Writing Under the Influence, by John Ostrander
Nothing is created in a vacuum. Though the artist may like to think that the work springs forth Zeus-like full blown from their brow, the truth is any number of different other works influence your own. The works that move and affect us as artists also teach and guide us in our own expression.
We prize originality but it is said there’s only x amount of plots when you boil them all down (the number has varied according to who is defining it, but it’s usually low) and they were all created by the Greeks. The greatest writer in the English language – William Shakespeare – rarely came up with original plots, most usually re-working older plays or tales from history. What is original often is how you combine the elements.
Imitation is the starting point for what you eventually become. In writing, you become influenced by certain writers because of the types of stories they tell, or their command of language, or the depth of their themes and thought or even just their success or all of it together. It is through imitation, I think, that we truly learn such things as structure. With writing, you can take all the classes and read all the books but, ultimately, you really only learn how to write by writing. Hopefully, as you grow older and wiser – better – you discard the overt forms that you imitate to find your own voice, your own style. What starts out as something that you borrow has to become something that you own.
GrimJack began that way. As a writer, I very much fall into the camp of wanting to write because of the pleasure I’ve had in reading, especially certain writers. I’ve noted elsewhere that GrimJack was created as a cross between hard-boiled detectives and sword-and-sorcery heroes (making him what I sometimes laughingly refer to as a “hard-boiled barbarian”) but I haven’t talked about which sword-and-sorcery heroes went into the mix. Some might assume Robert E. Howard’s Conan but I’ve always been more drawn to Solomon Kane, Howard’s Puritan wanderer/adventurer. Conan as a character isn’t very reflective; Kane was, even though he was driven by a wanderlust that he couldn’t explain.
Another S&S-type character that influenced GrimJack was Leigh Brackett’s Eric John Stark. These stories infused a Conan-esque sensibility into a more SF setting. For those who don’t know Brackett, she was also a screenwriter who contributed on a variety of pictures including The Big Sleep as well as The Empire Strikes Back. Her death prevented her from doing more, much to Star Wars’ loss.
Eric John Stark’s backstory is that he was orphaned on Mercury when his parents are killed in an earthquake. Stark is then adopted into a tribe of humanoid Mercury aboriginals where he is re-named “N’Chaka,” translated as “man without a tribe.” Human miners exterminate his tribe and captured Stark but he is rescued by a police official, Simon Ashton, who then continues the boy’s upbringing. Stark is a duality, which fascinates me. He can be a human and function within its society but underneath – and often not far underneath – he is savage, primitive, and wild. There’s something of John Gaunt there.
This may have been more especially true of GrimJack in his first incarnation – the prose one. As I’ve written elsewhere, GrimJack was originally intended to be a series of short stories and novels and I actually did a draft of a short story (long since lost) that featured him. The setting was more SF – as was Brackett’s Stark. The concept was set in a Chicago that had been hit with a very “dirty” nuke. The Pit was actually the crater of the bomb. Humanity had been forced out the radioactive cities and had lost its technology. Humanity was amnesiac; by the time human beings could return to the cities, they had no idea how they had operated.
The other part of the GrimJack equation, of course, is the hard-boiled detective and there were influences there as well. I had read Hammett and Chandler and the first person narrative style I’ve used in GrimJack was largely influenced by the latter. I’ve striven, however, to keep away from slavish imitation. A bad Chandler imitation is almost the essence of hack writing. However, I think a far deeper influence on me were the Lew Archer novels by Ross MacDonald, the pseudonym of Kenneth Millar.
Throughout the later books in the Archer series, a theme emerges that forms the plot template for the books as well. The crime that Lew Archer is trying to solve in any given book is almost always tied to an earlier crime that has not been resolved. There is a sense that something lies festering in society and the past will poison the present if not healed. What has lain secret must be revealed if things are again to find balance.
As I created John Gaunt, I wanted him to have a full history – one that the reader wouldn’t know right away but to which I could make allusions and references. The reader might not know the facts of his past but they would sense that he really did have one – that there was more story there than we were telling just yet – and it would give the character resonance. His past secrets would keep on emerging to mess up his present. I wanted him to actually be the greatest mystery but that would only work for me if I knew what the story was and could make it coherent.
I have also been influenced by Robert Parker’s Spenser novels. Parker writes some of the best banter and dialogue in the business. The relationship between Parker’s hero, Spenser of the one name, with his friend, Hawk, the baddest of African-American badasses, is one of the series’ enduring pleasures. Certainly, I tried to re-create it in the relationship between Gaunt and BlacJacMac – especially in the manly banter between the two. I’d be a liar if I said I wasn’t. However, as with anything you write that has integrity, the characters and their relationship evolve and became uniquely their own. BlacJac isn’t Hawk, but certainly the influence is there.
There was another element that went into the general concept of GrimJack. The source may seem unlikely. I was – and am – a big fan of the BBC TV series, Doctor Who, even going so far as to try and bring the character to the stage in America.
One thing that particularly struck me about Doctor Who is that it can do and has done any kind of story that it wants – SF, horror, historical. It has even done a Western. I wanted that to be very true of the GrimJack series as well. Since the series re-settled in the pan-dimensional city of Cynosure, it seemed not only feasible but required.
Of course, all kinds of movies went into the mix as well – especially Bogart in Casablanca. My own physical concept of John Gaunt was originally based on Clint Eastwood – that is, until B’rer Timothy Truman arrived and put his stamp on the character and the concept. Tim made his model Jack Palance and the character forever altered.
Tim is the biggest single influence on the character and the concept of GrimJack, along with all the things that influence Tim himself – Sergio Leone’ movies, Walter Hill movies, the blues – especially guitar blues – rock ‘n’ roll and everything he had learned both at the Kubert School and working for Dungeons and Dragons. It was Tim who introduced Bob the watchlizard early on. Bob was just in the panel one day with some penciled notes from Tim on the side about him. I added a speech pattern and we had perhaps the most popular support character in the series.
There are other influences on the series and the characters in it – especially individuals. Mike Gold was our editor then and now and a part of the creative team and he brings his influences as well. Every artist who has worked on the series since Tim has also brought something to the table. My late wife, Kim Yale, actually co-wrote the back-up series with me about Gaunt’s early life – which we called Young Blood at the time. All part of the mix.
Nothing can be isolated in and of itself. Everything is in context of the creators and the time when the work is created. The world in which we live. What is unique in any work – GrimJack or anything else – are the individual or individuals who create the work. It is the degree to which we, as creators, are willing to invest ourselves in it that makes it feel fresh and original. If we do our jobs right, then we become one of the influences in you, the reader – a part of you just as those who went before us became a part of us. That shared experience, that which we all share in common, ultimately becomes a culture and even a civilization.
John Ostrander writes GrimJack: The Manx Cat, new installments of which appear every Tuesday here on ComicMix, and Munden’s Bar, new installments of which appear every Friday here on ComicMix. Both for free. Can’t beat that. His new Suicide Squad mini-series is out there from DC Comics, and his Star Wars: Legacy is out there from Dark Horse, both at finer comics shops across the galaxy.