Interview with Writer Jason Henderson, Part Two

Yesterday, we shared the first part of Caroline’s interview with writer Jason Henderson, which focused on his Marvel miniseries, Shadowland: Daughters of the Shadow. Today we continue with a discussion of Henderson’s work in manga and Young Adult fiction. We also touch on issues related to publishing in general, and — haters to the left! — why people will always love stories about vampires.

In addition to writing comics for Marvel and IDW, you’ve worked in manga for TokyoPop [with Psy-Comm, pictured above]. Do you think there’s an appeal to the manga format that is different from what we think of as “mainstream” American comics?

It’s a very different task to write a manga. Parts of it are the same—you still have to plot a story and make sure it makes sense. You still write a script. But a manga issue is 150 pages long or more, about four panels each. Even accounting for smaller pages, every manga has many times the amount of material in a traditional monthly book. So writing a manga “issue” is like writing a whole graphic novel, and they’re usually multi-parts, so three manga issues can be a lot of story. I really want to explore writing manga more, actually, though the opportunities are far and few between.

But why do they do well? I think people like manga because they’re light-weight and cheap, about $10 for the book and you get a lot of story. And remember that manga are always in bookstores and are bought by readers who are often unfamiliar with the whole world of the comics direct market. They have skipped the comic stores entirely and this is where they get their comic reading. Try this on for size: that means that manga may at this point be more mainstream than mainstream comics. Especially if you’re talking about teenage girl readers.

Absolutely! I’m becoming more of a manga reader all the time, myself — I’ve got some 20th Century Boys waiting for me whenever I get done with the articles I’m working on! — and I definitely see the appeal of the medium.

Still, do you think publishers of American comics could be doing more to reach female readers, in particular? For instance, I often sense a disconnect when I hear from creators like you who are excited to be writing about female characters in Marvel or DC, and then I hear that books about those characters don’t sell, and then I hear about the female readers that American comics aren’t reaching. It seems like there’s a missing link there. Can you solve it for us?

Well, it seems odd to me that we have to choose one or the other. Look, if the girls buy their comics in bookstores as manga and guys buy theirs at comic book stores, why not create some series that you only market in the bookstores? But one reason I think that hasn’t happened is that right now the publishers limit themselves to one predominant model: the direct market, which they built a whole business model around that relies on early orders and no returns, whereas bookstores, traditional retailers, are a different model, where you have returns. But it would probably be worth experimenting with. I co-created an original English manga for Tokyopop– there should be more of that, and it should be marketed to women. There should be 8-page excerpts in magazines.

You know, I should mention, I have two daughters, and my older daughter will read any hero comic with a female character. She is dying for more female characters. If the direct market won’t support them, there are other markets.

Can you talk about some of your storytelling influences? Your YA novels in the Alex Van Helsing series have elements comparable to Harry Potter and Buffy, but I also thought I detected some more old-fashioned school story or “boy detective” influences. Plus, there are references to shoujo manga and role-playing games, as well as Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, Romeo and Juliet and of course Bram Stoker’s Dracula. How much do any or all of these influences affect you as a writer? What do you think is the relationship between the stories we read and the stories we end up telling?

You detect right! This is my Hardy Boys, my Danny Dunn. I really wanted to create a series where you might yearn to be this young man. He’s gentle and kind but cool and he knows how to calm his stuff out so that he can see more clearly what to do next. He’s definitely a hero in the boy detective vein, but in a world of vampire terrorists.

I mean, I am having so much fun writing the Alex Van Helsing series, which is being published by HarperCollins. Book 1 came out in hardback last summer and will be in paperback the first time this summer, the same day as the hardback for book 2. Just now I’m writing Book 3.

And there’s more—I actually pitched this series as a teen version of Veronica “Ronnie” Van Helsing, the star of my comic Sword of Dracula (which you can read in an IDW trade paperback.) We still may do a Ronnie series, but the first series is about Alex, Ronnie’s brother, who appears briefly in Sword of Dracula.

Part of the fun is seeing how much of my own geekdom I can cram into these books, and it’s a geekdom that is genuinely mine and a little off, so yeah, you get Hardy Boys and Shakespeare and Stoker and Shelley and Poe and Star Wars and a lot of in-jokes about 80s music. (You will be amazed at the name of the villain and the love interest of the second book, if you were a New Wave fan.)

To feed that, I just ignore modern work and read a lot of old vampire literature, especially, classic tales like Carmilla and Wake Not the Dead.

It’s obvious that you’re a fan of vampires and vampire literature. What is it, to you, that makes the vampire story such a resonant myth? Do you have a response for people who say there are too many vampire stories out there right now?

I keep waiting for that to stick. I was writing Sword of Dracula in 2003 and people were saying vampires were over, and that was before Twilight. I think there are so many ways you can do a vampire story that it’s just sort of lazy to say “there are too many vampires.” You’d think there would be too many lawyer shows, and yet they keep coming. Lawyers or vampires; they can be funny or dark or symbolic or literal, sexy or utilitarian, political or philosophical. It’s a Rorschach blot. So I don’t know—I guess for me, since I’ve been writing that world since before the current “vampire peak,” it doesn’t really matter to me. I’ll still be here.

Set up a fight for me: Favorite fictional vampire, favorite vampire hunter (other than Alex Van Helsing, obviously). Why would they have an awesome showdown, and who would win?

My favorite vampire is Dracula—who was the villain of my series Sword of Dracula, and let’s just assume that he evolves the way he did in my series, so he has blood powers and can make your blood boil if you get too close to him. I would pit Dracula against Doc Savage. Imagine Dracula, grabbing Doc with a long blood-tentacle (he can do that), Doc is shooting a gatling gun with silver-jacketed hawthorn bullets, and they’re both dangling from, like, the Hindenburg. That would be awesome.

I really, really want to go write that now.

How aware are you of the audience when you write? YA fiction and Marvel comics, for instance, seem to have very different audiences — though at the same time I know people who are passionate consumers of both. Do you have to make an adjustment going from one to the other, or does the story take care of that for you?

Kiiiiind of. Really the biggest adjustment is in the practical demands of the formats—22-page issues versus full novels. Beyond that, the editor knows who you are, and you write what story you want to tell.

You’ve been proactive in using Twitter and other Internet forums to promote your work — as in this trailer for Alex Van Helsing. Do you think the Internet has been mostly a positive force for creators? Does it have downsides or pitfalls?

The only pitfall is not remembering to turn it off when you have to work—that’s why often I actually leave, take my computer to an empty lecture hall and turn off all Internet when I need to get work done. But generally, yes—I am a huge believer in social networking to connect with readers. It’s SO exciting to be able to converse with the audience and answer their questions. It’s almost entirely positive.

The only other negative I could think of is that, in, say, the 70s, the only feedback you’d get would be from letters to the editor. Now you get positive feedback but also negative feedback on a thousand blogs. And it’s bad form to debate, even if you disagree or would love to engage. So the upshot is, whereas before you heard nothing, now you must steel yourself for both positive and negative. But it’s way less lonely and way worth it.

Most people working in the comic book industry were fans of comic books before they were creators. Is that true in your case? Is there a comic book story you’ve always wanted to tell or a character you’d really love to write?

Well, of course! I was a huge comics fan, and I was very traditional—I loved and still love superhero comics, especially the long, complicated, extended-soap hero comics like X-Men. I also loved comics that were essentially about superhero relationships. World’s Finest was, every month, about navigating a close relationship with someone who was very different from you, and I was so pleased when Superman/Batman came around again. What would I like to do? Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends, for one thing. Right now, though, I’d really like to return to either of the Marvel pieces I’ve had a hand in creating: Colleen Wing’s new team, and Sofia Strange, the daughter of Dr. Strange.

We here at Fantastic Fangirls like to celebrate enthusiasm in all of its forms. What media — comics, prose, music, movies, whatever — have gotten you excited lately?

Off the top of my head? I am still just gaga over Janelle Monae’s ArchAndroid, which came out last summer and I can’t stop listening to.

Finally, is there anything else you’d like to plug, or any upcoming projects you’d like to tell us about?

This Summer is going to be the biggest Summer of my life, with Alex Van Helsing: Voice of the Undead coming July 26. So I totally recommend coming to alexvanhelsing.com , looking for announcements, and getting caught up by getting Alex Van Helsing: Vampire Rising before the second one comes out. If you’re looking for fun action in a young adult book, definitely check it out.

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Thanks again to Jason Henderson for giving such great answers to our questions. I, for one, am going to adopt the “Get rid of some lawyer shows and then come back and talk to me about too many vampires” approach for the foreseeable future. And then I’ll go watch The Vampire Diaries.

Finally, a reminder: Shadowland: Street Heroes, on sale from Marvel, contains Jason’s awesome take on the adventures of Colleen Wing. Go support this book and let Marvel know you want more like it!