Rik Hoskin is an award-winning comic book writer and novelist from the UK who has written comics for Star Wars, Doctor Who, Superman, Shrek and a successful Spider-Man title aimed at younger readers, among many others.
In recent years, his work includes three White Sand graphic novels, working with author Brandon Sanderson, the first making the New York Times bestseller list, and collaborations with writers Dean Koontz, Pierce Brown and Patricia Briggs. His other credits also include the SEAL Team Six novels and two projects for Indian publisher, Campfire – Taj Mahal and They Conquered the World.
He has also written over 25 novels under the pen-name James Axler, as whom he was the lead writer on the Outlanders series for eight years. He’s also written a trilogy of original novels for HarperCollins based on the Kevin Sorbo-led Hercules, The Legendary Journeys TV series, has written animation scripts for the BBC’s website, and others, and was lead writer on the game, Game of Khans.
Now his latest book is due for release – Bystander 27, a comic-inspired novel, published by Angry Robot.
After his pregnant wife is senselessly killed in a clash between the mysterious super-powered ‘costumes’, ex-Navy SEAL Jon Hayes fights to discover the truth about their identity and origins.
For Jon, the super-powered ‘costumes’ are just part of ordinary life in New York City, until the day his pregnant wife Melanie is senselessly killed in a clash between Captain Light and The Jade Shade.
But as Hayes struggles to come to terms with his loss, and questions for the first time who the costumes are and where they come from, the once sharp lines of his reality begin to blur…
If Hayes wants to uncover the shocking truth about the figures behind the costumes, and get justice for his fallen family, he’ll have to step out of the background, and stop being a bystander…
Rik, thanks for catching up with us. It’s been a couple of years since we had a chat about your work. You’re now ramping up for the launch of a new comics-related project, although Bystander 27 is a novel not a graphic novel… how did the project come about?
I had the idea for a book about the background crowd in comics while I was reading a lot of 1960s and 70s Marvel reprints a few years ago. I began wondering what all these people in the crowd thought about their streets constantly being invaded by Galactus and Doctor Doom and all these other incredible beings.
The book developed from there, and I drew inspiration from the approach of SF writers like Philip K Dick and J.G. Ballard who would have a normal everyman as the hero. That’s the perspective the novel takes, looking at superheroics from the point of view of an ordinary guy – whose life has been shaken to its foundations by one of those flashy fights.
Superheroes never seem to fade from popularity, with the many big screen iterations of both Marvel and DC characters through to, most recently, The Boys and The Umbrella Academy on Amazon Prime and Netflix respectively. To what do you attribute that continued success, across more than just comics?
I’ve been reading superhero comics since I could read, so for me they’ve always been around. I think right now we have a few factors that have come together to make them popular in other media. Partly, it’s that the special effects have finally caught up to the imaginations of artists like Jack Kirby and John Buscema – seeing Hela’s crown brought to life in Thor: Ragnarok, for instance, was something that just would not have happened a few years ago, and I loved it. Also, it’s partly that studios want to develop franchises that can run and run.
But at the core, are the superhero stories, which are very much a modern mythology. They have the same appeal that those old Greek Myths still hold, vibrant characters, flawed heroes, incredible acts of courage and sacrifice. It’s spectacle but it’s grounded in a very human experience with characters like Tony Stark and Peter Parker, whose failings are so recognisable and familiar.
Did you find it hard to pit a “normal” hero, Jon Hayes, against the superheroes that killed his wife? Surely even an ex-Navy SEAL is at a disadvantage when it comes to battling super powers?
Oh, he’s at a huge disadvantage! But the story’s not really about how Hayes will fight heroes, it’s more about how his world works and how he explores it. He’s a capable combat vet, but he’s also grieving and it’s the grief that motivates his decisions.
Hayes is a witness to the heroics of the “costumes”, but he also has to unpick what it is they do and why. As the book develops, he begins to get more hands-on!
Early reviews have been positive and the book has a smashing “open ending” that of course I have no wish to spoil for potential readers. Are you working on a sequel yet?
I wrote Bystander 27 as a stand alone, so for now I’m not working on a sequel. I do have some ideas for what I might do next, either a thematic sequel or a direct one, but that’s for the long term. I have too many other stories I want to explore.
There’s been a progressive “darkening” of superheroes in popular fiction over three decades now, led by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons Watchmen, Grant Morrison’s Zenith… although of course the UK had its fair share of super powered anti heroes before these. Do you ever feel it’s gotten too grim and pine for the days of Krypto the Superdog and Bat-Mite?
I think that “darkening” is more of a sophistication. It’s been something of a cultural shift which we’ve seen in other media as well, most especially television drama which has become much more gritty over the past three decades.
I don’t hanker for the days of Krypto and Bat-Mite – they’re a little before my time – but I’m not drawn by the very dark stuff either, I want to read for entertainment. I think the magic of superhero comics is in the big ideas and wacky-science, which is something Grant Morrison frequently taps into.
With Bystander 27, I’ve tried to get that wide-eyed optimism and the wild ideas we associate with the Silver Age of superhero comics, while also exploring the gritty reality of day-to-day living in that world.
What else have you been up to since we last talked? How are your comics projects going?
I’ve been writing graphic novels for Dynamite, comics for Egmont and I created a comic strip, “Wikkaman“, for Aces Weekly Volume 36. I’ve also been writing in other fields including games, animation and audio.
I was also approached about creating a TV show which is a whole different world again.
I’d written for Campfire before with a graphic novel called Karna: Victory in Death, so they approached me to do the Taj Mahal book along with another book that hasn’t been announced.
The Taj Mahal book came from an idea the publisher had, and it began as more of a fictionalised story set during its construction. Campfire realised there was a huge market for the book in the education sector, so I was asked to refocus the script and make it more factual.
As for They Changed the World, I actually stepped in when another writer couldn’t complete the project, so it was really just a case of being in the right place.
With Campfire you always get a great artist, and the editors are patient and supportive. Every one of their books looks amazing, you can pour over the artwork for hours.
In addition to your recent comics work and novels, you’ve been busy writing audio scripts and you were head writer on the Game of Khans game. That’s a lot of different writing styles – how do you prepare yourself for different requirements?
Each project is different, but writing is writing, and that’s what I love to do. It’s about creating character through dialogue for all of these things. Speech has a rhythm that you can feel when you write it.
For Game of Khans – where you play a fictionalised version of Genghis Khan – we were trying to infuse every character with a strong, clear personality in quite limited snatches of dialogue, perhaps 20 words each time they spoke. Each one needed to be an individual and stand out in their own way. That’s a challenge when you’re fifteen or twenty characters into the project and you’re still having to find new ways to say “Let’s fight the enemy” or “Let’s get romantic”.
The other writers involved were exceptional, everyone involved on the project was amazing – and they still are! I did about four months as head writer, running edits and helping people when they needed pointers.
With audio, it’s the opposite of comics – because you don’t have any visuals. But you have so many tricks you can do there, and dialogue is so quick to deliver in that format that you can have real fun infusing character into every exchange.
The crucial thing about all of these projects, including comics, is that they are collaborations, and you play to the strength of your collaborators. For one audio series I write, for instance, I sensed that a couple of the newer actors had great chemistry so I’d put them together in scenes and try to get them playing off one another more. Their part expanded simply because they worked so well together.
And you won a Dragon Award, for the first White Sand graphic novel. That’s great… has it helped secure more work, gaining that deserved kudos?
I’m sure it’s made people take more notice of me, and it probably put me back on the radar of a couple of people I’d worked with before. But everything in publishing is slow, you probably need to ask me this again in five years.
In fact, you seem spectacularly busy, despite the “bastard virus” as David Hine recently called it. Has the Pandemic had an impact on your projects?
I have been very lucky so far, apart from the book launch being a little more “remote” than we’d initially planned as signings had to be put on hold. I know it’s affected some freelances very badly though, and I’m collaborating with an artist right now who’s still coming out the other side of that, which is very difficult.
Given your long writing career, are you sensing any immediate changes in the way the publishing industry is responding to the Pandemic?
That’s a good question but one I don’t think I’m qualified to answer. I’d like to hope that the publishing industry will carry on regardless, since its audience is almost perfectly geared for stay-at-home lockdowns or whatever comes next. So, stay at home and read my book!
But in all seriousness, other industries, like film, TV and theatre are probably going to find it tougher because of the restrictions they find themselves under. I’m not sure how many “actors interacting over zoom” films we need or want. But creative people get imaginative in these situations, and challenges can often make for the most interesting artistic choices.
As things do, slowly but surely seem to be getting back on an even keel, what’s next for you as a writer? Is there a project – book or comic – that you’d happily crawl over hot coals to write?
Next will be more of the same: comics, audio, game scripts, books. I’m also producing a card game, but that’s still in the early stages.
What would I crawl over hot coals to write? I’ve already written Star Wars comics, which was the big, dream project for me. But in truth, I just enjoy writing – it’s not the project, it’s what you can bring to it.
Rik, thank you again for your time and the very best of luck with Bystander 27 and future projects!
• Bystander 27, published by Angry Robot, on sale from 11th August 2020, is available from all good bookshops – and you can order it here from AmazonUK (Affiliate Link)
• Get all the latest news about Angry Robot at www.angryrobotbooks.com – and joining the mailing list, the New Robot Army | Find Angry Robot on Facebook | Follow Angry Robot on Instagram | Follow Angry Robot on Twitter
Courtesy of Angry Robot, downthetubes has some copies of Bystander 27 by Rik Hoskin to give away!
To be in with an opportunity to win, correctly answer the question “Which pen name has Rik used to publish over over 20 books?” and email us at downthetubesATcruciblecomicpress.com (replacing the AT with @ when composing your mail) with your answer by 12 noon UK time on Monday 17th August 2020. Please include “Bystander 27” in your email subject. Good luck!