If you said the name ‘Peter Clines’ to someone, they would say, “Yeah, the comedian who does impressions.” And then you would say, “Why am I talking to a seventy year old?” Once you moved on to someone younger and hipper, they would say, “Oh yeah, the superstar writer who crossbred the zombie and superhero genres and placed it in a jar of awesome sauce!” And you would say, “You talk funny, but yeah.” If you haven’t read Ex-Heroes or Ex-Patriots, you should, because they are two of the very best Permuted Press has to offer.
Between recently reading Ex-Patriots and my daughter breaking out my old comics and me writing that recently posted hero short story, I’ve been in a superhero state of mind lately. I decided this would be the perfect time to grab Peter Clines for the interview I promised back in January. For me, this was like a special teamer getting to hang out with Peyton Manning. Or Spider-man agreeing to team up with NFL Superpro or even some other obscure non-football related superhero.
Anyway, it’s clobberin time! Here’s my chat with Peter Clines:
KB: I read Ex-Heroes a while back and just finished Ex-Patriots and they are both excellent. Flattery out of the way…What drew you to writing these stories in novel form as opposed to comic books, which would obviously be the more typical route for the subject of superheroes?
PC: Actually, writing comic books was my big goal when I was a kid. My first rejection letters are from Jim Shooter, because I would send him (in retrospect) really God-awful stories and covers every month. This is back when I was maybe ten or eleven. He was very polite about it in his rejection letters—I still have a bunch of them.
The thing is, at that age I didn’t realize that there were different people doing different things, that each issue was a team effort. And now that I do, especially with my experience in the film industry, I know how important it is to have a good group of people on those sort of projects. And I don’t know how to do it—not well enough to do it right, anyway. So it just never crossed my mind to do Ex-Heroes as a comic book in the same way most of us don’t consider rebuilding the transmission on our cars. It’s a skillset we don’t have, so it’s never even an option.
KB: There’s an enjoyable scene in Ex-Patriots where Captain Freedom is eager to test his powers against our heroes. That’s part of the fun of being a superhero nerd is debating who would win against who, isn’t it? Was that scene a nod to that part of fandom? And who would win if your four heroes had to fight the Fantastic Four?
PC: It’s a nod to fandom, yeah, but I think it’s also just human nature. I mean, if you somehow magically became one of the greatest boxers in the world, of course you’d start wondering if you could knock out Mike Tyson or Klitschko or one of those guys, right? It’s nothing personal—you just want to know if you could knock him out because of what he represents. It only seemed natural that Freedom would want to know how he measured up against St. George, especially considering the levels of confidence you see in a lot of military folks.
If they had to fight the Fantastic Four… I’m guessing classic FF here and not any of the substitute teams? Well, to be honest, the extended Richards family would probably pound my guys without breaking a sweat. Most of the heroes at the Mount are pretty low-level as far as heroes go. I mean, St. George is superhumanly strong but he can only lift six or seven tons. Zzzap’s powerful, yeah, but he’s actually too powerful. He’s got to spend more effort containing his energy than using it. It makes them a bit more interesting and believable, story-wise, but it also means 90% of the Marvel Universe is more powerful than them.
Also, even though my guys are all friends and live together in their zombocalypse refuge, they’re not really a team. Not as we all generally think of superhero teams, anyway. They don’t train together or have maneuvers or combos or anything.
Not yet, anyway…
KB: While I’m on the super-nerd kick, let’s say you could form your very own supergroup and you could take five heroes from any universe, including your own. What’s your starting lineup?
PC: Hmmm… are we saying as a useful, capable, deal-with-anything group or as a group that would be interesting to read about?
St. George and Stealth are kind of a given for me, I think. They’re a couple, brains and brawn. I love all my characters, but these two are special.
I’ve always loved Spider-Man. I think I’ve been collecting Amazing Spider-Man since I was nine or ten. I’ve got an entire longbox full of those issues, although I have to admit I quit after the whole “selling his soul to the devil” thing.
After that would be Rom. Because we all want to see Rom again. Honestly, since Mattel bought Parker Brothers, I just want to see them put out a Rom action figure in scale with the Marvel Universe figs.
Finally, I know he’s considered a second or third-stringer, but I’ve always liked Terror, Marvel’s zombie hitman. He seems like a character with tons and tons of potential that’s never been well-used.
I have no idea what I’d call this team.
[Image of “The Clines-men” not yet available] -ed.
KB: While stumbling around the internet I came across a theory that all the great foursomes, be they Beatles or Ninja Turtles, can be broken down into mother, father, craftsman and clown. Your big 4 in Ex-Patriots fit this perfectly, I immediately thought. Was this a paradigm you were aware of or did I totally just blow your mind?
PC: It’s a little bit mind-blowing, although I wonder how it works with the old Fantastic Four cartoon with Herbie the robot. Actually, now I’m trying to think of different quartets and fitting them into that…
I find archetypes like that kind of interesting in a basic way, but not terribly informative. If you boil anything down far enough you’ll start finding similarities. That’s why you’ve got people who insist there are only seven stories (or six or nine, depending on who’s selling what that day). It’s a neat literary trick, but eventually someone latches onto those things and makes them a hard-fast rule of writing. “If you have a cast of four characters, they must fall into one of these categories…” That’s when this sort of thing fails, because then the moment someone does something that isn’t that archetype, people label it as wrong.
KB: I think you’re spot on in your analysis. It falls apart pretty easily. Who’s the clown, idiot Mike or wise-cracking Raphael? And the other one is then, what, mother?
I can’t wait to sink my teeth into 14. Anything that is compared favorably to LOST has my attention. Please talk a little bit about the creation of 14.
PC: 14 was something that simmered in my head for a while. One of the big elements was something that occurred to me right after I moved to Los Angeles. I was living in an old brick building in a less-desirable part of the city. Not a bad place, but it was still one of those areas where you’d tell people “Oh, I live over there” and they’d always blink for a second and say, “Really? Do you like it?” Anyway, the thing that struck me after a few months was that I didn’t know anyone in my building. Not a single person. I could recognize some of them on sight, but that was it. Contrast that with most college dorms, where you know everyone on your floor and you hang out together all the time and sometimes just crash in each others’ rooms (for any number of reasons). It got me wondering why things were so different in an apartment building. Why did everyone stay so isolated?
The thing that changed all that was the big fire in Griffith Park in early 2007, the one that threatened the Observatory and parts of the city. A bunch of the residents ended up on the roof of our building, just watching the fires and drinking all night. And we all started talking and got to know each other. And suddenly the whole building was different. Now we were this little community with shared interests and hobbies and we were trading DVDs and sharing meals. It turned out one of my downstairs neighbors, Hunter, was one of the founding members of Gwar, and we hung out a couple of times.
Anyway, when I moved out, my girlfriend and I had this sudden idea of leaving a note for the next person who moved in. And being who we are, we came up with some twisted things you could leave. That got me thinking about the kind of things you could find left behind by other tenants. Maybe deliberate or accidental. And a lot of this floated up in my mind a few years later while I was working on The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. I had to sit on it then, and after that I had to dive into Ex-Patriots.
Once Ex-Patriots was winding up, though, I had a talk with Jacob Kier at Permuted Press about what I was going to do next. One idea was a sci-fi/horror thing I’d actually put aside to do Crusoe, but Permuted had actually just bought Containment Room 7 by Bryan Hall and he didn’t want two similarly themed books competing against each other. So I told him I had this other idea I’d been kicking around for a while—the story that would become 14— and sent him a one-page synopsis of the first half of the book (explaining that I had the whole thing mapped out). And off that one page he bought it.
It was, hands down, the fastest thing I’ve ever written. I think I did just shy of 150,000 words in about two and a half months. And then I had to cut almost a quarter of it. We’ve already talked about doing a “complete, uncut” version somewhere down the line if it does really well.
KB: Seems to me like every new TV show or movie is based on a book lately. Where would you draw the line for “selling out?” Would you be okay with St. George being changed to a sparkly vampire and Stealth is a dude now and we’re thinking Adam Sandler…
PC: What’s that great Krusty line? “I couldn’t help it! They backed a truckload of money up to my house!”
I get what you’re saying, but I think it’s really rare to see direct changes that drastic. It’s usually something subtler that has wider ramifications (like saying “What if Greedo shot first so Han doesn’t seem so ruthless…?”). The people making those changes don’t understand the nature of storytelling—they’re the ones making up those hard-fast rules we were talking about a couple minutes ago. They’ll just say things to fit a made-up rule or random market criteria or some personal agenda without any thought of how it affects the greater story. My girlfriend’s a screenwriter and she was pitching a story once about an escaped Civil War slave who became a war hero for the North. The development exec actually said “Does he have to be a black guy? Black guys don’t play well overseas.” True story, actually happened.
KB: That reminds me of the Patton Oswalt bit about Hollywood notes, “On page 2 she’s eating peanuts, but later she’s wearing a hat. Does that make sense?” Your example is even funnier, I think.
PC: But where would I draw the line? I don’t know. Like I mentioned, I worked in the industry for a long time, and I understand that changes have to be made going from one medium to another. And there’s going to be changes out of the necessity of making the movie. I never once pictured Will Smith as St. George or Anna Torv as Stealth, but attaching them to the project could get millions in funding so… maybe?
But, yeah, I would be upset if Cerberus became a magic costume. Or Gorgon became an actual vampire, let alone sparkly vampire. And if Stealth became Adam Sandler, yes, I would probably give back the truckload of money.
Depending on the denominations.
KB: You opened your recent question-answering video with a Simpsons quote. My brother opened the toast at my wedding with a Simpsons quote. Is it never not appropriate to use a Simpsons quote for anything? And what are some other pop culture-type things that have just seeped their way into your brain over the years?
PC: I don’t know… everything? I have a freakish, almost photographic memory for such stuff. I can rattle off the plots to movies and television episodes I saw when I was nine or comic books I read when I was eight. For Valentine’s Day, a few years ago, my girlfriend was actually able to track down some of my favorite childhood books because I’d related the plots so well to her.
I think it’s a fascinating phenomena that entertainment has become such a huge part of all our lives. It also kind of baffles me when I see writers who go out of their way not to mention pop culture in any way, shape, or form. It’s such a simple, straightforward way to add life to characters (like Zzzap ranting in Ex-Patriots that because of the zombocalypse he’s never going to know how LOST ended, or making joke references to the old Incredible Hulk prologue). It does tie stories to a certain period, but no more than the cars or the politics or the technology.
But to answer your main question, no. There is no situation where it is not appropriate to use a quote from The Simpsons.
KB: I can’t believe I went this long without bringing up zombies.
PC: I can’t either, to be honest.
KB: Who was your favorite cinematic zombie? The original Night of the Living Dead graveyard ghoul? Hare Krishna zombie? Tar Man? Other?
PC: I know how people will react to this, but I always loved the zombie Julie Walker from Return of the Living Dead Pt.III. Yeah, there’s the hot redhead zombie aspect of it, but I really loved the idea of this girl desperately trying to hang on to her humanity as it keeps slipping away bit by bit, especially because we can see that she’s hanging on just enough to realize how much she’s losing. When she has to start… well, let’s just say “inducing sensation”… on a regular basis to help her hold on, it’s creepy and gross, but it’s a little bit sad, too. To stay human, she has to become more and more inhuman. It’s one of the first movies I remember that made the zombies out to be sympathetic, almost pitiful creatures.
And, yeah, she does look pretty hot and badass.
Peter Clines has a blog: http://thoth-amon.blogspot.com/
If you type “Peter Clines” into Amazon’s search bar, lots of wonderful things become available for you to purchase.
You can also find him on facebook, where he is not yet too cool to interact with his fans.