11.15.12: An Author’s Journey: Some Inspirations & Influences in Crafting The Codex Lacrimae, Part 1: Proud Teenage Comic Book Geek!
As promised in my last blog about fantasy fiction (“Of 6th Grade Teachers, Public Libraries, & The Hobbit…”, https://ajcarlisle.wordpress.com/2012/09/24/), this entry begins a series of blogs that offers some insight into why I chose Epic Fantasy as a genre for storytelling. Particularly, what aspects about the form inspired my writing of The Codex Lacrimae: The Mariner’s Daughter & Doomed Knight. (http://www.amazon.com/A.J.-Carlisle/)
If one of the Norn witches in my novel were fingering a skein as she sought to reveal some of those aspects, she’d probably note that the story could be told best by following the six brightly shining threads of (1) a lifelong comic book enthusiast/geek, (2) a lively fascination with Norse mythology, (3) a love of literature, (4) a fascination with Fantasy & Sci-Fi genres, (5) a passion for medieval European history, and (6) a chronic need (and general preference) to express myself through writing.
(1) Lifelong Comic Book Enthusiast (“Geek”): Or, Comic Books & Storyboarding, Pacing, and Attention to Every Panel (Oh, Yeah, & Dante’s Inferno!)
The first leg of the journey into the fantasy genre began when I was about ten years old and introduced to two very different (yet, for me, strangely parallel) entertainment forms: comic books and Norse mythology.
I’ll cover the Norse mythology thread next time, but for comic book story, here it is. My father came home from work one night and told me that there was a shop he’d just discovered that he thought I’d enjoy visiting; the next day, he took my brother and me into a gigantic warehouse at the end of a college-town mall that served as a comic book store. Now, back in the mid-1970s, a retail store devoted solely to selling comic books was something of a rare phenomenon, but from the moment I walked into the shop, I was transported into another place, filled with racks and displays of more current comic books, back issue boxes, and Sci-Fi/Fantasy magazines than I’d ever thought published. I knew that this rarity in the world was going to become a commonplace for me.
I’d picked up a comic book before that moment, of course, but most of my experience had been desultory, saving allowance money for a few .20 comic books off the drug- or grocery store racks, or picking one up when on a driving vacation with my family with nothing to do besides “stay on each side of the imaginary line” in the back seat of the car. That approach to comic books changed after stepping into that old converted warehouse! I soon discovered that the comics offered in such pharmacies and 7-11s were a mere handful of titles compared to the entirety of the lines that DC and Marvel were publishing on a monthly basis.
Thankfully, the shop was in the heart of a coastal city on a route I’d eventually take to and from my elementary, middle, and high schools, so from that age forward, much of the money I made from an allowance, odd-jobs around the neighborhood, and (eventually) teenage lines of work (landscaping & amusement park) was devoted to collecting an array of titles. I don’t know if any of the readers of this blog read (or currently read) comic books, but back then my preferences were wide-ranging, from Marvel & DC’s superhero comics (The Amazing Spider-Man, Uncanny X-Men, Fantastic Four, Superman, Batman, & The New Teen Titans) to rising independent-published books (Cerebus, Elfquest, & Love and Rockets, Miracleman), and I even sought out magazines that attempted a literary review & critique of the comics field (The Comics Journal).
The comics were a fun distraction in life, and my brother and I used to go down to a neighborhood friend’s house and trade comic books, hang out reading them, or try to figure out a way to earn some money to buy some more, lighting upon everything from yard and lemonade sales, to mowing lawns or car washes.
Now, at a remove of thirty-five years, one needs to be a bit wary of trying to analyze too much about early experiences — or retroactively insert those experiences into what one’s doing in his 40s (!) — but in looking at my journals and writings from the time, I do know that certain qualities in comic books definitely had an impact on my imagination and remain influential in my work to this day.
Foremost among those elements that I enjoyed about comics books were the episodic writing structure and sequential artwork. [Before discussing those two things, I should make a note about how the price point of comic books in the 1970s & early 1980s. Back when I started collecting, the inexpensive aspect was critically important to a 10-13 year-old kid. I could mow a lawn or clean the bleachers after a football game, earn a few bucks and come home from the pharmacy or comic store with 7 or 8 comics. For my kids, I feel as if they share the same feeling when they want to buy stuff, because in the current explosion of e-books and .99/song music they can get the same kind of cost-entertainment value ratio I felt back in the day. Allowing for having to pony up the initial money for some kind of digital medium to use (cell phone, iPod, nook, Kindle, iPad, etc.), we’re definitely living in an age where you can get a digital book for a fraction of the hardcover or paperback price!]
Back to the possible influences from comic books that affected my writing, and especially when I think about drafting The Codex Lacrimae.
The comic-book medium’s blend of story-telling and artwork left an impact on me because I always felt as if — in following the action and dialogue in the panels — I was watching a mini-movie for twenty-five or thirty cents. Not a bad entertainment for the money, but most importantly I learned something about pacing a story (in later years I’d come to learn that such a technique isn’t solely the preserve of comic-books; indeed, “storyboarding” is one of the essential first-steps film-makers employ when making a movie).
I was fortunate in that my introduction to comic books also came at a time in the history of the field when a fusion of writing and artwork were priorities for the industry as it experienced the tremors of a revolution in how comic books were perceived and sold, a revolution so dramatic that we’re still seeing remnants of it in the many comic-book based films made every year. When I was a teenager in the 1980s, there was a veritable explosion of writer/artist teams in the field who created stories that wedded strong storylines with great artwork.
To name just a few who impressed me at the time: Chris Claremont & John Byrne on The Uncanny X-Men; Marv Wolfman & George Perez’s The New Teen Titans; Alan Moore & Dave Gibbons’ Watchmen; Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez’s Love and Rockets; Alan Moore (w/Bissette, Veitch, and Totleben) on Swamp Thing; John Ostrander & Tim Truman’s Grimjack; Mike Baron & Steve Rude’s Nexus. And, of course, by the end of the decade along came Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman, a comic book from DC’s Vertigo line that would reinvent a decades’ old character and introduce a variety of different fantastic artists in its run into the mid-1990s.
On a weekly basis, I couldn’t wait to get to the comic store and see the latest comics from these creators, and don’t get me started on some of the solo efforts by writer/artists that were occurring at the same time (Mike Grell on Sable, Frank Miller on Daredevil, John Byrne’s Fantastic Four, and Howard Chaykin’s American Flagg!) For me, the connective tissue between all these works and my developing imagination was the serious attention these stories gave to high concepts wedded with artwork that consistently pushed the limits of the form.
Along the way, I was also buying back issues and discovering comic books & creators from the early 1970s and 1960s, and even able to get some black-and-white magazine-size reprints of works from the 1950s and 1960s (the Warren reprints of Will Eisner’s The Spirit, and EC Comics).
That effort introduced me to even more aspects of story-telling. The surreal worlds and dimensions of Stan Lee and Steve Ditko’s Strange Tales (Dr. Strange) showed me that you could take readers into realms so fantastic that they might think they’re witnessing an LSD trip, but with the traveling all done safely from an armchair with a comic book. Then there were Jack Kirby’s cosmic presentations in Fantastic Four and his Fourth World books, teaching me not to be afraid of expressing larger-than-life concepts because an audience will follow you anywhere if the story is solid. Finally, getting back to Earth and this dimension, even the urban renderings of Will Eisner (The Spirit) and Frank Miller (Daredevil, The Dark Knight) revealed the importance of making each panel count. I realized then that, if I were to write a story, my use of language would have to do with words what these writers and artists were doing on the comic book page. That is, it would always be a critical priority to try and render each character’s actions, expressions, and environment as vividly as if my reader were looking at a comic book panel, and conveying enough impact through pacing and storyline that the reader could be completely carried away into a different world. So, when I write a book, I do strive to remain within the literary form, but I’ve tried to never forget what that first encounter with a different world feels like, especially when rendered by the pen and pencils of the comic book writers and artists whom I so respected when growing up!
A last aspect here needs to be mentioned, especially for those readers who might have children of their own & get concerned that comic books are “trashy” or non-literary. Depending on the type of comic book (or skill of the author and/or artist), that assessment might be true; however, when I was teaching my kids to read, I used any resource available (board books, comic books, magazines, billboard ads, cereal boxes, subtitles on tv), because the main priority I had was that they read. For my own experience, as I was moving up through middle school and into high school, I found that some of the references or storylines in comic books would actually be so intriguing that my curiosity about what I saw on the comic book page would lead me to the library (again), and try to find the original source.
For example, in the early 1980s a couple of comics came out within a short time of each other that referenced Dante’s Inferno (Uncanny X-Men Annual #4 and Ka-Zar the Savage #11). Well, after reading the comics, some of the images stuck with me, and so I went to the library, checked out the Penguin Books edition of Inferno (the Dorothy Sayers one, titled Hell), and started making my way through the Infernal Circles my sophomore year in high school. Dante led me to other medieval literature, and before I knew it I was reading Malory’s Le Morte D’Arthur and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales! The mind’s an amazing thing, and you never know what one impression upon it will lead to something else — for me, that tangled path included an eventual climb up the doctoral mountain (Dante wrote a book about that, too: Purgatory), and incorporated a variety of other influences, but I’ll never forget that first thread I followed that led from an X-Men adventure to Dante Alighieri!
In short: sometimes, your kid is just reading a comic book, and that’s that. Sometimes, though, that reading might lead to something quite wonderful and unexpected, and what matters is trusting that the more informed a child gets about any subject area, the better equipped he or she will be when the time comes to make one’s own way in life.
Okay, I think that I’ve qualified enough about one aspect of the ten- to fourteen-year-old A.J.’s entertainment interests to move on to another significant background factor in my developing interest in epic fantasy.
As they say in the funny books, “To Be Continued!”
NEXT TIME: Part 2, The Greek & Norse Myths