The Influence of Sequential Art on My Novel or: How I Shoved Comics Into A Book Without Pictures
Editor’s Note: Continuing Halloween Month here at Longbox Graveyard, I am delighted to present a guest blog by Ryan McSwain, a friend-of-the-Longbox and comics fan who has just published a novel of interest to anyone loving comics and horror!
When Paul offered me the chance to talk about my new horror-thriller novel, Monsters All the Way Down, on the greatest comic book blog on the internet, I stopped sending him threatening emails. I also got pretty excited, because apparently the whole reason I wrote a book was to talk about it with folks I think would enjoy it.
look, Ma! I wrote a book!
And, with the exception of not having any pictures, Monsters All the Way Down was made for comic fans. It’s a distillation of my love for Philip K. Dick’s sci-fi, Lovecraft’s horror, and wonderful storytelling — the kind I learned from reading great comics.
My history with comic books is similar to other nerds in the late-20s and early-30s age group. I fell in love with superheroes in the early ’90s, when Superman was dead and The Punisher had as many series as Spider-Man. I jumped ship around the time of the Clone Saga, but I saved all my Marvel Universe Series 1 trading cards — just in case.
we’ll always return to the one true line-up
In my freshmen year of high school, I discovered Grown Up Comics. For me, the catalyst was a combination of The Sandman and Cerebus, and I could not get enough. Vertigo and all the great independents managed to get me back into good superhero books like Starman, Kingdom Come, and Swamp Thing. I’m a writer at heart, so I followed writers more than artists. And if Gaiman, Morrison, Ellis, or Moore wrote it, I had to read it.
So when I finally buckled down and wrote a novel, the comic influences were pretty strong. I thought I would share a few.
Neil Gaiman’s Storytelling
Neil Gaiman has a unique, refreshing approach to fantasy and horror. His fantasy feels like the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez, but Gaiman flips that on its head. Instead of maintaining a realistic world with a touch of magic, he gives us a magical world with smatterings of the mundane. This shows up in his novels, but it is so apparent in The Sandman, which starts out feeling like a tribute to Moore’s Swamp Thing and other horror comics, but came into its own in a real way.
As for his horror, Gaiman often take a subtle approach. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good slasher movie, but it’s the Corinthian’s eye teeth that keep me up at night. But Gaiman also uses adult fears — mental illness, sexual abuse, the death of a child — and he doesn’t shy away from filling a diner with dead bodies.
remember the spider-in-a-wedding-dress fad of the early ’90s?
Something I love is that Gaiman injects life into characters we only see for an issue, a page, or even a single panel. This allows him to play with point of view — he’ll introduce a character and allows us to experience the story through her eyes. I always hear that you shouldn’t switch POV, but Gaiman does it with style. One of my favorite examples is Miracleman: The Golden Age. Gaiman brings immediate life to the characters of that world, and it allows us to comprehend the consequences of fantastic actions.
One of the best aspects of Sandman — and James Robinson’s Starman — is that everything has a payoff. Characters and concepts introduced in the first volume come to the forefront in the tenth. That’s a miracle that only happen in serial fiction when the creative team has consistency. I’m trying to pull this off with my work; Monsters is full of its own setups and payoffs, but it also has a few details that will pop up in my second and third books.
Brian Michael Bendis’ Annoying Dialogue
Some people dislike Bendis’ dashes and ums, but reading his dialogue was a revelation for me. I first found him in Jinx and Powers, and the genuineness and pacing of his word balloons felt like a great indie movie or the most clever late-night conversation you’ve ever had with your friends.
it’s clever because we know what they’re talking about
Another source for interesting dialogue is Joss Whedon. I’m a proud owner of Michael Adams’ Slayer Slang, a book explaining how to create Buffy Speak, the delightfully bizarre way characters talk in Whedon’s shows. Does anyone actually talk like they do in a Whedon or Bendis script? Probably not. But wouldn’t it be great if they did?
James Robinson’s Tone, Combat, and Love for Fictional History
Robinson’s Starman is one of the best comic series of all time. The art from Tony Harris and Peter Snejbjerg is outstanding, and, like Sandman, it’s an epic story complete unto itself. It’s superhero reconstruction at its finest, and DC should be shamed for letting the collections go out of print.
The tone is perfect. Jack Knight, rebellious son of the Golden Age Starman, lives in a world of actual dangers and real villains. It’s lighthearted at the right times, triumphant on occasion, and soul crushing when it needs to be. I think Starman is, at its core, a story of redemption. This really shows when Jack (the prodigal son), The Shade (the villain), and Matt O’Dare (the dirty cop) literally go to hell and back.
Robinson’s way of handling combat was a major inspiration for the way my characters try to survive the events of my book. During a bout in Starman, you know exactly what’s at stake, and every action affects the situation at hand. Two great examples that spring to mind: Jack’s first flying fight over the Opal City and the time The Mist captures Jack, strips of his weapons and clothes, and leaves him to fight his way out of a warehouse full of goons.
the time he traded in his cosmic rod for a hammer and crowbar
Starman is a love story to DC’s rich continuity. Robinson’s love of history doesn’t stop with established stories, either; you can tell he has mapped out the history of Opal City and its many inhabitants. I try to provide a similar feeling of existence in my work.
If the inner-workings of my feverish mind haven’t driven you away, please check out my book on Amazon. You can also get signed copies from my site. I blog there, too. Folks have enjoyed hearing my advice for finishing first draft, how I make time to write as a stay-at-home dad, and how long it takes to write a novel. You can also find me on Twitter, Facebook, and Goodreads.
My next novel will be out in 2015, and it’s completely, totally, and overtly about comic books — and maybe a bit about obsession and the nature of reality. Hopefully I’ll see you here again to talk about how Kurt Busiek showed me how to build a universe.
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Thanks, Ryan … congratulations on the publication of your novel, and we definitely want you back when that next book debuts in 2015!