Friday, June 15, 2018

Mike Baron: From Comics to Hard-Boiled Crime

Author Mike Baron has written a set of terrific private detective novels that offer a new twist on the hard-boiled dick. Biker is the first in the "Bad Road Rising" series, and features P.I. and biker Josh Pratt, and his first adventure is a whopper.

Mike is no stranger to writing.  He is the creator of Nexus (with artist Steve Rude) and Badger two of the longest lasting independent superhero comics. Nexus is about a cosmic avenger 500 years in the future. Badger, about a multiple personality one of whom is a costumed crime fighter. First/Devils Due is publishing all new Badger stories. Baron has won two Eisners and an Inkpot award and written The Punisher, Flash, Deadman and Star Wars among many other titles.

I found Mike at our favorite biker bar (he drank whiskey; I had a glass of milk--in a dirty glass) and asked him a few questions.

BD: You've had a big career in comics before writing a novel. When did you start writing, and what inspired you?

MB: I started writing for my high school newspaper in Madison, Wisconsin. I don't know, one day I just felt like writing! 


I have been inspired to write since I picked up John D. MacDonald's The Deep Blue Goodbye in a cigar store in Mitchell, SD, for thirty-five cents. Uncle Scrooge comics hit me like a neutron bomb. Why were these comics so much better than other comics? I began to analyze.

BD: Why did it take so long to write a novel? Or was it something you wanted to do for quite some time?

MB: I had it in the back of my mind to be a novelist since The Deep Blue Goodbye. Looked like an easy job! I wouldn't have to work! I tried writing novels right out of college. I wrote more than a million words of garbage before I quit. But after awhile I would start again. I fell off the earth for about ten years, during which I moved from Wisconsin to Colorado. I had some difficult times and it changed me. I'd been making notes on novels for years. I started again and this time, I got it! It took me thirty years to learn how to write a novel, but I'm a slow learner.

BD: Can you explain the difference between comic writing and prose?

MB: Comics are such a forgiving art form, anyone can do one and it will appear legitimate. You will read rebarbative writing accompanied by childish art and it will never occur to you to toss it aside and proclaim, “rubbish!”

A novel, on the other hand, must grab you with its narrative voice. Most readers can sense amateurish writing within the first paragraph. Then it becomes a struggle to read. The goal of the story teller is to grab the reader by the throat and drag him into the narrative so he forgets he is experiencing craft, and it becomes his reality. Even the best written comic will toss you out if the art doesn’t work. And even the most beautifully illustrated comic will leave you with an empty feeling if the story doesn’t hold up. I make notes on a novel months, sometimes years in advance. When I have enough of a framework, I write a detailed outline. The outline must be entertaining and exciting. Every word you write is an advertisement for your writing. I make notes on characters, plot devices, unusual inventions. Anything and everything that might pertain to the story.

BD: Where did the idea for "Bad Road Rising" come from?

MB: I've been a motorcyclist all my life, and I wanted to create a character like Travis McGee. That is, a flawed but noble man who lives outside the system and makes a living helping people. Fringe dwellers, unwed mothers, people who need it, deserve it, but can't get it. I made Josh a biker and gave him an horrific background which partially explains the way he is. I was riding into town one day and I saw a roadside memorial for a cyclist who'd been killed in a crash. That's where I got the name. I wrote Biker three or four times before I was satisfied. By the time I'd finished, Josh had taken on a life of his own.

BD: How did the history of the PI genre influence you, and what genre conventions did you want to subvert to make the story uniquely yours?

MB: Every writer reads. Every writer craves an exciting new book. By the time I got around to Josh, I'd read everything John D. MacDonald, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and Randy Wayne White had written. I have three rules. One: entertain. Two: show don't tell. Three: be original. I don't know how you can not be original if you're writing honestly. We're all individuals with a unique history. I bring my world view to the page. As a journalist, I spent a lot of time talking to people. Musicians, bikers, retailers. Then I hear a unique phrase, I remember it. Sometimes I write it down. Fresh, realistic dialogue is my stock in trade. I don't worry about subversion. I worry about grabbing the reader by the throat and dragging him into the narrative so that he forgets all else. I don't choose the stories, the stories choose me. My stories are heterodox and I am bracing for a backlash. Go to Amazon and read the story description for Sons of Bitches or Sons of Privilege.

BD: Biker, while certainly not being religious fiction, does feature elements of faith, especially with Josh. What made you go in that direction?

MB: Josh’s conversion from hoodlum to Christian seemed natural. A person has to believe in something larger than himself to be happy. It also appeals to my sense of the heterodox. I write against the grain of popular culture.

BD:  How many books in the series are planned?

MB: Thousands! Working on the seventh novel now.

BD: Any plans for other novels not involving Josh Pratt?

MB: I just wrote a Destroyer novel for Devin Murphy. I've also written Banshees, Domain, and Skorpio, three horror novels of which I'm proud. Publishers Weekly gave Banshees a starred review. I also have an historical novel in the back of my head that I'll get to one of these days, but I'm already thinking about the next Josh Pratt.

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