Michael Moreci has been writing comic books for more than a decade. He wrote Roche Limit and Hoax Hunters for Image and has worked on titles for other indie publishers, with books that include ReincarNATE, Burning Fields, Indoctrination, and Transference. Moreci also penned comic spin-offs for Dawn of the Planet of the Apes and the 2014 Robocop reboot. More recently, he's written stories for DC Comics' biggest titles, such as Suicide Squad, The Flash, Wonder Woman, and Superman.
But to hear Moreci tell it, all those comic books were leading up to this month's release of his first novel, Black Star Renegades, which has a sequel already slated for January 2019. An unapologetic riff on Star Wars, the novel tells the story of a young hero trained as one of the galaxy's spiritual warrior elite who's destined to topple an evil interstellar empire and destroy their sun-killing superweapon… except in this case, the "chosen one" dies in the second chapter, leaving his impulsive screw-up of a younger brother, burdened with self-doubt, to take up the mantle of savior along with a team of unlikely heroes.
By jumping from comics to prose, Moreci joins a relatively short but distinguished list of novelists whose roots were in sequential art, including Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, Mike Carey, and G. Willow Wilson. SYFY WIRE spoke with Moreci about deconstructing Star Wars' mythology and the hidden value in writing a bad first draft.
When you started out as a writer, did you want to be novelist, or to work in comics, or was it just, "I know I want to write, let me figure out what I want to do"?
Michael Moreci: I wanted to be a novelist. I've always loved comics too, but since I was a kid I wanted to write novels. Writing literary fiction is really not my thing. I love reading it, but it's not my calling.
When I was in grad school and I still wanted to write novels, I was discouraged from writing the kind of novels that I wanted to write. Up until that point, from middle school or high school on, I was huge into sci-fi, Star Wars, horror, and all that stuff. I won't name names, but I had a few teachers who were totally against genre. Literally said, "You cannot write this in my class." So the [unpublished] novel I wrote at the time was — it was my attempt at literary fiction and it was god-awful. After that experience I just wanted to go back to pure genre. And really comics is the best place to do that, so I jumped into comics and embraced what I was able to do there, and ran with that for a number of years before I jumped back into writing prose and novels again.
Did writing for comics change your ideas about how you can convey information to a reader in a more visual way?
Oh, totally. And that even changes from artist to artist, knowing what his or her strengths are. I'm working on a comic right now called Wasted Space that's going to be released in April through Vault Comics. The artist there, Hayden Sherman, he's definitely able to do some trippy funky stuff. So I'm making my storytelling style fit more to what his strengths are, and he has a lot of strengths.
If I wrote Black Star Renegades as a comic, it would be a way different story. There's just something about the pacing, about the tempo, what you can show, what you can't show, how you can handle characters, so it becomes and entirely different beast. Comics handle it one way, novels handle it another, and neither one is necessarily right or wrong.
Does it feel different when you're writing a comic book script versus writing a novel?
When I'm thinking of a novel, it's a different language. In books, it doesn't matter how the pages get broken up. With comics, you end up making a lot of those decisions, like, Okay, we have this big reveal of information. I want it to come when the reader turns the page, so I want it to be on the left hand side. It seems like a small detail, but you end up taking into consideration things like that which really affect how the story is read, that play into the language of comic storytelling and how it reads and feels in somebody's hands. It's obvious to say it's more visual, but there's more to it than that. It's about the comprehensive experience that we maximize in a comic book.
What kinds of feedback did you get while writing the novel that allowed you to change your process?
The best was from my agent, who was my first reader. I turned in the first three or four chapters to him and he said, "This is just bad." [Laughs] And he was right, totally 100 percent right. I still hadn't discovered my own voice, I hadn't discovered what this book was. It was just characters standing around looking at things and thinking about stuff. I had to learn, from working visually in the comics, how to transfer that into a giant novel. How do I make every chapter rich? I need something going on visually, I need something going on with the characters, with the story. I took that for granted in a novel where you can meander more, and that's fine, but that my meandering was never very good and I think that worked to the detriment of the overall thing.
As weird as it sounds, I think I needed it to be bad for a little bit, I needed it to fail in a certain way, so I could learn how to correct those mistakes. The more I wrote — and it's true anywhere — the more you write, the stronger you get. So by recognizing, Here's what I'm good at, here's what I'm bad at, as I was writing I played to my strengths and tried to circumvent or at least improve on my weaknesses as much as I could. And like I said, my weaknesses were being too introspective when it should have been dynamic. And my strengths were, being dynamic, adding certain characters, adding a voice that was fun. I would have never figured that out without going through a bad draft, and another draft that was a little less bad, and another draft that was a little less bad, molding that clay over a lot of drafts, a lot of iterations, a lot of learning.
How much changed with the characters or plot between the drafts?
The plot stayed fairly consistent. Luckily, as I was tweaking the nuts and bolts of how to write this thing, at least I knew the story was centered, the story was set.
The characters changed quite a bit, especially for Cade, what his journey was going to be, what it meant. Kira changed quite a bit, she got a backstory that I don't want to reveal, that led to her own path, which wasn't in the first couple drafts but I knew she needed something else to help bring her some shape and definition. It's weird the process of getting to know them better and know them more. Once you get there, you can write them better and give them an inner world and better ways to interact with each other and what's going on around them.
How does the literary world, the agents and publishers, how do they view comic writing and graphic novels? Did coming from that background either help or hinder you as you were trying to lock down a publishing deal?
Mileage varies, based on some agents and some editors who think that's really cool and put a lot of value in it. They see, Oh, this person has written for Image and DC, not just for me but in general, and they realize that there's people who follow their work and they've done good comic storytelling.
And there's some agents and editors and authors who just don't care. In my case, my editor was familiar with my work. I was pitching him for a while. He was a fan of Roche Limit, and that's how we met. I didn't have to start from scratch. For agents who don't care about comic storytelling, you're a first time author, basically, which means you have to write a whole book in order to potentially hopefully get to work with them. That wasn't my experience, thankfully.
How was it coming into the second book, having already done this the first time around?
It was a very, very clean transition. Thankfully, because I didn't want to have to go through that again. It actually took a little bit longer, because the second book is more nuanced and a little more complex. As much as I did rely on the things that I learned, and I enjoyed playing the hits again, so to speak, I wanted to make it be its own thing in its own way. I wanted the characters to evolve, I wanted the story to evolve, I wanted to go to new places in some regards, and the direction that I took. Particularly, making it a little darker, and there's things that characters are wrestling with from the first book. The first book is meant to be a romp, it's meant to be like Buck Rogers, Star Wars, Flash Gordon, that kind of stuff. All that's retained in book two, but it goes a little deeper. I'm loath to make this comparison, but it's a lot like the way Empire Strikes Back made the stuff in A New Hope way more complex.
You're up-front about how you wrote Black Star Renegades as a Star Wars idea, without being Star Wars. When you started this project, what did you want to pull out of Star Wars that you could use, and what did you want to improve on or make your own?
We do embrace the Star Wars stuff fully. The first draft was like, really Star Wars, to a problematic degree. To answer your question about what we wanted to take from Star Wars, it wasn't necessarily specific story beats, it was the spirit of Star Wars. We wanted to capture just a space adventure. Fun adventure with good characters, characters that you can endear to, broader themes of good versus evil, the wider scope that Star Wars was able to capture. There really aren't many books like that. There's plenty of space operas, there's plenty of space military. That purely fun, basically pulp kind of stuff, I can only think of a few books like that. Mike Brooks recently wrote a series called the Keiko novels, the first one is called Dark Run, and it's basically a Firefly novel. It's wonderful.
And yeah, I nod to Star Wars, but I also nod to Dune and I also nod to Star Trek and I nod to Mass Effect. It's kind of an Easter egg-ish, pop culture, Ready Player One thing that's also happening in there.
How I made it my own was deconstructing the Star Wars story, especially when it comes down to the messiah complex. You know, one person is going to be the savior, Luke's going to save us or Harry Potter or whoever. There's a deconstruction of that particular trope that Star Wars has relied on heavily, which is the idea of the chosen one and midichlorians and all that. They're even starting to deconstruct that now with The Last Jedi.
To me, it read like Star Wars on the surface, with magic weapons or this idea that one person is going to save the universe, the spaceships and the empire. But underneath it felt like a very different story.
That's definitely what we're trying to do, and thankfully a lot of people are seeing that. But I also took great care to shift away from that. Because once you get past the superficial stuff, it becomes its own thing. It also comes from the villain, Ga Halle, who also deconstructs the idea of the Jedi Order or good versus evil, in her own way, because she's far more complex, I think, than anything we've seen from villains from Star Wars.
The story starts with Cade and his brother, who is killed in the second chapter. Are you close with your own brother and how much does your own relationship play into this story?
My brother and I are tight. He's always been the one who was expected to do important things, more reliable and more dependable. And I'm the other one. I mean, I'm a writer for God's sake. I was kind of living in his shadow, trying to catch up and failing to catch up with the bar that he set. He's the firstborn, obviously.
So yeah, that does play an important role. And also brothers, father figures, and how those roles can be toxic and handicap people from developing into what they should be, rather than what they think they should be or what they're told they should be. Ga Halle‘s entire problem was that she was told she should be one thing, and when she didn't become that thing, she lost her mind. The pressure of those relationships is threaded throughout the entire story and the second book too.
So how does your brother feel about you killing off his analogue in your first novel?
[Laughs] He hasn't said anything. Hopefully he won't notice.