Someone on Twitter once asked me about my influences. I said I’d get back to them when I had some time to think about it. Then I promptly forgot about it and was distracted by life. Sorry about that. Now I’m here and ready to share those influences that have shaped me as a writer.
But, first, I think an apology is in order. I would love to give credit to Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, or Robert Asprin because those are the writers I am most often compared to. Nope. Not those guys. I do enjoy their work now and then, but none of them would rank among my favorites or even people I think of when writing my own stuff. I am not a big Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy or Diskworld fan. I read the first three books of Hitchhiker and three or four Discworld books. Good books. No complaints about them. Very enjoyable. But they do not inspire me.
That’s always been one of my problems as an artist. I am clearly a designated “funny” writer, and yet, I don’t find inspiration and influence in the books of funny writers. No criticism intended, but I’ve never been especially enamored of “funny” stories. That’s weird, especially considering the way most people look at my stories, but it is true.
No, my favorite writers have always been creators of larger-than-life adventure tales. Most prominently, and the writer that still continues to influence everything I have ever written in one way or another, is comic book writer Walter Simonson. Specifically, Simonson’s run on Thor remains the definitive example of spectacle, superheroics, and character driven adventure. There’s a hell of a lot to love here, but what always strikes me about the series is how unapologetically fantastic it is. Far from hiding from the absurd, larger-than-life adventure, Simonson dives right in.
Amid all the spectacle, Simonson is sure to take time to ground his characters in believable motivations. If you like Loki from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, you have Simonson to thank for that. He took a generic evil sorcerer god and imbued him with life and personality. Superheroes and supervillains have had a hate / love relationship before, but never has the conflict between two characters been as interesting. When the obligatory team up and betrayals happen throughout the run, they never seem manufactured. Plus, at one point Thor, Odin, and Loki team up to take on Surtur for the fate of the universe, and it is such a crowning moment of earned badassattitude that Simonson makes it look easy. The run has been collected in a series of trades entitled Visionaries: Walt Simonson, and it is, hands down, the storytelling that continues to define the art of storytelling for me.
It isn’t very funny though. It has some humor now and then, but Thor isn’t a funny character and not many of the characters around him are funny either. At the same time, it’s joyful, bombastic, and never mistakes melodrama for substance. It’s melodramatic. It’s hard not to be with stories involving gods, magic, and aliens for the fate of the world, but that melodrama is tempered by an understanding that characters should be more than pawns of the plot and that a character need not be excessively flawed to be deemed interesting. Thor is always bold, solid, and heroic. He’s always eager to throw himself into the fray to help people, and as powerful as he, he never shies away from foes more powerful than himself.
Also, he gets turned into a frog at one point and helps the other frogs save New York City from a plot by rats to poison the water supply. It’s epic, amazing, and just plain cool. And as weird as it is, it’s not played for comedy.
After Simonson, the next biggest influence in my writing would have to be Edgar Rice Burroughs. His most famous creation is Tarzan, and I make no apologies for loving those stories. They’re from a different era, and it shows. Burroughs isn’t the most poetic writer, and he’s not above employing coincidence and contrivances to get his heroes out of trouble. But he’s also a writer of unlimited imagination. His Mars novels featuring John Carter are masterworks of Sword and Planet fiction, and who cares if his Mars doesn’t make a lot of sense as a sustainable world. It’s a place of unlimited adventure.
Where Burroughs excels is in creating interesting ideas and playgrounds of the mind. Tarzan is a great character. Completely unbelievable, but great. John Carter is mostly a heroic blank, but Barsoom is such a fantastic realm of imagination that he probably couldn’t compete with it anyway. And then there’s Tars Tarkas and Woolah and all the great creatures and peoples of Mars.
Again, not very funny.
Another pair of great influence, both in the comic book arena again, are Marv Wolfman’s Tomb of Dracula and the many bizarre Man-Thingstories written by Gerry Conway and Steve Gerber. While both comic books that are part of the larger superheroic Marvel Universe, neither was about superheroes but horror tales (for Tomb) and surreal fantasies (for Man-Thing). Both still have a lot of influence in how I look at stories.
All these influences have one thing in common. They don’t shy away from the absurd, and they don’t hesitate to go strange. Gerber created and introduced Howard the Duck in the Man-Thing title, and for a title featuring an unintelligent plant monster as its primary hero, Howard fit in just fine. Tomb of Dracula sticks to mostly classic horror elements until, suddenly, the Silver Surfer or X-Men show up to spice things up. It’s a terrific, anything goes world, and it works precisely because of that attitude.
Not many of these influences are funny, but it’s obvious how they’ve planted a love for epic fantasy adventure that colors everything I do. I’ll never be compared to these writers, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re the ones that have laid the foundation for what I do, and I’m very cool with that.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,