Tuesday Q&A

Tuesday Q&A: Barry Lyga

The best-selling 'Fanboy' novelist brings his young adult chops to the X-Men with WOLVERINE: WORST DAY EVER

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By Kiel Phegley Young Adult novelist Barry Lyga carries comic fan bonafides with him wherever he goes. After working on the sales end of the comics industry for years, the writer broke out into the mainstream market with "The Astonishing Adventures of Fanboy and Goth Girl" – a teenage romance steeped in references to geek culture and outsider style (which you can read about at the author's website). So it comes as no surprise that Marvel tapped Lyga when the time arrived for the most popular X-Man to make his kids novel debut. Hitting book shelves this April 22, WOLVERINE: WORST DAY EVER explores the world of the man called Logan and the entire X-Men clan through the eyes of a middle school aged mutant enrolled at Xavier's School For Gifted Youngsters. But while the novel focuses on its primary audience of pre-teen and young teen readers, Lyga's history with super heroes makes WORST DAY EVER an entertaining buy for any longtime Marvel fan. And the author explains to us how classic art culled from the pages of X-MEN, some under the radar history references and the story of a kid with the worst powers ever all combine to press fanboy buttons left and right. Marvel.com: A lot of people know that you've got a connection to comics through the fan references in "Fanboy and Goth Girl," but you've got a more direct connection in that you worked for Diamond Comic Distributors for a while, right? Barry Lyga: I worked at Diamond for a looooooong while. I worked at Diamond for little over 10 years. Marvel.com: You've been writing your novels for a number of years, but with that experience, how much was that original novel a way of saying, "I'm writing a book about the comics I love, and you know...if I get a gig working in comics out of this as well, that's cool too"? Barry Lyga: [Laughs] It's funny you mention that because when "Fanboy" was first picked up by Houghton, I was hanging around a comic book store telling some friends, "Hey, I got this publishing deal, and here's my first book, and here's what it's about" the first thing everyone said was, "Oh! Now you get to write some comic books!" This was the era that Brad Meltzer and Kevin Smith and people who had made a name for themselves outside of comics had gotten the chance to do some really cool, very high profile and interesting stuff in the industry. And I'd always waned to write comics—I think it's tough to find a fan who doesn't want to write something at some point—but it wasn't any sort of intentional, back door way into the industry. As much as I love comics, the primary thing I've always wanted to do is write novels. It did become something where I'd sit back and think, "Gosh, if the book does well, maybe I will get to do some comics." But it wasn't an intentional thing. And it took, what, four years for Marvel to call me? [Laughs] Marvel.com: So Marvel reached out to you. Did they have an idea to have you do a Wolverine novel, or had you had a mutant story in the pocket for a while? Barry Lyga: My understanding is that it's a weird circuitous route by which they got me. I knew people at Marvel from my years at Diamond, and apparently somebody at Diamond who I did now know and haven't met got a call from Marvel who said, "We're going to do this middle grade Wolverine book, and we don't know who to get to write it." And apparently this person who I've never met before said, "Oh, you should get Barry Lyga." And Marvel said, "Barry! We remember him!" and the next thing I knew they got in touch with me and said, "We want you to write a middle grade Wolverine novel." And my first reaction was, "Are you sure you have the right guy?" [Laughs] Anybody who's read my novels can see that they're not for middle aged readers and they're not heavy on super hero action. They're very much slice of life, reality-based novels. So at first I wasn't sure, but they told me, "That is what we want. If a kid wants comic book action, they're going to read the comic book. We want something that's going to be a different look at the characters that we've never seen. We think you're the guy to do it." They wanted something very character-driven, and I just took it from there. Marvel.com: It seems like a tough thing to take Wolverine into this world because he's been very popular with 12 or 13-year-kids largely because he's a bit more of an adult-feeling character and the violence can't be as over the top as some of the comics can do it. Barry Lyga: Yeah. I had to sit down and think about it a little bit, and I sat down to read a bunch of Wolverine stuff with no plan. I just read random WOLVERINE stuff from the '70s and the '80s and stuff that came out six months ago. I read a bunch of the stuff and started to see some common elements. One of the things about Wolverine is that for somebody who's a loner, this character tends to accrue a lot of little sidekicks. He's always taking care of somebody. He never likes that fact, but he's a very protective character. Yes, he will pop his claws and get violent and shred your face, but he's usually doing that because there's somebody who's smaller and weaker who needs protection. I thought that was an interesting character because that's somebody who makes him a figure who the smaller, weaker person can look up to—even though Wolverine wouldn't want to be looked up to. Once I had that settled in my head, I thought that if you're telling a story from the point of view of a kid, you don't have to worry about what Wolverine feels about any of this because you're not in his head. As a result, you can have the kid think all kinds of crazy things about Wolverine, and it doesn't matter if they're true or not. What matters is how a kid perceives him. What I realized was that if you're a kid living at the X-Mansion, the X-Men are not bigger than life idols. They're not top-selling comic book and movie stars like you or I would see them. If you're a kid living at the X-Mansion, the X-Men are your teachers. And when you're a kid, your teachers bug the hell out of you. [Laughs] You're never going to go, "Oh man, Cyclops just looked at me!" You're going to go, "Oh man, Cyclops just gave me a really tough essay in history class." Once I locked onto that attitude and realized that's how the kid would see the X-Men and see Wolverine, it became a joy to write this book because it's a perspective we never see on these characters. Marvel.com: And Eric Mattias, the main character in WORST DAY EVER, doesn't seem to fit along too well with the super heroics because he has the self-described "world's suckiest mutant power." What is his power all about, or do you not want to spoil it? Barry Lyga: I noticed that in all the excerpts, they're not spoiling what his power is, which I think is cool. You find out within the first six or seven pages of the book, but I think it's a nice little surprise. I started thinking about the way mutants work in the Marvel Universe, and the line about them is that they live "in a world that hates and fears them." That's typically because they're powers are very frightening. Use Kitty Pryde as an example. A girl who can walk through walls? That's a scary power when you think about it. If you're just a normal human being, it's frightening to think there's someone who can walk through a wall and show up in your house. I started to think, "Clearly some powers are better than others. They can't all be optic blasts and healing factors and flying and banshee screams. There's got to be some people out there with not just ineffective powers, but powers that such. Powers with no redeeming value whatsoever." So I decided, "Let's give this kid those powers. Let's put him at the bottom of the totem pole and see how he reacts." I think there's an impression that at Xavier's school, there's an impression that everyone gets along, but come on, man...it's school. We all remember being a kid in school. There were cliques. There were kids that didn't get along and kids who just didn't fit in. There were kids so weird even the weird kids didn't want to hang out with them. I definitely wanted to play with that, so Eric has the world's suckiest mutant power, and let's see how he manages to live his life surrounded by people with these great powers. I think kids will identify with that because they sometimes feel powerless in a world of grown ups. Marvel.com: I can tell from talking to you that you know your stuff in terms of the characters and the stories in the comics. How much do you thread different bits of X-Men lore into the novel that a kid coming into it might find as brand new but would be attractive to a longtime reader as Easter Eggs as well? Barry Lyga: That was exactly my goal in writing this – to create something that worked on different levels. If you're a kid who knows who Wolverine is and has just seen the cartoon or read one or two comics, everything you need to know about Wolverine and the X-Men and their world is in there. But if you're my age, if you're an old man who's been reading comic book since the beginning of time, there's going to be lots of little in jokes. There's references to the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man and Captain America and the Avengers. All sorts of stuff like that where you get little things like "What reality TV shows would there be in the Marvel Universe?" That question is answered. "What sort of breakfast cereal do mutants eat?" Believe it or not, that question is answered. Little things like that, even a jaded 40-year-old Wolverine fans who have been reading since the '70s will go, "Oh, man...I never thought of that" or "That's a nice little nod to a previous story." Marvel.com: Did you have favorite comics that you'd read that shaped how you showed the mutants in this? Barry Lyga: It's funny because here's where I have to make a confession. When I was a kid, I wasn't a big X-Men fan. I of course knew about the X-Men because they were huge, and I knew the universe and had read plenty of stuff. But there was no one book or one run that I thought, "That's my X-Men." So in a way, it really freed me up because I never thought, "I have to be slavishly devoted to the Claremont/Byrne X-MEN" or "I can never contradict anything Frank Miller did on WOLVERINE." I could pick and choose from 30 years of history. I didn't want to contradict anything, but I could genuinely emphasize anything I found really cool and really fun about the characters and their world. It was kind of funny because I was in New York this week and I ended up having dinner with Chris Claremont and his wife. And he wrote Wolverine for 30 years while I wrote him for 30 days, and his wife asked me if there was any one moment that stuck out for me, and it's funny that I do remember an issue where a friend sat me down and made me read it as a kid. It was from the Claremont/Paul Smith run and the Brood storyline where Wolverine in order to escape a trap, he's got to throw himself in front of Cyclops' optic beams, and the beams are so powerful they break his handcuffs, but they also almost shred him completely. Wolverine thinks, "If I hadn't timed that just right, there'd be nothing left of me but a skeleton and some scraps of flesh." I remember that panel of him standing there and thinking that, and I thought, "Here's a character who's very aware that he could die at any minute, but he does these things anyway." That was really cool and stuck out. Marvel.com: Todd Nauck did a great, fourth wall-breaking cover for this, but there's also a lot of old school art that's supporting the text in a big way. How did the visual end of the book come together? Barry Lyga: What I did was I tried to come up with the basics of the story first, and then I sat down and went through comics to try and find comic panels that would fit. But there were places where I'd see something and go, "I've got to work that into the story." I think the best example, believe it or not, was the shots of the X-Men playing volleyball. For some reason that I can't explain, I was just like, "That's really cool. They're playing volleyball." So I wrote in a scene where they played volleyball just to use that neat idea. But it was mostly a situation where fortunately there's been so many stories told about these guys that you can find artwork to fit any mood or any scene in the story. Marvel.com: After this experience, is writing more comics stuff whether it be another book like this or actual comics something you think you'll be doing? Barry Lyga: Yeah, I think so. I'm actually working on a middle grade series right now that is sort of comic booky and super heroy. It's too early to go into details right now, but it's going to be a lot of fun. And I have a sequel to "Fanboy and Goth Girl" coming out this fall called "Goth Girl Rising" which is the second part of that story, and of course, once again that's fat-packed with comic book references. But I would love to do more books like this, and I would love to get a shot at doing a really cool super hero comic book some day. It always comes down to the right project at the right time, but I'm definitely open to that. 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