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Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Interview with Young Adult Author Joe Sergi

Credit: Dafu Yu, Martin Sisters Publishing
Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures, the second book in Joe Sergi's Sky Girl series.

Interview with award-winning author, Joe Sergi. He discusses comics and the release of his young adult superhero fantasy adventure novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures.

Joe Sergi is a life-long comic fan who lives outside of Washington, DC with his wife and daughter. Joe writes on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. Joe is an attorney and a Haller Award winning author who has written articles, novels, short stories, and comic books in the horror, sci-fi, and young adult genres. A complete list of Joe’s titles is available at his website, www.JoeSergi.net.

When he doesn’t write about zombies, aliens, and superheroes, Joe works as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed government agency and is also a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law where he taught Unincorporated Entities.

Welcome Joe. We are excited to have you here. Can you please tell our readers a bit about yourself?

I have written articles, novels, short stories, and comic books in the horror, sci-fi, and young adult genres. My first novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy was selected Best of 2010 by the New PODler Review. That same year, I won the Haller for Best Writer from the Comic Book Artists Guild at New York Comic Con. In addition to appearing in a few comics anthologies (Indie Horror Magazine, Aliens Among Us, and Don’t be Afraid), this year I released the sequel to Sky Girl (Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures) through Martin Sisters Publishing and edited a comic anthology, Great Zombies in History through McFarland Press. I also write a regular column on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF.org).

How long have you been writing?

I always smile when people ask me how long I’ve been writing. I think the real answer is forever. Some of my earliest memories including laying in the back seat of my parents’ car during long road trips creating comic books based on my favorite Saturday morning cartoons or writing the screenplay for a Star Wars inspired opus, complete with the marriage of Luke and Leah (I had even cast the movie with neighborhood kids when we finally realized that none of us owned a movie camera.). In high school, I often annoyed teachers by taking the most mundane assignment and giving them a unique twist. (For a career fair assignment on employment advancement, I outlined the steps that could be employed by the President to manipulate the Constitution to create a monarchy.) In law school, I wrote articles and edited scholarly journals and magazines. As a litigator, you could say I have been a professional non-fiction writer for decades (and quite frankly earn much more per word than I will probably ever make writing fiction).

As for my career as an author, my first real fiction publication was in an issue of Trail of Indiscretion Magazine that came out in 2009. I met the publishers at the Baltimore ComicCon and was so impressed with their magazine that I wrote the first draft of Death Imitates Art on the train on the way home. Death Imitates Art is about an author who is promoting his novel about a cult at a science fiction convention. He meets a group of warriors who thinks the cult is real and madness ensues. I submitted it and, although they liked the concept, a lot of rewriting was necessary. I learned a lot through that story—especially what not to do. That same year, I became a semi-finalist in the Who Wants to Create a Superheroine contest sponsored by the Shadowline Imprint of Image Comics. That experience taught me that comics have their own language. Afterwards, I enrolled in all of Andy Schmidt’s Comics Experience classes to help learn all facets of the craft.

Since then, I have learned a lot about writing and comics. I have written articles, novels, short stories, and comic books in the horror, sci-fi, and young adult genres. My first novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, was selected Best of 2010 by the New PODler Review. In addition to appearing in a few comics anthologies (Indie Horror Magazine, Aliens Among Us, and Don’t be Afraid), this year I released the sequel to Sky Girl (Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures) through Martin Sisters Publishing and edited a comic anthology, Great Zombies in History through McFarland Press. I also write a regular column on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF.org).

Are you a morning or an evening writer?

This is a really hard question to answer. I am one of those people that doesn’t sleep. I have been known to sleep as little as a couple of hours a night. That leaves a lot of time when no one is awake. I used to watch a lot of television infomercials. Now, I use that time more productively and write. I certainly like writing late at night or early in the morning when no one is around. To me, they are pretty much the same.

So, I guess the answer as to whether I am a morning person or a night person is yes.

Who or what is your greatest source of inspiration?

While there is a list that would fill up several notebooks of people who helped make me the writer I am today, I think the dedications to the books say it all. The first Sky Girl book, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, reads:

This book is for my parents.

For my mother, Agnes, who bought me my first comic.

For my father, Marty, who never made me throw it away.

And the second book, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures says:

For Yee and Lizzie.

My Real Sky Girls.

I would be nowhere without these people.

Tell us about your latest book. What is it about and what inspired you to write it?

Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures is the sequel to Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy. The first book introduced DeDe Christopher, an ordinary teen with an extraordinary destiny to become Sky Girl. Being a teenage girl is hard enough, but for DeDe, it is proving impossible. In addition to cliques, books, and boys, she has to worry about capes, apes, and aliens. When we last left DeDe, she had just adopted the mantle of Sky Girl at the end of her sophomore year of high school. This book opens the day before she starts her junior year, so she's had the whole summer to practice and train with her best friend and self-professed comic geek, Jason. She’s actually gotten quite good at being a costumed adventurer—except for her banter, which still needs work. Now, DeDe must learn what it means to be a heroine as Sky Girl faces the all too real enemies and allies of SkyBoy, including the clever Quizmaster, the beautiful Penny Pound, the enigmatic Jersey Devil, and the magical MissTick. DeDe must also face personal challenges as she discovers the secrets of her late father and his connection to SkyBoy--secrets that will affect Sky Girl’s destiny.

Unlike the first book, which took place over the course of a week, this book covers the whole school year and allows for more diverse adventures. For example, Sky Girl faces off against Shadow, Jason faces off against Quizmaster, and they both have to face an angry horde of zombies. Each adventure stands on its own but is also part of a larger plot and expands on the mystery of what happened to DeDe's father and Evil Brain's plot for world domination.

I guess the most important thing to note is that you don't really need to read the first book to enjoy the second. You just need to know she is Sky Girl.

As for the inspiration, I think it is fair to say that the entire Sky Girl trilogy was conceived in a comic’s podcast forum project and born out of a father’s love for his daughter.

The Comic Geek Speak Podcast is made up of a bunch of great guys that love comics. I have listened to them and appeared on their show for several years and am still an active member of their forums. It was on those forums that I learned about a proposed prose anthology, which would be written by the listeners of the podcast. I wrote a story called the Return of Power Boy, a story about a middle aged accountant, who may or may not be a superhero. (The anthology was never produced and the story was later featured in A Thousand Faces, the Quarterly Journal of Superhuman Fiction where it won the Haller for Best Writer in 2010.) The story was a very dark tale of what happens when a super villain wins. One of the very minor characters was the accountant’s four-year-old daughter, CeeCee.

After the story was finished, I kept coming back to that little girl. What kind of life would she live, would she develop her father’s powers, and what would she do if she did? Well, CeeCee became DeDe, and the character of Sky Girl was born.

By this time, I had a daughter of my own. And I can’t help but think that this is what converted the very dark Power Boy story into the light hearted story of Sky Girl. As a proud geek daddy, I wanted to share my hobby with my daughter and looked for characters to inspire her. Sadly, I found very few. With a couple of exceptions, most of the female characters from early comics were merely eye candy fawning with unrequited love over the male protagonist or were relegated to the role of guest star (or even hostage) in their own books. Even the few that started as everywoman characters (like Kitty Pryde or Cassie Sandsmark) rapidly developed into über pin-up babes in the 1990s and 2000s. Thankfully, things have gotten a lot better for the modern female comics character, but the industry still has a long way to go. Female characters should have the same chance to grow, develop, and overcome adversity as male characters do. DeDe is a strong teenager and not defined by the men in her life. The series is really about DeDe’s journey to find herself and become Sky Girl. She makes a lot of good decisions, but she also makes some bad and selfish ones. But, at the end of the day she hopefully ends up in the right place. I hope she inspires my daughter to make good decisions.

At the end of the day, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures, and the character of Sky Girl is the culmination of reading far too many great comics, finding far too few strong female characters, and loving my daughter just enough.

Have you always written in this genre?

I write in several genres. I write both prose and comics (which are technically mediums and not genres). In each, I have written fiction and nonfiction in the young adult, superhero, romance, fantasy, sci-fi, comedy, grind house, and horror genres. (I also write zombies, which appears to have become a genre of its own.) Each genre has its own rules and storytelling patterns. I’ll admit that it’s hard sometimes to be writing a violently graphic horror story and then switch to writing a children’s book about funny animals. It’s also hard to figure out what section to sit in at the book festival. Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures is technically classified as young adult. However, this book more correctly fits into what is known as the superhero genre. There are certainly challenges to writing in this genre. And while characters like Superman and Spider-Man tend to do well, original characters are a hard sell. But, I think it’s a great genre and believe it deserves a chance to thrive beyond licensed properties.

What do you like about this genre?

As for choosing the young adult genre, I find it is a lot more fun to write. This may be because of the streamlined plot structure. And while it is more applicable for my comic book work, I also believe that it’s important to have superhero fiction that is accessible for younger audiences because they are the future of the genre.

How long did it take you to bring this book from first draft to printed copy?

I have a pretty unique writing process. When I did Sky Girl, I wrote all of my first drafts on my Blackberry as emails, which I sent to myself and edited later. (I do the same thing on my iPhone and iPad now, with a lot more editing required thanks to the autocorrect feature and my fat fingers.) So, looking at those emails, it looks like the first draft of the trilogy was finished in early 2007. Of course, the harder part of the work was the submission process. Right out of the gate I got numerous three chapter and full book requests from several publishers and agents. However, always at the last level, the book would be rejected because 1) it should be written as a graphic novel, 2) the target audience for superhero prose fiction is too small. More specifically, that the there is no audience for superheroine fiction, which is like saying “girls don’t read comics.” (This is clearly not true and sexist in my mind.), and 3) my platform wasn’t big enough. Numerous publishers suggested I self-publish the book, which was a route I didn’t want to go. The few offers I got were from publishers that were on the Predators and Editors lists (or should have been). Finally, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy was picked up at by a small press and published in May of 2010. As describe below, I ended up making the wrong choice and learned from it. But, I am grateful that the first publisher was willing to take a chance on the book because I know there is a Sky Girl audience out there. After I was able to get my rights back from the original publisher, I was lucky to find Martin Sisters Publishing for the second book. They will also be re-releasing the first book.

Was the road to publication challenging?

The decision to choose a publisher can be very difficult. With the first book, I had the choice between the subsidiary of a large publishing house and small press start up. The large press wanted me to sign away all rights, including the ability to write my own sequels. So, I went with the start-up. It was a decision I would come to regret. Not only was I responsible for most of the up-front costs and for promoting the books, but the start-up did not make royalty payments on sales before going out of business. Worse than that, the company did not offer any discounts to bookstores or bulk purchasers, which limited sales. It was a very expensive lesson that could have been avoided with some upfront research.

I think that I made the right choice with the second book by going with Martin Sisters Publishing. Martin Sisters Publishing is very focused on supporting their authors. There is even a community of published authors that share ideas on marketing and promotion. And while small presses are more limited in their mainstream brick and mortar distribution, the internet has made the small press model more viable. Sky Girl is available at all online booksellers and can be ordered in brick and mortar shops and chains. Given the fact that the first book sold primarily at comic conventions and book festivals, a small press author discount, which in my experience is much bigger than the ones offered by large and midsize publishers, is essential. Finally, with the small presses, authors have more control over their intellectual property and the marketing of the material.

Do you have an agent or are you seeking representation?

I am interested in representation for my prose work (comics work doesn’t really lend itself to representation at the publication level). But, to be frank, I really stopped seeking a while ago. When I first began writing, I actively sought out agents, which was a very frustrating process. I had no connections and had to apply through the slush pile. It felt kind of like that game show. I was fighting a million contestants for the bachelorette’s rose. I got some great rejections like “NO!!!!!” written across my cover letter in red ink. Another wrote, “Although I would buy this, I can’t sell it.” Eventually, I found I was so focused (read ‘obsessed’) on the submission process, that I had stopped writing. So, after consulting with some other writers, I decided to stop looking for an agent and focus on improving my writing. I turned off the Bachelor mentality and traded it in for the Field of Dreams mentality. (“If you build it they will come”). That being said, I am always interested in finding a forward-thinking agent to represent the Sky Girl trilogy (and me), as well as someone to shop around the media and derivative rights for Sky Girl as well as my comics properties. (I have already had some comics material optioned but nothing came of them). Who knows, maybe that forward thinking agent is reading this interview.

If you could be any character in your book, who would you be and why?

I have always been partial to Jason. He is the comic book geek. I relate to him in many ways. However, unlike Jason, who flies his geek flag proudly, I tried to hide my geekiness. In college and law school, I snuck out to the comic shops at night so no one knew I bought them. I would never give any hint as to the level of passion I had with science fiction books, television, and movies. And, I would not have been caught dead at a convention. I even (gasp) feigned interest in sports. At some point, I decided it was more important to be who you are. Jason made that decision early and stands by it. In fact, to this day, I have friends and coworkers who believe writing comics, science fiction, and young adult novels are childish and that I am wasting my time. I think Jason would feel sorry for those people.

What is different about your book compared to other books out on the market?

As I mentioned, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures is in the superhero genre of fiction. Traditionally, the superhero genre was limited to the comic book medium. Sadly, while the superhero genre has had great success expanding into movies and television, superhero prose fiction is a hard platform to sell. I find it amazing that while comics has gained exposure as a medium and is no longer limited to the superheroes genre, the superhero genre, itself, hasn't really been able to expand into novels or short stories. I hope that Sky Girl will help challenge the limiting misconceptions about the genre. Thus far, it has been an uphill battle. When I was first shopping the series around, so many publishers said they loved the story, but thought that I should make it a graphic novel. But, that wasn’t the point of the series. I wanted to try and capture all the magic and wonder that make superheroes awesome, but express that amazement in prose format.

What was your favorite book growing up?

I have always been a voracious reader. As a child, I read the Dr. Seuss standards and other picture books, but the book that has had the most influence on me was Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird since it inspired me to be a lawyer (my reading comprehension may need some work since I didn’t become a defense attorney like Atticus). But, I also loved comic books and wore out my copies of X-Men, Daredevil and Star Wars. I made my parents pack every single one of my comics for family trips (luckily we drove everywhere). I also remembered devouring Alan Dean Foster’s Splinter of the Mind’s Eye, which featured a romantic interlude between Luke and Leia. I also remember becoming very confused when I found out they were siblings in Return of the Jedi.

Do you currently have a favorite author?

I don’t have a single favorite. There are just too many out there. I think the original Dragonlance trilogy by Margaret Weiss and Tracey Hickman is excellent as is the follow up series. I also enjoy John Grisham, Scott Turow, JK Rowling, Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and Scott Golden. On the comics front, I really enjoy Robert Kirkman, Brian Michaels Bendis, Chuck Dixon, Geoff Johns, Chris Claremont, and Walt and Louise Simonson. I also like crossover people who write novels as well as comics like Denny O’Neal, Roger Stern, Neal Gaiman, and Brad Meltzer. I should also note that I am addicted to self-help/improvement books and have tried to read every book and listened to every program by Stephen Covey and Tony Robbins.

What is the most memorable book you have ever read?

My favorite book growing up (and still today) is To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee. Not only is To Kill a Mockingbird a compelling story with amazing prose and symbolism, but, there are a lot of lessons to be learned from Atticus Finch. Although Superman is my favorite hero, Atticus is a pretty close second. In fact, I have been told that when I was very young, my mother was reading me the scene in the book that takes place at the court house right after Atticus defends the rights of Tom Robinson. All the townspeople stand up as Atticus walks by (“Stand up Scout, your father is passing.”). Apparently, I interrupted the narrative and announced with determination, “I’m going to become a lawyer.” And I did.

Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?

Sky Girl is available at all online booksellers and can be ordered in brick and mortar shops and chains. It is also available directly from the publisher at http://www.martinsisterspublishing.com/.

What is up next for you?

In addition, to the Sky Girl book, this year I edited a comic anthology called Great Zombies in History through McFarland Press.

Great Zombies in History is a new graphic novel anthology released from McFarland Press. I met a talented group of writers through Andy Schmidt’s Comics Experience writing classes and we decided to form an independent comic imprint called Elevator Pitch Press to showcase our work. We have released several anthologies that have ranged from horror (Don’t Be Afraid) to grind house (Girls with Guns) to science fiction (Aliens Among Us). Great Zombies in History is an anthology of historically accurate stories, but written to include zombies. For example, I wrote The Zombie War of 1812, which features the real reason that Washington, DC was burned during the war. Rob Anderson, writer of the best-selling BDI book, Rex: Zombie Killer, and who acted as editor on the original project, did a story about how zombies helped King Leonidas and his army of 300 Spartans hold their own against immeasurable odds.

I should also mention that I write a regular column for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF.org) on the history of censorship in comics. It takes a lot of work to do those columns, but I believe the CBLDF is an important organization and am glad to help them in their mission to protect comic creators against censorship. I recently did articles on the rise and fall of romance comics, a before and after analysis of the comics code on reprinted books, and detailed histories of Sheena, Superman, and Wonder Woman. People with an interest in discovering the history of comics or censorship should check them out.

Next up for me, is my first non-fiction book, Comic Book Law, Cautionary Tales for the Comic Creator, from McFarland Press. It’s not a secret that I am an attorney and I find that when I appear at shows, I am often asked about the legal side of the business. People are always asking about the latest case or the history of a certain character. My upcoming book came up as a result of some my guest appearances on Comic Geek Speak and articles I’ve written for Ape Entertainment’s now defunct Comics Now! Magazine. Basically, Comic Law features the stories behind the cases. For example, most people know that DC Comics was sued over Superman by his original creators, but they probably don’t realize that the case was a roller coaster ride that took almost 70 years to resolve. In addition, the book provides guidance, but not legal advice, to comics creators who want to understand the basics behind concepts like copyright, trademark, contracts, and censorship and how they have relate to the comics industry. And while Comic Book Law is certainly not meant to be a “how to” book, there are a lot of good and bad examples of what creators can do to protect themselves. In addition, these behind the scenes stories should also be entertaining to non-creator comic book fans as a peek behind the curtain of the industry they love. For example, the book discusses the original inspiration for Josie and the Pussycats, explains why Captain Marvel became Shazam, and discusses how the Comics Book Code nearly killed the industry and resurrected the superhero.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Just to say “thank you.” Readers are awesomely dedicated to books. I mean sure, as a writer, I have to be dedicated to creating the story and provide entertainment. But at the end of the day, I write for me—because I have a story to tell. I would write if no one ever read it. Readers, on the other hand, have no such compulsion. They spend their valuable time and money on someone else’s work. There are a lot of great books out there by some amazing authors (living and dead). As a result, these people don’t need to take a chance on me (or any other unknown), but they do. I really appreciate that. And nothing is more rewarding than someone coming up to me at a show and telling me that they really loved my book, or that it is their daughter’s favorite book, or that they made (or had someone make them) a Sky Girl costume for Halloween or a ComicCon. If you want to know a secret, book festivals and comic conventions aren’t that lucrative for me (I rarely ever make my table cost). But, writing is pretty solitary, so the chance to meet people is priceless.



About the Writer

ccmalandrinos is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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