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The Patron Saint of Superheroes

Chris Gavaler Explores the Multiverse of Comics, Pop Culture, and Politics

That thirteen-page sequence is from Adam Nemett‘s novel We Can Save Us All. Except that it’s not. All though We Can Save Us All is a superhero novel, it’s not a graphic novel. There are no pictures. I had the pleasure of inviting Adam for a campus visit last year, and the students in my advanced creative writing class quizzed him about the writing process, publishing, and his novel–which is about a superhero cosplay club of college super-geniuses who save the world for their senior project (drugs are involved). I’d like to continue that conversation, but specifically about these graphic pages of his non-graphic novel.

Chris: How did these pages come about, and how do they relate to the novel?

Adam: These pages were created way back in 2009-10, when I was first developing the idea that the self-made superheroes in the book help create their own legend by distributing comic books depicting idealized versions of their exploits. These pages were created by an illustrator named Orpheus Collar (yes, his given name; when he was about 13 years old he realized he had one of those names that meant he couldn’t just be an insurance salesman or something. With a name like Orpheus, he had to be really really good at something. So he became an incredibly talented artist and exactly the kind of mortal superhero I was writing about:

I met Orpheus when he was an undergrad at Maryland Institute College of Art, where my father has taught painting for about 50 years. Orpheus and I first collaborated on a pitch packet for a separate graphic novel idea called SHADES, and it looked pretty awesome but we ultimately got shot down by some pretty impressive folks at places like Vertigo, Dark Horse, etc., but hey, we went down swinging.

Around the same time I’d finished a rough first draft of the novel that became WE CAN SAVE US ALL. In this iteration, the novel shifted style/formats intermittently–some chapters were written as campus newspaper articles, as police reports, as epic poems, etc. (I’d been reading too much Watchmen at the time) and I thought a comic script would make obvious sense. But ultimately, the script was just a blueprint for sequential artwork, and I thought it could be interesting and innovative to actually see the script illustrated and include a sketched-out version of it in the manuscript.

It stuck around for a while, but ultimately when the book was about to go out on submission, my agent felt that it broke the flow of the narrative and had the potential to confuse or turn off publishers/readers who are suddenly being asked to shift to this unfamiliar format. The content of this scene also needed to change, and rather than trying to produce a new batch of illustrations, the decision was made to render the scene in prose and just keep things moving. But I still like the comic and how it mixes form and content.

Side note: I remember reading Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven and wishing that I could actually see the comic that her characters keep describing. Maybe publishers just don’t have much of a stomach for hybrid novels that mix genres/forms like this. Not yet, anyway.

Chris: When Mandel visited W&L, I asked her if she ever considered making a separate graphic novel. She said it almost happened, and that Craig Thompson (of Blankets fame) was interested. But then she got too focused on other projects to write the script. And maybe that’s for the best? Things can dramatically transform when they change mediums. When I read the above section of your novel, and the novel in general, it was ambiguous to me whether or to what extent these characters were heroic. Here the visual version is much less ambiguous: these are the bad guys. Did it trouble you to lose the effect of the faulty narration?

Adam: That’s a great question, and yes, absolutely, I think that was a key reason why my agent recommended cutting this visual section. My goal was to pace the book in such a way that readers are essentially wooed and inspired by Mathias (“here’s a guy who might have the answers!”) and, like David, ultimately have a hard time resisting the urge to follow him. I still read the book and feel, especially in the early stages, that the USV and its young leaders ARE good guys doing what they feel is right, responding in a compelling, theatrical and valid way to the global and local challenges they face. I don’t think I ever advised Orpheus, the illustrator, to render these characters as either good or bad guys, but the vibe is undoubtedly sinister and I think that essentially tipped my hand way before I wanted readers to definitively feel one way or another.

In general, I think that’s why you don’t see many instances in literary fiction of visually representing fictional characters. A good written description of a character should form a soft-edged image in the reader’s mind. When you watch a film, especially, but even in a graphic novel, the casting and visual rendering of a character can’t help but influence the reader/viewer, a subtle narrative version of “leading the witness.” When we see Brad Pitt playing a certain character, we bring the baggage of who he played in other movies, who he is in real life, how much money he was probably paid for this movie, the notion that he’s probably going to be a good guy, that he’s not going to die in the middle of the movie, etc. When we read characters in literary fiction, we shouldn’t have any of that baggage. Characters should be strangers until we get to know them and see how they think and act, which allows readers to form completely fresh opinions of the character at the outset and in every scene that follows.

Chris: Do you think writing graphic novels could be in your future?

Adam: Despite everything I just said about not wanting artwork to sway the opinions of fiction readers, I get really excited about the potential of the graphic novel–as its own medium and as a kind of precursor to film/tv–and I’d love to try my hand at it someday. I’d be open to writing completely new stories or relaunching classic superhero characters with new storyarcs, and I still harbor thoughts of working on an adaptation of We Can Save Us All into a full-length graphic novel. As with other adaptations of literary fiction, classic and contemporary, it’s an interesting way of broadening the audience–maybe bringing more literary fiction fans to the graphic format and vice versa–and given all the superhero themes in my book it’s probably an easier leap to make than The Handmaid’s Tale or Kindred or Jane Eyre (all have been adapted into comic form).

I really like the process of writing comic scripts, where you’re essentially speaking to a one-person audience (the illustrator) so you have free reign to describe each page and panel in a way that’s very customized to that reader (“in this panel we’ve got a low-angle shot of something like that skyscraper pic I emailed you, but more purple”) and where you can provide more or less detail depending on how the illustrator likes to work (give me more direction vs. don’t micromanage me). If I’m honest, the endgame sometimes feels like film/TV–that’s how so many of us receive our stories and probably the way to reach the most individual people these days–and the graphic format is obviously a great stand-in or interim step, basically storyboards for a screen adaptation. There’s so much that can be done in the graphic novel, but I’ve watched We Can Save Us All play out in my head so many times, with music and choreography and the kinds of elements that are difficult to place on the page, and it would be a thrill to see someone adapt it into a series and take it in compelling new directions that I never considered.



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