In his new superhero novel Bystander 27 (paperback, Kindle), writer Rik Hoskin doesn’t focus on the hero or the villain but (obviously) one of the people nearby whose lives are effected nonetheless. In the following email interview about it, Hoskin explains what inspired and influenced this novel, as well as why the title doesn’t have an “Issue #1” after it.
Let’s start with an overview of the plot: What is Bystander 27 about, and what kind of world is it set in?
It’s a science fiction novel set in the present day. I think the back cover probably says it better than I can.
“For ex-Navy SEAL Jon Hayes, 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.”
Where did you get the original idea for Bystander 27, and how, if at all, did that idea change as you wrote it?
I am a huge comic book fan, and I’d been reading a lot of Marvel Comics from the ’60s and ’70s at the time I hit on the concept. Marvel’s stories were always set in “the world outside your window.” I found myself pausing over the crowd scenes where space god Galactus has invaded New York or Thor is battling Loki outside the UN building, and I wondered what these background people who were watching did the rest of the time, what lives they led when they weren’t witnessing these incredible, mind-blowing events. It developed from there.
My favorite science fiction comes from writers like Philip K. Dick and J.G. Ballard, who’d have an everyman as the hero and keep things very real feeling, very recognizable.
I don’t think the story changed much from my initial idea, although I wrestled for a long while with how the first chapter should begin.
As you said, the main character, Jon Hayes, is an ex-Navy SEAL. Why did you decide to make him a former member of the military, and is there also a reason you made him a SEAL as opposed to a regular soldier or a member of some other special ops outfit?
I find that characters just kind of appear and tell you who they’re going to be, I never give it much conscious thought.
I had written a book about SEAL Team Six before this, so I’d done a lot of research into SEAL training and methods. But it wasn’t a long process, I just launched into it and Hayes told me who he was as I wrote. So it was more like I’d done this research and Hayes said “Hey, you realize I’m one of those guys, too.”
In a similar vein, how did you decide what superpowers Captain Light, The Jade Shade, and the other capes would have?
I wanted it to feel like a full comic book type universe, so there are a lot of costumed characters involved in the book. [But] there are no specific analogues to established characters. There are aspects that parallel Spider-Man or Batman or Superman, but I was really looking at a feel for these characters more than anything, a kind of back story and power range that felt like it was already established when we join it.
Bystander 27 has been described by your publisher, Angry Robot, as being like “Megamind meets John Wick.” But Megamind and John Wick are very different, tonally. Is Bystander 27 dark and gritty like John Wick or is it lighter and funnier like Megamind?
[laughs] This is the first time I’ve heard that. It’s a great comparison.
The book’s serious and violent, so it’s more John Wick than Megamind.
Angry Robot also says it’s similar to The Boys, the TV show based on Garth Ennis’ comic book series. I assume you don’t disagree with this, since it’s on something promoting your novel, but how do you think Bystander 27 distinguishes itself from The Boys?
I’ve not seen or read The Boys, I’m afraid, but I know Garth Ennis is often negative in his portrayals of superheroes, presenting them as morally repugnant outside of their heroic activities. With Bystander 27, I’m really celebrating the superhero genre.
Superheroes have proven to be endurable and flexible as an idea. Right now, we’re in a golden age of comic book movies. So, there’s room for different interpretations, and I’m sure other writers will come along with something else again.
Speaking of comics, you’ve written and co-written a bunch, including Red Rising with Pierce Brown and White Sand with Brandon Sanderson. Why did you decide to write Bystander 27 as a prose novel as opposed to a graphic novel?
Bystander 27 was always a prose novel in my head, it wasn’t really paced as an action story the way comics are, it was more inward looking than that. However, I showed an advanced copy to a comic book editor I know, and he was really keen on it, so maybe it’ll jump to comics at some stage.
So then are there any writers who you feel had a big influence on Bystander 27 but not on anything else you’ve written?
This is such a hard question to answer. I really write on instinct, I don’t think about influences. It’s not like picking ingredients for cooking, I never really see what’s going into the mix. Mostly, I just try to surprise myself, and hopefully surprise the reader.
I mentioned Philip K Dick and J.G. Ballard earlier, and that’s the kind of writing I’m drawn to, but there are so many others. Bystander 27 wouldn’t exist without the influence of comic book writers like Stan Lee, Roy Thomas, and…well, it’s a very long list if we get into it. Writers are magpies, we grab all these words from other people and then try to make them into something of our own.
What about non-literary influences; was Bystander 27 influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games?
As I’ve said, I’m really not conscious of influences. I find writing is almost an unconscious process, almost like dreaming. Music probably has the biggest influence for me, because I like working with the rhythm of language, but it’s not a specific artist or style, just a feel. I wrote a novel under a pen name a few years ago that was loosely based on the structure of David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust album, but no one would have noticed when they read it, it was very subliminal.
Now, as you know, superhero stories are usually not self-contained; they’re usually one adventure among many. Is that true for Bystander 27 as well? Is this the first book in a series?
Bystander 27 is a complete story. It wasn’t intended to be the kind of book that opens up a universe, the way fantasy novels “world build” and explore these grand canvases over a succession of novels. The book says what I wanted it to say. I have ideas about where a follow-up might go, but the book was written as a stand-alone story, and I’m not working on a sequel right now.
Earlier I asked if Bystander 27 had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or video games. But has there been any interest in turning this story into a movie, TV show, or video game?
All I can really say is it’s early days. I’d certainly love to see Bystander 27 translated into another medium.
If Bystander 27 was going to be made into a movie or TV show, who would you want them to cast as Jon and the other main characters?
I don’t like to pin that down and influence how readers imagine these characters. I know some writers start with an actor in mind, or perhaps a film character, but I’ve never worked that way. I don’t think in terms of “What if this was in another medium?” because I have to love the medium I’m writing for at the time, and I write for so many — comics, books, games, and so on — each with their own strengths and quirks.
Just this week, I was offered the casting options for the audio book, and that was a strange process, trying to find a voice that matched the one in my head.
Finally, if someone enjoys Bystander 27, what superhero novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?
Superheroes can be tricky to get right in prose, just as they can be in films. I enjoyed Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman a few years ago. It’s witty and avoids using obvious analogues where you’d say “That’s Superman, that’s Batman,” etc. It’s kind of a clever, adult take on the old Super Friends cartoon.