Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Elmslie: A Curious Conversation About Adventure Characters

Welcome, Bloggers! To the interview I’d planned to post way back in July 2011, with countryman and comics fan Matthew Elmslie, busy at work on his actual second superhero novel, called Ded & Sac. And thank goodness he hasn’t finished it yet, or I’d feel like a genuine heel for taking this long to gather my shit together into enough of a pile to post it properly!

But as it happens, this is all kind of fortunate, at least for me…because there is something I find most peculiar in this interview, that I think makes a nice counterpoint to other things I plan to post rather shortly, if in fact I haven’t already gotten around to slapping them up by the time you read this. So, a nice serendipitous meaning-cluster, perhaps! And keep watching the skies…

Or, if there are no skies where you live, why not wander over to the non-Legion website and take a look at his first opus, the amusingly-named Sliced Bread 2. Gee, do you think he might possibly have anticipated my first question…?


PLOK: Hey, Matthew! Sorry I’m late. Shall we just start it going, see how much stuff we can go back and forth on? I’ll warn you that I usually can’t restrain myself in email interviews, I always want to send batches of questions, though I know it’d be better in a lot of ways to just go back-and-forth on one Q, one A. Still, maybe it’s good this way too? At least, to put a lot of topics out there fast. So let’s see if anything comes from a batch like this…

MATTHEW: I will be entirely guided by you in this matter.

PLOK: Okay, well then. You’ve been a big booster of the “superhero novel”…is that the right term for it?…for almost as long as you and I have been talking to one another online, and I assume you haven’t only been boosting it to me. So you probably know the first question I’m going to ask, because it’s the obvious one, and you probably get it all the time: why a superhero novel? Aren’t superheroes themselves just brightly-coloured solutions to the problems of modern life that the novel makes its bread and butter on, Alexandrian solutions to the Gordian Knot of identity, alienation, all that stuff? Isn’t a superhero novel an oxymoron, even a sort of cheat?

MATTHEW: I don’t think there’s a profound reason for the superhero novel. I mean, you’ve got your genre and you’ve got your medium, and some genres work with some media really well (like with superheroes and comic books) and with others poorly (like with superheroes and musicals). I love the superhero genre and I gravitate to prose more than to anything else, so that’s why I want to write, and read, a superhero novel.

We already know that superheroes work in lots of different media. Comic books, of course, and movies, live-action and animated, and TV, live-action and animated. What you get with all of those is pictures; you can see the characters. In movies and TV you can also see them move and hear them speak; in comics you have to fudge that. In a novel you only have words. Nothing else. So I compare the novel to the radio play, another medium that superheroes conquered a long time ago. Those radio plays were supposed to be pretty good, right? I’ve never heard any. But in radio all you have is words, and music and sound effects. So unless the music and sound effects played a huge role in the success of the radio plays, I have to believe that novels (and short stories!) will work too.

It’s funny; I already wrote Sliced Bread 2 and I figured that that was it, that that was what I had to say about superheroes, and anything else I wrote would be in some other genre, mystery or fantasy or something. Then I got the idea for Ded & Sac and I really wanted to write it. So in a sense that’s the reason for it: I had an idea that I liked.

PLOK: But why not just have, in the same way people talk about specific superheroes “with the serial numbers filed off”, the idea of the superhero with the serial numbers filed off? Are the costumes and the codenames really so important, other than as a handy ironical device?

MATTHEW: I think they are important. First of all, they signify that we are in this genre, and that sets up useful expectations. Second, why would we want to operate in the genre and pretend we’re not? I don’t think the superhero genre has anything to apologize for. And I don’t see the names and costumes as an ironic device; I think they’re cool.

You and I have discussed this before, but I think this is where the show Heroes fell down. They wanted to file the serial numbers off and do a show that was about people with superpowers, but not superheroes. It turned out not to work very well, because there was no point to the whole thing. Compare that to the Wild Cards books, where the writers were and are trying a slightly different project: write superhero stories that are disguised as stories about people with superpowers. And of course the Wild Cards books are fantastic.

I see superheroes as anything they can be while also fulfilling the conditions of their genre. If you’ve got the codenames and costumes and powers and secret identities and what Peter Coogan calls a “pro-social mission” and some physical conflict, then you can also have anything else you want. And, of course, novels can be about anything at all in the first place, so why not superheroes?

(From the way you put your question, it seems like you have stricter expectations of novels than maybe I do. It’s true, I guess, that I don’t subscribe to the scheme of the modern literary novel where you have the in-depth character studies and as little plot as you can manage. You could do a superhero novel like that; I guess Lethem’s Fortress of Solitude and Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay are examples. But I don’t think that that’s part of my repertoire, and I think you can do a novel just about any old way you think you can make one work.)

But I was thinking about the requirements of different genres recently. If you’re writing a murder mystery, then you need a murder, and a murderer, and someone to find out who the murderer is, and some kind of interesting way he or she goes about doing that, and that’s the core of your story. You can have any setting at all and your detective can be just about any kind of character at all, as long as he or she cares about getting at the truth, but there are plot elements you have to have. But then you look at a Western. Your main character can be a sheriff or a bandit or an Apache or a schoolmarm or a tenderfoot or a time traveler or whatever you can think of. I can’t think of a restriction to put on plot. But you have to have your setting, and it has to be the North American West in the 19th century, or something an awful lot like it.

The requirements of the superhero story are that you have to have superheroic characters, with all of their well-known features, and you have to have some physical conflict, and your setting has to be not too far removed from the modern city. (By which I mean, you can put your story in 1944 or in outer space or in the 30th century if you want, but your reader has to have a good idea how this connects to the modern city environment.)

When you put the superhero story in novel form, you can still do all of that. You lose the colourful visuals, and that is a big loss, but you’re also not worried about having to keep your characters viable for serialization. Go ahead; kill ’em off.

One other thing that’s more of a personal preference: I don’t like the power-fantasy/wish-fulfillment aspect of superhero stories. If I tried to write anything like that I’d feel like I was pandering to the reader. My approach is to take a character and not let him do what he wants or be what he is; that’s where conflict comes from. Which is the opposite of a wish-fulfillment fantasy. The good thing is that, unlike many, I’ve never thought that that was all superhero stories were in the first place.

PLOK: Actually, my expectations of a “novel” are just all to do with the presentation of modernity, if that isn’t getting too highbrow too fast…and your genre boundary of “has an environment in some way connecting to the modern city” does fit right into that. And I sort of wonder what it is, there, that keeps the superhero happy in cities. You mention the (very novelistic!) goal of not letting the person be what or who they are or want to be…and it’s been a while since I’ve come across a better description of Spider-Man, who of course is the ultimate city-based superhero. But, just since you brought up Westerns…I don’t know, isn’t there an existing “space-western” approach to the superhero out there, as well?

MATTHEW: I think the advantage of cities is simply that that’s where the people are. That’s where crime is! Not necessarily as much crime per capita as you get in less populated areas, but there’s a lot of capita, so that’s okay. It’s like Murder, She Wrote: it became a running joke that the population of Cabot Cove must be dropping like a rock, but if Jessica Fletcher had lived in New York City, or even Bangor, nobody would have batted an eye.

Certainly you can get at superheroes through Westerns; a Green Lantern is not all that different from a U.S. Marshal when you get right down to it. The superhero genre is pretty omnivorous when it comes to influences; it’ll take anything in. Science fiction, murder mysteries, Greek and Norse mythology, Arthuriana, westerns, anything. But Green Lantern still lives in Coast City.

PLOK: So is it all the same thing, as long as you can just do superhero “jazz” with whatever instruments you’re given? I do wonder if some sort of blending is required, since I have trouble imagining a straight superhero Western, just because I think you’d have a hard time keeping the superhero motifs from just plain decomposing into the Western motifs they arguably owe a lot to in the first place.

MATTHEW: Well, if you pick the right character. You can do a straight murder mystery with Batman. No reason you couldn’t do a straight western with the Vigilante (Greg Sanders, not Adrian Chase).

PLOK: …And then there’s the matter of what the Western owes its motifs to, I’ve heard it argued (on some documentary on the CBC, I think) [EDIT: it was called “Hollywoodism“] that what you see in Hollywood Westerns are the stories of Russian Jews living through pogroms translated to the American West…but then maybe that would be getting a little far afield!

MATTHEW: I think I saw that too!

PLOK: It does make me think of something from popular music: the C/W root of rock, that you can (if you want to; anyway I did it this way) start with before proceeding on to more mainstream music. In other words, rather than just start with this stuff that’s a hodgepodge of influence, you can start with one or another of its influences and then experiment your way along until you arrive at something that sounds like the Rolling Stones or something. In my case this was a lot more satisfying a process than just diving into regular old rock/pop, because it let me focus on some of the rock/pop tools more diligently…more historically?

MATTHEW: That’s probably a worthwhile project, for superheroes I mean, but I don’t think I want to do it. For one thing, I’m pretty sure it’s been done. Like, one of the influences on superheroes was the physical-culture stuff DC used to publish before it was DC. But then Grant Morrison has already created Flex Mentallo.

PLOK: Well, then…if we forget about that, what is it that you think makes the superhero special, complex, magnetic, admirable…all these things, and is that an important thing to include in the superhero novel as itself instead of an historical residue? Are you reaching for that ultramodern touch in prose as, say, Jack Kirby reached for it in comics? Are superhero novels like superhero comics, or are they different?

MATTHEW: I wouldn’t claim that my mind works anything like Kirby’s did; he was on a whole other level. But, sure, I’d be foolish not to try to tap into the qualities of superheroes that have made them so attractive for so long, if I can do it.

And, to me, one of those qualities is this: these are people who wield enormous power, and they can be trusted with it. It’s one of the fundamental assumptions of the genre, that superheroes are simultaneously powerful and trustworthy. (This whole idea is what Mark Waid was playing with in Irredeemable.) It’s also the one assumption that fails the real-life sniff test most egregiously. Because some of the power we’re talking about here almost guarantees that you can’t wield it and still be trustworthy. And yet, these characters, down to the last man, woman, lad, and lass, are just that solid. They’re not perfect! They’ve got serious problems, some of them, and can be untrustworthy in ways that don’t have anything to do with the exercise of their powers. But they’re still superheroes and will still act like it.

PLOK: They’re “still superheroes”, right, in a way that’s the exact fantasy element in a nutshell, isn’t it? Not the powers but the points of view. But, where do the points of view…?

Okay, that’s about two short steps away from talking about how much nostalgia/familiarity influences the things you want to say in a superheroic mode, but I want to save that for a minute…because, first, you’re a big Legion fan, and so are always on about the legacy of Superman as something important to the story-internal world of comics. You’ve also said on a few occasions that you are “all about the superheroes”, you’ve been pretty eloquent about the feeling that the superhero story inspires in you. And I seem to be being a real bulldog about historical bases, so…is it the legacy of Superman you’re talking about still, here, even when it isn’t story-internal? Is the idea of Superman that Siegel and Shuster had in 1938 the real formation, or at least the real codification, of the essential superheroic perspective?

MATTHEW: Well… the legacy of Superman is of explicit importance to the Legion of Super-Heroes because it’s part of their whole premise. And you could say that it’s also important to all other superheroes implicitly, just because Superman was first and greatest. But that’s kind of the trivial answer. My favourite superhero novel, Jim Munroe’s Flyboy Action Figure Comes With Gasmask, takes its inspiration specifically from Sailor Moon. I’m sure we could find all kinds of Superman influence in there if we insisted on having it, but over the past seventy-five years there’s been all kinds of other good work done in the superhero genre too. If Superman’s the only influence that counts, then has Marvel Comics been wasting its time throughout its existence? Look at the scene in Spider-Man 2 where Aunt May tells Peter about how there’s a hero in all of us… that isn’t all owed to Superman. That feeling of inspiration… some of it comes from Superman, and his example, but the thing about Superman is that we’re pretty sure he’s going to win. You take your other superheroes, most of ’em, and they’re trying to live up to the values that Superman introduced, but they can’t necessarily back it up, and they know it. Which makes it a) a different thing, and b) often more inspiring. You can still give Superman credit as the originator, but if that’s all you do then you’re missing part of the story. And that’s not even taking into account any aspect of an inspirational scene that may be specific to a given character.

PLOK: Okay, now I’ll get to it: do you think, maybe with reference to the point about how superheroes didn’t have any trouble conquering radio (I quite like that point, actually!) (and those radio shows really are pretty good!), that you must rely on familiarity and/or nostalgia to a certain degree, there? The “deconstructing” of the superhero, which maybe you will say originates with Wild Cards or something (Superfolks?) but for me originates with Alan Moore, seems to produce problems of accessibility to new readers/viewers these days…in Watchmen, for example, there are lots of things so obvious to us, points of connection and allusion, that just zip right over the heads of people unschooled in the superhero form’s conventions. Is that just a problem confined to comics, in your view? Nothing to worry about otherwise? You make the point that Heroes didn’t tell actual “superhero stories” but that Wild Cards told superhero stories disguised as non-superheroic ones…is that kind of formal cleverness something you have to work with, that jazzy mixing? Okay, radio never did it, and I’m sure you and I agree that comics would work JUST FINE without it again…but even in comics, I’ve said this before, as time goes on there has been a growing pressure to explain the costumes in terms of functionality, or necessity…that seems a bit like an “in-joke”, the sort of thing Watchmen in particular made much of. So can you ever really get away from the necessity of in-jokes, or self-conscious remixes of stuff you count on your audience to know all about already? Can you, indeed, make it all “like radio” in the superhero novel…as, perhaps, Maggin’s Superman novels tried to do…or do you have to make it more like the modern comic, riffing on stuff?

MATTHEW: I want to rely on familiarity! It saves so much time and effort. I don’t want to have to explain what superheroes are and build them from the ground up; I just want to use them. And that’s pretty safe, right? What are the odds that someone’s going to pick up a superhero novel and not have any idea what a superhero is or does? Nostalgia, on the other hand, I don’t want any part of. I don’t know enough about deconstruction to be able to say what is it and what isn’t it, but I think it goes back before Superfolks. Couldn’t we say that the Fantastic Four was an attempt at deconstructing superheroes? As far as I can tell, Lee and Kirby were trying to build them from first principles, going back to the genre’s influences (Golden Age comics for the Torch, Marvel’s own monster comics for the Thing) and even trying to get away without using costumes. Or if not the FF, then the Inferior Five or even the original Red Tornado or something. So my approach seems to be to play it as straight as possible and see where that takes me. I was going to say that I wasn’t trying to do anything all that clever, but then I thought about it and I guess I really am…but for this one story I don’t want to be any more self-conscious about it than I absolutely have to be. Some of that stuff with winking at costumes and codenames and everything, I got into that with Sliced Bread 2, but I think I want to leave it there. In Ded & Sac, I’m going to just assume that superheroes make sense and hope the reader comes along with me.

PLOK: Maybe that last question’s not so good, because you’re also talking about Sailor Moon, and not just Superman, right? So what makes Sailor Moon a superhero story, rather than…oh, I don’t know, a swords-and-sorcery kind of story?

Or maybe that’s the crap question, now that I think of it…because, it seems like you would say Sailor Moon isn’t a superhero story, because what it is is a…

Is a…


Say, what the hell is it, anyway? One imagines if Buffy had continued into 2011 we might’ve had an episode from it that drew from Scott Pilgrim in advance of the SP movie, eh? Hmm…so are things like Sailor Moon or Scott Pilgrim things that draw from superheroes as superheroes draw from other things? Darn, again with the dumb questions…

MATTHEW: I never watched Sailor Moon much, and I’m not fluent in anime and/or manga, so I couldn’t tell you what genre it is. It’s clearly at least adjacent to superheroism, though, about as much as Buffy is and maybe more. (And Flyboy Action Figure Comes with Gasmask is clearly part of the superhero genre.) Scott Pilgrim, I’d say, draws from the medium of video games without much regard to genre.

PLOK: When did you want to start doing this, do you think it’s at all a sort of generational thing? Ha, I know you are into generational theories, you see… But you and I are roughly of the same vintage, so it makes me wonder if part of this motivation is of a certain time and a certain place. When I was in high school I would submit book reports on comics and book reports on novels in some weird teenage attempt to show that The Man was hidebound about what counted as a “proper story”…basically I had so much trouble getting a good mark on a report about an SF book, that sometimes I’d do things like file the “superhero” off the Claremont/Byrne X-Men and submit a book report on the Dark Phoenix storyline, to see if it would get a higher grade (which it did)…I mean I felt like a culture punk, smashing the state. I would write short stories, for school, about the Guardians Of The Galaxy and the Atom and stuff like that. I was thrilled to devour those slim Marvel paperbacks that read like novelizations of today’s superhero movies before the fact. Can you relate to that, and do you think that has anything to do with the superhero novel, is it supposed to be revolutionary in that sort of way? And is it, perhaps, a little bit, a “teenage” sort of way?

MATTHEW: I’m sure there are generational aspects of it. I suspect that most practitioners of superhero prose are GenXers, who are famous for chopping up and remixing popular culture in just the kind of way you allude to. But then, the Wild Cards novels were conceived and created by a group of writers who were almost all Boomers (and the stories definitely reflect that). So I don’t think there’s anything generationally inevitable going on.

But I remember trying to come up with some kind of idea for a superhero novel when I was a teenager. (Unsuccessfully.) And I didn’t feel like I was doing anything subversive; I just liked books and I liked superheroes and I couldn’t see why there weren’t any superhero novels. To me it seemed like a case of two great tastes that would taste great together.

PLOK: Going on from that, and discarding the “teenage” crack…is the superhero novel something about diversity, is it socially-liberal if I can use that expression? “This is a story too” isn’t a lot different, perhaps, from “this is music too” or “these are people too” or indeed “this is normal too”…we all know, or at any rate we don’t have much trouble seeing, that there is a political dimension to superhero comics: it may be fuzzy at the edges most of the time, but it seems like it’s solid at the core, because in comics it does seem as though the tissue of invention between the creator and the creation is not that thick, by its nature…would you agree with that, by the way?…it is such hard and detailed work, and you have to be so passionate about it, not that I’m saying novel-writing is easy but at least you don’t have to draw it too!…but hardly anyone writes a novel where their beliefs shine through so clearly, except in cases where they do it very much on purpose…so is the superhero novel, I don’t know, a kind of anti-Fountainhead, if you will? A way of being free to separate out the clear and stark superhero morality from the machinations of superhero plot, rather than to put those super-present moral prescriptions in? Is the superhero novel a means of complexifying the superhero, and if it is: in what way that modern “ironic” superhero comics (post-Watchmen comics?) themselves don’t already do?

MATTHEW: I think you can make that argument, that the superhero novel implies diversity, or liberalness, but if you do you’re inviting the counterresponse that the superhero genre itself is an innately conservative one, in the sense that superheroes are trying to preserve the social status quo. Not that there isn’t room for liberalness in that.

Novels are different from comics in this other way: novels are generally the (relatively) undiluted vision of one person, while comics (like movies, or rock songs) are usually collaborative. So in that sense the superhero novel is more like The Fountainhead than a superhero comic book would be. (And because of this, I’d say that your impression of a closer connection between creator and creation is an intentional illusion on the creators’ part! Which is a good thing!)

In this case I’d say Ded & Sac is a conventional novel in your sense of whether it’s a passionate declaration of my beliefs. I’m making a point of putting a lot of stuff in this story that I myself don’t believe for a second. I think my characters are wrong about all kinds of things. It’s making me a little more fond of them, to tell you the truth.

The clear-and-stark superhero morality… I’m of two minds about it. I admire it, and I like reading about it, but (like so many other aspects of superheroes) it wouldn’t work very well in real life. Which is fine! I don’t care if it works in real life. But there’s some interest to be found in just how it wouldn’t work in real life.

PLOK: Well, I hope I’ve given you enough room to move in those questions, Matthew, if you feel like going off on a tangent or delving deeper into a specific…I mean I think I have, after all I mention Superman, the Legion, Jack Kirby, and I strongly imply the presence of Watchmen as a critique of superhero fiction, so obviously that’s three years of blogging right there if sufficiently blown up! And I don’t want to be disingenuous either, obviously I love superhero fiction and not only love to read superhero novels with the “superhero” filed off…like, Zelazny’s Amber series is a good example of that from about mid-century? And all kinds of fantasy, SF, spy fiction…how is Buffy not the X-Men, for that matter how is Criminal Minds (as I’ve said before) not exactly the X-Men…very clever, those Criminal Minds people…I have a funny thing I want to do somewhere at some point too, “Star Trek TMZ”, the black guy with the dreads is the TMZ Spock, the surfer guy’s the TMZ Worf…well, I think it’s funny, anyway…but also I don’t at all mind a superhero novel, I don’t have a prejudice like maybe I make it sound there, but I felt like: yeah, these probably are the first questions on anybody’s mind, I should definitely bring ’em up! And truth be told, I was a lot more dubious about the idea of a superhero novel before you started weighing in on the subject…so, forgive me if those questions sound combative, but part of my dream for this interview (since it is just a blog!) is that you get to make your case for a New Literature…

MATTHEW: Well, one of the things I think about genre is that it isn’t a trick. It is what it seems to be. So, the way I figure it, sure, you can discuss how the Amber series resembles the superhero genre in some ways, but what it is is fantasy, and you can’t argue it into superheroes. Similarly, Buffy is like a superhero in even more ways, but what it is is, oh, fantasy/horror, because she’s not wearing a cape and mask and is fighting vampires and demons, and because the theme of the show (“high school is hell”) is far more suited to horror than it is to superheroics.

Details as we wrap up: as of mid-November 2013, I’m a little over halfway through the first draft of Ded & Sac, and I had a pretty good writing day today. My website,, has a Superhero Of The Day feature that I use as kind of the pilot light of my writing ambitions, and may point out some cool superhero characters to those who care to follow it. And thanks for interviewing me! Being interviewed is fun; I highly recommend it if you have the means.

PLOK: It never quite goes how I expect it to! I keep thinking I know what the likely answers are going to be, and I keep being dead wrong.

And somehow your answers to things in general are never what I expect, anyway…

So let’s do it again once you’ve finished writing!


3 responses to “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Elmslie: A Curious Conversation About Adventure Characters

  1. Sounds good! I get a little closer every day. Wouldn’t it be great if I got a lot of writing done over Christmas? It’s bound to work out like that!

  2. Pingback: I am Interviewed about Superhero Fiction | Matthew Elmslie·

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