Our three-part talk with Lev Grossman (part one can be read here), author of The Magicians continues today. In this installment, we discuss the evolution of comics, how The Magicians may or may not have its roots in fanfic, influences on the book, and much more.
Newsarama: Lev, it seems like a lot of your job involves reading a great deal of contemporary literature. I’m curious about how you see comics, particularly as they compare to prose literature, and how the medium of comics has evolved.
Lev Grossman: I’ll have to generalize on this, and do so somewhat irresponsibly, as I don’t take in a wide enough swath of comics to say authoritative things. I feel that for some time, there was a period where the well-known darkening of superheroes was a widening trend, trying to bring them in line with the affected power and sophistication of indy comics.
I almost feel as though with titles like All Star Superman, superhero comics are starting to get over that. They’re not trying to be indy comics any more. They’re getting back to bright, primary-colored, Golden Age-style macro-adventures, with characters running around the universe and doing really excitingly weird, cool things.
This business of muttering imprecations through gritted teeth – I’m wondering if people have gotten sick of it, and if superheroes are taking off the sack cloth and ashes and being themselves again.
Nrama: You’ve read Grant Morrison’s other stuff, such as The Invisibles and Doom Patrol?
Grossman: Oh yeah. That guy is astounding! There was stuff in his Final Crisis that just had me gobsmacked! I would just stare at these panels with Superman saying stuff like, “I’m inside a self-collapsing meta-narrative, and it’s trying to tear me apart!”
The line between narrative and meta-narrative was so…you couldn’t find it any more, because it was so over-the-top that it became a comment on itself! And it was sort of hilarious. I loved it. What kind of brain would produce that? It’s inconceivable to me.
Nrama: I love his story where he explains how he wrote himself into The Invisibles as King Mob, then realized all the depressing things happening to Mob were affecting him, so he did a magic thing, and hooked Mob up with Ragged Robin, and then he met a girl who looked just like her in real life.
Grossman: You know, that’s sort of similar to how The Magicians came about. I was going through a really down period in my life. I was not quite getting divorced when I was starting it, but I was in that pre-divorce depression period, and all I wanted to do was send myself to magic school.
I began writing it as a straight-up YA fantasy, but of course it didn’t stick, and all this dark stuff started seeping into it. But it did start off as straight-up escapism.
Nrama: There’s such a divide between Part One and Part Three of the book, which are two very different long-form narratives. Part Two is sort of the ultimate post-college malaise, that sense of being adrift and directionless after college.
Grossman: Yeah, there was a lot of that that was left on the cutting room floor. The whole scene where they go to Red Hook in Brooklyn and take Ecstasy – that went on for pages and pages! But you’re right, it’s a transitional section.
Nrama: The first part is almost a straight Harry Potter or X-Men type of story. There’s a darker undercurrent to the personal relationships, but it’s still a hero’s coming of age. Then – bam! – they’re out in the real world, and – bam! – they’re on the mystic quest, but it’s portrayed as a sort of destructive indulgence.
Grossman: Yes. The structure of the book is taken wholesale from a non-genre source, Brideshead Revisited, which I came upon relatively late in life, but has become part of the top of my personal pantheon of books.
It’s about undergraduates at Oxford, and they bond, and then go out in the world and everything goes to smash, and it has that sort of two-part structure of innocence and experience. Although it was very important to me that someone get a bl**job at Brakebills, because I feel like there must be so much fellatio and buggery at Hogwarts being airbrushed out of the picture.
Nrama: (pause) There may be some fanfics to that effect.
Grossman: (laughs) I’m only putting in formally-published form the oldest, most basic tropes of fan fiction.
Nrama: There seems to be a real fascination fans – and some creators – have with the sexual elements of SF/fantasy series – you know, like Philip Jose Farmer’s work, or that one Bill Willingham did before Fables, Ironwood.
Grossman: You know, I remember reading the National Lampoon parody of Lord of the Rings, Bored of the Rings, and opening the front cover and seeing a text excerpt where Bilbo’s getting it on with Galadriel. And it reads like a scene from the book, but you read through it, and it’s not there!
And I felt so wounded and cheated by that that as a grownup, I had to at least remedy a little of that horrible lacuna, that gaping hole in my heart where that sex scene should have been. (laughs)
Nrama: Before this conversation heads to a very wrong place, I wanted to ask about other influences on the book, or possible influences.
One of the Fillory books mentioned in The Magicians has the characters going back and witnessing their younger selves in a previous adventure. I was wondering if that was influenced by an author named Edward Eager, who did that in a few of his books.
Grossman: A number of people have asked me about Edward Eager, and I’m embarrassed to admit I never have. Now, that’s a cue for you to say, “Oh my God, I can’t believe you’ve never read Edward Eager…”
Nrama: I’d be surprised if you had! There are only a few people I’ve encountered who’ve heard of him.
Grossman: If the time-travel came from anywhere, it was from a Deep Space Nine episode where—
Nrama: “More Tribbles, More Troubles?”
Grossman: Yes! They go and get edited into “The Trouble with Tribbles!” It’s brilliant and really well done.
Nrama: I’m just distressed I remembered that off the top of my head.
The Eager stuff was that you had these kids who had magic adventures, and the children in one series were actually the children of the characters from another series, and there were two books where the characters encountered each other on an adventure where the second group was time-traveling. So it was one adventure, seen differently from two perspectives.
Grossman: That’s a great invention! But I hadn’t read Edward Eager.
Nrama: And was the fifth book in Fillory influenced by Tove Jansson’s Moominvalley in November? Because they’re both about the characters just being contemplative and the major characters being lost or off-camera…
Grossman: You know what? I did read those books. But I was very, very young. I’m curious about that one now. I was sort of thinking of those YA series where if they go on for five or 10 books the author has already read one or two doctoral dissertations on his or her own work, and is starting to take him or herself way too seriously, and everyone starts philosophizing and stops having fun.
Nrama: You remember the end of Lloyd Alexander’s Prydain Chronicles?
Grossman: Right! I was a fan of those books, though I never reread them. I kind of want to reread them now. I did develop a deep affection for the final Narnia book, The Last Battle, which I remember repelled me at the time, because it was so profoundly depressing.
Nrama: That seems to have messed with a lot of people’s heads. Hell, Philip Pullman got three books out of being disgusted with it.
Grossman: Yeah, but it has a weird kind of integrity that’s all its own. I think he’s trying to deal realistically with the tectonic instabilities in Narnia, and then it all falls apart in the end.
Nrama: I always felt bad for Susan…
Grossman: Yeah, she doesn’t get to live in Narnia forever, but she also doesn’t die in a train accident, because she’s discovered the joys of wearing stockings, which Lucy will never know.
Nrama: A lot of girls I know were sort of insulted by that, the idea that Susan is somehow corrupted because she’s hit puberty. And of course, Pullman flips that in his books.
Grossman: Yeah, which had a big influence on me. I met him and talked about it a little bit – the things I’ve done by leveraging my connection to Time will be on my soul until my death, and one of those was forcing Philip Pullman to hang out with me.
There’s a reason the first half of The Magicians has, obviously, a straight-up rewriting of the first chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and why, as it goes on, there’s so much sex and death. Pullman feels a child’s inauguration into sex and death is the giving up of one kind of power, but the inauguration into a different kind of power – it’s not the end of magic. That’s Pullman’s point, and in a way, it’s mine as well.
Nrama: Well, we were talking about Grant Morrison earlier, and he did another pitch for a Superman story with some other writers years ago that featured, at one point, a contrived way of undoing the marriage of Superman and Lois Lane.
Then they did a similar thing with Spider-Man recently, undoing his marriage. The explanation they gave was having the character married made him seem old, and there was no drama surrounding it.
If you look at 90 percent of the drama in SF or fantasy or comics, there’s a lot of external drama keeping characters apart, but there’s very few cases of an adult, functional relationship – the idea of combining adulthood with fantasy proves extremely difficult in any medium.
Grossman: That’s very true. For a while, I felt like the Vision and the Scarlet Witch had a very grown-up, stable relationship.
Nrama: And that’s an android and a mutant sorceress…thing.
Grossman: Right! Well, they made it work. For a while.
Nrama: To be fair, they only broke up because he…got dismantled and his hard drive was erased, which caused her to go insane and realize their children were magical constructs, and then he got his memories back but felt like he’d put her through too much, and then she went crazy again and he got torn apart by She-Hulk, but now he’s rebuilt, only he has the mind of a teenage Kang the Conqueror.
Grossman: (pause) Wow.
Nrama: Yeah, I managed to scare myself with that.
Grossman: I recommend counseling. A lot of couples go through those issues, and I’ve found qualified therapists can really work wonders.
Nrama: I think I need counseling after remembering all that…
There’s also a black elf that shows up in the book – is that Drizzt Do'Urden from Forgotten Realms?
Grossman: Well, that guy’s obviously a Drow from Dungeons & Dragons. There were three dark elf modules, and they were really hard, and I don’t think anyone played them much, but they were a big influence on me. I never got much into R.A. Salvatore, he might have been after my time. The whole thing got a bit Byzantine after a while…
Nrama: That actually transitions well into another question I had, which is: Do you think that some series just go on for too long? For example, some Vertigo series and TV shows have set endings in place, while many of the most iconic superheroes just go on and on, like a daytime soap opera.
Grossman: Yeah, the open-endedness of comic books is really enervating; as it becomes clearer and clearer that no substantive change can ever happen, the narratives just get more and more limp. I feel like a fantasy writes lose a lot of discipline; Robert Jordan certainly did after a while.
Nrama: He might have been planning to tighten it up. We’ll never know, will we?
Grossman: Nope. (laughs)
Nrama: I’m looking forward to the HBO adaptation of George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but boy, people have done everything but say, “We’ll hire you a personal physician, just finish the damn series!”
Grossman: I feel really bad for him! He has a slow pace on those books, but I have every confidence he’s going to bring it in for a landing. He’s a pro, and he’s been at this for so many years.
Nrama: Excited about the show, though. Casting’s great – Peter Dinklage as Tyrion Lannister….
Grossman: I have a feeling that pairing was ordained from the beginning of the universe.
Nrama: Exactly. But Martin is an example of something that ties into your work. You recently did an essay in The Wall Street Journal about tightly-plotted material has become more popular and relevant.
As the line between pulp and literary material has become more blurred, you see more people accepting the literary subtext of genre fiction, sort of like the New Wave of science fiction in the 1960s. People will go through an episode of Lost to pick out the literary references, or a “literary” writer like John Banville will do a mystery thriller.
This is a long-winded way of asking you how you feel comics could be affected by this trend.
Grossman: Well, as I said before, there was a moment when superhero comics in particular – to make a grotesquely irresponsible over-generalization – had a sort of panic moment. They saw all this literary stuff was going on, and all this stuff was dark and introspective, and their reaction was, “We’ve gotta get on that train! Order up some internal conflict!”
I feel like this idea -- which narrative stasis is equated with literary sophistication, and the opposite dynamic is incompatible with literary merit – is one of the great myths perpetrated by the modernists, and it’s just fading away.
All media has realized it has license to just move things forward, and blow things up, and not feel like they’re giving away their integrity at the same time.
In the Conclusion: Grossman on the aging demographics of comic fans, surviving Comic-Con, and what might happen in a sequel to The Magicians.
The Magicians is in bookstores now.
Zack Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a regular contributor to Newsarama