Writer Irene Vartanoff got her start in the comics industry in the 1970s, and worked in the editorial and production side of the business both at Marvel and DC. As she points out in some autobiographical notes on her website, before that she was also a prolific letter writer to DC, with 100 published letters under her belt (a very impressive feat; I only ever bothered sending in two letters, to Marvel, and they never got published…).
Anyway, these days Vartanoff is mainly writing novels and stories, many of them in the romance genre, about which you can read more at her aforementioned website. However, I became interested in two recent books she wrote that are very much steeped in superhero comics and the people who create and consume them: Temporary Superheroine and its sequel, Temporary Superheroine: Crisis at Comicon.
The main character in both books, the titular temp superheroine, is Chloe Cole, a young (twenty-something) comic book writer and artist who publishes her own web-comic (called ‘Average Chloe’). In the first book, she is tormented by nightmares in which she fights a super-villain, and she keeps getting mysterious e-mail messages with art files attached that seem to match the content of her dreams. As she tries to unravel the mystery, she gets sucked into the world of big-time comics publishing and promotion in New York, meeting some of the industry’s movers and shakers. And in a surreal twist, she also starts begins a career as a bona-fide costumed superhero – even taking some side-trips to another dimension.
In the sequel, she’s gainfully employed as an artist on a series about a female superhero being published by one of the big publishers (basically, a thinly-disguised Marvel Comics). While attending a comics convention in Chicago, a super-villainess keeps popping up at the convention center and wreaking havoc, so Chloe has to step up again to deal with the problem, and figure out just what the hell is going on and why. This involves time travel, among other things.
Although ostensibly superhero adventures, there’s a lot more going on in both of these novels, as they contain quite a bit of critical commentary on various aspects of the comic book industry and the culture that grew up around it. In a general sense, the first one tends to put more focus on the insiders, i.e., the writers, artists, publishers, etc., and how they treat(ed) each other, while the second continues in that vein, but also puts comics fandom under the microscope (even touching on some of the misogynistic, toxic aspects of the latter in a few scenes).
Vartanoff is often quite biting, but she’s never bitter, and ultimately both of these novels are a rather light-hearted and mostly loving look at the comics, their creators and the fans.
Both novels have a sort of roman à clef quality, as many of the characters, both major and minor, are based on real life personalities on the comics scene. Some of the more notable main characters in this regard include:
“Jovial” Jerry Fine –an avuncular figure with god-like status in the industry and among fans, who’s always appearing at cons and is involved in all manner of comics tie-in projects (like reality TV shows); obviously, this is an analog of Stan Lee, although he’s also described as an artist as well as writer and editor, so there’s a bit of Jack Kirby, or maybe Joe Simon or Will Eisner, thrown in there as well.
Eric Wood – a forceful, somewhat arrogant guy (who’s really tall), now working in the management side of one of the major comics publishers as editor/publisher, although he got his start as an indy writer/artist; mostly based on Jim Shooter.
“Diabolical” Dave McKay – an artist who initially collaborated closely with Jerry Fine, but then left the company after they had a falling out; he seems to be an amalgam of both Kirby and Steve Ditko, but it’s more the latter in terms of his political views.
“Bodacious” Barb (I won’t reveal her last name, as it would be a bit of a spoiler for a major plot point in the first book) – Fine’s right-hand and girl Friday in the early years, now a rather jaded middle-aged woman; so basically, a sardonic, probably somewhat meaner version of Flo Steinberg.
And there’s many more like this in both books. Readers well-versed in comics history will easily recognize them.
And if the surnames of all of the characters mentioned above have a familiar ring to them, that’s quite intentional. Every single character in both books shares a surname with an actual comics creator, especially those from the dawn of comics – including illustrators – up to the Silver Age, so, for example, Chloe’s former boyfriend, who is a supporting character in both books, is a guy named Roland Kirby, and you run across characters with last names like Giordano, Maneely, Krigstein, Shores, Tenniel, Crandall, Kane, Herriman, Westover, etc., etc.
The only actual comics creator who appeared as herself was the recently-passed Marie Severin – which actually got me to dust off this post and finish it (I had started writing this some time last spring but then got sidetracked). Vartanoff and Severin were good friends, and Severin asked to be in the book, so Vartanoff honored her with a cameo, working a table in artists’ alley at the Chicago convention.
It seems to me that this series would be well-served by a third installment, one that places the current Hollywood/mass media juggernaut status of comic book properties under greater scrutiny – just as the first two put comics creators and comics fandom respectively under the magnifying glass. There even seems to be hints of another story in the second book, as Chloe considers a job offer from a studio in southern California to work on a comics-related movie project. Alas, it would appear that nothing is in the works, as I’ve seen no solicits at, say, Amazon, nor does Vartanoff give any indication at her site that she’s working on another book in the series. Too bad.
Regardless, these two books are great fun to read – and, unsurprisingly, I think they could also be adapted into great comics, or even movies.