British author Nick Harkaway is known for his ability to fearlessly blend genres in novels like The Gone-Away World. In his third novel, Tigerman, he mixes parenting, superheroes and geopolitics in the story of Lester Ferris, a British Army sergeant sent to a remote island outpost on what is supposed to be a simple assignment. But Lester refuses to ignore the shady goings-on in Mancreau, and his growing relationship with a native street kid complicates things further. We asked Harkaway a few questions about superheroes and being a dad.
Tigerman is not a typical superhero story, but it does feature some of the classic superhero tropes, as well as a boy who’s obsessed with comic books. Have comic books always been part of your reading life?
Not always—I came to them comparatively late. I vaguely remember reading some 2000AD before then, but I never really followed comics until I saw Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's Watchmen around the time I was 18. But I don't think I was really into comics until my 20s, when a couple of my friends started feeding me the weird and alarming stuff Grant Morrison was doing, and then someone gave me some Warren Ellis . . . it all flows from there. I love shiny, fun things, but what I really love is shiny fun things that also turn out to be brilliantly clever and intelligent. That's the brass ring. (I must look that up. I don't know what it means.) (I just have. That's really interesting.)
"Superheroes are for the most part inherently conservative. All they want to do is fix the status quo, which when you think about it is shocking."
You’ve described the island of Mancreu as a kind of modern Casablanca, a place where secrets and dark deeds can be conveniently dumped. Why do you think a place like Mancreu worked better for you than, say, a crime-ridden metropolis like Batman’s Gotham City?
Well, first up: the superhero notion isn't the only or even necessarily the primary one I'm working with in the book. This is a thriller with themes of parenthood, and it so happens that one of the things the main character does is put on a supersuit. But he can't fly or whatever, he's just a guy trying to do the right thing in a situation that's completely insane. Gotham City, in the Batman story, is a freakishly dangerous place full of lunatics. Lester's solution in Gotham would not be Batman's, because he would see immediately that whatever is wrong with it is completely unfixable. Batman is in this losing battle to make it less hellish, but it is never, ever going to be Metropolis no matter how much money Bruce Wayne pours into it.
Mancreu isn't like that. There's nothing inherently dysfunctional about it. In fact if it hadn't been abused and broken by people who didn't care about it, it would basically be a really nice place. So Lester is not in a war, which is important because he understands war. He's trying to win the peace—and that, as we're all painfully aware right now, is much harder.
I couldn’t help but notice that the first comic book mentioned by name in Tigerman is Warren Ellis’ Planetary, a book that filters a lot of complex cultural ideas through a superhero aesthetic. Tigerman does a similar kind of filtering, in a way. Did you draw on any particular comic book inspirations, while writing this book?
I love Planetary. I just think it's brilliant. I also love the original Authority run, which is part of where I got the idea that superheroes are for the most part inherently conservative. All they want to do is fix the status quo, which when you think about it is shocking. The Justice League can beat cosmic bad guys, figure out how Sporflompty Zigguratifiers can save the planet from death rays, but they can't fix corporate malfeasance because, what, it's beneath them? (I mean, the real reason is that superheroes basically came of age when we were in a war mentality, they fight enemies you can punch. But increasingly we realize that punching people doesn't really solve anything. They wake up angry, as you would.)
Aaaanyway. I tend to believe that all pop culture either plays with or exemplifies whatever is going on in society. If it's completely unselfconscious, you see reflections of whatever people are scared of as the villain—others of some sort, but what sort? Invasion of the Bodysnatchers comes out of the1950s. In the 1980s you had these huge world-ending threats. After 9/11 you get all these stories about infiltration and destruction. So you don't have to filter: the whole system of pop is a filter, a distillate. The stuff that is conscious, like Ellis's work, is like an elixir, and it's amazing. The stuff that is—to my taste, anyway—basically not very good, is still interesting.
But I didn't really lean on anything in particular while I was writing this. I'm a magpie, which I think is what most authors are. Part of the original inspiration was Chabon's book, The Final Solution, which was itself a Sherlock Holmes riff. But then obviously there was a big Batman thing happening, and a lot of people have picked up on Graham Greene, which I didn't really think of but now I think "oh, right, of course.” And Casablanca. And . . . it just goes on and on.
"I tend to believe that all pop culture either plays with or exemplifies whatever is going on in society."
I read that the idea for Tigerman hit you in 2010, but other writing projects and becoming a father meant that you didn’t finish the book until three years later. How did it evolve from that initial concept?
Oh, it changed but it stayed the same. The big change was that I took out this totally stupid twist I had in it. Everyone hated it, and I was like: "But the twist completely changes everything!" And then I realized that, hey: yes, it did, and I didn't want any of those things to change. Those were the things I needed to have stay the same and everything else could change. I've actually just had the same thing with the book I'm writing now. I was completely screwed, I couldn't make it work, and suddenly it's like: oh, if I turn the whole thing on its head but leave the important stuff right way up, now everything feels as if I meant it that way." It's writing. It's just how you live.
You’ve said that the book is, despite all the other ideas being explored in it, at its heart a story about fatherhood, and you were coming into your own role as a father while writing it. How much did your own attitudes about being a parent transfer over to Lester?
Everything. Everything everything. Lester is driven by love. That's his heart. He wants to love and be loved and he's somehow missed out, and here, in this totally messed up place, he's got the shot and he doesn't know how to take it.
I was much luckier than he is. I had it all in front of me and it was—is—great. But I know exactly how that sense of bewilderment feels, because there was a moment in my life where I just had no idea how I was going to get from there to here. And then suddenly there was this amazing woman who is now my wife, and everything was obvious again. But parenthood: there is no one who knows what that will be until they do it, in whatever way. If you adopt, if you foster, whatever, you are a parent. I'm not being all essentialisty exclusivy here. I'm just saying it is a thing that, until you take it on, you don't know what kind of lunatic it will make you. Because it will make you some kind of lunatic or you are not doing it right. It could completely make you into a person who dresses up and fights crime because your kids need you to do that. Of course it could. Have you seen the insane things people do for their kids? That Liam Neeson movie? Taken? That's a documentary about the emotions of parenthood. It's like: there is a threat?! IT MUST BE DESTROYED. WITH FLAMES.
The boy is a fascinating character, in part because he’s an intriguing combination of very openly exuberant and a little mysterious. How, if at all, did your own children influence the character?
Not at all! Because they're not there yet. The boy, like the sergeant and all the others, he's mostly me through a filter. It's the tie between them that I borrowed from my sense of being a dad.
If circumstance forced you to become a superhero vigilante, who do you think you’d become? Would you pick a pre-established character or dream up your own persona?
I'd have to make something up. I cannot think of anything worse than being a writer occupying someone else's character in real life because you didn't have the confidence to make up your own crazy identity. But actually I'd be different from most of the characters you see. I'd be the guy who shows up and does something really unrelated at the very beginning, like drop a piece of paper on the bar, and when the whole thing is in full-bore showdown with everyone ready to fight, someone's going to pick up that piece of paper and written on it is the exact right thing to change what's going on for the better.
Which I realize is impossible, but it's what I've got right now. I don't want to think about what I'd become in real life, because that involves thinking about whatever appalling trauma would put me there.
It’s been 76 years since Superman first appeared, and everyone’s got their own theory about why superheroes continue to endure. What’s yours, and did it change at all during the writing of Tigerman?
I think I got to say it all in the book. Superman is faith and hope. He derives from the same American pop culture pot as the cowboy, the virtuous one. He comes, he saves you, he goes. He doesn't become the government. He doesn't make rules. He just operates on a personal basis. Capra's movies have a lot about this—that's one half of the U.S. self-perception, if you like, the other half being rule-driven and codified. If you're missing the heart, you go to the heartlands—where Superman comes from. A character like Batman is the other guy, the one who was shot a bunch of times and came back. He's about self-reliance: there's always enough left in you to claw your way back. It's dustbowl stuff, and it's universal.
What are you reading lately?
My list of to-reads is endless. I carry some stuff around with me—Borges, Lem, some other things. I'm mostly writing, though, and I find it can get in the way.
What are you writing now?
Ahhhh, well. That would be telling. But let's say it's got six main characters, alchemy, semiotics, time travel and Greek politics.
What could possibly go wrong?
Author photo by Chris Close
ALSO IN BOOKPAGE: Read our review of Tigerman.