In recent years, writer Richard K. Morgan lead comic readers through some of the darker shadowy corridors of the Marvel Universe in the pages of the “Black Widow” mini-series and the follow up six issue series, “Black Widow 2: The Things They Say About Her.” As a writer of prose novels, Morgan regularly takes readers to a variety of twisted, violent and morally murky worlds. In the second installment of our Graphic About Novels feature, CBR News spoke with Morgan about his books.
Morgan’s novels are usually born out of a free form style of writing. “It’s free verging on totally undisciplined,” Morgan joked. “The inspiration that I usually write from is often very imagistic; it can be as little as the images of two guys sitting somewhere or just a place like a highway. Even characters are something that tends to get layered on as I go along. It comes down to sort of flash images like scenes from a movie almost.
“What tends to happen is I’ll initially start writing stuff around an image and mess around and see where it goes,” Morgan continued. “At some point I’ll end up with a couple of chapters’ worth of story and then I’ll start thinking ‘What direction do I roll this in?’ You pick a point on the horizon and I think, ‘I reckon I’m going to end up there.’ Often I don’t but I’ll head out in that particular direction and see how the landscape unfolds. Most of the time I ended up pretty close to where I’ve set out for but not always.”
The characters that usually appear as protagonists in Morgan’s novels are types that have very strong opinions. “The characters that interest me whether they’re male or female, they’re not necessarily ‘go-getting types’ but they are ‘leave me the fuck alone types,'” Morgan told CBR News. “They are the kind of people who want to lead their own life and do not want anybody impinging upon them or getting in their way and telling them what to do.”
Readers shouldn’t expect Morgan’s protagonists to be your typical action heroes. “Obviously the kind of characters I just described are tailor made for heroic status but what I’m really interested in is the way in which, especially recently, that we’ve kind of warped the heroic context,” Morgan explained. “One of the things that I find about the heroes that come out of the Hollywood machine and to some extent the heroes of the comic book world is a complete failure to address the problematic nature of heroism.
“Heroes by definition are not comfortable people to have around except in times of crisis,” Morgan continued. “In the classic cycle of heroism that you read in mythology, usually shortly after they’ve achieve their great victories, heroes go onto another fight somewhere else and die as a result or they’re betrayed and sort of murdered in their beds by friends or lovers. There’s a real sense of, ‘Right this guy has done his job and now we need him out of the way.’ I’m very interested in that because it speaks to me but also because culturally I think we sort of want to have our cake and eat it. We want our heroes but we also want them to go home with the girl at the end of the movie and settle down to a life of suburban bliss and the evidence is against it.”
The heroes of Morgan’s novels often find themselves up against those in power and those who profit from abuses of power. “When I think of heroes in the classical sense I tend to think of them as the people who come along and sort of, not exactly set right, but knock the balance back from these abuses of power,’ Morgan said. “I guess we’re talking more about anti-heroes. These are the guys who kind of smash down the established structures. I’m not in favor of smashing down established structures, I think that’s a losing game but I’m fascinated by this idea that power accumulates and the people who have it continue to abuse those who don’t until such time that someone comes along and stops them usually by being more violent and unpleasant than the abusers themselves.”
The lead characters in Morgan’s novels may emerge victorious in their violent struggles with the abusers of power but not without paying a heavy price. “I’m very big on the intensity of despair,” Morgan stated. “Although there is a lot of violence in my writing and the characters often tend to be violent men and women; there is a sense that this violence is not the solution we would like it to be. The violence happens and is a number of different things to different people but in the end it’s not a solution and these people are not better off for the violence that they carry with them.
“Again that’s another mistake we’re making culturally these days, this idea that there is nothing wrong with a good clean fight, that going out and kicking the shit out of somebody on the battlefield or in a boxing ring is a good thing,” Morgan continued. “I think it might be viscerally satisfying but I think in social terms it’s a very bad thing. It doesn’t deliver any kind of winning social solution. I think it infects the way we look at society to quite a damaging extent.”
All of Morgan’s past novels and his forthcoming one have all been Science Fiction stories. “It’s a genre in which you can do absolutely what ever the hell you want,” Morgan explained. “You set up your own rules, you establish what the norms are and then you play by them. I think that’s very attractive to someone like me. You don’t have to do a ton of research before you can actually write. Science Fiction accords you a freedom which means you don’t have to do that, for which I’m very grateful but it also accords you a freedom to really, really let go and just say, ‘If I want to have machine warriors wandering about the place I will.’ Rather than having to do research, your job becomes almost like that of a conjurer; trying to sell this to your audience, trying to convince them of the validity of it even though it’s completely made up. That does appeal to me.”
The completely made-up world of Morgan’s first novel, the Phillip K. Dick Award winning, “Altered Carbon” features the technology of resleeving. The technology allows people of the far future world to download their consciousness into new bodies. The idea of resleeving sprang from an argument Morgan had had with a Buddhist that he knew. “Mainstream Buddhists believe in a form of reincarnation which involves the loss of self in the sense that when you come back you’re not aware that you’ve come back; your previous life is lost to you,” Morgan explained. “But it also ties into this kind of karmic justice system where if you behaved badly in a previous life you’ll come back at a lower level and if you behaved well you’ll go up a level. I’m not a religious man but of all the religious templates out there, it’s sort of the least unpleasant; it’s the least dictatorial and doesn’t have a sort of sad case patriarchal based sensibility.
“But it occurred to me once when we were having one of these discussions and I said, ‘Hang on a minute. If you can’t remember what you did in a previous life than for all intents and purposes you didn’t do it. And if you didn’t do it why are you getting punished for it? This isn’t fair.’ That idea kind of sat around in my head for awhile; the idea that if you really have no memory, we’re not talking amnesia but a total loss of the person who has done the terrible things, if that happens how can this other person be responsible? I wasn’t able to sit down and write a book based around the reincarnation of a character and Science Fiction had always been my first love so I went looking for a concept to allow me to deal with that. Obviously the idea of resleeving, and sort of having your memory backed up and possibly loosing chunks of it because of that system was my entry.”
“Altered Carbon” is fundamentally a detective novel, that was inspired by Raymond Chandler’s “Big Sleep” and when Morgan began penning the story he had no idea he would be taking the book’s protagonist, the body hopping ex-soldier Takeshi Kovacs out for two more literary outings. “He started out as just the detective that was supposed to carry the story,” Morgan explained. “As I wrote the novel Kovacs became a lot less of a cipher and much more of a living breathing character. “One thing that was fascinating was the way in which this very powerful sort of iconoclastic savagery emerged in him; this hatred of power structures, of paternal authority, of anyone saying they can run things. That emerged spontaneously. I didn’t plan that. So I became fascinated by where that came from in me and where it came from in the character. What does this say about this guy especially given that in his past he had been a soldier? So when I got my book deal and they said, ‘We’re looking for three books’ I thought, ‘Well I’ve got enough material to at least produce another couple of books.”
Morgan’s second book featuring Takeshi Kovacs, “Broken Angels” moved the ex-solider away from detective work and back into a profession he was more familiar with. “‘Broken Angels’ is very much a war story,” Morgan said. “To be honest the closest template I can find for it would be something like, ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.’ It’s a template about desperate men scratching around trying to find an out in the context of the insanity of a war. It’s also to some extent about the discoveries of an alien civilization. It’s much more unpleasant than ‘Altered Carbon’
The third and final Takeshi Kovacs book, “Woken Furies” sends the character back home. “I’d say it’s both a homecoming novel and a chase novel,” Morgan stated. “I suppose when I was writing it the book I felt it was most like was ‘The Thirty-Nine Steps’ or maybe the movie ‘North by Northwest’; where a guy is just sort of thrown into the midst of something he doesn’t really understand,” Morgan explained. “He’s on the run trying to stay ahead of his pursuers and at the same time trying to work out what the hell is going on. That isn’t the whole story but that’s sort of the narrative thread that informed it the most. There’s also a lot more traveling to and from places in ‘Woken Furies.’ The other two books are some what static. Woken Furies is much more globe-trotting. You get to see an awful lot of the world that Kovacs is on. You get to explore his old haunts, his past, and where he grew up. That was quite deliberate. I was interested in getting into the bedrock of who he was.”
Each Kovacs novel is self-contained and stand alone, but readers of all three novels will get to see how the character’s state of mind and well-being changes. “In ‘Altered Carbon there is a sense that this guy is in a difficult position as noir heroes often are,” Morgan said. “He has been put in this position. It’s not something he’s chosen and he has to deal with it. The essence is really that he’s just trying to get the job done and stay afloat. He’s influenced by the various characters he meets in such a way that he tips that particular plan out of alignment. But essentially he was just coping.
“By the time you get to ‘Broken Angels’ the coping strategy is pretty much a wash,” Morgan continued. “He’s thinking fast in this book because of the context he’s stuck in. ‘Broken Angels’ is sort of a commentary on the stupidity of war. I felt ‘Altered Carbon ended on something of a positive note, in that Kovacs actually does a couple of things that let him out with sort of the sensation of having done the right thing but ‘Broken Angels’ is just about staying alive. You’re meant to leave that book with nothing more than a sense of thank Christ that he survived. I think that’s unfortunately the truth of war; anyone who has fought in a war will probably tell you that it becomes just about staying alive.
“In Woken Furies I wanted to see where his despair came from and where it would go. So in that book, in the beginning he’s completely off the deep end. Any sense of restraint that he used to have is pretty much gone. The book then in some sense is about how he comes back to a level where he has restraint and some sense of purpose; something more than just the desire to stay afloat. It isn’t a lot more. It’s a very thin redemption if it’s one at all. But you’re left at the end of the book with a sense that he’s kind of crawled up onto the floating wreckage and is at least drying out in the sun.”
Morgan plans to leave Kovacs drying out in the sun since he has no further plans for the character. “I don’t think the idea that your hero keeps coming back and keeps coming back is healthy at all,” Morgan explained. “One because I think you end up hollowing out the character so he just becomes a series of expected reflexes. The reader is expecting the character to do certain things and in the course of the novel they do them. As a writer that reduces the level of challenge. It’s a mistake if you’re not bothering to come up with anything fresh. You’re left with a brand. All you’ve got is this vaguely hollow sense of where there was something. I find that very uncomfortable and I wouldn’t want to have to that with Kovacs.”
“Woken Furies” was Morgan’s third novel featuring Takeshi Kovacs but his fourth novel as a writer. Morgan’s third novel was a one-off book entitled “Market Forces.” “‘Market Forces’ came about because I was kind of furious throughout the 80’s and into the 90s, with the whole political and economic landscape; Milton Friedman and the Chicago School and all those fucking idiots. Plus the whole Reagan-Thatcher era and the politics that came with that,” Morgan said. “I was so sick and tired of seeing and hearing these people make decisions that affected the lives of hundreds of thousands of people and walk away from these decisions without any ill effects; like the guys who manage major corporations into the ground and walk away with huge sums of settlement money. Once you get to a certain level in the social hierarchy there doesn’t seem to be any payback. Your responsibility just fizzles out. This was especially true with the guys who trundle off to the Third World and tell people how to run their economies. These people make a decision and thousands of people starve or lose their jobs and these guys are absolutely safe. Suddenly a hundred thousand people are out of their homes and children are selling themselves on the street and this guy goes, ‘oh bad week.’ It was the injustice of that and the kind of self-righteous bullshit that went along with it because you still heard Friedman talk like he knew what he was talking about.”
These feelings motivated Morgan to create a future world in “Market Forces” where because of board room deals and highway auto duels big business has literally become cut throat. “I was thinking what would it be like if these guys actually had to live with consequences as severe as the ones that are handed down to the people they are managing? It became this idea of a world where the guys who make decisions about Third World Economics also have to fight to the death to maintain their jobs. These guys very often like to think of themselves as cowboys and outlaw gunslingers. It’s very macho. The idea is that hopefully the book is a nightmare because you’re saying, ‘Do you like this? What do you mean you don’t? This is removing any obstacle to market forces.’ The book hopefully makes a strong case for saying there’s nothing wrong with market forces as a mechanism but they are no more immune from mismanagement and human intervention than fire, which is also very useful, but doesn’t mean you don’t have a fire brigade.”
Readers of “Market Forces” will often be shocked the actions of the characters in the book. “The characters really are a bunch of unpleasant people,” Morgan stated. “You have to bring your own morality to the book. There is a central character with whom you sympathize to some extent but even as a writer I found myself sympathizing with him less and less as I went on and interestingly enough there is a character you’re supposed to hate and I found myself warming to him as time went on.
“The novel is a story of double dealing back stabbing and completely morally worthless financial and management decisions,” Morgan continued. “It’s an unpleasant book and indeed the intention is not that you should especially like anyone in the book but hopefully it’s a rollercoaster ride. There’s no moral safe ground. There’s no one for you to stand with and say, ‘Right I’m with this guy,’ because whoever you choose you’ll find yourself on shaky moral ground. It was my intent to destabilize things completely and give you hopefully a hero that actually you do like but shouldn’t like.”
Morgan’s next novel will hit stores in the U.K in May and stores in the US in June. In the U.K. the book will be titled “Black Man” and in the U.S. it’s called “Thirteen.” “There’s been a policy decision in the U.S. that ‘Black Man’ is not a title that they can go with,” Morgan explained. “It’s no problem. I’m not a prima Donna about titles and ‘Thirteen’ is equally descriptive in its own way but for my money it doesn’t have the same impact.”
Morgan’s new novel involves the tracking of a killer in a future world but the setting is a little different from the bleak worlds in his past novels. “It takes place in the future but only about a century ahead and hopefully it’s not as dystopian,” Morgan said. “I made an effort to create a future world that doesn’t actually seem that bad. Someone once asked me, ‘Could you try to write something where the future isn’t quite as grim?’ I was surprised because apart from ‘Market Forces’ the future of the Kovacs books never struck me as especially grim. It struck me as being about as grim as the present we live in. This is an attempt to portray a future where things may actually be better than they are now but a lot of the same old problems remain like crime and corruption.”
Just like in the Kovacs novels, a new technology has had a profound impact on society in “Black Man”/ “Thirteen.” “This book is all about genetic technology,” Morgan stated. “It’s all about the extent to which you can tweak the human genome to create certain types of people and more importantly what that means in the general consciousness of our cultures.”
Morgan’s latest novel probes some of the negative aspects of our cultural consciousness. “The reason it’s called ‘Black Man’ is in, for lack of a better phrase, what we’d call Western Christian Culture, and especially the United States, the idea of the ‘big black man’ has been a terrifying template. If you look through the last century of history you’ll see these things; like cocaine was criminalized mainly because there was this rash of stories about coked up black men raping white women in the South. I also remember reading that the .357 magnum was also brought into service because it was claimed that it was the only gun that could stop a coked up charging black man. You start to see these iconic images emerging from the slime of a culture’s subconscious and you start to wonder ‘where did this come from?’
“Western Christian Culture is terrified of and revolts against the idea of animal and emotional force,” Morgan continued. “And black people were taken over centuries and told, ‘You’re the untamed savages.’ Even if you look at something like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ which is this great anti-slavery novel but the portrayal there is ‘here are these poor, simple people being enslaved.’ The idea that black people are more simplistic than the rest of humanity, it’s endemic. This idea fascinated me because for one thing I was thinking, ‘How the hell are we ever going to get rid of this idea?’
“And of course the only way you’re going to get rid of it is if something worse comes along. So the idea is this is a future in which mostly, and I say mostly because there are some important provisions, racism is pretty much a dead issue. It’s because everyone is scared shitless of the genetic variants; the humans who have genetic twists to their nature.”
The protagonist of “Black Man”/”Thirteen” has the unfortunate luck of walking around this world with two proverbial strikes against him. “The central character is a guy who is actually black and has this genetic heritage,” Morgan explained. “So when he goes to the places where the old world hasn’t been reconstructed there’s this rather bemusing racism because of the color of his skin but when he goes to the places where we’re far more civilized and racism isn’t really an issue anymore everyone still hates him because of what he represents on a genetic level.
“I think the key to the book is that it’s really saying racism isn’t about black people or Chinese people or any group of people,” Morgan continued. “It’s about a need to have a monstrous sort of bad guy somewhere out there so people can pull together against it and you won’t get rid of it. All you’ll be able to do is shuffle it onto somebody else. It’s not really about what people are it’s about what society wants to see them as.”
Morgan is currently hard at work on his next novel the first in a trilogy, which will mark his first work in a new genre, fantasy. “It’s going to be called ‘A Land Fit for Heroes,'” he said. “I’ve always loved sword-and-sorcery and have had this hankering to write some and I’m just going to see where it goes. Hopefully it will have the same tone as the Kovacs books in the sense that it’s going to be dealing with characters who are ex-soldiers and very much outsiders.
“But the thematic idea is that these are guys who had fought in a war that was completely pointless,” Morgan stated. “It was not the war they we’re told it was and they are very disillusioned and bitter. It’s about the context after the war, sort of how the peace is carved up.”
Morgan is still not sure of his plans for the second and third books in his fantasy trilogy, but one thing that he is certain about is the books won’t end with cliff-hangers. “One of my pet peeves is trilogy writers who leave you hanging at the end of each book,” Morgan stated. “So, each book will be complete and entire; very much like the Kovacs series where in theory you can pick up any of the three and read it without reference to the other two. “‘Land Fit for Heroes’ will have a definitive ending and the second book will pick up some time after that ending but you won’t need to have read the first book.”
Whether it’s in a far future world, or a medieval fantasy style setting, Morgan’s books all have one thing in common, they are stories of people trying to find their way in a grey hued world with no-clear answers. Morgan recommends his novels to readers who enjoyed his two “Black Widow” minis and to readers of his two current favorite comics. “The people out there who like very straight forward four toned superhero antics, there’s a good chance that they might not want to read my stuff but the two comic books that I most admire and I’m actually collecting are ‘Lucifer’ and ‘100 Bullets,'” Morgan said. “You would think they would be at opposite ends of the spectrum, one is dark fantasy and one is a very hard bitten sort of urban pulp. They do have something in common and that is this kind of moral equivalence; a lack of any clear points of moral reference. Anyone who likes those or my Black Widow stuff should have a look at my novels.”
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