Professor Teague Bohlen recently visited ASU in partnership with Superstition Review and Project Humanities to discuss the evolution of the superhero in narrative. Along with providing a closer look at spandex tights and masks, Teague presented the history of comics as it relates to the rise, fall and comeback of the narrative. It was fascinating to learn how such seemingly small stories have affected the development of narrative structure over the last several decades.
Teague began his talk by explaining that comic superheroes were not always the same virtuous characters they are today. In fact, he pointed out several instances where the early Superman and Batman figures instigated violence and actually killed people out of rage. Hollywood’s version of Clark Kent would never commit such an offense, so how did this change in character come about?
At first, comics served a wide audience of children and adults with edgy story lines. In fact, comics were so popular in their early years that they became a strong force of advertising and propaganda during WWII. Who can resist the pressure when even “Captain Marvel joins the Navy”? However, after the war, comics returned to stories involving monsters, crime and homeland violence.
In the 1950’s there was a shift in the content of comics with the adoption of the CCA—Comic Code Authority. While some people viewed the reduced violence and “criminal content” in comics as a benefit to society, Teague discussed the devastating effect these restrictions had on the narrative plots within comic books. As he put it, “Imagine if everything on television had to be appropriate for a 5 year-old.” Suddenly comic storylines became surface-level and simplistic, and a few publishers replaced the dialogue almost entirely with comic art. Fortunately, over the last decade comics have made an impressive comeback as publishers have bypassed the CCA and returned to a more creative approach to storytelling.
Overall Teague’s talk left us with countless nerdy facts and a much greater appreciation for the role comics have played in the history of storytelling. I can speak for everyone present when I say it was a delight—and the superhero cookies weren’t half bad either. Thank you for a wonderful presentation, Teague. We do hope you come again.
I haven’t been editing fiction for a long time, but even in the time I’ve been a fiction editor here at Superstition Review, some things have come to my attention about the role an author’s decisions play in an editor’s decision process. It’s so simple to say that good writing gets published and that bad writing gets rejected. However, with an acceptance rate of about 4% for fiction (probably higher than the standard acceptance rate) the fact is that a lot of good writing goes back to its author with a rejection notice. While there are a lot of factors that go into the editorial process and some of them are beyond the author’s control, there are some relatively simple things an author can do to increase the odds of getting published. As with everything, these are rules that can sometimes be broken, there only has to be a deliberate point in doing so.
This is a quick one. If there are easy-to-catch editing mistakes (especially doubled-up
words and misspellings) it becomes incredibly easy to send that rejection notice. Make sure that it is clear to your readers just how important your own work is to you.
Nail that Opener
Throughout my time as a writer, I have often been told the importance of the opening line, and of that line’s innate ability to make or break a story. While the first line is not always the most important, there is a great degree of influence in those first couple of paragraphs. Let’s say the first page is not only pivotal in setting up the mood and direction of a short story but it is also the space where the author needs to prove that they are good at what they do. The opening is where the most polished writing needs to be. It may sound harsh, but if you have more than one or two problems in the opening then I am automatically going to assume that those problems prevail throughout the story.
The point of view from which a narrative is told is as important to a story as the writing itself. Most writers seem to understand that the role of first person is to provide the audience with a specific character’s insight and perspective on the world. During this particular submissions period, we received a lot of stories written in second person. We accepted one, but would have to think twice about accepting several. What really seems to be the problem is that writers are forgetting that the second person perspective requires two subjects. The first is the narrator and the second is the person they are addressing. It is when this second character is forgotten or poorly developed that this point of view falls apart.
Dialogue is much more like an iceberg than anything else; there is more going on beneath the surface than above. Also, much like an iceberg, not paying the appropriate amount of attention to it is going to sink you just as surely. I have two suggestions here on ways to improve dialogue. One sounds fairly straightforward, the other much less so. The first is sitting down and reading a couple of plays. Playwrights like McDonagh, Kushner, and Pinter are great examples of playwrights who know the importance of dialogue as well as the importance of what is left unsaid.
My other suggestion is to pick up and read some comics. Now bear with me a second, because I do have a reason for suggesting this. The thing about comics is that their dialogue makes up a majority of the written words on any given page. As such, the dialogue has nothing to hide behind. A bad line is separated from everything else and framed by a black line for all to see. There is no escaping it. Creative writers should do the same thing with their dialogue. Imagine it alone on a page and see if it stands up to that sort of individualized scrutiny.
One more note: dialogue tags (he said, she said) are the absolute worst, even more so when only two characters are present in a scene. Having characters constantly use pronouns in their dialogue is not any better.
It’s one of the first lessons we learn as writers: avoid clichés. Luckily, most writers seem well aware of this fact. However, there are still what I call microcosms of clichés. This is when a specific subject starts to make up an alarmingly large portion of the submissions received by a magazine. This is a difficult thing to avoid and not entirely the fault of the author, but it does have a lot to do with whether or not a piece will be published. As an example, during this submission period Superstition Review received a lot of fiction pieces featuring cancer. Think of this as increasing your competition. Now, not only do you have to be one of the best writers submitting but you also have to have one of the best pieces featuring cancer.
Again, this is not really something the author has complete control over but there are some things one can do to try and avoid it. My first suggestion would be to watch being overly topical in the sense of broad problems that affect everyone. If it’s a subject on every news program and part of the collective mind then it is probably safe to say that it is going to find its way into a lot of creative writing. One way to overcome this is to talk about these subjects in a different way or to come at them from a different angle. Cancer is not the interesting subject, the way in which people deal with it is. In this case, the story need not be about cancer but can be any disease that compromises its host in the same way. Another suggestion is to watch the literary magazines that you are submitting to, if they are already carrying pieces dealing with a specific topic then try shopping a piece with the same topic someplace else.
It is hard to sit down and read something that is all action with no thought given to imagery or voice. Imagery, and the way an author describes the world in which their story exists, is a large part of what makes creative writing so unique and a large part of why people read it. Without it the writing is going to feel stale and lifeless.
There is the opposite of this as well. Though it is less common, the overuse of imagery/voice will kill a story just as quickly as having none at all. These stories are often jumbled and confusing, leaving the reader little frame of reference in which to find their way through a story.
Word choice is another part of this balance equation. It is very easy to miss the repetitious use of a couple of words, but nothing makes me question a writer’s ability quite so quickly. While it is sometimes necessary to repeat a few words, I cannot really think of a justification for doing it more than twice in a paragraph. Really watch out for those pet words.
Again, there is the other side of this as well and that is the thesaurus approach. This is when a writer clearly uses a thesaurus to generate unique words in their story. The words often come off as awkward and create a disjointed sentence. There is nothing wrong in using it occasionally when the right word is escaping you but, ironically, overuse is just going to drain a piece of its feeling of originality.
When I was given the opportunity to interview Teague Bohlen about his upcoming talk at ASU I was thrilled—his flash fiction/photography pieces were some of my favorites from Issue 10. His stories are compact and powerful.
In just a few weeks Teague is scheduled to talk at ASU about a topic of personal expertise—Superheroes. If you enjoy this interview, don’t miss the opportunity to hear Teague speak at the Polytechnic Campus on February 13 from 2 p.m. to 3 p.m.
Brooke Passey: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions, we are all so excited to hear you speak at ASU in February.
Teague Bohlen: Thank you for having me, both for this interview, and at ASU in February. It’s always good to come back to Tempe, and February is quite possibly the best time of the year to do it. Especially from Colorado.
BP: The title of your talk is “Superheroes in Narrative: Comics Come of Age in Print and Film.” That is intriguing to say the least! Can you tell us a little about where you plan to focus the discussion? Will you talk about the craft of writing with superheroes, the history behind it, the transition to film…? Give us a teaser.
TB: The idea behind the talk is how the archetype of the hero—specifically, in this case, the superhero—has changed over the many years since its modern inception. I’m going to start with a bit of the history of the superhero itself, how it’s changed, and how those changes have been reflected not only in the comics from which those heroes come, but also in traditional literary narrative. It’s an interesting parallel, I think; there’s been a specific maturation of both media over the last few decades–for sure, more for the previously kid-focused comic book medium, but there are certainly parallels. Now that the geeks have inherited the pop-culture earth, so to speak, this is becoming even more apparent, from a book like Chabon’s Kavalier and Clay to a deconstructive film like Whedon’s The Cabin in the Woods.
BP: On your website you mention reading Peanuts comic strips in high school. When did Superhero comics become important to you?
TB: I’ve been reading comic books since I was a young kid. Some of my earliest reading memories were of comic books. My uncle once brought me a huge box of comics when my grandfather passed away—I was five. My grandfather was gone, and my uncle—in some wonderful gesture of love and sorrow and sympathy—brought me a box of comics. There were Archie and Batman and Scrooge McDuck and Spider-Man, the last of whom I already knew from the PBS show The Electric Company, and from his Spidey Super Stories books. A couple of years later, I remember getting hold of the issue of Amazing Spider-Man in which Gwen Stacy—Spidey’s girlfriend—is killed. I remember that blew my mind. They killed someone; someone important. She wasn’t coming back. It was just like real life. I remember it was like a world opened to me—these weren’t just stories where everything worked out (which was true for books like Superman, etc., where the status quo and the cast rarely changed).
BP: This might be slightly off topic but I have to ask you about your upcoming collection of flash fiction/photography. Three of your flash fiction/photography pieces were featured in our last issue (all of which I adored, especially All His Shirts) but what inspired you to combine these two artistic mediums?
TB: I’m glad you enjoyed those. I’ve really come to love flash fiction. I edited for a great journal for a few years—Quick Fiction, now sadly defunct—that really made me appreciate the form. I’d been working in the medium for a while, and a lot of my flash work seemed to be centered around the Illinois Midwest, as was my first novel. It’s where I grew up, and where my heart still very much lies. The idea of adding photography came about when my cousin, Britten Traughber, chose to focus her own artistic bent on the same region. So much of her amazing work is set there, and it seemed like a natural pairing-up. We both wanted to allow the fiction to stand alone, and the photos to stand alone—and to be able to appreciate a new third thing, this alchemy of the two together, when they appear next to each other on the page.
BP: On a similar note, after reading your very serious and compelling stories I was surprised to find out that you were such an expert on comics. How do these two very different styles work together in your life?
TB: For a long time, I wasn’t sure they did! But then I moved from being a TV critic to being more of a pop-culture critic, and then a pop-culture humorist of sorts, and all that’s come together in interesting ways. I have a comic-book novel floating around in my head, which I want to get to at some point–that’s a book about people who like comics, who live in that world and speak that cultural language. People always try to pigeonhole your work into one thing–oh, he’s serious, or oh, he’s funny–but the truth is that most of our best writers are both, and more. Sometimes I spread myself too thin, but I think the range is good. It works for me, anyway.
BP: I read your pieces on Terrian.org and noticed that those photographs were also taken by Britten Traughber, who you just mentioned is your cousin. Did she take all the pictures for your upcoming collection?
TB: She did; the book is very much a collaboration between her and me, and the coming together of our work in rural Illinois. I come from a close family, so I feel like she’s more my sister, really. I’ve always admired her work, and since we share a Midwestern focus in some of each of our work, it seemed like a natural partnership.
BP: And last, but not in the least bit serious, let me end with a question about sugary snacks. I came across an article you wrote in 2009 titled, “The 10 Dumbest Comic Book Hostess Ads.” You made some very pertinent points, but what insights would you add to that article if you had written it after Hostess took their tumble?
TB: Ha! What a good question. You know, just to go back a bit, I love that series of silly lists I did for Village Voice back in the day. I miss doing them. They were crazy fun to research and write up. I’d like to do it again sometime. As for how that particular piece would have changed today, given the apparent demise of Hostess and all its wonderful products…well, honestly, the whole disappearance of Ho-Hos and Fruit Pies has me too depressed to even think about it. Though maybe I should write up something about where Hostess mascots Twinkie the Kid and Fruit Pie the Magician ended up–I’m thinking a lounge act on some ’70s-throwback cruise line.
BP: Thank you so much for your time. It has been a pleasure and we look forward to hearing from you again very soon.
TB: Thank you for the questions, Brooke! Looking forward to coming to ASU and talking comics. We’ll nerd-out, academic-style.