I’ve been a fan of publishers J.M. and Randy Lofficier’s writing for decades now, and I was honored in 2013 to become one of the authors published by Black Coat Press, their small press focused on new and reprinted adventures of classic French pulp magazine characters such as Harry Dickson, Judex, Rouletabille, the Black Coats and more. I conducted this interview with J.M., about Black Coats’ history and mission, months ago and owe him an apology for how long it’s taken to post this. Read along as we discuss French pulp characters, Philip Jose Farmer’s Wold Newton concept, and the overlap between the two, among other subjects:
ANTHONY: How long has Black Coat Press been in existence, and where does the company name come from? What was the company’s first published title?
JM: We started Black Coat Press in the Summer of 2003, just in time to be able to release our first book — Arnould Galopin’s DOCTOR OMEGA — for the San Diego Comicon of that year. The name “Black Coat” was taken from Paul Féval’s ground-breaking criminal saga which we intended to translate and publish at some point. I’m pleased to say that, thanks to Brian Stableford’s industriousness, we were able to release all seven volumes (plus a few related titles). The last one was released in 2011, so it did take about eight years!
ANTHONY: Where did you love for the pulps in general, and French pulps in particular, start?
JM: Like most of us, during my childhood and teen years. There is one major difference, however, which is that most English-language “classics” were readily available to me in the same paperback imprints as their French counterparts. For example, the Livre de poche imprint released editions of Holmes and Lupin, Fantomas and the Saint, Poirot and Rouletabille. Marabout published the Black Coats and Rocambole next to the Scarlet Pimpernel, Doc Savage next to Bob Morane. So the “universe” of pulp literature to which I had access was vastly greater than the ones accessible in the US or the UK.
ANTHONY: It seems, in the US at least, we’re experiencing a “pulp resurgence,” with publishers like Meteor House, Dynamite, Moonstone and others bringing back every 1880s to 1940s adventure character they can get their hands on. What is the attraction for modern readers to these classic, and sometimes campy, pulp characters?
JM: Some of it is nostalgia, of course. But I think there is a perennial aspect to the best pulps that transcends time and changing fashions. Sherlock Holmes, The Three Musketeers, Tarzan, The Count of Monte-Cristo, The Shadow, Arsene Lupin (to name but a few) have survived the test of time and will likely be remembered forever; their modern-day descendants are to be found on television. The TV series, especially today with its complex plots, character arcs, etc. is the inheritor of Alexandre Dumas and Paul Feval. The same people who rushed to the New York harbor to get their next installment of Monte-Cristo in the French papers (at a time when a lot of educated Americans knew foreign languages) are the same today eagerly waiting for the next episode of LOST or MAD MEN.
ANTHONY: The idea of having classic characters meet up is not a new one in world literature, although in the modern day I think Philip Jose Farmer deserves a lot of the credit, through his Wold-Newton Family concept, for making such crossovers more than just fun mash-ups. In your TALES OF THE SHADOWMEN anthologies, you encourage writers to cross the French pulp characters who are your forte with just about everything else in the pop culture canon. What criteria do you follow for those stories? Is any “crossover” concept just too out there?
JM: Jess Nevins wrote authoritatively in his intro to Win Eckert’s CROSSOVERS about the history of “crossovers”, going back to Jason and the Argonauts, the Round Table tales, etc. So yes it is hardly a new phenomenon, although I think Maurice Leblanc’s bold initiative of having Lupin cross swords with Holmes deserves a lot of credit. Regarding TALES OF THE SHADOWMEN, my only two criteria are: (1) there has to be a character from French fiction (being Black Coat Press, this comes with the territory) and (2) the story has to be in continuity and respectful of the original materials. No funny ha-ha pastiches, no killing off heroes, no dark reinterpretations. That’s all. Other than that, I welcome any crossover, the more outré, the better. To quote but a few of the more unexpected crossovers, we had stories featuring The Little Prince and Doc Savage, Zorro and Jean Valjean, The Wizard of Oz and Richard Matheson’s Born of Man and Woman, Jerry Cornelius, Pere Ubu and the movie Alphaville… This year, for example, we have a story that conflates Boulgakov’s Master and Margarita, Jean Ray’s Malpertuis and Marie Nizet’s Captain Vampire… As you can see, we roam pretty far and wide.
ANTHONY: What’s the weirdest crossover you’ve seen submitted to you, the type of thing that made you think ‘this can’t possibly work’ but then it did?
JM: The ones I mentioned above all fit the bill. I myself wrote the one mixing The Wizard of Oz with Richard Matheson’s horror tale Born of Man and Woman because someone challenged me to do it. I have another one mixing Enid Blyton’s Famous Five with the Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, but I haven’t written it yet.
ANTHONY: I’m sort of excited but disturbed by that concept. Did you intend TotS to be an annual anthology event when you put the first volume out?
JM: Yes, I always did, which is why I put a #1 on the spine of the first book! 🙂 That’s a clue. 🙂 Since then, we’ve also released some character-themed anthologies that include about 50% of already published stories (usually from TALES OF THE SHADOWMEN) and 50% new stories. We’ve had anthos dedicated to Arsene Lupin, Dr. Omega, the Nyctalope and Judex, and I’m preparing one on Harry Dickson.
ANTHONY: The 10th volume came out a few months ago. Has your process for choosing stories or putting the book together changed at all?
JM: Not in the least.
ANTHONY: Do you have any plans to bring the TotS books out in ebook format in the near future?
JM: Yes, I have been slowly making our catalog available as ebooks, but it is a slow process. I still have the Black Coats series to do and then I’ll tackle the Shadowmen. I’m also working on converting our huge library of comics (in French) for Comixology, and that is a long and time consuming process, and there are only so many hours in the day — and I’m basically the only person doing all this.
ANTHONY: I really need to get a tablet I can read comics on. Right now I just have the Nook Simple Touch (I’ve been slow to move to e-readers) and it’s not really good for comics. I want to circle back to the Wold-Newton concept for a moment. Farmer created a pretty distinct family tree and linked them to a particular event, the crash of the meteor at Wold-Newton. People have referred to Black Coats’ output as “The French Wold-Newton Universe.” Have you ever posited an event similar to the WN meteor to explain what Farmer would call “a supernova of genetic splendor” in France?
JM: No, not at all. At best, I piggybacked on Farmer’s concept; he already had ancestors of Arsene Lupin and Monsieur Lecoq at Wold Newton, because there were the two French characters he knew best. So I merely suggested a few more, a notion that has since been coopted by a few other authors. I also added some French historical content (as it were) by suggesting that the French characters at Wold Newton had a political agenda, which resulted first in the French Revolution, then, later, the ascent of Napoleon. That notion was first put forward by Alexandre Dumas, so it is not mine, entirely, but it blended rather well with Farmer’s. You can read it in greater detail here:
ANTHONY: In addition to “new pulp” books like the TotS series, you also publish a large number of translations of French pulps into English (the Harry Dickson and Madame Atomos books, most notably, but too many others to list here). How do you decide what to translate and what authors to use to do the translating (when, that is, you don’t do the translating yourself)?
As far as deciding what deserves to be translated (or in some cases retranslated), obviously, I use my own judgment of what is really important. If you were doing it the other way, you would translate Doc Savage, but perhaps not Jim Anthony. So I think characters like Mme Atomos, Lupin, Fantomas, Harry Dickson, Doctor Omega, Sar Dubnotal, Rouletabille, etc. deserve to have at least a reasonable sampling of their adventures made available in English. I’d like to do Jean-Claude Carriere’s six remarkable Frankenstein novels but they’re not in the public domain and the rights aren’t available. Rocambole is something I’d like to do too, but someone else already put out a good series of abridged / condensed versions that pretty much cover it. I rely on Brian Stableford, Michael Shreve and a few more hand-picked folks to help me with the translations. The great majority of the books we publish ARE important; they all contain some ground-breaking idea, some new stylistic inventions… Whether we’re talking vampires or space travel, mystic heroes or cloaked avengers, criminal conspiracies or super-detectives, French popular literature contains a huge number of truly wonderful works which deserved to be made accessible to the English-speaking audience.
ANTHONY: What is upcoming from BCP in the near future?
JM: We tend to plan ahead, so for what’s coming up, you can check this link:
Pulp-wise, in 2014, we’ll have all 18 MYSTERIOUS DOCTOR CORNELIUS novels released in a big, fat trilogy of books; hopefully the last two never published before in English FANTOMAS novels; the last two DOC ARDAN stories (a French young Doc Savage-type hero), the end of the MADAME ATOMOS saga; a new FU MANCHU novel; a series of books from the early 1900s about DR. CARESCO and PROFESSOR TORNADA, two mad scientists and another early Martian saga.
ANTHONY: I think the sound we hear in the background is my bank account collapsing. So let’s go to my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who has not read it to convince them that they should?
JM: If you’re a pulp mystery fan, the BLACK COATS (INVISIBLE WEAPON would be my recommendation) or JOHN DEVIL by Paul Feval; if you’re more sf-minded, anything by Maurice Renard is really quite good — he wasn’t nicknamed the French HG Wells for nothing.