Al Ewing, author of a number of novels and comic books, has kindly taken the time to write a guest post as his latest novel The Fictional Man hits the shelves.
In Hollywood, where last year’s stars are this year’s busboys, Fictionals are everywhere. Niles Golan’s therapist is a Fictional. So is his best friend. Fictionals – characters ‘translated’ into living beings for movies and TV using cloning technology – are a part of daily life in LA now. Sometimes the problem is knowing who’s real and who’s not.
Divorced, alcoholic and hanging on by a thread, Niles – author of The Saladin Imperative: A Kurt Power Novel and many others – has been hired to write a big-budget reboot of a classic movie. If he does this right, the studio might bring one of Niles’ own characters to life. But somewhere beneath the movie – beneath the TV show it was inspired by, the children’s book behind that and the story behind that – is the kernel of something important. If he can just hold it together long enough to figure it out...
When I was a kid, there used to be a thing called the Reader’s Voice.
This was in the humour magazines, 30-page anthology comics made up of one-page strips about kids with quirks. Jack Pott, the kid who compulsively gambles. Sweeney Toddler, a particularly mischievous and malignant baby. Cliff Hanger, whose adventures ended in a Choose Your Own Adventure multiple choice that was resolved for good or ill on the letters page. (The worst pun name was Good Guy, about a kid called Guy who was good. The strip itself was actually rather wonderful, in that it featured a rotating cast of strange, quasi-religious tempters from some off-panel underworld, but I didn’t really appreciate it at the time.)
Anyway. I read Buster comic religiously for years – this was back when you bought one comic and stuck to it – but my understanding is that the Reader’s Voice was universal. What it was, essentially, was a speech bubble coming from off-panel with the reader’s thoughts in it, or what the majority of reader’s thoughts might be at that point. At the end of a strip, after one character had been fatally drowned in a fjord, the Reader’s Voice might waft into the last panel, saying “I’ll bet he won’t ‘fjord’-get that in a hurry!” or “That was more than he could af-‘fjord’!” or possibly “Christ, he’s fell in a fjord!” Or in the middle of the strip, the balloon might waft into view saying “Watch out, Roger!” while Roger the Dodger was in danger of being run down by a brewer’s dray or stalked by a pedophile.
I kid. I kid ‘cause I love.
Occasionally, the characters would talk directly to the readers. They’d smile out of the first panel of the strip, setting the scene directly. “I’m off to the county fair, readers!” Next panel – the county fair costs five pence to get into. Jack Pott – or Gilbert Ratchet, in the note-perfect parodies of a vanished artform that still run to this day in Viz – does not have that kind of money. (The comic characters of my youth were all relentlessly poor, apart from villainous ones like Ivor Lott and that vicious bastard Lord Snooty. These days they’ve probably all got iphones or something, the little scumbags. Or they’re dead from lack of readership. It's a brutal existence in the kids comics, ask Desperate Dan.)
This was all kid’s stuff, obviously. For one thing, it was horrifically unrealistic. American comics wouldn’t be caught dead doing it, apart from on the occasional house ad, or in forgotten comics from the forties when Batman would turn to the readers and smilingly tell them that if he ever caught them on the rob he would splinter their fragile bones like so many matchsticks. “I think it’s pretty clear that Robin and I LOVE TO CAUSE PAIN, readers,” he would grin, “and we’d love to cause it to you! Imagine us crawling out of your comic in the night because you stole a penny sweet while nobody was looking. Don’t have nightmares, do sleep well.” It just wasn’t done in ‘serious’ media, and still isn’t. People still debate to this day who exactly William Hartnell was wishing a happy Christmas to.
(Although there were notable exceptions to this rule, which I might talk about later on in the tour.)
But in providing this strange kind of airlock, this fictional representative that the reader could place themselves in, the cartoonists let us get one foot in the door of their invented worlds. And when Minnie the Minx spoke directly to the reader, she got one foot in ours. It made it much easier to lose yourself in their stories, their little imaginary lives. Once a story is addressing you directly – not just looking out of the camera while saying something pertinent, but actually saying ‘hey! Reader!’ – it comes to life in a way that feel like it’s against all the rules, but at the same time has a very definite power. Maybe we shouldn’t underestimate kid’s stuff.
The Reader’s Voice might not have made stories realistic, but it did make them real.