John Ostrander: Origins
As I mentioned in a previous column, I’ve been on a Rex Stout/Nero Wolfe reading/re-reading jag as of late and have been enjoying it greatly. As other commentators have noted, the pleasure in the Nero Wolfe novels is not so much the plots, which have been noted as serviceable, but in the characters, especially the rotund and eccentric genius, Nero Wolfe, and his wise cracking legman and assistant, Archie Goodwin.
(Sidenote: when I first met the late and great comic book writer/editor, Also Archie Goodwin, I meant to ask him about Wolfe but decidedly, I think prudently, that he had probably gotten enough of that in his life. End digression.)
Stout had written 33 novels and 39 short stories on the pair between 1934 and his death in 1975. After his death, his estate authorized further Wolfe and Goodwin adventures by Robert Goldsborough who has written ten books, one of which was Archie Meets Nero Wolfe, a prequel to the Nero Wolfe stories telling the tale of how the two first met.
That’s a story Rex Stout had never told and I’m enough of a fan to have wondered in the past about it so, of course, I ordered the book.
Pastiches can be hit and miss; the author is trying not only for the style of the original author but for the voice of the characters. There’s been a lot of different pastiches over the years for different literary creations; Sherlock Holmes has them, there are Conan the Barbarian pastiches, and more recently Robert B. Parker’s characters have come back to life with various writers of different abilities.
I read Archie Meets Nero Wolfe and it wasn’t bad. It wasn’t Stout but it wasn’t bad. It hit all the clues about the characters’ backgrounds that Stout had sprinkled through the Wolfe canon. Goldsborough has caught Wolfe’s “voice” pretty well although I felt his Archie was a bit spotty. However, my biggest reaction after reading the book was “Why?”
Rex Stout never gave a full “origin” of the Wolfe/Goodwin partnership. Do we really need one? Yes, I bought the book because I was curious but I didn’t learn anything new about the characters. It got me to thinking: do we always need an origin?
When I started writing my GrimJack series, we joined John (GrimJack) Gaunt in the middle of his doing something. Sometime later, we did an “origin” which the late columnist and critic Don Thompson said was his second favorite origin story of all time, next to Superman’s. In it, Gordon, the bartender of Munden’s Bar which Gaunt owns and is his hang-out, offers to share Gaunt’s “secret origin” with a patron. It goes like this: Papa Gaunt. Mama Gaunt. A bottle of hootch. Wucka wucka wucka. Nine months later – Baby Gaunt.
The point of it was that Gaunt was born and everything that had happened to him since then is what makes him into GrimJack. I differentiate between “origins” and “backstory”.
An origin is the starting point from which everything else flows. Backstory fills in and explains different aspects of a given character. Sometimes there may not be any single starting point.
I wrote some stories with Del Close, the legend who directed and taught at Chicago’s Second City for many many years and then went to form the ImprovOlympics (now simply called “I/O”). I took some of his improv classes at Second City myself; they were extremely valuable to me as a writer and very liberating. One of Del’s rule was to start in the middle of the story and go on past the end. He used to say, “I get bored with all that exposition shit. Get on with it.” If it was a fairy tale, he wanted to know what happened beyond the “happily ever after”. For him, that was what was really interesting in the story.
One of the big questions Del made me ask myself was “Just how necessary – really necessary – was all that exposition?” What was the minimum that reader had to know in order to follow the story? The answer usually is: a lot less than you think. A writer may want to be clear about everything so s/he may overexplain.
I remember one of the first Spider-Man stories I ever read began with Spidey in the middle of a pitched battle on a New York street with the Rhino. I didn’t know anything about either character but the writer, Stan Lee, assured us in a narrative caption: “Don’t worry, effendi. We’ll catch you up as we go.” And damned if he didn’t. That also taught me a lot.
One of the rules that has been devised for comics is that Every Comic Is Someone’s First Issue. Therefore, it was obligatory to be absolutely clear about it all. Someone’s rule was that within the first five pages, the main character’s name had to be said, the powers demonstrated, and what’s at stake made clear. That’s important for the writer to know, certainly, but how much does the reader need to know? Usually, less than you think.
With GrimJack, Timothy Truman (the book’s first artist and designated co-creator) and I knew a lot about John Gaunt’s backstory but we decided to only tell it when it was pertinent to a given story. The reader sensed that there was more story than we were telling and that created some mystery about him but, at the same time, there was trust that we knew what we were doing.
The writer also has to trust the reader and to assume they are intelligent enough to fill in some blanks. It doesn’t all need to be spelled out. You can imply a lot and trust the reader to get it. That trust creates a bond between creator and reader and that’s when magic happens.
For me, that was the main problem with Archie Meets Nero Wolfe. It gave me the incidents of how the two met, the what, but not the why. How did that relationship start? Was there a chemistry from the start? The book was very prosaic but it needed a touch of poetry; there needed to be something between the lines. There needed to be a touch of mystery because in all the Rex Stout stories about the pair, that was there. The biggest mystery in every Nero Wolfe story, the one that is never solved but always there, is the relationship between Wolfe and Archie. That’s what keeps me coming back. Over and over.