Saturday, 28 March 2015

Peter David, Superhero Saviour!

Marvel maestro, Peter David talks to Remy Dean about the changing perception of comics, from throwaway kidstuff to literary award-winning genre, from subculture geek fodder to surefire box-office ammunition, from experimental indie titles to supersafe superheroes...

Hulk and Spiderman are now super-huge superhero franchises. But if it was not for Peter David’s penmanship, Hulk and – to a lesser extent, perhaps – Spidey may not have been in the running to be re-invented as the big screen cash-cows we all know and love today. They were both ‘flagging’ series when Peter David got to write for them early in his comic career back in the 1980s… and on both counts his inventive story arcs re-vitalised the titles and attracted fresh readers to the marvellous world of Marvel. 

Peter David rapidly earned a reputation as being a prolific ‘writer of stuff’ (as he describes himself) and has remained a fan favourite, because he writes like a fan who can write - with knowledge, enthusiasm and sensitivity to the characters and the worlds they inhabit. He has a flair for making potentially ridiculous characters emotionally engaging, with real weaknesses to counterbalance their unreal strengths. Real world issues are often paralleled in in his stories and his characters have to deal with everyday problems as well as more Olympian conflicts…

Peter David - Comic Convention regular
(picture credit: Luigi Novi)
Having been a major proponent of the comic genre for a long time, you must have seen the industry - and perception of comics - change a great deal, from being ‘for the kids’ to becoming a respected literary form... What or when do you see as the ‘watershed’ for this change?

“My guess would be the rise of the direct market. Once upon a time, comics were only available in ‘mom and pop’ shops and 7/11s. The rise of the direct market and the development of comic book stores not only gave rise to an older audience, but gave them a place where they could congregate and interact with other fans. This caused the audience to skew older, and as that happened, publishers began seeking projects that would appeal to older readers. As a result of that audience growth, we got Maus, and Watchmen, and Dark Knight Returns - all the various projects that appealed to the 18 and up crowd.”

As you say, Art Spiegelman’s Maus was a ground-breaker in dealing with issues and 'heavy' subject matter in the comic format. What wider issues are important to you - what gets you 'fired up' - and how do you tackle them?

“Free speech is a particular sticking point. It particularly irritates me when people who proclaim that they are liberals try to censor others in the name of political correctness. I find that even more offensive than when conservatives do it. At least conservatives are honest. They declare, ‘We want to stop this talk because we find it offensive.’  Liberals say, ‘We want to stop this talk because we're worried other people will find it offensive.’ Which is crap:  the fact is that they feel the same way conservatives do, but they're being dishonest about it. I've written both comic book stories and also columns about it.”

OK, so my literary snob pal admits Maus is worthy and has ‘literary merit’, and I can get them to look at The Arrival, and Dotter of Her Father’s Eyes, even From Hell… but superhero comics? Guys in leotards, big green freaks with massive muscles, men flying about wearing metal suits! How can I convince them to give that a try? (This question is asked with the healthy tone of British irony!)

“Well, I hear tell that some British guy wrote a book called Watchmen that a lot of people seem to like. And Frank Miller wrote Dark Knight. They could try those. Plus anything of mine."

Of course the scale and scope of the superhero universe is akin to the Greek Myths – from where some of the very first stories and heroes were born. I was recently watching a lecture-talk given by Stewart Lee where he talks about leaving comics behind with his childhood because he did not perceive them as ‘grown-up’ things to read, then rediscovering the format through coming across a story cycle of the Hulk written by you - respected by many as the finest Hulk stories since those of Stan Lee. Why did you want to write comics as an adult? 

“I wanted to write comic books as a kid and as a teen, so why wouldn't I want to write them as an adult?  It's like asking an astronaut, ‘Why did you become an astronaut?’  Why?  Because every kid wants to be an astronaut. Just like tons of kids want to make comic books their lives. It's just that some of us manage to do so …and some of us don't, and consequently show up on the Internet and bitch about the people who made it.”

I imagine you grew up reading comics in the second superhero revival of the 1960s… what is your earliest comic book memory and what was the first time a comic book really carried you off into another world?

“I first discovered comic books in my local barber shop, actually. They had the Harvey Comics for kids to read while we were waiting. That's where I first met Casper and Wendy. I knew so little about comic books that when Casper turned into dotted lines, I thought it was a participation thing where you were supposed to take a pencil and connect them - I had no clue that it meant he was invisible. My first superhero comics were Superman - Action Comics, and that extended from my love for the George Reeves Superman TV series. Every episode would end with the announcer saying, ‘Superman is based on the character appearing in Superman magazines.’  And I thought, ‘There are magazines?’ So I went to my local magazine store and sought them out.”

An old Superman story - from the 1960s
What do you think of the current explosion of the Superhero genre, and the huge-budget cinema adaptations?

“When I was a kid, it was all the stuff of fantasy. Hollywood FX couldn't possibly live up to the requirements of superhero films. I mean, hell, we went nuts with the - by today's standards - crummy flying effects in Superman. The growth of the genre has been amazing. The only downside is that the expectations have risen as well. You get films like Green Lantern which really weren't that bad and the fans hate them. Does nobody remember the DC live action TV shows from the seventies? Those were awful!”

Movies adapted from comics are currently the biggest genre – the sales of related titles must reflect this – from your point of view within it, how has the perception of the comics industry changed in the last couple of years?

“You proceed from a false premise:  the sales of the comics don't relate at all. Millions upon millions of people see movies. With a comic, these days if you're over 100,000 you're doing incredibly well. Yes, we get some PR boost, I suppose, but we're not selling millions of copies of Guardians of the Galaxy, no matter how well the movies do.”

Has this had any effect on the attitude of the comics publishing world? Has it pushed Marvel/DC superhero format to the forefront at the expense of indie and less mainstream comics? Or do you find the industry thrives throughout now as a result? In other words are publishers putting more money into the successful superhero genre and less into the new, cult and unusual ideas?

“Publishers put money into what sells. Untested and unusual ideas don't sell, at least not to Marvel readers. Heavily character driven stories don't sell. What sells for the most part are things tying into events. As much as readers may piss and moan about it, that's what they buy. Does that mean Marvel will never be experimental? Of course not. But the expectations for such projects are pretty low.”

What unlikely comic would you love to see given the blockbuster treatment?

Fallen Angel. But that's probably just me.”

Fallen Angel created by Peter David
with artist David Lopez
Fallen Angel is a character created and owned by you, and you have written a great many solo works, but the majority of your writing seems to be working with characters and scenarios devised by others – what do you enjoy about this challenge that keeps you coming back for more? 

“Most of my solo projects are in novels. That's one of the advantages of having ties to various venues outside of comics. I have a great deal of fun contributing to the vast tapestry that is the Marvel universe. It's nice to be a part of something that is bigger than yourself."

What do you think are the positives and negatives of both working alone on a project and collaborating with others?

“The positive is that it's the purest form that your story can take. There's you, the reader, and the story and nothing else. So you get all the credit. The downside is that you also get all the blame. The advantage of collaboration is that, if you have a quality artist, that artist can elevate the story to something far beyond what you are capable of attaining on your own."

Writing novel-style fiction and writing for teleplays, video games and comic scripts must use very different ‘skill-sets’. How does your approach differ in these varied formats? And what aspects remain constant?

“It doesn't really involve different skill sets. It's like saying to someone who's working out, ‘Wow, first you lift the weights overhead and now you're pushing weights with your feet!  How do you do that?’  You're just using different muscles. The only difference is the format in which you're writing.”

Do you have an established writing method or ‘ritual’?

“I sit and work.”

Who did you learn from - who are your writerly heroes and heroines?

Stan Lee, Harlan Ellison, Stephen King...all of whom are now friends of mine.”

What comics are you currently enjoying, and would recommend?

“I like a lot of stuff that Marvel puts out. I also enjoyed Kick-Ass and I'm enjoying Jupiter's Legacy."

You are so prolific, so you may have to be selective here, but what up-coming Peter David projects can we look forward to in the near future?

“I'm working on some Star Trek: New Frontier novellas, so it's great to be back in that venue. I'm working on various miniseries for Marvel... I'm also working on a project with Colleen Doran..."

I often wind up an interview by asking for any ‘top tips’ - in this case for the aspiring writer of comics - but you have already written an entire book on the subject! So, please feel free to share any ‘in-a-nut-shell’ pearls of wisdom that have helped sustain you in your career…

 “Read more than you write... and read my book.”

- Thank you Peter David!

Peter David re-invents the Marvel Universe
For 2015, Peter David is re-inventing the Marvel Universe in his Secret Wars 2099 series for Marvel, re-working iconic Avengers characters again, such as Spiderman, Captain America… and it may all turn out to be a little Strange… (as in the Sorceress – that was almost an in joke, for the in-crowd)

Keep up with Peter David news at his official website.

...and find out about new titles at the Marvel website.

Peter David was talking with Remy Dean

Thursday, 12 March 2015

That interview with Malcolm Pryce

... but which title should we go with? 

'Aberystwyth Now' / 'The King of Aberystwyth' / 'Aber’s Greatest Hits'... 

In this  revealing, entertaining and exclusive interview for The Scrawl, Malcolm Pryce, author of the six Louie Knight novels to date - aka The Aberystwyth Books - talks with Jane Williams about how he writes such inventive and surprising stories... about how he has made the Welsh Seaside Noir genre his own... about ice cream, hearing voices, and being - certainly not 'bonkers', but perhaps - 'crackers'?

Malcolm Pryce - the 'Welsh Wizard of seaside-noir-meta-fiction... 
Did you really start writing the Aberystwyth books because you heard a disembodied voice tell you to? Because I believed it!

The disembodied voice helped give shape to a project that had been gestating for a while. I was staying with a girl in the Philippines, in a place so remote the Lonely Planet warned you not to go there. I didn’t realise this until later.

She lived in a stone-age village without electricity or running water, or even glass windows, and while we were there, a cyclone arrived, forcing us to remain for a week or so. News spread that there was an ‘Amerikano’ in the village and for the next few days groups of people from far and wide would arrive to stare at me. First they would hand over a present consisting of a cream cracker wrapped in newspaper. It’s quite hard eating cream crackers without butter or cheese, but of course since it’s a gift you have to do it. Then they would stare at me for hours on end, the monotony broken only when another group from even further afield would turn up with some more cream crackers. Being stared at in this fashion is what is known as White Torture, or no-touch-torture, devised by the Communist Chinese interrogators during the Korean War. It can break a man within hours and leave him in state of total spiritual collapse. I don’t think the Koreans used cream crackers though. That was the bit that broke my spirit and awoke the disembodied voice, the one that said the talismanic words, ‘It’s Aberystwyth Jim, but not as we know it.’ Sometimes I wonder if the Philippinos were really coming because they had heard there was a white man in the village who could eat dry cream crackers.

Do people - Welsh ones, or ‘foreigners’ - really take offence at how you talk about Aberystwyth… Because I for one think that your local references and colloquialisms are absolutely genius. One of my favourite examples of this is from your first book the reference you make to ‘Ffestiniog Chardonnay’. I think that you have to be a local to realise how funny that joke is. Oh, and also the quote about how, “Mrs Pugh from Ynyslas had once famously had a rent rebate because the bells (of Cantref y Gwaelod) had kept her awake all night” - there are a few ‘old dears’ that I know who would actually think that was a great idea.

If anything, I think that I can read a great deal of love and understanding about Welsh society, history and the strange characters (weirdos) that live here (I am including myself as one of the weirdos).

Apart from famously being arrested for sedition by the Mayor of Aberystwyth, I haven’t really been confronted by angry critics, not been confronted by any stone-throwing mobs or anything. You are quite right, the books are part love poem to Aberystwyth and homage to the lost ‘craptasticness’ of the British seaside holiday. They are not piss-takes at all in my view, there would be little point wasting the precious few years we get on this earth doing something that was nothing more than that. Instead, the characters, though they live in an absurd universe, are real, with real beating feeling hearts. Just like us. They take the world seriously and that gives it, in my view, a genuine emotional core.

Did where you wrote the books have an effect on your stories or plot lines?

Only in the limited sense that actually being in Aberystwyth is inimical to the task of writing about the place because it gets in the way. Clearly my version is a parallel universe version that attaches to the real one at various geographical locations like the Pier, or the famous Stryd-y-Popty, but floats free of it in other respects. The real one is a bit drab really and it is better to consult the version lying in the ‘rag-and-bone shop of the heart’, which I think is more faithful to the spirit - if not reality - of Aberystwyth.

...a 'love poem' to Aberystwyth
I think it was Hemingway who said you can only write about a place after you have left it. Draft one of Aberystwyth Mon Amour really was written on a cargo ship bound for South America (I was a fare paying passenger, one of three), and the rest were written in Bangkok, where I lived for seven years and scrivened from dawn to dusk, tirelessly chronicling the moral turpitude of the people of Aberystwyth.

If I was an A Level English teacher (the aspirational musings of a dyslexic potter), I would ask my class about possible recurrent themes within your books. The main themes that I have picked up on is ‘identity’ and self-reinvention.

Discus (tee hee) Discuss...

To be honest, I’m probably not the person best placed to answer questions like this. Some time ago now, I started getting emails from students at Cardiff university asking similar sorts of questions. It seemed there was a course on detective fiction being run there and my books were on it. I was quite surprised to discover this but, having always longed for an academic qualification after my name, I decided to enrol on the course incognito, thinking it should be fairly easy to get a qualification for expertise in my own books. But nothing could have been further from the truth, I did very poorly.
In order not to arouse suspicion I was quite hostile in my criticism of Malcolm Pryce, I called him ‘an unoriginal jejune chancer’. This made me deeply unpopular among the other students on the course because, of course, Malcolm Pryce was some sort of god for these kids. They said, ‘You wouldn’t say that if Malcolm Pryce was here now!’ It was a very lonely time. How I longed to tell them who I was!

I remember describing in one essay how Malcolm Pryce had developed a taste very early on for jam and cheese sandwiches and his grandparents, on seeing this, had taken him aside and pointed vaguely west saying, ‘Yonder is a great town called Aberystwyth where the people eat jam and cheese sandwiches all day.’ Later, when he went to live there his heart was broken to discover they had lied, so this provided the theme of betrayal that runs through his work. Or so I thought. But the tutor told me my theory was a silly fabrication. The irony is, it’s actually true.

How do you write your books? Does it involve lengthy planning and mapping out? Do you use sticky labels with words like aliens, ventriloquists, stovepipe hats, what the butler saw ‘snuff’ movies, Patagonia, vampires… Where do your stories and plot lines start? Oh, and how do you keep them ‘tame’ - not ‘tame’ as in passive and easy, but tame as in not running around in the jungle covered in your own scat and howling at the moon, people fleeing in horror, tame.

I think it was Flaubert, or someone like that, who said you should be neat and ordered in your daily life so you can be bonkers in  your work - I’m quoting from memory. I subscribe to that view. There is no madness visible at all in my working method. I don’t scribble things on notes and stick them on the fridge. I don’t mutter to myself. I wash. Igor doesn’t turn up at 3 a.m. with a plate of bread and water, saying. ‘You must eat, Doktor!’ I just sit and ponder for months on end, write down notes but never have to refer to them again. The act of writing them down somehow fixes them in the memory. During the course of the ‘thinking up’ stage, a world develops. Then one day, like a mariner too long from the sea, I will wake up and know it is time to go down to 'the harbour’… and start the real writing. That takes about six months.

I write about five or six drafts and throw away about seventy percent of the early ones. People wouldn’t believe how much manual toil is involved. It’s like moving a beach with a spoon. But it’s all quite calm. I like the idea that by closing the laptop lid it all disappears for the night like toys put back in the cupboard. In Bangkok, once, I did put index cards on the wall, and I was quite taken aback at how subliminally disturbing this turned out to be, after I had ‘switched off’ for the day.  I was living in a studio apartment - so living and writing in the same space, but even though I did not look at the cards, they had an insistent presence that bugged me. I’m pretty sure the reason is, even when you stop writing for the day, your unconscious is still at work on the project and it resents the intrusion, it needs time to do its work in peace.

The Aberystwyth adventures of Louie Knight continue...
As a quick explanation: my nickname was ‘Calamity’ when I was a little girl, because I loved Doris Day, I was a flamin’ liability, oh and my name is Jane. So, how did you decide on the characters of Louie Knight and Calamity Jane - was it THAT voice again?

I didn't decide on anything, I just wrote and it all emerged, like a face in an old-fashioned photographic developing bath -I know that image is no longer current, but I can’t think of a better one. I never sit down and create characters the way all the books on creative writing say you are supposed to: I don’t fill out lengthy forms answering specific biographical details. I couldn't tell you what any of my characters were doing on their fifth birthday. They usually emerge from the dialogue, as soon as they start talking they either become someone or nothing happens and they don’t get invited back.

When Louie went to the Pier at the start of Aberystwyth Mon Amour, I am pretty certain I had no idea who he was going to meet there, but he met Calamity and the dialogue between them just happened, and in the process he acquired a sidekick, but it was never planned or intended. It’s all like that. If anything, I don’t create characters, I grow them. How such a thing can happen is a mystery but I am comfortable with it being a mystery.

Talking is a mystery too – no one can explain how it can be possible to hold an intelligent conversation in real time, on the fly, without preparation or premeditation. It’s amazing, even very stupid people can do it. If you ever stop to wonder about that it is baffling. Where do the words come from? Clearly there is a team of homunculi inside the brain choosing the right ones, but how do they know what to say? To see just how beautiful the mystery is, consider this. I recently noticed something about Marty, Louie’s schoolmate with TB, who, as you know, had the note from his Ma rejected and was sent off to die on a cross-country run in a blizzard. I noticed last week, 15 years after I wrote the first book, that if you add the letter ‘R’ to his name you get martyr. And that, of course, is quite clearly his symbolic function in the books. I know for sure that I did not choose the name with that in mind, in fact I have occasionally wondered what made me choose that name. Why Marty and not, say, Martin?  I don’t believe for one second it is accidental. It’s the homunculi. You have to hand it to them.

Are any of your characters, other than Herod Jenkins, based on real people that you know?

No, except, of course, Louie is me…

Are you this funny - book funny - in real life? Please try not to disappoint me, she says, oh and answer honestly, you can ‘call a friend’.

I was going to answer this with a true story about a man who found my humour so wearisome he tried to maroon me on the Pacific atoll of Suvarow, but then I thought, ‘See! That’s exactly what comedy is about, you are using it as a device to avoid the painful truths of this world’.

So here’s the serious answer: On a good day, probably yes, but the days are not always good, are they? In fact, I have spent a good many of them in the past seven years in the arms of that savage god known anaemically as depression - we really need a better name, like ‘Valley of the Shadow of Death Syndrome’.

This seems to be a very common experience of people who write funny things. Wikipedia has a whole page devoted to them. There are various neurological explanations for this: the similarity between creativity, comedy and, well, madness. But you don’t really have to go that far, you just need to cast a dispassionate glance at the universe. As the old Yiddish saying goes, ‘if God lived on Earth they would break his windows’.

How much time did you spend researching your six books?

None whatsoever, I just make everything up. It’s quicker and safer because you can’t get it wrong.

You have broadened my knowledge of Wales - I thought that you were making Hughesovka up. I knew a little about Patagonia and the Welsh connection, but I had no idea how seriously this ‘Welsh Promised Land’ was taken. Also, all of your classical allusions boggle my brain - it’s all Greek to me, boom boom! Were you born with this stuff in your head or have you a team of researchers helping you out?

I think over the years I have read very eclectically, and stored a lot of strange material in the rag-and-bone shop of my heart. The team of homunculi who work there have a very good retrieval system. If I read something on prairie voles seven years ago and it would be useful they automatically retrieve it. I think that is the essence of creativity.

Have we seen the last of Aberystwyth from you? …and if not do you envisage Louie’s adventures coming to a climactic conclusion?

No definitely not, I have some good ideas in the pipeline, and have no intention to end the series. Nor will I do anything dramatic and climactic with the characters. It would feel like a cheap trick and a sort of betrayal. I’m quite fond of them and, in a sense, have the power to halt time for them, so they can live on in a permanent state of reasonable contentment.

Why doesn't Louie ‘get the girl?’

Because, like his creator, he dedicates his life to a higher calling; he is a knight in (tarnished) armour for the secular age. All private detectives fulfil this function. They sacrifice themselves for the common good and must, alas, forego the comforts of the hearth.  Marlowe never gets the girl. Nor does Rick in Casablanca. It’s the paradigm. I didn’t realise this when I began writing the series, but it quickly became instinctively evident to me. It means that poor old Myfanwy always has things going wrong for her. I think she’s in a sanatorium in Switzerland at the moment, having lost her singing voice.

...and finally. do you like ice cream?

I’m not nuts about it, it’s just OK. I used to resent the way adults automatically expected me as a kid to be crazy about it and willing to be bribed by its promise. But, of course, in my books the ice cream dispensed by Sospan is not really ice cream, it’s the Sacrament.

- Thank you Mr Malcolm Pryce!

Malcolm Pryce was talking with Jane Williams

You can learn more about the six Aberystwth novels, so far, at the official Malcolm Pryce website.

Go to the Malcolm Pryce author page at amazon to read reviews and purchase his books, including:

the new book by Malcolm Pryce - published today!