alien black suit, went back to classic red-and-blue suit; Green Goblin dies in a fight, turns out he never really died; discovered he was a close, discovered no, he was the real Peter Parker all along; marries Mary Jane, never married Mary Jane.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Phoenix, just to name a scant few, they’ve all died and/or given up their costumed identity to a successor and then returned.

The problem here is multi-leveled. Readers love these institutional characters just as they are and lose their shit whenever a major change is made. Couple that with the fact creative teams on corporate-owned characters — which said corporations want to keep recognizable to the masses and therefore marketable — are always looking to put their own fingerprints on a title, it’s inevitable characters will return to the status quo, no matter what kind of crazy crap happens to them.

The most unfortunate drawback of this is that there is an invisible, unspoken safety net beneath every story, giving readers a subconscious reassurance that in the end, everything and everyone will be okay and, given time, it will all go back to normal. As a lifelong comics fan, I just roll my eyes when I read mainstream news stories announcing that “Marvel Comics will kill off the Human Torch in an upcoming issue of The Fantastic Four” or the industry publications tease “A major change is coming for Superman” because I know damn well that in a year or two, all the changes will be undone.

In mainstream comics there are no stakes, there is no character growth, there is no such thing as a permanent condition. In other words: mainstream comics are dull and predictable.

There are exceptions all around, but they are few and far between in mainstream comics’ major players. Dick Grayson assumed the Nightwing identity in 1984 and never looked back. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman got married in 1965 and have remained husband and wife. Gwen Stacy? Still dead.

Both Marvel and DC are more willing to muck about with secondary and tertiary characters, but the  closest either of them have come to throwing all the conventional rules out the window is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel line, where no one is safe. The Ultimate Universe has introduced — and killed off, permanently — its versions of Daredevil, Doctors Doom, Octopus, and Strange, Magneto, Spider-Man, and Wolverine — and even then, a few of these characters have made a return of sorts as others have assumed their identities.

If mainstream comics is going to continue to play it safe, they should at least abandon all pretenses that any given issue will offer readers something so monumental that it “will shake the Marvel/DC Universe to its very foundation,” because it won’t. Any comic reader worth his salt knows that.

Personally, I’d love to see Marvel and DC truly shake things up by throwing all the time-honored cliches out the window. Make death a permanent thing, for the big guns all the way down to the minor supporting characters so that it has meaning again. Let the characters develop and change, organically and realistically. Let their actions have permanent consequences, for themselves and the people and world around them.

I know that none of this will ever come to pass, but the thought that a storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League of America could sucker-punch me with as much fearlessness and ferocity as a single issue of The Walking Dead or move me emotionally like the finest issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — that comics could once again be as thrilling as they were when I was a kid — makes me tingle.