The following is an interview with Roland Mann, a Christian author of young adult fiction, graphic novels, and comic books.
RH: Why do you write about superheroes? When did your love for superheroes begin?
RM: My love for superheroes began when I was about seven. I wasn’t much of a reader and my mom was searching for ways to get me to read. I spotted a copy of THE AVENGERS with Captain America on the cover. You know how kids are—I started begging for it because I HAD to have it. Mom bought it on one condition: that I READ it. I did…and was hooked for life.
Why I write about them is a good question…but I think it boils down to it’s what I know. Y’know, as writers we’re often told to write what you know. I’ve been reading comics since I was 7…and so I guess that’s what I know. Funny, though, it took an interview with a literary agent regarding my first book to have that sink in. He flat out said he didn’t care about the one I was pitching, but was very interested in the superhero novels in progress that I mentioned to him simply because of my background.
RH: The Young Adult fiction market varies from literary realistic fiction to fantasy and steampunk. As a Christian author who writes about superheroes, where do you fit into the market?
RM: Unfortunately, there isn’t a recognized “superhero” genre or category…yet. My experience is that no one really knows where to put me (or superhero stories either). Story of my life, I guess. Ha. For the longest time most folks writing and working in comics would tell you that superheroes fall under the sci-fi label. With the new “paranormal” tag, that’s where it seems the superhero stuff is being shelved. That’s okay, too, I guess. But I actually had a Christian literary agent tell me that “Christian publishing” wasn’t ready for superheroes. If that is the case…it’s sad.
RH: What steps do you take to incorporate a Christian worldview into your writing? In other words, what questions do you ask yourself or what issues do you consider when you set out to write a novel or graphic novel?
RM: The main question I ask is how is the love of Christ or a life of faith going to be revealed in my story. I want to try to avoid the “altar call” stories I’ve read in Christian work. Certainly there is a place for them, but I want to reach a different audience. I want to be able to do with my work what LITTLE HOUSE ON THE PRAIRIE was able to do; tell the story of an interesting family and their struggles to live and survive. They had faith in God—it was just part of who they were. Their decisions were made based on their own Christian worldview and yet…they struggled. They failed. They stumbled. I want to be sure that there is someone in my stories who can come at the problem(s) that way
RH: How do you write a story that incorporates a Christian philosophy while reaching the mainstream at the same time? What is your approach?
RM: One of the things I like about early American literature is that there is no doubt there is “a” God. Oh sure, there’s much debate about what exactly God is, but the assumption that God exists is simply part of the literature. And yet, the stories are just stories. They’re not necessarily about the protagonist being “reborn,” or being “saved.” They’re simply stories of people struggling for one thing or another. When God is mentioned, it is rarely (if ever) done so in the “if God exists” context. It’s always a certainty. That’s what I hope to do with my writing. I want the influential characters to simply have that mindset: God exists—we may not agree on what that means, but God exists. I think one of the things that turns off mainstream (or, non-believers) audiences is a “preachy” tone. People go to church to be preached to (at?), those who don’t go don’t want preaching. I want my work to be accessible to those readers, too. I will add this: as an ardent believer, that’s something I really have to be cognizant of—not to make my work too preachy.
RH: Many Christian parents do not want their children to read about fighting or violence. How do you handle issues of violence in your stories when Christ instructs his followers to turn the other cheek?
RM: One of the things I love about the Bible is that it is full of stories of people who fail—some horribly—and yet God forgives them. That’s who we are as people, even Christians. Every Christian has a struggle of some sort. We’re not all the same. Some Christians struggle with lying, some with cheating, some with substance abuse, some with sex, some with gluttony, etc. etc. And while I want to be very clear that I’m not trying to write material for consideration in the next edition of the Bible, I want my stories to be equally about people who struggle to be a Christ follower. I mean, if you get right down to it, do those same parents want to keep the stories of David and Goliath (David killed the dude with a rock!), David and Bathsheba (uhm…yeah), or Jonah (he got eaten by a fish!) from their kids? The Israelites slaughtered tribes wholesale…that’s pretty violent. Even Moses killed. Even Peter, one of the disciples, pulled out a sword and cut off a dude’s ear! What I hope to show whenever violence (and mine is almost always super-hero styled violence) is used is that it is contradictory to the teaching of Jesus. But so is swearing, right? But these are our struggles…and I want to show that. And let’s just face the facts of today’s culture, too: superheroes are hot right now. Superheroes fight supervillains. If they didn’t, they’d be very boring.
RH: With so many stereotypes and expectations of teen boys portrayed in the mass media, how do you approach the creation of male characters who are both strong and moral, yet flawed and believable?
RM: This may sound like a cop-out answer, and I don’t mean it to be, but I think it’s our job as writers to avoid the stereotypes at all costs. One strategy I’ve used is to try to base characters off people I know—as far as their personalities and such go. I don’t know anyone with superpowers! Ha. I’ll find a pastor, music minister, youth director, or even friends of my kids, and try to use them as a model. Then add whatever additional touches I feel I need.
RH: When establishing realistic/believable characters, how do you tackle the issue of foul language and teen romance without creating “cookie cutter” characters who are too good to be true?
RM: Boy, that’s an issue with Christian writers, isn’t it? We do want our characters to be realistic and believable. I don’t, however, think we sacrifice our personal morals in order to do so. I wouldn’t, for instance, write graphic details of a sex scene. Don’t we all understand what “they slept together” means? IF this is vital to the story, that’s what I’d do. “He swore” may not carry the same weight as the actual word, but it communicates the meaning. As writers, we’re supposed to be creative, so look for creative alternatives. “He said something I couldn’t understand and then the girl hit him and told him not to take the Lord’s name in vain.” I know not every Christian author agrees, and that’s okay, but I believe I am responsible for what comes out of my own mouth…and that includes via my hands on the keyboard.
RH: What deeper themes and questions do you explore in your writing?
RM: I like themes of freedom, independence, loneliness, forgiveness, responsibility (you know, “with great power comes great responsibility), belonging/family, and of course, agape love.
RH: As a Christian, what is your approach to fantastical or supernatural elements in your writing?
RM: As you might imagine, I love fantastical and supernatural! I like to read about them and I like to include them. What I try to show in my work is that there are two sources for these: God or … yeah, the devil. Either it is of God or it is not. Fantasy disguises this a lot in various works: light and dark magic, white and black magic, etc. It sort of boils down to good vs. evil. As a believer, we take that a step further and it’s God vs. Satan.
RH: You have published several graphic novels and comic books. How do you approach arguments that graphic novels and comic books are less worthy of literary merit than novels? Is it more difficult to write a graphic novel or a novel?
RM: Thankfully, graphic novels and comics are slowly becoming more accepted in academia. When I first started writing them, though, I may as well have been writing on toilet paper! The argument I have always made is that comics/graphic novels are no different than any OTHER published format. Not every sci-fi novel published is worthy of the “literary” title, but some are. Not every western is worthy of the “literary” title, but some are. And so on. Comics/graphic novels are the same way. Not every one is worthy, but some are. Their merit and value alongside other literary work has always been, in my mind, equal. I’ve read many comics and graphic novels that have moved me FAR more than many novels.
I don’t know that it is more difficult, per se. Much of that depends on the writer’s skill set, I guess. But each has different challenges. I think most prose writers don’t fully understand the challenges of graphic novels simply because they’ve never taken the time to care. I suspect more comic writers understand the challenges of prose because many comic writers do both. Without going into too much detail, prose writers write for one audience (the reader) and comic writers must write for two audiences (the artist and the reader). It’s a different challenge.
RH: You have two children of your own, and both fall into the target audience you hope to reach. How has fatherhood affected your writing?
RM: It’s funny you ask that because I call on my kids to be some of my very first readers. Granted I know there will be some bias on their part, but kids are pretty honest (for the most part). I had some good conversations with my daughter regarding texting when she read THE INTERNS. She liked the romantic elements of the book and my son liked different elements. But the truth is that now I want to write work that my kids would enjoy reading. And because of that, the stuff I talked about earlier (violence, themes, language, etc) is important to me. I want them to “like” it, of course, but I want to present ideas to them that will make them think. For THE INTERNS, one of the things I wanted was for them to question authority, but in a responsible and respectful way.
RH: As a Christian and a father, why does literature written for young adults matter so much?
RM: Because so much of a person’s beliefs and opinions are formed during these years. The “YA” years are when the tendency to rebel against parents and authority happens. There is such an assault on not just “Christian” values, but on traditional values in our culture and they are especially susceptible during those years. I think it is important that young adults get good material that presents traditional/Christian values in a positive light as opposed to what is often presented. I want my own kids to have good material that they can read and be exposed to. Once they got old enough to start reading, it was challenging to find material that did that. I found that I had to go back to a lot of “classics” to get a balance. That’s a shame, I think.
RH: Can you discuss some upcoming projects you are working on?
RM: I’m working on my novel CAT & MOUSE, based loosely on the comic series I wrote several years ago. It was a top 10 indy comic and ran for about two years. I’ve made some changes—mostly to reflect the new me—but readers of the comic will recognize a lot of the characters. I’m working on a graphic novel with popular Batman artist Jerry Bingham. We’ve reached a stage now, though, where we’re simply looking for a publisher before Jerry can continue drawing. It’s a steampunk take on a certain Mary Shelly story. I’ve got a couple of other comics and graphic novels at various stages of development and I’m mostly just trying to find artists at this stage. I’ve got a couple of publishers who’ve agreed to look at them if I can find the artist—so if you know any comic artists looking to break in, send them my way!
Roland Mann is a writer, editor, and professor. As writer, he is best known for his work on Cat & Mouse, a comic which ran for nearly two years, garnered critical acclaim and led Roland to other work. Other titles Roland wrote include Rocket Ranger, Miss Fury, Planet of the Apes: Blood of the Apes, Krey and Demon’s Tails.
As editor, Roland is best known for his time as a Malibu/Marvel Comics editor where he edited The Protectors line of comics and many Ultraverse titles. While there, he developed a knack for finding and promoting new and budding creative talent. Roland also served as Editor and Publisher of Silverline, a line of independent comics that included such titles as Switchblade and The Scary Book.
As professor, Roland currently teaches Creative Writing at Full Sail University. He is also a frequent writing workshop leader/mentor, regularly leading the week long Fall Writing Retreat at the Hemingway-Pfeiffer Museum and Education Center in Arkansas. He is a speaker at writing conferences where many find his sessions encouraging.
Roland earned his Master of Fine Arts in Writing from Spalding University, A Master’s degree in English from the University of North Alabama, and a Bachelor of Science in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Mississippi. In addition to his work in comics and academics, Roland has been a newspaper editor, an advertising flunky and a collegiate furniture sales rep. In 2000, Roland committed his life to Christ and is a changed person.
Roland’s first novel, Buying Time, was published in 2010 as were his graphic novel adaptations of the classic novels The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. He also recently wrote a story in the graphic novel anthology Martyrs. Roland currently lives in Oxford, Mississippi with his wife BJ, daughter Brittany, and son Brett, where he is busy working on his next project. He blogs at www.rolandmann.me and has a facebook author page at http://www.facebook.com/rolandmannAuthor