ROBERT HOOD’s long career in the fantasy/horror/SF/crime genres has always had a dark, fantastical edge. With over 150 stories published, many re-printed in his three collections to date (most recently Creeping in Reptile Flesh), his is a significant presence in the field. His novels include Backstreets and the Shades series. A dark fantasy novel, Fragments of a Broken Land: Valarl Undead, is due out in 2012 from Borgo Press (US). Hood’s website can be found at www.roberthood.net.
Your blog, Undead Backbrain, is an essential resource for fans of horror, featuring zombies, robots and giant monsters. But you are also a major fan of superhero comics. Where did your love of superheroes come from? What superhero related works are you reading at the moment, and what would you recommend to people coming to the genre?
I’ve had that particular obsession since I was a teenager and 20-something uni student, back in the mid-to-late 60s and into the 70s. For me this was when Marvel first hit its stride – at least in the form that I loved.
Back then I had a vision of what comics could do as an artform – the combination of drawing and writing gradually becoming a new and accepted fictional genre, not just a commercial oddity. Maybe that’s one of the things that led me to study the works of poet/artist William Blake for my postgraduate thesis. Blake was an artist as much as a writer and his books really need both pictures and words to properly convey his meaning. They are closely intertwined. He even invented his own world of Gods and Monsters, which he used to explore his unique vision of human life and society. He would have been a comic artist/writer, if he were alive today. After all, the line between gods and superheroes is virtually indistinguishable.
However, by the time I left Uni and full-time work became more demanding, the development of the “graphic novel” as I envisaged it hadn’t happened yet (except perhaps for some isolated examples, such as in Burne Hogarth’s gorgeous renderings of the Tarzan stories, which had even been adopted by the artistic elite as “high art”). The necessities of moving about, paying bills and all that real-world stuff convinced me to sell the huge stash of comics I’d been lugging around — and I stopped reading them as such.
It wasn’t until a few years ago that I fully realized that much had happened in the graphic novel field since I last paid any attention to it. Mike Mignola’s Hellboy stories, Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead and Alan Moore’s Watchman started me off, and then I stumbled upon DC’s huge “event” sequence, Blackest Night – where a sort of superhero zombie apocalypse consumes the world of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and the Green Lantern – and out of curiosity bought the main sequence in book form. They were such beautiful books, with artwork that is stunningly dynamic, complex and painterly, no longer simply four-colour two-dimensional “cartoons”. It was like a revelation. I hunted down and read every iteration of the Blackest Night Event – all 80-odd cross-over comics – in book form mostly, and occasional comics and e-comics, when trades weren’t available. I loved it for its gorgeous art (especially that of Ivan Reis), its complexity and its sheer audaciousness. It’s not perfect by any means (and I’d hesitate recommending it to anyone unfamiliar with the DC Universe due to its rampantly self-referential nature – though if you’re willing to engage with it and follow the various threads you’ll quickly acquire the requisite knowledge), but given the logistics, it was an amazing achievement, especially when all issues are read sequentially.
As a result of all this exposure I began looking elsewhere and realized that much development had been happening since the 1990s. Not big news to some, but I hadn’t been paying attention. Moore’s work (including his brutal Batman: The Killing Joke and his re-boot of Swamp Thing) led me to Frank Miller’s 1990s re-imagining of the Dark Knight, and indeed the role of Batman generally in significantly raising the GN bar. Clearly in my absence graphic novels had become a more adult artistic experience (some of the time at least), perhaps reflecting the fact that those of us who grew up with Marvel and DC – especially the artistically inclined and more educated – went on to become either creators or adult readers, who are well-catered-for by the complexity of much of it, the occasional explosions of sheer invention and the socio-political, not to mention metaphorical, undercurrents.
One of the aspects of Marvel (and now DC) that fascinated me most in the past was the development of a sort of alternate fictional reality that embraced the various franchises. The Marvel Universe, as it was later known. Stories would continue from one franchise into another. For example, what began in Amazing Spider-Man influenced what was going on Thor or the Incredible Hulk. That is still a big interest today and it has expanded exponentially. Many readers — especially in this Age of Internet Whingeing – complain that the big Event crossover storylines (where a central event consumes the entirety of the “Universe”) are too confusing. And indeed, reading them – even working out which bits should be read in what order – can be a complicated business (the internet can help – yay for nerds!). Of course, the “Event” strategy can easily be seen as a cynical marketing ploy. But I love it. Now they’re even doing it in blockbuster movies, in a very tentative way, naturally, given the money involved. Great for business, but it also gives an added level of conceptual depth and involvement to each comic reality.
At the moment I’m reading a vast Marvel-universe sequence that began with a superhero Civil War, which sees the “good guys and gals” come to blows over attempts by the government to regulate super-heroics and which results in the death of Captain America (and others), followed by a vast invasion via infiltration by the shapeshifting Skrull race, the deposing of Nick Fury and Tony Stark (Iron Man) from their leadership roles and the elevation of Norman Osborn (ex-Green Goblin) to leadership of S.H.I.E.L.D., followed by the siege of Asgard (which has “fallen” to Earth), as well as Planet Hulk and its follow-up World War Hulk (which is exactly what it sounds like – the Hulk vs everyone – a bit of Hulk Smash! simplicity is remarkably cathartic). Taken as a whole, it is incredibly complex stuff that hangs together well, despite a variety of creators.
Geoff Johns has been particularly effective in creating and coordinating such Events for DC Comics – including a “Crisis” Event that tidied up the inconsistencies of the DC Universe (the company has done such Crisis house-cleaning several times over the past decades). Johns’ Green Lantern re-boot, somewhat disappointingly rendered in the recent movie, was a remarkable feat. Like Doctor Who, the Green Lantern mythos has expanded from its early ad hoc beginnings as Johns (and others) imaginatively rationalized its oddities in a way that integrated it into a much larger and more complex whole.
To name a few recommendations, Moore’s work as mentioned above certainly, Ed Brubaker’s run on Captain America; Frank Miller’s Batman: Year One and The Dark Knight Returns; Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s beautifully stylized Batman tales, The Long Halloween and Dark Victory; Loeb and Jim Lee’s Batman: Hush; Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely’s All-Star Superman; Mark Waid’s earlier Kingdom Come; and the excellent Gotham Central series by Ed Brubaker and Greg Rucka (Batman’s turf from the noirish point-of-view of the Gotham City PD). I really enjoyed Mark Millar and Steve McNiven’s post-apocalyptic Mad-Max, western, alternative future Wolverine epic Old Man Logan, too, which (like Millar’s Wanted) postulates a scenario in which the super-villains finally got together and killed off or subjugated the superheroes.
Those are just some I’ve particularly enjoyed, but I’ve barely scratched the surface of what’s out there – and of course it doesn’t cover the excellent non-superhero side of graphic novels, such as Brian K. Vaughan’s Y: The Last Man; Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan and Ed Brubaker’s noir crime epic Criminal. The list is, if not endless, at least extensive.
One name I haven’t mentioned much is Grant Morrison, who has also done some pretty amazing re-imagining of the superhero genre, including his surreal Arkham Asylum, which has to be seen to be believed – at least as a commercial proposition. Morrison is a mad Scotsman — articulate, pretentious and inventive. I recently read his book Supergods, which wittily explores the development of superhero comics and expresses my own metaphorical tendencies when I try to describe my interest in the genre – beyond the sheer imaginative enjoyment of it anyway. He interprets superheroes as modern deities. Sure, we don’t “believe” in them as objective realities, but arguably they serve a similar imaginative role for our culture as the Olympian gods and their mythic activities served for the ancient Greeks, or the Asgardians for the Vikings. They allow us to dream of greatness, of immortality, of power, and through their superhuman trials and moral confusions explore our own society’s values, our own humanity and our relationship with the world. Pretentious, sure, but why not?
As well as being an award winning author and critic, you have also been a very successful editor. Your Daikaiju! anthology series with Robin Pen was extremely well received, with international notice and a number of stories going on to make recommended reading lists. Will we see a fourth Daikaiju!, or any similar anthologies, in the future?
Seriously, those anthologies wore me out. I put a lot of energy into them and the process took me away from my own writing for at least a year. Editing – real editing – is an exhausting process, and though I’m often asked if I’ll be doing more of the same — and am often tempted by the thought — it’s not going to happen. Not until I change my mind anyway.
You have a new novel, Fragments Of A Broken Land: Valarl Undead, coming soon. Can you tell us a little about it?
Fragments Of A Broken Land: Valarl Undead – Fragments, for short — has been a long-running obsession. It’s a fantasy novel in the “other-world” mode, both straightforward and paradoxically complex, that was begun several decades ago, and has been re-worked many times since. It has a long history of near publication and I’m quite serious when I say it’s only the enthusiasm of Jack Dann that has stopped me from abandoning it altogether. Jack enthused about it – and did a thorough structural edit on it – before I knew him as more than one of science fiction’s greats. He has become a good friend since and has tried hard to get the book into print, driven by his enthusiasm for it — without success, until recently. Why that is may be open to conjecture, but two agents who also tried to sell it both claimed it was the novel’s unexpectedly literary nature that lies at the heart of the problem. I’m not entirely sure what that means, but it’s been a struggle and has caused me to work at the book, on and off, for many years. Now Borgo Press – a long-established US small-press that has become an imprint of Wildside Press – have contracted it and it is due to appear, in various formats, either toward the end of this year or the beginning of the next. I await that Event with mingled fear, excitement and relief.
The story concerns a group of people descended from the survivors of an apocalypse that ended the previous Age, who unknowingly come together to deal with the still unresolved consequences of past greed and attendant destruction. An elusive undead creature motivates and informs the sudden escalation of violence that drags them into a vortex of supernatural horror. The title relates to the aftermath of the apocalypse, but also to the “pieces” of a lost Creator scattered throughout the protagonists’ fragmented reality … including a supra-real cosmic monster on which two of the characters’ alternate identities are exiled.
So yeah, it’s got a very giant monster, a zombie, demons and an apocalypse. There’s even a poem or two. Now that’s what I call true horror.
I’ve begun a website where I will be posting updates, information about the novel and its background, and – as publication draws near – a few self-contained bits and pieces that I removed from the book during the various revisions in order to let the plot flow faster and more smoothly. Eventually I’m planning to release a short collection of stories in e-book format, made up of tales set in the world of Fragments, but at different times. Most of these are already written. For those who are interested – and you all should be – the site can be entered at http://fragmentsnovel.undeadbackbrain.com/. There are already a few bits and pieces there, including a mini-essay on the influence of poet/artist William Blake on the book’s development.
What Australian works have you loved recently?
Mostly anthologies, such as Anywhere But Earth (edited by Keith Stevenson), Ishtar (edited by Amanda Pillar and K.V. Taylor) and Damnation and Dames (edited by Liz Grzyb and Amanda Pillar). Yes, I have a story in two of those books but that doesn’t make them any less worthy. The Courier’s New Bicycle by Kim Westwood was a very worthy winner of the Best SF Novel in this Year’s Aurealis Awards and it’s an excellent book. There are lots of other works I’m sure I’d love if I’d had time to read them, but life’s been busy and writing tasks distracting…
Two years on from Aussiecon 4, what do you think are some of the biggest changes to the Australian Spec Fic scene?
The biggest developments seem to have been in the small-press publication area. Quality anthologies and collections have burgeoned, and this is not a category embraced by commercial presses. As production technology changes, so the ability of independent concerns to produce quality books has grown, and luckily the rise of skillful editors has followed suit. Without the latter, the former would be useless. Notably, too, excellent and powerful women writers have come to the fore in increasing numbers. This is a wonderful development, and not just in terms of achieving gender equity.
This interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Aussie Spec Fic Snapshot. In the lead up to Continuum 8 in Melbourne, we will be blogging interviews for Snapshot 2012 conducted by Alisa Krasnostein, Kathryn Linge, David McDonald, Helen Merrick, Ian Mond, Jason Nahrung, Alex Pierce, Tansy Rayner Roberts, Tehani Wessely and Sean Wright. To read the interviews hot off the press, check these blogs daily from June 1 to June 7, 2012.