And now he's about to carve out a little slice of Mars for himself as two novels set in the Blackthorn Universe debut this week. Watson contributed to the original anthology of stories about an American soldier transported to a far future, post-apocalyptic Mars, Blackthorn: Thunder on Mars, and his two new contributions seek to expand the world of Blackthorn and his allies even further. Spires of Mars is set to be a serialized novel available three days a week online designed to expand the world and add a touch of the cosmic to the Burroughs-by-way-of-Kirby adventures, whereas Dynasty of Mars will focus on Aria, the Princess of Mars--and promises to span over a thousand years of this exciting franchise's history. So let's learn more about the man Van Allen Plexico call 'the most prolific man in England'...Ian A. Watson!
Thank you for taking time out to talk to me, Ian.
It's a delight to travel with Nocturne.
So you've been part of the Blackthorne project pretty much from Day One. What is it, do you think, about these Jack Kirby super-hero/pulp post apocalyptic mash-ups that's so appealing?
Kirby had that rare ability to catch a zeitgeist and make it come vibrantly alive. He could fold in ideas that were so diverse, so wild, and yet made them all seem like a natural roller-coaster adventure. When it comes to weird landscapes, weirder beasties, and the weirdest plotlines you can't beat the King.
So if you want to reach to the further edges of science fiction and fantasy and polish off old tropes like Burrough's Mars you can't really go wrong with Kirby as a route guide. Also, Kirby's art and storytelling are very stylised, primal things. They go right for the big reaction. That's a very big help when you have a broad story framework to work off.
And I always loved the fact that Kirby was so selfless about encouraging others to go and create like he did. He loved inspiring other people.
I think Kirby loved to go to that place of imagination and to take others with him--or meet them there.
So how did you get involved with the initial Blackthorn anthology--I know you contributed to Van's two Assembled anthologies of non-fiction about The Avengers.
Van invited me to contribute a story to his guest-writers Sentinels anthology, Alternate Visions. That fits between his first two Sentinels trilogies. So I offered a really tiny tale based on what a Ditko Strange Tales backup might have been to a Sentinels comic-book. We'd already corresponded about the Assembled books by then. He kindly included a huge chunk of ther material I dumped on him for those projects.
Then he hauled me in to do some of the work on the Gideon Cain anthology, about a Puritan demon-hunter who is in no way affiliated with any property owned by the Howard estate. So by the time we'd decided through mailing list chat thaste there was an urgent need for a futuristic SF adventure series on Mars I was on his call-sheet.
Steve Ditko--another great contributor to the tapestry of comic book fans' dreams...
Ditko, I think that sense of the weird breaking into the everyday that he mastered is also somewhere in the DNA of the Blackthorn series. And if we're really digging out old comics comparisons, I think we owe a debt to Don McGregor's Killraven too.
To me, the toughest thing about developing a property like this is in creating a world that's totally believable, yet also totally alien to the reader. How do you approach building that world, its history and its features so the reader will be sucked right in?
In this case we wanted to echo and homage some previous, quite famous work; but we didn't want to do a rip-off that had nothing new to say. So we start with the familiar, the sort of stories and settings that won't seem to strange to readers of Burroughs or Kommandi, or viewers of Thundarr, and then we use that as a platform to launch off into newer and more original realms.
I like to be able to figure out how things work in a world, even if they don't make it into the story. So if Mars is now habitable by humans, how and why? Why is there apparently magic as well as science there? Why are there ruins, and monsters? So we had to work out a whole backstory, about how humans came to be on a now-Earth-like Mars, about why there are no humans on Earth any more, about how civilisation fragmented into a feudal barbaric remnant, about how the four main villains of the series rose to power. That in turn inspired a lot of the material in the two books I've just completed.
I have found sometimes that working on one aspect somehow creates an insight into another aspect of either the world or the characters who inhabit it...there's a sort of, I dunno, synchronous serendipity when you're properly emersed in the project that allows connections to be made...
I also like little details. The Martian year is 687 days long. What does that do to the agricultural calender? There are ongoing millennium long wars. Who supplies the weapons?
And the great thing about little details is how they sometimes give you new story hooks you otherwise hadn't considered!
One of the fun parts of working with a collectively-written universe is that other writers throw in flavours I'd never have thought of. While that can sometimes mean one has to reign in ego about control it also means there's a whole bunch of raw potential to mine later on.
For example, at the end of the first Blackthorn anthology, "Thunder on Mars", Van thought we needed a kind of epilogue that moved the plot on to the next phase of the story, from wandering adventures to organised rebellion. So he threw in a meeting with a bunch of characters who he only named. Didn't even describe them In the two novels I've just turned in, the soon-in-the-shops Dynasty of Mars and the special project Spires of Mars, every one of them gets an origin and a story.
So when you and the other writers were developing the world of Blackthorn, how did you keep everything straight--was there a central site that you ended up using as a repository, did you use a mailing list of board...?
First time round we flew by the seat of our pants. Van came up with a "bible" that had some basic information. Then he had to do a lot of editorial reconciliation. We got away with it that time, I hope--barely. Future collaborations will need to be much tighter now we've got much more established continuity.
Fortunately now we're about to launch the Blackthorn website. That includes some fan-generated reference material. A Who's Who with bios, a Where's Where, a Glossary of Martian terms, plants, weapons, monsters, foods, etc. So that can help in future. My suggestion that Van host a planning weekend in Hawaii was unfairly dismissed, I feel.
You seem to be firmly in the driver's seat for this next phase, with these two novels--how did they develop?
Van and I discussed how to develop the franchise. The thinking had been to put out a companion set of stories to those of Van's very popular Sentinels series. They cover high action and even cosmic adventure in the present day. This would fit as different niche in a dystopian future. We'd got one try-it-and-see anthology under our belts, but things had ground to a hiatus.
Van was pretty busy having a life and stuff. So when I busted his chops about our grand marketing plan to get regular Blackthorn product out to feed a fanbase he threw it back at me since I don't have a life. I agreed to write a novel as the next bit of the storyline, to flesh out and bring together various concepts we'd discussed or touched on in previous stories. That turned into Dynasty of Mars, which covers a thousand plus years of backstory and details the first days of Blackthorn's revolution against the tyrant-sorcerers of Mars. It was also thought a good idea to do an free online, three-times-a-week episodic story to feed the interest of potential readers. So I agreed to pen a short series that could be used to drum up some attention. Unfortunately thast escalated to a full-length other novel. It'll still go out online free though.
See--the idea that you're taking it on yourself to cover a thousand years of Martian history floors me! I've been struggling telling fifty years of history for one lil' city, let alone an entire planet.
Probably the second-most important character of the series is Aria, Princess of Mars. She's the sorceress who supports, argues with, and sometimes is the romance interest of our big hero. Dynasty is from her point of view. Since she was born eight hundred years back (and has spent all but 22 of those years in suspended animation) she's ideal to explore the Martian backstory with. She is the rightful heir of Mars' original royalty. She has a mystic link with the people who made Mars what it is. So she's our key into the deeper mysteries of Mars. Our anthology, Thunder, more or less keeps Blackthorn as our point of view. An Earthman from today ends up on far future fantasy Mars. Dynasty reverses that. A Princess of Mars meets a strange hero from a legendary time. We see Blackthorn from her perspective. He's Captain America or King Arthur, returned at the time he's needed most.
We want our series to have deep roots, nuances, themes, developing plotlines; all the things that transcend the various elements we mixed in for our original pastiche.
How do you find writing from a feminine point of view? I've enjoyed doing it in the past, but I know some male writers who blanche at the prospect.
I have an eighteen year old daughter who wants to be an editor. She has strong views on female characters in fantasy, and good instincts. She's been watching Princess Aria very carefully--and me.
Aria's interesting to me, though. SF and fantasy are littered with princesses who need help reclaiming their throne. But Aria is also the daughter of one of our main villains, so she's not just Star Wars' Leia, she's Flash Gordon's Aura. And hopefully herself. I'm interested in what having a supervillain as a father must do to you. An unusual childhood, to say the least.
I wanted to ask you about the serialized form of Spires. Have you had to adjust your writing mindset to create a story that the reader will be experiencing not at his/her own pace, but in small chunks over time? Have you had to make allowances in terms of pace and exposition?
It's written very much with that in mind. Readers might be familiar with the previous stories or might come entirely new to it, so it has to offer all the right information as well as engage people in a good plot. In some ways we're going back to old-style comic book roots, with a serial story for which every issue is someone's first. In the days before comics were written for the trade paperback there was a real skill in making sure every issue offered a proper complete story while linking in to a larger narrative. Even the stories ending in cliffhangers felt like there was a start, middle and end there. I've tried to keep that in mind as I structure Spires of Mars. Each section pushes things on, but each should read like a mini-story in itself. Each one gently reminds readers of what they knew last time they read a bit of this. Each one adds on what's gone before to reward sequential reading. I hope.
I didn't want the tale to feel disposable or throwaway though. The first few chapters are nice simple adventure, but then we find that's all part of a much larger plot, and in the end we get a world-shaking revelation that changes everything in volumes to come.
Now I'm hyping like Stan Lee, true believer.
Don't worry about hyping--that's the reason the Travel Agency is opened, not just for my world, but the other worlds in the Multiverse of comic book style adventure in prose form!
Do you think that the success of the Blackthorn franchise arises from the fact that you're feeding a need for this sort of swashbuckling in uncharted territory style story in a comic book climate that just doesn't feel like giving to the reader?
Mainstream superhero comics of recent years tend to have become a bit incestuous in terms of recycling characters and plots. When you look at the wild innovation of the first 50 issues of FF, the volume of new ideas that came out of them, compared to all the issues since, you realise that there's a difficulty moving on to the new. Our main comics universes are fifty-odd and seventy-odd years old respectively, and the main elements of them have been in place for nearly that long.
You can take that first hundred issues of FF and see the entirely groundwork for the Marvel Universe to this day....
On the other hand, new creations like Hellboy and his universe, of Astro City, have done very well. I think there's a reader taste for discovery, for first-time world mapping, and then for interactions following from that.The adventure gets more intense when that terrible villain returns, but its better yet when he returns in some new fresh way. With Blackthorn, as with some other exciting literary superhero worlds, we're able to catch that vibe, both the new and the doing-stuff-with-what-we've-established. Because its prose, we can explore some nuances in ways that comic books can't.
Prose is really the only place you can get deep in the inner life of super-heroes, I find.
One of the great things about super-heroes as a genre is that, like westerns or detective stories, you can tell all kinds of different stories about them. Superhero mysteries, superhero romances, superhero horror, social commentary, rite-of-passage, group bonding, war tales, all kinds of stuff. But to get away with the "super" element you need to ground that in the everyday. Remember when Lee and Kirby's Thor stopped in for a milk-shake? Prose writing allows for that grounding very well. People are quite willing to accept a man can fly as long as when he's landed he behaves in ways we can understand and identify with. The characters and their reactions need to be real so the fantastic elements don't seem too much. That's why I was happy to be given novel-lengths to work with for Blackthorn. It allows for the "down-time" stuff as well as the high action. It allows for more team-building, character-based development. It's easier to offer personal arcs for characters, even the villains.
One of the favourite sports of superhero fans is blogging things like "Character X would never do that!" That's because we get to know our favourite heroes at least as well as some of the folks now writing them, and we develop that sense of how they are and how they'd react. If we can get readers to that place with Blackthorn then we've done our job.
So...what do you have in store for your readers after the Blackthorn novels are out in the world?
The third part of my Robin Hood trilogy, Robin Hood: Freedom's Outlaw, will be out before Christmas. I've just published a couple of short stories in the latest online fantasy magazine Wonderlust. Just this week I've been asked to develop another novel I've been puttering with, a murder mystery set in the Biblical Tower of Babel! And sometime I need to package off a final draft of a World War 2 action adventure novel called Sir Mumphrey Wilton and the Lost City of Mystery.
I'll also be reviving another classic pulp character for Pro-Se's Pulp Obscura line. There's a new female jungle superheroine I wrote a pilot story for due to appear in an anthology sometime, There's a novella and three more anthology stories sitting in the Airship 27 coming soon pile.
I think you'll have to visit the Agency again when Sir Mumphrey comes out, as you gave me a little high-concept about that book and it sounds right up my alley!
Yeah, I think you'd like the Mumph stuff. It's weird, and every chapter ends with a narrator asking questions of the audience and telling them not to miss the next chapter.
Ian, thank you for taking time to visit The Agency.