I have a confession to make. Ready? My confession is that I’m not into American superhero movies or comics. I never got into Iron Man, I only watched Thor and X-Men for the handsome actors, I couldn’t care less about The Fantastic Four or the Avengers or Superman. Even the darker stories like Watchmen didn’t do much for me. There’s something about the whole American style comic book superhero genre that I’m just not groking. There, I’ve admitted it!
Good thing Jennifer Giesbrecht’s story “Lazarus and the Amazing Kid Phoenix” came along. The first thing that grabbed me about this story was the discussion of the limitations of comic book art. You only have so many colors, you only have so many pages, and so much space on each page. Every word, every dialog bubble has to count. Superheroes may have incredible powers and strength, but the comic book lens by which we see them is built around severe limitations. Giesbrecht plays with those limitations, poking at reader expectations, making you think about what you’re reading, and telling parts of the story in a traditional method, and other parts as the story board of panels in different issues of a comic book. By switching the presentation style, she switches what the reader is “supposed” to see. Go read the story if you haven’t already, and you’ll see what I mean. And if you’re like me, and you hear “superhero story,” and immediately think a story isn’t for you, then you should absolutely go read this story, because it is exactly for you.
Like Michael Chabon’s The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, “Lazarus and the Amazing Kid Phoenix” is so much more than just “a comic book story,” opening my eyes to what is happening behind the pages of a comic book, what the characters are going through when they think, or hope, no one is watching, how what we see on the pages of a comic book isn’t always what the characters are truly experiencing. I really love this story, and I’m so thrilled to see it in the pages of Apex Magazine. I may not be a huge comic book or superhero fan, but I sure am a huge fan of how Giesbrecht tells a story about reluctant superheroes.
Jennifer Giesbrecht attended Clarion West in 2013, and her fiction has appeared in Nightmare Magazine, XIII: ‘Stories of Resurrection’, and Imaginarium 3. She was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about how this story came to be, the intense rush of writing the original version of story over only two days, communicating through comic book tropes, telling stories through art, the draw of stories about power and powerlessness, getting to meet her author heroes, and more.
I need to amend what I said earlier. Because thinking Iron Man or Superman stories are the only way to tell a superhero story is like saying Sailor Moon is all there is to manga or anime. And I do own the entire run of Fullmetal Alchemist. Maybe I’ve just now figured it out: superhero stories aren’t a genre, they’re a medium. They aren’t stories so much as a vehicle for telling a story.
APEX MAGAZINE: You’ve done an amazing job of mashing up traditional short story fiction with comic book story boarding. What’s your connection to comics and comic book creation?
JENNIFER GIESBRECHT: I’ve been reading comics all my life: indie, autobiographical, newspaper, shounen and shoujo and josei and seinen manga, horror, underground, web, local, romance and, of course, superhero … name any genre of comic and I’ve probably at the very least read the “greats,” the cream of the crop. Comics are a great medium for telling a story because they combine some of the most interesting parts of filmmaking with the absolute most fun parts of novel writing. But it’s always superhero comics that I’ve had the most … torrid relationship with.
I’ve got a stack of long boxes in my room to hold my hundreds and hundreds of single issue “cape” books, but I go through weird cycles with it because — let’s be honest — superhero comics as they’ve been commonly written are an inherently pseudo-fascist concept and sometimes my suspension of disbelief cracks and I swear off the whole genre for years at a time. Superhero comics were really the first great fictional love of mine where I had to confront the idea that I could enjoy something that I was politically opposed to, the first thing that helped me identify that little pinch in the back of my brain that made me uncomfortable while reading something, and what that discomfort was. In that sense, superhero comics will always hold a special place in my heart because not only are they home to some of my favorite characters of all time, they also taught me an important lesson about how to critically engage with media.
Not that this story was my attempt to write a superhero story that agreed with my political sensibilities. I didn’t once actively think about politics while crafting and writing this “Amazing Tale,” but I do think that it’s important background noise to the story that eventually emerged. My direct connection to comics is that I’m a writer who also draws. Not well, mind you, but like all writers with even a small drop of artistic talent, sometimes I fantasize about making comics while doing my groceries (and I have worked on one or two — writing and panel layouts — with artist friends). I storyboard important scenes from my writing sometimes for fun, I write my action scenes in point-by-panel format before delving in and putting them in prose. When I imagine my writing visually, it’s more like a comic than a movie: static scenes that have to make a big impression, to effortlessly combine action, atmosphere, and symbolism in a single, fluid stroke of the pen. The play of light and dark, a strategic splash of color, a single gesture that says it all … these are the things that comics taught me how to do that novels did not.
AM: Something I really loved about this story is that the discussion of how the limits of comic books make them the ultimate challenge in creativity. You only have so many pages, you only have so many colors, so every image, every square centimeter has to count. Poetry and short stories can be looked at in a similar way, when compared to novel writing — a novel basically has no limits, but short stories and poetry (and comics!) have very specific limitations. When you were crafting this story, were there certain limits you set for yourself? How do setting limits change your creative process?
JG: The limits I set for myself writing this story is that I had to do it in two days because I wrote this story during Clarion, and the version I originally turned into my class was 9,000 words!!!
But seriously, I actually have a set of cheesy metaphors I use on people when I’m editing for them about how different kinds of writing require very different approaches. Poetry is like painting, short stories are often like telling a very elaborate joke, pastiche is like street performance, and writing a novel is like building a whole damn house, from the architectural concept to laying the last brick. When it comes to my own writing, I don’t really think much about these kind of limitations: I just sit down to write and either it comes together, or it doesn’t. If the individual ideas are sound, the structure will be sound, I find. You discover a lot about a story after you’ve written it.
However, I did think a lot about those limitations when considering how the narrator approached his own story. He extols the structural virtue of 4-colour emotions, but the width and breadth of his own horrifying experience is constantly testing the limitations of the form. He cannot compartmentalize the emotion into tidy panels: his script begins as childish when he’s distancing himself from the pain, then shifts to an artistically rich proof (probably his natural writing style) that’s trembling at the edges and, finally, warps into twisted, undrawable images when he’s overwhelmed by the reality of his situation. There’s this romanticizing of artistic pain — as if the “best” and “purest” art is born from pain, but in reality good art tends to be born from the processing of pain.
The challenge of an artist is to take a projection of an emotion or experience that has been (we hope) universalized and, to some extent, flattened, and hold it up like a mirror that can be walked through. With poetry, or painting, or comics, the choices made during that flattening process need to be more careful, more deliberate. Not to say that novels aren’t full of very tidy, deliberate strokes, but you definitely have more space to breathe when piecing together the temporary illusion of 3-dimensional verisimilitude. This story has a more condensed form of storytelling nestled inside a much broader form in order to show the process of trauma and grief.
AM: Lazarus and Kid Phoenix came into their current “careers” from very different situations. What can you tell us about how their characters came into being? Lazarus especially has such a fascinating backstory and appearance. What inspired their personalities and backstories?
JG: As soon as I knew what time period they were born into, and the year that they died, the characters in this story — as most good characters do — sprung into my mind fully formed. Each of the resurrected “superheroes” we see in this story represent almost a zeitgeist of social injustice particular to their time and place. Gasper/Lazarus was born into an Appalachia still suffering from the ravages of a Civil War that left its citizens resentful of both the Confederacy and the Union. His “ladyfriend” was the victim of normalized man-on-woman spousal abuse. The girl listening to the story at the end is meant to be a casualty of the various unbalanced proxy wars or invasions that have plagued the latter half of the 20th century as well as the first two decades of the current millennia (although I left this vague as not to clutter up the ending).
The protagonist, of course, was a kid born during the Civil Rights movement who suffered and died because of the atmosphere created by the vicious ideological backlash of the neo-liberal “New Right” in the 1970’s. He was also drawn from hearing my parents talk about growing into social consciousness as teenagers in the same decade. Obviously their experience was incomparably different as they didn’t have to shoulder the baggage of racism, but what I mean is that there’s a really heart-breaking sense of cynicism and hopelessness that I find permeates their generation — at least in the lower class, which is where I’ve dwelt my entire life — that manifests in a firm detachment between what they feel and think personally and what they believe is actually possible politically. That kind of low political efficacy is understandable from people who saw the Summer of Love at age 12, and the Kent State University shooting at age 15, the same way my generation is really defined by watching the Iraq War go down during a period of intense political polarization. However, their generation was also the one that eventually made speculative media mainstream and took “lowbrow” forms of art like comic books and forced them to “grow up”; these were kids who needed escapism badly, but also felt the urge to make their escapism political later in life.
Lazarus and Kid Phoenix also fit into familiar tropes within superhero comics: tenuously controllable fire powers have long been a metaphor for tragic youth, and characters with creepy, monstrous bodies have often been the “heart” of the team even before Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four. The first image I had in my head was an antique mining helmet, the light cutting into an alleyway, and an extended hand with no weight to it. Once I knew that their powers were linked to the way they died, I knew that both characters had to have died burning, but that the way they burned had to inform the way in which they inhabited their new (or in Gasper’s case, old) skin. Ephemeral, versus visceral.
AM: This story contains some truly beautiful and compelling visuals and imagery, and that’s not what I expected in a story about what superheroes do off the page of a comic book. Is the artful imagery a standard part of your writing style? Do you tend to find the right words right away, or do you test out different phrases until you find the right one? (I ask because my writing style has some similar artistic elements, and I’m curious how other writers do this)
JG: Aww, thank you! I’m a little embarrassed to say that I definitely find the words I want immediately. When I’m trying to craft a powerful visual, I use the words that tug the strongest emotional reaction out of me at the moment I’m writing it — the very first words that come to me. I don’t care about what sounds nice, I care about what feels most powerful, so I just kind of … turn off my brain and let my fingers spit out the most instinctive, knee-jerk words they know. It’s the workmanship-like “plain” prose that I really struggle with and admire in other writers. When I was a teenager I used to just spit out reams and reams of very delicate and lovely, but ultimately static, poetic prose. At some point I realized that this was not the kind of writer I wanted to be; I was a very good cake decorator, but I needed to be the person baking the cake. So it’s those practical, invisible sentences that I agonize over most.
AM: What authors and/or artists have had the biggest creative influence on you?
JG: My automatic answer to this is always Samuel R. Delany, especially his early science fiction work like Nova and The Ballad of Beta-2. It’s especially appropriate here because I actually had the privilege of work-shopping this story with him at Clarion (which was definitely a once-in-a-lifetime dream come true kind of experience that I’m still pinching myself over in order to make sure it actually happened)!
I pull my general inspiration from all over: early 20th writers for prose, 90s video games for tone and horror, post-apocalypse comics for landscape and texture. A lot of my inspiration comes from reading historical monograms. My influence map is a weird cross-section of Nabokov, Tiptree, Silent Hill and E.H. Carr.
AM: You attended Clarion around the same time your short story “All My Princes Are Gone” appeared in Nightmare Magazine. How did your experiences at Clarion change your views on your own writing and your views on where your writing could go?
JG: The most important thing I got from Clarion is that I am allowed to write the kind of stories I want to write, rather than forcing myself to write what other people thought I should be writing. I was pretty discouraged with regards to my potential writing career around the time I got accepted into Clarion, even though it was still the only thing I really wanted to do with my life. It’s unspeakably important to have this workshop around not just to tell emergent spec writers that their writing is valid and valuable, but to show them that they’re mechanically capable of doing it by locking them in a house and forcing them at (metaphorical I promise) gunpoint to write 30-50k words in six weeks. I’d never written anything longer than eighty pages before Clarion; afterwards I went home and wrote a 168,000-word novel draft in five months.
AM: Your stage play, “Three Drops of Blood,” performed at the 2014 Atlantic fringe festival, includes a commentary on power and powerlessness. There’s a similar parallel in a lot of superhero fiction, that someone who didn’t have power before their superhero “transformation” now has power and has to decide how to use it. Is this a literary theme you plan to continue playing with in your creative writing? Where did your interest in this theme stem from?
JG: Oh, well, you know — horror writers just write about what they’re afraid of! I have a moderately debilitating chronic illness and a long standing, deeply ingrained fear of diseases like cancer and the such inborn from the usual childhood experiences with relatives who die quickly and traumatically from things usually portrayed in the media as slow moving. It’s difficult for me to conceive of any story concept without a healthy dollop of body horror and this particular flavor of powerlessness creeps into most of my writing. I also — as someone who studied modern war history in their academic life — have put a lot of thought into the issue of hierarchical violence. I’m not interested in revenge fantasies, but I am just as interested in the psychological effect of committing violence as I am in how it feels to experience it. Because, you know, I am a very small woman and I am sometimes terrified of violence and inhabiting its skin makes for powerful, honest writing I’ve found.
I’m interested in the stories of “powers” as a burden, or something monstrous, absent of all the asinine (and often belittling to real life marginalized groups) trappings of “people with powers as an oppressed minority”, and I’m interested in how transformation and transgression affect people who are more like me. In other words, every tortured white male anti-hero would be much better as someone who actually experience systemic oppression and violence. Privileged versions of these narratives tend to focus on re-affirming lofty virtues, social structure and responsibility and there are very good versions of that narrative, but I’m more interested in what these stories look like from the bottom, and what they do to characters on an intimate, psychological and philosophical level. No moralizing: just fragile, messy human emotions.
AM: What’s next for you? What current projects can you tell us about? What’s your dream creative project?
JG: I’ve been working on a novel for the past two years and hope to start shopping it around this summer. My creative dream project is whatever I’m working on at the moment, honestly. I really, really love to write and as long as I have time to do it, I’m happy.