Hola, Bloggers! Special treat today — we get Andrew giving me an interview on the occasion of his new book’s publication. It’s called “An Incomprehensible Condition”, it’s on Seven Soldiers, and I think you’ll agree that, as C.S. Lewis might say, it’s a corker. You can get a taste of it on Andrew’s blog, and you can also read about it all this week in various interesting places as he goes around from blog to blog dropping words of wisdom in convenient interview form. I’ve read it, and it’s real good stuff: highly recommended if you like Grant Morrison, or for that matter James Burke.
So let’s get started!
So okay, Andrew, let’s start: I’m going to give you a bunch of questions, and then after you answer them do some follow-up questions…unless you’d rather do this closer to a “real-time” feel? Simply the old Ask and Answer, aleph-zero way, the number-line way, rather than the aleph-one Cantor “questions in the spaces between questions” way?
Sounds fine to me.
And you can pronounce on whether you want this preamble in or not, too…
Keep the preamble. There need to be more comics bloggers who reference Georg Cantor anyway.
…But regardless, my first question is going to be: “how long have you wanted to be a professional writer?” And, why? I remember the day I decided on it, it was when my Dad was asking me what I wanted to be when I grew up and I realized I didn’t ever actually want to decide. So I thought: ”writer”. Because they get to be whatever, right? They never have to decide. I toyed with the idea of “actor”, but they’re at the mercy of writers it seemed to me, then…little knowing the consequence of it all…
It’s not writing specifically I decided I wanted to do, as much as creative work with my brain. I see computer programming, mathematics, songwriting and writing text as all being part of the same thing – finding patterns in things and finding the most aesthetically pleasing way to express them. And I’ve wanted to do all those things since I was tiny. When I was very little – like seven or eight – I used to come up with sort of cargo-cult ‘scientific theories’ that looked like the stuff I was reading in New Scientist, and around the same time I was also writing little ‘books’ about Doctor Who, and writing songs, and failing miserably to write programs in BASIC. Essentially, when I was seven I wanted to be Richard Feynman and John Lennon and Terrance Dicks (the writer of most of the Doctor Who novels) – if I couldn’t be Doctor Who himself. I still do.
You’ve mentioned your uncle Steve more than a few times, did he play a big role in you wanting to be a writer?
Probably. My dad idolised Steve (he’s his big brother) and so Steve was always the person I thought I should be like when I grew up. I also knew that Steve was a scientist and so was Doctor Who, so again that was a big influence pointing me in the direction of the sciences. But Steve also gave me books – hundreds of them, at a very young age – and back issues of New Scientist. Because of him I’d read, before I left primary school, Catch-22, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, Feynman’s book on Quantum Electrodynamics, and tons of other things – mostly either 60s counter-culture stuff or pop-science. But my parents, too, did a lot – probably much more – to push me, wittingly or otherwise, in the direction of writing. They both read to me a lot when I was very small, and they had a lot of books around the house, and no matter how young I was I was never told that any book was too grown-up for me. So I read a huge amount, both trash and quality, when I was very young.
So when did you know, if indeed you ever did, that this was (as they say in the real-estate business) your “highest and best use”? Or…do I presume too much? Is this your highest and best use?
I think it is. Or rather, I think that the-thing-that-encompasses-writing-and-music-and-programming is. And of the various elements of that, I am vastly more accomplished at writing. (I think I’m actually a better composer than writer of prose, but I’m let down musically by my cack-handed playing).
Well, I can’t play a note, anyway, so imagine my pain. Okay, so…It’s crazy I know, but I’m going to ask you the Alan Moore Question: “how did you get into comics?” Pursuant to that, I want to ask you how much you were into comics as a kid, as a teen, did you find them later in life, what grabbed you,
Well, as a kid growing up in Britain in the 80s, it was the dying end of the huge explosion of comics aimed at small children that had lasted from the 50s through the late 70s. There were maybe a dozen or more comics aimed at five-to-ten-year-olds in every newsagent (now there are two, the old survivors the Beano and the Dandy, if we’re only counting actual comics). But as for getting into actual comics, there were several independent ‘getting into comics’ events for me between the ages of about 11 and 13. The weird thing is, each time I thought of it as the first time I was getting into comics, and sort of half-forgot the previous times. I remember reading reprint digests of old Brave And The Bold comics when I was about six or seven – of the two I remember, one featured the Teen Titans and Alfred becoming The Outsider, and another had a Flash team-up that was where I first encountered the word doppelganger. I also remember about that time reading a Superman annual which had the Jim Starlin Mongul/Warworld story in it, and just being astonished. But they were just isolated events.
Then when I was about eight, I was a big fan of a magazine called Idols, which had rather hagiographic articles on the Beatles, James Dean, Marilyn Monroe and Elvis mixed in with bits on films like The Blues Brothers, Blazing Saddles and The Rocky Horror Picture Show. In about issue four or five there was an article on the new, ‘dark’ Batman stories, which had the panel of Batman punching Superman from Dark Knight, and I remember it also having the “I’ve been thinking…about you…about me” bit from Killing Joke, too. As a result of that I bought Killing Joke and a few other things, and remember being confused by them, but in a good way. Then a couple of years later London Editions started putting out British newsstand editions of Superman – the Byrne revamp, in order (with usually a Green Lantern or JLI backup) and Batman, and I just devoured those things, while still not thinking of myself as a ‘comics fan’.
And so on and so on. I really got into comics obsessively when I was about 12, though, when for some reason a shop near my dad’s work had the whole of DC’s April 1990 output for sale, several months after they came out. Just one copy of each, but I bought the lot – Adventures Of Superman, Lobo, The Demon, Detective Comics, everything. And that led me into being an obsessive follower both of DC and (when I realised that my favourite DC creators also worked on it) 2000AD.
But when you live in a small town, as I did, getting hold of American comics is incredibly difficult, and I gave up around 1994, starting to get back into it in 2001 (buying trades of things like Preacher and From Hell) and then properly around 2004 thanks to comics bloggers.
Did you ever try making comics yourself?
I did a non-fiction webcomic for a while, actually, about the Beach Boys’ Smile album. The problem is it was done in a photo-tracing, photorealisticish style a la Glamourpuss, and it was taking me about fifteen to twenty hours to do a panel, because it’s never a good idea to combine perfectionism with incompetence.
I also tried a couple of other things, collaborating with artists, but they never got past the ‘plot and concept art’ stage. A superhero thing that would have been horrible had it come out (the one ‘good’ thing in it being a fascist state ruled by a former superhero, where instead of Heil Hitler people said “Truth and Justice!” – but it was very similar to Twilight Of The Superheroes, except no good), and a space opera thing that I’m reusing some ideas from in one of the novels that’s boiling away in the back of my brain.
Of course you had found Dr. Who long before comics anyway, I imagine that’s the real source material…
Oh, absolutely. In Britain at that time, Doctor Who was a huge, huge mainstream thing – City Of Death, which was on when I was one or so, had nineteen million viewers (in a country where there were only about forty million people). Some of my very earliest memories are of watching Doctor Who. The first thing I can remember watching as a distinct episode is The Five Doctors, but I have memories-of-memories of watching repeats with Troughton and Tom Baker in as well.
…And I forget how screwed-up, maybe even annoyingly complicated (?) access to American comics and their stories probably were. So, were you in that “British Marvel Digest” land where you saw a copy of a copy of a copy of a Hulk story in one magazine, and an actual reproduction of a dyed-in-the-wool Marvel Hulk story in another, and thought “what in the fuck is happening here”?
Not really. I didn’t do Marvel as a kid – Spider-Man and The Hulk were TV characters, not comic ones, as far as I was concerned. I remember looking at what I now realise must have been Jack Kirby art and just thinking it looked horribly incompetent, not realistic like Jim Starlin or Dan Jurgens or John Byrne. What can I say? I was a philistine. I do remember reading a Spider-Man annual when I was very young that had The Death Of Gwen Stacy in it, but I’ve always, always preferred DC to Marvel on entirely spurious grounds.
You just mean, because Spider-Man and the Hulk were TV shows to you instead of comics? Or are these other spurious grounds you’re talking about? Like, DC’s different character as a fantasy environment, etc, etc….do you buy into that stuff, the “difference between Marvel and DC” business?
No. I think it’s as ridiculous as actually having a strong preference for Burger King over McDonald’s or Coke over Pepsi – you might like one over the other, but they’re not different in any meaningful sense.
But when I was getting into comics, the best work being done at the time was pretty much all for DC – you had the proto-Vertigo stuff, Watchmen and so on, and on a lower level you had great journeymen like Alan Grant, who no-one’s ever going to call a great writer, but when you’re 12 he hits the spot pretty much exactly. While at the same time Marvel was just coming off things like Secret Wars II and starting that whole proto-Image thing with McFarlane and Liefeld and so on. And if I looked back at Marvel’s 60s stuff, which was still being reprinted all the time, it looked crude, because I had no appreciation for art then, and thought Curt Swan was a better artist than Kirby or Ditko…
So this means that I absorbed the whole DC Universe in a way I simply didn’t with the Marvel one. I know in my bones what, say, STAR Labs or Ganthet or Ch’p or Amanda Waller or the Anti-Monitor ‘mean’ in a way I don’t know about Thanos or The Infinity Gauntlet or Man-Thing or Cyclops. I still know more about those things, of course, than J Random Non-comic-reader, but I can read a competent DC comic and feel at home in that fictional world, whereas I need to read a good Marvel comic to be drawn in. So I buy a lot of DC comics, while most of the Marvel stuff I buy is stuff like Strange Tales. Whenever I do start buying a Marvel series, it gets cancelled (RIP The Order and Nextwave) or turns crap (Dwayne McDuffie being replaced by Mark Millar on Fantastic Four), and so I never get the inertia to have more than one or two Marvel titles at a time on my pull list. But that’s essentially a problem with me, not with Marvel. Objectively, both companies produce a vast amount of crap with the odd great comic mixed in. I don’t see that either is significantly different from the other.
You mention getting pulled back into comics through bloggers, which I always imagine is a common-ish experience. The blogging world is interesting, isn’t it? I’m always blown away by how a readership self-selects around blogs, how topics fire themselves up and roar around, how a “comment-thread culture” develops. And the comics bloggers have a lot of interesting things to say, seem to be interested in having a LOT of conversation, and the conversation veers over some wild-ish territory sometimes…these last two books do seem “bloglike” to me, as though the form bent the writing into its own shape, a little bit. Would you have written these the same way if you hadn’t first serialized their chapters as posts, composed them as posts? Would you have written them at all? I think it is possible to learn something about writing from doing it online, I think it forces on you some kind of sensitivity to the hook, the bait…I mean, people will click away. I write 3,000 words on Spider-Man or something, I KNOW people will click away given half a chance, it becomes an interesting challenge to hold someone on the page. You write about Arius and whether or not black holes are sources of irreversibility in the universe, you’ve got to feel that too. Do you think it’s made you a punchier writer, an emboldened one…anything like that?
Hmm…if anything, rather the opposite. The first three bloggers I read with any regularity were Matt Rossi, Andrew Rilstone and yourself, all of whom produce very, very long essays which cover far more range than the typical blog. In fact writing on the internet generally gives me the freedom to be more obscure, and pull references from a more disparate set than I otherwise would. I might not be able to assume that every one of my readers is aware of, say, Arius and the arguments in the early church over the nature of Christ, or the history of the Liberal party between 1918 and 1930, but I can assume that my readers will use Google if they’re bemused enough by something (or they’ll just skim the bits they don’t get). The other thing is that my audience is people like yourself or the other people who’ve contributed to PEP!, my ‘zine. These are mostly ferociously intelligent people, and writing for that audience has made me far more aware of my own innate shallowness. The comments threads on my blog, though I don’t participate actively as much as I’d like, make me improve my writing in a myriad ways. And also, the mere fact that my blog has an audience is something I wouldn’t have expected, and that was what made me turn my writing into books at all – I certainly wouldn’t have done that without people like yourself encouraging me.
Kind words, but I think “ferociously lazy” suits me much better…although, to do laziness with ferocity is a lot harder work than it looks, so I suppose it’s all about being lazy smarter…
Can you talk a little bit about how you ethnically-identify within GB, too, and if that played any role in your having a “favourite” comics character? Okay I am just being comical now. OR TRYING TO BE. But actually I would like to know if you ever think much about your ethnicity as a guy living in Manchester?
Hmm… this is quite an interesting question, and one I can’t very easily do justice to. Firstly, I’m as white as they come – my family are Irish a few generations back, but basically I am ‘the default ethnicity’ in the UK.
BUT, I live in quite a poor area of Manchester, where there’s a lot of immigration, and I have a large, black, curly beard. This means that a lot of the time people identify me as being either Orthodox Jewish (I remember one woman I worked with once asking me if I was Jewish, and when I said ‘no’, saying ‘It’s OK, you can tell me, I’m Jewish as well’) or, more oddly, that I’m from the Indian subcontinent (I’ve had quite a lot of Pakistani or Bangladeshi shopkeepers ask me where I’m from ‘back home’, even though I’ve got blue eyes and pasty skin). It’s quite weird actually – people assign an ethnicity to me I don’t have, and then assume I share their prejudices. I remember once a cyclist shouting at me as I walked home “Oy, mate, you want to be careful with all those Islams around here.” (If anything I have to be careful of my own ethnicity. There are a lot of second- and third-generation Irish where I live, and I’ve been on the receiving end of more threats of violence, and had more things stolen from me, from them than from all other ethnicities combined).
So my ‘real’ and perceived ethnicities don’t necessarily match up. But on top of that, being from the North of England is, in the UK, something a little like being a member of an ethnic minority anyway, in that so much of the cultural, political and economic life of the country is based in London that my day-to-day experience probably has as much in common with a Muslim of Bangladeshi origin living in Bradford as it does a white person living in London.
(Which is not to abrogate the privilege I have, of course. I am a white male and look like a white male.)
Do you think ethnic identifications, or ethnic substitutions, play a role in the appeal of the superhero or adventure comic or story?
I’m sure it does, but I have no sensible answer to that that wouldn’t just be a set of cliches about Siegel and Shuster being Jewish and so on.
An odd thing to say when you’ve just done a whole fat book connecting Robert Johnson to Galatea, perhaps! Hmm, I don’t exactly know what I was fishing for with that one, I must say…could I ask you if you were drawn to 7S by Morrison’s evident interest in diversity? I don’t really think I could, could I? You would’ve been drawn to it anyway. Although…
I wonder about how embedded such issues are, in the stuff I enjoy and that I know you enjoy, and I wonder how big a part of that enjoyment it really is. Would I *really* be as drawn to 7S, were it not for the engagement with diversity? Come to think of it, isn’t that a central concern in every one of Morrison’s books? And Alan Moore’s books as well. So, do you see that in there as well, and does it draw you because it relates powerfully to your own experiences or beliefs? I’m pretty much the default ethnicity in my home town too, but my experience is slanted just a *little* bit towards the “difference” side…and superheroes are supposed to fight for the underdog, but who are the underdogs in comics anymore? “People getting robbed”, I guess…
But maybe Morrison’s superhero ethics have a bit more of a realistic politics to them. Would you agree with that at all? Or am I way out on a limb?
No, I agree absolutely. I’m just reading Morrison’s book Supergods (which I wish had come out *before* I wrote this thing, but hey ho…) and he talks about how Superman started out as a socialist crusader, and talks about his own experiences as the child of hard-left pacifist political activists (saying to the Scoutmaster who visited his school “I refuse to join any paramilitary organisations!”).
I think all good criticism, and all good art, is political. Maybe not party-political in the sense of toeing a party line, but definitely in the sense of articulating a view of how the world should be, and how it differs from that ideal. Most comics really don’t have that aspect – in fact most comics aren’t really about anything in particular. Morrison does articulate a political worldview. Not necessarily a coherent one, but one based on a fundamental human decency.
[ED. - If you think we're probably gonna get back on this topic in Part 2, you're probably right...]
You’re self-publishing a lot, these days. Putting things on Kindle and etc. All on your own dime, I take it?
Doesn’t cost a penny. The only expenses I have are paying for my own domain name and buying physical proof copies of my books, neither of which is actually essential.
So is that just something you felt you HAD to do, “I need to write something and get it out there”, is that just what that’s all about…
Oh, absolutely. I write because I have to write. I’m like the Marquis de Sade in the film Quills, where at the end he’s writing in his own blood and faeces on the walls because he just has to get it out of his head and is denied normal writing implements. Except I’d be writing about Alan Moore or the Beach Boys, not sadistic pornography, but that’s just a minor detail.
…Or do you see yourself, is it possible for a person even to see themselves, as ONLY self-publishing now?
Oh, it’s definitely possible for people to do that. I know of people who’ve sold a million or more books that they’ve self-published on Kindle. It can be done.
I mean if they asked you to write a DS9 novel, would you say “no thanks, I’m making myself happy right now and don’t care to trade happiness for money, I am breaking even”?
Right now, I’d take the money. I have a day job, after all, and while it’s a job I enjoy quite a bit, if I had the chance to turn what is now a hobby that gives me a tiny bit of cash on the side into a way of supporting myself, I’d jump at it.
Were I a full-time writer…a lot would depend on the situation. I wouldn’t take a DS9 commission, probably, because I have no great feel for the show. But if someone asked me to write a Doctor Who novel, or a run on Batman (like that’s ever going to happen), I could see that kind of thing being fun enough to make the inevitable editorial interference worth it.
For example, Simon Bucher-Jones asked me to write a story for his Obituaria anthology, which should be coming out early next year, and I did so gladly, because I like Simon, I like the idea, I like the work of the other people involved, and it paid a small but real amount of money up front. There were editorial constraints, but nothing that wasn’t worth it to be involved in a genuinely interesting and exciting project.
And there are things I’d submit to for those kind of reasons, but I’m not going out looking for a publishing contract, no. At the moment I can write whatever I want with no consideration for market or length or genre or anything, and just stick it out there. Why would I want to change that?
Feel free to answer at length, Andrew! I have more questions than these, but I’m gonna have to ask them tomorrow or something.
I’ve answered at far, far too much length. Please feel free to edit my answers mercilessly.
I think you know that isn’t the way things work around here. So is “Sci-ence! Justice Leak!” your “JLA: Classified”?
Ha! If this book is my Seven Soldiers, I suppose it is. But I’m not sure this is my Seven Soldiers. I think it’s a good piece of work, but I think I’m going to do better.
Well, this one’s quite good, in my opinion. And you just keep motoring along, so I’m really eager to see what you do next. Hey, speaking of that…
…When’s PEP!3 coming out?
Oh, I think we’ve got a runner, here.
I jest with Andrew, of course! It isn’t like he’s sitting on The Last Dangerous Visions or anything. So…tune in next time for more writing, more politics, more everything, and for heaven’s sake go pick up that book of his…!
And I’ll meet you back here after the commercial break.