Morrison’s work in comics straddles genres, from widescreen superhero titles like New X-Men and Batman to weird Vertigo projects like Invisibles and We3 and Seaguy. But as Marc Singer writes in the book Grant Morrison: Combining the Worlds of Contemporary Comics, “most Morrison comics are unmistakably Morrison’s comics, displaying the hallmarks that have made him one of the most distinctive writers in the field.” Morrison, writes Singer, is known for a mode of writing that “combines metafiction, surrealism, the absurd, and above all a strategy of physical embodiment.”
Kaufman wrote a string of movies that combined surrealism, broken characters and bitter humor, including Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, Confessions of a Dangerous Mind and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. And then he started directing his own screenplays, with Synecdoche, New York and the forthcoming Frank or Francis. (And he’s got a novel in the pipeline, about which nobody knows anything.) It’s hard to pigeonhole Kaufman’s work into a single genre (maybe Slipstream?) but everything he writes is instantly recognizable, from the depressed heroes to the strange plot devices to the habit of inserting a love story where you least expect it.
The author of The Cyberiad, The Futurological Congress and all the other Ijon Tichy stories is known for his mordant wit and his somewhat nihilistic exploration of philosophical questions in deep space. He often creates worlds that feel somewhere between thought experiments and fables, with a huge dose of the absurd. Like a lot of the people on this list, Lem is hard to pigeonhole — his stuff is somewhere between Italo Calvino, Jonathan Swift and A.E. Van Vogt. But Lem’s writing, as a rule, leaves you with a sense that the world is much more bizarre and illogical than anybody’s ever willing to acknowledge. Image via Google.
Vonnegut is frequently classified as a postmodern author, maybe because of the elements of metafiction in his work. But the thing that seems to unite Vonnegut’s work — and to drive his inclusion of sometimes outlandish science fictional elements — is a concern with the essential futility of the human condition. As Brian Stableford writes in Outside The Aquarium: Masters of Science Fiction, irony “became the most remarkable feature of Vonnegut’s writing… His work often tends towards the blackest of black comedy, but rarely employs wit for its own sake or for more amusement.” In pretty much any Vonnegut novel, you can expect a great deal of sarcasm, combined with a wistfulness about the failure of humans to treat each other decently.
He’s best known for writing The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, in all its myriad forms. But he also created Dirk Gently, currently starring in a BBC TV series. And he wrote a few of the most famous Doctor Who stories, as well as various odd projects like The Meaning of Liff. When he first started making an impression on the public consciousness, Adams was often compared to Vonnegut, and indeed his dark humor often feels sort of reminiscent of Vonnegut’s — but he goes much, much further into silliness and absurdism. And as with other authors on this list, when you pick up a Douglas Adams story, you know you’re getting certain things, including hapless heroes, ingenious plot twists, narrative digressions and an irreverent refusal to commit to any kind of comforting sense of reality. Plus a sense that the universe has a meaning that we will never, ever, crack — and which is often indistinguishable from meaninglessness.
In recent years, Rice’s work has been a bit more varied. But prior to about ten years ago, she was known for a very particular type of gothic fiction, in which, as she puts it, “The vampire is the poet and the writer of the monster world.” From her famous Vampire Chronicles books to her Mayfair Witches books to her various standalone novels, her work frequently deals with characters who are outsiders but have a rich existence that the mundane world can never appreciate. She frequently explores the notion of lived experience being better than abstract ideas and “truth being in the flesh.” And New Orleans is frequently a major setting in her work. From 1976 to 2003, she carved out a unique place in gothic fiction, which is why people like John Barrowman (see video) are still so obsessed with her.
Robert A. Heinlein
Heinlein’s influence on science fiction is so far-reaching that it’s hard to separate his defining characteristics from those of the genre he wrote in. But Heinlein’s work also stands apart, partly thanks to his amazing penchant for presenting facts and opinions that go along with the narrative and prop it up. Also, much of Heinlein’s work has a few key preoccupations, as Alexei Panshin writes, including liberty and the “unreality of the world,” and the recurrence of an ever-changing protagonist whom Panshin calls “The Heinlein Individual.” Add in a fair amount of sexual nonconformity and a preoccupation with how social mores will change when we’re out in space, and you’ve got a set of traits that pop up in much of Heinlein’s writing, especially his later works.
Some of Miyazaki’s animated films are adaptations of classic novels, like Howl’s Moving Castle, whereas others are original stories. But not only is the style of Miyazaki’s movies ultra-distinct and painterly, but his films have come to constitute their own genre of anime, especially his works with Studio Ghibli. Frequently, he explores themes such as ecology and the damage the industrial society does to the world, and his protagonists are often children caught between the “real” world and a fantasy one. His work combines raw sentimentality with an often brutal edge, underscored by the inclusion of cute creatures and terrifying apparitions.
Among B-movie producers and directors, Corman’s name became synonymous with a kind of low-budget gusto, as he created an endless string of demented films for almost no money. From his earliest works like 1957’s Not of This Earth to his recent creations like Dinoshark and Sharktopus, a certain determined cheesiness and cheerful illogic shines through — you pretty much know what you’re getting when someone refers to a “Roger Corman film.” His body of work transcends trash cinema to become an emblematic celebration of cheapness and lurid weirdness.
Especially prior to 1990, Carpenter was known for a particular kind of approach to horror or action movies: a minimalism that stripped away all of the extraneous elements to reveal something more fundamental. He frequently features claustrophobic settings or paranoia-inducing cityscapes, and a lone protagonist who faces off against a massive threat. Carpenter favored ultra-widescreen visuals (using 2.35:1 instead of 1.85:1) and synthesizer scores, for a suspenseful, jarring style. Even when Carpenter talks about his off-the-wall projects that never got made — such as “a musical about a nuclear power plant accident,” with men dancing in rat suits — you can sort of imagine how that would be a John Carpenter film along the lines of The Thing or Escape from New York.
To some exent, this is a list of auteurs — although it’s also a list of people whose work is so distinctive, they’ve become synonymous with a certain type of storytelling. And Gilliam is definitely both. He emerged from the comedy supergroup Monty Python as a distinctive creator in his own right, taking Python’s anarchic sketch comedy approach and deploying it in a series of dark, comic fables. From Jabberwocky to The Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus, his works share a certain grim, satirical beauty that seems to grow out of the weird animations he created for Python. Even moving to Hollywood didn’t seem to dilute Gilliam’s particular brand of weirdness, and the darkly silly fairy tales of Time Bandits, Brazil and Baron Munchausen feel as though they’re clearly part of the same odd genre.
Guillermo del Toro
Maybe when we see del Toro’s upcoming kaiju-and-robots movie Pacific Rim, we’ll have to revamp our assessment of him completely — but for now, there seems to be a clear genre uniting his comic-book movies, like Blade II and the Hellboy films, with his more personal projects like Pan’s Labyrinth and The Devil’s Backbone. There’s a certain fascination with monsters and grotesques, and what they might mean in a world that’s not entirely unlike our own. There’s a juxtaposition of real-life military technology with fantasy battles. There’s also the persistence of Doug Jones in various key roles. And there’s a kind of “dark fairy tale” style that unites his work, no matter what. As del Toro says, “I have a sort of a fetish for insects, clockwork, monsters, dark places, and unborn things.”
Miller is another creator whose work spans corporate-owned properties like Batman and Daredevil, as well as his own creations like Sin City, 300 and Martha Washington. And no matter whether he’s a hired gun or creating from scratch, Miller’s work has a certain noir sensibility, as well as a preoccupation with the reality of violence and the corruption of social institutions. From his early Daredevil run right up to his most recent Holy Terror comics, Miller has always excelled at creating a world of unbearable compromise in which one individual is willing to do what’s necessary. The pulp traditions of noir and superheroes have always shared a lot of inspirations and preoccupations, but few creators have fused them in quite the same way that Miller has. Over time, he’s distilled his style until it’s almost become a caricature — but that’s only made it clearer how much Miller’s work is a thing unto itself.
Philip K. Dick
When you mention Philip K. Dick’s writings, chances are anyone you’re talking to will have a pretty strong sense of what you’re talking about — even if the characteristics of Dick’s work are hard to pin down. The word most often brought up is “paranoid,” although Rudy Rucker also describes Dick’s work as “transrealist.” Frequently, a Dick story will contain several startling reversals, and the suggestion that reality is malleable or an illusion of some sort. To read much of Dick’s best work is to feel your certainties about the world melting away, replaced by a nagging, terrible unease. Perhaps the biggest tribute to Dick’s unique niche as a creator is the fact that Hollywood has turned his work into everything from ultra-generic thrillers to special-effects spectacles, and yet everybody still feels like they know what a Philip K. Dick novel or story is like.
And finally, there’s the co-writer and producer of Cabin in the Woods and the writer/director of The Avengers — who’s furnished us with plenty of reminders recently that he has a style, and a set of preoccupations, that carry over into all his work, no matter what genre or subject matter he’s ostensibly working in. Whether it’s a teen horror comedy like Buffy or a dystopian corporate nightmare like Dollhouse or a goofy space Western like Firefly, Whedon’s work always retains the same quippy style and the same themes of individualism, choice and self-discovery. And he often seems to include the same few characters — Xander is Wash is Topher, to some extent — and a lot of his works seem to be facets of the same apocalyptic story, either before or after or during the apocalypse. Whedon has a voice and a storytelling sensibility all his own — and like the other people on this list, he’s created his own type of story which transcends whatever other labels you might slap on it.
Thanks to Meredith, Annalee, Alasdair and Cyriaque for input!