Tuesday, September 12, 2006

My interview with author Jack Harman!

A few days ago I was lucky enough to meet one of my favorite authors, Jack Harman, at a book store author-reading in Maryland where he read his Penny Dreadful award-winning mystery short Little Mistakes to an appreciative audience. Once I got past my fan-boy slobbering we got to talking and Jack (he said to call him Jack!) was kind enough to grant an interview. I’m not a journalist and I came off kind of clumsy, but he said I did a pretty good job. I edited out my really awkward, narcissistic and rambling parts.

For those of you not familiar with Harman’s work, he spent years working in advertising, television, film and publishing. An author of several best selling science fiction and horror novels, Jack Harman also worked in the comics industry for a short time as a writer until his now infamous falling out with one of the Big 2. His horror and science fiction work has been favorably compared to that of Robert R. McCammon and Stephen King. His SF novels are pure adventure and fun reading! I recommend the Gods of Knodding and Wolves of Starcomb.

Lady, That's My Skull: I have a comics-centric blog, so can we start on your work in that field? Comics, I mean.

Jack Harman: Sure. Uh…I guess my first work was the indy-published Rocket Engine Empire. It’s embarrassing to look at now but I was proud of it then. I remember it didn’t sell very well. It was at a time when even the worst, cheaply made indy mags were in color and it was printed in black and white on something that must have been leftover newsprint from the Chicago Tribune. So cheap. It was yellow by the time it was loaded onto a truck. Just not very well written, either. I thought because I was an experienced author comic books would be easy.

LTMS: That’s a growing trend in comics today.

JH: Sure, it’s all about sales and cross-marketing. Look how many comic book treatments of novels have come out since it was announced Stephen King was adapting The Dark Tower.

LTMS: They have been moderately successful.

JH: Actually, they have almost all been disasters in today's market, though that is not the fault of the comic itself. It is just the reality of smaller over-all sales everywhere, not just in comic books. Only Identity Crisis was a big hit and only because of Brad’s name being attached to it.

LTMS: That wasn’t an adaptation of a Meltzer book.

JH: Of course. But none of these are really about the story. What makes most of the sales is the name attached to the project. F. Paul Wilson’s adaptation of The Keep was good enough, but the comic couldn’t come close enough to the depth of the book with out running for 20 issues. I read it because of the name on the cover. Dan Brown could write a comic book and it would sell.

LTMS: Maybe not now.

JH: Maybe not now, yeah.

LTMS: Back on track, what was next after Empire?

JH: Several 2-6 pagers in various anthology comic mags. Stories that had ironic twist endings, that sort of thing. I don't even remeber them now. I started getting recognized by the editors. The Big 2 still wouldn’t return my calls but except for Harlan Ellison, mainstream authors didn’t get much work in comics back then. We were not cache’ enough.

Then I did Old Snow, for Darkling Comics for 15 issues. Those were the horror pieces with the EC Crypt Keeper-clone as a host. That was when I thought I’d be doing okay in the comic industry. I was able to buy a car with those sales. I thought I was a force to be reckoned with, a new talent everyone would want. Claremont was making the big time with X-Men and I had a briefcase full of ideas. I thought I could do as well as him, so I kept going to New York with samples and started knocking on doors at Marvel and DC.

LTMS: What happened?

JH: Nothing. Or, flat out rejection. I became discouraged and quit traveling to New York and just mailed in samples. I eventually took the hint and got hungry so I kept working for Chicago TV or an ad agency, but whenever I got inspired I’d submit an idea to DC.

LTMS: Just DC?

JH: Pretty much. DC had more opportunities for freelancers. Marvel had a locked set of books and a stable of creators tied to them. No real wiggle room for outsiders. DC was a bit more adventurous and would crank out some weird stuff for no reason, like Lords of the Ultra-Realm.

LTMS: Around that time is when you had that fan-rage incident.

JH: Yeah. I submitted a story to an editor I respected and got ripped off. It happens to every author at least once in the industry, mostly in the book side of the biz with short stories.

LTMS: And then you made the famous “Woodstock Quote”.

JH: Yes, the "Woodstock Quote".

LTMS: How did that come about?

JH: Anger. I wrote a short story for submission to DC. It was basically a play on the Superman origin, not real complex or anything, but it had an anti-war moral. It featured an alien orphan adopted by a village during the Vietnam War. US Soldiers attack the village looking for the enemy and the super-powered alien child wipes them out, dying itself in the fight. Story had to have a moral back then like those He-Man cartoons. I never heard anything back from my submission, but about a year later a friend showed me an issue of Weird War and it was the cover story. My story was almost entirely re-worked. The alien kid was changed to a mutant, a concept that admittedly sold better then. Comic book readers were insane for mutants. But, if you are going to steal the idea, at least give me a credit of some kind. A box somewhere that says it was based on my original idea.

LTMS: So you angered the fans instead of addressing DC directly.

JH: Yeah, not too smart to treat your audience with contempt. When I wrote that tantrum letter to the industry trade The Comics Creator, I compared comics negatively to "real" books. In the letter I had said, “Comic Books are to literature as the Woodstock poster was to the actual live concert.”

LTMS: Oops.

JH: Yeah. I took lots of heat for that. I should have gone after one specific section of the industry, namely a few in that editor's office. Instead, my tiff at the way the industry worked as a whole appeared as if I lumped everyone together or as if the readers were stupid or at fault. It wasn’t directed at them but I understood how they felt about the comments.

LTMS: Ok. Yeah I remember I was offended at the time. Because except for limitations put on books by the Comics Code or by the publisher, as in Harvey or Disney comics, I never saw comics as juvenile fare. There was loads of subtext.

JH: I had no idea back then how passionate comic book readers were. I also made a few editors upset too. My submissions after that were returned un-opened. I still remember the return stamp used by some secretary or junior editor would say "No Such Address."

LTMS: So when a comic book career didn’t work out, you kept on with the novels.

JH: Yes, I was able to stay alive on those, my work at an ad agency, plus the screen and television script treatments. It was steady work, but draining. I always felt re-writing some else’s work is insulting to the author. There where some great lines in some of those scripts but some suit had notes so they had to be removed. If 80’s TV was mostly a wasteland of creativity it’s only because some prig in a tie was worried about what niche they were trying to fill to attract an audience.

LTMS: Art by committee.

JH: Fortunately, I was able to take time off from that whenever I sold a novel.

LTMS: Like the Refederacy Trilogy? The one that…

JH: That never finished. Gods of Knodding and Beachhead: Paradise sold well enough that I was able to get major interest in a third novel.

LTMS: The first two in the series were all stand alone works.

JH: Right, a shared universe but seperate stories that tied in to the others. I never intended to write a second. But the final line of Knodding gave me ideas. “In the end, we gave them Hawaii.” That lead to my idea for Beachhead: Paradise and then Shard.

LTMS: So what happened to Shard?

JH: The first two sold well enough that my agent was able to get a studio interested in the story. The deal back then was to basically give them all rights. I was married, had a mortgage, just had a son and the writers’ strike was killing me financially, so I took the check. It was supposed to be published later with a “Soon to be a Major Motion Picture” tagline on the cover. But it stayed in studio limbo for years.

LTMS: That’s too bad.

JH: Not really. As much as I’d have liked to see Knodding on a big screen the movie technology wouldn’t have done the idea justice.

LTMS: The time wasn't right. Sort of like when the Beatle’s wanted to make Lord of the Rings?

JH: (Laughs) Exactly. Nice idea but the follow through would have been terrible. The rights reverted back to me a while ago, but I don’t want to see it made cheap and go straight to DVD. Honestly, there isn’t any interest in the story now as a film.

LTMS: Really.

JH: Yes. I’ve sent it out, but it comes back. And without an 80 million dollar budget it won’t get made.

LTMS: So what is next, that is, if we won’t see the end to the Refederacy story?

JH: Well, Spiders Come Back is coming out next June. It is psychological horror and a murder mystery. But it has a pay-off. None of that it was all in your mind, or was it? climax.

LTMS: You’ve done a few in that style, which gets you compared to [Stephen] King.

JH: I prefer Koontz-ish.

LTMS: So where do you go next?

I've got my heart set on staying in book writing, but I've recognized the need to diversify. So I'll branch out again into different aspects of entertainment. The time feels right for it.

What a great guy! This was almost as good as when I met David Brin right after he had Sundiver published. I can hardly wait for his next book. I still want to see GoK in theaters, though. I'd settle for an Original Sci-Fi Channel World Premiere Movie at this point.


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