The first mash-up story I ever read was Gotham by Gaslight, a Batman meets Jack the Ripper story written by Brian Augustyn and illustrated by Mike Mignola. In the story, an 1880’s version of Bruce Wayne returns to Gotham from abroad to begin his career as Batman, while at the same time old Jack hops across the pond to escape Scotland Yard and renew his murder spree in Gotham. The tale perfectly blends the dark adventure vibe of Batman with the mysterious horror of Jack the Ripper.
Gaslight is widely considered to be DC Comics first Elseworlds tale, meaning that the creators could use DC’s line of superhero characters in stories outside of the established continuity. In other words, it allowed the writers to play with these mythical characters.
That sense of playfulness is part of the attraction of mash-ups. It’s about experimenting. It’s about taking something that exists in one world and putting it into another. So, in a way, mash-ups are a lot like smashing flowers.
Allow me to explain.
Back in April of this year, I took my daughter Anna on a volunteer trip to the Highlands Nature Sanctuary near Hillsboro, Ohio. We shared our lodging space with some wonderful sisters, Sharon and Cathy. On our second night there, the sisters showed Anna a technique called rubbing, in which they took fresh flowers, pressed them between a thick piece of paper, and smashed the hell out of them with a flat stone. When they unfolded the page, the flowers had left the most brilliant smears of vibrant color.
But the fun didn’t stop there. They cut a celery stalk crossways and spread paint over the edges, creating a rose-shaped stamp. They twisted that stamp on the paper to make delightful ripples. They cut an apple through the middle and made a star-shaped stamp. They gave my daughter these natural tools—items that existed in the natural world—and let her apply them to the page—a different world altogether.
Anna smashed and drew and stamped and twisted and blended. And that, I think, is the real charm of writing mash-up stories. It’s the playfulness of taking something old apart and finding something new inside.
It’s about finding the rose hidden inside the celery or the star hidden inside the apple. It’s finding the Jack the Ripper story inside the Batman tale. Or, in the case of my Scary Tales series, it’s discovering the zombie thriller inside the Snow White fairy tale. Or the werewolf inside the Red Riding Hood. Or the Phantom of the Opera inside the Beauty & the Beast.
In Gotham by Gaslight, the author cut open the heart of two genres to reveal a shared urban darkness—a city with many shadowy corridors in which a driven man worked feverishly outside the law. Once you eliminate the barriers of time and geography, the genres fit seamlessly together.
Likewise, in the first book of my Scary Tales series, That Risen Snow: A Scary Tale of Snow White & Zombies, I cut into a well-known cursed apple and found not a star but a plague—a zombie plague. The fairy tale genre gave me a familiar moment—the prince waking the sleeping maiden with a kiss. The horror genre gave me another familiar scene—the sleeping monster appears to be dead, but it wakes up ready to bite. I mashed the two together, and there my story began. And with some dark magic, a wicked queen, and some troubled dwarfs, I had the seeds with which to grow a delightful zombie apocalypse.
So, if you’re considering a mash-up story that combines genres, I’d offer these bits of advice:
1) Make sure you enjoy the genres or characters. Don’t waste your time on characters or stories that you don’t love. You’ll end up with a story that lacks heart.
2) Approach the mash-up with a spirit of playful curiosity. Cut deep into the existing stories. Figure out what makes them tick. Take them apart and see what pieces might fit together to make something new.
3) Have fun with the characters and tales you’re using, but handle them with respect. A good mash-up will act as a bridge between genres—as opposed to alienating lovers of either or both genres.
And finally, after all that bashing and cutting and mashing—unlike nasty ole’ Jack—please clean up after yourself when you’re done.
About the Author:
Rob E. Boley is the author of The Scary Tales series of novels, featuring mash-ups of your favorite fairy tale characters and classic horror monsters. He grew up in Enon, Ohio, a little town with a big Indian mound. He later earned a B.A. and M.A. in English from Wright State University in Dayton, Ohio. Aside from The Scary Tales series, his fiction has appeared in several markets, including A cappella Zoo, Pseudopod, Clackamas Literary Review, and Best New Werewolf Tales. His stories have won Best in Show in the Sinclair Community College Creative Writing Contest and the Dayton Daily News/Antioch Writers’ Workshop Short Story Contest. He lives with his daughter in Dayton, where he works for his alma mater. Each morning and most nights, he enjoys making blank pages darker.
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