Traveling to A Hundred Thousand Worlds:

A Conversation with Bob Proehl

CAMPOCHIARO: Let’s start with your origin story, along with the origin of your debut novel A Hundred Thousand Worlds. What is your relationship to the worlds of comics, sci-fi, fandom, and the myriad others that your book’s characters inhabit? What led you to tell this particular story, revolving around those pursuits, for your debut novel?

PROEHL: I’ve been a pretty rabid comic book reader since I was a kid. It feels like something that’s always been a part of my life. It becomes a way to mark time: well, it’s Wednesday, so I should go pick up some comics. But I didn’t really connect with “fandom” for a long time. Fandom is in such a great spot right now, and getting even better, that it’s easy to forget it wasn’t always like that. But it was a couple years ago, and I went down to New York City Comic Con, which was really the first big convention I’d gone to, and it was really wonderful. It was an amazing environment to be in, and I remember thinking how much I wished I’d had this when I was a kid. So the idea of putting a kid in this space, surrounding him with imaginary stories, appealed to me immediately.

I’m also really interested in the idea of work, in how people pay their rent. I think it’s something that gets left out of fiction a lot; work is treated as dead time in narrative. So thinking about what it’s like to write comics as your job, or to show at these conventions as an “appearance”, to be photographed and hugged and praised, all of that was stuff I wanted to look at with this book. Writing is kind of the weirdest job you can have, and it seems to me that writing or drawing comic books is the even stranger edge of that weirdness.

CAMPOCHIARO: Your trajectory as a comic book reader mirrors my own. I think it was different being a fan when we were kids (I’m assuming here that you are also a Gen Xer). At times it was more of a solitary pursuit than it seems to be now. You mention the Wednesday ritual of picking up comics, so are you still making regular trips to your local comics shop? What recent books have engaged you, or spoken to you the most?

PROEHL: I’m a trade-waiter these days, mostly out of spatial considerations. I still go to my local out of that sense of ritual, and there are a couple books I pick up as floppies. Saga is hitting pretty close to home and I will admit to sobbing uncontrollably over a recent page. Tom King’s The Vision seems like it came out of nowhere to be one of my favorite books. Bitch Planet is flat out the smartest comic on the stands right now and also awesome. And Power Man & Iron Fist, which is sharp and beautifully drawn (which reminds me I need to check out David Walker’s Nighthawk).

CAMPOCHIARO: Besides characters like Gail and Geoff, who seem to be at least superficially based on comics writers Gail Simone and Geoff Johns, were their other inspirations you drew from when creating the rest of the characters? For instance, was Valerie based on any particular actor, or an amalgam of actors?

PROEHL: Some of the bit characters were really direct analogues to actual people. Levi Loeb is based entirely on Jack Kirby, because the Lee/Kirby debate is the secret origin of basically the whole comic book industry. The idea that we’ll never know who did what, that decades later people are still looking at the old Fantastic Four comics and saying “That’s probably Stan, but this is definitely Jack.” And of course the Mad Brit is Alan Moore, because why would you not write an Alan Moore character if you got the chance?

Gail was initially going to be one of those bit characters. I wanted a scene that was Gail Simone, Geoff Johns, and Ed Brubaker having a beer together. But she was so much fun to write, and she quickly changed from this stand-in for a real person to a character entirely her own. I regret not going back and changing her name once it became clear she was going to be a major character, but that’s the danger of using placeholder names: you get attached to them and they become inseparable from the character. But I’ve talked to Gail Simone about it, and sort of apologized for it, and she has, thankfully, opted not to strike me down with her wrath. Which I’m endlessly grateful for.

Val and Andrew started out as Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny, definitely. I was joking the other day that I basically got away with writing a long piece of X-Files slash fiction. But again, those were jut their starting points and the characters grew from there.

CAMPOCHIARO: It’s certainly been strange seeing our relationship as readers to creators like Lee and Kirby change over time. After all, these are the men who built one of the foundations upon which our current popular culture rests. Do you fall squarely on one side or the other with this issue, with Lee or Kirby? Or do you see ambiguities in the stories that make it difficult to have definitive feelings on it?

PROEHL: I gravitate toward the underdog in these situations, so I’m on Team Kirby. I also think in some cases the evidence is strongly on Jack’s side (gestures at a copy of Challengers of the Unknown #2, clears throat) But I do think there’s some alchemical thing that went on between the two of them that made those comics happen, and by the time it was being talked about, it had become too big, and there was too much acrimony for either of them to cop to that. Which is part of what continues to fascinate me about their story, the sense that a reconciliation could have happened, but that the situation wouldn’t allow for it. It’s not like the Bob Kane/Bill Finger situation where you get the sense it’s just Kane laying claim to Batman for his own sake. By the time we were having conversations about creator rights and what Kirby had contributed, it would have potentially destroyed Marvel as a company to give him the credit he deserved. And Stan, being the figurehead of Marvel, had to throw Jack entirely under the bus for the sake of the company. It’s like Season Three of The Wire!

CAMPOCHIARO: The various relationships—between Valerie and Alex, Alex and Brett, Brett and Ferret Lass, Brett and Fred, Gail and Valerie, and Gail and Geoff—spoke to the wide spectrum of relationships we all have in our lives. Can you talk about how you developed not only the characters but how their relationships would grow and evolve over the course of the novel?

PROEHL: Well, obviously Val and Alex’s relationship is the primary one in the book. It sort of drives everything else, it’s what moves the book along. And with them, I was really looking at the push-pull of being a parent and being a kid. I think sometimes as parents we overlook how much our kids take care of us, the ways they protect us.

As far as the friendships in the book, they grew out of scene work. You put two characters together, you see how they interact. You look at what’s keeping them together. We become friends with people for the weirdest reasons. Proximity, affinity, attraction. Friendships are the relationships in our lives we sometimes pay the least attention to, our friends are just there. So some of the development of those relationships in the book comes out of that neglect. Brett and Fred’s friendship and partnership, Gail and Geoff’s sort of office friendship. And then on the other end, you have connections that are just starting out. The relationship between Brett and Alex drew heavily on my earliest times with my stepson, and figuring out how to talk to a kid in ways that are honest. And with Val and Gail, it was about how weird and difficult it is to make friends when you’re an adult, the ways it’s like dating, really. You have to make plans to hang out, you’re getting a sense of this person and how they fit with you. You get to this point in your life where you’re somewhat stable, and you can finally pick and choose who you’re going to be friends with instead of just “You live next to me in the dorms, let’s hang out,” but then there’s this whole process you have to go through.

CAMPOCHIARO: You explore a number of themes in the book, including love, loss, fandom, feelings of isolation and regret, anxiety over one’s career, and learning to open up to another person, among many others. What made exploring these themes appealing to you?

PROEHL: I mean, that’s all the interesting stuff, right? You sit down to write a book, and you basically deal out your anxieties to the characters like playing cards. You get my fear of intimacy, here’s some worrying you’ll never be successful as an artist for you. What about you there, some neuroses about parenting? You got it. You write to figure out things about yourself, and you hope that somebody out there is struggling with the same stuff, and sees something of themselves reflected in the characters.

CAMPOCHIARO: You address the ways in which women are often marginalized in the comics industry, both on the page and in real life. Gail’s struggles as a female writer in a male dominated industry were particularly moving. The scene where she speaks her mind to the Alan Moore stand in regarding his often questionable treatment of women in his books was especially well done. What interests you about this issue within the industry? Do you see signs that this gender imbalance is improving?

PROEHL: I should say first that I think about gender all the time. And then as a parent that gets ratcheted up to eleven. Particularly as a geeky parent, you start looking at this stuff, and thinking about if it’s appropriate to give it to your kids, and a lot of comics that I dearly love are horrific when it comes to gender. Alan Moore isn’t the worst by any stretch, but he’s an example of someone whose work offers so much, but consistently hits this one sour note. And if we as fans and as readers are going to say “Watchmen is the best superhero comics has to offer” or hold up The Killing Joke as an iconic Batman story, we need to look at those aspects too. More importantly, we need to understand that for some people, those things are going to be deal breakers. Some fans will read Watchmen and say, no, I’m not going to read this because of the way it deals with sexual assault. That is a perfectly reasonable response to that book, just like it’s perfectly reasonable to say no, I am not going to watch Game of Thrones because it is chock-full of rape. Part of this “growing up” phase that fandom is in right now is going to involve learning to talk about problematic things that we like, and learning not to be rabidly evangelic about those things, or insist people overlook the problematic aspects.

Also, don’t get me started about The Killing Joke, because we will be here forever.

The fact we’re starting to have more of these conversations is a good sign, I think. Comics as an industry has to take a long look at its past, particularly with regards to things like gender and race, and there are people pushing that discussion. So on that front, yes, things are getting better. And we’re seeing more characters who are not cishet white males. And most importantly, we’re seeing more creators that are not cishet white males. There are new voices coming into the industry and it’s really heartening to see that. And there are books being written with an awareness of gender and race that simply wasn’t there in a lot of books ten years ago. I find myself stockpiling stuff to give to my daughter when she’s older, you know, a big stack of Ms. Marvel and Squirrel Girl, and it’s because there’s this cynical part of me that’s seen comics go through cycles and worries that this is going to be a brief flourishing, a golden age before we descend back into, I don’t know, ubiquitous grim and gritty. But I’m hopeful that it’s going to continue to get better.

CAMPOCHIARO: I’ve done the same in recent years, reading and then setting aside certain series for my children for when they’re older. I even bought the recent graphic novel Space Dumplins because the main character shares my daughter’s name and tells of her adventure to save her father. Seriously, they’re making it too easy for geek parents these days, no? Back to the cyclical nature of comics for a moment, though: do you think the financial (if not always critical) success of big-budget grim and gritty superhero films like Batman v Superman will steer companies like DC and Marvel back towards more “grimdark” work in their comics?

PROEHL: I’m not sure that vibe is working with audiences, so I’m not that worried. I had a moment of concern this summer when it was all supes fighting supes on screen. But there’s room for the grimdark in these universes along with other stuff. I mean, I want my Batman comics to be fairly dark, and my Superman comics less so. I think fun, bright comics are here to stay.

CAMPOCHIARO: I found the book’s structure, following the characters across the country as they visit one con after another, to be highly cinematic. This story would make a great film. I even started imagining actors in certain roles, including Kristen Bell as Valerie, Mae Whitman as Gail (she may be a little young for the role I think she could pull it off), Joseph Gordon Levitt as Brett, Bill Murray as Alastair Sangster (complete with enormous fake beard, of course), and Minka Kelly as the “impossible beauty” Ferret Lass. As a fan of popular culture, do you also find yourself daydreaming about what a film version of your book might look like?

PROEHL: I love hearing people cast the book. It’s so much fun. I’m not a particularly visual writer. I think there are some writers who are “seeing the movie in their heads” and writing it down, but that’s not how I work. So I’m not sure I have a cast in mind, they all kind of fluctuate. Every now and then, someone mentions a casting that just sticks for me. I had a conversation that involved Val and Gail being played by Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, and I laughed it off. But now when I think about Gail, I’m sort of seeing Amy Poehler in my head.

But I would plunk down ticket money to see Bill Murray play Alan Moore in a heartbeat.

CAMPOCHIARO: How has the reception been from readers and fans of the book at the different cons and events you’ve attended since its publication?

PROEHL: It’s only now at the end of the tour that I’m meeting more people who’ve read the book. I went to a lot of cons this year to promote the book, and it’s been great because I love going to conventions. But you know most of the authors that do panels and such at conventions are writing sci fi or fantasy. So I keep ending up as the guy on the panel whose book doesn’t have any robots or dragons in it, or explaining that nothing blows up in my book. It took a while to figure out what I was doing, or how do I work this. I was at my second convention, at Emerald City in Seattle, and I was on this panel with Seanan McGuire, who’d been badgered into reading the book. We all introduced ourselves, and I was being apologetic to the audience about the fact the book wasn’t sci fi or fantasy, and Seanan called bullshit. She said, “This is totally alternate history. It’s a science fiction book.” So now when I’m on panels with sci fi and fantasy authors, that’s how I pitch myself.

Overall the response has been great. There are a lot of fans out there who’ve been fed up with The Big Bang Theory being the way fandom is represented, and so they’re excited to see something that looks more like their lived experience of being a fan. And then there are people who don’t know the first thing about comics who tell me they loved Alex or Val or Gail, or that they learned a lot about comics from reading it and are going to give some comics a try. And then I tell them not to start with Watchmen (last Alan Moore dig, I promise).

CAMPOCHIARO: In my review for Sequart I called the book a “deeply moving love letter to fandom, friendship, and love.” What’s so impressive about it is how well you put into words just how strongly intertwined those three things can often be, and how one can be the glue that holds the others together. As a fan, this really hit home for me. Your characters in A Hundred Thousand Worlds are each struggling with something, but by forging emotional connections with one other they find some sort of hope to carry on. Have you found a similar bond through various fandoms with friends and loved ones in your life?

PROEHL: Oh certainly. I always think people are their best selves when they’re allowing themselves to be inordinately excited about something. A lot of my close friendships in my twenties came out being active in the music scene, when everybody would lose their minds over this album or that band. And now, in a lot of ways, I’ve come back to comic fandom for that same kind of thing. That space where you can get really excited, can nerd out. We fall in love with these things for a reason, they fill some sort of need. They prop us up. I can think of a dozen times when I’ve been low and it’s been Superman or Doctor Who or something that gets me out of it. And that’s the part of the experience, of fandom, that you have on your own. That solitary moment of connection. And you go to a convention, and you can see that about the other people there. You needed it too, huh? For reasons that were completely different from mine. But here’s that thing we have in common, that something in us was broken and we needed these stories to fix it.

Bob Proehl’s A Hundred Thousand Worlds is available now from Viking.

Read the Sequart review of A Hundred Thousand Worlds.

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Michael Campochiaro works in academic publishing and spends any free time he can find reading and drawing. You can read more of Michael's musings at his blog, Words Seem Out Of Place.

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