I'm sitting here via the wonders of Skype with one of the Big Names in Super-Hero Prose Fiction, Van Allen Plexico. Van went from founding the Definitve Avengers site, Avengers Assemble, to writing his own team of super-heroes, The Sentinels, whose adventures are chronicled in a series of novels from White Rocket Books. Van, thanks for joining me.Thank you! That's a mighty kind introduction.
Dude--there was a time when I visited Avengers Assemble several times a day...it was a great resource for Avengers fans! And now you've got a number of collections gathering up articles and such from the site and beyond, right?
Yep-- Assembled! and Assembled 2 are the books. Nearly everything in them is original, separate from the AA site. Vol 1 looks at the Avengers through the years-- the "Eras of the Avengers"--and Vol 2 focuses primarily on Iron Man, Thor, and Cap. Plus Kang and Ultron. They're both now on Kindle!! And we're working on Vol. 3 now, which will cover all the other eight zillion Avengers!
And both are also available through White Rocket?
Yep, or through any comics store (they're both in the Diamond catalog), or Amazon, or wherever.
Anyway, what led you to decide 'I'm going to write my own super-hero adventures?", and what made you decide to pursue the creation of the Sentinels through prose and not conventional comics?
Heh-- probably the number one question I've received over the years about the Sentinels is, "Why aren't these being done as comic books?" But, honestly--that would make them just like almost any other superhero comic. By writing them as a series of novels, I'm able to both cover a LOT of ground, time-wise-- more than a year's worth of story in just one book--and go more in-depth with the characters, the way a novel allows you to do.
As for why do it at all, I had plenty of story ideas in my head after a lifetime of reading comics and SF novels, and I wanted to sort of merge those two fields together-- a superhero team that operates in an "SF novel" / Space Opera environment.
See--that's something I find about writing prose--it gives you a greater window into the inner life of each character. There are certain things, like interior monologues, where prose works
better than comics....
So you were always looking toward the stars when it came to your heroes?
Yes-- the Sentinels do operate out of Esro Brachis's mansion in northern Virginia, near DC, but they spend a lot of time in space, dealing with menaces on the order of, say, the Kree/Skrull/Shi'ar, or Galactus.
What is it about that grand cosmic epic storytelling--the sort of thing Jim Shooter did in the Korvac saga, or Jim Starlin seemingly does every morning as a reflex--that you find so attractive?
Hahaha! You are right about Starlin!
Starlin is definitely a guy who thinks only in grand strokes--and comics is richer for it!
That's a good question. I've always loved the cosmic stories, and the grand, huge sagas with lots of characters. Two of the first comic stories I read as a kid were the Korvac Saga and the Avengers Annual that Starlin did with Thanos. Those just blew me away, and I am trying hard to recapture the magic that I felt when reading those comics. Where everything is huge and dramatic and the fate of the planet and the very universe hangs in the balance!
But you still have to be sure to keep a very "human" storyline going with your main characters. The big stuff doesn't matter if no one cares about your "people" -- your heroes.
And the Korvac saga is one of those things so many people have tried to recapture and never quite got right...I think the closest anyone ever got was when Bob Harras did the Gatherers story....
Well, comics changed very soon after the Korvac story ended, and it became almost impossible to recreate. Everything became a "themed event," where you knew how many issues it would run and it had a running title, like "Operation Galactic Storm" or whatever, and all the surprises were sort of drained out. With Korvac, you had no idea what was about to happen or how long it would last!
Which is why I think the Gatherers worked so well--it was a veeeeery slow burn, and you didn't realize you were stuck in a massive event until you were knee-deep in it....
But getting back to The Sentinels--how did you develop your team? Did you have a central character in mind and build around him/her, have certain types in mind, were these guys always kicking around in your head waiting to be unleashed, etc?
Yes, yes, and yes.
Yes, please! lol
I had a set of archetypes in mind from the very beginning: A young person just starting out, who would become our main POV character. That's Lyn Li, the irrepressible Pulsar, a 19 year old Chinese-American college student who is hiding the fact that she possesses seemingly uncontrollable electromagnetic powers. She's the central character, and most everything we see is centered around her.
Then there's the old hand, the beloved national hero, Ultraa. He becomes Lyn's mentor. But he has issues of his own--not least of which is he has no idea who he really is! His only memories are of being a paranormal agent for the Pentagon, and he has no life and no identity beyond that.
The wealthy inventor guy is Esro Brachis, who longs to be heroic--and gets his chance in a big way! He's the armored guy.
And lastly of the "Big Four" is Vanadium, who shows up early in the first book. He is possibly a man in armor; possibly an alien; possibly a robot; possibly a robot alien; or who knows what. But he is scarily powerful. Which side is he on??
So I can see that right here, in the early stages, you're setting up character 'hooks' for the reader to become invested in, which you can then return to for future storylines...
Do you know where those 'hooks' will lead right out the gate, or do you plant them there with the intention of exploring them yourself, and then sharing your discoveries with the readers, in later books?
A little of both. I came up with these (and other) characters in long discussions with Bobby Politte, a good friend who is very sharp at building characters and plots. (He has a co-creator credit on the novels.) We worked out a lot of it at the start, and I've been slowly building toward the various reveals over the course of six books now. But of course new ideas and new developments constantly come along to add more depth and more fun to it all.
So you're always open to 'happy accidents'--little synchronous connections you can make between characters as you're writing the books?
Absolutely! In fact, I was astonished how well both the "planned" and the "unplanned accidents" stuff all came together particularly in the two trilogy/storyline-concluding volumes so far, Apocalypse Rising and Stellarax. Both of those books had to take all those seeds and threads that were set up in two previous volumes and bring everything together to satisfaction--and in both cases it totally exceeded my hopes and expectations. I think if you make your characters "real" enough, that's far more likely to happen.
There are probably eight or nine parallel-running plots in Stellarax, for example, and every one of them "clicked" together just right as I was writing it. It's very pleasant as a writer to have everything work out great, without having to try to restructure or (heaven forbid) "force" anything.
Yeah...my guys, one in particular, seem to have taken on a life of their own. You mentioned working with Bobby; do you find having somebody to bounce ideas off of helps you better realize the stories?
Definitely--Bobby has been great over the years at considering my ideas and saying, "That's cool," or "That's terrible," or "You totally copied that!" or "Here's a better way." And he created characters like Star Knight/Mitch Michaelson entirely himself, and just allows me to play with them in the novels.
I remember a quote from John Bryne, where he said one of the creat things about collaboration is that someone is always there to stop you by saying, 'Dude, being able to turn on computer lights at will is a stupid power'....chuckles
That's true. To point out things that just don't work, where you're forcing it unnaturally.
Getting on to another subject--do you think the popularity of super-hero prose is a reaction to the way mainstream comics have changed in the last ten or so years?
That may be so. I know for a fact that there are a whole lot of people out there who used to love comics and superhero adventures but don't care for much of what's being published today. If we can recreate that classic feeling from the Silver or Bronze Age in our novels and stories, we're definitely providing a service and giving a lot of people something they've missed. That classic Avengers feel is certainly something I strive to recreate.
I have been very honest that The Shadow Legion morphed out of my desire to do something akin to a DC New 52 reboot I could live with....
Isn't it weird that the only place you can find a 'real' Avengers experience these days is in the movie theaters?
Unfortunately so. And of course I blame one person in particular for that. But hey, let's not get negative. Hah.
Well, I see your guy and raise you my guy....we'd be ranting all day...lol
As someone who loves to do the big cosmic, 'widescreen' events...how do you approach doing something that calls out for visuals in a very non-visual medium?
That's always a challenge. I think my background in reading tons and tons of space opera-ish novels ever since I was a little kid helps a lot. I absorbed the various ways to describe big, giant, cosmic events and characters and structures. Reading a lot of Starlin helped, too, because he uses a lot of dialogue and captions in very poetic ways to describe stuff like that.
I try very hard to completely visualize a big action scene, the way it would look in a comic book. Then I break it down by each character or situation within the scene. I usually have a notepad file open with all the participants listed out, as well as any notes I need for them.
A sort of 'war diary,' if you will, allowing you to chart the flow of the conflict?
Right. Then I try to think logically as to what each character would do in attack or defense, and how it would all mesh together. Then I try to put together sentences that use vibrant, action-oriented words that make it clear and exciting. And I also use a lot of "color-cues" in the Sentinels books. I think very "four-color" with them. I describe things --especially when action is moving fast-- in basic color concepts-- red energy beams, shimmering golden force fields, blue armor, etc. Make it visual in the reader's mind as best I can.
Color cues... action verbs... clarity. Those are my main tools for an action scene.
How do you handle another potential bugaboo--the dreaded 'exposition'?
In conversation whenever possible. Or spread out over multiple scenes. Anything to break it down into smaller bites. I rely on context a lot. I figure most readers of this kind of story will understand a lot of stuff without having to be spoon-fed.
You've structured the Sentinels' adventures as trilogies...why does that appeal to you?
Yes, the plan has always been to do sets of trilogies, and the first two are done now. (Wahooo!) It really just works well for this kind of material in a number of ways. It lets each individual volume be shorter--otherwise, if I did the entire story as one volume, it would be 600-700 pages or so. It allows for one volume to set up the characters and the conflict, another to make it infinitely more dangerous, and a third for the big climax and resolution. And you get more cover art with three books than with one!
That being said, omnibus paperback volumes of each of the two trilogies will be coming out later this year. The Grand Design (1-3) and The Rivals (4-6)
....and we all know the 'gotta have 'em all' mentality of the comic book fan, right?
Oooh, we certainly hope so!
That seems to be the case with the Kindle editions. Many times it has looked as if someone went in and bought all six at once. To which I reply, THANK YOU.
You mentioned White Rocket at the start, but I have to note also that Swarm Press, an imprint of Permuted Press, the noted zombie publishers, put out the first three volumes originally, in 2008. This summer their rights are expiring, and that's how White Rocket will come to put out the two new omnibus volumes, probably late August or September.
Do you think the increasing use of electronic delivery for prose has helped super hero fiction gain a greater foothold?
1. The folks who read this kind of stuff are often on the leading edge of tech.
2. Having lower prices for e-books is helpful.
3. E-books really are this generation's pulp-- low-cost delivery to all.
The low price certainly makes it easier for a book to act as an 'impulse buy' for a reader who might not commit to an eight dollar paperback or a $25 hardback....
Exactly. And it allows for more writers to reach the public, than back when you had to get a big contract from a big publisher. So more characters, not just the licensed existing Marvel/DC stuff.
...and I imagine it keeps things in print longer than they would be in book form...
Have you been working on the next trilogy for The Sentinels?
Yep! The next trilogy will be called "Order Above All," and the first volume is Metalgod. I'm about 25K words into it now. It should come in around 60K, probably. Cover as well as interior illustrations this time are by Chris Kohler, whose Starlin-esque style is just awesome. It deals with a lot of the fallout from the huge huge events of Stellarax.
Any hints you want to share with the readers as to what is forthcoming?
A couple of vague hints:
With the team divided after the events of Stellarax, the ones still at the mansion on Earth have to try to cobble together a new lineup. Think of those fun issues of Avengers where "The Old Order Changeth!"
Meanwhile, in space, those who have gone off on a mission to deal with a growing threat out there will be entering into that sort of "X-Men visit the Shi'ar Empire" territory!
I remember those 'new line-up issues being real events in the 70's and 80's!
And like the Avengers of that era, the membership really has grown over the course of six books into a rather large conglomeration!
So does this mean some new heroes are about to make the scene?
Well, actually--- yes! Remember the superhero tryout scene in Mystery Men movie?
Yes...yes I do.
That will be Lyn's world. Heh. Everyone who thinks they have a shot will show up. Poor Lyn. Poor Otto, expected to serve drinks and whatnot!
And she'll be in a position of more authority than she's used to, being considered an 'old hand' by these new heroes, I'd expect.
Yes. Bingo! She has had to really grow up fast. That is a key moment at the end of Stellarax, where the torch is sort of passed.
Of course, I flashed on that classic Perez cover with Gyrich chewing out the Avengers for being too crowded!
Chris drew that scene of everyone seated around the table. All that was needed was Gyrich. Or Shawarma!
Or Gyrich eating Shawarma?
Otto, by the way, is not the butler but sort of the caretaker-- and he's a relative of one of the members. And he does not like being expected to do anything for anybody, and especially not Lyn! Sort of the anti-Jarvis. Or anti-Alfred.
I think of him as a crewmember from Captain Aubrey's ship in Master and Commander, brought to the US and expected to mop the floors and whatever. He prefers to drink Esro's wine and watch TV. And gripe at Lyn.
And who wouldn't?
Van--thanks for taking the time to share your thoughts with the readers of the Travel Agency.Hey, I really appreciate it!
Before we put a pin in this, is there anything else you'd like to shill/share with the good visitors?
And all of these are available through White Rocket Books?
You can visit www.whiterocketbooks.com, or go to Amazon, or presumably to any bookstore, who can order them for you. I have other stuff with other publishers, but nothing new right at the moment.
So everyone go check out Van's work! And Van, once again, thank you for your time.
Thanks very much!!