by Chuck Miller, ALL PULP Staff Writer
AP: Van, it's good to have you in the interviewee's seat at ALL PULP again! In your view, are superhero comics a linear descendant of pulp adventure magazines, or do they represent different evolutionary tracks?
Van: Same genus, different species, maybe? I think that a lot of the comics writers that came along and made superheroes (and superhero comics) big again in the 1960s and beyond would have been pulp adventure writers if they had been born a few years earlier. The two have similar appeal, and (for the most part) similar audiences, but maybe slightly different flavors. And I also think comics have been able to go into a lot of different areas that the pulps weren't, such as the whole "cosmic" phenomenon of guys like Kirby and Starlin and now Abnett and Lanning. With a few notable exceptions, pulps tended to be more grounded in the real world, or in history, for the most part.
AP: Your affection for Marvel’s Avengers series is well known, and your own “Sentinels” series features a super-team. What is it about the team dynamic that appeals to you, both as a fan and as a writer? What are your thoughts on other teams, like DC’s Justice league or even Doc Savage’s Fabulous Five?
I like big casts. I like lots of different characters rotating in and out of a story. You tend to get the potential for lots of fireworks that way. Of course, it's nice to have a well-defined set of "core characters"-- the few that pretty much always hang around the Mansion or the Satellite or Hall of Justice or what-have-you. But beyond that core, it's neat to see how other, diverse individuals interact with them--and with each other. How will Character X get along with... the android? the mutant witch? the Amazon? the dark loner? the god?
As a writer, a big cast gives you a lot to work with, in terms of various powers as well as various personalities. And it's simply not as boring. Get tired of writing the acrobat guy? Focus on the super-scientist or the armored guy or the radioactive lady--or bring in someone new.
There's plenty to appreciate about the Justice League, but--at least for me-- the DC characters have always worked better individually than as a team. They just don't fit together well, at least for me. I'd make an exception for the Legion of Super-Heroes, of course, because they were mostly created as a team and have always had that dynamic.
The Avengers are my favorites and always have been, partly because they seem to mesh together, story-wise, so well-- even when the characters themselves are squabbling (or especially when they're squabbling, because that's when their real personalities come roaring out!).
AP: You’ve also tackled Sherlock Holmes. How far back does your interest in the Great Detective reach? Do you see Holmes as a sort of forerunner to the pulp heroes of the 1930s, and even the modern superhero?
Absolutely, because the one thing that Holmes and all of those later characters share is some sort of special ability that sets them apart from the average man and woman. I think that's one reason why things like "League of Extraordinary Gentlemen" have broad appeal within the comics community. It’s not just the novelty of “Victorian super heroes”—it’s recognizing that these characters share that one key element with modern superheroes: the “Extraordinary.”
Watson really is the perfect foil, because he’s a normal guy (not a buffoon, as so many later interpretations made of him). You need someone like Watson to relate the stories to the reader, because Holmes himself is so antisocial. He’s not a likeable guy personally, but he’s terrific fun to follow as he does his thing. He’s the original anti-hero superhero—you may not like him, but he’s the best there is at what he does!
When a couple of years ago Airship 27 offered me the chance to write Holmes stories, it was one of those strange twists of timing where I had just the previous month or so finished reading the entire original Holmes collection, just for fun. My brain was fully saturated with the style and structure of those stories. Even so, they were extremely difficult to write, but enormously satisfying.
AP: Obviously, pulp in the 21st century isn’t going to be exactly like pulp in the 1930s. There’s a whole different perspective, and more than half a century of scientific and cultural progress. There was a certain simplicity and innocence to those early stories that one cannot really take seriously today, as a reader or a writer. What are your thoughts on that?
I think that as modern pulp writers, we have to be very careful. As you say, there are elements to the classic pulps that simply cannot be replicated today—and shouldn’t be. Conversely, a big part of what we’re doing is trying to recreate at least something of the experience of reading a classic pulp. We want to give the readers that feeling you would have gotten by reading the classics in their day. It’s a tricky proposition. The best modern pulp writers can pull it off.
AP: What led you to this particular kind of storytelling? What do you find attractive about heroic adventure? What is it you want to convey to your readers that can be done better in this genre than any other?
I want to tell stories that are fun, that are successful as fiction, and that incorporate ideas that are important to me. I work extremely hard on them, writing and rewriting. I spend a great deal of time and effort on the “musicality” of words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs, inserting as much of a lyrical nature as I can get away with. It is very important to me that stories “sound” good to the ear, as well as being good stories in general.
I study other writers’ work constantly, tearing it apart to figure out what they did that worked so well and sounded so good. I read in a very wide range of genres and styles, from Japanese poetry to science fiction to pulp noir and crime fiction to British nautical and historical adventures, as well as history, politics, economics, and then superhero comics. I think every bit of it helps—it all goes into the mental hopper, and you never know what will conglomerate together and come out.
For the Sentinels books, as an example, I want to tell a huge, vast saga that covers many worlds and covers centuries of time. As a kid, I was utterly enthralled by the big, brain-melting conglomerations like Jack Katz’s FIRST KINGDOM, where cavemen and robots and mutants and starfleets all coexist and interact, or Jim Starlin’s “Metamorphosis Odyssey,” blending science and magic and hordes of aliens and the death of galaxies. Thus you will find that kind of thing in the Sentinels books. I love stuff like “Babylon 5,” where the very fate of the galaxy hinges on the decisions of a few individuals at key moments in history, played out across this epic backdrop. To do that as an actual comic book would have taken me a hundred years. As novels, I can fit a stack of comics installments into each novel, and move the big story along—while also digging much deeper into the heads and the motivations of the main characters than comics would generally allow, given limited space. It all sort of became pulp when I started actually writing the stories and that was the natural form they took, right from the start.
AP: Human beings seem to have a natural affinity for storytelling, for a great many purposes. What kind of connection do you see, in cultural terms, between contemporary superhero/pulp fiction and epics like “The Odyssey” and “Beowulf?”
These are the cultural touchstones of each society, generation after generation. They define what each society and each generation considers good or bad, right or wrong, desirable or detestable. These kinds of stories, for every generation in every age, shape the very people that then go on to shape the society itself. You have to have this—a society with no mythology is culturally destitute and rudderless.
AP: What do you like to read, and what have you taken from it over the years? Is there any writer or character in particular that inspired you and helped you shape your own narrative voice? What about movies, radio dramas and TV programs?
I am the product of a childhood spent reading whatever science fiction and comics I could get my hands on. My reading preferences, as I have said, broadened out considerably as I grew up, but there’s little doubt the core of my narrative voice was shaped by the prose poetry and recurrent themes of Roger Zelazny. I’m afraid there is a touch of his Corwin of Amber in nearly every main character I write.
Zelazny was aided and abetted in shaping my writing style and interests by the technical imagination of Larry Niven, the cosmic concepts of Jim Starlin and Jack Kirby, the superheroic alchemy of Doug Moench and Jim Starlin, and the voice and perspective of Carl Sagan.
In more recent years I’ve been heavily impacted by the writing of Patrick O’Brian (the Master and Commander series), Dan Abnett (elevating media tie-in fiction and military prose to an art form), James Clavell (big, sprawling Asian epics) and the prose styles of Donald E. Westlake (Parker) and Robert E. Howard (Conan and Solomon Kane). They all have taught me valuable lessons about how to properly tell a story and tell it effectively and in an exciting fashion.
AP: You are a history professor as well as a writer of pulp/superhero adventures. These are obviously two subjects about which you are passionate, so there must be a few connections between the two. How does your interest in, and knowledge of, world history inform your fiction writing? You have said that you prefer big, epic sagas to short stories. What is the connection there, between the writer of
fiction and the professor of history?
Probably the main connection and appeal for me is in digging around in the background of big, important historical events and being able to root out the various intertwined causes—why things happened, who caused or contributed to them, what the consequences were, and why. Once you have done that a few times as a historian, you start to see commonalities—causes and effects that are similar across different eras and different parts of the world. Those kinds of things translate well into stories set in the future as well as in the past because, at their core, all stories are really the same, whether they’re set a long time ago or a long time from now.
AP: Suppose you were approached by the richest man or woman in the world, whoever that might be, and he or she offered to bankroll any project you wanted to do. You would have complete creative freedom, you could obtain the rights to any character or characters you wanted to use—there would be no legal obstacles, you could freely use anything you wanted, your own characters and/or any others—in a novel, comic book, TV series or movie. What would you do?
The Sentinels in every medium! Seriously, I’d love to see a series of movies based on the Sentinels, in the vein of what Marvel’s doing with its Avengers-related characters right now. I think it would work very well, because it’s as much a sort of big-budget space opera saga as it is a superhero story.
Lots of folks have asked about the possibility of seeing a comic book series based on the Sentinels, and I’m not opposed to the idea. It does seem like a natural, since many of the main characters are essentially super heroes and super villains. It’s not a big priority for me, though, at least for now, simply because I worry that converting them into comic books might cause them to kind of blend in and lose a big part of what (I think) makes them special; they might be seen as just another comic book super-team.
The property would work well as a television series, I think—it would look a lot like “Heroes” (which I didn’t watch until after the first three books were finished), but with a serious cosmic angle; sort of “Heroes” meets “Babylon 5,” you might say.
As far as properties that don’t belong to me, I’d love to produce a live-action movie or TV series based on Roger Zelazny’s “Amber” novels. I’ve even gone so far as to write an outline for a screenplay. (I think it’s out there on my web site, somewhere.) Corwin and his scheming royal brothers and sisters seem like a natural fit for an HBO series. This needs to happen!
AP: You seem to always have a great deal going on. Have you got anything new coming up that you’d like to talk about?
I sure do, and I sure do. First up, the premiere volume of Mars McCoy: Space Ranger just came out from Airship 27. This is a very cool retro-SF throwback character in the vein of Flash Gordon and the Lensmen, complete with spaceships and blast-cannons and space pirates and robots. I helped create the character’s supporting cast and I co-edited the book, so I’m certainly hoping it will find a large and appreciative audience. The second volume, which I hope will be coming along soon, will contain a 45,000-word Mars McCoy novella that I wrote and that I think is one of my more entertaining efforts of the past couple of years. For that one, I tried to channel Dan Abnett writing 1950s space opera as if it were Warhammer 40,000. We’ll see what people think of that!
The next volume in the Sentinels series, Stellarax, is very close to being finished. I try to get one of these out every year, and the announced publication date for this one is July 12, 2011. We will see if I can meet that deadline. This is going to be a big book—at least 100,000 words—and will wrap up the second major story arc of the series, called “The Rivals.” It’s the most “cosmic” one yet, with vast, Kirby-esque space gods threatening to devour the Earth, in one fashion or another. Our heroes are trapped in Earth orbit and have no clue how they’re supposed to deal with a menace on this scale—and that’s before the alien nano-virus shows up and starts turning everyone, human and alien and robot alike, into zombies! Can’t wait to wrap it up and get it out to the growing Sentinels fan base and see what they think. Chris Kohler returns with his signature interior art (I can hardly imagine a Sentinels book anymore without Kohler art accompanying it!) and Rowell Roque again supplies the fantastic cover—which completes a three-panel mural when you lay it and the two previous volumes down next to each other.
I also have a story in the upcoming Lance Star-Sky Ranger, Vol. 3 anthology, called “Thunder Over China.” It was fun to get to play with Bobby Nash’s 1930s air-ace characters a little bit, and I think I got ol’ Lance into a pretty good fix.
There are a bunch of other things simmering on the back burner, but that’s probably enough for now. Make sure to give Mars McCoy a try, and look for the Sentinels in Stellarax, coming (I hope) in July!