Matthew Cody’s first novel, Powerless has a unique take on superhero stories for all ages. In the town of Noble’s Green, all children have superpowers…until the age of 13, when they lose them and all memory of what they could once do. But Daniel Corrigan, the new kid in town, soon discovers their secret, and finds the classic stories of the hero Johnny Noble might finally explain what’s happened. Cody talked to us about his tale, comics for kids, and more.
Newsarama: Matthew, tell us about the initial inspiration for Powerless.
Matthew Cody: Well, Powerless came about just a few years ago as a way to write the kind of children’s story that I remembered from when I was a kid, and to draw from the influences that stayed with me my entire childhood.
I’m still a huge comic book fan, I’m still a giant nerd, but all that stuff really began with me when I was a kid. That’s the stuff I enjoy – the superhero medium, but also the old-fashioned kid’s mysteries like Encyclopedia Brown. You know, the kind of thing I enjoyed when I was a kid.
That’s the first thing. The second thing was I wanted to write a story that was good for kids, but had a bit of heft to it, some adult drama among the superhero elements. My family was going through an illness, and I was watching the way my nephews were orbiting this – how they tried to understand it, but didn’t quite understand it themselves.
That’s why I put that stuff in the book – so kids could have some escape from it with the superhero action, but also not feel alone in it. A lot of the purpose of fiction, I think, is to make people think they can identify. So that was the second subplot of the book.
Overall, like I said, I wanted to do something fun, but also have some adult weight in there.
Nrama: You have a powerful metaphor for adolescence with the kids losing their superpowers when they turn 13. How do you view getting older – is it something where you have to hold on to your sense of wonder, or does that just fade away?
Cody: In a way – I’m lucky, in a sense, because I never let go of that. But there was a time when I was going through puberty and discovering girls, and I put away things I thought were childish like comic books. You know, “it’s time to grow up.”
I’m in my thirties now, and I notice a lot of guys in my age group have sort of gone through the same thing – we keep coming back to those things we gave up in our teenage years, and we try to make them cool again. I think that’s because there’s a nostalgia for all of that.
Nrama: This is your first novel – you did some teaching before this?
Cody: Yeah, I did some teaching, and I was involved in the theater before I was writing full time. In my undgrad, I studied acting and playwriting, and studied Shakespeare in grad school, and was involved in regional theater here in New York.
But I was always writing – short stories, that sort of thing. I actually wrote some comic scripts, and part of why Powerless came about, in a very inadvertent way, was that a few years ago I took a class in comic book scriptwriting at NYU to see if I could break in.
Nrama: Was this the course Denny O’Neil was teaching?
Cody: It was, but Dan Fingeroth was teaching at the time I took it. It was a great course, and I did get to meet Denny O’Neil and Mike Mignola, and a whole A-list of comic book stars who came in and did master class sessions with us.
One of the people who came in was an editor at the Big Two – not saying who – and one of the questions was, “How do you break in?” And he gave us a great piece of advice – he looked right at us and said, “You want to break in to comic books? Get published somewhere else first.”
I kind of took that to heart (laughs). At the time, I was writing other works, but I took a lot of ideas from my comic book scripts, and put them into Powerless. I have yet to be published by a comic book company – but I have a book out there on the shelves, darn it!
Nrama: Well, the book has been getting a lot of promotion…
Cody: Yeah, and that’s been great. This wasn’t one of those big deals like you read about in Publishers Weekly – this was a first-time novel, and we worked very hard on it, me and my editor Joan and Random House and Knopf. And one by one, people who started reading it liked it. More and more people in Random House started reading it and liking it, and the buzz got passed around to booksellers.
People got behind the book because they liked it – I have no name, “Matthew Cody” is not going to sell any books. But they’ve given it an extra push from out the door because they believe in the book. It’s been a wonderful story that way.
Nrama: Do you see yourself doing more stories with the characters, or is this a one-off book?
Cody: It’s certainly possible that there could be sequels. As a comic book fan, I’m a fan of serialized fiction, and the novels I tend to gravitate toward are often serialized as well.
I wrote Powerless with the idea that the book could stand alone and have a self-contained ending because I never knew what the future would be for it. But at the same time, I know what the next part of the chapter would be. So we could look at the next year, and see what happens next to the characters. It’s a possibility.
Nrama: 1940s pulp fiction plays a major role in the book. What was the influence of pulp fiction on your writing, and what are some of your favorite stories?
Cody: I read all across the board, and I read some modern stuff too, but my favorite stuff on the bookshelf tends to start in the 1940s and go backwards. I love the pulp aesthetic and that whole time – not just the comics, but what was going on in novels at that time.
Doc Savage, the Shadow, lesser-known characters such as the Spider…even though they were just churning them out, there was some great stuff. And I love stuff like H.G. Wells, and books from the turn of the century, Powerless really draws from the 1940s and all this stuff that came out decades before I was even born. But boy, do I wish I was alive at that time! (laughs)
I love going to museum exhibits where they have old pulp covers, and just wondering, “What’s the story behind that cover?” There’s such an audacity to that stuff – it makes you want to see how they’re going to figure that out and make it work in a story.
In Powerless, the children have inherited this stack of stories about Johnny Noble, and they help in solving the mystery, and I can just clearly see those covers in my mind.
The stuff I really tended to enjoy from that time isn’t just the street-level stuff. I love Doc Savage – I got that from my brother growing up. The idea of Doc Savage being the product of this regime and having his network of shady contacts – the stories that appealed to me where the ones where Doc was just traveling the globe and finding crazy things.Nrama: And that inspired a lot of the Superman mythology –
Cody: Absolutely. It’s a small leap from Doc Savage to Superman. The perfect man became the perfect superhero – just put a cape on him. There’s some homage to it in Powerless, but I wanted to use it as a history, as an artifact the kids come across, but it’s not in the immediate plot because very few 9-to-12-year-olds know who Doc Savage is.
Nrama: Well, DC is bringing him back, and Shane Black is writing a film script, which should be…interesting, to say the least.
Cody: Yeah, exactly! There’s certainly a resurgence. I’m very curious about what DC does – I can’t want to see. At the same time, when they start making film adaptations of this stuff, I’m a little weary, because I don’t want Doc Savage for the year 2010 – I want him the way he was. I’m a little protective. (laughs)
Nrama: It’s interesting how much crossover there is between media – pulp characters appear as comic book characters, and comic books, both stories and the storytelling styles, are becoming more common in film, and then you have writers from film and TV who do comics, and there are more and more novels where comics play a role…there’s certainly a lot to learn from combining those mediums.
Cody: I agree. And I think it’s healthy – it’s healthy for every medium. There’s certainly those writers out there who will find their medium and stick to it and master it, but there are those writers who jump from medium to medium – comics, prose, screenplays, video games – and they carry the best of each medium with them.
With Powerless, I wound up pacing the chapters the way I’d pace a comic book issue – the cliffhanger ending, overt action, that kind of thing. I wanted to bring some of that sense of pacing to the prose form, and explore it within the world of the characters, which in prose is in some ways more difficult than comic books, but I hope it was satisfying to the reader.
Nrama: What’s next for you?
Cody: I turned in a new novel to Knopf, which should be out later this year or in 2011, and the new novel is tentatively entitled The Last Explorer, though that could change. That is more of a homage to turn-of-the-century adventure fiction, like Jules Verne.
It’s kind of a loose steampunk – there’s some airships in this novel, but the real spark was about wanting to go back and deal with some of that classic fiction like 20,000 Leagues or The Lost World, but with a modern spark.
Nrama: You got an endorsement from Jeff Smith for this book – that had to be a thrill.
Cody: Oh, absolutely! Jeff is one of the best storytellers in comics, in my opinion, hands down. And I say “storyteller” because he does everything – story, art, inking. The fact that he liked the book is just thrilling. And we got some great feedback from Jonathan Stroud, one of my favorite children’s authors, which was thrilling as well. The fact that they even had time to read my book, let along like it – that’s amazing.
Nrama: Children’s books have been a big part of the publishing industry, even as it’s had some trouble – why do you feel that is?
Cody: There’s a lot of theories on that – people will come in and try to burst the bubble, say kids are reading only certain series and nothing else. But I disagree. If you become a reader at an early age, you stay a reader, and you’ll read all sorts of things.
Why is it successful? I think it’s because it’s fun literature, and kids are the perfect consumer for this in a lot of ways. In the 9-to-12 age range in particular, they’re not afraid to like what they like. They’ll grab a friend and say, “you should read this too!”
The young adult audience is perhaps wandering into the kids’ section and finding stories that they’re perhaps not finding in the adult section – and for adults, there’s stuff they can share with their kids. With Powerless, my hope is that if an adult reads it to a kid, they’ll be entertained as well. I want it to be a true “all-ages” book that doesn’t condescend to kids, but has things adults can enjoy as well.
Nrama: There really seems to be an effort now to do stuff that’s all-ages that has some sadness, or ambiguity, or real intelligence behind it.
Cody: Absolutely. Pixar is a great example. For a long time, children’s fiction was considered a ghetto where people weren’t discriminating because people thought, “Who’s reading this?” Look at how many adults saw Up! Look at the intelligence and emotion and adventure in that story. There’s material that’s both appropriate and exciting for all ages.
Nrama: Do you currently read and enjoy any comics?
Cody: Oh yeah, avid comic reader here. I read all across the board – my favorite titles tend to be my old childhood favorites like Superman or Flash. I’m very excited Geoff Johns is back on the Flash!
I was an avid Marvel reader until age 11 or 12 – I was a big Marvel guy up until then, but the guy who got me hooked on DC Comics was the Flash. That was the first DC character I picked up.
There’s just something about that world, and what they did with the Flash – not just a man who runs fast, but the time travel and “Flash Facts” and the Rogues – they were some of the most creative stories ever done! In Marvel land, all you had was Quicksilver, and I’m sorry, Marvel, but Quicksilver just doesn’t stack up. (laughs)
I read a lot of Marvel, and a lot of independent books – love Mike Mignola, love Jeff Smith, obviously – but my man is the Flash. I think it’s got to be one of the hardest superhero books to write, because you’ve got to get creative with the use of his powers. Just a great way to tell stories, and a great framework to be creative.
Nrama: Any comics for all-ages you’d recommend?
Cody: If I could take one pot-shot at the comic book industry – which I’m loathe to do – it’s that I wish they would take a look at what’s going on in the rest of the world with Pixar and the young adult novels and see that they can make all-ages books that are going to appeal to a wide demographic.
I feel like in comics right now, they’re divided into adult comic books, which is pretty much all mainstream stuff – written for guys my age, in their 30s – and then the stuff for young kids. It doesn’t have to be that way.
They don’t have to stop writing comics for adults or comics for kids, but I think it’s possible to write comics that can be handed to the dad and handed to the son, and they’ll both enjoy them equally.
But some of the stuff that’s going on in the mainstream books today isn’t what I’d hand to a 10-year-old, with the years of continuity on top of the sometimes-mature subject matter. I’d love to see more all-ages books, especially from the Big Two, because I think they can do it.
As an older reader, I think there’s something cool about those childhood stories growing up with you and getting darker, but at the same time, I think there could be a parallel effort being made to reach those younger audiences and hook them now.
Kids are sort of the Holy Grail of the comic book industry – “how do we get them?” But I think the books that are going to get them don’t have to be watered-down versions of the mainstream characters. You can have stories that are all-ages that are just as compelling for the adults, and I think kids like that thrill that they’re reading something their parents read as well.
I think there’s room for both, but there are certainly a lot of problems with distribution and other things I’m not an authority to speak about.
Nrama: Anything else you’d like to talk about that we haven’t discussed yet?
Cody: I’m thrilled that the book is getting out there and that kids like it. I hope boys pick it up, because there’s the stereotype of “Girls are readers, boys are not,” and I don’t think that’s true. I think there’s a lot of stuff that boys will like, and girls will like, and that parents can sit down and read with their kids. That was my goal, and hopefully I’ve come close to achieving it. I hope the readers let me know!
And that editor’s words are still in the back of my mind…some authors are out there chasing Hollywood money, but I’ve got other goals in my sights. (laughs) I hope that I’ll get a chance to do some comic books some day. Until then, I’ll keep cranking out books, and loving it.
Powerless is in stores now.
Zack Smith (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a regular contributor to Newsarama