While we normally think of superheroes as being the main characters in comic books, there’s been a number of superhero novels as well. And not just ones about Batman and Spider-Man. Peter Clines’ Ex- series, for instance, is about superheroes fighting zombies. It is in a similar mash-up vein that we find Pinnacle City (paperback, Kindle), a superhero noir story by the dynamic duo of Matt Carter and Fiona J.R. Titchenell. In the following email interview, they discuss the origins of this story, what comics and movies influenced it, and the numerous, almost dominating contributions of their king snake Mica.
To start, what is Pinnacle City about?
Fiona: At its core, it’s about two people from the same superhero-filled city, and yet from two completely different worlds. Kimberly’s a former teen idol, verging on A-list superhero, from a wealthy legacy super family. She’s well-intentioned but cripplingly naïve and out of touch, with no concept of how much she’s being exploited as a brand icon, let alone what things are like outside her ivory tower. Eddie’s an ex-henchman P.I. from the side of town still half-destroyed by past hero/villain battles. He knows exactly how bad things are and how corrupt the city’s controlling powers are on every level, but he manages that knowledge through alcoholism and self-preserving apathy. When their paths collide, and then get twisted together in the web of a conspiracy that spans both their worlds, they have to figure out if they have enough pieces between them to add up to a real, city-saving hero.
Where did you get the idea for Pinnacle City and how different is the finished novel from that original concept?
Matt: The credit for the idea of this one actually has to go to our editor at Skyhorse, Jason Katzman, who, after the release of my first superhero novel, Almost Infamous: A Supervillain Novel, said he thought it’d be cool to see a classic sort of detective tale set in a superhero universe, and since the first ever novel I wrote — which never got published — was pretty much along those lines, we felt like this was definitely something we could work with moving forward. A few months later, we had a book.
Since this one was really fast from development to finished product, there was surprisingly little changed from first to final draft. I think a couple minor characters and scenes got cut here and there, but the backbone remains nearly identical to the project as it was originally envisioned.
So what superhero movies, games, cartoons, comics, and comic writers do you consider to be the biggest influences on this story, and in what ways?
Fiona: Kimberly’s old life as a teen hero, before she moves up to the big leagues, was definitely heavily inspired by the Teen Titans cartoon. She’s got a lot of Starfire in her, a lot of Supergirl, and a bit of Squirrel Girl, though unfortunately for her, she lacks Squirrel Girl’s ability to permeate the surrounding material with her optimism. Once she joins the Pinnacle City Guardians, I started taking out a lot of my frustration with the recent Superman movies, with this joyless, aloof Superman smashing through buildings without the slightest thought for who might be inside them.
Matt and I also spent a lot of time discussing what we liked and didn’t like in various comic arcs and graphic novels that explore superhero power gone wrong: Injustice, Red Sun, Watchmen, Civil War. There are plenty of stories about characters deciding that great power equals great responsibility. Fine. All well and good. But then they sometimes decide that this means having the power to help people makes them responsible for everything about those people’s lives, which means they have the right todictateeverything about those lives. And suddenly the hero is a villain. Sometimes the writer knows that, and that can be fascinating. Other times, the writer misses the memo and keeps treating them like a hero. We wanted to do the reverse of that, showing the Pinnacle City Guardians mostly from their least flattering angle: from below.
It’s really hard to pin down all the superhero influences for Pinnacle City, because one of our favorite parts of comic universes is that they can be full of everything. You can have brilliant but physically ordinary humans, flying aliens, magic users, sentient robots, and talking animals all in the same place, and it works. That infinite potential is part of what makes superhero worlds so much fun to play with.
Matt: I’m a huge comic fan, and for this book in particular I have to acknowledge that it owes a lot to a few particular books. The graphic novels Watchmen and Kingdom Come and the series Ex Machina are definitely some of the biggest reference points for their realistic takes on what a world with superheroes would actually be like and the toll it would take on shaping society. The Marvel series’ Alias and Runaways are also favorites for their high quality writing and telling grounded stories on the peripheries of huge superhero universes. And, since Batman needs to make an appearance — because Batman is Batman and I can never deny how great an influence he is on the genre — our love for the shows of the DC Animated Universe and the graphic novel Batman: The Long Halloween were also huge influences on this book.
The tag line on the cover of Pinnacle City calls it “A Superhero Noir.” What noir novels, movies, and comics do you think had a big impact on it and, again, in what ways?
Matt: As a couple reviewers on Amazon are all too ready to point out, our background in the noir genre is actually somewhat limited. That being said, my dad raised me on a number of classic noir films and neo-noir films that helped define some of the plot and tone of this book. Definite examples I’d include would be a lot of the best love letters to Los Angeles and its seedy underbelly, such as Chinatown and L.A. Confidential. Though weirdly enough, the closest story this one owes the most to would probably be Who Framed Roger Rabbit? I know it sounds weird, but this is a weird world we write in.
Fiona: For me, definitely Alias comics. I’ve also got a soft spot for the musical, City Of Angels.
Why did you decide to write Pinnacle City as a novel as opposed to a comic book?
Fiona: Short answer: Because neither of us can draw. Especially me.
Matt: But especially me.
Fiona: I beg to differ.
Serious answer: It’s a novel because novels are what we’re practiced and good at. We may not know how to paint a picture with paints, but we can with words. We both have a deep love and respect for comics as an art form, and if a comics publisher were ever to ask us to write a comic script for one of our stories, or even for a new one, we’d probably get right on learning how to write a comic script. Otherwise, though, I don’t think either of us would seriously consider trying to break into an industry that’s even more competitive than our own, while having only half the skills between us to create a finished product. We’re happy to continue being novelists.
And do you even think it would work as a comic?
Fiona: It would sure have to be a long one, but we’d love to see what it would look like.
So then was Pinnacle City influenced by any superhero novels?
Matt: We read a lot of books and a lot of superhero comics but rarely find that they overlap, though we’d honestly love to see a world where superhero novels were more of a thing.
Fiona: I’m not sure I can call it much of an influence on Pinnacle City, but I do enjoy Scott Westerfeld’s Zeroes, mostly because of how innovative the characters’ superpowers are. It definitely makes me want to explore more than old standards like flight and speed in superhero stories.
You guys are a husband and wife team who wrote this together. How does that work?
Fiona:Usually, we each take one POV character to write the text for. Someday we might do a project with a larger cast of main characters, but in the case of Pinnacle City, Matt wrote Eddie and I wrote Kimberly.
First, we sit down with a notebook and outline the story together, and then we talk in detail about each pair of chapters as we’re about to write them. Once we finish a pair, we swap and do a cursory edit of each other’s work, to make sure we don’t have any long-running miscommunications and the characters behave consistently across both POVs.
Once we finish the first draft and make any major changes, we edit together, each of us taking notes and then comparing them, talking out anything that we tackled differently.
Matt: We both have our strengths and weaknesses, but when it comes to the actual writing of the novel we’re both in the thick of it. It helps that by its design [that Pinnacle City] has two main characters, allowing each of us separate and intertwining storylines that we can write relatively independently of each other. We both came up with the story and its outline and its characters and we both wrote and edited it…at least until it went into the incredibly capable hands of our wonderful editor at Skyhorse, Jason Katzman.
And what does your king snake Mica do? Or does he not do anything because he’s a king and if you tell him to do something he’ll throw you in a stockade for a week, and then you’ll miss your deadline and piss off your editor?
Fiona: He eats dead mice and gives our apartment a year-round macabre vibe, which is conducive to our usual writing style.
Matt: He wanders around his terrarium, drinks water, and almost always misses the mouse we dangle in front of him because he’s got terrible darting accuracy. He’s not terribly bright, but we love him.
So what did you guys have the biggest argument about while writing Pinnacle City? And I mean arguments about the book, not about how whose turn it was to do the dishes.
Matt: We didn’t really have any significant arguments on this one, making it easily our most harmonious collaboration ever. When it comes to our writing at least, we’re almost always on the same page.
Fiona: Yeah. We’re more likely to argue about what project to do next than about the actual contents of the projects. Occasionally, we’ll disagree about how to lay out the timeline to best set up all our favorite scenes, or about exactly how evil the villains are or should be, things like that, but all the elements just lined up really neatly between us for this one.
Now, as you know, superhero stories are usually not one-and-done kind of deals. So is Pinnacle City the first book in a series?
Matt: This is a weird sort of a “yes and no” answer, since officially this is a standalone book, but it’s also related to Almost Infamous. Neither is needed to understand the other, but they do technically take place in the same world, featuring the same slang, minor characters, and some locations. While it’s not technically a series, this design is a lot of fun to work with as it allows us to experiment with a lot of different kinds of stories in the familiarity of the same universe. Almost Infamous is a coming-of-age teen dark comedy, Pinnacle City is a modern noir tale. Personally I’m hoping the interest is high enough that I’ll get a chance at writing a superhero horror story.
Superhero stories are obviously big these days. Has there been any interest in making a movie, TV show, or game out of Pinnacle City?
Matt: Personally, given the nature of high quality TV adaptations that push the boundaries of what can be done with narratives, I’d love to see it as an HBO style show. Of course, I wouldn’t say no to an Arkham style video game adaptation, since that would work pretty well with the story and characters that we’ve got.
Fiona: That would be awesome! Here’s a stealth mission playing as Eddie, finding readable items to solve a crime and signaling Petting Zoo to come crashing in as a cape buffalo when you’re in trouble. Here’s a combat mission as Kimberly, beating up wave after wave of Milgram thugs. Of course, if I had anything to say about it, it would also have cutscene runtimes worthy of The Last Of Us. Not that that’s a bad thing, but it does bring me back around to wanting a TV show.
If Pinnacle City was to be adapted into a movie or TV show, who would you each like to see cast in the main roles and why them?
Matt: My dream casting is going to show my particular allegiances to the horror genre, because while I don’t have anyone in mind for the younger cast of characters, the older ones are made up of prominent genre stalwarts. I’d love to see Bruce Campbell [Ash Vs. Evil Dead] as slimy Mayor William “The Conqueror” Card, Brad Dourif [the Chucky movies] as the charismatic mind-controlling crime boss Milgram, and Sigourney Weaver [Aliens] or Jamie Lee Curtis [Halloween] as the badass time-traveling cyborg Tragedii. My dream casting tends to take a different shape from most peoples’.
Fiona: My one serious thought for the younger characters would be Jessica Rothe for Kimberly, also due to horror fandom. I’m just amazed by the range she gets to show off in Happy Death Day, and I think she’d be more than able to carry Kimberly’s whole progression from bubblegum sweetness to crushing doubt to blazing fury.
Finally, if someone enjoys Pinnacle City what similar book of someone else’s would you each suggest they read next and why that?
Matt: The graphic novel Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross for its similarly cynical deconstruction of a world of superheroes run amok.
Fiona: I’m going to be my weird, esoteric self and recommend Isaac Marion’s The Burning World. It’s not a superhero book, but it is a book that takes the cosmetic details of its genre — post-apocalyptic, in its case — and puts them together in a new way to tell a timely story about societal power dynamics, and about characters trying to balance self-preservation with keeping their souls. If you like what we do with those themes in Pinnacle City, definitely give that one a try.