Category Archives: superheroes

The write-finer monologues

So what’s up man?

Cooling, man.

Chillin’ chillin’? Yo you know I had to call, you know why right?

To reprise the opening lines from the Wu-Tang Clan’s classic track ‘Protect Ya Neck’?

Well, yes, but also to see how the writing’s going. Are you doing it? The big push to finish Raven’s Blood?

I’m doing my best.

Which is… what?

Three chapters since the start of the month, which is, um… 7000 words in 13 days.

Hey, that’s pretty good!

Thanks. I’m not 100% happy with the level of polish, but I gotta put that aside for the moment. That’s what later drafts are for.

How much do you have left to do?

Probably five more chapters and an epilogue. I’d say about… 11 000 words? Maybe 12 000?

And you’ve got 17 days until the end of April? That sounds doable if you work a little bit harder, do a thousand words a day.

I hope so. I’m trying to wrap it up by the 28th so I can give the finished MS to my wife as a birthday present.

How romantic.

It was her idea, okay?

Fine, whatever. Still, you should be able to make it if you stay focused.

Yeah. ‘If”. Assuming I don’t lose any time to distractions.

Is that likely?

Oh shit yeah. I’ve already lost plenty of time in these last two weeks.

I thought you were working hard at this!

I am! But hey, it’s Comedy Festival season, you know?

Slacker. Any show recommendations?

Yep – Ben McKenzie, Laura Davis and Justin Hamilton all have terrific shows this year. You should go see them next week before the Festival finishes.

I’ll try, but as a figment of your imagination I find it tricky to get out on my own. But that’s been your only distraction, right? Right?

…I might have gone to see Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

Oh for god’s sake. 

Come on, this surely comes as no real surprise to anyone. And I worked on the book before and after!

Fine, fine. Was it any good?

Oh yeah, it’s terrific. A top-notch superhero movie with great performances and a solid thriller aesthetic. And Batroc the Leaper!

Shit, really?

Well, he doesn’t do much leaping, or any savate. Still cool, though. Best Marvel Studios/Avengers-family movie so far – top of the rankings list!

There’s a list?

Yep. The official ranking is:

  1. Captain America: Winter Soldier
  2. Captain America
  3. Iron Man 3
  4. Iron Man
  5. The Avengers
  6. Thor 2
  7. Thor 
  8. Incredible Hulk
  9. Iron Man 2

Hmm. Interesting. Official in what sense?

In the sense that it’s my bloody blog.

Jeez, fine, settle down. But that’s it, right? Knuckling down from this point?

Definitely. Largely. Probably. Okay, look, I’m going to lose some time to shows and gaming and day job stuff, but that’s the way it goes. Nobody gets to just lock themselves in the writing box and only come out when it’s done, okay? Not unless they live in a shack in the woods, peeing into bottles and working on a manifesto. Life has its own demands, and you have to roll with them rather than beating yourself up for being human. The important thing is to work as hard and effectively as you can, when you can, and keep the deadline in mind. It’s like the inverse of Parkinson’s Law, you know? ‘Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.’ So if you have a set amount of time available to work, your work level will rise to make use of it.

Hopefully.

Well, yeah.

Is talking to yourself on your blog one of the ways you’re expanding to fill the time available to you?

It’s this or talking to the dog.

I probably would have done that. He’s less critical than I am.

This is true.

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Pretty effing great

I’ve been neglecting proper grown-up reading lately in favour of superhero comic collections, largely because the local library system keeps buying more and more of the damned things. (Back onto novels next week, though. Probably.)

Anyhoo, tonight I want to talk about one particular run of comics that’s well worth a look if you like Really Big Ideas – because it has a lot of them, and pretty neat ones at that. Normally that’s a segue into something by Grant Morrison, but this time I’m speaking of Jonathan Hickman’s run on Fantastic Four.

   

Now, I’m not a Fantastic Four fan; I’ve always found them the least interesting supergroup in comics and the ‘super-family’ concept has never clicked for me. (Possibly because I struggle with the concept of ‘family’ at the best of times.) Also, Mister Fantastic is boring and a dick. But at the same time, it’s the series where the Stan-and-Jack magic first took shape and revolutionised the whole medium and genre, and the place where Kirby started throwing out that unending series of incredible, impossible ideas – so there’s history there, and precedent, and the best takes on the title are when a writer puts their own spin and direction on that unfettered inventiveness.

And that’s just what Hickman does, putting together a massive, multi-volume storyline that explodes with mad inspiration. I don’t want to spoil anything, so let me just rattle off a few elements – an interdimensional council of Reed Richardses, time travel, a Negative Zone cult, giant mad space gods, the Kree, the Inhumans, even more Inhumans, Galactus, time dilation, cities full of alien life, Nu-Earth on the far side of the galaxy, Reed’s time-travelling father Nathaniel, interdimensional battles, super-intelligent children, even more super-intelligent children, alliances with the Four’s worst enemies against a greater threat and Doctor Doom being a stone motherfucker, all combining and building into one uber-conflict. Along with this come themes of sacrifice, loss, catastrophe and destiny, plus Hickman’s exceptional gift for character development, dialogue and conflict (plus occasional, very clever comedy). 

   

Once the series hits the death of Johnny Storm – that got reported in the mainstream media, so I don’t think I’m spoiling anything – it changes both direction and title, becoming The Future Foundation, or FF, counterbalancing superheroics with teaching a group of super-genius kids (and a giant robot dragon-man). This is also the point where they get new costumes and Spider-Man joins the team, because both those things sell comics. And they’re still bloody good comics.

(Also, Spider-Man is a more interesting character than the Human Torch. That’s right, I went there.)

After a year or so of FF issues (two collections), the old title and numbering comes back but FF remains, splitting the focus into two different comics as things build to a payoff. And a pretty awesome payoff it is. Hickman is still writing both series, but the last arc of each is denouement, aftermath and wind-down; they’ve yet to be collected into trades, but you don’t need them right now; you can knock over all eight trades currently available – like I did in a rush this week – and be very satisfied with the ending you get.

   

Which is not to say it’s perfect. The series stumbles badly in the second Fantastic Four collection, which introduces the four cities/groups that become hubs of the coming uber-conflict. These four issues are both heavy on exposition and light on conflict/action; they all involve some/all of the Four going to one of the cities and then standing around doing nothing while things get foreshadowed for later. The foreshadowing is necessary,  true, but it could have been done with a lot more energy and a lot less blatancy. Things pick up after that, and there’s lots of payoff from that slowdown, but pacing problems recur for the rest of the run.

That passivity also comes back at times, and I think that’s an ongoing issue for Hickman; in many of his books, protagonists seem to be overwhelmed mentally or emotionally by events, and take a backseat or spectator role while things happen and/or other characters manipulate things. Throughout the series, control over events falls or is taken from the hands of the Four and is taken up by others, especially Valeria or Nathaniel Richards. They’re interesting characters, yes, and I can see the kind of story Hickman is aiming for – one about destiny and immensity, and the payoff of good and bad decisions against that context – but it’s not always satisfying.

Oh, and the artwork is pretty variable and inconsistent, but it’s never so bad as to be unacceptable and we’re here to talk about writing.

   

But in the end these problems don’t detract from the strengths of the series – the imagination and impossibility that is the hallmark of pure comics, married to sci-fi visions and a willingness to put characters through an emotional wringer to get a better story. And it is a pretty goddamn amazeballs story.

So get out there and read these comics. They’re neat.

And now, back to proper novels. Well, once I read Hickman’s new series The Manhattan Projects. Oh, and I grabbed Brian K. Vaughan’s Saga; really looking forward to that. And there’s a new volume of Scalped at the library ah fuck it I ain’t never reading stories without pictures no more.

Why do we love the superhuman?

As our month of talking excitedly about superheroes winds to a close, I just want to take a moment to ask a final, simple question – what is it that attracts us to these stories, to the idea of the superhero? The success of The Avengers and the other Marvel films tells us that there is something engaging here; the fact that people tattoo their bodies with Superman and Batman symbols tells us that something powerful within these stories resonates deep within us.

It’s a big question with big answers, and many have tried to answer it, including Grant Morrison in the uneven-but-nonetheless-interesting Supergods. (Quick review: the parts where Morrison tries to explore the concept of the superhero are better than the parts where Morrison tries to explore the concept of how awesome he is.) I’m certainly not the one to provide the last word.

But if you pressed me on it – or if I had to write a blog post on the subject to finish up my month of talking on the subject – I’d say that there are five aspects to good superhero stories, five things that light the fire in our blood and make lightning quicken our pulse.

  • Spectacle: Nothing can match the colour, movement and raw kinetic energy of a superhero comic, although a good superhero movie or prose story comes close. It’s a genre of fantastic costumes, giant robots, gods and monsters on downtown streets, universe-in-the-balance battles and casts of thousands that still pick four or five dudes out as being The Ones to Watch. For raw visual captivation, there is truly nothing like it.
  • Possibility: All that spectacle comes into play by offering a world/universe of unlimited possibility, a place where nothing is off limits. Superhero stories can offer up sentient worlds, men made of fire and lightning, battles inside the Id, legions of time-travelling posthumans, subatomic cities of octopus people, dragons, Jesus, I don’t know, everything. Everything. Superhero stories blow the lid off, and when they do it right you never stop to think that there had been a lid there in the first place.
  • Action: There is a place for introspection, discussion and philosophy in a superhero story. That place is after the end of a big-arse action scene, with the explodings and the eyebeams and the robot-on-robot, oh yes. This is a genre of action, which is why Action Comics came first. That doesn’t have to mean fighting and it certainly doesn’t have to mean killing or explicit violence; action can be all ages and still effective. But it’s a genre built on conflict, on striving and on actively overcoming obstacles, and all the visceral thrill that provides.
  • Themes made manifest: Batman is a reaction to madness, and so he fights villains that personify types or aspects of madness. Spider-Man is an animal avatar, and so he fights villains that personify various animals. Wonder Woman is an embodiment of feminine power, so her villains seek to corrupt, capture or question that feminine power in some way, usually in a way that lets her hit them in the face with a bus. Superhero stories take the themes and underlying questions of a premise and make them real entities, so that the moral questions of good and evil or principle versus necessity can be about galactic-scale entities or two people in funny pyjamas, and the conflict becomes real and understandable and immediate. And there’ll be punching.
  • Heroism: And in the end, this is what separates the genre from fantasy, SF, pulp adventure and others – the sense of an underlying moral order to the stories, a world where there is right and wrong. Even when the line between the two is fuzzy, the line is still there somewhere, and stories revolve around the need to defend what is good from what is bad. For some people, that kind of underpinning is simplistic and trite and drives them away. That’s cool. For me, and for many, many others, it makes these stories about something that matters.

When superhero stories are badly done, they tend to only focus on spectacle and action, and so everything is a big fight scene full of robots and guns and grimaces and thigh pouches and shouting and oh goddamnit Rob Liefeld just jizzed on my foot.

But when they’re done well, when they compress an entire technicolour universe down to two dimensions and 24 pages, when they capture the beauty and excitement of things that cannot be, when they give us something to dream about and maybe even aspire to in some way… well, then those stories are wonderful.

In every sense of the world.

That’s it for Superhero Month, folks. Have you had fun? It’s been a really interesting exercise for me – a chance to write a variety of lengths/styles of posts on the one topic, speak to something I don’t usually focus on and plain ol’ geek out about how much I love dudes in spandex.

It’s also been a disaster as far as getting actual goes-into-a-book-someone-pays-to-read writing, though. I got absolutely nothing done this last month, not a single word on any story or creative project, because every time I had the energy and opportunity to write, I wound up working out a 1000 word essay on why Secret Six was so damn baller.

Hang on, wait, I didn’t write that one. Damn. Look, just go read Secret Six already, okay?

That said, this isn’t the last time I’ll come back to this particular topic; I’m still writing Raven’s Blood (or going back to writing Raven’s Blood, to be more accurate), so YA fantasy superheroics will be a going concern for the next few months. And I still have a few post ideas in my head or half-written, including a big long diatribe on how not to write comics that I simply couldn’t be fucked finishing tonight. (It’s long and shouty and a bit draining to write.)

So anyway, huge fun, worth the time, but not something I can repeat too often, because I need to put some energy back into my fiction. If (when) I do another month-long special on another topic/genre, it’ll be after I put the next book to bed and need to change things up for a few weeks without feeling too guilty about neglecting my Very Important Art.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to spend the rest of the evening reading the playtest files for the Atomic Robo RPG.

PRIORITIES.

Six-pack of power

Okay folks, I know I’ve been slack on the posts lately, but this week has been CRAY CRAY and I have to shoot up to QLD tomorrow morning for meetings and liquor and stuff. There’ll be a long post on Sunday – well, probably – well, maybe – but I don’t have time to finish it tonight.

So as Superhero Month slouches towards Bethlehem, here’s a very, very quick roundup of six superheroic things you should check out if you haven’t already.

Hitman: The last volume of Ennis and McCrea’s DC series from the nineties finally got released this month. Hitman was one of DC’s best – a smart, funny, moving tribute to hitman movies and stories with occasional appearances by zombie penguins. If the ending doesn’t make you cry then you are a soulless monster.

Top Ten: Alan Moore proved that despite being a hairy pessimistic curmudgeon with no faith in human nature, he could still write one of the most fun, engaging superhero stories ever, the story of a precinct of super-cops in an impossible cross-genre city populated solely by superheroes. And Gene Ha’s art is, as ever, incredible.

The Marvels Project: This side project from the Captain America team of Ed Brubaker and Steve Epting explored Marvel’s World War II history, with equal parts retelling of existing tales and bringing in new ideas. It’s a nice, thrillerish take that still has room to be a stirring war story, and I do love me some Angel (not the X-Men one, the cool vigilante with a moustache one).

Knight and Squire: The side characters from Grant Morrison’s Batman stories get their own miniseries collection, showing a very British side to the DC Universe that’s mostly built on 1970s pop culture references and jokes that Americans aren’t supposed to get. But if you know about The Goodies and The Beano, then Paul Cornell and Jimmy Broxton have a great superhero comic for you.

Seven Soldiers of Victory: What the DC Reboot should have been. A tour-de-force of mad ideas and ambition from Grant Morrison and various artists poking at all the corners of the superhero genre, and the way the world can reshape itself around them, to stitch together a patchwork quilt of awesome. Frankenstein lives.

Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes: I’m finally getting around to buying this cartoon series on DVD, having seen a handful of really engaging episodes the last time I was in the US. Looking forward to it.

Also, as an aside, you can find me on the Read@UTS blog right now, talking with Sean Riley and author Pam Newton about detective and crime stories. This was a super-fun interview and it helped me sort a few things out in my head about the genre. Go check it out!

And with that, I gotta go pack.

Superprose!

Hi folks,

I know I keep saying I’ll write short posts, but it’s painfully obvious that even my short posts are far too long. And when I actually set out to write a substantial piece – like the one I’m working on now – it’s easy to clock in at 2000 words.

But this is actually a short post, partially because I’m knackered, partially because I’m hoping you will do the work for me in the comments.

Tonight’s topic: superhero prose fiction! What’s out there? What’s worth reading?

There have always been superhero novels out there – well, ‘always’ isn’t true, but certainly since Superfolks in the 70s and the Wild Cards series in the 80s – but there’s been a definite increase in the number of them on the market in the last few years. Obviously there are plenty of DC/Marvel novelizations and tie-in stories out there, most of them for young readers but a few for grown-ups (Greg Rucka’s Batman: No Man’s Land novel is one of the best of them), and now there are a lot more to choose from.

I’ve read a few of these books, good (Soon I Will Be Invincible), mediocre/uneven (the Masked anthology) and bad (Black and White). And I’ve had the chance to read Greg Stolze’s new work-in-progress, which is going to smash people’s faces in with awesome when it’s published. But I’d like to read more. Checking out the usual sources of lists (Goodreads, Wikipedia and Amazon) throws up a bewildering number of titles, with little to guide me in the way of quality.

So I’d like to put the question to the group. Have you read any of these? Are there any that have been missed? What was worth the read? What was terrible? Any thoughts on why superhero prose always seems to have a deconstructive element? (I have some ideas on that one, but I’m tired; maybe I’ll write on that another time.)

The mic is yours. Step up and share your findings on Alpha-Man’s secret identity with the class!

Quick recommendation – WAR ROCKET AJAX

I plugged Kieron Gillen’s podcast Decompressed earlier in the month, and I’m liking it a lot. But it’s not my favourite comic podcast, or indeed favourite podcast full stop.

That honour (I should have an award graphic) goes to War Rocket Ajax, the world’s most destructive comics and pop culture podcast, which is the highlight of my listening week.

WRA is hosted by Chris Sims and Matt Wilson, comics journalists and humour writers in the service of Comics Alliance. They are smart, funny guys in print and in pod, and both good indie prose/comics writers to boot. Wilson writes the webcomic Copernicus Jones and the recently released Supervillain Handbook (which I just bought for my wife); Sims has a number of free e-comics at Action Age Comics and has released two issues of the super-cheap (and really worthwhile) e-comic Dracula the Unconquered.

So they can walk the walk when they have to, but the main point of a podcast is to talk the talk, and they’re great at that too. A typical WRA episode has recommendations of stuff they’ve seen/read/played, reviews of 3-4 recent comics (usually superhero stuff), an interview with a comics creator (usually either an independent creator or one of the writers at Marvel), complete with questions from fans on Twitter, and then some general fuckin’ about to close things out.

Perennial topics include video games everyone else played 4 years ago, nerdcore music, the beat poetry that is Thrasher Magazine, the awfulness of Geoff Johns’ Justice League and the joys of Carolina barbecue, which inspired me into cooking pulled pork for the first time today. (It should be ready to eat about an hour after I post this; I’ll let you know how it turns out.) More than anything else, both these guys recognise that superhero comics should be fun, even when they’re sort-of serious, and that’s the lens through which they judge, enjoy and recommend stuff.

And when Nichole and I got married, they gave us a shout-out for the event. That made us pretty happy.

WRA’s been going for a while, but it’s pretty easy to jump right in wherever you like. A good hook is to scroll back through the archives until you find an interview with a creator you like. Two of my favourite episodes are the Dan DiDio Employee Evaluation (part 1 and part 2), which rip into the DC Co-Publisher’s list of his favourite projects; it’s a smart, critical look at those titles and what they say about DC’s current approach to the genre and the business of comics publishing.

Or just listen to last year’s Christmas episode, with guest starts Matt Fraction (writer of Iron Fist and Hawkeye) and nerdcore rapper Adam Warrock, where the four of them analyse the songs on the Insane Clown Posse/Psychopathic Records album Holiday Heat. I nearly blew a blood vessel in my head within the first 10 minutes of this episode from laughing, and it just ramped up from there. The editors in the adjoining desks probably thought I was having a seizure. It’s fucking funny, is what I’m trying to tell you.

War Rocket Ajax. Ask for it by name. Check it out. Download the destructiveness. Tell ’em I sent you.

Roll to hit Galactus in the purple helmet

I am a superhero nerd, as you all know.

I am a roleplaying nerd, as you probably all know, and if you don’t then I’m sorry to spring it on you so suddenly like this.

And I have explored the overlapping part of that Venn nerdagram for many years (oh Christ, it’s like decades), playing many a superhero RPG. If you meet me in a bar and get me really drunk, I may entertain you with stories of the Champions game I ran in the early 90s and how it drove me to hard drugs and despair. And I’ve played, run and read many more, from Aberrant to (erk) Super Squadron and everything in between.

Which brings us to the topic of tonight’s post, one that will interest only a few of you readers, certainly more than the wordcount can justify – the new Marvel Heroic RPG from Margaret Weis Publishing, which is kind of terrific and also a very interesting barometer of changing narrative styles in commercial superhero comics.

No need to explain the premise – you play Marvel superheroes and you fight Marvel supervillains in the Marvel Universe. I think we’re all clear on that. Dig into the system and you find a very interesting beast – a narrative game with little granularity that’s nonetheless got plenty of room for tactical play. It aims to emulate the flow and feel of comics, rather than provide any kind of ‘physics engine’; characters are defined very loosely and abstractly but with easily understood traits and significant customisability. A lot of gameplay hinges on directly engaging with the dice – adding more of them, making them better, spreading them among different targets and setting them up for future rolls. It’s all pretty abstract, which isn’t a problem if the players maintain a strong connection to the fiction and don’t start thinking about the dice first – but there’s nothing baked into the rules to help with that. On the other hand, manipulating dice pools is fun, both on a mechanical level and in terms of narrative and character.

But look, enough about the system; I could talk about that longer but I risk driving all y’all away to one of those more popular blogs. If you want to learn more about it, check some of the reviews online or download some of the free demo files. Go on, it’s fun. Let’s talk instead about the way it structures play to fit Marvel’s narrative style, specifically modern Marvel comics. Because those are different beasts to what we were reading when Villains & Vigilantes came out.

A key element is how strongly the game is married to its source license. You almost always play existing Marvel characters, rather than home-grown heroes, and you fight bad guys in customised versions of major Marvel storylines. The game allows for your own characters and plots, of course, but all the support is aimed at using Marvel properties, and any kind of tools to change that (like a character creation system, rather than just eyeballing things) come second or third if at all.

One underlying message is that to be a superhero fan is to be a Marvel fan, and to bolster identification with the company’s output. But the second core message is that the individual characters aren’t as important as the Marvel Universe itself. Players are encouraged to swap characters between stories, acts or even scenes, and the material often places more emphasis on locations and plot events than the characters in them. It’s the Marvel Universe that is the star of the game, with the players experiencing it through the lens of their characters, rather than the other way around.

And that strongly matches the modern MU, where big crossover storylines have become not just annual events but tools for major changes in direction, where some books exist just as ‘continuity porn’ to summarise and communicate those changes, and where readers discard comics because they’re seen as ‘not important’ in the lead-up to the next big event. Developing the setting is often (not entirely, sure, but often) more important editorially than developing characters and their personal stories, and Marvel MHR reflects this.

It also reflects it in its campaign model, which is based on existing storylines – Events, in game parlance. Rather than create their own stories, all the support is for exploring a major Marvel event (Civil War, Annihilation and Age of Apocalypse are the ones on the schedule). The material explores the Event through largely discrete scenes, nearly all of them based on specific comics from those crossovers. (And in the case of the Civil War supplement, making them into a better story than the actual comics.)

This is a huge departure from the traditional campaign models of pretty much every superhero RPG, or indeed every gaming group, which have been solidly emulating Claremont’s X-Men for something like 30 years – a broth of long-term plots, multi-session plots and character-focused subplots that move in and out of focus as part of an indefinitely-ongoing game with a high degree of player-PC identification and the GM solidly in the driver’s seat. Once again the focus is on the setting rather than specific heroes, and the play of events that are bigger than they are (one of the things that tends to distinguish from DC, where heroes are often bigger than events). The subtext is that exploring the setting and the Event is where the fun is, for both GM and players, rather than tying yourself to a single character or coming up with your own story scenes.

You can also see this in the presentation of NPCs; most get a paragraph of definition/description next to their rules, rather than the full-page write-ups that tend to be the norm in something like Mutants & Masterminds. The assumption is that you probably know who they are already, but it’s also that these characters aren’t meant to be used by GMs to create stories around them; instead, they’re tools to be slotted into the pre-developed event. They’re not interchangeable – the GM’s choices will matter – but the emphasis remains on bringing the Event to life, rather than creating original storylines.

In case any of this seems overly negative, I want to say that it’s not – I really like the game and I think the change in narrative emphasis makes for fun play. There’s real attraction in saying ‘I want to be Wolverine and I want to fight Apocalypse!’, rather than just approximating those characters and stories. But it’s a big change from the gameplay that older RPGs encourage, and I think the key is that superhero stories have changed, and that the interests and expectations of superhero readers have changed – and Marvel MHR is the first RPG to change in accordance with that.

So anyway, it’s another overly long post that many readers will have skipped. If you made it to the end, take comfort in that I edited out a good 500 more words talking about specific systems and sourcebooks. And give Marvel MHR a whirl – it’s really engaging, well-produced and has an interesting stance on what elements matter in the superhero genre.

I bags playing Iron Fist. Or Daredevil. Or Iron Fist as Daredevil COME ON IT’S TOTALLY IN CONTINUITY

Two the hard way

I got paid last week, and as is my wont I went to see the good fellows at All-Star Comics to drop some dinero on a few trades. Most of them are things to discuss another time – once the series is finished I will do a mega-post about how freaking great Locke & Key is – but two of them are tales of men in tights fighting bad guys, as per this month’s theme, and I’d like to quickly talk about them and why you should read them.

Exhibit A is the first collection of Mark Waid’s run on Daredevil (which is just called Daredevil Vol 1, rather confusingly). Waid took home three Eisners this year, two for this series, and it’s easy to see why because this book is awesome. After years – hell, decades – of being a tormented, tortured character, Waid brings Daredevil back to his swashbuckling superhero roots, portraying Daredevil with a smile on his lips as he pits himself against four-colour villains and some of Marvel’s old-school villainous groups. It’s a major swerve, but it works because it’s grounded in the story, with Matt Murdock deliberately pushing away his sad past before it breaks him – a move that foreshadows consequences and problems ahead.

For all that the writing is strong – and it is, it’s some of Waid’s best – the artwork from Paolo Rivera and Marcos Martin steals your attention away on every page. But again, this plays into the narrative, putting a major focus on Daredevil’s enhanced senses to communicate how he perceives the world, a world of soundscapes and textures and villains/adventures that draw upon Daredevil’s senses as well as his ninja skills. Both artists work wonders with open, energetic whites, snapshot frames and multiple panel, evoking artists like Mazzuchelli and Ditko while having their own unique take on things. It’s glorious, beautiful stuff with a deliberate lightness that never feels trivial.

Over at DC, we have Batman: The Court of Owls, the first volume of Scott Snyder’s side of the post-reboot Bat-verse. This collection (I got the HC, but the trade is due soonish) puts Bruce Wayne back into the title role as Gotham’s guardian, a role he’s comfortable and confident in, especially as he’s backed up by new gadgets and techniques. But his confidence begins to erode in hints that an old urban legend – the Court of Owls, Gotham’s secret rulers – are real and coming for him. Snyder has a horror writer’s temperament and imagination, which bleeds through in the tense, terrifying second half of this book, as all of Batman’s strength and courage mean nothing in the face of a more mysterious, more ruthless enemy that puts him through mental and physical hell, leading up to a ball-tearer cliffhanger.

Snyder is backed up by artist Greg Capullo, who’s come a long way since mimicking Todd McFarlane on Spawn. There’s a exaggerated cartoonishness to a lot of Capullo’s work, but it’s powerfully juxtaposed against brooding shadows, bloody action and moments of terrifying grotesquerie. There are multiple flashbacks, perceptual shifts and hallucinatory episodes in this story, and Capullo seamlessly shifts his style and storytelling to fit each time. If he has a flaw, it’s that his characters’ faces are a little too similar – it’s sometimes hard to tell Bruce Wayne from Dick Grayson when they’re talking – but his body shapes and language make up for it to provide a strong differentiation. Plus, his work in the second half is scary as hell.

These are two excellent superhero books that kick off ongoing directions and stories for two terrific characters. If I had to pick one over the other… well, damn me for a traitor and take away my Bat-card, but it would have to be Daredevil. The sheer energy and liveliness of this book, along with its intelligence and kinetic artwork, make it an absolute delight. Court of Owls is good, but at times the focus on atmosphere and suspense take away from the forward motion of the narrative; Snyder spends a bit too much time building up Gotham as a character in the first half and not enough on having Batman, well, do stuff. On top of that, Daredevil has something I’m really missing in modern superhero comics – a hero who spends his time actively looking for people in trouble and then helping them. Batman does a lot less of that, instead reacting to threats directed at him rather than protecting innocents. I like heroes who are heroic; the DC Universe is kind of lacking that at the moment.

But that said, I enjoyed the hell out of both books, and if you’re any kind of fan of either character, or of superheroes in general, you should definitely give them a read.

Faster than a speeding narrative

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about Superman, and specifically thinking about how to write Superman stories.

Which, let me be clear, is not something I tend to do very often. I am Batman-man, after all, and while I’ve always been perfectly happy that Superman exists I’ve rarely been all that interested in reading about him. Good character, but not my favourite.

But the last few years have seen Superman appear in many stories that get the character very wrong, and these things irritate me when I read them. Worse, those wrongheaded approaches get enshrined into continuity as ‘definitive’ stories and interpretations, and the stories that follow take their cues from these flawed sources.

And now we have a belligerent, ‘edgy’ Superman who is alienated from humanity, quick to lash out in anger and willing to dismember and decapitate his enemies. Yes, that actually happened in the new Justice League title, because what we’d always wanted to see was the world’s greatest hero tear aliens into bloody shreds. Kids love it!

Everything about this is terrible. EVERYTHING.

So I feel the urge to pontificate on how to write Superman. Which is not difficult, despite what people say – hell, it’s so simple that even a schmuck who has no comics writing experience whatsoever can see it. Because there is an elemental purity to Superman, the first and most important superhero, and that purity shines through like yellow sunlight through green fog.

Many of the changes seem to come from the oft-repeated ‘conventional wisdom’ that Superman is a hard character to write, or to relate to, for two reasons:

  1. His enormous physical power makes it difficult to challenge him
  2. His morality is simplistic and makes him emotionally uninteresting

The interesting thing about these arguments is that they are both stupid – or, more precisely, both backwards. They position the two greatest opportunities in writing the character as problems. They are Bizarro reasons that am make perfect sense me am love eating ground glass.

Here’s the thing about ‘challenging’ characters – that’s not how writing a story works. Writers don’t ‘challenge’ characters, because the setup and the outcome of the story (or scene) are determined by the writer in the first place. There’s no challenge, there’s no uncertainty, there’s no rolling dice to see if the hero or villain win this month. Instead, you need to approach things in terms of conflict.

What are the stakes? What are the conditions? What does the character want? What can/will they do to achieve it? What do they need to overcome? What are the consequences of success and/or failure? These are the fundamental questions a writer needs to consider, and they are the questions that shape stories – and that determine what kind of stories work for a character.

So when someone talks about Superman being ‘too powerful’, that speaks to a problem with the stakes and conditions, not the character itself. A story about Superman catching a car thief isn’t going to work because the stakes and the consequences don’t match the character, not because he’s ‘too powerful’. And anyway, we’ve seen that story before, right?

Instead of a problem, think of Superman’s abilities as an opportunity. Superman’s physical power does not exist to let him overcome conflicts, it exists to allow him to engage in conflicts – the more amazing and over-the-top the better. His power level allows you to open up immense conceptual space and come up with magnificently impossible situations. Suns should be exploding, continents should be liquefying  dimensions should be tearing asunder. You have a chance to make up something amazing when you write Superman – do that, rather than, I dunno, have him walk slowly across America while lecturing poor people about how they shouldn’t commit crimes.

The other thing about going balls-out in the imagination stakes is that it means creating antagonists who can also operate on that level. Again, this is something some writers see as a constraint (they really wanted to make that car thief the bad guy) and I see as an opportunity, because it means the power levels cancel out and put the focus on personality. When that playing field is leavened – or, more correctly, equally heightened – what carries the day is not physical power but courage, determination and humanity. Superman doesn’t win because he is strong; he wins because he is brave, kind, inspirational and selfless. He wins because of that simplistic morality that is the other major complaint about the character, because the heart is the most powerful muscle of all. 

And here’s the thing about ‘simplistic morality’ – fuck your cynicism, human goodness is real.

Yes, we are flawed, but we can work to overcome those flaws, and we do so every day. I see people striving to help others every day, in whatever way they can – and for most of us those are small ways, sure, but we still try. We can be terrible to each other, but we don’t have to be. And in Superman – in the lightning that Siegel and Shuster captured in 1938 – we can imagine what simple human goodness could do if given the ability to act. Superman does not refute the notion that power corrupts; he refutes the notion that power must corrupt.

Some people think that’s old-fashioned. I think it’s beautiful.

Certainly there is room for that moral strength to be tested – that, in the end, is the most exciting part of any conflict involving Superman, because exploding suns are all well and good but we need something human to connect to. The point is, though, that there’s a difference between it being questioned and being subverted or mocked; between it being a source of conflict or a source of failure. Stories where Superman wonders whether torture can be justified (the animated feature Superman vs the Elite), where Jonathan Kent hires a branding consultant to design the S-shield (Superman: Earth One) or where his power alienates him from humanity and makes him feel superior (Kill Bill, of all things) utterly miss the point of the character. Superman gives us something utterly human to aspire to; he tells us that goodness can come from our genes, our upbringing or our innate character. That humanity is not something to be overcome, despite what Nietzsche said.

Alright, enough of my ranting and italics. Where does this get us?

Well, if we work from these principles, we can see that Superman stories should embrace the impossible, putting him at the start into situations no normal person could survive or perhaps even understand. He’s not blase or jaded by the situation, but nor is he cowed. His powers let him engage with those impossible situations, while his moral strength allows him to overcome the conflict facing him – the alchemical wedding of Super and Man.

For my money, the perfect Superman story that illustrates all of this is not All-Star Superman, although that is one of the finest Superman stories ever told; it gets everything right, but puts too much of its focus on other characters and situations. Instead, I’d like to nominate another Grant Morrison piece, Superman Beyond, a tie-in to the unfairly maligned Final Crisis.

In it, Superman is recruited by the interdimensional Monitors of Nil to battle a threat that could end the entire multiverse. But the Monitors’ bleedship crashes in Limbo, a wasteland between realities populated by forgotten superheroes, a place where stories go to die. When Mandrakk, the Dark Monitor, comes to tear Limbo apart and destroy all realities, Superman rallies the forgotten heroes to fight back while he travels outside reality to the Monitors’ home. There he takes control of a giant thought-robot to fight Mandrakk, unleashing the conceptual power of his own story to overcome the metatextual erasure of reality, finally casting the vampire Monitor into the Overvoid before flying back to his own reality with a single drop of infinite energy in his mouth that he uses to save Lois Lane’s life.

That probably all sounds a bit crazy put like that, and it must be said that coherency is not a hallmark of Final Crisis, but the majestic inventiveness and scale of the story make it wonderful. It’s a story where Superman must battle threats not just to humanity or one universe but to the very concept of universes, where he has to accept the idea that his life and everything he knows is on some level fictional but still worth fighting for, where he needs to place faith in alternate universe versions of himself (even in the evil one), and where in the end he is motivated to give it everything he has by his love for his wife.

Also, parts of the story were in 3D, special glasses and all.

Fuck. Yeah.

That’s how you write Superman,

Look, I’ve been talking in the specific about Superman here, but in the end this all applies to any powerful or competent character. Actually, strike that – it applies to any character, at least one interesting enough to write about. Because it’s always important to ask the right questions when writing about conflicts, and it’s always important to let the character’s personality be involved in how that conflict plays out. It’s just that it’s easier to expound at length (great, great length) on those points when I have a blue-and-red example to attach to them.

So take three axioms from this:

  1. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the parameters of a conflict.
  2. Any character trait, negative or positive, can be used to shape the outcome of a conflict.
  3. You can (and probably should) use completely different traits to shape parameters and outcome.

And those apply to heat vision, intellect, juggling skill or just particularly tight pants.

Or indeed no pants. Let’s see Superman fight that.

RIP Joe Kubert, 1926-2012

As a comics reader, I have never considered myself a fan of Joe Kubert.

That would be like considering myself a fan of oxygen.

There are things in this world too vital and omnipresent to not need, and as a comics reader the towering, artform-shaping talent of Joe Kubert is one of them. It would be impossible to contemplate a world without him.

But now we have to, because Joe Kubert passed away this morning, age 85, and now we have to learn to live without breathing.

Kubert was an incredible artist whose skills and storytelling power helped define comics since the 1940s. He’ll always be best known for his men of action, soldiers and superheroes and warriors – Hawkman, Sgt Rock, Tarzan, Ragman, Tor. He breathed life into them and made them both mythic and very human. Kubert’s characters had grime, stubble, texture, solidity; the world left its traces on them as they marked it in turn. They could fly with impossible grace or face down vicious enemies to save the day, but they would still need a shower afterwards to wash the sweat off their bodies and the blood off their knuckles.

Kubert was more than just an artist, of course; he was a writer too, one who wrote powerful, tense and often sad stories of adventure and conflict.  War stories were his primary oeuvre, but not hollow, jingoistic tales; Kubert wrote about the costs of warfare, about soldiers sacrificing themselves to save others and how stupidity and bad luck could make that sacrifice a fool’s errand. Sgt Joe Rock of Easy Company, perhaps Kubert’s most  enduring creation, was a soldier’s soldier, a good man prepared to endure bad consequences for the sake of his men and for what was right. There was nothing easy in Rock or in his stories; they were thrilling but sobering, and no-one came away from them thinking war was anything but hell.

But Kubert was never bound by a single genre. He continued to develop his craft and skills into his 80s, and later realist and semi-autobiographical works like Jew GangsterYossel and Fax From Sarajevo were some of his greatest and most thoughtful.

And again, Kubert was more than an artist, more than a writer; he was a teacher too. In the 1970s he established the Kubert School, America’s best-known and best-respected school for comics artists. As a comics reader, I’ve always looked for word of the Kubert School in an artist’s bio. It wouldn’t tell me anything about their artistic style,  but it was a rock-solid guarantee that they understood the craft of storytelling, the nuts and bolts of letting images carry a narrative forward one panel at a time. In an era of splash pages, pin-ups and characters without feet, that grounding in craft and narrative meant everything for me – and all of that led back to Joe Kubert.

He never retired. He never stopped writing, drawing, learning, teaching.

…and finally, though I never met him, everyone says he was a hell of a nice guy too.

There are many creative talents in the comics field, writers and artists past and present with incredible skill and inventiveness who have published fantastic works. But there are few transformative talents, creators who utterly change the face of the artform with their work. Eisner was one, Kirby another, and so was Joe Kubert.

We live in the paper universes they defined. And those universes are left flatter, colder and duller than they were yesterday.

Rest in peace, Joe. Thank you for everything.