With Great Power! Superhero Anthology

Ages since I’ve written a short story and two announcements come along at once. Typical. I’m very proud to be included in a new anthology of superhero prose tales, With Great Power! which will be published by Pocket Books in 2010.

Award-winning editor Lou Anders has put together a great list of fellow contributors, a mix of leading comic book writers (including some personal favourites) and f/sf authors who are comics fans. Here’s the full list: Matthew Sturges, James Maxey, Paul Cornell, Mike Carey, Mike Baron, Daryl Gregory, Gail Simone, Stephen Baxter, Chris Roberson, Peter & Kathleen David, Joseph Mallozzi, Marjorie M Liu, Ian McDonald and Bill Willingham.

As I’ve mentioned here before, I’m a long-time comics fan, like many authors within the genre, and I’ve had comics published by Image and Caliber. Superheroes – so big in the movies – really is an untapped genre in prose form, though, and all credit to Pocket Books for taking the leap into this new area.

Books, Comics and DVDs

One upside of being pathetically weak and sickly is the ability to put work on one side completely and indulge in all the books, comics and dvds that have been piling up.

Actually, I didn’t get very far on the book front – I’m still wading through House of Leaves by Mark Z Danielewski. ‘Wading’ is perhaps the wrong term – I do love the book – but it is hard-going. It’s a very modern, scary, supernatural story, but written without a hint of familiar genre-isms, and designed to put the reader through as many torments as the characters. In the tale, a tattoo artist inherits the notes of an aged academic investigating a seemingly-famous Amityville-style house with an otherworldly labyrinth – except no one beyond the academic appears to know about it. In that description, you can already see the layered density of the story. Yet the design of the book has been created to mimic the house’s labyrinth, with footnotes sending you back and forth, appendices, upside down and mirror text, hidden codes and more. You wonder if the footnotes are even slightly relevant until you get to, say, number 313 and find buried away a one-line revelation that explains a character’s entire psychology. A great book, particularly for navel-gazers and self-styled intellectuals, but it does take time following that cord through the twists and turns.

Some comics caught my eye over the last few days. House of Mystery, the new release from DC’s Vertigo imprint, written by Matt Sturges and Bill Willingham with art by Luca Rossi, was very enjoyable. I was a fan of this title back in the seventies, when it was a straightforward horror (or ‘mystery’) anthology, with art by such greats as Neal Adams, Berni Wrightson, Alex Toth and Sergio Aragones. In Alan Moore’s Swamp Thing and Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, the house and its caretaker Cain was established as a residence that existed in dreams. In this incarnation, the house has been stolen and re-sited ‘somewhere else’. A group of strange characters are forced to live there telling stories to pay for their board while they attempt to find a way back to the real world. The first issue sets up lots of mysteries, so it comes across a bit like Lost, only creepier.

I also started a collection of the first five issues of The Exterminators, another Vertigo title (now cancelled) about a group of bug and vermin exterminators operating in the more sordid parts of Los Angeles. At first it appears a great slice of life story with strong characterisation, until a hint of fantasy arises like the first sign of one of the infestations – the bugs are becoming stronger? Smarter? Looks like there’s a war brewing. Great writing by Simon Oliver and suitably grimy art by Tony Moore, who made a name for himself on Image’s The Walking Dead. Highly recommended, as those critics like to say.

I also read the first issue of DC’s summer blockbuster Final Crisis by Grant Morrison and J G Jones. It’s early days yet, and there’s a lot of clear set-up for story to come, but again very enjoyable. Grant can do no wrong in my eyes, from Zenith for 2000AD to Doom Patrol, Animal Man and The Invisibles, which is why I name-checked his excellent Seven Soldiers series in The Burning Man.

On the movie front, my tastes have always been eclectic, but I can’t imagine many people reading this enjoying the early 1940s films of British comedians Arthur Askey and George Formby. Kept me happy, though. I also finally got round to seeing SF greats This Island Earth and Invaders From Mars. Ones for fans only, I think, though there’s a pleasantly creepy aspect to the latter.

Selling Fantasy By The Pound

Fantasy and SF for the connoisseur or for mainstream tastes: which path should a publishing house follow? That’s an interesting debate which the ever-erudite Lou Anders has raised on his blog. When founding the excellent Pyr imprint, Lou and his team took the conscious decision to publish what Norman Spinrad called “science fiction written specifically for experienced and intelligent readers of science fiction, with a bit of fantasy more or less in the same mode thrown in”.

I think that’s an excellent policy for Pyr. It’s certainly a truism that the more you indulge in a particular taste the more refined that taste becomes (which can also be a problem for critics, who, as Stephen King puts it, “lose their taste for pizza”). The core readership of fantasy and SF – the fans, although they probably don’t categorise themselves that way – deserve some gourmet dishes.

But there is a wider debate here. On The Genre Files, Ariel gives a smart overview of marketing genre books in the 21st century, a post that all authors and publishers should read. And in a separate article, editor George Mann writes about Solaris’ choice of traditional covers for their genre titles.

Both these articles get right to the heart of trying to sell books to a fragmented audience in the 21st century, and it’s something the music industry in particular, and TV and Film, are all struggling to deal with. Do you go for the hardcore fan or reach out to the wider audience? There are pros and cons for both. It seems that Lou, Ariel and George are all swinging towards an approach that caters to the dedicated reader, and I think that’s a business model that will work very well for Pyr and Solaris.

But if it was applied to the whole industry I would have real problems. In the music industry, where I worked for a while, the marketeers have struggled. By focusing on the tribalist music fan that has emerged over the last twenty years, they have had trouble gaining breakout hits from genres. Attention shifted to marketing bland fare that would appeal to all tastes to gain those mainstream hits, and sales have fallen dramatically (yes, I know there are many other factors, but this is a core concern).

The comics industry in particular has faced a great many problems because of the loss of its mainstream audience. That was caused by the collapse of its distribution network in the late seventies and early eighties and the shift to specialist comics shops. But the comics producers then found that to maintain sales in this rarefied atmosphere required stories that excited the jaded palates of the core fan – and were nigh-on incomprehensible to the casual reader. Sales fell further, the core fan market had to be shored up to a greater extent, and a desperate retreat from the centre ground took place, that is still damaging the industry.

The issue of covers and marketing is not just an industry issue. I’ve had several readers complain about my move away from traditional illustrative fantasy covers to the latest design-oriented ones. I’ve had just as many applaud the move. These covers are a personal choice. I like design; they work for me. And, I have to say, sales have been much, much better. But I don’t think you can extrapolate too much from that for the wider market. If all covers were designery, mine wouldn’t have had the same impact.

I love fantasy, science fiction and horror. I believe these three genres are appealing to mainstream tastes, if some way can be found to communicate their values to the casual browser. I’m afraid that an across-the-board retreat to the ‘core fan model’ will ghettoize them even further and lead to a long-term decline. The best way for the industry, I think is – to use music industry analogy – hardcore labels for the purist, and general labels to attract new users.

But that is a fiendish and crippling trap for the writer. Once you establish yourself in one pool or the other it will be very hard to crossover and gain, on the one hand, the new readers and wider sales that sustain your career, and, on the other, credibility that is just as valuable a commodity in the internet-empowered world.