Kirby, Dent, Englehart and Haywire: an interview with author Jeff Deischer

Nicholas Ahlhelm

I met Jeff Deischer online several years ago through our mutual love of old pulp heroes. We’re what you might call Facebook pals. But he’s also one of the most prolific writers of superhero fiction I know. He’s got a ton of great titles, so many that I can’t dig into them as we talk about his influences, his thoughts on writing and his work itself.

Author Jeff Deischer.

Every hero has an origin, and so to does every person. Tell us a bit about your formative years. Where were you born and what was your childhood like?

I watched Daniel Boone, the Lone Ranger, and Zorro when I was very young. I scratched a big “Z” in the side of my mother’s new sewing machine. I was too young to remember doing this, but I was told about it by my parents, and the “Z” is still there. I was born in Michigan in 1961, lived there a year, moved to Indiana, where my brother and sister were born, then to Illinois for kindergarten, and Texas for elementary school. In 1970, we moved to Wyoming, and stayed there for several years. I’m sure all that moving around contributed to my difficulty at making friends. I was an extrovert until I was eight or nine, then became an introvert. I didn’t — still don’t — have many friends, but had a close circle.

I became interested in “writing” shortly after I discovered Marvel comic books. In the sixth grade, I had a red binder with the word “FIGHTS” written in big capital letters in black marker. I drew fights between the various Marvel heroes and villains — heroes fighting heroes as often as fighting villains. From there I made my own stories by tracing art from several different comics into new stories. I wrote my first short story, very short, at about age 12 or 13, about three separate gangs of criminals trying to rob the same bank at the same time.

A young Jeff at play.

So many writers can trace their desire to create back to childhood joys. What works set your young mind alight?

In addition to the above-mentioned TV shows, I loved Speed Racer, The Monkees and The Banana Splits. There were other shows I enjoyed, but those are the ones I really loved (Speed Racer is the only one of these three I can still enjoy). I didn’t start reading heavily until we moved to Wyoming. I discovered comic books and Doc Savage at about the same time, 1970–71, as well as Norse mythology. I was surprised that the mythological Thor did not have blond hair. By 1972, I was collecting comics heavily, all Marvel. I loved Lloyd Alexander’s Book of Three series (later called the Prydain Chronicles) and the Three Investigators in addition to Doc Savage. I started reading The Destroyer around 1974 or ’75, and was hooked on it, too. For a couple of decades, I was reading at least one book a week. I found Star Trek in my middle teens, and became a fanatic about it, memorizing details about all the episodes. In 1980, I was introduced to role-playing games, and became a lifelong devotee of that. After playing for maybe fifteen or twenty years, I realized I no longer cared about the acquisition of loot. It was no longer a motivation for me or any character I played. RPGs have helped me a lot in writing. Several people I played with became the basis of characters in my books, because I got to see them in a variety of situations, even if it was make believe. I normally do variations on people I know (when I do this, which is not often). There have only been a couple of times I tried to literally write a person into a story.

What was the big game that drew you into role-playing and which games kept you playing?

Advanced Dungeons and Dragons, or D&D, as it’s usually called. I learned at college and then played with some friends who knew other games when I came home. There weren’t a whole lot of RPGs out back then — the early ’80s — and we played a number of them. I started collecting games and I have as many games I haven’t played as those I have. Our real gaming group came together in the early ’90s and lasted for fifteen years. Two of those guys were the best players I ever played with — I won a trophy at a game convention with one of them in 1985. We tried a number of games, but the one that I still really love is Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes (MSPE) by Mike Stackpole, who later became an author. Sword & Sorcery is still the most popular genre, from what I read, but I’m not crazy about it. It’s all about loot and fighting. And in one campaign, my character became a god, so there’s there really no challenges left for me in that genre, though I could enjoy it if it was done well. I just joined a new group, in which we will be investigators into the Cthulhu mythos. I’ve read about the game, and just a bit of the mythos but never played. This should be fun, as it’s one of my favorite themes in film, the wrong guy at the wrong place at the wrong time, like North by Northwest and the like. But I don’t know any of these people, so we’ll see what happens. I’d love to try Savage Worlds. I’ve got a Star Wars and a superhero campaign (THUNDER Agents) in mind if I ever run a game again.

I see a lot of sword and sorcery / high fantasy in your history. Is that a genre you have ever been interested in writing?

I have written a few sword and sorcery short stories but no novels (these appear in my Little Book of Short Stories). Those were some of the first stories I wrote, beginning in 1999. I started with short stories at the suggestion of Will Murray, and after I’d written maybe a dozen of them, tried my hand at a novel. I would like to do a sword and sorcery novel, to round out my resume, but after REH and Michael Moorcock, what’s left? They set high bars. I do have an idea for a third type of sword & sorcery hero, and might write a book about him in the next year or so. I need the right story for it to work, though. He’s not a character — tentatively named Drazalean — who can just be thrown into any type of adventure or quest, because of his motivation.

You’ve written adventure fiction, pulp style adventure and superheroes. How do you think your gaming history has influenced your work in those genres?

I learned a lot about characterization from playing with different types of people and observing them. And gaming materials are a great place for inspiration for story ideas, in addition to books and comic books.

The cover to Argent.

Your love of golden age and public domain heroes seems apparent in your work. What drew you to those classic figures?

I actually don’t have a great love of “public domain characters” — superheroes, I mean. I have a great love for certain characters or groups of characters, and superheroes in general. The golden age superheroes I used in my The Golden Age series, I chose for specific practical reasons, not for any particular love of them. I do have a great affection of classical public domain characters. I think this is due to their fame in some cases, and otherwise because of my fondness for them from my childhood. This would include the Invisible Man and Frankenstein, for example, but not Captain Nemo or Sherlock Holmes, both of whom I discovered later, in my late teens. How can you read a series like John Carter (and love it) and not want to write a Carter novel? The stories and characters are so inspirational. The same is true of certain superheroes, public domain or not. What is there sparks ideas that were not used for these characters, unlike pantheons I create wholly from my own imagination. These obviously take more work to develop, although there’s greater satisfaction, I think, in those types of projects.

If it wasn’t love, what was your motivation for choosing the characters in The Golden Age?

Practicality. I felt there would be a built-in audience for public domain superheroes. The response to my first superhero book (The Overman Paradigm, written under the Kim Williamson pen name) was discouraging (though those who read it liked it, it didn’t sell many copies), so I wanted to give my next superhero book the best chance I could. That meant using characters that readers already knew. I chose Standard/Better/Nedor — not knowing that Alan Moore had done the same for his Terra Obscura — because there were so many characters to use. There was something like 22 in the first book in the series (also named The Golden Age), all the SBN characters who were superheroes, and a few who weren’t.

Your take on the characters is decidedly different than the one by Alan Moore, Chris Sprouse and Yanick Paquette. Did you ever read Terra Obscura after writing your novel to see how it compares? What did you think of it?

No. Once I learned of it while I was more than halfway through with writing The Golden Age, I glanced at a timeline of it I found online to make sure my ideas weren’t close to Moore’s, but I never read any of it.

What comics do you regularly read then? You said nothing too modern, but are there runs you love to read again and again?

I stopped collecting comics years ago. The last series I collected — I couldn’t tell you what it was — was 2007, probably, and there were only a handful of titles. Comic books went off the rails in the ’90s when it became about money and changing things for the sake of change rather than character and continuity. All I read these days are old comics. My favorites, the ones that I re-read over and over are Stan Lee and Steve Englehart comics. I re-read other comics sometimes, I have favorite series like Haywire, Marshall Law, and Watchmen (to name just three) that I go back to every so often, but when I’m in a comic mood, it’s usually Stan and Romita’s Spider-Man, Stan and Jack’s Fantastic Four, or Steve’s Captain America or The Avengers. Those are my standbys.

Haywire by DC Comics.

Haywire is an interesting pick. Not a lot of people know the series as it came and went in under two years at DC, an out of continuity (maybe) superhero book about a guy in a giant suit of armor with some questions about his actual identity. Can you give a brief rundown of the series and tell what draws you back to it after all these years?

I bought it new at the comics shop every month. The series is about a loser who has blackouts, and this giant armored being who fights the Combine (mob). It’s unclear for most of the series what’s going on. Who is the armored guy? Why is he fighting the mob? Why doesn’t he talk? Why is the loser the main character? Lots and lots of interesting questions. Okay, so SPOILER ALERT. It turns out that the main character is able to summon a sophisticated suit of armor, subconsciously, and become this unstoppable juggernaut. He doesn’t know that he’s able to do this. He has these blackouts — during which he’s the armored character, it turns out — that he goes to a therapist to find understanding. Eventually pieces start falling into place. I’ll resist revealing the loser’s actual identity and his motives for fighting the mob. The story would make a great movie if they could keep the tone of the series, and not Hollywoodize it. What I like about the series is the not “polished” superhero art, the intriguing characters, and the mystery of what’s going on. It was so well wrapped up that I didn’t realize it was supposed to be an ongoing series until much later. It seemed like a limited series to me.

We’ve talked a bit about your characters from The Golden Age, but that series is far from your only work even with superheroes. You have another group of old school heroes in a series of Argent novels. What is the origin of the Argentverse?

It started as two separate ideas, one old and one new. The old one, which came from my college days, was a triptych universe, one series dealing with straight superheroes, one with mysticism, and one with space and aliens. The second idea, which was new and I expanded to fit the first, was “twenty years after”, based on The Three Musketeers concept: The Silver Age heroes would be the children and/or heirs of the Golden Age heroes.

One thought I had that I incorporated was that there would be no team in the Golden Age; superhumans are too new and there’s not a history and camaraderie. It turned out there was camaraderie, as I developed the idea, but there was no official team, just four superheroes who worked together, unofficially the “Three Musketeers”. In the Silver Age, the “superhero” aspect was their children and heirs, Vanguard, Jr. — Vanguard is the adult team of superheroes formed in the late Fifties. A lot of the background in the Vanguard, Jr. series is taken from the Three Musketeers series, relations and names. The three members are Miss Adventure, Kid Thunderbolt and Blitz. Miss Adventure was adopted by Hunter, one of the Golden Age heroes. Blitz is the son of one, Blitzkrieg, and there’s a mystery about who Kid Thunderbolt’s parents are. Their mentor is the second Compatriot, who was the junior partner of the original in the Golden Age. The “mystic” aspect is Shadowalker, a Native American young man who is heir to a shaman ancestry. The “space” aspect is Stargazer, an alien who is stranded on Earth after being chased here by an obsessed policeman.

I purposely made all these characters novices and/or outsiders, so that the readers’ point of view is theirs — readers learn about the Argentverse along with the characters. In Volume One, anyway. At that time (2015), I wasn’t sure there would be more volumes. Then I got on a hot streak in 2016 and wrote five more. Other volumes in the series have focused on other characters. Of the six volumes so far, about half are in the Silver Age, and the others a peek into other periods. That will continue.

What does Silver Age storytelling mean to you? Is it just a setting of the late 50s and 60s or is there more to it?

It’s also a style, a certain amount of innocence and humor and suspension of disbelief. It’s not the grim, gritty milieu of Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns. I don’t think that necessarily means the stories have to be silly or unbelievable. I try to construct believable characters doing believable things, given the parameters of the superhero genre. There is a stylistic difference between comic book stories in the mid ’60s, the mid ’70s, the mid ’80s and the mid ’90s, in both the major companies. No one would confuse these decades. With the Argentverse, I was striving to recreate the feelings I had when I read Marvel Age comics (both new and reprints from the Sixties) in the early ‘70s.

What do you look at as the pinnacle of Silver Age comic writing?

Oh, Stan and Jack’s Fantastic Four, without a doubt. Such an incredible number of concepts introduced in the high point of the series, a three-year run from #38 to #73. The best Silver Age writing and the best Silver Age art, hands down. Thor was also fantastic, but you can basically pick up any Stan and Jack book after, say, 1961, and be entertained.

What Kirby and Lee issue or storyline tops your list as their best?

I have great fondness for #39–40, because that was the first Fantastic Four story I ever read. In it, Dr. Doom takes over the Baxter Building and plays cat and mouse with the powerless FF, who lost their abilities in the Frightful Four’s Q-bomb explosion at the end of #38. And it guest-starred Daredevil, who was just so cool. I still quote him from that story — “I couldn’t miss if I tried!” But objectively, I’d probably have to say the Cosmic Doom story, wherein Dr. Doom steals the Silver Surfer’s power (#57–60).

You mentioned a pseudonym earlier, Kim Williamson. What made you decide to write the book under a pseudonym? Do you feel they’re outdated in the modern marketplace?

No, I think it’s an individual thing. I’ve used a number of pen names. I did so originally because I had written a number of novels over several years, and had the opportunity to publish them all over a relatively short span of time. I didn’t want it to look like I was just cranking these out for the money. I put everything I’ve got into each book that I finish, even if results are not always what I hoped for. I decided to use a different pen name for different genres. I finally gave up on that idea, but I still use those pen names for novels in those series, when I add a volume.

What pen names do you use and for what genres?

Wes T. Salem for my Brotherhood of Sabours space opera series (4 volumes). It’s classic SO, in the vein of Lensmen or Star Wars. I wrote three James Bondian novels under the John Francis pen name, Skull & Bones, Chinese Puzzle, and High Hopes. These are set in the Fifties and written as if by a British author. I actually wrote the first one as Bond fan fiction to break writer’s block (which it did), and three people who read it loved it and told me I should publish it, so I changed the names and published it.

You wrote The Strange Harvest of Dr. Aquarius using several public domain Kirby characters. As a creator that grew up and read comics while Kirby was still hard at work, what drew you to his work?

It seemed like perfect superhero artwork at the time. I was unaware of Kirby leaving Marvel and going to DC at the time (this occurred in 1970, the very year I started reading comics). I was reading reprints of his mid-Sixties stories with Stan Lee. They were the Lennon-McCartney of comics! Still my favorite writer-artist team, and still my favorite comics. Their run on Fantastic Four will never be equaled as far as imagination, originality, and sheer number of concepts they introduced. Revolutionary!

I enjoy Kirby’s second solo run at Marvel more than his DC work — Machine Man, The Eternals, Captain America and Black Panther. I’ve read all his Fourth World material, and it didn’t really gel for me. I don’t hate it but I don’t love it. My favorite series there was Jimmy Olsen — probably because it was the most “superheroey”. But his other DC stuff doesn’t interest me. I’ve never been interested in The Demon, for example. What I liked about Machine Man was the man-on-the-run theme and the crazy gadgets MM would pull out of his hat — or leg — every issue. The Eternals seemed more coherent to me than the New Gods saga. But I really wish Jack had stayed on Black Panther of all of them, because he’d promised to tell the origin of the Black Panther cult, which involved aliens!

The Strange Harvest of Dr. Aquarius features a few old school Kirby creations I don’t even know. How do you do your research to find characters to use in a work like it?

I bought the huge Simon & Kirby Superheroes book in this case, but my research is usually online. I did a lot of that, and bought the book for the stuff I wanted to know but couldn’t find online. I used the Kirby Museum site and the Public Domain Super Heroes site, as well, and really any place that I can find stuff I still need to know. The Kirby PD stuff is kind of a mess, because Joe Simon claimed copyrights on some of that material, which turned out not to be true. Unless a judge hands you an award (like one did with John Carbonaro and the Tower THUNDER material), you can’t go back and claim copyrights on PD stuff. I also have a few knowledgeable beta readers who tipped me off to a few things I didn’t know — like one of the Simons had recently copyrighted the Silver Spider character. That didn’t come up in my research. In the case of the Standard/Better/Nedor characters, those comics are at Comic Books Plus. I didn’t find that out until I was almost done writing The Golden Age, or things would have been very different. I had to fill in a lot of blanks. Sometimes I guessed wrong. And some of the information I’d found earlier was wrong.

Your fandom of Doc Savage is quite obvious. What do you feel draws you so much to the character?

I think it’s a couple of things — Doc’s intellect, he is always two steps ahead of everyone else, including his own aides; and his innate goodness. He’s never even tempted to do bad (except a couple of times when he loses his temper). And then, you have Lester Dent’s prose, which is inspirational in itself. I prefer his style over any other pulp writer of the Thirties, except Dashiell Hammett, who wrote a different genre of pulp. I started reading Doc when I was ten, and absorbed Dent’s style so much that I write like him even when I’m not trying to. I really only try to when I’m writing golden age pulp adventure, like Millennium Bug, The Winter Wizard, Red, as in Ruin, or Spook Trail.

I personally found Dent’s style a bit dry. What exactly is it about Dent’s writing style you feel draws you in?

The names, what great names! He’s one of the three greatest namers in all of fiction! I can’t really explain the actual prose thing that I like — I just do. There’s a rhythm to it — I guess that’s the best way to describe — that you also see in my work. And then there’s the clever plotting, the deft and colorful characterization (Dent called them “tags”, as in show these character tags as often as possible), and the humor.

The Millennium Bug is the first adventure of Doc Brazen, a character that looks like he might resemble a certain Man of Bronze. What makes Brazen different than Savage?

As little as possible. He was written as Doc Savage in 1999, with names changed. Brazen shares the same birthday as Savage but was born in a different year, for literary reasons. The personalities are the same.

Ignoring any similarities to any other Docs, why should the average reader be interested in Doc Brazen?

What I was proud of in addition to crafting a very good, authentic Doc Savage story was the character building; working the plot so that it didn’t rush the last half (a failing of mine in my pulp novels); and making a pulp tale work in modern times with modern technology. I wasn’t sure that would work, either in general or specifically by me. And it’s got seven 5-star reviews on Amazon (and only 5-star reviews)! It’s my best-reviewed novel.

Congratulations on that! Was Brazen designed as something of an answer for all those folks that felt the original Doc Savage worked best in the 30s and 40s?

No, not at all. I’ve written two Doc Savage fan fiction novels, one of which was online for a number of years. I was urged by a number of fans to write a Doc pastiche, but the idea didn’t appeal to me because I wanted to write the real thing, and there were a bunch of pastiches both from the ’30s and in the last twenty years. If I was going to write one, it would have to be something special. The idea of setting Doc in modern times felt like that was what would make my pastiche work. It was a personal challenge for me to write a modern pulp tale as a writer. I don’t think I could write for a modern action TV show because of all the technology that renders a lot of the old methods for suspense null and void. You used to have long train trips where people were out of contact, and unreliable phone service, etc. Those don’t work as well these days, so my goal was to keep the suspense and tension building while incorporating modern technology into the plot. Writers who don’t understand Doc can’t write him in modern times, or even in his own time. That’s that problem. New Pulp is a writing style that can work in any era — it’s pacing and prose, and a couple other writing gimmicks. You can do this in any era. You have to learn how to replace period shticks with modern ones, while keeping all the actual elements that make pulp writing.

We’ve talked about your relationship with the writing of Lester Dent already. What other authors or works do you feel are a large influence on your writing?

Michael Moorcock. I hadn’t read any sword and sorcery until a friend introduced me to Elric while I was in college. It just blew my mind. Dashiell Hammett is another idol, though I wouldn’t say his work or style influences mine. I find his prose inspirational, it makes me want to write. Conceptually, James P. Hogan’s works have influenced me. In comics, Stan Lee and Steve Englehart are my biggest two influences. I try to plot like Englehart, focusing on characterization, and plots that develop from the characters.

Moorcock and Englehart are far more cerebral writers even as they tell tales of sword and sorcery, multiversal warriors and four color superheroes. How do you think the focus on deep delving often into dark figures influences you?

The focus of both writers is on characterization. Their characters are dramatic — as opposed to melodramatic, as Stan’s sometimes were — and they express real emotions. This is what I strive for in writing, no matter the genre or milieu. The whole idea of storytelling, really, is to transport readers (or listeners) to another time and place. For me, that’s easier if the characters are believable and act believably, despite the unbelievable elements of the setting and story. So that’s how I write.

How do you feel about the more “cosmic” trippy elements that both Englehart and Moorcock delved into during their careers?

I probably missed Moorcock’s. I may have been too young at the time to see “trippy” in Englehart’s comic work (in the Seventies), unless you’re referring to his novels. I had a hard time getting through Point Man, which I read 20–25 years ago. I loved his cosmic stuff in Avengers, Justice League, Green Lantern and Millennium.

Joe Staton’s cover to Millennium. © DC Comics.

Even with your admission, I can still count on one hand the number of people I know that will admit to liking Millennium. It’s critically reviled now, but what about it makes it stand out for you in Englehart’s canon of work?

What’s not to like? I thought it was far superior to Crisis on Infinite Earths and Legends, which preceded it. I liked the concept, that a new human race was evolving, and the Guardians were involved. Introduction of a new super team. Big secrets about the Guardians and Zamarons revealed! Return of the Manhunters, which Steve created for JLA after leaving Marvel, based on the Kirby one-shot. I even liked the mysticism he gave the numbers. It really shocks me that it’s “critically reviled” now.

It wasn’t exactly beloved then either. New Guardians fell flat on their face as a spin-off, although the Manhunter ongoing was superb, but still only lasted two years. Having read the crossovers of that time period years later, in my opinion it’s not as strong a tale as either you mentioned or the follow up Invasion. But it has a certain charm to it, as Englehart struggled to create something new and wondrous in a DC era where they wanted to stay strictly grounded.

What deficiencies do you believe Crisis, Legends and Invasion had compared to Millennium?

I thought Manhunter was meh. I bought maybe the first half dozen issues, maybe a couple more than that, and gave up. I don’t think New Guardians would have failed if Englehart had stuck with it. He left, IIRC, because DC editor(s) had made promises to him about Extraño that they didn’t keep. He was doing a successful long run on Green Lantern at the time, which also became experimental after Millennium. His GL is one of his high points, in my opinion.

Crisis was a lot of senseless running around. The DCU afterward was a mess. But what I probably hated most was that screwed Roy Thomas on his WW II books. They promised him they’d leave him Earth-2 and then they took it away. I’ve possibly read Crisis once after it came out. I won’t again. I thought it was a bad premise, a mediocre story. If I’d been a DC fan, I would have hated the way they killed characters, but I was never a DC fan, per se. I didn’t start collecting DC until I followed Englehart there when he took over Green Lantern (yes, I missed his Seventies’ Batman).

Legends: Change for the sake of change but nothing really changes. Let’s disband the JLA so we can re-form it in a miniseries. Yawn. Another so-so story. I am not a Len Wein fan. I felt it was much more openly cross promotion than Millennium, which I felt was a true DCU-wide storyline.

I hated the whole para-gene thing from Invasion. I didn’t like the premise, really. I remember the art, done by McFarlane, which I don’t like, more than the story. I don’t recall Mantlo’s story being especially bad, given what he was given to work with.

New Guardians by Joe Staton. © DC Comics.

What was your opinion of New Guardians, the spin-off series that saw Englehart walk off it after plotting issue two?

I was really excited about it. I wanted to see where it was going to go. It was unlike any other team book — at either of the Big Two — because it was about these suddenly super people who had to figure what the meaning of their lives was. I stuck around for a few issues after Englehart left, but it didn’t do anything for me.

Do these kind of big events play any influence on your own supers writing?

Not really, no. I think “big events” are better if they’re limited — like Reed and Sue’s wedding. HUGE — but very limited. Too often you get the Secret Wars effect in these major crossovers — characters not acting like themselves for some gimmick. I do have a few ideas about a storyline that runs throughout the Argentverse, but no plans for an “every character ever!” story.

You’re incredibly prolific, with multiple full-length novels most years. What’s your usual setup when you’re putting words into the mouths of your characters?

Well, to begin with, I have to be passionate about what I’m writing. For every novel I finished, there’s one I’ve begun and quit, and two more I did a lot of work on that just never gelled for me. I work up an idea before I begin writing. How much varies on the idea. Some ideas I have a good idea for an opening, and write a couple of chapters. But before I get very far, I fully outline each novel. Scenes are numbered and broken into chapters so I can manage the plot points and flow of the story. Then I write.

When I write, I don’t have a set routine, but generally, I begin writing in the morning, after chores are done. I try to write until a chapter is finished. Then I take a nap. After that, I may do a little more writing or more likely revisions, or most likely, read or work on another idea. I’ve developed a serious problem with writer’s block in the past several years, but I am almost always generating ideas. I just can’t always write them into novels. I easily have two dozen novels fully outlined that I’ll probably never write. In addition to the fifteen novels I wrote in 24 months (April 2016-March 2018), I’d started another five and put them aside for one reason or another. Each of those is worth finishing. Three finished ones remain unpublished, being “fan fiction” novels.

This sounds a lot like me. I’ve got a folder filled with half or ¾ completed novels. Do you treat your creative work as a solitary process or do you share your works in process with trusted readers or fans?

I used to share the outlines with Murray Ward, the only person I ever did to any extent. Murray was the creator and editor of the DC Index series. I called him my story conscience, because he was really good at finding flaws and pointing out strengths. I send first drafts of chapters, sometimes, but usually completed manuscripts to a number of friends or trusted reviewers. This number varies from project to project for a number of reasons. David Webb has been my main beta reader for a number of years, and Daniel Dickholtz is very helpful, when he’s not too busy living his life. Ric Croxton and Art Sippo are two big fans whose cheerleading for my work has really been a boon, both professionally and personally.

If a young writer approached you for advice, what pieces of sage wisdom or dark warnings would you give them?

1. Write, get honest feedback, and revise. Will Murray told me back in 1999 that I’d learn more from re-writing than writing. He was right. Listen to criticism. People who take the time to read your story are not going to make criticisms lightly. So it’s serious. Also, you asked for it, so read it. That’s only fair and respectful. Readers are not always right, but there’s usually some merit to their complains (unless they just don’t get the genre, for example).

2. Pick another vocation if you are not truly compelled to be a writer. Follow your passion, whatever it is.

3. Never stop trying to be a better writer. I’ve been writing for twenty years, and honestly, I didn’t really feel like I was where I wanted to be as a writer until 2015. Everything started to click then. After I’d written twenty-one novels!

4. Don’t start writing your story until you know what it is. I’ve read a lot of beginning authors talking about “pantsing” it, writing from the hip. This misses so many opportunities for drama, because it’s not planned. Foreshadowing is your friend. Unless you are exceptionally gifted (you’re not), you need to learn about pacing and drama and tension. You do that by writing. The only practice for writing is writing. The more you write and improve, the better your instincts become about writing. I still outline everything I write.

I’ve met several writers that might disagree with you on point four. Dean Wesley Smith recently blogged about how he goes into stories with characters and limited plots. The classic pulp writers certainly would have as well. What downfalls do you feel planning might have in comparison to “pantsing” (a term I see as quite negative)?

“Pantsingis used by “Pantsers” in the Facebook writing groups I’m in. It’s not my term. Maybe some classic pulp writers would have disagreed with me, but not all. Dent outlined his Doc Savage novels, for example. I don’t see any downfalls in planning. I’ve read writers, usually beginners, say that they lose the immediacy of writing when planning. That’s something that you have to learn to overcome as a pro. Writing is about discipline, not inspiration. You sit down and write every day. You learn to draw words out of yourself whether or not you’re “inspired” to do that.

I read the blog you referred to. You have to be a very talented writer to write as he does. All of his points have some validity for a writer with a lot of experience, but it’s no way to teach someone to write. I still use beta readers, after having written more than three dozen novels, and I always will. They’re mostly for typos, but they often enough find a plot error or missed opportunity that I can fix. It’s not about confidence. Confidence does not ensure quality. I’m very confident as a writer. But I’m not perfect.

I by no means advocate writing as Smith does, nor I think, does he. He even sells beta reading services now and then to fledgling writers. But he’s also famous for attacking the sacred cows of publishing, to the point he literally has a book entitled Killing the Top Ten Sacred Cows of Publishing. He and his wife have proved influential to a lot of writers new and old with their current blogging. Do you worry they might have a negative effect on new writers, or do you believe Smith’s advice is as valid as others?

I believe that other than a few ground rules, what works for a writer is okay. So I have no problem with Smith saying “this works for me” (though I have to admit I’m a little skeptical). I think it’s awful advice for beginners. I learned to write in kind of a funny way, which I don’t recommend for everyone. I’d written a few things and thought I was a good writer. I wasn’t. Will Murray was kind enough to look at a couple of things I wrote for him to look at and he tore them apart. And explained what I was doing wrong. He told me that I was going to learn more re-writing than writing. Because you’re fixing the mistakes you don’t know you’re making, of course. I wrote a bunch of short stories following his advice. I was seeing the same sort of problems over and over so I focused on just plotting for a while. I just plotted a bunch of stories, getting feedback from Murray Ward, and never writing the full story out. When I was satisfied that I could plot, I moved onto dialogue, turning my outlines into scripts. My strongest suit was always my prose, so I was less worried about that than these other two aspects. When I was satisfied with that, I started writing novels. I wrote myself into corners on two of them, and have outlined everything I write ever since.

You’ve mentioned several great worlds from other media and fiction over the course of this interview. If you could choose one licensed property to work on, what would it be?

Boy, that’s tough. I would love to do an authorized Doc Savage novel. I’ve written a couple of fan fiction novels featuring him. I’ve written a fan fiction Star Trek novel that the friends I shared it with loved. I’d like to see that published. I’ve done a couple fan fiction “what if?” stories using Marvel characters. Those would be my top three. If I had to choose one, I think it’d be Doc. He brings out my best writing, and I’d be auditioning to be the next Kenneth Robeson.

When you’re not writing, what other hobbies draw your interest?

I read both books and comic books (none new) and watch TV, a lot of films. I watch almost no network TV anymore, maybe half a dozen shows. Art. I usually do my own covers. It’s more stressful than writing but exercises different muscles, both physically and creatively. Art has been a hobby of mine since I was ten, and until I was twenty, I thought I was going to be an artist, not a writer. But I felt a strong urge to tell stories, and I was never more than a mediocre artist — I impressed people who couldn’t draw, but I was far behind pro comic artists. That was the only art I was interested in, just like I’m only interested in writing adventure fiction, although in many different genres. I occasionally play computer games and I enjoy driving. RPGs have given me the most fun I’ve ever had, but it’s been years since I played. I love writing my chronological essays. I can hardly read a novel without thinking about the time that passes in the story, and relationship between events.

What tools do you use in designing your covers?, which is free online, and a photoshop app that I got as part of a package with a scanner I bought. Between the two I can do almost anything I want to. I spent $80 on an Adobe product that didn’t work, and I can’t justify that amount of money for my technical level with these programs. If I had one, I’d find new things I can do, but I work within my limits. Westerntainment, which has been my primary publisher for several years now, is a shoestring operation. Sam Pepper, who was a personal friend of mine before becoming a publisher, started it to publish two books of mine that he thought deserved to be published, and we’ve gone from there. So I either use thematic designs or public domain images. In the case of my superheroes, I’m doing more and more re-painting of PD comic covers from the Forties. Not many of these have been seen yet.

We’re nearly nine months into 2018. What have been the best movies in your opinion for the year and why?

I don’t know. I haven’t been to the movie theater in over a year. I dislike most films these days. They’re senseless. Studios don’t care about plot. I’m don’t think I’ve even seen a 2018 film, after they came on cable. If I did, it was forgettable. I’d have to see a list of films to tell you if I have.

So what have you been watching if it isn’t recent films?

Oh, I watch some films from last year, favorites I haven’t seen in a while, and old movies starring favorite actors or actresses I haven’t seen before, along with the newer ones. A Facebook friend recently called me a “classicist” when it comes to films. I think he meant I don’t like new films, but classics. That’s pretty fair. I like every genre except maybe musicals, though a few of those from childhood are still among my favorites. I’m not a big war or Western fan, but I love a handful of each (best Western: Once Upon a Time in the West). Lots of comedies, action movies, thrillers. I love old horror movies. I don’t recall the last one I saw that was actually suspenseful, as opposed to surprising (i.e., something jumps out to scare a character) and gory (I call them “gorror” films). Modern writers don’t seem to understand comedy and suspense. I watch very little network TV. I watch some cable shows (dramas, comedies), a few science and history shows.

These days it feels like no one is watching much on the networks. Are you more of a binge watcher or a channel surfer? Which shows draw you in best?

I’m neither. I don’t like watching more than maybe three episodes of anything at once. I have favorite shows that I like to watch, and I only channel surf rarely. My DVR is over 50% full right now, so when I want to watch something, I watch a recording. I only watch live TV when I have a little time to kill, but not enough to watch a movie. Animal Kingdom (on TNT) is the most compelling show on TV right now for me. Lots of intriguing characters and lots of tension. That draws me into dramas. Silly plots turn me off. Most drama on TV is silly and most comedies not funny to me. I love Impractical Jokers, funniest show on TV.

I’ve heard a few folks I know in the New Pulp community sing the praises of Animal Kingdom, but have seen very little about it online elsewhere. What do you think makes the show so compelling?

It’s an interesting premise and you don’t know what’s going to happen next. They killed off a major character at the end of last season — and they didn’t reveal it until the last episode of this season. I didn’t believe either of the people most accused of doing it actually did it. Neither had good reasons and the consequences of the murder and how they’ve reacted suggest they didn’t do it. The character who gets the most compassion from the audience, according to the producers, is a mentally ill guy who killed the only woman he ever loved because he thought it was the right thing to do. The motives of the characters are not spelled out. It’s both fun and suspenseful trying to figure out what they will do.

Every small press or independent author I interview, I want to ask the same question, because it’s one so many other small press or independent authors want asked. How do you choose your price points, both for print and for digital?

Sam and I talked about this when we started — I’m very much involved in all phases of publishing, as far as decision making is concerned — and Sam looked at other books with similar word counts and prices books so that ours are a little less expensive — over the years, he’s developed a price plan based on word count — and so we both make a little money on each book. That’s print books. In the case of Kindle, it’s a straight $3 unless the book is very big, as in the case of books like Argent or The Adventures of the Man of Bronze: a Definitive Chronology. One thing we do that I’m really proud of is if someone buys a print book, they get the Kindle edition for free.

I know several authors that still charge for the Matchbook services that allow fans to get a copy of the Kindle edition for a reduced rate or for free with a print book. I personally think it’s one of the best ways to convince people to pick up a print edition. You can have a hard copy and start reading it right away! How is that not a great deal?

Do you have any suggestions for people looking to self-publish or to find a small press to publish their work?

I know a number of them in the pulp community, like I’m sure you do. Outside of that, I’m clueless. But I do know there are all types on Facebook. Join writer’s groups and pay attention to what people write. Publishers get mentioned there sometimes. One surefire way is to look at who published that indy book you’re enjoying. If I were looking to publish a book outside of Westerntainment’s wheelhouse, I’d ask other independent authors I know for a referral. Now, if you can’t find anyone talking about publishers in those Facebook groups — check out genre groups, not just writers groups — I know authors talk about their own books. Check them out on Amazon if you don’t want to talk to them (I bet they’d love to talk to you), and find out their publisher there.

What appeals to you so much about the chronologies you write, such as The Adventures of the Man of Bronze: a Definitive Chronology?

The first chronology I read was William Baring-Gould’s Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street, and not long after that Phil Farmer’s Doc Savage: His Apocalyptic Life. I loved both of them, and began reading and buying of these types of books as often as I could. They are fascinating to me on a deep level. My own Doc Savage chronology started in the 1970s when I tried to place the four novels Farmer left out of his chronology in the edition I bought. Then I noticed he had broken one of his own rules in placing one of the novels, and in the early ’90s, I wrote my first condensed version of my own chronology. Will Murray looked it over, made a few suggestions. That was the first chronology I ever wrote. I re-wrote the entire thing in 1998, which was published by Green Eagle in 2000, expanding it to book length. In 2010–11, I wrote the essays that comprise They Way There Were: The Histories of Some of Adventure Fiction’s Most Famous Heroes and Villains.

What I love about writing these is indefinable, really. It’s an obsession, I guess. I just love it. I get satisfaction out of discovering the details about these famous characters, which have often been left out or misconstrued by various authors (like Farmer). Few people have read the actual stories a lot of these characters come from, even though they are famous, known mostly for films about them. I feel like I’m providing a service, to give fans the true facts about these characters that they may love but know little about. But mostly I do it because I enjoy it.

Are there any Holy Grail type characters you want to write chronologies for?

I’d like to do the Edgar Rice Burroughs characters, but, as in the case of the Shadow, I think there are too many books for me to tackle it.

If readers want to learn more about your work, where can they find you online and on social media?

My Facebook page is It is only about writing, nothing else. I mostly post about what I’m working on, but occasionally I also share posts about writing, or talk about my favorite books or writers. I’m not super active. My bibliography is there. My own page is I’m not really a blogger, so I don’t post often there, but every time one of my books is published, I post a description, and, in the case of a new series, the first chapter of the first book of the series, so potential readers can read a chapter before spending fifteen or twenty dollars on one of my books. All of my books are available on Amazon, along with an author’s page that includes my biography.

Nicholas Ahlhelm

Written by

Superhero novelist. Wrestling addict. Old school gamer. Thinking long & hard about the weirdest things imaginable.

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