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Categories: Cryptozoica

Interview with Mark Ellis

What is your background as a creator and writer?

I’ve pretty much made my living at both for the last 20-odd years…I’ve written everything from feature articles for magazines to advertising copywriting to journalism to novels. I’ve been a full-time novelist since 1995. In 1996, I created the Outlanders series for Harlequin Enterprises’ Gold Eagle imprint and it’s been consecutively published since 1997, making it pretty much the most successful ongoing novel series of the last 20 years.

What is Outlanders?

It’s an SF adventure series, set 200 years after a global holocaust. After writing a few novels for Gold Eagle in their Mack Bolan and Deathlands series, I was asked to create a new one with “James Axler” as my pen name. I created all of the characters and concepts and produced 95 percent of the series…which now comprises over 50 books.

Outlanders is also adapted to audio books by Graphic Audio and they occasionally put out special editions, such as the Imperator Wars trilogy.

I also have many credentials as a comics creator and graphic novelist.

What are some of the comics titles you’ve worked on?

I’m probably best-known for scripting what’s considered the best comics version of Doc Savage…a mini-series entitled The Man of Bronze (AKA The Monarch of Armageddon), working with artist Darryl Banks. Other titles include The Wild, Wild West mini-series that was very well-received, again with Darryl…Death Hawk, which featured some of Adam Hughes early work, Nosferatu: Plague of Darkness, HP Lovecraft’s Cthulhu, The Miskatonic Project, Ninja Elite, Warriors, Star Rangers, The Justice Machine, The NEW Justice Machine, The Man From U.N.C.L.E…a few short stories scattered among various anthologies.

Most of my comics properties have been collected in graphic novel format over the last couple of years. In fact, my wife Melissa and I wrote a book entitled The Everything Guide to Writing Graphic Novels…we occasionally teach graphic novel writing workshops as well as moderating weekly writing workshops.

So… how would you describe Cryptozoica?

It’s a modern-day “lost world” thriller, featuring a host of colorful characters in an exotic setting–heroes, villains and beautiful women. Fistfights, gunfights, prehistoric monsters as well as the latest scientific speculation in microbiology, archeology, paleontology and zoology.

A high-concept but facile description might be “Dan Brown meets Jurassic Park.”

Cryptozoica is also—if I say so myself, and I do—not only the best book I’ve ever written but quite possibly The Lost World of the 21st century. A big claim, but I actually feel that way. The book distills and contains every quality that is unique to my writing. The best of my previous 46 novels can be found in Cryptozoica.

What is the genesis of the book?

A few years ago Melissa and I attended a program at the Museum of Natural History in New York. It dealt in a broad way with the physiology of dinosaurs–biomechanics, ectothermics and gigantothermics. Dinosaurs roamed the Earth for about 150 million years, so it’s likely that certain groups evolved different metabolisms from the first dinosaurs…some were warm-blooded, some weren’t, some were more bird-like than reptilian, some weren’t.

That visit to the museum started me thinking: “What if a place were discovered where a group of dinosaurs, due to a quality to their physiologies and their unique environment allowed them to survive?”

After all, new species are discovered all the time. Just a  short time ago, a giant type of monitor lizard that had been dismissed as a legend for hundreds of years was discovered alive and well in the Philippines. Everybody knows about the coleacanth.

So dinosaurs were an ongoing interest of yours?

I’ve been something of an amateur paleontologist since the age of six or so. I had already introduced a “lost world” setting in my Outlanders series…I figured that any adventure series worth the name had to have its heroes going up against prehistoric monsters at least once.

In an Outlanders novel entitled Tomb of Time, I introduced an island called Thunder Isle (a tip o’ the hat to the second Doc Savage novel, Land of Terror) that had been the base of time-travel experiments a couple of hundred years before and the “temporal dilator” was reactivated and running wild, snatching creatures from all epochs.

I also noticed that according to the Outlanders royalty statements, all of the books that featured Thunder Isle enjoyed a spike in sales…not to mention the positive reader response those books received.

Then, after seeing the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong, I decided to write not just a modern lost world novel, but one that could be accepted as plausible by the scientific standards of the 21st century. I researched any and all theories that could be used as a speculative springboard for dinosaurian survival and came to the conclusion that it’s actually possible that some form of dinosaurid lived—and may yet do so– contemporaneously with humans.

There are reports throughout history of mankind encountering creatures that fit the modern description of dinosaurs, from the carving of the sirrush on the gate of Babylon to one that resembles a stegosaurus found on a wall in Angor Wat, there’s evidence of some sort of survival into historical times in isolated parts of the world.

Even now, there are regular reports of “cryptids”…sightings of cryptozoological animals resembling dinosaurs that come in from all parts of the world. There are popular TV shows devoted to the cryptozoology, such as Monsterquest and Destination Truth.

So the title Cryptozoica is a play on the word cryptozoology?

In a way. The creatures in the book fit the definition of cryptids much like those in the original The Lost World. However, no one now would believe in Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s isolated plateau in South America where Jurassic and Cretaceous Age dinosaurs co-existed with ape-men.

And as much as I admired Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park premise, I never could quite accept the reality of bio-engineering dinosaurs from prehistoric insect blood samples. The perfect chain of coincidence to allow that to happen is more than mind-boggling.

The out-of-control temporal dilator that worked in Outlanders to trawl dinosaurs from the past wouldn’t fit with the kind of story I wanted to tell in Cryptozoica.

It took several months for the basic premise, the characters and the overall plot to percolate and jell in my mind. I was also busy writing Outlanders novels, so I couldn’t devote much time to it.

Then, one day I had an almost waking dream wherein I saw Charles Darwin aboard the HMS Beagle…I saw him staring at a tropical island and glimpsing a dinosaur—and deciding it would be best to not write about it in his log. And from there, came the rest of the story.

What kind of dinosaurs are featured in Cryptozoica?

They’re strictly from the late Cretaceous, the species that lived at the time of the K-T extinction event. At that point, there wasn’t a lot of variation among the different types.

How did they survive for the last 65 million years?

You’ll have to read the book to find that out. The explanation is not exactly what you might expect, but it is scientifically sound…maybe on the extreme end of possibility, but in my opinion, less so than genetically engineering dinosaurs from mosquito blood.

Did you have a particular stylistic approach in mind?

Like most writers, I started out with a lot of “What Ifs?”

The first major “What If” was how dinosaurs could survive in a more or less pristine state and the second was where they could do so and not have been discovered. An island in the South China Seas seemed to be the best place. There are thousands of islands out there that have never been explored and hundreds that aren’t even yet on any maps. For that matter only ten percent of Malaysia’s rain forests have been mapped.

The geographical location itself suggested a number of story possibilities and characters.

In what way?

It’s an exotic setting, a two island chain somewhere between the Celebes and Sulu Seas. Partly because of the setting, I saw Cryptozoica as more of a hardboiled kind of thriller, not the current techno-thriller type. I wanted it to be a little more primal, a little less point A to point B and a little more bare-knuckled than what has become the accepted thriller.

And that includes the characters?

Yes. I returned to an earlier school of thriller writing—Richard Prather, Philip Atlee, Stephen Marlowe, John D. MacDonald and even Milton Caniff. The book features characters who are somewhat extreme personalities, bigger than life in some ways but with human flaws.

I wrote Cryptozoica as if I were writing it for the old Gold Medal paperback original line–tough and hard-hitting characters in a story about greed, savagery and violence, of riches and sudden death and even of redemption. But cool…very jazz-cool. If the book had a soundtrack, it would be by Miles Davis.

When it came to the two main male characters, Tombstone Jack Kavanaugh and Augustus Crowe, my mind kept returning to a blurb from a sadly under-appreciated hardboiled detective film from the 1970s written by the late Robert Culp, titled Hickey and Boggs. The blurb was:

“They’re not cool, slick heroes…they’re worn, tough men. And that’s why they’re so dangerous.”


So in Cryptozoica, you’re getting protagonists a bit more in-your-face than what you’d find in most standard thrillers.

How so?

One of the problems I perceive with today’s so-called thrillers is that the heroes are often flatline in the personality department—almost generic, regardless of their ethnicity. They’re about as colorful as cold dishwater. They’re white-bread types from Central Casting. I don’t know whether this is a deficiency on the part of the writers or whether it’s a conscious decision to make the thriller heroes bland so as to allow for quick reader identification.

The protagonists often have rarefied, special skills that would make Doc Savage envious—like they’re billionaire nanophyscists but dabble in being Olympic-class pole vaulters.

Some writers graft problems onto their protagonists which in my opinion makes them come off as a trifle ridiculous—“I may be a Ninja and an astronaut but I’m tortured by the fact my father is a gay rodeo clown.”

Those kind of superficial problems derive from watching too many After School Specials and they don’t define characters …they’re mere wrinkles. Long-time fans of the Outlanders series will recognize the basic template of the Cryptozoica characters—

“Tombstone” Jack Kavanaugh, his partner Augustus Crowe, Bai Suzhen AKA Madame White Snake, Dr. Honore’ Roxton, Aubrey Belleau and of course the little gun-totin’ Maori “wild child” by the name of Mouzi.

It’s certainly a proven template…Outlanders has been consecutively published for nearly 15 years, which is quite the accomplishment in today’s publishing climate.

Although most of the Cryptozoica cast of characters have their share of problems, I think they’re a bit more grounded in reality and certainly don’t define their personalities.

Many of your Outlanders novels examine mythologies and historical mysteries from all cultures…do you do the same in Cryptozoica?

Definitely…I’ve always felt that the best thrillers don’t just thrill, but educate and intrigue. Cryptozoica features the mystery of the so-called “mother culture” that influenced so many societies with dragon and serpent imagery, the “truth” about the Angelic script known as Enochian, and also the chilling possibility that some ancient peoples knew more about DNA and genetics than we dare suspect.

Why did you decide to make Cryptozoica an illustrated novel?

In some ways, the mainstream publishing industry made that decision for me.

I’ve always loved illustrated books and particularly the 1960s paperback editions of the works of Edgar Rice Burroughs, put out by Ace. With those editions, Ray Krenkel and the immortal Frank Frazetta created an entirely new graphic iconography.

Those beautiful covers and interior pen-and-ink illustrations influenced at least two generations of creative people, me among them.

From the very beginning I pictured Cryptozoica as an illustrated novel, but unfortunately those kind of deals were few and far between in mainstream publishing. I accepted the fact that Cryptozoica would be a standard text-only volume…I doubted I would even have input into the cover design, unlike my situation with Outlanders covers.

After I produced a couple of different drafts of Cryptozoica, the final manuscript was shopped around and even accepted by a start-up publisher…who subsequently canceled agreements with me and two other writers.

Shortly thereafter, I signed with ace agent Richard Curtis who had high hopes of placing the book until December 6th, 2008—known as Black Wednesday, wherein the entire publishing industry underwent a massive shake-up not too different from what had rocked the automobile manufacturing industry a few months before. Many editors were fired, book contracts were canceled by the score and advances were slashed to the bone.

The state of mainstream publishing did not improve over the next few months. For that matter, it suffered several more “Black Wednesday” type shake-ups, just not as severe or as well-publicized.

After attending a SF writer’s conference the following summer, I came to the reluctant conclusion that mainstream publishing was not going to pull itself out of the pit of fear and denial that it leaped into in time to do me any good. It was very much the same kind of scenario that led to the crash and burn of the comics market in the 1990s.

Obviously, the standard, traditional way of doing things was no longer working. In the days following the conference, Melissa and I decided it would be more pragmatic to take matters into our own hands. It seemed well within the range of do-ability to publish Cryptozoica ourselves, rather than vainly hoping the publishing industry would turn itself around.

Still, I felt that Cryptozoica needed to have added value. So, after discussing it with the uber-talented artist Jeff Slemons, the decision was made to turn Cryptozoica into an illustrated novel in the grand tradition of the Ace Burroughs editions. Jeff is a well-known illustrator in the RPG field, one of the best dinosaur artists around and a very intelligent, perceptive guy. He understood exactly what Cryptozoica is—a bare-knuckled, epic adventure with heroes, heroines, villains and man-eating monsters. His artwork is very influenced by the Frazetta school of illustration. He was very enthused about the project and his enthusiasm even pumped me up. I was blessed to work with him.

So, to answer your question…without Black Wednesday, it’s quite possible that Cryptozoica would have been picked up and published as a regular book…it would not have been promoted to any degree, it would not have had added value and it would come out and subsequently be forgotten.

But with Jeff’s illustrations and his beautiful wraparound cover, Cryptozoica is now something of collectible…it is a book I hope dinosaur and adventure fiction aficionados will treasure, much like readers of my generation treasured those Ace editions illustrated by Frazetta and Krenkel.

Do you foresee a sequel to Cryptozoica?

There’s certainly no reason why there couldn’t be. It’s a wide-open premise and the potential for a franchise was built into it from the onset.

Novelist Rex Stout said, “If I’m not having fun writing a book, nobody will have fun reading it.” I had an enormous amount of fun writing Cryptozoica.

Besides, there’s already a catch-phrase: “Cryptozoica—where the past has not stopped breathing and can still eat you alive.”

We’ll leave it there for the moment..