Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Exploring The Power Of The Centipede with Chuck Miller

One of the great things about being part of the all pulp staff is the ability to read great pulp.  The Black Centipede was given to me generously by Chuck Miller, and the book is a fascinating read.  This doesn’t have a very one dimensional approach to it.  Heroes could very easily be villains, and even the staunchest villain has some heroic qualities to them.  The dark side of humanity is made commonplace, and Chuck Miller does it seamlessly.  The characters are believable and they feel human, much more so than many other stories.

 Chuck himself is a fascinating man.   I discuss with him Black Centipede, his other projects and the nature of man.

All Pulp:  Who were your writing influences growing up?

Chuck Miller:  I guess comic books would be a major one, since i've been reading them since literally as far back as I can remember. When I was 8 years old, I was given a copy of the Complete Sherlock Holmes, which made a huge impression on me. I'm a die-hard Holmes fan to this day. And not just the Conan Doyle stories-- I really love a lot of the pastiches that have sprouted up, beginning with The Seven Per-Cent Solution and The West End Horror by Nicholas Meyer. I loved the way Meyer involved Holmes with genuine historical persons and events, and I do the same thing with the Black Centipede. In Creeping Dawn,  he has encounters with Lizzie Borden, H.P. Lovecraft, Frank Nitti, and William Randolph Hearst.

I also started reading the paperback reprints of the Shadow and Doc Savage stories when I was still a pre-teen, and those stuck with me. I very much preferred the Shadow, because he was so mysterious and had an air of the supernatural about him, though there was never any hint of the occult in any of the stories. Later on, I got into the Nero Wolfe books by Rex Stout, and those would become a major influence in terms of narrative voice. I was really captivated by the way Archie Goodwin's personality came across in the writing, and I try to do the same thing myself, as best I can. Just about everything I do is in first person. I like to get really deep inside a character's head, and I'm really not very comfortable as an omniscient third person.

There have been a huge number of influences on my writing, in terms of both style and content. Hunter S. Thompson, Philip Jose Farmer, Flannery O'Connor, William S. Burroughs, Dorothy Parker, Raymond Chandler, Philip K. Dick... it just goes on and on, really. I have taken a little something from each of them. And not only books, but movies and music as well. I bring in a lot of very diverse elements. It has been said that my work is very unique and original. The fact is, the Centipede is very derivative character, but he is derived from so many wide-ranging sources that he appears to be completely original.

AP:  Why pulp?

CM:  That happened sort of by accident. About 20 years ago, I came up with an idea for a comic book called  The Optimist.  It never went anywhere, but I had a huge cast of characters I had created for it, and they continued to simmer in my head after the project was finally abandoned completely back in 2001.

A couple of years ago, I decided to really get serious about the writing. I'd always wanted to do it, and I was in a position where I could devote a lot of time to it, so I did. For subject matter, I went back to The Optimist. The original concept was a post-glory-days superhero saga, vaguely similar to The Watchmen. I didn't want to do a comic book-- and had nobody to draw it even if I had-- so I just did it as an ordinary prose piece. The protagonist, Jack Christian, was a grown-up superhero kid sidekick whose mentor had died under dodgy circumstances 12 years earlier. Jack, a down-on-his luck alcoholic by this time, returns to the city of Zenith, where the tragedy took place. He encounters a number of retires heroes and other oddballs. Among these was the Black Centipede, who was originally intended to be a fairly minor character. I wanted him to be a genuine oddball-- he is based in part on William S. Burroughs-- and he was the only character cast in the mold of a traditional pulp action hero from the 30s.

So, anyhow, I wrote this novel, and the Centipede started stealing scenes. He ended up with a much bigger role. When I finished, I started promoting it myself on the web, making it available for free in hopes of attracting a publisher. It really didn't stir up much of anything, though.

At one point a friend of mine told me she didn't think many people would want to sit and read an entire novel online, and suggested I do some shorter pieces if I really wanted to get noticed. Since The Optimist didn't lend itself to that, I decided to explore the past of one of the supporting characters. The Centipede was the obvious choice for this. I wrote a story set in 1957, "Wisconsin Death Trip." I enjoyed doing it, so I went ahead and wrote a novella called Gasp, Choke, Good Lord, an homage to the EC horror comics of the 1950s, guest-starring the infamous Doctor Fredric Wertham, author of Seduction of the Innocent, and EC publisher William M. Gaines. And I posted all of this for free on a blog I put together. I created a rather elaborate history for the Centipede, which included him being not only a "real-life" crime fighter, but also the star of a highly-fictionalized pulp adventure magazine published by William Randolph Hearst.

Well, to cut a long story short, I got noticed by Tommy Hancock of pro Se Press, who was very enthusiastic about my work. After a bit of back and forth, it was decided that I should write a novel for Pro Se, which I did. That novel was Creeping Dawn: The Rise of the Black Centipede.

AP: What did writing Creeping Dawn teach you as an author?

CM: I'm not entirely sure. I guess I learned to tell a story with a specific word count. Now that it's published, and I have read it in book form, I noticed several things I really didn't like about it, and i have tried to avoid those while writing the next one.

AP: One of the things that I really found fascinating with Creeping Dawn was how you write about the more monstrous parts of people.  From Lizzy's past to William's own acceptance of things.  You make it seem so normal.  I'm kind of jealous, but also wondering where those ideas came from.  Is this something you've always thought?  Or did it just fit the context of your story?

CM: All of that comes from my own life.  My mother died when I was very young, and my father just sort of went nuts after that. He deteriorated mentally and emotionally for about five years, and then ended up killing himself. And I had a front row seat for the whole thing. So I have always been conscious of this darkness in the world, that seems to be just under the surface of everything. That is somewhat analogous to what the Black Centipede refers to as the "Dark Power," though in his fictional world, it is more literal and manifests itself in more overt ways. But, in my own life, I've always been aware that things and people are not really what they seem to be, not exactly. And if you look even just a little way beneath the surface, you're apt to find a nasty surprise.

But I don't think you have to give in to it. I think there is good in the world, too, but sometimes you have to wade through some pretty toxic sludge to find it. In "Creeping Dawn," the young Centipede seems to believe that the darkness is the true power, the only thing worth striving to understand. But, being the kind of person he is, he doesn't want to give himself over to it. Instead, he decides to oppose it, as a way of measuring its scope and capabilities. In the beginning, he isn't motivated by a desire to see justice done. He is simply curious. He wants to understand the world in a way nobody else ever has. Quite a bit of hubris on his part, really.

In the second section of "Creeping Dawn," which is set six years after his experience with Lizzie Borden, we see how he becomes a crime fighter, and how he goes about establishing himself in the city of Zenith, in a series of events that revolve around the rise of a shadowy new crime lord called Doctor Almanac. In the beginning, the Centipede is very ruthless and reckless and he ends up in trouble with the law and the press. But his cause is taken up by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst is a fascinating historical figure, whose public and private life make him a great cast member for the Black Centipede series. Through some devious and underhanded maneuvering, Hearst transforms the Centipede-- in the mind of the public, anyhow-- from a dangerous, psychotic vigilante into a national hero. In addition to this, Hearst launches a Black Centipede pulp adventure magazine, featuring highly fictionalized accounts of our hero's adventures. This is another example of how things appear to be a certain way, but are really something entirely different. The real Black Centipede is not the Doc Savage-style paragon the public perceives.

The Centipede is a celebrity akin to Doc Savage and other classic pulp.

Nothing is black-and-white. But there is right and wrong, I believe. Sometimes it takes even a good person a long time and a lot of mistakes to make the distinction and choose one or the other. Most of my villains have some heroic qualities, and most of my heroes are criminals at heart. They do kind of believe they are somehow above the rest of society, and have a right to disregard the rules. Life is a process, a constant parade of choices. A villain can choose to be noble, a hero can choose to act deplorably.

In "Blood of the Centipede," the next book in the series, the Centipede gets a bit of a moral compass in the form of Amelia Earhart, who has been asked by President Roosevelt to keep an eye on our hero. I don't want to go into any more detail about that now, except to say that, as the series progresses, we will see our hero evolve in some interesting and unexpected ways.

AP: If you had to pick just one scene, what was your favorite in Creeping Dawn and why?

CM: I guess the one I had the most fun writing was the Centipede's accidental invasion of doctor Almanac's secret headquarters. I got a kick out of
 describing his sort of gleeful approach to lethal violence. And then, of course, that whole episode led up to his first encounter with Stan Bartowski, a Zenith police officer who becomes a friend. He'll be an important mainstay character throughout the series. He's also sort of a comic foil, since a lot of things the Centipede says to him sail right over his head. I put a lot of humor in the stories, and strive to strike a good balance.

AP: Can you tell us a bit of where you want to take the Black Centipede. He's gone from supporting character to a mainstay.  Would you be happy to continue writing him or are there are other things you like to work on?

CM: I don't think I'll ever tire of the Centipede. He's pretty versatile, and I have lots of plans for him. But I do have a number of other characters I want to develop into their own series. "The Incredible Adventures of Vionna Valis and Mary Jane Kelly" is one of these.

It deals with a peculiar pair of "psychic detectives." I've done a couple stories that I posted on my blog, but they have yet to be officially published. However, they live in the same world as the Black Centipede, and they appear briefly in the second Centipede novel. So does Doctor Unknown Junior, a very businesslike sorceress whose adventures I want to get out there one of these days.

AP: Are you working on anything else at the moment?

CM: I have something coming out in February from Pacific-Noir Press. "The Bay Phantom Chronicles Episode One: The Return of Doctor Piranha" is the first tale of the Bay Phantom, a 94-year-old, retired pulp-era masked hero based in my old home town of Mobile, Alabama. In this one, he is befriended by Janie Marie Colson, a young college student who is helping him write his memoirs. Complications arise when the Phantom's arch-foe, 98-year-old Doctor Piranha, is released from federal prison after serving a 70-year sentence.  Piranha, of course, swore revenge-- no matter how long it took...

And I am involved in the Pulp Obscura project from Pro Se and Altus Press, which will be coming out throughout 2012.