Telling Stories

by Saladin Ahmed

When I was a kid stories were the most important thing in the world to me. Like any kid my age I watched lots of TV, but unlike most of the kids around me I was also obsessed with books. A few great teachers notwithstanding, the semi-functional schools in my rust belt Arab American enclave failed me. But the printed word always called to me, owing mostly to my father’s encouragement. I was a wheezy, small-for-his-age kid with bad eyes. Before I was 8, I lost my mother in an elevator accident and watched bigots burn down the community center my father ran. The outside world was a hostile place. So I found a happier home in stories – those I read, and those I wrote.


I learned about writing not from school, but from my father’s books. My dad was a factory worker turned community organizer who’d put himself through college but stayed in the neighborhood that raised him. His shelf was crammed with hippie classics, books on Arab culture, and lefty treatises. But he was also a science fiction fan and the two books that I cared most about were  THE HOBBIT, with its trippy Tolkien-art cover, and the extraordinarily visual BARLOWE’S GUIDE TO EXTRATERRESTRIALS. On my own I consumed Dungeons and Dragons manuals that interpolated Gary Gygax’s baroque prose with the entrancing art of early illustrators like Errol Otus and David Trampier. All of these taught me to link the visual image and the written word in ways that carried over into the little stories I was scribbling and the drawings I was doodling.

But what really taught me this link was comic books. I consumed superhero comics voraciously, absorbing the energy of their worlds like Galactus the devourer. From silver age Lee/Kirby X-Men/Fantastic Four to the ‘hard traveling heroes’ O’Neil/Adams run on Green Lantern/Green Arrow to the superhero epics of the 80s like SECRET WARS and CRISIS ON INFINITE EARTHS, all of it was fodder for my understanding of how stories worked – and how color and movement were part of that. My earliest writings were attempts to imitate these comics though I soon had to admit that I had no talent for drawing. Still, my writing always tried to imitate the kinetic, visually arresting, mythic power that I saw in the comics.

As I grew older my tastes in reading began to change. As a teenager I plunged headlong into the ‘gritty’ turn comics took in the late 80s with Moore and Miller and the Black & White explosion. In prose I turned to pulpy fantasy like the Dragonlance Chronicles and made fragmented, fitful attempts at my own such stories. And then I began a years-long path of reading – and thus inevitably writing – more ‘serious,’ ‘literary’ work. I discovered the classics that my shoddy early education had either neglected or twisted into joyless tasks. For most of my young adulthood I wrote poetry almost exclusively. Eventually I came to study its practice formally, earning an MFA.


Yet always my poetry was visually oriented and inflected with those early genre influences – exploding spaceships and pearlescent djinn, stop-motion werewolves and blazing laser guns. It sometimes confused my peers. Even when I was working as poet, it seemed, the fantasy writer in me was dying to burst forth. Eventually this voice could no longer be denied and, while teaching in New Jersey and living in NYC, I began writing my first fantasy novel. I had little idea what I was doing at first, but I was lucky enough to be able to draw on great teachers and peers – including the great WILD CARDS author Walter Jon Williams.


Eventually I wrote THRONE OF THE CRESCENT MOON. In a tremendous stroke of luck (and with the efforts of my agent Jennifer Jackson and the daring of my editor Betsy Wollheim), the book found a great publisher. What’s more, somewhat to my disbelief, it was VERY well-received. Nominated for the Nebula and Hugo for my first novel! Readers and critics clamoring for the next book! Who could ask for anything more?

But there is a thing no one tells you about writing a novel: it’s a *crushingly* isolating experience. Just you the writer alone in a room with one hundred thousand words that have yet to be written. It’s daunting even when it’s your first book and there are no deadlines and no readers demanding the next. When it’s your second or third or fourth and there are deadlines and contracts and impatient readers emailing you – well, it can be downright debilitating.


When the time to write the sequel to my novel came amidst various other personal crises, I essentially had a good old-fashioned nervous breakdown. For several years I wrote very a little, a few articles and short stories here and there. Though I chipped away at it regularly, the monolith of the unfinished second novel loomed, a monument to the fact that I’d failed as a writer.


Then Marvel comics called me. They wanted someone to script Black Bolt, king of the Inhumans, his first solo comic. I said yes  immediately, and as soon as I started working on that first script it felt like coming home.


But beginning that first script also underscored that I would need to learn an almost entirely new craft. Comics is a deeply different form than prose fiction and I found myself suddenly having to negotiate those differences on the fly.


Some differences are ‘only’ (although profoundly) aesthetic – visuality, for instance. The biggest formal difference between comics and prose fiction is so big and so obvious that it is almost taken for granted – comic books have pictures. Not just a cover image or occasional illustration, either. To their very core comics are made of pictures-with-text. This is such an utterly different way of telling a story that its impossible for some prose writers to wrap their minds around it. The careworn fiction writer’s maxim ‘show don’t tell’ takes on baffling new meaning when one is not using one’s own prose to do the showing. Instead (except in special cases like dialogue ‘showing’ character) in comics the writer is relying on the artist to do the showing, according to the writer’s direction.


In practice what this means is backing off and giving up control – something fiction writers aren’t very good at in general. But I’m learning.


Other differences felt horribly constrictive to a writer used to making up any damn thing he pleased. The Marvel Universe is a huge machine with hundreds of moving parts. The obligations of working within its continuity – making sure your story doesn’t mess up anyone else’s story, making sure your use of a character makes sense vis-à-vis another writer’s planned use of that character in six months – are bizarre and sometimes maddening. But at their best they come to feel like enabling restrictions, something like the shape of a sonnet. And the sense that your story is part of a massive quilt of formally linked stories is a powerful thing.


This is closely connected to the most important difference for me between prose fiction and comics – the thing that saved my life as a writer – collaboration. In a strange way, working on BLACK BOLT (and the other comics projects that I suddenly found myself voraciously taking on) re-taught me how to write. Certainly, I had to re-learn as an adult writer the skills the medium had taught me as a young reader. But more than that, collaborating with artists, especially my BLACK BOLT teammate Christian Ward, reinvigorated and inspired my interest in writing in a way that felt new. The back-and-forth about every aspect of the work – from costume design to cover concepts to page layouts – energized me. I’ve produced a flood of comics work since then, and a big part of the reason why is that comics don’t leave one trapped alone in one’s head. They’re part of a process of genuine co-creation. One in which the writer isn’t alone.

And this brings me to the WILD CARDS collective, which has been its own wonderfully unique hybrid experience. When one is writing for Marvel or Star Wars one has the sense of being a small part in a very large machine. That’s not a complaint – there’s great comfort in that sort of quasi-anonymity. But it also leaves a writer at the mercy of inscrutable, larger-than-human forces making opaque decisions.


Writing for WILD CARDS on the other hand is more like being a player in a delightful if tough D&D campaign run by brilliant, slightly demented Dungeon Masters — a delight somewhere between the extremes of the autonomous but isolated world of the fantasy novelist and the supported but supervised realm of the Big Two comic book writer. WILD CARDS is a hyper-managed, collectively authored superhero universe that puts writers first and allows them the freedom their stories need. But it’s also a massive prose project where one is not alone but rather part of a…bullpen, as it were. And so in a very real way for writers interested in telling the myths we call superhero stories – and thus for you, our readers – WILD CARDS is the best of both worlds.