The artist’s muse – Adi Tantimedh talks to FPI
With the compulsively brilliant La Muse finally coming to a close on Big Head Press it seemed like a good time to talk to the writer and frequent contributor to Comic Book Resources, Adi Tantimedh. Hi, Adi and thanks for taking some time to have a quick chat with us. We’ll come to La Muse in a moment, but perhaps we should start off with you introducing yourself to our readers – La Muse may be your most recent comics work, but I know you have been writing comics going back to the JLA Age of Wonders series and Blackshirt for Moonstone, not to mention your film and TV work. Perhaps you could tell us a bit about your writing background, early work, what influenced you to choose the path of the scribe?
Adi: Okay, you’re going to get some pretty long answers, Joe. It’s a curious roundabout way that I ended up becoming a writer, really. I read comics from a very young age, at least 3 onwards, and I was just exposed to American, British and Japanese comics all my life because they were just lying around the house. It was perfectly normal for me to read The Beano and Dandy or Beezer one minute, then read DC Comics, then manga like Astro Boy by Osamu Tezuka or giant robot comics like Getter Robo or Mazinger Z or Japanese superhero comics like Kamen Rider or Kakaider, not to mention samurai comics like Lone Wolf and Cub.
And like many kids, I liked to draw, so I started drawing stories for fun and shared them around my classmates at school. It just seemed a perfectly normal thing to us. And of course, in school, they tested us on language comprehension, grammar, vocabulary and syntax by having us write stories as essays in class with a set word-limit and time in which to write it. That was how I ended up becoming a storyteller by nature. Blame the British Educational System for me.
By the time I was in my teens, I was already reading voraciously. I’d read Marvel comics and indies like American Flagg and Love and Rockets on one hand and then Martin Amis, Michael Moorcock, Philip K. Dick, Thomas Pynchon, the British and American New Wave of Science Fiction, not to mention gonzo writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Tom Wolfe and almost anyone reviewed or discussed in The Village Voice or BBC arts programs. At the same time, I was becoming interested in theatre, so I was seriously studying playwrights like Tom Stoppard, Harold Pinter, Michael Frayn, Alan Ayckbourn, Neil Simon, and political playwrights like David Hare, Howard Brenton, Bertolt Brecht, Howard Barker, and discovering how to write scripts.
What I found I liked most was the sense of real-time interaction between characters in a given situation, how they expressed themselves in their actions and speech, rather than the interior monologues they might have with themselves as they contemplated their lives and situations, since they often acted quite contrary to what they were thinking, and at the end of the day, true character is revealed and judged by what they do, not what they think. That’s something I learned very early on from my studies.
(a page from Blackshirt, written by Adi, with art by Diego Olmos, published by Moonstone)
By then, I had it in my head that I quite fancied becoming a playwright and a comic artist. Didn’t even occur to me to write novels or prose, even working in film and TV, since they struck me as taking up much more money and resources. I quite liked the idea that you could create a story around two distinct characters just bouncing off each other in a play. And from my years of reading comics and Science Fiction, they didn’t necessarily need to be whinging about the play or their debts – they didn’t even need to be human or on Earth! So I attended a lot of theatre workshops run by various companies and educational organisations around London, like the Theatre Royal Stratford East out in the East End, or Paines Plough, not to mention the BBC has always been really good at running theatre and writing workshops for teens and young adults. They’re also great places to meet girls.
At the same time, I was also attending the London Cartoon Workshop, that was set up by the Portabello Trust in West London. David Lloyd was teaching drawing, and he got people like Dave Gibbons, Paul Neary, John Burns and Alan Moore to come in and teach or give workshops. Attending two lectures that Alan gave taught me about as much as a whole month’s worth of writer’s workshops, since he not only reminded us about the most important things to write in stories, but he was also very empowering in encouraging everyone to have a go at writing.
So out of those BBC workshops, I got invited to submit an idea for radio, and that was how I got my first break. I submitted a half-hour play called After the Beep, which was about a guy and a girl so emotionally dysfunctional that they could only keep their relationship alive by communicating through their telephone answering machines. It was bought, produced and broadcast on Radio 4, and from there, they wanted more from me, an average of one a year. At that point, the BBC took really good care of their writers, and working for them gave you some major cred, and other people would start approaching you about pitching to them, so I was not only invited to join the Writer’s Guild of Great Britain, but also writing (un-produced) treatments and scripts for TV companies as well.
Once you get paid for writing, you’re a professional writer. That’s it.
And from watching my radio plays get produced, I started wanted to direct my own stories, so I applied to film school at New York University and started learning the nuts and bolts of film-making and screenwriting from there, all the while keeping up my writing gigs with the BBC and London whenever I could.
(cover to JLA: Age of Wonders written by Adi, (c) DC)
FPI: Wow, that’s quite an evolution in terms of both growing as a reader and a writer, Adi. Its fascinating to think back to the early influences though – people like David Lloyd or Alan Moore teaching and advising but also the simple but hugely important role just early reading of all sorts, from kid’s comics to books can have.
Now on the film-making front I believe your short movie Zinky Boys Go Underground picked up some good reviews, even winning the BAFTA for best short film? I haven’t actually seen it – the eternal curse of short movie work is that it’s damnably difficult to get to see it outside of movie festivals – so could you tell us a little about it?
Adi: Zinky Boys Go Underground was a lot of fun. I was in my third year at film school in New York when the director Paul Tickell, who’s a friend, called me and asked if I had a pitch for one of three slots in a BBC2 slot called “Continental Drift”. I asked him what they were looking for. He said they were looking for “strong European themes.” “What does that even mean?” I asked. He said it was mainly short dramas set somewhere in Europe.
Since Perestroika was in full swing at the time, and I happened to be reading about Russia, I pitched Zinky Boys Go Underground. “Zinky boys” was slang for young Russian conscripts back from Afghanistan, because they ran out of wooden coffins and had to ship back the dead ones in coffins made of zinc. And the surviving ones that returned were seriously messed up in the head if not physically. It was their Vietnam. They were sent to a war they didn’t really understand, and did horrific, unspeakable things while also enduring horrific things done to them even from within their own ranks.
I pitched a crime noir story that would run half an hour: a band of zinky boys led by their blinded and wheelchair-bound former sergeant have to get by in post-communist Russia by selling black market goods – anything from videos to underwear to drugs – in the palatial underground train stations of St. Petersburg, formerly Leningrad. The narrator of the story is the teenage sister of the sergeant who has to take care of him at home and wheel him everywhere. He’s in love with a black prostitute who wants to earn enough money to leave Russia, maybe head off to Paris. There really were black prostitutes in Russian cities at the time. I imagined her to be an exchange student from Africa fallen on hard times. The zinky boys are being leaned on by the local police to provide a name for a serial slasher of prostitutes on the Metro. The gang is also being leaned on by their local Mafia supplier, who used to be their superior officer and tormenter in Afghanistan, and he’s skimming more and more off their takings from selling their merchandise. Both the sergeant and his sister are concerned for the prostitute’s safety. The sister’s secret is that she’s in love with her too.
(coming home from war is one thing, trying to return to normal life is another in the award-winning short Zinky Boys Go Underground, written by Adi)
And everything comes down to one bad night where all the underlying tension comes to a head and things go very, very badly. Bad drugs are taken, a mad chase on the Metro ensues, Guns are drawn and there’s a trail of bodies at the end.
All told in twenty-five minutes. I wanted to see if I could have a complete world and a complete thriller in that time-frame.
The film was co-produced by the BBC and British Film Institute and shot in St. Petersburg. I didn’t get to go because I was still working as a crewmember on one of my classmates’ productions in New York, but I heard it was heady and intense. The script was translated into Russian by a British journalist who also translated David Mamet for the Russian stage. They shot the film in less than a week.
I only found out later that Zinky Boys was the only film in the “Continental Drift” season that didn’t feature a British main character wandering around a European setting. All three films were only broadcast once on BBC2 and never repeated. Zinky Boys did tour a lot of film festivals throughout 1994 and 1995 before it won the BAFTA for Best Short Film in 1995, literally on the day I graduated from film school. I wasn’t there as I was attending my graduation ceremony with my parents at the time, and got home in time to get the call from Paul that we’d won. The gong now sits happily in his house. We’re quite chuffed that it’s the first post-communist Russian gangster film, and also, covertly, the first Russian lesbian film (as far as I know).
Zinky Boys has never been commercially available. It was briefly on a VHS compilation of short films released in the US, but that’s now out of print. I think you can view the whole film on the BFI’s website (where they’ve spelled my name wrong) but only if you’re in the UK, and possibly only if you’re in a school or a library. Every now and then Paul and I hear that the BFI might put it out on a DVD with other short films, but so far it hasn’t shown up.
I wonder if anyone’s put it up on a torrent site…
FPI: Well that is one of the magical things about our digital age, the ability to share images, sounds and movies more easily. Of course you need full access to the original in order to do that… It does always annoy me when I hear about interesting short films and animations and know that, for the most part, I’m unlikely to get to see them, especially now that the means is there to disseminate them via the web. It’s a shame so much effort goes into creating short works and outside of film festivals most audiences don’t get to see them – although like you I have to give props to the BBC because at least they make the effort to do commission such work and do showings of them from time to time. Maybe someone needs to suggest they do a season of previous short films on one of their digital channels.
Turning back to writing, how do you divide your writing time between different mediums? I remember you telling me earlier this year you had been splitting time between New York and LA – do you go where the work is, be it TV, film or comics, or is it more a case of pitching ideas and scripts to see who bites? Or perhaps a mix of both?
Adi: That’s a two-part question.
When I’m writing a comic, a film script and a prose story, like when Moonstone Books asked me to write a new Blackshirt story for an upcoming crime anthology, I have to sort out when the nearest deadline is and schedule my writing weeks accordingly. I might then work on a different project on alternate days depending on which needs to be finished soonest. The bottom line is to make the deadline. Nobody cares what you get up to as long as you turn in the work on time.
As for pitching ideas, it’s really a matter of who comes knocking and who’s interested. With comics, I can usually use email and work from home. With film, I sometimes have to go out to the West Coast to meet people about projects since Hollywood still prefers you to be physically there to talk with. Sometimes I’m hired to write screenplays for other people, and other times I’m either pitching an original project or suggest a comic, foreign film or novel that a producer should consider acquiring for adaptation. Getting out of the house every now and then is a good thing, since it keeps me abreast of what people are interested in and looking for.
FPI: What came first for you, writing for film and TV or for comics? Do you find the process of writing similar for each medium or do you have to think in a slightly different way? I think a lot of us probably assume that perhaps moving between film and comics is slightly easier than for a prose writer trying to write for comics or film for the first time, is that right or just wishful thinking?
Adi: Ironically, I wanted to do comics before anything else, but got hired to write scripts for the stage, radio, TV and film first, long before I got my first professional comics work. Writing a script for different mediums have similarities, but it’s easier and faster to write film and TV scripts, because you’re writing action and speech in real time, whereas a comic script means you’re writing isolated moments and have to describe the physical setting in more detail than you need to in a film or TV script. The principles are the same, though, which is to tell a story through both words and pictures.
And I’ve found that learning to write scripts first makes it easier to write prose when you get round to it later on, because you find you’re under less restrictions, but you can bring the precision and discipline you learned to the prose.
FPI: We’re living in an age which sees an increasing convergence of media and there’s been more than a few film and TV writers who have become involved in creating comics (Joss Whedon being the most famous, I’d imagine), with some traffic crossing back over the other way too, especially with the seemingly endless fascination Hollywood has with optioning comics for possible flicks (and then there are the SF&F writers also being brought into comics). You’re obviously in the middle of that cross-fertilisation being a Multi-Media Man (the 21st century equivalent of the Renaissance Man) and I wondered what your take was on it?
Adi: Well, from the point of view of a jobbing writer, more places to get paid work is always a good thing, since very, very few of us can sit around in expensive studies in our bathrobes smoking expensive tobacco and just writing The Next Great Novel that will only be read by academics and critics. The vast majority of novelists need a day-job, whether it’s teaching or carpentry. Fortunately for some of us, writing scripts is the day-job, and a writer in the 21st Century needs to be able to work in more than one medium, not just for the cash, but also to stay engaged in the processes of production and the constant social changes in order to have things to write about.
We’re now at an age where Intellectual Property is a hot commodity. Big Media like Hollywood now knows there’s serious money to be made. A novel, story, comic or even a concept is fair game for Hollywood studios and media companies looking for the Next Big Franchise, which is like a lottery ticket, but also with lots of traps and pratfalls. Always read the fine print on the contract, and get a lawyer to review it. Never mind whether they’re going to mess up the adaptation, because chances are they will. Bottom line: always make sure you get properly paid. And keep getting paid. Don’t give up ownership of your own intellectual property if you didn’t write it as an original screenplay.
And in terms of the crossover between comics and film/TV now, I can’t help but see it as more of a closed loop than it used to be. Literally anyone could write or create their own comics, but the trick is to make people aware of it enough to pay for it. And it has to be good enough and unique enough for Hollywood to come a-callin’. This has actually made it harder for a newbie to break into a big comics company than it used to be. It’s ironic that a professional screenwriter with credits stands a better chance of breaking into Marvel and DC et al., just because other employers have taken the chance of hiring them already. I don’t see it as necessarily a bad thing, since it just means anyone who wants to work in comics is going to need to be as disciplined and as professional as a screenwriter, not to mention at least as good, if not better, than the people already working. By all means, have fun doing it, but if you want a serious go at it, you need to treat it like a business and a career, not an aw-shucks hobby.
FPI: Comic Book Tattoo has just been published by Image and you’re one of the contributors in this collection inspired by the works of Tori Amos. How did you become involved in it and can I ask if you were able to select what song to use for your inspiration or were they allocated? There’s quite a mix of talent in there, including some seriously big names in the comics world, so you must have been pretty chuffed to be included there surely?
Adi: Rantz Hoseley, the editor, liked La Muse and asked if I’d be interested in writing a story for the book. We got to pick the story we wanted to work on, with the caveat that Tori got final approval over certain songs that were especially personal to her, which was cool.
(page from “I can’t see New York” in Comic Book Tattoo, published by Image, script by Adi, inspired by the lyrics of Tori Amos, gorgeous art by Ken Meyer, Jr)
It was an honour to be asked, since I didn’t expect that. I ended up picking “I Can’t See New York” from Scarlet’s Walk. The song itself is quite ethereal and non-linear, since the lyrics are the thoughts of a dead woman, so I decided to keep up that feel. I wanted to write outside my usual comfort zone, especially since I was paired with Ken Meyer, Jr., who’s a very accomplished painter who would create an impressionistic atmosphere. I felt the song would work best with his strengths, and wrote a 7-page story for him to paint.
FPI: With it only just coming out I haven’t had a chance to look through all of it but I did read a few stories, doing that thing where I started with creators I know and like, which is probably what a lot of readers do with collections. I’ve been a Tori fan since Little Earthquakes and seen her live several times (when she stands alone, without even her piano, and sings ‘me and a gun’ it’s the most incredibly touching and raw experience), so I was interested to see how her work inspired others. And I think you’re right, Ken’s artwork for your story was gorgeous – actually as I flicked through it the artwork made me stop and look before I realised it was your story. It is a rather lovely looking collection and I like the larger, coffee-table format showing it off properly.
We should turn to La Muse now, I think. Its been serialised several times a week on the Big Head Press site, supplying me with a regular fix and has only just concluded, leaving me to go cold turkey. To call it a superhero tale doesn’t really do it justice – perhaps you could give any of our readers who haven’t read it yet a short introduction?
Adi: La Muse is a comedy about Susan la Muse, a smart and sexy political activist who accidentally becomes the most famous woman in the world. She decides to use her newfound celebrity to really bring about change, and she won’t let anyone stop her. She’s completely wild and unpredictable, to the chagrin of her sister Libby, who just wants a quiet life. Libby is also a powerful Hollywood agent, so she takes Susan on as a client to consolidate her celebrity status, but also to keep a close eye on her.
When Susan threatens the status quo of corrupt governments and corporations using nations as their pawns, The Powers That Be decide she must be stopped. She becomes the target of sex tapes, tabloid scandals, hate campaigns, smears, planned “accidents” and outright assassination attempts.
What they don’t realise is that Susan and Libby have a secret that’s far bigger and scarier than any political conspiracy, and if things go wrong, everyone in the world is in danger…
FPI: I’ve been constantly (pleasantly) surprised at they way in which you and Hugo have managed to tell an absorbing story in the superhero genre but without tripping over the many clichés which go with it. Or if you did employ generic clichés you seemed to be to be using them quite deliberately in order to then twist them against expectations, leading the reader one way then suddenly shifting the path under their feet, an aspect of the story I really enjoyed – being a heavy reader sometimes means being cursed to be able to second guess where a story is going next. In La Muse I learned early on that the only thing I could predict was that you were going to do something different to what I might guess. I always had the impression that you took a great deal of personal delight in doing that – were you enjoying it? And do you think that a genre as laden with generic clichés and stereotypes can actually offer the writer some interesting toys to play with and then twist to their own ends, becoming a positive tool rather than a hindrance?
Adi: I had an absolute blast writing it. It was very liberating going where other books don’t or can’t due to censorship, either self-imposed or corporate-imposed. A genre is only as good as those working in it, and when it’s the mainstream of an entire industry, it becomes hidebound in clichés and conventions that often don’t reflect real life or real emotional reactions at all.
(La Muse freaks out over losing her superpowers, but it could just as easily be the freakout of a famous celeb faced with being forced to live like a normal person; Adi once again lampoons contemporary celeb culture while still moving on the plot)
With La Muse, all I had to do was write without the brakes and delve deeper into the situations as they would play out in a more believable, adult world, and the outcomes usually went much further than most corporate-owned properties do. When the toys belong to you, you can do anything you want with them. The only limits are the limits of the characters and situations rather than from the fear of offending parents or stockholders. I could talk about politics much more directly than corporate-owned comics do, for example, and then take it further from there, because I didn’t have to worry about maintaining a status quo in the story. Characters can undergo major and irreversible changes without reverting to their old selves. The whole point of the genre – and story in general – is to change the status quo anyway.
FPI: Sex has been a recurring theme throughout La Muse. She seems to outdo even Star Trek’s Will Riker for her eager willingness to do it at the drop of a hat and yet you and Hugo side-stepped the more gratuitous elements that often come with sex in comics. Let’s be honest, much as we love it, it’s a genre that’s had more than its fair share of criticism – sadly often justified – for being a bit exploitative, especially when it comes to depictions of women and sexuality. And yet you and Hugo managed to include sex with alien blobs and, memorably, a neo-Nazi, bi-sexual orgy (it still makes me smile to recall that scene) but delivered it in an adult manner. And when I say ‘adult’, I mean as in a mature way, not the porno way; these actions seemed perfectly natural to the character, not some exploitative T&A scene which had been tacked in to draw in the crowds of oglers. It put me in mind a little of the different ways sexuality is portrayed in, say, Hollywood movies as compared to French cinema. I’ve got to assume that was a deliberate move on your part, to have sex in there, but included as a natural part of the character’s life and as part of the plot rather than as eye candy?
(even skinhead Neo-Nazis need muffins and some sweet lovin’)
Adi: I set out to write a graphic novel that was for adults, and to be honest, I never thought about treating sex and sexuality in any way other than totally normal and natural, and Susan certainly doesn’t. It’s just something that Susan occasionally overuses as part of her lifestyle. She’s the kind of person who would shag anyone if she thought they were a good laugh. She’s also totally hip to using her sexuality as a weapon when she sees fit. It’s not a big deal to her, so I didn’t write it as a big deal. I certainly don’t hold to that nervous, adolescent prurience that pervades a lot of superhero comics, which tend to fixate on body parts and become repetitive and dull. And Hugo is a European, so he certainly had no problems with portraying sexuality in a direct but non-pornographic way. If anything, we deliberately played the sexual situations as comedy.
FPI: I wonder what would happen if we had a Torchwood crossover with Susan and Captain Jack… But seriously, it is nice to see sex used not in a nudge, nudge, wink, wink kind of vaguely sleazy way but as something normal and I know from reading comments of others in the comics blogosphere a lot of other readers appreciated that too.
You also seemed to delight in taking sideswipes at a lot of contemporary pop culture – sticking with the bump’n’grind for a moment you used Susan’s libido to take the mickey out of the now ubiquitous celebrity ‘leaked’ sex tape, although again you took this and made it into a plot device. Celebrity, fame and the things people do for them and how the rest of we poor, mere mortals react to perceived fame and the cult of celebrity also came up quite a bit. In our media-saturated world it’s hard to ignore celebrity even when we want to, but is this something your background in film and TV work has coloured your thinking on too?
Adi: Working in Film and TV, and the media in general, tends to give you a particular perspective on Celebrity Culture, because you get a chance to look under the hood and see how it’s all put together. An amazing amount of it is calculated and manufactured, and that was something I wanted to address, and put a certain spin on it.
(La Muse – media-age role model for your children? Story by Adi Tantimedh, art by Hugo Petrus, published Big Head Press)
We’re living in a strange and warped celebrity culture now where an alarming number of people with no discernible skill, talent or charisma are desperate to achieve fame in order to fill a gaping hole in their psyches, not knowing that they’re setting themselves up for ridicule or worse. The current culture is founded not on jealousy, but envy, where the public actively despises celebrities and want to see them degraded, humiliated and generally destroyed. Celebrities are no longer seen as role models but punching bags. It’s as if these new worthless and unpleasant celebrities and the public that hates them are direct reflections of each other. There was a brilliant episode of South Park where the kids try to save a suicidal Britney Spears, who has blown half her head off and is still barely functional, but they discover that she was set up all along to be the latest of a series of ritual sacrifices in a regular atavistic sacrifice that’s supposed to keep the civilisation alive and the harvest coming in a kind of “Children of the Corn” parody. That was pretty good commentary.
FPI: Aye, South Park and some other cartoons often encapsulate some good points about pop culture in a few minutes, often with more insight and clarity than entire chapters of academic waffle I had to read on the subject at college. I suppose we shouldn’t be surprised at the references you work into the story – I found an old review by the Fourth Rail on your JLA: Age of Wonders which said “There’s a sociological and ideological context at play here that challenges the reader, and one is eased into the more intellectual side of the book by the more familiar trappings of the super-hero genre.” We’re seeing more programmes which do manage to include some decent social and political commentary on the air (Galactica springs to mind for political allegory), but do you think perhaps the comics medium allowed you to get away with more of this sort of thing than perhaps you might have in another medium?
Adi: Comics are a great place to get away with stuff because it’s really just you and a piece of paper. The internet means you can post it online to create a readership rather than depend on a corporation to distribute the work for you.
I’ve always believed that pop culture and fiction can be used for social and political commentary. Even the ones that don’t purport to be political often are commentaries by default – the storytellers’ opinions are expressed through the story whether they intend to or not. In my case, I just decide to own up to it. But then I come out of the British writing tradition, which has always been strong on commentary. I always like to draw on some contemporary issue or incidents to ground my stories on.
We’re at a point where certain pop culture stories are coming out of the closet to admit to overt commentary, using the veneer of escapism to address current issues and ideas, to the point where they become direct and overt reflections about what’s going on in the world, like Battlestar Galactica and now The Dark Knight. They’re not even quite so escapist anymore because they’re luring the audience into looking at reality rather than escaping from it, and audiences seem to be hungry for a perspective on current events through the lens of pop culture. I’m quite impressed that these so-called commercial genre pieces can be so dark, downbeat and morally complex, and be popular for that.
FPI: I suppose many viewers won’t spend the time to watch factual documentaries or proper, in-depth news programmes, so these series may be addressing some of their concerns with contemporary events in a way that’s more accessible for them. And if it entertains them and makes them think at the same time that’s no bad thing, really.
Clever – and entertaining – as the use and abuse of pop culture and trends was, it was really a garnish to the main plot. A large central plank of the story seemed to me almost to hark back to that great science fiction device – beloved of Gene Rodenberry – of what a character with effectively limitless, god-like powers does with them, not to mention how that effects the ordinary folks around them. Early on it’s hard not to root for Susan as she uses her powers to start moulding the world into a better one, but as the story unfolds, even when she is acting seemingly for the greater good, the reader is hit by a growing undercurrent of unease – what happens to normal humans in this Brave New World? God-like powers or not, does she have the right to alter the world – and even people’s thought processes – at her own whim, even if they do lead to long dreamt of goals of a world at peace, a world of equality? What happens to individual liberty and free will if those paths are enforced rather than chosen? Even if the result is a seeming utopia can we really accept it as utopian if it doesn’t completely accept the notion of free will? Her own sister, Libby, loves her but she is one of her biggest critics in this and, of course, much later when her parents appear, some of this will come back to bite her.
Adi: Don’t forget, one other major theme in Roddenberry’s work and much of Science Fiction is “What makes us human? What defines ‘human’? What makes us more or less human?” You find this throughout the Trek series with Mr. Spock, then Data in The Next Generation, and later Seven of Nine in Voyager. Aliens and robots have always been a neat metaphor to embody and explore that theme.
And La Muse very much plays with that theme as well. Susan and Libby both lie to themselves and each other. They’re both more and less human than a normal person. Libby is more honest and resigned than Susan about it all.
I never set out to paint Susan as outright heroic or villainous. She certainly believes she’s one of the good guys, but is it really a good thing to kill some bad guys on a whim? Or enjoy humiliating her enemies so much? Or suddenly get rid of the world’s remaining oil supplies in order to break the deadlock of dependency on fossil fuels? Or even covertly rewire people’s minds, even if she’s making them better people?
FPI: From the tag line ‘love her, fear her’ I’m assuming this was a dichotomy you were not just aware of but actively encouraging the reader to think about – would I be right in thinking that wasn’t just for the undoubted dramatic impact such moral ambiguity confers into a story but also because you wanted to make some of the readers think about it? And without you getting on a soapbox to preach either, just handing them the events and story and letting them draw some conclusions themselves in the way that some writers, like Richard Morgan for example, often do?
Adi: I definitely didn’t want to spoon-feed the reader an opinion that I want them to agree with. The entire superhero genre is based on wish-fulfilment after all, it’s the fantasy of having the power to defeat bullies and right wrongs, and I wanted to play on that. The easy way is to write the hero as being right all the time, but where’s the fun in that when there are bigger, spicier, fish to fry? And I decided to make it a comedy because I’m really tired of terribly sombre, earnest superhero stories.
She has the best of intentions, but she’s also vain and arrogant (in ways different from me – this is why I laugh when people read only the first 20 or 40 pages and say the character is a Mary-Sue. She’s nothing like me as I’m not female, white or omnipotent and I don’t think the way she does). I definitely want readers to start wondering if she’s really doing the right thing at all, since every action has consequences, good or bad.
One other tagline for the story is “She’s going to save the world… whether you like it or not!”
FPI: And, returning to what you said a few minutes ago, it makes her more recognisable human than many other super-powered characters since basically no-one is perfect and even when we’re in the right to someone’s perspective we’re in the wrong – as they say one person’s murdering terrorist is another’s brave freedom fighter. Which makes for an imperfect world, but boy, its great material for drama!
(ending the use of fossil fuels may be great for the environment, but ending a massive, global industry overnight has consequences for many people Susan never even considered. Somehow I’m reminded slightly of the Watchmen where Jon tells outgoing Night Owl who is retiring to repair cars that the new electrical engines he devised will be even simpler than the ones he understands)
Let’s talk for a moment about the original means of distributing La Muse, if we may. Big Head Press have been hosting it for some time now and several months back I remember you switched from a weekly posting of new pages to three pages a week, posted up on three different days. Personally I found that switch worked quite well for me as a reader, giving me just enough to move the story forwards a bit but also keep me tantalised enough to want that next page – it also meant I took it in at a much slower rate than I normally would when reading an actual print book, which I think, looking back at it, was actually for the best. How did you and Big Head find the series was received online and do you know if the change to the three days a week model later on increased the hits?
Adi: I wasn’t very conscious about the impact a weekly or thrice-weekly schedule would have on the reading experience when I was scripting it, though I knew at the back of my mind that reading a story in serial form is a different mental and emotional experience from reading it all in one go, or getting to read large chunks at a time as opposed to a page a week or three pages a week. I decided on certain rules for myself: no double-page spreads, because of the nature of a webcomic and having to scroll to read it, splash pages had to be used sparingly because I had a limited number of pages to tell the story and too many splashes would dilute their impact. I also made sure that every page was a single unit, even when they’re part of a longer scene. I wanted the end of each page to at least feel like a decent pause even when it was still in the middle of a scene, to be continued in the next. That was something I learned from newspaper strips. In fact, you could say reading La Muse one page at a time was quite similar to reading a serialised newspaper strip. That was an unexpected but interesting result.
(one of the rare but spectacular splash pages used in La Muse and a rather more kinetic variation on the famous scene from the Superman movie where a taxi hits Clark Kent, who walks away unharmed leaving a huge dent in the car)
FPI: Of course, online the entire series was – and still is – available free to any reader. Can I ask what you, as a professional writer, think about giving away some of your work free like this? Some folks in various branches of the media are convinced it is the death of Civilisation As We Know It. Others have actively embraced it as a way to raise awareness of their work and to tempt in new readers, viewers or listeners (depending on the media involved).
Adi: People like free stuff. And any giveaway is a promotion for the story. When they like it, they tell more people about it, and a greater public profile is what every creator hopes for so that more people might buy the print edition later on.
FPI: Writers like Cory Doctorow and Charlie Stross have made entire texts of books available under Creative Commons and yet both are successful in the traditional print medium too (in fact I think both would say the free web-based approach has helped them be more successful in traditional dead-tree print). And of course just recently Neil Gaiman experimented with the idea, making the full text of a novel available free online for a period, with his publisher noting increased sales across his titles afterwards. Shooting War also made the move from well-received web comic to critically acclaimed printed graphic novel just last year. Now with a print version of La Muse in the works I have to ask you what you think of this idea and how you think it affects creators – negative, positive or does it depend pretty much on how a creator decides to employ the possibilities the web can offer? Do you think perhaps the serialised online version will give the print version a boost, conferring a profile on it which it might not have had otherwise?
Adi: I think giving books away for free on the internet is a good thing. Anything that gets people to read more is a good thing. When people want something badly enough, they’ll find a way to get it for free. We’re at the point where textbooks on biochemistry that are essential for university students taking the course cost hundreds of dollars, so angry students are creating digitised copies and posting them for download for free not only as a service to other students, but also to give the finger to the publishers for overcharging already debt-ridden students a fortune.
In the case of La Muse, we’re telling readers that they don’t need to steal the book – it’s already free if they want to read it! And we hope they’ll like it enough to buy the print version, which is a permanent, physical edition and they don’t need to scroll down a screen to read it like they do with the online version. I don’t know about you, but I hate scrolling down to read, especially comics.
FPI: No, I’m with you on that – much as I have enjoyed reading La Muse as a web serialisation I am looking forward to seeing the print version more. The printed book has evolved since Gutenberg into a perfectly accessible and portable form, and on an emotional level there’s no substitute for the feeling of actually holding the book in your hands. Web-based material is important and I enjoy it, but it’s not going to supplant the printed book for me. That said its hard to deny digital tech allows more creators to get their work noticed outside of the traditional (and hard to get into) channels of mainstream publishing. Would you consider using the web for other work – for instance, short film seems quite well suited to the broadband age?
Adi: I’m definitely considering the web for future comics work and short film work, as soon as I get through all these work-for-hire assignments.
FPI: I’ll look forward to seeing what you do on that score and I’m sure you’ll let us know. I’m happy to hear that there’s a print version of La Muse now in the works – can you tell us a little about that? Who is publishing it and when do you expect that we’ll see it?
Adi: Big Head Press, who have serialised the series, will be publishing the print version. The printed edition will be a 230-page paperback with the complete story in a single book. That’s all you’re ever going to need. We’re finalising the cover designs right now and hope to get it out to shops and Amazon in December, in time for Christmas and beyond.
FPI: Adi, a question we always ask our guests – what books and/or comics are you enjoying right now and are there any writers or artists you’d recommend as creators to watch out for?
AT: Well, Los Bros. Hernandez’ Love and Rockets (Fantagraphics) and their individual works are always worth reading. People seem to take them for granted but they’re still challenging themselves and evolving, and they’re constantly surprising, either in a new way to tell a story in comics or unexpected moments of emotional insight.
Hiroki Endo’s Eden: It’s an Endless World (Dark Horse) is the best dystopian Science Fiction political action thriller out there right now with no equal in manga or Western comics.
Naoko Urusawa’s 20th Century Boys and Pluto (both forthcoming from Viz) are brilliant deconstruction and re-imagining of familiar Science Fiction stories. 20th Century Boys is a meditation on childhood fantasies, traumas and adult disappointments where a group of middle-aged friends discover that the sci-fi game they made up together as children has been adopted by someone in their circle and implemented as a doomsday cult’s world-ending conspiracy that’s now threatening to come true. Pluto is a reconfiguring of a classic Astro Boy story from the 1960s into a dark, adult-tinged detective thriller exploring racism and genocidal war crimes that come home to roost.
Sayonara Zetsubou Sensei (“Goodbye, Mr. Despair) by Koji Kumeta (forthcoming from Del Rey) is an utterly mind-blowing black comedy in both its manga and anime incarnations. The barest semblance of a plot involves a suicidally-depressed teacher trying to teach his secondary school students that life is full of despair and disappointment, but they’re too preoccupied with their own madness and dysfunctions to take him seriously. They include a psychotically cheerful girl who insists on putting the most optimistic spin on even the darkest situations, and whose name is a Japanese mutilation of “Franz Kafka”, an obsessive-compulsively neat acting class president (‘acting’ because the real class president can’t be seen by anyone), a foreign exchange student with multiple personalities, a stalker, and so on. The series is akin to The Young Ones or Eugene Ionesco’s Theatre of the Absurd. It mercilessly takes the piss out of everything tragic and awful in Japanese society and pushes them to even more absurd and hysterically funny places. I can’t decide if it’s just brilliant satire or the desperate expression of a culture dancing cheerfully towards the abyss. And this series won awards in Japan!
The Watch Novels by Sergei Lukyanenko: Night Watch, Day Watch, Twilight Watch and the upcoming Last Watch, are a terrific fantasy series about a magickal Cold War being fought in the shadows of contemporary Moscow. The books are much better than the films that were made from Night Watch and Day Watch. The books are really commentaries on post-communist Russia and the werewolves, vampires, shape-shifters and sorcerers are weary, put-upon spies sent on missions they don’t completely understand, often under-budgeted and even under-equipped, and paranoid about being used as pawns in larger games they don’t understand that could end with their deaths. It’s like Tolkien getting violently mugged by Len Deighton in an alley in downtown Moscow.
I have a longer list than this, but I better stop now.
FPI: “Tolkien getting violently mugged by Len Deighton…” – now there’s an image! Almost sounds like one of the pitches you hear in The Player. Turning to the future, if you had your choice of dream project what would it be and who would you be working with? If you had your complete freedom of choice, who would you like to helm and star in a movie version – or a TV mini-series, maybe – of La Muse? I’m guessing you’d write the script.
Adi: My dream project would be a low-budget, globe-trotting spy-and-crime thriller shot completely guerrilla-style and very quickly in the actual locations. Grunge spooks of the 21st Century, sort of the Upstairs-Downstairs of the shadow world. I’d cast a whole bunch of indie American actors, French and Europeans, none of whom are that well-known.
As for La Muse, I’d prefer a cable TV series version produced by HBO or Showtime, where they don’t censor subject matter and understand politics and dark comedy. I haven’t really thought about casting, but someone like Katee Sackhoff could play Susan’s tomboyish, don’t-give-a-damn sexuality and Parker Posey could be very funny as Libby. The show would have a finite number of seasons and room in which to play out the various storylines, some in more detail than the comic got to do.
FPI: And with La Muse ending – with a suitably ambiguous quote from Yeats, no less – I have to ask, what’s next for you?
Adi: Hard to tell at this point. I can say that I don’t plan to write a sequel to La Muse. Its story is complete, and I’ve deliberately left enough hints for the reader to work out how well or how badly things will go in the characters’ futures.
FPI: Much as I loved reading it every week I think that’s the right decision, leave it as it is, let the readers ponder over how the world went from there but don’t go back to it. As the great Leo Baxendale commented on the blog just recently, always leave the reader with a little mystery, wanting more, wondering at what happened next. So what other projects are on your list?
(meet the parents in La Muse…)
Adi: I have a bunch of screenwriting assignments to get through, and a fairly long list of original projects I want to write. I have to decide whether to write those as screenplays, novels or graphic novels, depending on which medium serves the stories best. If it’s graphic novels, I’m going to have to find an appropriate artist or start drawing them myself again, and my drawing style is not only rusty, but on the cartoony side and not always suitable to dark serious stories. There are some spy thrillers of the type no one has done before in the genre in any medium I’d like to co-write with a friend from a hit TV series.
There’s a comedy-thriller about an ordinary London woman who’s appalled to discover her family’s ties to a lost opera and an Old World Italian clan of assassins I’d like to write.
There’s a lost 19th Century French novel that virtually no one has heard about that I’d like to adapt or play around with just for fun.
There’s a comedy series about a British-Indian bloke who becomes a private investigator in a highly exclusive but dodgy firm that I’d love to write that would portray PI firms in a light no one has done in fiction before.
There’s a graphic novel series about a the rise and eventual fall of a female spy in the Chinese emperor’s court in the 17th Century I’ve had in my head for years now, but I can’t find the right artist or publisher.
There’s Anna Passenger, a book series about a mysterious courier who specialises in unusual deliveries, who tends to leave a trail of destruction in her wake.
When I’ll actually get to tackle any of these projects is totally up in the air right now.
FPI: Isn’t it always?!? Well, we’ll be looking forward to them if and when any of them come to fruition. Adi Tantimedh, thanks very much for chatting to us. La Muse by Adi and Hugo Petrus can be read in its entirety via the good people at Big Head Press, starting here; the print version should be out from Big Head Press later this year.