Thursday, February 16, 2012

Comics to Prose: From Four Colors to Black Text

Last week we picked the brains of comic and pulp writers about when pulp heroes try to cross over into the four-color world of comic books. So, to be fair, these week we are looking at the opposite, when comic book heroes enter the prose world of short stories and novels.

How successful do you feel mainstream super heroes have been entering the world of prose? Do they only succeed when they have a major storyline tie-in such as Kingdom Come or Identity Crisis?

Lee Houston Jr.: The results are mixed. You certainly have a bigger potential audience tying into a movie, but some folks tend to skip the book to avoid spoiling the movie, or don't bother with the book afterwards because they've seen the movie.

Prose books by a "name" author usually sell, yet sometimes there are other forces at work one cannot count on ahead of time. Because of all the media attention over the event, Roger Stern's novelization to The Death of Superman did well.

Yet in the end, it's more a question of how good the story is. Elliot S! Maggin wrote two Superman novels back the late 1970s. The first tying into the original movie with Christopher Reeve, and a second. Miracle Monday stood well on its own.

Ed Erelac: I will admit that personally, I've never read the prose adventures of a character who originated in comics. The literary exploits of Superman or Spider-Man or something don't really appeal to me. So personally speaking, it doesn't seem like a great idea. I have no idea if this is a successful genre.

Bobby Nash: I think they have been more successful in recent years as we’ve seen an increase in prose novels and anthologies coming from comic book publishers as well as prose featuring comic book characters. Adapting a successful storyline does seem to be a big hit when taking comics to prose as multiple publishers have done this. I believe the movie tie-ins also help.

Van Allen Plexico: I want -- nay, need -- for the sub-genre to take off. Has it? Not yet, not really. Can it? Will it? I have to believe it will.  

The bulk of super hero prose tales seem to coming be from independent publishers. Is this a way getting around the "can't afford an artist" hurdle that keeps many out of indie published comics, or is there more to it than that?

Lee Houston Jr.: I can't speak for anyone on the business end of things regarding the art aspect, but the independents are willing to take more chances with different formats trying to get their characters and stories out there. The Big Two (DC and Marvel) tend to stay with the "sure" thing publishing novelizations of movies and major comic book events.

Bobby Nash: It is possible that this is the case, but comic books and prose are too very different animals in terms of how you approach them creatively. Plus, they target different audiences. There are readers out there who read comic books and prose, but I have met many comic book fans that will not, let me repeat that, will not read a prose book because it, and I quote, "doesn’t have pictures" and readers of prose that won’t read comic books.

Ed Erelac: I think partly it is, sure. Especially with costumed superheroic characters. In my experience, comics are the arena of the artist and the writer takes a back seat if he doesn't ride in the trunk. Even unknown artists may demand exorbitant fees for their work while writers just starting out often can't expect to make a penny. I've never found a talented artist, even one just starting out, who is willing to collaborate on something with nothing up front, even when the writer is willing to do the same. That's comics, I guess. It's primarily a visual medium. You can't have a good comic without both a good writer and artist, but until the industry shifts and the two positions equalize, things will likely stay as they are. Without an artist, nobody cares how great your writing or your concept is, and many writers have to resort to converting it to prose fiction. I think that's why there's been such a relative increase in superhero fiction in the indie publishing world. Lots of brok e writers (I won't say cheap because I don't believe it's that). Does this mean these books aren't worth checking out? Although I answered in the negative to the first question, I don't think the same holds true for a character that begins in prose. No, I'm not really interested in reading Batman fiction, but I've read superpowered and non-superpowered fiction that I'd like to see adapted as a comic.

Van Allen Plexico: I am a novelist at heart, not a comic book writer. Writing super heroes works more naturally for me in prose than in comics form. Stories simply take far too long to tell in comics form. Imagine how many issues of a comic it would have required to get my storyline to where it is now, six-plus volumes in. Probably hundreds, over many years.

What advantages and disadvantages does writing and reading super heroes in prose have compared to writing and reading them comic books?

Bobby Nash: Comics are a visual medium. Art is a big and important aspect of the medium. Yes, you have to have a good story too, but the art is usually what sells comic books so you write to accommodate and accentuate the art. With prose, it’s all words so the writer has to paint the environment with words. As a writer, I approach writing comic books and writing prose very differently.

Lee Houston Jr.: Foremost is the obvious. You do not have the visuals to accompany a story.
While comic books are a creative team effort, everything falls to the writer in prose; who has to describe everything from moods to costumes to spaceships, etc.

But a good writer can overcome those obstacles and still tell a dynamic story, regardless of the genre.N
Yet the book reading audience is far different than the comic book audience, so there are still a lot of preconceived notions that must be overcome, especially that archaic notion that comic books and their characters are "just for kids."

Ed Erelac: Answering the latter part first and being totally honest, I think my disinterest in reading the prose adventures of an established costumed comics character may sound hypocritical too, but my thinking is 'Why would I read about Captain America when I can just pick up the comic?' I am no better than the 'average' comic book reader in this regard. The visual appeal of those characters is a big part of their overall attraction, and is well cemented in my mind. They only exist in sequential layout in my imagination, maybe in the movie adaptations if they're done well. There's also the general stigma of the comic book character. As a comic book reader, the concept of Captain Marvel is brilliant. But would he work as a literary character? I don't know -- and I can see how a lot of non-comics readers (even those who read fantasy and sci-fi) would not be inclined to accept a kid who can turn into a superhero. This a four color character trying to exist in the black and white of print. I'm dubious.

On the other hand (and this is gonna sound even MORE hipocritical I guess), I have written superhero fiction featuring an original character, for Damnation Books' upcoming Corrupts Absolutely? anthology. But although a superpowered individual, the character I chose to write about is very much grounded in reality. He's not a four color hero, he's an inner city black kid with a learning disorder in the projects of Cabrini Green in Chicago. Nobody's ever told him he was worth anything and he's existed in a perpetual state of helplessness his whole life, until this social worker comes along and teaches him some rudimentary lessons about self worth and visualizing what he wants to achieve and then doing it. This unlocks, in this literal minded kid, a deadly mental power which he proceeds to use to scour his oppressive neighborhood. I'm not sure a character like this (as its written, in vernacular) would work in the comic book medium. I think it would, but how many collaborators wo uld be willing to tackle it? The inspiration comes from a comic though. Katsuhiro Otomo's Domu.

The advantage of writing a superhero character in prose is that you are not bound by the limits of the comic book medium. A writer who is not also an artist is limited by the vision of his collaborator. A good writer can make his concept come through, but there is always the buffer of translation. Two people can't possibly share every aspect of the same vision. A great team can overcome this and even make something better than either could alone, but if you're a control freak of a writer, or have a very specific concept, of course writing in prose has no equivalent. You can go wherever your mind takes you with the story, and hopefully take the reader along with you.

Van Allen Plexico: I'm trying to tell a vast saga peopled by dozens of characters, covering the same amount of ground as, say, Claremont on X-Men. I've done a tremendous amount of that story already, in only six years. I couldn't have realistically accomplished that in the comics medium. Not to mention the opportunities to have the characters more thoroughly develop themselves through introspection--something much more difficult and distracting in comics form.