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Paradoxically Speaking: An interview with Lawrence Miles
Although by no means a comics novice, you could be forgiven for thinking that novelist Lawrence Miles was a newcomer to the field, given that FACTION PARADOX was a property unfamiliar to most when the Image Comics series was announced in 2003.
Those in the know, however, eagerly awaited the Faction's sequential debut; as a literary entity, the Faction has been extant since 1997, when they first appeared in the DOCTOR WHO novel ALIEN BODIES (despite Miles' admittance that ALIEN BODIES is "a book so out-of-synch with the current Faction material that even I can't explain it"). Since then, the FACTION PARADOX universe has gone on to encompass audio plays, the new comic series, and a range of novels.
But what exactly is FACTION PARADOX?
"Right, it's like this...The Faction's universe is on the surface an SF universe, but it works on the same principles as traditional folklore. It's all very feudal. There are, or were, 'people' who ran history - 'history' being a way for us to deal with the world around us... and these 'people' are generally nameless and faceless, but with the attitude of an aristocratic upper class. Ruling Houses, in effect.
"At some point these Houses engaged in a war with an equally inscrutable enemy, and the war intersected - still intersects - human history like a biblical war in Heaven, impacting on humanity but without direct human involvement. Usually. So that makes Faction Paradox a Prometheus among the Titans, it's a splinter-group halfway between the elite and humanity, which believes in (a) introducing its principles to the "collaterals" caught in the crossfire... that's us, essentially... and (b) interfering in the plans of the Houses whenever possible."
Miles goes on to explain: "You know how in James Bond movies, the West and East are constantly at each others' throats and SPECTRE is always trying to stir up trouble in the middle? That's the ethic behind Faction Paradox, more or less. The universe is divided between two ridiculously large power-blocs, and the Faction doesn't want anything to do with either of them. It organises itself as if it were a cult-come-criminal-operation-come-terrorist-movement, and throughout the range there's some ambiguity as to whether the agents of Faction Paradox are technically the heroes, the anti-heroes, the sympathetic villains or just murdering sods with scary masks.
"Because this isn't really a universe which revolves around good and evil, this is a political universe, and sometimes the Faction's the dynamic force that breaks the two-power deadlock but sometimes it's happy to massacre its victims by the thousand."
Miles started in comics in the early 90s, with a 'Time Twisters' short in 2000AD. In spite of such an inauspicious debut, Miles was, if not in the right place at the right time, then in an interesting place at an interesting time, with regards to the comics and graphic novel boom of the late 80s and early 90s.
"In 1988 I was in Tangiers - my parents had just split up - and I was left to run around parts of North Africa with more money than I'd ever had before, and certainly more money than I've ever had since. You should never give money to a sixteen-year-old, especially not a sixteen-year-old boy; he'll just spend it on women and drugs.
"I was also under the teenage illusion that I was the new William S Burroughs. I'd read the literature - I hadn't necessarily understood it, because I was stupidly hormonal - and I thought that by hanging out in Tangier pot houses/brothels I was getting my horizons expanded. Which was true, up to a point.
"But the good part was, the places where I used to go were full of teenagers and twentysomethings from Europe who brought all the best bits of European culture with them. In Morocco I think I must have heard every British pop record made between 1987 and 1989, because of the number of adolescents with backpacks and tie-dye shirts who brought compilation tapes with them... And if you're an English boy in a foreign country then other English boys... girls, sometimes, but usually boys... are going to say 'oh, this is the newest thing back at home, it's the latest novel by such-and-such-an-author'. So I read a lot, in that era, because I frankly didn't have much else to do except get off my face on cheap narcotics.
"And then one day, someone lent me a copy of Moore and Gibbons' WATCHMEN. Which was really something quite new to me, because I'd read superhero comics as a child and I think I'd read 2000AD before I'd left England as a fourteen-year-old, but... I'd had no idea, until then, that you could do something so literary in what was basically a visual, dynamic medium. I'm using the kind of words I'd use now, obviously; I probably wouldn't have said 'visual, dynamic medium' back then."
Miles returned to England in 1989 and got hooked on Grant Morrison's DOOM PATROL, which he says appealed to him because of its understanding of the history of pop art and its influence on comics. It was around this time that he began developing ideas about time and reality that would lead in to the creation of the Faction Paradox - though he could also trace his influences back much further.
"Obviously, when I was little I grew up with DOCTOR WHO. I loved that kind of thing, that great twentieth-century mythology, with Time Lords instead of demigods and all those monsters and archetypes wandering around the place. So even then, I thought that time was... a good area for exploration, really. And I was a child reared on Lego as well, so the idea of structures being built inside time was something that had a kick for me from very early on.
"And by today's standards that seems incredibly banal, I know. The modern generation's brought up with the idea of time-travel and time-mechanics in the same way we used to be brought up with fairy tales, you can mention time-loops and time-paradoxes and God-knows-what in any Hollywood blockbuster and it'll be taken for granted. It was still something to think about for a four-year-old in the '70s, though."
Miles describes the comic book version of FACTION PARADOX as essentially an historical epic; "The first issue starts with one of the last living woolly mammoths being presented to the court of King George III in 1774, which sets the tone, I'd say." History - real and imagined - is a recurring thematic backdrop to much of Miles' work. His first novel, CHRISTMAS ON A RATIONAL PLANET, set the trend, which was developed through his subsequent releases; DEAD ROMANCE (set to be reissued in 2004), the two-volume INTERFERENCE (which developed Faction Paradox further), THE ADVENTURESS OF HENRIETTA STREET - and most recently, THE BOOK OF THE WAR, which serves as a guidebook to the fictional universe Faction Paradox exists in.
The books are published by Lars Pearson's Mad Norwegian Press, and the story of how that came to be is a strange one, to say the least - and one best left to Miles for the telling.
"I was in New Orleans for an SF convention ... And I'm somewhat inclined to go looking for things to keep me occupied, even if they're in the wrong sorts of places. So this time I ended up playing poker in a bar, with... they were the kind of people who you might find hanging around in one of New Orleans' many funny-smelling magic shops. Chicken-leg magic, not sawing-a-woman-in-half magic.
"I'm not bad at poker, so I was doing quite well... but the point is that because I really didn't belong there and I didn't know how things worked, I was winning hands of the poker but it was starting to get obvious that they were taking the piss in a lot of ways. Because they were using a system of tokens that I didn't really understand...if someone in a strange place tells you that a bottle-cap with a particular pirate symbol on the top represents five dollars, then you're not going to argue, but... all right, I'd be exaggerating if I said that they were actually putting chicken-feet on the table. But you get the idea.
"I think just before the end, it started getting stupid - it got to the stage where we were gambling for each others' toenail clippings for voodoo purposes. Or at least we were talking about doing that. You can see how I wouldn't know how seriously to take it by then, because it was New Orleans, how the hell was I supposed to know what was meant to be serious?
"And what I'd forgotten was that... in America, unlike Britain, they've got tight laws on gambling. Playing poker for toenail clippings is probably technically illegal even here, but the police don't really give a toss about it, which they did on that night in New Orleans for some reason.
"So we got arrested, basically...and I ended up in a cell for the night. ... I'd been talking to Lars Pearson earlier that day, at the SF convention - he'd already published some good reviews of my earlier stuff, by then - and somehow he got to hear about the fact that I'd been locked up while in a state of being confused and English. And he got me out of there, finally. I still don't know the details of how he did that, because I know he didn't bribe the policemen or anything. I think it was just because he was a local resident, so he was able to use his natural Norwegian-American charm to convince the police that I was a stupid foreigner and that I didn't know what I was doing. But I stayed at his place that night, so on the way back from the station we ended up talking about Faction Paradox and his formative publishing empire, which is how it all got started."
By its nature, writing novels is a solitary enterprise, whereas comics are often a collaborative medium. The art team on the FACTION PARADOX series comprises of Jim Calafiore and Peter Palmiotti, who previously worked together on AQUAMAN, with colours by Paul Mounts. Given that Miles wasn't the sole architect of the FACTION PARADOX comic, did their work match what he had envisioned?
"I think it takes a while for the people who get involved in FACTION PARADOX to come to terms with it. Jim Calafiore, who's doing such a mentioned-in-dispatches job on the comic now, got involved when he did the illustrations for THE BOOK OF THE WAR. And looking at it now you can just tell he didn't get it at first, he was used to working with people who mostly wanted to tell stories about characters punching each other, because really even the best artist is going to have trouble adjusting to something so non-macho in this sort of climate.
"Some people have pointed out that with #1 of the comic, Jim got the look of the thing right but you could see he was still a little uncertain, his characters didn't 'move' with the kind of confidence you'd expect from someone of his calibre. Whereas in issue #2 you can see that the characters are a lot looser, there's a much more naturalistic feel to them even when they're not remotely realistic, and you get the feeling that Jim's starting to treat the Faction universe with a sense of ease."
Though Miles writes both science fiction novels and comics, he doesn't wish to be pigeonholed in either field. "If you think of yourself as a writer and you're specifically interested in becoming a writer of SF novels, then... I think you've got problems," he says. "You should never, ever want to be an 'SF' person. Science fiction is a tool, it's not a lifestyle, in spite of what we're told by the kind of marketing arsewits who want to pretend that anyone who ever watches anything involving spaceships has to be a STAR TREK fan.
"I've said it before - repeatedly - but I'm not interested in SF per se. I like history and anthropology and creativity and all things bright and shiny, and as it happens SF is the best way of dealing with those things, because any point you could make about humanity in a historical novel can be made just as well - sometimes better - in a setting which has the potential to take in whole worlds. Or whole centuries.
And for those who want to write comics, Miles offers different advice. "I'd seriously suggest that they look at the state of modern comics publishing and ask themselves if there's any alternative. ... Right now, commercial comics are geared to produce one specific kind of 'product', and it is possible to do other kinds of stuff but you're going to have your work cut out just getting it published. I doubt FACTION PARADOX would even have made it onto the shelves if I didn't already have a minor cult following. So I'd recommend that anyone reading this should try something else instead. ... Don't waste your time thinking 'I've got this great idea for a mini-series that's like Batman except with vampires in Victorian London', because it really, really isn't going to work."
If publishing a FACTION PARADOX series seems somewhat quixotic, Miles' feelings about the industry as a whole point towards a great many windmills that many creators have had to run at.
"Not to sound like everyone's dad, but I... dislike the way things seem to be going at the moment, and I'm not sure there's an easy way out of it, for purely economic reasons. I think it's true to say that when people of my generation got excited about the late '80s/early-'90s comic boom, we did it because we saw the medium as being about more than just sexy mutant stories. A lot of writers and artists treated comics as a more dynamic form of literature, which was a great thing, and it led to a lot of great work. A lot of very smart work. On the other hand, a lot of writers and artists in that era treated comics as an extension of pop art, which was also a great thing.
"Whereas now, we're... just not encouraged to think like that. Now we're supposed to stick to an ideal of 'cool' rather than art, 'cool' rather than actual elegance or meaning. The result is that everything's turning into THE MATRIX, a new comic-book's only considered a success if it subscribes to that adolescent fantasy of being a good-looking teenager with super-powers which might look good if they were done on the cinema screen in CGI.
"It strikes me that comics have reached the same point music videos reached in the early 1990s... you remember, when records would get to number one because they were the theme songs from hit movies, but at the same time the videos for those songs would just be adverts for the films and nothing else? It's like that. A movie like DAREDEVIL promotes a certain idea of what comic books are supposed to be, and as a result comic books try to be like the movies, which means we just end up going round in circles and nothing ever gets added to the mix except for extra in-jokes. I said this before, in the editorial for FACTION PARADOX #1, but I really, really don't want a 'cool' comic.
"I want a good comic."
Special thanks to Lars Pearson of Mad Norwegian Press.
Brent Keane is a regular contributor to Ninth Art and PopImage and has also written for Opi8, Sequential Tart and Nerdbait.
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