Frank Beddor: There's Something About Alice

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Frank Beddor Looking Glass Wars

Here's a take on Alice that's rather novel: Alice is grown, and returns to Wonderland, only to find that the Red Queen has taken control and imposed tyranny on the citizens. Card soldiers roam the streets, and the Hatter and her other friends form an armed resistance, with Alice as their leader.

But it's not Tim Burton's new sequel, "Alice in Wonderland" (which, more aptly, ought to have a "2" appended to the title). Rather, it's the plot of a series of novels and graphic novels, The Looking Glass Wars, penned by the producer of "There's Something About Mary," Frank Beddor. With all the hype surrounding the movie, everyone has Alice on the brain -- so it was a good time to sit down with Beddor and chat about Alice and Lewis Carroll and Wonderland... and who better than me to do it? (Well, probably a lot of people, but fortunately the pool of potential interviewers was limited to the staff here at Critical Blast, so there.)

What was it about Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland that inspired you to create The Looking Glass Wars?

I was not a huge fan as a young boy. As a matter of fact, I had a dislike for the fairy tale. My grandmother's name is Alice, and she read it to me when I was 10 or 11, and I completely rejected the idea of a girl in a blue dress falling down a rabbit hole and going to tea parties -- I grew up as a Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn fan.

But I found myself in London for the world premiere of the film I produced, "There's Something About Mary," and I happened to go to the British Museum -- I had an hour to kill -- and I came across an exhibit of ancient cards. There were playing cards, tarot cards -- but there was one incomplete deck of cards that had hand-painted images, and these images reminded me of Lewis Carroll's fairy tale, except they were really dark and twisted. I was fascinated with these cards and where they came from, and it led me to an antiquities dealer who specialized in selling, trading and collecting all things to do with cards, who told me this fantastic story of what he believed was the true story behind Alice's adventures. It was as if someone was telling me a Grimm's fairy tale. That inspired my Looking Glass Wars, and at the heart of it was this little girl who comes from a magical place, and she's exiled to our world, and nobody believes her -- except for Charles Dodgson, who promises to write a book about her harrowing adventure so she can find her way home; but he betrays her. To me, that was the idea that I could hang an entire book on.

Did you do a lot of research on Lewis Carroll before delving in to writing the book?

What happened was... I rediscovered the books while I was in college, and I really came to appreciate the complexity and the multiple themes that run through his books. And then I spent a great deal of time in Oxford, soaking up as much as I could, researching and getting a sense of not only Lewis Carroll, but more importantly Alice Liddell, his muse. And then I discovered things like his diaries, that there were missing pages. And I discovered that Alice Liddell was going to marry Queen Victoria's fourth son, Leopold, and that didn't happen. And all of that information, all that backstory, started to find its way into my prose series.

I really enjoyed the time overseas in Oxford and London. It took me, really, five years to sort it all out. Two years of that was building the world -- the logic, the rules, the backstory -- before I could really work on the narrative. I already knew what was going to drive the story, I needed to know how the world worked. And I made a lot of mistakes -- I was writing myself into corners it seemed like every other week, waking up in a cold sweat going, "How am I ever going to fix this?" So I made a few mistakes, and what's interesting is how many readers will point those out.

We'd talked earlier about the ardent Lewis Carroll fans and scholars, and how you had actually received some negative reviews about the idea of the book before the book had even been published. I imagine you got quite a bit more feedback from the Lewis Carroll followers after the publication.

I found the controversy to be a little surprising. I understood their point of view -- being an American taking on one of their classics is as if a Brit came over and took on Huck Finn. But it's not like I'm the first to reinterpret and reimagine a work, and that's the whole point, the whole purpose, for works falling into the public domain, so that people will reimagine them so they're relevant for contemporary audiences.

But, yes, I didn't know there were four Lewis Carroll Societies. When I showed up for my first book tour at Heathrow, there were four or five protestors with placards saying "Off With Frank Beddor's Head!" And I thought it was my publisher pulling a joke on me, but it turned out that they were really upset. They must have been a small, radical fraction of the Lewis Carroll Society. But they did not want me touching their book. I went up to shake their hands, and they were like, "Hey: You stay away from our classic."

Alice is probably one of the most reimagined characters in all literature. Not counting our own re-imaginations of the concept, there's also Jeff Noon's Automated Alice, I've found an Alice in Zombieland of all things, several short story collections, the DC Comics Oz/Wonderland war (and I still don't know why they haven't released that as a trade, particularly in this current market).

And that's just of the written word! Let alone art, clubs, a garbage disposal company called Mad Hatter. There's all the music, all the films, there's the architecture in San Francisco -- there's a hotel where the lobby is all themed around Alice. It's pretty much endless, which is why it's the third most quoted literary work. How often have you heard a politician say, "Oh, we're falling down a rabbit hole?" It's constant.

There's something about Alice (so to speak) that's both endearing and enduring. Even though Carroll wrote many other things, like The Hunting of the Snark and Sylvie and Bruno, nobody really remembers those -- but even people who haven't read Alice's Adventures in Wonderland are familiar enough with it to seem like they've read it.

It's as if everybody and anybody can read into the works whatever suits them, whatever fancies them, and they can make their own logic out of the illogic of the place. People can view it as a whimsical fantasy, or a terrible nightmare. So you have the whole dreams versus nightmares, and the puns... there's a lot of theme's going on, and that's why it endures. And that's why so many musicians riff off of it.

We've mentioned that Alice has appeared in different comic book versions. You also have the graphic novel extensions off of The Looking Glass Wars with your Hatter M series. Why did you choose the illustrated format for that story instead of another sequence of prose stories?

Here's what happened: I was in London for the first book tour when the hardback came out, and I went to a school -- it was seventh and eighth graders -- and one of the boys said, "My favorite character is Hatter Madigan, and in your book you skipped over his thirteen year quest for Alyss while he was in our world, and I want you to write that book."

That got me thinking on the flight home that maybe he would be a good character for a comic book series, because he was such an action figure, he was stoic, and I could really tell the story from his point of view. And I thought it would be compelling, and a different kind of writing, and I decided that I would try it if I could get Ben Templesmith to do the art. He didn't seem like an obvious choice, because he'd been working in horror, but I loved his palette, I loved the style, I loved the scratchiness -- and I just thought it might translate. So when he agreed to do the art, then I moved forward and I've enjoyed the process. It's interesting writing. As you know, when you write a novel, it's like you're a marathon runner. When you write a graphic novel, you have to collaborate with the artist, with the letterer, and there's more of a community that's rallying to create something together. I found it highly rewarding.

So you were something of a comic book fan before deciding to go this direction with Hatter M?

Neil Gaiman, Frank Miller, Alan Moore -- I followed their works. I've never been a huge superhero fan, even though when I was a kid I loved Spider-man, and I have a son and he loves Spider-man. But I would say they inspired me. Grant Morrison, I love his stuff. They brought me into the medium, and I think most of it had to do with... I was in the movie business, and I was producing, so I started reading their stuff. I felt my story would work, thanks to them.

How do you visualize the characters when you're creating them? Do you visualize them as specific actors, friends, or relatives?

Some of the female characters I envision from young girls that I knew when I was a kid -- there were these tomboys that I was friends with, and I just loved their spirit, and thought their spirit was really unusual and thought of them as complete equals. And I fantasized about if they were able to hold onto that spirit, into adulthood.

I don't usually think about actors. With Hatter... You know, with acting, sometimes you work from the inside out, and some actors work from the outside in. In this case, I was really working from the outside into his character. So it was about what he looked like, what his weapons were like, where he came from, how he might train, and then through that sort of emerged this stoic character.

Redd was sort of a combination of a principal and a gym teacher I had -- who were both male, but they had this bite to them that scared me when I was in ninth grade. And then a driver cut me off one day, and I had a tantrum in my car, yelling, and I fantasized about having this rose bush that I could whip out through the window and strangle the person -- and I thought, "Oh, that's kind of cool, I wonder if I could make that into something?" I hope they don't come back and ask for credit: "Hey, I cut you off and really pissed you off, so I gave you that idea for the living rose dress!"

I reviewed the first Hatter M graphic novel, and Jeff Ritter reviewed the second one, and we both noticed in each one there was a bit of an homage to (among other ideas) Batman, first with him leaping through the courtroom window, and then later with the pasty-faced inmate at the insane asylum.

Here's the reason: In Wonderland, in my prose, imagination is a very powerful, tangible source. As a gift to the worlds around Wonderland, Queen Genevieve, through the Heart Crystal, transports imagination out into the universe to be used and captured by artists and children and anyone who's creative in our world. So that gives a logic as to why Da Vinci was able to sketch a helicopter. But it takes hundreds of years before it can be actualized; before it can be realized. And so these influences and experiences that Hatter goes through are actually things that inspired the creators of Batman and some others -- Jules Verne, I introduce as a character. So they're actually influenced and inspired by this place, this Wonderland that I'm saying is real, and this imagination. It's a 'reverse engineering' of an homage, I suppose.

The Tim Burton movie coming out this weekend, "Alice in Wonderland," is a sequel -- and I'm not sure that many people may be aware of that going in, which we had talked about earlier. From the novelization and some of the trailers, it appears violent in places. I realize I'm asking you to be a bit of a spiritualist in this question, but what do you think Charles Dodgson, knowing his personality and character the way we do, would think about all the different one-offs and reimaginings that his creation has spawned?

First of all, his story has stood the test of time. So no matter what happens, he would compare all of these and say, "Let's see if yours can last 150 years, Mr. Tim Burton." And it's very unlikely.

I think the scholars would say he would hate it; but with a more contemporary mind, and an understanding how other artists before him have built upon legends and myths and archetypes, I think he might find it in his heart to let it roll off of his big shoulders that we've all stood on to build our own stories. I don't think he might have liked the X-rated porno musical that was produced, but... you know...

And what would Mrs. Grundy think about that!

(Laughs) Yes! But my understanding about this Tim Burton thing is that it's not violent; I think they show it's dark, and it's weird, and it's Tim Burton -- but it's PG, so it can't be too violent. I know they have those card soldiers marching, but I don't think it's too violent.

We do get some glimpses of Alice wearing armor, ready to go to battle.

The books are so episodic, and she's very passive. So what they're trying to do is break with the preconceived idea that this little girl is getting tossed around in this nonsensical world, and that random events are happening to her, as opposed to her being pro-active, which makes for good movies -- a strong narrative, with lots of obstacles. So they're saying, "This is a sequel. This girl has got to accomplish a mission, go on a quest, and we're going to fulfill that promise." We'll have to hold back judgment until we both see it, but I've noticed the early reviews have been very mixed at best.

Let's wrap with a last look at The Looking Glass Wars arena. There's more Hatter M to come, and an online world.

My third graphic novel, The Nature of Wonder, is coming out this summer, and it continues Hatter's thirteen year quest to find Alyss. Meanwhile, I've been working with some other writer friends who've been doing webisode adventures of Hatter's thirteen years, filling in the geographical locations that I haven't covered in the graphic novel series. And that's been really fun, to work with other people, see their takes and their point of view. I'm premiering those on my Facebook page: just go to FrankBeddor and befriend me. The second one just went up, and I'm continuing the series every week with those.

And I've done a couple of games: The Card Soldier Wars, which is a browser-based game, which allows you to see all of the artwork -- I have about 900 pieces of concept art that expresses the world that I created visually. And I did a card game. And I'm just kind of where inspiration strikes next.