Guest Post: “Confessions of a Four-Color, Benday-Dot, Super-Deformed, Ultra-Compressed Science Fiction Writer” by Paul di Filippo

DiFilippo-WikiWorld

Paul Di Filippo is the author of Wikiworld, a great science fiction short story collection, which was recently published by (now award-winning) ChiZine. To celebrate the release of his new book, he has written the following piece about comics and their relationship with literature, and his own experiences as a reader and writer…

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My first reading, beyond the typical picture books of my era, such as Harry the Dirty Dog and Hop on Pop, consisted of comic books. Lots and lots of comics. I recall the very first comic I ever read, in 1961, in the summer between first and second grades. It was Mighty Mouse in Outer Space, and it blew my primitive juvenile brain to flinders. (I recently tracked down a copy on eBay, and had lots of fun revisiting it.) I’ve never been the same since. You might very well say that this comic was my first introduction to the literature of fantastika, and set me on the course to becoming a writer of same.

DiFilippo-EarlyComics

After this soon came the hard stuff. Batman, Superman, and the strange new antiheroes from Marvel. Alas, though I read them fresh off the drugstore stands, I retain no issues of Fantastic Four #1 or Amazing Fantasy #15, or similar lucrative titles. I concentrated on buying DC, while my pal Stephen covered the Marvel stuff, and we shared issues for mutual reading pleasure. Stephen, wherever he may be these days, got rich, and I got Lois Lane #53.

This phase of my readerly life lasted until about 1965, when I discovered hardcore adult science fiction, in the form of Raymond Jones’s The Year When Stardust Fell. To my retrospective amazement, I dropped comics almost entirely then, like a fickle lover, in favor of this new, more complex, more satisfying medium. Part of it had to do with my limited allowance. A dollar per week bought seven or eight comics, or two paperbacks. I couldn’t do both.

Well, I’m not going to recap my entire life as a reader from that point on. (To dispel one mystery: I returned to reading comics about thirty years later, with a vengeance.) But I tell the tale only to illustrate a very common path for my generation and the next couple after it. Right up into, oh, the late 1980s, this route — comics first, then books — was totally archetypical. Young fanboys and fangirls imprinted first on comics, then matured into readers of “chapter books.”

But we all know what happened next: the greying of the comics audience, the vanishing of comics from drugstores and supermarkets, the lack of innocent entry-level comics titles, the peer popularity of YA books, etc., etc. — all these factors and more have caused comics no longer to be really a gateway drug. And in fact, comics fandom and book fandom, while overlapping to some small Venn-diagram degree, often are utterly ignorant of each other. (This of course was not always the case, as modern comics fandom arose almost entirely from within SF fandom.)

One important thing which I think this change in reading patterns has caused to go missing from modern SF/F/H writing is a certain comic book sensibility: in plotting, character development, scene-setting, theme presentation, and all the other typical aspects of fiction construction. Because, you see, comics have their own tools of storytelling, and a writer does not fully internalize them unless he or she encounters them at a young, receptive age.

Let me clarify that I’m not talking about a dearth of novels about superheroes. Those are actually kind of trendy right now.

I’m talking about bringing the unique toolkit of comic book storytelling to any kind of writing at all. It could be a mainstream humorous novel, or a historical novel, or, in my case, an SF novel. Not many people are doing that these days.

Maybe you’re old enough to recall when writers such as Thomas Pynchon or Robert Sheckley or Kurt Vonnegut got labeled as “too comic-booky.” It was a fair cop! They were, I am certain, all readers of comics in their youth, and were incorporating the methods they had internalized into their adult prose.

I can’t conduct a seminar in this limited space about all the techniques I discern as originating among comic book writers and artists. I can only give a couple of examples.

Take the matter of switching scenery. Everyone knows how quickly and radically a comic book story can jump from one panel to another. We’ll call this the “then… Korea!” trick, from a recent blog post by the comics savant Mike Sterling. I don’t see this enough in novels. Oh, yeah, we’ll have a jump, an ellipsis of time and space, but usually to a different character, or as a predictable linear progression of the protagonist’s actions. “The next day dawned…” Nothing wild-eyed or unexpected, like catapulting the hero instantly from one venue to another in the blink of an eye.

Or take the matter of shifting the focus of the story in unexpected ways. The Simpsons TV show is the master of this. (Animated cartoons of course being the sibling to comics.) Three minutes into an episode, you think you knew where it’s headed, then, whammo, a total one-eighty. How often have you seen that maneuver in a book?

Or consider serial plotting within a single book. We start with one crisis which is resolved partway through the book, but contains the seeds of the next crisis, and so on as long as desired, until by novel’s end you’re utterly removed from the concerns at the beginning. I can’t even summon up a prose example of this common comics scenario.

If I had to adduce other writers than those named above who follow a comic book esthetic, I’d nominate A.E. van Vogt, Philip K. Dick, and Ron Goulart. Maybe you can start to get a feel now for the type of fiction I’m advocating. Jonathan Lethem, famously a comic book kid, in his early novels manifested some of these chops and riffs. Perhaps the purest and most satisfying writer of such stuff today is my pal Rudy Rucker. His novels are comic books without the artwork. And that certainly doesn’t preclude him tackling serious and important subjects in sophisticated ways.

In my own fiction, I can point to several stories deliberately constructed along these lines. “Fractal Paisleys”; “The Double Felix”; “Flying the Flannel.” And so forth.

DiFilippo-WikiWorld

My newest collection, Wikiworld, holds a few. My all-robot story “Providence” is a homage to the great SF comics from EC. You can picture Wally Wood or Al Williamson art to go with it. “Return to the 20th Century” is more out of DC’s goofy Silver Age Mystery in Space or Strange Adventures line. But even other stories of mine that are not so heavily influenced have benefitted, I believe, by little salient comic book touches.

I said I returned to reading comics with high intensity about twenty years ago. The superhero stuff I enjoy these days is entertaining, but can’t really teach me anything new. But knockout creators like Richard Sala, Dan Clowes, Chris Ware, Jaime and Gilbert Hernandez, Ben Katchor, Cathy Malkasian and Bill Griffith continue to stimulate me to try to incorporate their specialist pencil-and-ink and word-balloon techniques into my prose fiction.

If you’re exclusively a prose writer, you should delve into the comics scene. Once you go lowbrow, you never go back!

“The Shining” by Stephen King (Hodder)

KingS-TheShining2011Perhaps King’s most famous novel. Review by a first-time reader.

Danny Torrance is only five years old, but in the words of old Mr. Hallorann, he “shines” with an exceptional psychic talent. For most of Danny’s life, his clairvoyant abilities have helped him to puzzle out his parents’ troubled relationship, but when his father accepts a position as the winter caretaker for the Overlook Hotel high in the Rocky Mountains, the little boy’s visions spiral into the realm of nightmare.

As blizzards isolate the Torrances, the hotel seems to develop a sinister life of its own. At night, unseen revelers ride the elevators and even the animal-shaped hedges of the topiary prowl the hotel’s grounds like threatening predators. But when Danny meets the woman in room 217, he discovers that the hotel’s phantom guests are more than shadows. Like Danny, the Overlook shines, but the energy it emanates is deadly.

The Shining is one of those novels pretty much everyone knows about. And I wouldn’t be surprised if, like me, they know many references from it without having ever read the book. True, some will know about it from the Kubrick movie (which Stephen King is not too fond of) – although, I haven’t seen that, either. When I got my hands on the novel, I was certainly eager to see what all the fuss was about, and fill in this important gap in my reading history. It is, of course, brilliantly written. But. While it is a fascinating read, there were a couple of things that didn’t quite click for me. I would, however, agree that this is essential reading.

I’m not really sure what to write in this review. It’s a novel that certainly made me think. It’s far more psychological than supernatural (in my opinion). It didn’t “terrify” me, but it was emotionally affecting. Danny, the child, is sympatico, and so many scenes made my heart ache for him. He has “the shine”, a hyper-, supernatural awareness of other people’s emotions, and also telepathic gifts. As he’s only five, he struggles to understand a lot of what he ‘hears’ and taps in to. Jack, his father, is an emotional wreck, fighting against his genetic disposition towards alcoholism and violence. Wendy, Danny’s mother, is the product of a verbally- and emotionally-abusive family (in this case, her mother basically thinks she’s incompetent, a waste of space, and so forth). The majority of the novel is presented through these three filters: Danny’s confusion, his frustration and outright fears; Jack’s suppression of his impulses; Wendy’s self-consciousness and lack of belief in herself. Exacerbating all of their neuroses and hang-ups, is their solitary life at the Overlook Hotel, effectively trapped their during the harsh, inhospitable Coloradan winter. It’s a fascinating, chilling glimpse into the minds of two emotionally damaged parents, and their psychic, confused child.

My ‘issues’ with the novel (for want of a better word) are not with the story, or the majority of King’s approach. It’s a fascinating story of the psychological impact of lifetimes of abuse – both physical and emotional – exacerbated by extreme cabin fever. And some actually supernatural goings on. Maybe. What niggled for me was the relentlessness of King’s characterisation. It was excellently written, and I was engrossed for the majority of the novel, but there were certainly times when I felt that King got into a repetitive cycle – after three or four times of making a point about Jack’s or Wendy’s shortcomings, the fifth and sixth (and sometimes seventh) times around felt like overkill, and the momentum did drop a couple of times. Part One, in particular, was very heavy-handed in its approach to situating the reader in this family’s life and minds. It is a testament to King’s writing skills, though, that he nevertheless brought me back to the story each and every time I started to think things were getting too bogged down.

KingS-TheShining1977Why “maybe”, above, when I mentioned the supernatural? Well, the introduction to the edition I read (Hodder, 2011) could be seen as rather leading. It includes King’s opinion of what actually causes most the weirdness and psychosis in the novel. While I nevertheless came to my own conclusion, and there are certainly some weird and creepy-as-hell goings-on, I think it did prime my impression, or influence how I read the novel. [Maybe it should be an afterword, in future editions?] A really minor complaint, though.

Overall? I’m very glad I finally read this, and I wish I hadn’t taken so long to do so. It’s by no means perfect, but it is frequently engrossing, gripping, and chilling reading. King’s attention to detail throughout is both excellent and also natural. I was reminded of Robert Jackson Bennett’s writing, actually (only, less contemporary than RJB’s), who I read before this. It certainly deserves its place as a literary classic, and an essential read for anyone with an interest in horror, thrillers, psychological tales, and also writing in general. As someone who has read a fair bit of King’s non-fiction (his Kindle Single, Guns, is superb), but never got through the only other novel of his that I’ve tried (Dreamcatcher, which was Messed Up), I’m glad I finally popped my King Fiction Cherry (there has got to be a better way to phrase that…).

I can’t wait to get my hands on Doctor Sleep, the highly-anticipated sequel [oh, I wish I could afford the limited edition of that book…]. Definitely recommended.

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The Shining was first published by Doubleday in 1977 (cover above). It is now published by Hodder in the UK, and by Anchor in the US.

“The Eyre Affair” by Jasper Fforde (Hodder)

FfordeJ-TN1-EyreAffairThe first Thursday Next novel

There is another 1985, where London’s criminal gangs have moved into the lucrative literary market, and Thursday Next is on the trail of the new crime wave’s Mr. Big.

Acheron Hades has been kidnapping characters from works of fiction and holding them to ransom. Jane Eyre is gone. Missing.

Thursday sets out to find a way into the book to repair the damage. But solving crimes against literature isn’t easy when you also have to find time to halt the Crimean War, persuade the man you love to marry you, and figure out who really wrote Shakespeare’s plays.

Perhaps today just isn’t going to be Thursday’s day. Join her on a truly breathtaking adventure, and find out for yourself. Fiction will never be the same again…

It has certainly taken me a long time to get around to this series. I’ve always hesitated as a result of my general ignorance when it comes to many of the “essential” classics, fearing that many of the jokes in the series will just be over my head. However, as part of the Hodderscape review project, I finally got my hands on a copy of this novel. It’s pretty good, but also suffers from some debut issues.

I’m going to keep this review relatively short. First of all, because this is an old novel that has been written about at great length elsewhere. But also because I’m not sure if I was the best audience for it…

There is plenty in here that is whimsical, fun, and very clever. Fforde clearly has a love for reading and the classics, and especially the idiosyncrasies of his subjects. His writing style is brisk and uncluttered, making this an enjoyable and easy read. Thursday is a great protagonist, with a varied and interesting past, and an engaging and endearing voice. Her supporting cast is, likewise, fun to spend time with. The villain is genuinely sinister and creepy (indeed, maybe one of the best villains I’ve read in some time). The myriad special departments of investigation are amusingly delineated, also with a Harry Potter-esque variety for the more supernatural investigations and crimes.

FfordeJ-TN1-EyreAffairUSDespite all these positives, for me The Eyre Affair is also filled with literary references that, sadly, went over my head. I always seemed to be in the “experimental” year at school, when it came to picking set texts for English Literature classes. This has resulted in a complete ignorance of some of the greatest works of literature, including Jane Eyre. (Unless there was a film, in which case I come perilously close to being like Cher in Clueless…) Naturally, this has also given me a considerable inferiority complex…

Thankfully, though, Alyssa was on hand to fill me in on the particulars. I imagine, therefore, that the more literature you have read, the more you will get out of this novel and, one supposes, the series as a whole. That being said, don’t let this put you off if you haven’t read Jane Eyre or other literature that is mentioned herein. There is plenty on offer that is in a similar humorous vein as Terry Pratchett’s novels, so you won’t be adrift in a sea of allusion and references. The story is strong and stands on its own, I think.

As I mentioned at the start, the novel suffers a little bit from debut-itis, in that Fforde comes across as rather self-consciously clever, not to mention stuffing the early pages with a lot of new and whimsical information and nuggets of altered history and literature. At first, I was worried I wouldn’t like this much at all, or at least as much as I had hoped.

However, I persevered, and ultimately rather enjoyed the caper and characters. Will I pick up the next in the series? Probably, as I have it on good authority that they get better and better.

This is a fun, clever, slightly silly novel that will appeal to lovers of literature and reading. For those people, I would say this is a must read.

The Series: The Eyre Affair, Lost in a Good Book, The Well of Lost Plots, Something Rotten, First Among Sequels, One of Our Thursdays is Missing, The Woman Who Died A Lot, Dark Reading Matter (forthcoming)