BY JENNIFER M. CONTINO
Gary Phillips and Christopher Chambers traveled the same convention circuit as mystery writers for years, talking about collaborating on a project together, but it took Walter Mosley to get them to actually do the Darker Mask. The Darker Mask will be out in time for San Diego, and features superhero fiction from some sci-fi and mystery notables. Phillips and Chambers edited the work and gave their collaborators "a free hand to be as odd and strange as they liked" with these tales.

THE PULSE: How did The Darker Mask come about?

GARY PHILLIPS: Chris and I live on opposite ends of the country – him on the east coast and me in L.A.. We had initially met, because of our background as mystery writers, and meeting at one of those conventions like Bouchercon (named for Anthony White aka Boucher, a long-time mystery reviewer and critic for the San Francisco Chronicle and New York Times) – in fact I’m pretty sure, that’s where we met at a Bouchercon, which is held in a different city each year.

Anyway among our other pursuits is we both dig comics, and if there’s anything writers do, aside from grouse about lousy advances, is bounce ideas off each other. Once we sort of locked onto what would be the Darker Mask we sent e-mails back and forth refining and tweaking the proposal.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: Our “community” is very small, really. Smaller than, say, romance writers, certainly screenwriters’ and the like. When you factor the fact that Gary and I are African American you really get to know everyone’s work intimately. We wanted to do something that would leverage our talents, our backgrounds, with a new medium—graphic novels, superhero fiction. Interestingly, here’s where the “smallness” works. We knocked around some ideas yet it was New York Times bestseller and household name Walter Mosley who basically told us to stop knocking and start collaborating on something concrete. Indeed we all shared a common vision from the outset: marry the crime or thriller novelist’s talents to both the prose and visual storytelling media and put an ethnically diverse cap on it. Voila, you get The Darker Mask!

THE PULSE: In recent times we've seen comic creators and others in and around the world of comics working on prose anthologies of notable heroes like Zorro or The Avenger or others of that kin. What sets your project The Darker Mask apart from those types of collections?

GARY PHILLIPS: Yeah, I’m a contributor to the Avenger Chronicles anthology coming from Moonstone, a little story called the Freeze Devil. Okay, just needed to get that plug done. Mainly the difference with the Darker Mask is out stories are not in any one world nor confined to any one character or set of character. We asked the various contributors to come up with their own story, their own ideas of what would be an, edgy, not your ordinary type of super hero.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: It’s interesting to see the parallels reviewers are drawing to The Darker Mask and something like the new film “Hancock” or the show “Heroes.” Ordinary folks? Yeah. Disgruntled, alcoholic super-powered ex-crusaders? Sure. But that’s just the broadest possible cut. Slice it thinner and deeper you see people of color, you see people drained of hope—perhaps homeless, out of rehab…criminals or scumbags possibly in their own right. My story for example takes place in Darfur. “Sleepers” author (and screenplay collaborator with Barry Levinson) Lorenzo Carcaterra’s “hero” is a “strega”—think Italian female witchdoctor, malocchio and all—in a Mafia-controlled Manhattan slum, circa 1950. So yes, our stuff is more visceral, gritty. Not necessarily happy or heroic endings because our “heroes”—and you can see it in the artwork—are not happy or heroic people. More like real life!

THE PULSE: I know that Byron Preiss had a collection of Weird Heroes and Michael Chabon had the McSweeney's Mammoth Treasure of Thrilling Tales; how influenced were you by those works in determining what should be included in The Darker Mask?

GARY PHILLIPS: It’s fair to say we cited those as examples in our proposal and felt we were building on those efforts as well as Wild Cards, which has also seen a resurgence. Though unlike Wild Cards, as we said, the Darker Mask stories aren’t linked as in Wild Cards, so more in the Weird Heroes mold of letting each writer create their own arenas as it were.

For us, the Darker Mask stories owe their lineage as much to comics as to pulp and the hardboiled school of mystery and crime writing.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: I agree. It was more a jumping off point. Of course, a few stories tend more toward adventure or the fantastic, yet they present the edginess we required. Likewise, even if we have something that might be associated with a costumed superhero, there’s a hardboiled crime/detective angle to it. Basically, we took Byron Priess’s and Chabon’s anthologies and distilled them in a pot with Marvel and DC and the Wire, Chester Himes, Dashiell Hammett…a little bit of Little Tokyo, a little bit of Spanish Harlem…a lot of attitude. It’s our own special recipe and I think it’s tasty! That’s why we wanted a range of artists and styles to bring the prose to life.

THE PULSE: Just as important as determining the tone was determining who should be invited to contribute to this collection. How did you decide who would be well-suited to crafting a tale worthy of The Darker Mask?

GARY PHILLIPS: We chose people who are not only talented but who for the most part we had some sort of relationship with, which, obviously, helps in terms of recruiting them for books like this. From Walter Mosley, a big comics fan, to Mat Johnson, whose done comics work for DC/Vertigo, to Alex Sokoloff and Edgar winner Naomi Hirahara, who aren’t particularly comics fans but were intrigued by the idea, we wanted to make sure that more than anything we compiled a cross-section of different types of writers in the mystery, sci-fi and horror genres. For instance we have a story from husband and wife Steve Barnes and Tananarive Due, and also the first published prose story by comics writer Doselle Young. Wayne Wilson, who published a book called Soul Eyes a couple of years ago is an old friend of mine (Gary) as we played football together in high school back in the days of leather helmets…ha.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: I already mentioned Lorenzo, who’s a giant. I think we have our own legion of heroes, each with particular talents for the mix. Victor LaValle was a PEN/Faulkner finalist—one of literature’s highest awards. Mike Gonzales writes for the hip hop magazines Vibe and The Source. Reed Farrell Coleman and Peter Spiegelman are award winning crime/mystery authors, and we add Jerry Rodriguez to that, who’s a filmmaker and has a multi-book deal presenting a Latino, hard edged Bronx private dick as the hero, and then there’s Gar Haywood from LA. They all love storytelling and do it in different ways. Ann Nocenti is a prominent comics writer, and we have artists such as Sean Wang, Brian Hurtt and Shawn Martinbrough who have a huge body of work for DC/Vertigo, Marvel, Dark Horse and smaller indie publishers. Jeff Fisher is a veteran illustrator for magazines such as Esquire and Newsday. It’s all about team or group, not individuals. But there’s an adventurism with an edge evident in all of these folks, and all we had to do was tap into it.

THE PULSE: I can't help but notice that most of your writers are mystery or science-fiction authors, while some have dabbled with heroes in comic books and other formats; they don't seem the traditional sort you'd have working on heroic tales. How do you think their experiences give them a better eye for details than straight-forward superhero writers?

GARY PHILLIPS: As we’ve noted, the selection of the contributors reflects the circles we travel in. Now we do think that these folks bring a certain grounding to the project, but certainly there’s plenty of comics writers out there who are also not the so-called traditional guy in flying tights busting through a wall – not that there’s anything wrong with that. In some ways the Darker Mask represents more how these separations between co-called mainstream writing, sci-fi, mystery, bleed somewhat into each other at the edges. That you have bestselling authors writing comics, comics writers writing screenplays, a re-invention of the Siegel and Schuster story wins a Pulitzer and so on. That really it’s about the story and engaging the reader/viewer.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: I’ll refer to my previous answer. I think it’s indeed personal struggle, experience. When you mix that with talent I think the result is a knack for the stories and images we wanted. Let’s be frank here: I think when you set out to do something gritty and new and more inclusive, beyond the box of America white male-centric conflict or angst, you’re going to get people with both that eye and talent who can deliver.

THE PULSE: What kind of guidelines did you give these writers about their stories? Was there a general catch sentence you used or did you just tell them "x many pages goal"?

GARY PHILLIPS: Other than give us your best shot, nope. Seriously, we hooked these folks because of the concept. They had a free hand to be as odd and strange as they liked, and damned if they didn’t step up in that regard.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: Yeah, very little guidance was needed as to an overall theme, but of course, the devil’s always in the editing!

THE PULSE: What is it you feel defines a superhero or pulp type hero in this collection? How might he or she be different from the four-color icons folks are used to?

GARY PHILLIPS: Again it seems that wall of separation is melding given the kind of material you have available in comics these days. The hero -- flawed, bent, self-doubting – still has to rise above that because they’re the hero. They do have to do that thing that defines them differently than the rest of us…our better angels and all that. Certainly prose allows more for introspection and the observations of the omniscient third person voice, but you have to be careful not to get too carried away with that too.

One thing for sure is we hope is naturally we want comics fans reading the anthology. But we also want those who aren’t comics’ fans to pick the Darker Mask up because they like some of the contributors’ work and will give the collection a try. It seems that even given the success of films like Batman Begins and Iron Man, this doesn’t translate into a stampede of new customers coming to the local comics store. Comics in this country still have a certain stigma as just for kids or whatever. But reading a book, well certainly that’s acceptable in public, ain’t it? Ha.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: One ulterior motive (besides fame Ha!) of ours was to provide some sort of bridge between the traditional literary prose on one extreme and four color dudes in tights and/or armor or gamma-irradiated skin on the other. There’s a lot of middle ground to cover, but I think we helped stake this out. Certainly we aren’t pioneers, and indeed the concept of this collection was fairly old-school before Preiss and Chabon, but I think we have provided at least some avenue for filling in that middle ground. A good story is a good story no matter the medium.

THE PULSE: What are the challenges of editing something like this?

GARY PHILLIPS: Like any other editing pacing, syntax, but also making sure the concept you set up stays true to its own logic throughout the story.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: Deadlines, too. Also, you have to understand, these are very successful, sophisticated writers. Their stuff can’t be edited on the subway or in the john. There’s nuance there. There’s an art to crafting, as writer and editor, something so packed with meaning and so rich yet so simple that you can read it on the subway or in the john! Same with the artwork. We had to review at three or four panels and then pick the one which best illustrates a particular scene in the prose.

THE PULSE: You have a lot of accomplished writers working with you, if you really didn't care for something, were you worried about ruffling any feathers if you had to give some strong feedback?

GARY PHILLIPS: Thank God we dodged that bullet!

THE PULSE: What kind of void do you think this collection fills?

GARY PHILLIPS: We hope that it brings the non-comics fan to the world of comics. See, the Darker Mask is subversive in that regard. For instance, there will be segments of the Black audience who don’t read comics but read some of the people in the collection and, we think, will respond favorably to the book because these writers are in it.

THE PULSE: How did Tor Books come to publish it?

GARY PHILLIPS: They offered the most dough! But really, our editor fought for the book and our publicist at Tor there have been on it.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: And I think others are now Monday morning quarterbacking the decisions to “get back to us” and now see the potential for collections such as ours. Again, not merely as a means to hook black or Hispanic readers or women, but as a beautiful way to tell stories.

THE PULSE: What other projects are you working on in and around comics?

GARY PHILLIPS: I have a four-part crime story called High Rollers coming from Boom! Studios, have a one-shot comic book out now from Moonstone, The Envoy, part of the Twilight Crusade storyline, and the upcoming short story in Moonstone’s Avenger Chronicles.

CHRISTOPHER CHAMBERS: I’m collaborating on a two-book hardcover graphic novel arc called Gangsterland based on Harlem and the Mafia in the 1930s, coming from Villard. I hope to get more into the one-shot comic book world—my tastes run more toward what the indies are doing. Perhaps we can all continue the wave of novelists entering the genre, including Mat Johnson, Gary, Lorenzo and people like Brad Meltzer, who gave a cool endorsement to The Darker Mask, and Jodi Picoult. But not as gimmicks—rather as giving something to a new medium.