Today's guest is Joe Sergi, the creator of the Sky Girl series of novels and the editor of Great Zombies in History. His first novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy was selected Best of 2010 by the New PODler Review. Joe is a life-long comic fan who regularly writes on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. When not writing, Joe works as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed US government agency and is a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law.
Thank you for this interview, Joe. Can you tell us a little about yourself and how long you’ve 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 include 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 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 college, I was once accused of plagiarism because “a business major could not possibly be this creative.” In law school, I wrote articles and edited scholarly journals and magazines. Currently, I work as a senior litigation counsel for a government agency. 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 that 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 facts 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).
When I don’t write about zombies, aliens, and superheroes, I work as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed government agency and am also a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law where I teach Unincorporated Entities.
Can you tell us briefly what your book is about?
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.
Why did you choose your particular genre?
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. 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.
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.
What was your greatest challenge writing this book?
In addition to limiting preconceptions and limitations on the genre, as funny as it sounds, the hardest part of the book was keeping track of spelling. Sky Girl takes place in a multitude of dimensions. There are aliens, villains, and magicians in the book, each of whom have a unique speech pattern. Not to mention that the story contains numerous fictional scientific and magic devices. While it was certainly fun making up these devices (the Forget-Z-Not, a memory eraser created by the villainous Professor Z, is one of my favorites), I had to keep a separate dictionary to keep track of them. I soon realized why Bruce Wayne just puts the words Bat in front of his equipment; it makes it much simpler and easier to keep track of.
Are you published by a traditional house, small press or are you self-published?
Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures is published by a small/midsized publisher company named Martin Sisters Publishing.
Martin Sisters Publishing will also be rereleasing the now out-of-print first book, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy later this year. The final book in the series, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Return, should be out next year.
Was it the right choice for you?
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. 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.
How are you promoting your book thus far?
I have just started promoting the book. I have a book tour scheduled and will be making numerous convention and festival appearances. The fact that Great Zombies in History was also released this year also helps me get more bang for the advertising buck. In addition, my work in independent comics, my column the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, as well as my regular guest appearances on podcasts like Comic Geek Speak have hopefully helped me to develop a large enough platform that will give Sky Girl the chance it deserves.
How is that going for you?
Quite honestly, I think it is too soon to tell.
Can you tell us one thing you have done that actually resulted in one or more sales?
With the first book, I did something unique. I created Sky Girl’s Superheroic Tutorial, which I performed for schools, libraries, and at conventions. Basically, this was a tongue-in-cheek interactive skit where I lectured how to become a costumed adventurer. There were a lot of inside jokes about the tropes and conventions in comics, so a lot of the adult audience members enjoyed the show as much as the kids. Eventually, I added a crafts segment where kids could create masks and capes. At the end of the tutorial, a model dressed as Sky Girl showed up, posed for pictures, and presented every child (and some of the adults) a Certificate of Superheroicness (listing a superheroic name and one good deed). I found that most participants bought a copy of the book after. I probably will continue doing (and expand) the tutorial now that the second book is out.
Do you have another job besides writing?
When I don’t write about zombies, aliens or superheroes, I work as a Senior Litigation Counsel for the federal government. I can’t really give too many details about what I do, but basically, I try complex and large dollar cases on behalf of the United States Government. This is the perfect complement to my career as a writer. Because, at the end of the day, writing and litigation are about the same thing: effective communication. Litigators are really just nonfiction storytellers who have to communicate their persuasive message across to their intended audience: the judges and the juries. In fact, I was given some great advice in my career that I try to pass on to all my junior attorneys, as well as my students. And that is: if someone wants to improve their litigation style, one of the best things they can do is to read and analyze the storytelling method in children’s books and fairy tales. This is because these simple books tell a complete story (and most times, a subtle message or moral) that can be understood by an audience that is just learning reading comprehension and has a short attention span. When you take those skills and add a sophisticated audience (like a judge or jury) the effectiveness of the communication improves. The same holds true for my writing. For example, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures is the second in a three book series, which have all been written (with the possibility of more stories in the future). This trilogy tells a complete story for Sky Girl; the first book deals with her origin, the second book sets up a major conflict for her, and the third book resolves that conflict. But, as a story teller, I also know that it is important for each book to stand on its own and each novel in the series has a beginning, a middle and an end and can be read on its own, or as part of the larger story. I have found, as a comic book reader, that nothing is more annoying than reading a mini-series (whether it be 6 issues, 12 issues or even 52 issues) and then find out that the major plot does not get resolved in the book, but rather, requires the reader to invest in an all new series. I didn’t want to do that with the Sky Girl story.
In addition to my position in the Government, I am also a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law. Like litigation, I found that teaching comes to down to effective communication. And as a result, perfectly complements my writing goals. I have found that being able to explain the interrelation of distribution and dissolution of S-Corps, LLPs and LLCs under the ULPA, RULPA, and ReRULPA, really helps when I am trying to describe how DeDe’s Skypulse and Electronet works. (Just don’t ask me about midiclorians or what the island is in Lost because that’s really confusing.)
What’s next for you?
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.
I will say, from a craft point of view, writing nonfiction is much more difficult for me than writing fiction and Comic Book Law took a lot longer to complete than I thought. The reason for this comes down to one word: research. I spent countless hours in the Library of Congress and various Court Houses across the country reading transcripts and exhibits. In short, I have found it’s much easier to invent an alien des ex machina than to research how to build one in the library.
Thank you for this interview, Joe. Can you tell us where we can find you on the web?
My author site is www.joesergi.net; Sky Girl can be found at www.SkyGirlNovel.com, and the official site for Great Zombies in History is www.GreatZombiesinHistory.com; my monthly column can be found at www.cbldf.org.