character games media superheroes

Batman vs. Ted Lasso

We’re three months into the latest pandemic lockdown, which has been a bad time to do anything creative but a good time to engage with media.

This weekend I finished two such pieces of media – the second season of Ted Lasso and the Telltale Batman video game. And weirdly, I think they have something in common.

I’ll dig into that in a moment, but first, SPOILER WARNING! This post will contain spoilers for a TV show that came out like three days ago, and a video game that came out in 2016. Continue at your own risk – and find out which is better!

(Here’s the first SPOILER – it’s Ted Lasso, that show’s brilliant, the Batman game is pretty ordinary.)

Choose your fighter

Who is the Batman: Batman: The Telltale Series (aka BTTS) is a 2016 video game from, unsurprisingly, Telltale Games, a studio known for their branching-narrative games/visual novels. You get to investigate crime scenes, bang Catwoman, fight Two-Face/sexy Penguin and slowly realise that most of your choices don’t have any effect on the story.

Who is the Ted Lasso: Ted Lasso is – are we doing this? really? ugh fine – a 2020/2021 show on Apple TV+ about an American football coach working with a British soccer team. It’s really fuckin’ good, y’all: a show about hope & positivity that is also about the cost of hope & positivity, and is far smarter than any of us expected in these dark times.

What they have in common

Well, first of all, they’re both stories set in action-oriented genres (sports/superheroics) that preference character interaction scenes over expensive/hard-to-animate action scenes.

That aside, the main thing they have in common is plot. Or, more accurately, how they use plot in relation to character. Both Ted Lasso and BTTS rely largely on external plots, with character scenes triggered by plot beats, and okay let’s unpack these concepts.

punchy quote, shitty haircut

There’s an old maxim, ‘plot is character’, which generally means that plot is what emerges from the actions and decisions of characters, and is usually stated by someone tedious in your first-year writing class.

In many stories, though, plot is external and acts upon characters – the story throws up events and characters respond to them. (This is most common in genre fiction, but you see it in other spaces too.) A lot of folks refer to these events and moments as plot or character beats, and while I think that language is overused, ‘beats’ feel appropriate for this approach to plot, like pounding on a drum to mark the next thing happening to the characters, rather than because of the characters.

Meaty beaty big and bouncy (I’m sorry)

In a story primarily based around an external plot, plot beats provide opportunities for character interaction, with two major functions:

  • catalysts for character change
  • catalysts for character reinforcement.

In a change beat, characters react in ways that, well, change them and redirect their course for the next phase of the story. Reinforcement beats are opportunities for characters (or rather writers) to restate their identity, creating conflicts and causing drama.

Reinforcement beats are particularly common in genre fiction, especially serial fiction (comics, soap operas, cinematic universes etc) where characters need to experience events and overcome conflicts without being so changed by them that they can’t be used in the next instalment/episode/issue.

no Batman, that’s not what I meant by ‘beat’

Tell a Bat-Tale

BTTS is primarily based in reinforcement beats, which is unsurprising for a genre story but nonetheless disappointing. The game sells itself as an interactive story guided by player choices, but ultimately you’re responding to plot events to enforce your own take on how Batman should act and how he should feel.

Does it have change beats? Yes, but they’re badly handled. Characters change, but that change often doesn’t feel earned or genuine. Fail to protect Harvey Dent and he becomes the psychotic, maimed villain Two-Face – but if you do protect him, he becomes a psychotic non-maimed villain that does the exact same thing. Catwoman will always leave you, Alfred will always be saved, and while your choices may mean they say different things, their words don’t change the story.

Also, the action scenes are pretty dull.


The big risk (and big achievement) of Ted Lasso is that the second season is overwhelmingly composed of change beats, with little time spent on reinforcement beats or even on maintaining a continuous plot. Rather than being used as a ‘story engine’ (another term popular in writing classes), events come and go without many situational repercussions, but they kickstart character growth and development.

Take the thread involving the soccer club’s sponsorship. When Sam questions the ethics of the club’s sponsor, they pull out, and this leads to… a new sponsor already in place by the next episode. This show doesn’t care about the drama that might emerge from the search for a new sponsor, or dealing with financial struggles – it cares about Rebecca realising she deserves happiness, Sam finding the confidence to forge his own path, and the two of them shagging like rabbits after hooking up on the dating app that now sponsors the club.

Or consider the Roy-vs-Jamie conflict that powered a lot of Season 1. It would have been easy to draw that conflict into Season 2, but it fades away largely offscreen, replaced by Jamie and Roy learning to show emotional vulnerability and to support others. Wholesome, yes, but also an arc that focuses hard on how and why characters change, rather than the circumstances foregrounding that change.

Also, I got very emotional when they hugged. Ain’t gonna lie.

Who wore it better?

Stories that rely on internal plot, that rise from characters’ action, attract labels like ‘organic’ or ‘authentic’. Stories that rely on external plot, on the other hand, are often criticised as shallow, with beats that just exist to move characters from situation to situation.

Here’s the thing – it doesn’t matter if you do it well. Moving characters into position is just fine in a story, so long as the characters change and grow in interesting and engaging ways in the process. Character conflict helps with that, but it’s not essential.

Both Ted Lasso and BTTS promise character change, but one does it well, in ways that feel genuine, and one only delivers the illusion of change. It’s a shame, ‘cos all of you know how much I like Batman, but the lesson here is to be like the Moustache, not like the Bat.

Plus, only Ted Lasso gave us ‘Beard After Hours’, and that episode was a goddamn cinematic masterpiece.

Brendan Hunt's 'Ted Lasso' Performance in Season 2 Episode 9 | TVLine

I can’t wait to see how all of this pans out in Season 3 – and ugh, fine, I guess I’ll play the BTTS sequel, I hear it’s better.

See you folks another time.

story superheroes Uncategorized writing

Digging a hole in the flaw

I’ve had something on my mind for a while now, but I didn’t feel like it was the right time to get into. It was too soon. Our wounds were still too raw.

But months have gone by, and it’s time to finally step up and admit it.

Avengers Endgame was kind of a mess, y’all.


Why was it a mess? Lots of reasons, but two in particular I want to talk about – plot holes and story flaws.

…wait, aren’t those kind of the same thing?

No! And that’s the thing that I actually want to discuss and unpack, using Avengers Endgame (and another piece of media that I’ll get to presently) as my go-to example.

Do I need to tell you that there will be spoilers? Oh my, so many spoilers. Read on at your own risk.

I mean, the film was fun. I liked most of it a lot! And I jumped up and down in my chair like a giddy child when – and here’s the first spoiler – Captain America picked up Mjolnir and used it to smack Thanos in the face. It wasn’t a surprise, but it was very satisfying.

But someone on Twitter said that Endgame was a better experience than it was a movie, and that’s about right. It was a movie terribly susceptible to fridge logic – those moments days or weeks later when you open the fridge, look inside and think ‘hey, wait, that thing in that movie didn’t make much sense!’

Those moments are usually the times when we notice plot holes – ways in which the logical flow of a plot fails. Plots need to have a flow from A to B to C, even if that flow is sometimes only visible when looking back from C. Is that obvious? Yeah, maybe, but this post is about how these terms get confused, so I might as well kick off with some definitions.

Let’s start with a little one – Rhodey changes War Machine armours between scenes without explanation, shifting from black-and-grey to big-bulky-red. Plot hole! And one that doesn’t matter! This kind of minor continuity error might bother a few people, but that portion of the plot flow isn’t too important in the overall scheme of things.

The hole that matters is a lot bigger. And that is – how the hell did Thanos and his army of minions time travel to fight the Avengers? You can’t time travel without a dose of Pym Particles, but the team have just enough to make their own round trips. There’s no scene where the bad guys get more, no explanation of how they break the rules the film spends aaaaaaages detailing, unpacking and using to propel the plot forward.

That, friends, is a bonafide, load-bearing plot hole. As is the question about how geriatric Steve Rogers popped up at the end of the film; once again, this breaks the rules the movie already established, which stated that going into the past created alternate timelines. He couldn’t have been there all along – so how did he get there?

The question is always ‘how’ with a plot hole. It’s mechanical, it’s about process; it’s linking up that chain of causality.

Now, in this case, the Russo brothers have apparently addressed these plot holes (and others) after the fact, saying ‘one of Thanos’ henchmen made some Pym Particles’ and ‘other timeline inventors came up with a way to get Steve across.’ It must be so liberating to just say, after the fact, ‘oh, there’s an explanation that makes sense if you accept that the movie has an objective reality outside what we filmed’ and to have (some) people accept it. Kind of makes you wonder why you’d bother with a plot at all, rather than just three hours of CGI explosions and then naked Stan Lee saying ‘A wizard did it!’ in the post-credits scene.

For the rest of us, plot holes need to be fixed before the book/movie/game is out in the world. Luckily, they usually aren’t that hard to fix. ‘How’ questions have fairly straightforward answers, because they’re (once again) about process. Just work out an explanation, then write a scene or two to insert that explanation and then smooth over the edges. It’s work, but it doesn’t have to be incredibly hard work. Logic can guide you.

Logic is your friend. It’s here for you. Even though you never call.

But it’s not always easy finding logic when you need it, because in these benighted end time, people – and I mean internet people – tend to slap the PLOT HOLE sticker onto anything that they don’t like or understand in a piece of media.

Case in point – I’m not linking to it, ’cause I forgot the address and also can’t be bothered, but there was a fansite that listed multiple instances of ‘The Avengers changed stuff in the past, but it didn’t cause a paradox!’ as plot holes in Endgame. And I’m like… buddy, work on your comprehension skills! That stuff was specifically called out within the film as not causing paradoxes! There were whole scenes devoted to explaining that changing the past actually just creates a new timeline – which, okay, is one of the things that set up that whole Old Steve thing I mentioned earlier.

But yeah – sometimes a ‘plot hole’ is just the audience missing something. And try as you might, you can’t make your plot points foolproof. You just gotta move on.

A much bigger point of confusion is when a ‘plot hole’ is actually a story flaw. And that’s a much more complex thing to unpack.

Quick question: what’s the difference between plot and story? Here’s my take:

  • Plot: a series of things happen
  • Story: a series of things happen for reasons

It’s super-reductive but it works – a story is a plot with purpose, rather than just a chain of events. A problem with the story is a problem with those reasons and purpose, not the chains of connection. The links are there – they just don’t feel right.

For me, the big story flaw in Endgame was Steve Rogers decided ‘fuck it, I’ve done enough, going back to the past to dance with my sweetheart for 60 years and retire’. That decision doesn’t click with what we’ve seen of him in the movies up to this point (and absolutely doesn’t work with the character as developed in the comics, but that’s a whole different nerd-argument). The story needed to provide the right context to underpin and justify that decision, which it didn’t; instead, it’s basically just waving it off and moving on.

Chris Evans would like to eat carbohydrates again please

A story flaw is a why question. Why did that happen? Why did this character make that decision? Why do I find this story emotionally unsatisfying? These are outcome questions, context questions; they’re harder to pin down than how questions, and the answers are murky and unreliable. A fix for one reader/viewer may not work for another, and definitely won’t work for a third. But still, they need to be addressed – if only to the point where you’re happy with your solution and think it makes emotional sense.

The other issue with story flaws is that, well, sometimes they say less about your work and more about your audience. Which is where we turn to our second example piece of media – Game of Thrones.

I’ll be honest up front – haven’t watched it. Haven’t watched any of it. Never plan to, either! But I am aware of its details through geek osmosis and the omnipresent discourse. And thus I am aware that its ending was… controversial? Many people on the ‘webs thought that the ruler of Westeros should have been someone other than Boy Who Looks Like an Sleepy Ferret. To me, that sounds like a story flaw.

Meanwhile, some of the other commentary around that last season was ‘How is Arya Stark so competent, given that she’s a girl and therefore sucks?’ Which sounds like someone’s prejudices dangling in their face like a flaccid dick flopping down from their forehead. And also sounds like about 75% of online geek discussion.

And it can be hard to tell the difference (sometimes) between ‘this doesn’t make sense to me for valid reasons’ and ‘this doesn’t make sense to me because women/PoC/LGBT folks/I-dunno-Norwegians shouldn’t have agency’. Because both those statements are framed the same way, and both get stated (or shouted) a lot in these dying days of human civilisation. So we need to bear that in mind when hearing criticism that speaks to whether something ‘makes sense’.

When presented with a how problem, you get to work. When presented with a why question, you need to dig deeper and decide whether you agree before you try to fix things – or not.

So… why go into this in so much depth? Or at least length? Well, because ‘plot hole’ gets bandied around far too much, and I think it’s good to distinguish between problems. And because the Endgame thing was nagging at me, and I needed to find a way to unpack that.

And maybe because this year’s batch of Seasonal Affective Disorder is finally wearing off, and I wanted to write something for a change.

And I did.

Anyway. Fix the things that need fixing. Be clear about which things don’t need fixing, and which audience members can be ignored and ideally jettisoned. Don’t sign over your kingdom to Baby Liam Gallagher.

And remember to include the goddamn Pym Particle scene next time. I swear to god.

ghost raven superheroes writing

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.


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.


reading superheroes

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.


reading superheroes

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.

reading superheroes


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!

linkage superheroes

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.

games superheroes

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

reading superheroes

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.