A Hundred Thousand Worlds
A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS: A Novel by Bob Proehl
(Viking; On-sale 6/28/16)
Q: Your novel A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS follows several characters across the country attending a series of comic book conventions. When and why did you become a comic fan?
A: When Superman died. I was a big baseball card collector before that (which makes me sound a thousand years old), and there was all this hype about how much the issue where Supes died was going to be worth. But by the time I got my dad to take me to the comic book store, the first print was sold out and I was stuck with l think a fourth printing. Since it wasn’t worth anything, I figured I might as well read it. Not only did Supes die, but it set up a whole other story that would continue the next week.
It was the serial nature of it that pulled me in at first, and the epic scope. These huge stories that would go on and on, week after week. We lived in the suburbs, so I would either bike into Buffalo on the weekends, or give my dad a list on Wednesday to pick up on his way home from work. It was the ritual of it too. Growing up in the suburbs, you need ways to mark time. Wednesdays were new comics days. They still are.
Q: What inspired you to write about the relationship between a mother and son?
A: The setting for this book grew out of my own interests, but the story grew out of having a kid in my life. I was a new stepdad to a (then) eight year old when I sketched out the initial the idea for the book. At that time, the friendship between Brett and Alex was going to be more central and the relationship between Val and Alex was secondary and drew a lot on my wife and my stepson. But this book got put on the backburner for a while, and by the time I got down to writing it, my relationship with my stepson had changed pretty drastically. I was reckoning with what it meant to be a parent, and figuring out the kind of parent I wanted to be. So in addition to a sort of closely observed relationship, the dynamics between Val and Alex started to include my thoughts and anxieties about raising a kid. About how you function as an adult with drives and desires, and also as a parent, and the way those two things are constantly pulling at one another. Parent-child love is such a sanctified thing, it becomes tough to talk about in any complicated way, and I really wanted to explore all the currents that move back and forth within that bond, that trouble it and ultimately strengthen it.
Q: Superhero characters are a massive cultural commodity, are more people reading comics thanks to big box office releases? If no, is there anything cultural fans of these characters could benefit from by reading the comic books?
A: I don’t think there’s as much crossover as there could be from superheroes in the movies and on TV to reading comics. It can be daunting to get started on reading superhero comics, not to mention confusing. In comics, as I’m writing this, Bruce Wayne isn’t Batman, Superman can’t fly, Thor is a woman, and Supergirl doesn’t even have a monthly comic book. So in the rare instance someone might walk out of the movie theater and into their local comic book shop, you might not see anything that matches what you saw on screen. Not to mention the fact that comics have a visual and formal language all their own that can be somewhat opaque on a first reading.
But there are so many good places to start, whether it’s with superhero comics from the Big Two, or the amazing depth and breadth of creator-owned stuff that’s out there right now, or manga, which I don’t really know the first thing about but a lot of it looks super cool. And in a weird way, the fact that the economic stakes of comics are lower means that the creative stakes can be much higher. The sheer level of imagination in comic books is pretty staggering. Finding an “in”, or finding the right book for you, can be tough, but a good bookseller, or comic book store employee, or geeky friend, should be able to listen to what you’re interested in and point you towards something you’ll adore. Or, seriously, ask me. I have loads of opinions. Loads.
Q: San Diego Comic Con, and its offshoots, are a huge part of our entertainment culture with hundreds of thousands of fans making the pilgrimage every year to see their favorite artists, actors, writers; dress up as their favorite characters and generally geek out with their fellow fans. A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS offers readers a glimpse into this fascinating subculture. Why do you think cons have grown so rapidly over the past decade? What do these gatherings offer that is so special, and why did you choose to make the cons the backdrop of your novel?
A: I’ve always been interested in subcultures and intentional, affinity-based communities. There is something so wonderful about being in a room where people are excited about something. I’m talking about dance parties, or sports bars when the game is on, or Trek conventions, or boat shows. People go through so much of their time on autopilot, and then there’s this one thing that they completely geek out over, and it’s like a current running through them all the sudden. It’s amazing to see, and to be near, even if you don’t necessarily share that same enthusiasm, you know what it’s like to have a thing that you geek out over.
Cons of course are even more dear to my heart because comics happen to be that thing for me. Okay, one of my that things. I grew up reading comics alone in my room, and then in my dorm room, and then in my apartment. I’ve never had that many friends who were into comics. So when I first started going to conventions, the idea that everybody else was into the same thing, and that I could talk about comics without trying to be “cool”, was pretty amazing. To have a space like that is really special. It’s funny, I used to think it was becoming less important to have safe spaces to geek out because the world as a whole has gotten so much geekier, that “the kids nowadays” didn’t need that as much as I might have when I was a kid. But I think it’s actually more important, and that being a kid is tougher than I had it, in ways I can’t even imagine, and how great it must be to catch a bus to New York City ComicCon and walk into the Javitz Center and just see your people everywhere. How everyone who picks on you back home for being boldly yourself must seem so small in that moment.
As far as the boom in cons over the past ten years, I think part of it is economics, and particularly the economics of other geeky cultural endeavors that cons include. A rise in the overall level of geekiness within the culture. But it’s also more and more fans who want to meet up, who feel like this is a key component of being a fan. Am I being a total dork to say it’s kind of a post-internet thing? That people who grew up with message boards and online fan communities as a given are now over that, and what that ends up looking like is actualized physical versions of those communities. Instead of posting on a board about Doctor Who or Steven Universe, you look forward to a con all year, and you suit up and go.
Q: In A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS you write so many great voices that could be found at any comic book convention, illustrators, writers, fans, female cos players hired to walk around convention floors. At times geek subcultures; i.e. comic fans and gamers, have been traditionally classified as xenophobic, racist, and misogynist. How, if at all, are these groups changing in regards to race, and gender?
A: I think any time a traditionally (white) male cultural space is “threatened,” you get this awful backlash, and one of the wonderful perks of the internet is that now we all get to watch as this happens. And it is ugly. In a sense, comics hasn’t seen the worst of it yet (there’s been no GamerGate, nothing equivalent to the Rabid Puppies). But yes, it is an industry that has particular problems with harassment, lack of diversity, and a general “get the hell off my lawn” from a certain demographic within the fandom, and within the industry itself.
Here’s the thing. These efforts to bar the gates? To keep people out? They never work. If you’re the guy standing at the clubhouse door in your Batman tee-shirt saying “No girls allowed”, you’re going to be on the wrong side of history. And soon. From a mercenary point of view, that attitude is going to lose out because this is an industry devoted to making money, and they’re not going to leave huge demographics of potential customers standing out in the cold. Surprisingly, I think the industry is just now starting to wake up to that. They’re still working with ideas about marketing and gender that don’t apply anymore.
But more importantly than that, those people you’re trying to keep out are not asking your permission. They love these characters as much as you do, and they are not waiting for you to say it’s okay to play with them. They will beat down the doors to get in, and they will be the ones writing these characters with new voices, drawing them from new perspectives, and basically pumping lifeblood into geek culture. I feel terrible for the fans and creators that have to suffer the petty vindictiveness of a waning minority of relics in comics right now. But I also believe it’s a transitional phase that will pass, and comics will be better and more interesting for it.
Q: Readers will immediately fall in love with the character of nine-year-old Alex. Was it challenging to write from his perspective?
A: It was tough. I had the advantage of a real-life nine-year-old in the house for some of the time I was writing. There is a kind of magical thinking that is specific to kids that age. Nine is a hinge point where kid logic has all this accumulated material to work with, but it hasn’t yet been replaced by the kind of sociopathic logic of teenagers. So on one hand, you want to avoid writing a kid who’s cutesy or precious, but on the other, there are modes of thinking that you can’t access from that voice. In the early drafts, Alex was too perfect. He was cheerful and precocious, and I was really trying my best to keep him safe. Which is a good way to parent, but not a great way to write. Alex’s voice didn’t fully click for me until I allowed myself to put him in situations where he’d get angry or depressed. Once I let that get out, I had a better sense of who he was, and how much he was keeping in check all the time. People often talk about kids in terms of full-bore honesty and candor, and they miss that kids are incredibly savvy in their emotional thinking and responses, and that they’re juggling these really outsized emotions.
Q: What can we learn from reading superheroes?
A: We can learn the power of “To be continued.” If there’s a basic power all superheroes share, it’s a resilience, and in a sense we go into a comic with the confidence that whatever happens, the superhero is going to come out on top. When you think about the cliffhanger in serial storytelling, there’s a central mistake people make. The reader doesn’t close the comic thinking “Oh my gosh, is Spider-Man going to get out of this?” They think, “How is Spider-Man going to get out of this?” and that kind of thinking churns in the reader’s head till the next issue. This problem is going to get solved, so how does it get solved? A superhero’s not allowed to look at seemingly insurmountable odds and throw up their hands and give up. If they do that, the story stops. But the story is perpetually “to be continued.” I think that’s an important thing to understand about life, the ongoingness of it, its state of constant motion. To look at a problem and say, “I’m going to get through this, I just need to figure out how.”
Q: Do you have any favorite comic book writers/illustrators?
A: Too many to name.
For writers, Grant Morrison, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Warren Ellis, Scott Snyder, Gail Simone, Rick Remender, Matt Fraction, Brian Michael Bendis. For artists: Mike Mignola, Cliff Chiang, Fiona Staples, J.H. Williams III, Mike Allred, Chris Bachalo, Carla Speed McNeill. I’m making this list away from my bookshelves, so I’m sure I’m overlooking a dozen folks.
Q: Describe your ideal reader.
A: To steal blatantly from Dan Savage, I think the ideal reader would be good, giving, and game. Someone who reads attentively and with a generous mind. And who’s willing to try something that isn’t necessarily in their usual wheelhouse. I think the locked-down genre borders, to the extent they still exist, are boring and stifling, to both readers and authors. Anyone who picks this book up needs to be willing to tolerate a little geeking-out. But I tried as much as possible to make it a book that is less of a collection of in-jokes that reward people with deep genre knowledge, and more of a book about how exciting it is to geek out about anything. So I’m hoping for readers who won’t look at this book and pull back because it’s about comics and they don’t read comics. It’s only about that a little bit, and if a reader’s willing to give it a try, I think there’s a lot more there for them to find.
Q: What is your favorite classic video game?
A: Super Mario Brothers 2. Magical root vegetables and a frog who eats your dreams? Sold.
Q: Favorite childhood comic book?
A: Superman, during his mullet period.
Q: If you could have any superpower what would it be?
A: Superspeed. Or self-duplication. Or time stopping powers. God, those are all basically productivity-related. I am so lame.
This Q&A was provided compliments of Viking publishing. They have very graciously agreed to supply one copy of A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS for giveaway. Please leave a comment below. I will choose a winner on Wednesday, July 12. Only U.S. addresses and no P.O. boxes please. Good luck.