Thursday, November 13, 2008

Worlds within worlds

In the four-month period between the end of July and the end of October of this year, I had four novels released.

One was an original supernatural thriller called River Runs Red, a terrifying story that builds on real-life occult researches conducted by the U.S. government, combining them with the experiences of three people in El Paso, Texas who had a bizarre and terrible encounter in a cave twenty years ago, with lasting consequences. Finally, it’s a story about gods, monsters, and a possible apocalypse. It was released in late September, and it’s gathering good reviews, and I am, I think, justifiably proud of it.

The other three are tie-in novels. The first, published in July, is 30 Days of Night: Eternal Damnation. It’s hard-hitting, straight ahead horror, based on the best-selling vampire comic book 30 Days of Night, which became a movie last year. The original creators of the comic, Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, are friends, and when I had a day job as an editor, I edited the comic. So when Steve got the chance to write three novels based on his creation, he asked me to be his collaborator.

CSI: Miami: Right to Die came out in August. This one is based on the most-watched dramatic TV series in the world, the popular spin-off to mega-hit CSI: Crime Scene Investigation. I also have a history with CSI: Miami—I wrote the first graphic novel based on the show, and even went to the set to present copies to the cast, an event filmed by Access Hollywood (which cut me out of all the aired footage, although the book made it on). As it turns out, this is the final CSI: Miami novel, as Pocket Books dropped the license.

And finally, right around Halloween, came the one I’m really here to talk about: Spider-Man: Requiem.

One of the true joys of writing tie-in fiction—a pleasure authors who only pen original fiction (and especially those who look down their noses at tie-ins as being a lesser breed) never know—is being able to immerse oneself in beloved characters and their worlds. Spider-Man falls into that category for me. I’ve been reading his comics since the ‘70s (and have read back into the earlier stories, from the ‘60s). He’s a global icon, star of TV shows and movies and many other novels. But like most comic book fans, to me none of that other stuff is what really matters. It’s the comics.

Spider-Man wasn’t like Bruce Wayne, wealthy and handsome, with a glamorous babe on each arm. He wasn’t like Superman, invulnerable to almost everything (and I’ve written a novel about him, too—DC Universe: Trail of Time). At the beginning he was Peter Parker, a nerdy high school kid who lived with his aunt, who was haunted by his failure to prevent his uncle’s murder, who wasn’t rich or particularly popular with women. As he grew up, he became a little more skilled with the opposite sex, until he had an almost Archie-Betty-Veronica-ish triangle going with Gwen Stacey and Mary Jane Watson.

Stuff happened. There have been decades of stories, and changes made. The Green Goblin murdered Gwen Stacey. Peter married Mary Jane. More stuff happened.

I have not consistently read Spidey through the years, but when I was offered the job of writing a novel about him, I went back and did some catching up. And the comics were nearly as good as I remembered—some better, some worse, as different creative teams and editors dictated the events of his life over time. But while I was writing, there happened to be what I considered a terrible editorial decision. Peter made a deal with the devil—a deal that I thought the character, as developed over many years, would never agree to—with the result that he would not be married to MJ anymore, and would have no memory of the years they were together. It was a way of pushing the reset button, of extricating future creative teams from what was considered confining continuity, and perhaps of making the Spider-Man in the comics conform more to the one in the huge hit movies, who was not married.

But breaking up Peter and MJ? Sacrilege.

So in Spider-Man: Requiem (which, since it’s what I tend to write most often, is also a supernatural horror story in the form of a Spidey story), Peter and Mary Jane are still married, together, absolutely madly in love. It’s set in the Marvel Universe, but before the events that tore them apart. And it’s clear, in the novel, that nothing—no deal with the devil, no editorial fiat—will sever that bond.

A tie-in writer can’t change continuity. But he can—carefully—comment on that continuity, and can sometimes set a book in a time period that is more suited to his ideal version of the character.

Most importantly, he can play in the glorious sandboxes that formed his imagination, in the worlds he loves. And be paid for it. What could be better?

Other beloved universes I’ve been able to write in recently include Conan the Barbarian’s Hyborian Age, and the worlds of Zorro and the Phantom. I just had a story accepted for an anthology about a particular horror-writer’s universe that I can’t talk about yet. All these things are labors of love. And yet, I make a living at it.

If there’s a better way to make a living, I don’t know what it is.

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