RUNLOVEKILL #3 – #4
A couple weeks back, I finally read Neil Gaiman’s “Don’t Panic,” a book I bought when it was last updated in 2002, but that sat on a shelf for too long.
It is Neil Gaiman’s biography of the man who brought us “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” (H2G2) series, Douglas Adams. It’s a great look at the story behind the story, and all the craziness that went into its making, with plenty of interviews with people who were behind the scenes of all the madcap chaos that was H2G2.
If I take nothing else away from the book, it shows how “great art” is often hardly planned, but instead made up as it goes along. It’s instructive to wannabe writers to see that their job isn’t always going to be self-directed, but that market forces, deadlines, and format might just as well dictate the directions your creativity can go in, even when you’re a successful writer.
I’ve read the first “Hitchhiker’s Guide” book a half dozen times by now. The second time I read it was in 6th or 7th grade, when we were tasked to do a book report in the form of a comic strip. Right up my alley, wouldn’t you say? Sure, but you try summing up that book in six panels.
As soon as I finished Gaiman’s book on the first leg of a flight home, I downloaded the eBook version of H2G2 during a layover in Salt Lake City’s airport for the second flight. (I think this marks the third format I’ve bought the books in, but I couldn’t wait until I got home…) A week and a half later, a couple of chapters are still mandatory bedtime reading material for me. The book is perfect for someone who doesn’t have the time to sit down on and read it all in bigger chunks. The chapters are short and numerous. The scenes are well isolated and often feel more like chapters in a Saturday afternoon serial from 80 years ago than parts of a serious literary novel packed with theme and subtext and complex psychological motivations and nuance.
Nah, this is comedy, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.
My jumping back into this fun world is all thanks to Neil Gaiman, whose authorial tone on the book takes on an entertaining humorousness to match the author he’s profiling. While he goes over the history of Adams’ career, mostly centered on the five books in the increasingly misnamed trilogy, he also provides insight into the other things Adams took an interest in, from computer games to endangered species.
But mostly, for me, “Don’t Panic” is a stunning revelation that this series of novels that I’ve greatly enjoyed is not the product of careful self-editing and long-term planning. No, Adams flew almost completely by the seat of his pants, not writing for long stretches, then writing and re-writing himself to death. Deadlines loomed, most of which deafened him from flying by so quickly and so often. The manuscript to the first book was completed, or so the story goes, when its editor sent a courier over to Adams’ place to take the manuscript away from him.
Adams’ background was more in sketch comedy. In re-reading the book now, it shows. Each chapter is a skit in a sci-fi comedy routine. There’s a couple of big ideas that provide a bare narrative to hang all those funny threads on, but that’s the least of things. You don’t read the book to see characters evolve and recognize their weaknesses, or even overcoming terrible odds stacked together. It’s just a bunch of silly characters from diverse worlds thrown together and mixed. Classic literary rules needn’t apply, particularly with a book that features a starship with an improbability drive capable of being an instant deus ex machine anytime.
It reminds me of the old saw that plot is not the whole story. It’s one part of the total experience. The style in which it’s told is also important. The characters, the language, the presentation, etc. all helps. In comic book terms, the same script illustrated by two different artists would result in a wildly different experience. The right artist matched up with the right writer is an Eisner waiting to happen. Mismatch the two and you get assembly line blandness. It may be competent, but it won’t be special or memorable.
I sometimes think we’re losing some of that wonder in the world of (mostly super-hero) comics. Everything gets to be so serious and so nailed down by continuity and tight-knit company-wide planning. Where’s the improvisation coming from? Where’s the writing styles that mix things up and set new trends? I don’t think you get those as much from Marvel and DC, though (to their credit) both appear willing to try some new things these days.
The modern superhero comics writer, I think, straitjackets themself today with long term plans and strict adherence to formula and literary “rules.” Obviously, there are elements of good storytelling that we’ll always want to see, but where’s the looseness? Where’s the experimentation?
I wonder what a modern comic would look like where the plot was much looser, where the individual parts are ridiculously strong, but if you look at the larger picture with too much thought, it might fall apart. It would probably not go over so well with today’s audiences whose first question to any writer is always, “Do you have an ending planned to this?” after the first page of a series, whether it be 4 issues or 60. But it could be memorable. It could be entertaining. Find a writer who can pull off comedy well (which I think would work best in this format), free them from the shackles of plot and continuity, and let them have fun. Have each part of the story work on its own merits, and tie it loosely together.
I imagine Sergio Aragones can do this in his sleep. Heck, there are issues where “Groo” does feel like this…
One of the other memorable things about “Don’t Panic”, for me, was how the series’ popularity meant more books. Publishers tossed big money at Adams (600,000 pounds for the fourth, according to Gaiman’s book) so they could release a high end prestige hardcover version of the next book in the series. (I’m pretty sure my copy of “Mostly Harmless” is a first print, come to think of it…)
Another of my writing heroes, Isaac Asimov, had the same thing happen to him. In the 1980s, he began writing novel length stories in the Foundation series and got huge money for them in hardcover. He’d have been silly to pass that up. In retrospect, I’m guessing publishers jumped on the burgeoning sci-fi market back then. That’s a day that won’t likely ever come back again, though.
On the comics front, there was a H2G2 comic series at DC adapting the original trilogy about 25 years ago. I think I have one of those prestige format issues around here somewhere. Says Gaiman of it,
“[A]lthough the project was supposedly ‘overseen’ by Douglas Adams , he had neither the time nor the inclination to be actively involved (not, it must be said, any discernable interest in comic books as a medium).”
The comics were not a remake of the original story the way the books had been of the radio play, or the records of the radio play, or the TV series of (again) the radio play. Not to mention the classic Infocom game. Adams reworked the same basic material for every medium it came in contact with. With the comic, though, it became more a straight adaptation without Adams.
In comics, I think we’re just now getting used to the fact that a movie adaptation of a superhero comic might be different from the source. In the early 1990s, though, I think a lot of comic fans would have been disappointed with anything too far from the books they loved. That’s something that Adams had always done with the series, though. The comics were doomed from the start, either way.
And, since this was the early 90s, there was a trading card set produced based on the comics. I have no memory of those whatsoever, but that’s what an internet search is for. I couldn’t find a complete gallery of the cards, but there are some images out there if you search the obvious keywords. You’ll get to see where Steve Leialoha’s designs for the characters were often big departures from the book and TV series.
In the end, the whole point of this book review is that so much of the art we enjoy isn’t made in the most ideal circumstances. We don’t always know what’s going on behind the scenes either personally with the author or politically with the publisher. What we assume is Best Effort work might just be the thing that got published because the schedules of the publisher and the printer were set to go and there’s no choice but to spit out pages
Sometimes, that works.
And, sometimes, the best creators are the most eccentric workers, capable of great things but only through excruciating ways.
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