Ben Langdon lives and writes in Narrawong, which is at the end of the picturesque Great Ocean Road in Victoria, Australia. He has been a comic book junky since his teenage years, and now has three inspiring heroes of his own: Jack, Eliza and Luca.
Ben writes neo-pulp, which is a fancy term for superhero fiction. He loves the fun and bizarre aspects of early pulp stories, but does so with an underlying respect for the genre. It’s kind of a post-modern treatment. Think beyond the spandex and the superhuman clashes above city streets.
To find out more about Ben, visit his website: www.benlangdon.net.
Neo-pulp takes the energy and sense of wonder from the pulp stories of the late-1890s to early 1900s and gives those stories a more (post-) modernist interpretation. Instead of the very superficial stories you’d get with the Green Lama, Tarzan, Zorro, early Batman and other two-fisted heroes, we now feed the readers’ interest in their motivations, their home-lives and their weaknesses.
Authors in this genre love the old stories, and the comics which grew from them, so there is respect for the source material. It’s too easy to parody works like Superman and Captain America, and it’s easier still to blatantly rip them off in superhero fiction. What neo-pulpists do is craft deeper stories around more-rounded characters. They may respect the origin story of Superman but they won’t re-tell it with the serial numbers scratched off. Instead they might tell a story from the home planet of a Superman-styled character, about the last minutes or hours of a doomed planet. They might also tell the story of a human ‘super being’ being sent to a different planet, and the events which would spiral from that.
There’s a close relationship between writing neo-pulp and superhero fiction and even into the genre of urban fantasy. Some of the paranormal stories you can get, involving vampires and starstruck girls, can be an extension of superhero fiction. These “vampires” or “shifters” have powers which set them apart from the norm, and so there are similarities there.
I like the idea of describing this kind of writing as “when the ordinary is gatecrashed by the extraordinary” – it’s the combination of the everyday world we know and the fantastical world we can only imagine.
How did the This Mutant Life anthologies come about?
There is a bit of a story there. At first I started to publish a ‘zine of superhero stories. I was acting against the idea that physical books were on the way out and that there would only ever be room for e-books. So I called for submissions and received a lot of interest. I created a word document, then got all cut-and-paste-y and created an A5-sized ‘zine which I printed at the local newsagent and then sent out around the globe. It was very low-tech but it was a fantastic experience.
Eventually I stopped the anthology to concentrate on work and my novel, but as I started looking into the technical side of indy-publishing I saw the potential for creating a ‘real-life book’ for This Mutant Life. I hired a cover artist and began a semi-professional call for submissions, paying $0.01/word for stories plus royalties. There was, again, a huge response and I was able to publish This Mutant Life halfway through 2013 and then This Mutant Life: Bad Company later in 2013.
At the moment I’m back in the sticky place of writing a novel and working in a fairly demanding job, so the third anthology will be open for submissions late in 2014 or early 2015.
What were your goals with The Miranda Contract?
The long-term goal was to be able to pick up a physical copy of the book from a bookstore and say “That’s my book!” I’ve been able to do that now, and I am really amazed by how that still makes me feel a bit giddy. When people come up to me and say they either have just bought my book or just read it, I go through a bit of an out-of-body experience.
For the novel itself, I really wanted to tell a street-level story set in a world where superheroes (or uberhumans, as I call them) exist. I wanted the story to be as realistic as possible, and to that end, I also wanted it to be set in my country. There are lots of stories set in the USA and the UK, but there aren’t so many set in Melbourne, Australia.
Now that The Miranda Contract is finished, I’ve set myself a new goal. In the beginning, I didn’t want to be one of those people who said “Yeah, one day I’m going to write a novel.” Now I don’t want to be one of those writers who only ever writes one book – “a one-hit wonder”! Of course, Harper Lee only wrote the one book, and since To Kill A Mockingbird is my favourite novel of all time, I guess there’s something to be said of writing a single book. Still, I think I have a lot of work to do before I can compare myself with the likes of Harper Lee.
How much of yourself is there in the character of Dan Galkin?
I can say, absolutely, that the extended family of Dan Galkin is nothing like my real family. The central antagonist is Dan’s grandfather, The Mad Russian. He is incredibly controlling, demanding and – frankly – insane. My own grandfather was none of those things. I dedicated the book to him, as although he died a few years ago, he was a very powerful and positive influence on my writing and who I am today. Incidentally, my mother is not agoraphobic and my father never self-immolated.
Other than that, though, I think there has to be elements of the teenage me in Dan. The frustrations he faces and the clash between his cynicism and need to be accepted certainly come from an almost universal teenage experience. I think Dan is clearly more mature and capable than I ever was at 17 though. The fact he works in a pizza/spicy chicken place and rides a motorbike are clear testaments to that.
When you’re in need of inspiration, where do you look?
You can get inspiration anywhere, but I think I’m lucky in a number of ways. I’m a father of three kids who are all open to discussions about superheroes, so if I need to think about new characters or situations, they’re always there to help. I think I deliberately set out to make them geeks – dressing them in superhero costumes very early on, and talking with them at length about the X-Men as if they were real people. They love it though!
I’m also a high school teacher, so every day I’m surrounded by teenagers. As an English teacher I’m able to modify my classes and go where the interest is, sometimes derailing what I’d planned to go along with where the class’s discussions are taking us. Being able to look at the world through different perspectives is a key skill for a writer, and I am very aware that there is no reality in stereotypes. I come across teenagers who are super-smart, social chameleons, world travelers, tech-savvy; and then I come across others who have never left their hometown, who don’t have access to the internet at home and who can’t read or write. There’s no one quite the same as anyone else. Understanding that can really help with characterization. When I was writing Dan’s nemesis, Halo, I deliberately set out to make him ambiguous, to smudge the lines between hero and villain. There really aren’t any completely evil people in the novel. Even the insane Mad Russian has flashes of humanity and there is sadness behind his tirades.
As well as looking outward for inspiration I find that most of my planning is done in daydreams. Closing my eyes and thinking through situations or scenes often results in breakthrough moments, especially dialogue. I guess I have a tendency to talk to myself, but there’s usually a whole host of characters in there chiming in with words and phrases.
Which member of the X-Men do you most identify with?
Great question. The first X-Men comic I read was at the beginning of The Inferno cross-over which pitted two teams of X-Men against each other while New York City was slowly transforming into a Hellish environment. The first two characters in the comic were Madelyn Pryor and Alex Summers. Alex, also known as Havok, was the younger brother of Scott Summers (aka Cyclops) – the quintessential leader. He was feeling the pressure of being in Scott’s shadow and wanted to live his own life.
Being in a similar situation, having an older brother, I think I immediately connected with Alex and have followed him ever since. Writers haven’t been very kind to Alex and he hasn’t had much success as an A-Lister, but that’s also a bit of drawcard for me. I like to support the underdog, and Alex does come across a bit like that.
What was your favorite comic book storyline?
The Inferno crossover was epic, especially for a newcomer to the world of comics. There were heroes (and they had real lives and real problems) and there were villains (the Marauders still have the position of being one of the most effective villain teams, especially during the Mutant Massacre storyline). The entire world was on the brink of being transformed, demons were running wild, and the heroes were split down the middle. Some X-Men sided with Jean Grey’s team, but others showed loyalty to Madelyn Pryor – the Jean Grey clone. Yeah, it’s complicated and messy, but that’s what I love about comics.
In more recent times, I really loved Peter David’s treatment of X-Factor. He brought life to minor characters and created his own niche in a superhero world where not every story was about saving the world. I really like the street-level focus of David’s stories.
Earth is being attacked by an invading alien horde. You’ve been tasked with assembling a four-person team of comic book characters to save humanity. Who do you choose?
While I tend to favour the street-level superheroes, an alien invasion really does call for the “Big Guns.” I’d be aiming to have any kind of conflict settled before it hits Earth itself, so the heroes would all need to be able to operate in space. Superman is an obvious choice for his almost limitless powers (although you could replace him with any number of Superman rip-offs). Even when he is killed off, Superman always manages to return and save the day. I’d back him up with Jean Grey (Phoenix) who is also someone very familiar with death and rebirth. She’d be the telepathic powerhouse to counter-balance Superman’s physical powers. I’d add Iron Man for his technology and genius intellect (because, seriously, Superman isn’t the sharpest tool in the superhero shed), although you could easily substitute him with Batman. And finally, I’d add Tenzel Kem, aka Matter-Eater Lad, because every invasion needs some comic relief and, when it all comes down to it, this guy can literally eat anything, including alien armadas.
What was the most unexpectedly rewarding aspect of having children?
Apart from being the proud father of kids who love mythology, superheroes, drawing and storytelling, I think the most unexpected thing about having kids is that you realise the whole world isn’t revolving around you. Parenting lets you grow up. I don’t think it happens in all cases, but for me I was able to give up on thinking I wanted to be young forever.
Working as a teacher where I’m surrounded by a never-ending ocean of teenagers, it’s important to realise that you’re not a teenager anymore, and even more important, that you don’t ever want to be a teenager again. You’ve had your turn at being young, and while you’re not ready to hang up your socks and retire into obscurity, there’s no longer the pressure to want to feel young again. Some people never accept that. They’re constantly chasing youth.
The best thing about my life is that I can watch my kids grow up. Jack’s thirteen this year and in high school. Eliza joins him next year, and Luca is in Grade 4. I can remember what my life was like when I was their age – and I especially remember that the way I think now, as I approach 40, is pretty similar to how I thought back then. The message there is that my kids are becoming young adults and they’re developing their own personality and lives.
And that’s a magical thing.
As an author and an English teacher, what advice would you offer to any aspiring writer?
There is a lot of advice on the internet for aspiring writers, and while most of it is helpful, the only true way to improve your writing is to actually write. Getting words down is not easy, and it shouldn’t be easy because if it was then there would be no value in it. Writing is an art, and the more you practise the more you will hone your skills in storytelling, characterisation and description. What works for one person won’t always work for another.
I think the biggest threat to writers is ‘premature revision’ – when a writer goes back and rewrites the beginning of a story over and over… and over again. You really have to plough through the story to get it down. Focusing too much on the beginning is not going to help you get anywhere. There’s always a chance to revise and rework your story once it’s down. Plus, if you have a completed story to edit in your hands – there’s this amazing feeling of accomplishment that comes over you. When you’re in that ‘zone’ you have a bit of detachment and you can edit your work properly.
So my two pieces of advice would be to write and to keep going – don’t get stuck in the Groundhog Day of rewriting the same scene to perfection.
What are you working on next?
I’m currently working on The Halo Effect which is the second book of the series. The blurb reads:
When an aging crime lord goes missing, Dan finds himself pulled into a web of mad scientists and the living dead, but it’s the ‘normal’ parts of his world that need the most attention as Miranda Brody returns. Meanwhile, Halo is willing to sacrifice everything to get his second chance at life.
My writing approach has changed a bit with this second book. While I worked in a jigsaw-like manner with the first book, shifting pieces into place as I wrote, the plotting for the sequel is already very much set. The writing is more straight-forward and that makes the actual process much easier and more fluid.