Why Prose?

The subject of my novel, The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship, comes up pretty frequently in conversation. Even when I’m not shamelessly self-promoting (which, I’ll admit, is pretty frequently these days), it pops up in normal conversation when I’m meeting somebody new or catching up with an old friend. I’ve found, over the course of many such interactions, that the conversation usually goes a little something like this:

Me: I’ve been doing well. I recently published my first novel on the Kindle platform.

Friend: Oh! That’s exciting! What’s it about?

Me: It’s a superhero murder mystery.

Friend:…So, it’s a graphic novel?

Me: No, just a regular prose novel.

Friend: (confused look)

It’s not that these people don’t understand me or that they’re unimaginative, it’s just that the idea of superheroes is so deeply entrenched in the medium of comic books and graphic novels that when they hear the word “superhero,” their first reaction is to assume that I’m referring to a comic. It’s understandable; while superhero movies have been huge blockbusters in recent years, and superhero novels, though uncommon, have been written and published for many years now, people still think of superheroes as a subject matter reserved for four-color print.

When it comes down to it, the question that’s raised in all of these conversations is, if I’m telling a story about superheroes, why didn’t I do it as a graphic novel or comic? The short answer is that, to me, prose was the right choice.

I knew from the beginning that I wanted to tell what was, at its heart, a detective story. That’s the reason I always describe Hero Worship as a murder mystery; it’s about a detective on the trail of a killer. The only difference here is that our detective dresses up as a giant cat and can climb walls and traverse skylines. To me, the best detective stories have always been novels, or at least short stories. From Sherlock Holmes to Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe, and even to modern detective characters like Lincoln Rhyme and Harry Dresden, prose has always been the medium I most associate with detective tales. And I think the main reason for this purely mechanical; in a work of prose, you’re expected to be wordy.

In prose, you can get inside a character’s thought processes to an extent and depth that just doesn’t work in any other medium. If you attempted to do that in film, it would result in so much voiceover narration that the audience members would tear their hair out in frustration. If you tried it in comic book form, the word balloons would fill the page and crowd out the artwork. Believe me, I know; I’ve seen comic book adaptations of mystery novels like Laurell K. Hamilton’s Anita Blake: Vampire Hunter books, and in their attempt to preserve the tone of the work, the adaptors included so many narration boxes that I may as well have been reading the novel.

You have to be a lot more selective when including character narration and internal monologue in a comic form. Frankly, I think that would have gutted my ability to portray the character of Greg Chambers the way I wanted to. Hero Worship, in addition to being a detective story, is a character study. I wanted to portray Greg as a faceted character, to not only convey his skill, dedication and intelligence, but his self-doubt, his frailty, his paranoia. My goal is to write a character who is larger than life, but simultaneously human and flawed without being a caricature. I’m not sure I could have achieved the same effect if Hero Worship were done as a graphic novel.

In addition, the structure of the story I had in mind was better suited for a prose novel than for a graphic novel. One trend I’ve noticed in comic books as the medium has attempted to change and mature over the years is that often they’ll tell stories where not much happens from a visual standpoint. I’ve read comic series that could go four or five issues without a genuine action beat or fight scene, just because they were so bogged down in character drama that nothing else could happen. Reading those books, I would think to myself that, for all that was happening from a visual standpoint, I might as well be reading a prose novel. Hero Worship is paced a lot like that; all in all, there are five or six big (but exciting!) action moments or fight scenes in the entire novel. The rest of it is character dialogue, introspection and investigation–not a formula that lends itself very well to a superhero comic.

The best comic books and graphic novels are the ones that take advantage of the medium they’re written in. They have fight scenes, action beats and visuals that simply would lose too much of their potency if conveyed verbally. Moments like the wordless, issue-long brawl between Superman and Doomsday, or Shadowcat phasing a 10-mile long bullet through the entire Earth in Astonishing X-Men, or the bizarre, intricately detailed machinery and mutations on display in Akira–these are the things that make comics and graphic novels work as a medium. Even subtle visual elements, like a character’s expression or a beat taken up by a silent panel, can make a comic emotionally powerful.

And while, as a prose writer, I’m often complimented on my fight scenes and visual descriptions, I think these scenes work because they help serve as a window into Greg’s thoughts and they allow the reader’s imagination to do a lot of the heavy lifting, something that you absolutely cannot rely on in a visual medium like comics, where stories live or die by their artwork. In addition, most of my humor is verbal; it’s based on snark, wit, and descriptions rather than visual elements.

Comics and graphic novels are their own medium, with unique strengths and weaknesses. And the weakest stories in that medium are always the ones that ignore or forget to utilize those strengths and skirt around those weaknesses. A story that would work in one medium might fail in another, and that’s my reason for writing Hero Worship as a prose novel in a nutshell; prose is simply where that story belonged, superheroes or no.

On Sexism and Superheroes 2: The Quickening

Having just written a blog post on the topic of sexism in superhero comics, I honestly thought about emending that piece with what I’m about to write. Then I realized that would likely double the length of my last entry, so here we are. New post, almost the exact same topic.

About 48 hours after posting my last entry, this came to my attention. Apparently, DC Comics is holding a contest, asking aspiring artists to send in their work, with the winner having their work included in the first issue of the new Harley Quinn solo series. This sounds harmless enough on its face, until you read further and get to the actual descriptions of what DC is requiring the entrants to draw.

Namely, contest submissions must consist of Harley Quinn in four specific situations, attempting to commit suicide, with the last entry depicting her naked in a bathtub, about to electrocute herself with a myriad of household appliances.

Naturally, this has resulted in a storm of controversy, to such a degree that, if you Google the phrase “Harley Quinn Suicide,” the contest page currently comes up as the eighth result–below a series of articles and blog posts decrying the contest. DC hasn’t issued a response to the public reaction yet, aside from publisher and artist Jim Lee taking to Twitter and engaging in a rambling lecture regarding the importance of context, panel placement, and several meme photos joking about suicide. Suffice to say, DC doesn’t seem to understand problems inherent to the idea behind this contest, and with the trends of their writing and editorial decisions for the past several years.

To provide some background for those of you who aren’t as familiar with comics, Harley Quinn is a character from the Batman mythos. She is a sometime-henchwoman and lover of the Joker. She was created as an original character for Batman: The Animated Series. She proved so popular that DC incorporated her into the Batman comics themselves. Despite her status as a villain, she’s a beloved fan-favorite character, equal parts Manic Pixie Dream Girl and dangerous criminal, and equally entertaining in both capacities. However, Harley is also portrayed in a very sympathetic fashion at times, as she’s mentally ill, and her relationship with the Joker, as you might guess, is both abusive and violent, and has been the subject of a particularly heart-wrenching episode of Batman: TAS.

If you don’t see the problem with a contest asking budding artists to depict a well-loved character, who is both mentally ill and a victim of domestic violence, killing herself, then you probably work for DC Comics.

As many critics have already pointed out, suicide is a serious subject matter, especially when placed in the context of mental illness. It’s not a subject to be broached lightly, and while I’m not one to claim that something “can’t be funny,” making good joke about something as serious as suicide and mental illness requires a very deft hand and a great comedic talent, both of which are things that DC’s current stable of writers is, by and large, lacking.

While Jim Lee’s comments about context certainly hold true, DC put this contest out in the public eye without any context to ground it. We don’t know the circumstances under which Harley would be trying to kill herself. We don’t know how they’re going to fit into the larger context of the story of Harley Quinn #0, and we won’t know until that issue is released in November. So maybe we are being unfair and judging the joke out of context, but DC put themselves in this situation. Without that context, all we have to go on are the descriptions that DC has provided us and, at the risk of setting myself up as the Grand High Arbiter of Jokes, what they’ve given us isn’t funny!

The second issue, and the one that most people seem to have with the contest, is the notion that DC is sexualizing suicide, particularly with the last requested drawing, which has Harley nude in a bathtub about to die. Now, I will say that in and of itself, this isn’t inherently sexual. Frankly, if I were about to kill myself by dropping a toaster into the bathtub with me, I’m reasonably certain I would be nude. Logically, it follows that Harley would be as well, given the circumstances.

However, to borrow an argument from Jim Lee, we have to look at this instruction in the context of what DC has been doing with the character of Harley Quinn in recent years. So, again, for those of you who don’t know, this is what Harley looked like when she was introduced in Batman: TAS:

This is how the character was introduced, and it’s how she was depicted in comics for years afterward; clothed head-to-toe in a harlequin’s costume. No exposed skin anywhere except for her face. Certainly there is a degree of sensuality to the character, but there’s nothing overtly sexual or exploitative about the way she’s depicted.

However, in 2011, DC rebooted their universe continuity and relaunched all their series as part of their “New 52″ initiative. Many characters received costume redesigns and Harley, unfortunately, was one of them:

Suddenly, the character has exposed skin all over the place; the full-body unitard is replaced by thigh-high stockings, short-shorts and a tiny corset that exposes her midriff and a generous portion of gratuitous cleavage. She isn’t even wearing her trademark harlequin cap anymore. Now a character whose design was extremely subdued and underplayed in terms of her sexuality is dramatically overplayed.

In the context of the changes the character has undergone, that decision to put Harley naked in a bathtub right before she kills herself seems a lot less innocent and a lot more like the kind of fantasy that’s usually reserved for the more seedy, disturbing corners of the Internet. And this isn’t some random website’s idea, it’s DC’s. DC Comics decided that the best way to promote this new comic and find new talent was to request that would-be artists depict one of their most popular characters in a scenario that would probably get somebody banned from DeviantArt.

The sad part is, this isn’t even that shocking in the context of a lot of DC’s editorial decisions in recent years. The last several years of DC’s work have been rife with unnecessary shock deaths, strange romantic pairings to appeal to the Twilight crowd, and truly bizarre character designs and re-conceptions. And while every company does a stupid, poorly-planned promotion every now and again, DC’s recent history of bad decisions makes it clear that this is more than just a fluke; it’s the inevitable result of flaws that are endemic to the way the company is being managed and run.

The people in charge at DC need to make some major changes to the way they do business, and do so with a quickness. Because if they keep on this downward spiral, pretty soon they’ll be so far down even Superman himself couldn’t pull them back out.

On Sexism and Superheroes

There’s been a growing debate among various subsets of “geek” culture about male privilege and sexism and how it manifests itself in science fiction, fantasy, video games and comic books, among other things. Obviously, this is an issue that’s been around for a while, but for some reason, it’s really been coming to a head in the last couple of years. Maybe because women, as a demographic, have developed an increased interest in these things, or maybe it’s just a function of the media calling attention to “girl geeks” and the resulting debate about whether or not “fake girl geeks” are a thing. Regardless of the cause, any time there’s a news article or a post about the portrayal of women in games, comics, etc., the forum or comments section will invariably explode into a flame war on the subject.

For the purposes of this post, I’m just going to be focusing on superheroes and comic books, since that’s really the portion of the debate that hits me where I live, though you could take just about anything I’m going to say and apply it equally to video games, or any other “geek” medium.

Anybody who’s picked up a superhero comic in the last twenty years has probably noticed that there are some serious double-standards in play regarding how male and female characters are depicted. Male heroes and villains, with very few exceptions, are drawn as being fully clothed, albeit usually in something along the lines of a skintight jumpsuit. Take Superman, for example:

Superman’s costume consists of a unitard-type outfit that covers his whole torso, arms and legs, the infamous “undies outside the pants” covering his pelvic region, flat boots and a cape. Most male superhero costumes conform to this basic design to varying degrees. And while the suit is tight and shows off his musculature, he is unquestionably clothed. He’s not in any danger of being stopped by a Metropolis cop and being asked to cover up.

As for women…well, let’s take a look at one of Superman’s female counterparts (and yes, there is more than one), Power Girl:

The most well-covered portion of her anatomy is her arms, which are completely covered, and unlike Superman, she actually does wear gloves. But that’s about where the similarities end. Power Girl’s unitard ends in what amounts to a bikini bottom, leaving her legs and a good portion of her hips completely exposed (some illustrators draw this almost more like a thong, exposing still more skin). And then in place of Superman’s “S” emblem, there’s Power Girl’s infamous “boob window,” which exposes her cleavage to such a degree that she’s either holding herself in with Kryptonian tactile telekinesis or with double-stick tape. For her sake, I hope it’s the former.

Admittedly, Power Girl is one of the more extreme examples of this, but the trend holds true for the majority of female superheroes; their costumes are designed with titillation, rather than functionality, first in mind. This is coupled with a tendency of artists to draw female characters in poses that, in the best-case scenario, can be described as “cheesecake:”

and in the worst-case scenario can be described as “physically impossible:”

And in case you were wondering, no, a hyper-flexy spine is not one of Starfire’s superpowers.

These trends were a lot more common in the early-to-mid ’90s, what has been referred to as the “Dark Age” of comics, but they’re still around (both of the pictures I linked were from DC’s “New 52″ reboot of 2011) and even the more sensibly-clothed heroines fall victim to them.

In case my tone didn’t give it away already, I’m of the opinion that depicting female characters irrationally posed and unclothed is detrimental to comics as a medium. Superheroes are more popular than ever, and comics companies like DC and Marvel are trying to capitalize on that fact. They are doing everything they can to draw in new readers, and yes, to bring in that coveted female demographic.

To all the guys out there, let’s reverse the positions here; say you saw The Avengers, and you thought it was pretty cool, so you decided you should give the comics a shot. You pick up the latest issue of Avengers, only to find Cap, Thor, Iron Man and the Hulk looking like they stole their wardrobe from the set of Magic Mike and, apropos of nothing, striking poses out of an Abercrombie & Fitch catalogue. Would you want to keep reading that comic? Would you ever want to buy another? Or would you walk away feeling weird and alienated by it?

And to answer the next rote argument that invariably surfaces when this topic comes up, no, male characters in comic books are not treated the same way the female ones are. True, almost all of them are fit and good-looking, but the difference lies in how they’re portrayed. The portrayal of male characters is straight out of a male power fantasy; the men are, with few exceptions, huge and muscular. They’re barrel-chested behemoths that look like they could tear through a tank with their bare hands. They’re almost always fully clothed or if they’re in a state of undress, it’s on par with Schwarzenegger being shirtless, not being dressed like a Chippendale’s dancer. They are not designed to titillate an audience. The female characters indisputably are.

I’m not being a prude here; I’m not saying that it’s wrong to include characters who are depicted as sensual or even a little erotic. What I am saying is that when virtually every female character is depicted that way whether it suits her character and her role in the story or not, the work ceases to be sensual or erotic and starts pandering to the lowest common denominator. It stops being a story about larger-than-life heroes and becomes Maxim.

This hyper-sexualization becomes an even bigger problem when you consider that most female characters are already marginalized in comic books. For those of you out there who are comic fans, here’s a little intellectual exercise for you; I want you to name any DC Universe heroines who meet both of these criteria:

1. They are a major, easily recognizable A-list character.

2. They are not a Rule 63 version of a major male character (so no Supergirl, Batgirl, etc.)

The list is pretty short, isn’t it? Marvel does better in this regard, but while they have a lot of well-known female characters, they’re almost exclusively members of teams like the X-Men or Avengers. They rarely star in their own series. And that’s not even taking into account that most female characters in comic books aren’t even superheroes or villains at all; they’re supporting cast members. They’re girlfriends, or mothers, or aunts, or sisters or acquaintances. They aren’t important enough to be at the center of the story.

So to every comic company executive who wants to draw in female readers, and to every male comic fan who has ever wondered why there aren’t more female comic fans, ask yourself this; if you were a woman, would you want to read these books as they are? Because I don’t think I would.

Publishing Status

Hello, everybody! I’ve got a few announcements to make regarding publication changes for The Astonishing Bobcat: Hero Worship.

First off, for those of you who have been waiting on a Nook version of Hero Worship, I’m happy to announce that the book will be released on the Nook platform on December 31st, 2013–just in time for the New Year! I’ll make another announcement once the Nook version is up and provide a link on the site, just as I did for the Kindle version.

Second, I’m excited to announce that as of today, I’ll be entering into a temporary exclusivity deal with Amazon for the digital publication of Hero Worship! What this means for Kindle readers is that Hero Worship will be available as part of Amazon’s Kindle Lending Library. During this 90-day deal, Amazon Prime members can check out the book free of charge. And for those of you who aren’t Prime members, I’ll be arranging five free giveaway days before the end of the year, so non-Prime members will have a chance to check out the book at no cost. I’ll post updates here and with several book review websites when I’m ready to announce the dates for those giveaways, so stay tuned!

Third, I’m still looking into print publishing for those who would prefer to buy Hero Worship as a physical book. I’m looking into my options there, as there are many on-demand publishing companies out here, and I’m trying to find the best option for myself and for my readers. I’ll post any new information on that process as it becomes available. And if any publishers out there would be interested in doing a print run of my book, please feel free to contact me via the information contained in my “Contact” section above.

Finally, thanks to all my readers and everybody who has purchased my book up to this point. I appreciate your support more than you’ll ever know. And if you haven’t already, please post a review of the book to Amazon.

Happy reading!