by Sandy Auden
This column: Liam Sharp talks about new book God Killers, wish-fulfilment heroic
sagas, and being under the influence of Moorcock and Silverberg; Alex Irvine does the double
with controversial new novel Buyout and brand new comic adventure
with Daredevil Noir; and John Higgins on the Watchmen movie
and his new twisted story in the collected Razorjack graphic novel.
Artist and new author Liam Sharp has achieved one of his life-long ambitions with the publication of his debut novella and short-story collection, God Killers. He has an excellent career history as an artist that spans prominent companies like Marvel, DC Comics and 2000AD but writing God Killers has been very special for him.
"Art is such an immediate medium that it's an easier sell," says Sharp. "Like many artists I know I actually prefer writing to producing artwork. You can cover so much more ground, it's far more personal, and it's got a lot more room for visual interpretation by the beholder. Comics give you the story too, so you are rarely being asked to fully utilise your imagination. I like the idea that you can paint pictures just as vividly using words.
"Writing also covers more ground in more time than drawing. In the time it takes to draw a single page, or paint a picture, you can win whole battles, or lose them, in prose. You can traverse a great land-mass or write a complete short story. That, for me at least, is far more satisfying creatively.
"I've always wanted to get my writing published and now it's out there."
Sharp's story "Machivarius Point" forms the main novella in the collection but what's it all about? "Three ancient souls are locked into a terrible, shared fate. Three lovers, the destiny of two worlds borne on giant's shoulders. Across worlds -- united by the Kiazmus, a causeway that spans the heavens -- magic fades, ideologies are challenged, and hope may lie in the least likely place imaginable," enthuses Sharp.
"It's very much an ensemble. I've condensed enough story for a very big trilogy into 250 pages -- it was a lot bigger but I was brutal in the edit. There's no one main character and it's not clear who is good or bad or what motivates them. Very bad things happen!"
It's a deep read, full of thoughtful comments and alternative views and there's a reason for that. "I'm an armchair wannabe-anthropologist, philosopher, scientist and theologist -- in the very broadest, most lay sense! I'm fascinated by theological debate, the origins of myth and religion, civilisation in general. I'm enamoured of subjects like String Theory, and the notion of multiple universes. And also philosophical notions, the whole Jungian collective subconscious idea -- these subjects are just such great places to begin when you're constructing a story.
"I'm no expert in any of these areas, but they excite me hugely. Ethics, power, corruption, what is really good and what could be called evil. What man does to man. They've shaped my thinking, how I view the universe, and in turn they've become important themes in what I write."
And there were other influences on the story too. "I think the way I see it is as a progression -- a journey both through my experiences in life, my reading habits and my evolution as a writer. As was pointed out recently to me, you can quite clearly trace the lineage. It starts in very much an old classic pulp form, almost an homage to Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. After that you can see a little Moorcock and Silverberg with some Feist-like scale (though not literal volume!), which moves again into, I hope, a more M. John Harrison-inspired type narrative -- particularly in the related short stories. It owes a debt to Viriconium. But there's a little Barker-esque horror, and I would love to say some China Miéville too with regard to invention -- particularly when it comes to a couple of the locations.
"When I first seriously dreamt of writing a fantasy novel I was in my teens and loved wish-fulfilment heroic sagas with a dark edge. As I grew older I started to broaden my taste, and fell in love with Gabriel Garcia Marques, Will Self, and much later Flann O' Brien and Joyce -- big literary figures. That meant my somewhat naïve, simplistic themes had to develop into something I could believe in, something that reflected my broadening world view.
"So that's kind of what I set out to do, to write an epic fantasy with a sense of reality that wasn't predictable but still offered enough of the staples to, hopefully, be enjoyed by lovers of the genre. I wanted my creation to have reasonable integrity, but still be a thumping good entertainment -- if not exactly an escape!"
And that's exactly what he's done in God Killers.
Alex Irvine does the double -- novel Buyout and comic Daredevil Noir both released
Alex Irvine has taken a current American crisis and turned it into a bone-chilling thriller. In real-life 2009, several States in America have started to release prisoners early because they can't sustain the cost of keeping them incarcerated. Yahoo News (in April 2009) has reported that "1 in every 100 Americans is behind bars while another 1 out of 31 is on probation or parole."
Using that as his starting point, Irvine's new novel Buyout proposes a controversial solution. In theory, buyouts offer convicted murderers the chance to atone for their crimes by voluntarily allowing themselves to be put to death by the state -- in exchange for a one-time cash payment (shared among their heirs and victims), calculated from what it would have cost taxpayers to house and feed them for the rest of their natural lives.
It's a win-win situation. At least that's what Martin Kindred believes. And Martin is a man who desperately needs something to believe in, especially with his marriage coming apart and the murder of his brother unsolved. As the public face of the buyout program, Martin is a lightning rod for verbal and physical abuse -- but he embraces every challenge, knowing his motives are pure. But he has to question everything when evidence comes to light that a felon in line for a buyout may have been involved with his brother's death.
The idea for the book has been germinating in Irvine's head since 2000 when he first read an article about the growth of the private prison industry, but why did it take so long to come to fruition? "That's a simple question with a complicated answer," Irvine says. "The short version would be that I tried it in a number of different forms before figuring out whether it should be a novel or a screenplay or something else. Then, once I'd settled on that, it took me a long time to find what seemed like the right way to tell the story.
"The hardest thing was getting the supporting characters right. My notebooks are scattered with all kinds of interesting people who were supposed to be in this book but never made it because I couldn't make them work in the story."
The story may be full of fictional characters but the situation is very real. How realistic did he want to make the book? "There's no current government policy assigning a market value to the lives of prison inmates, of course -- but the costs of the prison industry are constantly anatomised and one of the ongoing problems is simply that it costs a lot of money to keep people incarcerated under anything approximating humane conditions.
"I've done a fair bit of research into prison issues: sentencing inequities, privatisation and so forth, and one of the real problems on the horizon for American prisons is the hundreds of thousands of inmates serving long sentences. They're getting older, and as they get older they get much, much more expensive. With more and more prisons being privatised, the aging of the prison population is going to create tremendous market pressures on private prison companies to keep costs down.
"So the book is looking at an invented consequence of a complex of very real actions, from mandatory sentencing laws to the creation of the prisoner-as-commodity that is the fundamental reality of privatized corrections. It's as realistic as I could make it if the reader grants the initial premise of the life-term buyout."
The book is clearly packed with ethical questions but, "I would say there are two main ones. One: In a market economy that commodifies everything from labour to life expectancy, what are the ethics of taking the next step and placing a market value on the life of a human being? Not in a notional way, but in a real way, as in: Mister Jones, your life as of today is worth x million dollars. In ten years, it will be worth 0.75x... and so on.
"We dance around this question with life insurance, and one of the motivating ideas behind Buyout came to me when I read about AIDS patients who were cashing in their life insurance policies while they were still alive. Essentially they were transforming those policies from a valuation based on the future and risk to a valuation based on consumer choice and corporate avarice. Philosophically, the step from that to life-term buyouts isn't as large as we might like to think.
"Two: When circumstances demand that you violate your own abstract ethics to fulfil a more direct and powerful ethical obligation, what do you do? In other words, how important are your ideals? How willing are you to throw away one ideal if that's the only way you can adhere to another? How do you decide which of your ideals are more important?"
Those are some pretty hefty questions so why did he decide to take these issues on? "In a nutshell, because I wasn't sure how I felt about them. If I knew how I felt about all of the questions in a book before I wrote it, I wouldn't be able to see it through to the end. I am against capital punishment in a philosophical sense because I think revenge shouldn't be part of the legal structure of a civilized society; on the other hand, I can sure imagine scenarios in which someone could do something to the people I love that would make me want to reconsider my opposition to capital punishment. So is my opposition absolute or situation dependent? I don't know.
"And when you add the question of money into it, everything gets even more fraught. If people were allowed to take life-term buyouts, and the proceeds of those buyouts put a bunch of underprivileged kids through college or sponsored research that cured cancer, would buyouts be a bad thing? I want to say yes, because I'm horrified by the idea of human life having a commodity value. On the other hand, it would be a wonderful thing for humanity if someone would cure cancer.
"So I wrote the book to get a sense of those questions. I still think I'm against capital punishment, and would do everything I could to prevent buyouts from becoming law if there was ever a real question of that happening."
And what does he hope the reader will take away after the final page? "I hope they will go through some of the same questions I did, and come to whatever reasoned conclusions make sense. Also I hope the reader will dig the conspiracies and counterplots, the broken hearts and loyal friendships. Because the book is about those things too. If it was just about a philosophical question, it wouldn't be good fiction. Everything I write is about people. They're more interesting than philosophy."
Irvine's other new release is from Marvel Knights and comes in the shape of a four issue comic story -- Daredevil Noir.
For P.I. Foggy Nelson and his loyal assistant Matt Murdock, it all starts when a desperate woman comes to their office with an irresistible story about her and a gangster called Halloran. To Foggy, she's a client -- to Murdock, she's enough to make Halloran Daredevil's next target. But Murdock is about to find out that half-truths are poison truths and before he realises it, he's on a collision course with both the old Kingpin and the man who wants to replace him.
It's perhaps natural that Irvine has ended up writing comics. "I've read comics all my life, with some variance in dedication during times when other things got more interesting for a while. Before I started writing fiction, I wanted to write comics. I wanted to write everything, really. So when I started to write comics (Hellstorm: Son of Satan) after [my novel] The Narrows came out, it was a return to a goal that I'd sort of abandoned along the way.
"Then when I wrote The Vertigo Encyclopedia, I got steeped all over again in a bunch of old favorites that I hadn't read in a long time and in parallel with that I got an education in all of the other Vertigo books that I hadn't caught when they came out. I like both writing comics and writing about comics -- and I'm teaching a course in the graphic novel at the University of Maine this fall."
Using his long-standing interest, it's easy for Irvine to identify the important elements needed for a good Daredevil story. "The best Daredevil stories have been detective stories and have really tried to get into what it must be like for a guy with intensely elevated senses to live in one of the noisiest, smelliest places on the planet. But maybe I think that because that's the kind of Daredevil story I always wanted to write and Daredevil Noir was the perfect way to do that. And of course the noir story needs a femme fatale, preferably with a shocking secret. You can bet I didn't miss that chance."
Irvine likes like noir stories. "They interest me because it's always about a pretty good person trying to be a little better and the ways that the world never wants him to be better. It's also about a guy who has to find his own way because the institutions of the state fail him.
"If you think about the great noir books, they're never about cops. They're about PIs, rogue vigilantes, et cetera. The decks are stacked against them because they always have to operate outside of normal and accepted procedures, so they're fighting both the bad guys and the good guys…and all the while, they need to keep their moral compass oriented in the right way. It's a terrific template for a story."
And Irvine has popped Daredevil into just such a template and brought the character right down-to-earth. "He doesn't have any superpowers, unless you count his enhanced senses, which are really just an accentuated version of a well-known phenomenon. That means that he has to deal with things on a human level instead of being able to resort to superpowers to stack the deck in his favour.
"Superpowers are great fun, but the comic heroes without them have always appealed to me because their stories can combine the narrative brio of the superhero story with a more realistic take on the feelings of alienation and loneliness that come along with being a costumed vigilante. That's always attracted me to Daredevil.
"Also, I wanted to investigate some of the psychological consequences of his enhanced senses. Essentially he's a human lie detector with an accompanying sense of certainty that he can't be fooled. Well, once his adversaries figure that out, how can they use that certainty against him? That's what this story is about.
New Razorjack Story From Artist and Writer John Higgins
Probably best known for his role of colourist on the Watchmen graphic novel, John Higgins also has his own strange and wonderful comic series called Razorjack and Higgins has news about happenings in the Twist Dimension.
Not only are the existing Razorjack stories being collected together by Indy comics company Com.x but "I have just completed a new four page comic strip for the collection," says Higgins. "All I had wanted to do with Razorjack was to create my own world outside of what I had been commissioned to do all my professional life. As much as I love working on Batman, Spiderman or even Watchmen, it has always been as a gun for hire.
"Now that doesn't stop you from being the best you can be, the best artist, the best writer, the best colourist or the best anyone, of the long production line of creative people that makes the book that goes on the shelves. But I had a story I wanted to tell, a story that no one else could tell, it was a John Higgins story. It is not profound, it won't make you look at the world around you in a different way and it will never win the Nobel Prize for literature. It is just a horror story populated by weird creatures, with colourful art and nice designs. It kept me entertained writing, drawing and colouring it on and off for around ten years. Finally it is collected into one book."
Weird creatures is an accurate description and the death-bitch Razorjack is the weirdest of all. The story starts with a sequence of bizarre events that create an unstable nexus and enables Razorjack and her twisted handmaidens the opportunity to finally break through into our world. Three college kids inadvertently create the opening from the alternate universe of The Twist Dimension and become a focus for the evil that is Razorjack. Maverick cops, Frame and Ross, are assigned a disturbingly horrific multiple-murder case which draws them into what is potentially the final battle between good and evil.
And the new four page story," Higgins says, "is called "Dead Fall" or "Further Tales Of The Trans-Dimensional Detective, His Sidekick And The Big Black House Full Of Doors." Which is basically the whole story in the title.
"It was important to me to re-master the collected edition and not to just collect together the old books so the new work is told within the basic premise of the Razorjack world but it has settled down now with Frame and Ross as almost freelance 'world protectors' dealing with the horrific and sordid incursions from the Twist dimension initiated by Razorjack who now knows we exist. Too bad for us!"
So who are Ross and Frame? "They're the classic hard bitten older detective and talented young rookie that he mentors; we have the male/female divide; young with new ideas rubbing against the old classic tried and tested formula. Will the mutual respect turn into anything deeper? These and more elements are what I hope will give the story line a resonance that would require multiple readings and many enjoyable returns to my twisted world."
And that twisted world is gorgeously surreal and alien. "I have always loved stories that have taken me away here and now. Whether it be, a medieval sinew straining, smiting and twatting bloodfest, or a drug dealing crime ridden police procedural story set in down town Baltimore.
"But if you give me a strange alien world populated by bug eyed monsters that produce sounds so beautiful you sit entranced with a smile on your face while they eat you from your feet up -- if you can make me believe in that then you have given me an inspired reading moment which is story-telling skill of the highest order. That is what I tried to achieve with the Twist dimension of Razorjack."
And who knows -- Razorjack may even make it to the big screen one day, like Watchmen. Higgins, naturally, got to attend the Watchmen première so what did he think? "I think it is the most sophisticated action adventure movie I have ever seen, whether or not that makes it a great movie I cannot say as I feel too close to the graphic novel at the moment, give me two more viewings to put it into a stand-by-itself movie perspective, then I will know."
And how did he feel seeing it up there on the big screen? "I welled up. Seriously!"
Sandy Auden is currently working as an enthusiastic interviewer/reviewer for SFX magazine; a tireless news hound for Starburst magazine; and a diligent interviewer/reviewer for Interzone magazine and SF Site. She spends her spare time lying down with a cold flannel on her forehead. For background information, visit www.sandyauden.co.uk.
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