Move over, Spidey! There’s a new kid in town!

If you’re looking at that image of the young Peter Parker and feeling nostalgic, welcome to the club. You’re going to enjoy this.

Stan Lee

If you’re thinking Stan Lee, Steve Ditko, Amazing Fantasy # 15, then you’re going to LOVE this!

If, on the other hand, you only “do” superheroes when they come fully packaged on the big screen, don’t give up just yet. This could be right up your street.

Ice-Cubed Kirsten

And if you think superheroes are “kid’s stuff” then… Shame on you!

And please accept our condolences for your loss. The loss of years of enjoyment, that is, that you’ve denied yourself.

Kids’ stuff? You’ve got to be kidding. Just look at Jessica Alba in the Fantastic Four films, or think of Kirsten Dunst in that soaked-through top in Spiderman

But seriously, superheroes have never really been aimed at kids, in the same way as The Simpsons isn’t aimed at kids. What they do is, just like Bart and Homer, is appeal to an audience at all levels, and that’s what makes them so durable.

Durable? Superheroes?

Actually they’ve been around a lot longer than you’d think.

Just take a look at the car on the front cover of the very first Superman comic. Yes, double-take that date too. It really does say June 1938.  But in fact Superman was created even earlier, in 1932!

Batman was created in 1939.

By comparison Spidey, the Fantastic Four, etc, are relative babies, only coming into existence in in the early sixties, thanks to a young upstart writer called Stan Lee, who turned the world of comics on its head when he set his fictional superheroes in real cities, and gave them real problems alongside the supervillains.

Would you want your child reading a storyline like this?

And I don’t just mean dating problems, either, although the death of Gwen Stacy was a landmark in comics history. These “comics” tackled serious themes like drugs and alcohol abuse (Tony Stark’s drink problems in the Iron Man films were being explored in comic-books forty years ago!).

And while the “four-colour” big-names tried to appeal equally to children and to older readers, comics were also diversifying into niche markets which were very adult in every way. If you saw my interview over at indieIQ last week you’ll know I teamed up with co-authorSaffi to write a vampire novel.

When you consider my teen reading was comic-books like Vampirella (below) you will understand why Saffi’s story of up-close-and-personal vampire girls grabbed my attention, and why I can’t wait to get back to finish it. (That’s Equilibrium Book 1: First Blood by Saffina Desforges, coming to a Kindle near you late 2011.) We don’t have  book cover yet, so this wondeful Vampi cover from yesteryear will have to suffice.

Kids' comics?

But you need have no fear of anything too sexualised,  gratuitously violent or otherwise unsavoury about the work of today’s guest, Marion G. Harmon.

I stumbled across Marion quite by accident at the beginning of this year, when I received his opening chapters as an assignment on the peer review website youwriteon. His novel, Wearing The Cape, was a story about superheroes, and this intrigued me right away.

As a kid it was my ambition to write for Marvel Comics, although sadly my careers adviser at school could offer no help there, and while I would later go on to freelance for some British comics and magazines, this was small compensation. Yes, I loved writing for Bunty and Just Seventeen (and yes, they were for girls!) but that I never got the chance to write an episode of Spidey or Dr Strange will always be a sore point.

True, I half-wrote a novel in which Peter Parker came to England and saw some action as the wall-crawler on London’s streets, But this was in pre-word processor days (yes, I’m that old!) and never got ay further. Besides, writing a novel about a graphic art form is not easy. Not easy at all.

So to do it with original characters, and make it work, as Marion G. Harmon has done…

And to do it in style, with a unique voice and a fresh take on an old theme… That was quite beyond my wildest aspirations.

As for a first time novelist doing it, and doing it so well… It just makes you want to throw up! Life is just so unfair!

Yowriteon has a lot to answer for!

But I’ve a great fondness for youwriteon, despite its many faults.

I “met” my co-author Saffi there, of course. And I “met” Tom Winton and Marion there.

Tom’s novel Beyond Nostalgia, is destined to be one of the great books of the twenty-first century. If you haven’t read it yet, I urge you to do so. Love stories burn slowly and rarely set the charts alight, but Beyond Nostalgia will be selling long after us upstart commercial fiction merchants with our serial killers and gritty crime stories have faded from memory.

As luck would have it I “discovered” Beyond Nostalgia after it had been published on Kindle, so never got to review it on the youwriteon site.

Which means that Marion G. Harmon’s Wearing The Cape is the only book I’ve ever given five stars to across the board on a peer-review site.

I’d love to say it’s a classic in the making, along with Tom’s Beyond Nostalgia, but Wearing The Cape is about superheroes, not love (although there’s a love story in there, of course). It’s not literary fiction, even though the writing is good enough to be.

Wearing The Cape is most certainly not dumbed-down like so much commercial fiction these days. Rather it is both thought-provoking and emotive, with an intellectual underlay that will appease even the most discerning reader, But its fantasy premise and its fantastical characters mean it won’t be winning any haute-culture prizes.

But Wearing The Cape is unquestionably next year’s best-seller, and a blockbuster movie waiting to be made. I would be seriously surprised if this were not snapped up by Marvel Studios once it gets noticed.

Bottom line is, it’s a fine piece of writing that I’m incredibly jealous of, and very proud to introduce here. Over to Marion for the inside story.

Wearing the Cape is my first novel, though you’d think a compulsive reader with degrees in literature and history would have gotten around to it sooner.

Its subject matter, superheroes, is the product of a childhood love of comics which never entirely went away, and the kind of adult mind that looks at those wondrous modern myths and wonders about superhero certification and licensing, insurance issues, publicity and marketing possibilities, etc. And who would run around in a mask and tights, anyway?

It’s no wonder most “serious” treatments of superheroes deconstruct the poor bastards (here Watchmen and V for Vendetta come to mind).

But superheroes are the perfect vehicle for talking about Good and Evil in a world under the shadow of terrorism.

Supervillains, undetectable menaces till they choose to use their powers, are a metaphor for our times. A large theme in the novel is means and ends and the moral choices we make concerning them—choices we’re forced to make simply because we have the power to make them.

It’s not my fault; I’ve discovered the medium shapes the message and, much as you can’t seem to write a vampire story without bringing up sex-death metaphors, the angst of immortality, etc., I couldn’t write about superheroes without going into issues like personalism vs. instrumentalism, the ethics of deception (what is a secret identity but a lie, after all?), and the responsibility of power.

This is NOT Marion's character Astra, but as close as I could find to how she MIGHT look.

All this may sound very heavy, but Wearing the Cape is, for the most part, light and optimistic. Hope Corrigan, the plucky Main Character and a neophyte superhero, is no tortured Rorschach or fanatical V.

True, she isn’t sure she wants to be a superhero, and she’s less sure she has the chops for it, but duty calls. Putting on a cape and mask, she leaves her normal life for the world of celebrity superheroes, and what a world it is, with publicity agents, media licensing, designer costumes, and heroes who are very, very human.

Which brings me to my own adventure in self-publishing.

I really, really thought I was finished.

With a 110,000 word manuscript in hand, last year I sent out close to 100 query letters to literary agencies and publishing houses. A handful responded with requests for the first chapter or first 10 or 25 pages. And I never heard from them again.

The genre-defying nature of the story probably discouraged many agencies from giving it a look (Is it modern fantasy? Science Fiction? YA-Teen Adventure?), but I couldn’t ignore the deafening silence from those who’d asked to see my writing.

Desperate for an online substitute for a local reading group that could tell me what was wrong, I stumbled across youwriteon,  the site that allows you to submit the first 7,000 words of your story to the merciless opinions of strangers. I later discovered the Book Shed, a more selective and less formal site providing much the same service.

I put the first few chapters of Wearing the Cape up on Youwriteon.com in October 2010, and took a beating. By the time Mark reviewed it in January 2011 it had undergone so many changes it was Wearing the Cape (Revised). For one brief shining moment it went as high as Number 2, finishing in the Top Ten for three months, and is now a youwriteon bestseller.

Constructive criticism from the Book Shed has helped it further along, and it is as good as I can make it at my current level of craft. In my humble opinion, it’s Good Enough. Trimmed to 90,000 words, it’s certainly lighter.

But what now? The top-tier literary agencies and the publishing houses most likely to look at this kind of story had already rejected it. Re-querying was not likely to be a fruitful pursuit.

Fortunately for me, my acquaintance with Mark and the success story of Sugar and Spice suggested an alternative; after a great deal of thought and research I decided that, since I had burned my bridges in traditional publishing, self-publication was the only open road.

Am I publishing too soon? Who knows, but there have been two good omens.

The first is Mark himself; when a successful co-author reviews your writing and decides you are secretly a published writer testing new material under a pen-name, you can’t help but be cheered.

Second, a month after I’d made my decision and set a date, I got a very late response to one of my submissions. Having read a recent draft of the first 50 pages, she asked to see the whole manuscript. When I told her about my plans, she asked me to call her when I sold 20,000 copies.

So let’s see how high it flies.

——————

Can you imagine? How many query letters?! It just shows what an amateur Stephen King was. He only managed fifty!

This for me just reinforces everything I’ve said about the tick-box world of traditional publishing, and really stands on its head the argument that traditional publishers are the industry’s quality control.

In the fantasy world of agents and publishers superhero novels aren’t due to trend next year, so thanks but no thanks. Zombies? Yes please. Bring it on! Mindless C-List celebrities who need to have their stories ghost-written for them? Now that’s another matter altogether…

Ker-ching!

And it’s just so f*****g sad. Sad that great writers like Marion have had their hopes and dreams all but dashed not because they’re writing isnt good enough, but simply because it didn’t tick the right boxes at the right time.

As Cheryl Shireman said over at indieiq recently, “Many of our greatest writers were rejected multiple times before finally being published by a traditional publisher. How many other great writers gave up after the first handful of rejections?”

It’s a question that doesn’t bear answering, of course.

By the way, Cheryl’s book will have sold a thousand copies on Kindle by the time you read this. That’s a thousand sales she wouldn’t have had if she’d waited for the gatekeepers. And her sale figures are still rising.

Marion G. Harmon

Marion, of course, has all that to look forward to. And if he thought he was getting off lightly with that snippet of interview above, he had another think coming. I wanted to know more.

MW: What inspired you to write superhero fantasy?

Marion: Frustration. In “traditional” modern fantasy, elements of fairy tales and mythology are updated to our modern-day setting. So we have vampires, werewolves, ghosts, gods, wizards, witches, elves, fairies, etc.


Anyone thinking this is a shameless plug for our next book might just be right. But you've gotta admit it's a great pic!

And these are fun—but they’re not our myths; we use them because, in the modern, rational age we live in, we don’t have our own contemporary myths. Or at least our modern myths are small or “scientific” (the Loch Ness Monster, Bigfoot, Grays and Men in Black…).

Superheroes are the exception; they’re big, bold, and have lost nothing compared to their predecessors, the gods, demigods, heroes, saints, and sorcerers of the old stories. And they’re ours, creations of the 20th Century imagination. No translation necessary, no special pleading required.

I think the only reason we haven’t seen a full-blown superhero novel genre is the perception that superheroes belong in the comic books. Hopefully, Wearing the Cape will help to change that.

MW: What it’s like writing in words what is traditionally a graphic novel?

Marion: I actually found it very easy. Superhero comics have come a long way from the simple Hero vs. Villain template where most of the comic was one long fight-scene. Writers of superhero comics today are expected to create well-rounded characters, and are essentially “storyboarding” plots as complex and involved as anything in a novel.

And medium-crossing has been going on for years; novelizations of the big Marvel and DC titles (The X-Men, Superman, etc) are in wide distribution. So are graphic novel treatments of television series (Dr. Who and Buffy the Vampire Slayer spring to mind) and successful sci-fi/fantasy novels and series (Game of Thrones, Anita Blake, Vampire Hunter, The Wizard of Oz…).

MW: What it’s like writing with a teen female lead character?

Marion: For those who haven’t talked to Mark or seen my author profile (I’m a 45 year-old bachelor), what he’s really asking is “How did you manage to write a believable teenage girl? And why?”

To start with the why: it was an accident. I created Hope’s world first—that was what interested me the most. Then I needed a Main Character to experience it for the reader. My first attempted MC was Atlas. If there’s any author-insertion in WTC’s characters, he’s it, a professional and dedicated hero who is nonetheless more realistic than idealistic. The problem was he already knew too much and had experienced too much.

An older Hope/Astra was my second try. Making Atlas the world-wise mentor and letting Astra experience the superhero world for the first time, bringing the reader along for the ride, worked much better.

Then one of my closest friends and best readers said “This reads like a YA novel. Why don’t you make her a teenager, go for the YA-teen market?” So I’ll say it again; it was an accident. A happy accident, as it turns out—making Hope younger made her more vulnerable, brought in coming-of-age themes, and in general greatly strengthened the story.

As to “how,” I don’t know why Mark is so impressed. I honestly made no attempt to duplicate current Teen-Speak (Hope uses a few verbs I stole from Buffy and company, that’s it). I tried to write her as an intelligent but inexperienced young adult. I may have been helped by the fact that I have four younger sisters, who were all in or verging on their teens when I graduated from high school; I love them all dearly, but they’re the reason I left home at the earliest opportunity.

Mark: And what inspired Artemis – my fave character of all?

Marion: Not Astra? Really? Well, I suppose a writer of crime-thrillers would find Artemis more his speed.

A more traditonal Artemis than Marion's version.

Artemis filled the needed Dark Vigilante role (I wanted to show that in Hope’s world not all the superheroes worked within the law). In mythology Artemis was the goddess of the Moon and the hunt—the perfect name for a night-hunting female vigilante.

The whole vampire thing came straight from my vampire burnout; they’ve invaded every literary genre (fantasy, romance, mystery, science-fiction, etc), inspired the vampire-goth subculture, and generally been reduced from horrific monsters to stock heroes and villains.

Not that vampire stories can’t still be done and done well, but Done To Death is a label that definitely applies. So I decided to include a “vampire” character who is completely unsentimental about it, killed her sire, has no progeny, and despises every wannabe-vampire out there. No offense.

Not that vampire stories can’t still be done and done well.” Phew! Lucky Marion slipped in that last second disclaimer, given our autumn (fall) release is a vampire thriller. But needless to say it’s no run-of-the-mill vampire thriller, of course.

Marion, thanks for your time here today.

~

There are loads more questions I just had to ask Marion, of course, but most of my blog readers probably aren’t quite so obsessive as me. That said, for those who are interested, please find further below a couple more questions I threw out, with in-depth answers from Marion.

For the rest of you, thanks for making it so far.

This is a blog about writing and books. Both huge subjects that encompass much more than just novels and how we write them.

But lest we forget, the bottom line is about story-telling.

A book is just one way of presenting a story. Storytelling can range from poetry to epic saga, from oral to visual. A century or so ago Charles Dickens used to tour the States reading his novels out loud to packed (and I do mean packed!) theatres.

And some authors still do that. Well, not their entire novels – that’s what audio-books are for. But some writers still tour packed theatres reading out loud. Seriously!

And I’m delighted to say I have one such author joining me here at MWi this coming week. Given the vagaries of my technical support here let’s just say mid-week some time. But be sure not to miss a treat as Dan Holloway struts his stuff, with some video footage thrown in just to prove he’s not making it all up.

And next weekend be sure to watch out for Prue Batten, another writer who doesn’t let herself get bogged down with the idea that a novel is the only way to tell a great story. If you’re familiar with Prue’s works you’re in for a treat. If not, you’re in for a treat and a big surprise.

That’s Dan some time midweek, and Prue some time next weekend. Pointless me saying exactly when because the powers that be here have little regard for my timetable. Click on the RSS feed or subscribe by email to be sure not to miss out.

 ~

As above, there follows yet more discussion on comics. Indulge or not as the fancy takes you.

MW: Presumably you read any comic-books you could lay your hands on when you were younger. I certainly did (not always easy in the UK where supply was erratic). But there comes a point where we become more selective, narrow the choice, and perhaps “grow out of” some. Which comic-book superheroes have stood the test of time for you?

MH: Actually although they are always around, I wasn’t a huge superhero fan in the beginning. My first serious interest was the Star Wars comic series (I took crappy care of them, or they’d be worth big bucks today). My conversion moment came when I read the “Pheonix Must Die!” episode of The Uncanny X-Men as a teenager. It was practically Shakespearean, and it hooked me on the X-Men. My next comic of interest was the New Teen Titans, and today I will pick up and lose interest in titles depending on the current quality of the writers/artists and my interest in the storylines.

The truth is Your Milage Will Vary depending on who’s writing the series. Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Fantastic Four, The X-Men, The Avengers, they’ve become enduring legacies new writers will come to and make their own for awhile. Sometimes they’re rebuilt from the ground up (the entire Ultimate Marvel line is a complete reboot). Although I still keep up with the old names, my interest these days is in non-traditional storytelling. Tod Nauck, who took a turn with Spider Man and Young Justice, caught my attention with Wildguard, a mini-series about a reality-show superhero team. I also enjoy Powers, a comic series about “normal” police officers in a superhero world–its take on superheroes is fascinating, although it’s sometimes too dark for my tastes.

MW: Outside of the USA, comics are still regarded as an inferior art-form by many. The blockbuster films do well in the UK and Europe, but your average Briton would struggle to name a superhero that hadn’t been in a Hollywood film. In the UK still, comics are first and foremost fun-reading for pre-teen children. In the US comics are the staple of university students. With so much of our culture homogenised and pasteurised, how has this dichotomy come about?

MH: Oscar Wilde wrote, “We have really everything in common with America nowadays, except, of course, the language.” Like so many truisms, this isn’t true. To be honest, I have no idea why comics as an adult entertainment medium didn’t jump the pond when comics grew up here, which they did in the 70’s and 80’s. Before then they’d been pre-teen and young teen fair over here as they still are in the UK. Possibly its because they were never as big a part of childhood in the UK as they were in America, which meant a smaller adult market.

MW: Same question: Japan is perhaps the exception, but their direction is very different again, with juvenile super-heroes on the one hand, and on the other scantily-clad schoolgirl imagery aimed at a rather unsavoury readership. That’s probably a stereotype too far, and no question Manga has revived interest in graphic novels in Europe, but for better or worse?

MH: If anything, the Japanese have a stronger comic-book tradition than anybody. Partly this is because of the complexity of their alphabet; full literacy, mastery of several thousand characters, takes years, so illustrated stories are easier to read. They have their own obsessive sub-culture (Otaku), but Manga is as mainstream as regular novels.  Because of this, Manga covers every storytelling genre imaginable; they have action-adventure, sci-fi, fantasy, superhero (sort of), real life, relationship, romance, and yes, an incredible array of highly imaginative (perverted) pornography. Sadly, it’s the last category that is most widely publicized. For better or worse? I’m hardly impartial there, but I think comics can actually be an aid to literacy, a window into printed literature, much in the same was that the Harry Potter books inspired a new generation of readers.

Marion G. Harmon, thank you for your time and insights.

In the immortal words of Stan Lee: Nuff said.

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  1. Interesting read! I’ve never read a lot of American comics (I was brought up with European ones).

    • Was that a language issue or were American comics simply not available?

      • I think it was a mix of a few things. While they weren’t as readily available, they were definitely possible to get, but I think the people who introduced me to comics back then were more into the European ones – the classics mostly such as Tintin. When I grew older, I became very fascinated with Japanese comics (this was before anything was translated into my mother tongue, so I read those in English), and so it’s only recently that I’ve begun to take an interest in American ones after studying with someone who wrote their thesis on comics.

  2. Unbelievable Mark! When you said you wanted to “put something up” I had no idea it would look like this!

    • Had great fun writing it up. Very little chance of finding any comics here in West Africa, but I did manage to find a burn of the Fantasic Four first movie, which I’m looking forward to setting aside time for (though no doubt we’ll have a powercut halfway through).

  3. Thought you should know–I just heard from the Editor-in-Chief of ComicAttack.net, one of the most popular comic book news sites, that they will write a review on Wearing the Cape.

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