character story superheroes

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.

superheroes writers

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.

reading superheroes

Like unto a thing of iron

There’s a lot of buzz around right now about Hawkeye, the new Marvel series about the ordinary-guy member of the Avengers. I haven’t read it yet, but I’m very interested in what I hear and I’m certain to buy it when it’s out in trade paperback form.

One reason I’m so certain about that is that I’ve read the previous series from the team of Matt Fraction (artist) and David Aja (artist) – 2007’s The Immortal Iron Fist, which remains one of my favourite superhero works of the last ten years. It’s a book for anyone who loves pulp adventure, martial arts and superheroics, and if you haven’t read it by now then I’m going to tell you exactly why you should.

Iron Fist is a Marvel superhero created in the 1970s, a time when Marvel were taking more risks with their characters and trying to tie burgeoning genres like science fiction, blacksploitation and martial arts into their superhero titles. Enter Danny Rand, the Iron Fist (named after a technique in a kung-fu movie Roy Thomas watched) – a young American trained in martial arts in the mystical city of K’un-L’un. Becoming the city’s champion after defeating a dragon (and gaining the power of its chi), Rand comes to New York to confront his father’s killer; eventually he inherits his father’s fortune and becomes a billionaire superhero for hire. Or, more accurately, a B-list character that wandered in and out of back-up features and supporting appearances, along with partner and friend Luke Cage/Power Man, for the next 30 years.

But then Brian Michael Bendis became Marvel’s head writing honcho, and he propelled Luke Cage into a major role with the Avengers. And with like in the limelight, the chance to reinvigorate Iron Fist opened up for a new creative team – Fraction, Aja and co-writer Ed Brubaker.

When approaching an established character, a new team has three main duties – keep what works, throw out what doesn’t, bring in something new. And Immortal Iron Fist does all three. Danny Rand feels penned in by his duties running Rand Industries, preferring to play superhero with his buddy Luke, until someone new smashes into his life – grizzled, pistol-packing pulp adventurer Orson Randall, the Iron Fist of the 1920s! Thrown into action against Hydra, Danny learns that he’s only the most recent champion of K’un-L’un, heir to a legacy of heroes from every era (and pulp adventure genre) – and that he must now fight in a cross-dimensional tournament against other martial arts warriors, the other Immortal Weapons of the Seven Capital Cities of Heaven.

In order to save K’un-L’un – and himself – Danny has to learn entirely new ways to use his chi powers, discover more of the legacy of the Iron Fist, uncover the secret intrigues of the Capital Cities, and beat the crap out of a whole lot of Hydra badguys in an epic storyline that lasts for more than a year of issues. 

One reason why the series is so cool is that Brubaker and Fraction said ‘well, this character comes from a different genre, so let’s explore that genre – and what the hell, a bunch of other genres as well, just because it would rock.’ So Immortal Iron Fist largely eschews superhero fights and gets back into crazy kung-fu action against dozens of mooks and evil martial artists. Then the storyline brings in 1920s two-gun pulp heroes, then steam-powered Victorian superscience, high wuxia fantasy, war action, horror, more, more, more! Pretty much every old-school pulp genre gets a look in at some point, with I guess the exception of Buck Rogers-style sci-fi; hell, one issue has Frankenstein and gun-toting Western saloon gals. It’s a kitchen-sink act that could collapse at any point if not supported by a solid foundation of character, a playfully-intelligent energy and the constant genre strand of balls-out kung-fu fantasy.

Danny Rand emerges as an engaging and likeable character, someone called to do the right thing but who still has fun doing it, trying to find a balance between the traditions of K’un-L’un and his streak of American independence – an everyman who just happens to be a kung-fu billionaire with a blacksploitation cyborg girlfriend. Brubaker and Fraction do virtuoso work here, keeping the energy and tension high, exploring their expanded world with light exposition and knowing when to pull back and let the art do the work.

So let’s talk about the art. David Aja leaves after 9 issues, but creates a style and tone that shapes the artists that follow. Aja’s work is gritty without being grungy, with realistic body shapes and movements captured by a soft pencil line and hard black shadows. It’s a complete break from the more open, over-the-top depictions of Iron Fist in the 1990s, and reminiscent of artists like Dave Mazzucchelli or Michael Lark. His breakthrough technique is to zoom in on elements of the action with pop-out panels and circles, showcasing a specific kick, flip or facial expression, like photographs that capture instants and are then scattered across a table.

After he leaves the series a variety of artists carry the torch, most notably Travel Foreman, whose scratchy, distorted pencils bring a touch of grotesquerie and continue to separate the series from traditional superheroics. Other artists are more traditionally four-colour, which isn’t bad but does dilute the visual identity. On the other hand, there are also guest pencils from legends like Russ Heath and Dan Brereton, which are not exactly bad things, and Aja does come back a few times to contribute here and there.

(But we do lose those striking covers with their wonderful use of whitespace. That’s a shame.)

Brubaker and Fraction leave after 16 issues, which take up the first three trade paperbacks. Their successor is crime writer Duane Swierczynski, backed up by Foreman and a number of other artists. His run over the next year isn’t as distinctive or energetic as what came before but is still worth reading. It largely leaves behind the pulp genre play to focus on martial arts fantasy, as Danny battles a creature that preys upon Iron Fists and descends with the rest of the Immortal Weapons into the terrible Eighth City to fight demons and monsters.

Still, the series ended due to low sales, as do most Marvel comics that aren’t about Avengers or X-Men; there was one last mini-series about the various Immortal Weapons, which was fun but nothing spectacular, and it left Iron Fist and his supporting cast with a slightly bigger presence in the Marvel Universe. Which is a bonus.

Five years after Immortal Iron Fist, Fraction has risen as one of Marvel’s big-name writers, with a reputation for unconventional story ideas and a willingness to look outside superheroes for tone and voice. The seeds of that are here, in the adventures of Danny Rand, Orson Randall and all the other Iron Fists past and future – adventures that brim with ideas, with energy and with a joyous love of the pulp genres.

It’s a really, really fun comic. You should buy the trades (or the omnibus collections) and read the fuck out of them.


Fuck yeah Lego

As an old person, I occasionally hear grumblings that Lego used to be cooler and more fun back in the day. Back when you have a box full of coloured and slightly tooth-pocked bricks you could assemble into anything, rather than sets with clearly defined and circumscribed outputs and special Girl-Lego that was redesigned to be pink and filled with genderfail.

To these protestations I can only make one response:



 There are video games, there are playsets, there are oversized figures, there are iPhone apps to make stop motion videos, there are Marvel and DC characters and you can put sirens on everyone’s heads.

And if I had travelled back in time and informed 10-year-old me that when he was 40 he could build Lego dioramas where Batman and Captain America teamed up to fight Loki and maybe some dinosaurs, he would have shit his pants in terror because OH FUCK TIME TRAVEL been totally fucking stoked.

Truly this is the best of all possible worlds. There has never been a better time to be a grown-ass man with badly screwed-up priorities.

(I’m not saying there’s not some weird bullshit Lego out there, and creating a ‘Lego Lifestyle’ brand for clothes and backpacks is kind of deeply fucked up, but I can forgive a lot in the name of Lego Iron Man, alright?)

linkage superheroes writing

Quick recommendation – DECOMPRESSED

Decompressed is a podcast produced by comics writer Kieron Gillen, perhaps best known for his Britpop-fantasy Phonogram and for suddenly graduating to writing a shitload of books for Marvel.

Decompressed is not about his work.

Instead it’s a comics-creation (mostly writing) craft blog where he interviews creators about their process, their decisions and the development of ideas into a specific single comic. Thus far he’s interviewed Jason Aaron (Wolverine and the X-Men), Kelly Sue deConnick (Captain Marvel), Tim Seeley & Mike Norton (Revival) and Matt Fraction and David Aja (Hawkeye, which I am seriously going to buy the fuck out of when it’s available as a trade).

And it’s really good stuff. Gillen asks the right questions in his soft English accent and I think a lot of that comes from the fact that he’s still relatively new to the industry. This is not an old hand talking about things he knows by rote; this is an excited newcomer still learning his craft asking ‘hey, why did you do that?’ and really wanting to know the answer. And his subjects love what they’re doing too, and the passion and the process ring out and ring true. It’s fucking fascinating.

If you’re not interested in how comics are conceived and written and drawn, this probably ain’t very interesting. But then again, if that were true you probably wouldn’t be sticking around on this blog in August. So go listen and check this fly shit out.

(PS – Decompressed is also available on iTunes.)

(PPS – And Gillen deserves mad props for a) telling me about amazing Brit-band Los Campesinos! in the back pages of Phonogram, which led to me listening to them every week for the past two years, and b) using one of their tracks as his intro/outro music. Seriously, they’re a great fucking band and you should listen to Romance is Boring right now.)

reading superheroes

Superhero comics – NEXTWAVE






 It’s a twelve-issue pisstake tour of the Marvel Universe from Warren Ellis and Stuart Immonen.

If you don’t like it then we can’t be friends.




Now with 20% more amazement

I’m working on a big post about superhero writing, but I’m not going to post that tonight after all. Because we just saw Amazing Spider-Man and I feel like writing a spoiler-free review while there’s still time to see it in cinemas.

Which you should do. ‘Cos it’s kind of terrific.

The bulk of that terrific-ness can be chalked up to Andrew Garfield, who is fantastic as Peter Parker. He brings a cheeky and impulsive energy to all his scenes, even the ones where he’s miserable or injured, building up a portrait of a smart, likeable teen who’s nonetheless bottling up a wellspring of hurt. It’s a great departure from Tobey Maguire’s emo nebbish, and it spills naturally into the smart-mouthed momentum of Spider-Man when he puts on the suit.

Emma Stone’s Gwen Stacy is the other major pillar of the film, as much of it focuses on their relationship and how it quickly develops. Stone brings nearly the same energy and charm as Garfield, and there’s a real chemistry to the scenes between them that gives the story emotional weight without being too syrupy (despite the best efforts of the intrusive score/soundtrack, but I always bitch about that). I liked the fact that Gwen is mostly portrayed as smart, independent and capable, rather than someone who has to be protected; I also liked the way they retained a lot of her original 60s-mod fashions but modified them just enough to be current.

(As for the rest of the actors, casting Martin Sheen as Ben Parker was inspired, and he brings an entirely different but equally effective gravitas to the role that he did to Jed Bartlett in The West Wing. Sally Field is a surprising but very good choice for Aunt May, although it’s a smaller role, and Denis Leary is competent enough as Gwen’s police chief father.)

Visually and tonally the film is excellent – more grounded and less stylised than the Raimi trilogy, which tried to evoke the look of the original 1960s comics in a lot of ways. While Amazing doesn’t go Full Nolan in modernising things or abandoning established comics canon, it certainly tries to stake its own territory and make changes where it needs to, whether to Spider-Man’s origin or to the costume, which is pleasingly genuine in its look and construction, down to Peter using sunglasses lenses to make the eye-pieces. The physicality of Spider-Man, his webshooters and his movement is all much better than it was before, thanks to improved CGI that puts motion-capture tech onto real actors and stuntmen rather than ragdoll simulations.

If there’s a problem, it’s with the villain of the piece, Curt Connors/the Lizard. Not with Rhys Ifans’ acting, which is competent, or the look of the character, who is suitable huge and scaly and scary. But the film doesn’t introduce and escalate the threat of the Lizard as strongly as it should, because so much time is instead devoted to Peter’s development. The Lizard doesn’t show up until past the halfway mark and there’s a very abrupt curve from ‘fleeting appearance’ to ‘threatens all of New York’. A better approach might have been to develop the two characters and their storylines in tandem, letting them bounce off each other at multiple points in the movie rather than all at the end – that would have both improved the pacing (the middle part drags a little) and given more breathing room to showcase the Lizard’s plan and powers.

There are some other script and direction issues, but I don’t think I can explore them without getting specific and introducing spoilers. It’s not perfect, and the last third or so has most of the problems – but they’re not so problematic as to damage the movie or undercut the performances.

Was it too early to reboot the series? Did we really need another origin story? Well, maybe not, but the tonal differences in Amazing are strong enough that it would never have gelled with the Raimi series, and a new origin lays strong tracks for a new series that can forge its own, frankly superior identity. I don’t think a 4th Raimi film would have been as strong as this one, and we would have missed out on Garfield redefining Peter Parker and making him his own. If the price of developing a new direction and style is to sit through Spider-Man’s origin story again… well, it’s a pretty cool story, you know? Even if I have seen something like it before.

So yeah. Excellent movie and a great new inclusion into our superhero month; easily on a par with the other Marvel films of the current wave and better than some (ie Thor and Iron Man 2). Go see it before it finishes up in cinemas.

genre superheroes

What is a superhero anyway?

So okay, if I’m gonna talk about superheroes all month, I should probably define my terms, right?

Superheroes are heroes. Who are just super.

…okay, that’s probably not enough.

The problem with the superhero genre is that it’s broad, and inclusive, and has very fuzzy boundaries. Well, I say ‘problem’, but to be honest it’s more like a positive feature because it means so much cool stuff can be included in there. But it gets confused when the genre reaches out to absorb other genres, such as pulp or ‘weird adventure’. Is Hellboy a superhero? Atomic Robo? The delightful Marineman, which you should check out? They’re all larger-than-life characters that have impossible adventures, but the label seems out of place. And I’ve seen attempts to classify characters like Indiana Jones and Perseus as superheroes, which is definitely stretching things too far.

At the same time, some readers want to exclude characters that to me are obviously superheroes. After The Avengers movie came out, I saw a lot of viewers say ‘Hawkeye and Black Widow aren’t superheroes’, which bamboozled me. They wear costumes and have codenames and possess special skills and they’re in the Avengers, so how can they not be superheroes? Usually the logic is ‘they don’t have superpowers’ – which is true, but that’s true of plenty of superheroes. I mean, by that logic Batman isn’t a superhero – and when I said that a few people agreed and then I had to just drink rubbing alcohol until the pain in my head went away.


So it’s not a cut-and-dried thing, and defining it would be hard work for a Saturday morning. So, rather than do the heavy lifting myself, I’m gonna quote someone else who already did the hard yards, comics journalist and Batmanologist Chris Sims at Comics Alliance:

In his very funny Super Villain Handbook — available now at finer bookstores everywhere — War Rocket Ajax’s Matt Wilson does a very nice job of defining what separates a super-villain from an everyday crook. The dividing line there was theatrics, and I think the same holds true for super-heroes. There has to be some kind of sense of grandeur to it.

I do think costumes and codenames are a definite aspect of it, although that doesn’t necessarily mean capes and tights. It means there needs to be a distinctive look for the character…

It’s also pretty crucial that they have abilities far beyond those of a normal person, even if they aren’t outright super-powers. Even characters like Batman and the Punisher, who “don’t have super-powers” are still defined by being way more determined and/or pissed off than any real person could ever sustain, even before you get to stuff like a lifetime of combat training and a family fortune.

And because they have those abilities, they need to be called on to do things that no one else could possibly do. The threats that they face should be on a level that’s somewhere beyond realistic, because the characters themselves have abilities that are beyond realistic…

To me, it’s very important that super-heroes lives up to that title; as obvious as it sounds, they need to be heroic. There has to be an aspect of their character where they’re putting some kind of moral or ideal above themselves, with an element of sacrifice or altruism as the motivation. And that ideal can be as vague or specific as it needs to be…

Thanks, Chris!

I think I’d add something else to that – that superheroes need to be unique but not one-of-a-kind. By that I mean than an individual superhero must have a unique identity, rather then being just Cyborg #17 and there are twenty others running around who are just the same. But at the same time, they shouldn’t be the only super-character in the world; there need to be other unique characters around for them to interact with, whether allies or enemies. I say this because stories about lone super-beings either pull away sharply from the genre, or pull it apart and deconstruct it. I’ve certainly never seen one that remained within the genre and had a central character that remained either ‘super’ or ‘heroic’ by the end.

So those are the points that make the definition for me. In the end, superheroes are like pornography (a quote you should feel free to take out of context): I know what they are when I see them. If a few of them are edge cases, that’s okay; genres have boundaries and some characters sit on or near them, and talking about those characters can be fun. We may not all be on the same page, but at least we’re hopefully all reading from the same book.


Which, again, could be confused with porn.


Stand back – it’s SUPERHERO MONTH!

We’ve had the Avengers, we’ve had Amazing Spider-Man, we’ve had Dark Knight Rises, there are more movies on the way, there’s Green Arrow coming on the teevee, there are new Marvel and DC RPGs, Comixology is bringing out more digital comics than ever before, superhero novels are appearing in droves, Marvel is overhauling their whole line and it’s nearly a year since the DC reboot, about which I will say little other than to note the date.

I’m telling ya, superheroes are a Big Fucking Deal right now. Which is wonderful from my POV, because I have loved superheroes since the first time I saw a black-and-white reprint collection of 1970s DC comics in a central QLD newsagent at age 5 or 6. I love their action, their energy, their cavalier disregard of limitations and physics and common sense in the cause of helping and protecting others, no matter the cost.

I drink Earl Grey tea because it’s Batman’s favourite. I know that with great power comes great responsibility. I have always been ready to take up the heroic burden, even if that just means donating platelets and the occasional kidney. And I feel like, right now, this is something worth celebrating, and examining, and excitedly sharing with my readers – especially as I continue work on Raven’s Blood, my superheroic YA fantasy novella.

So August is officially Superhero Month here at PODcom! 

…okay, so what the hell does that mean?

Well, it means that I’m going to be writing a month’s worth of posts on the subject of superheroes – and that I’m bursting free of my two-posts-a-week power dampeners to post daily (or at least nearly daily) on the subject! Sure, most of those will be very short posts, maybe just a paragraph and some links, but by Great Rao I will be talking about superheroes as often as possible until winter shuffles away to be replaced by Kal-El Tammuz spring a’ coming in.

This month I’ll be talking about all the things I love about superheroes – and a few things I don’t like, sure, but in keeping with my Pollyannaish nature I’ll focus on the positive. I’m going to look at comics, movies, websites, podcasts, novels and anything else I can think of, pointing you towards the good stuff and explaining why the bad stuff is stinky. I’ll also be rolling out four of my patented Big Sunday Posts to discuss things in depth from a writer’s perspective, talking about how to write (or not to write) superhero comics – something, I hasten to point out, that I have absolutely no experience in doing, but yet feel qualified to armchair editor about. Yay me!

It’s gonna be a fun month. Strap yourself into your power armour, slide on your mask, gather up your cape in one hand and step off the ledge with me.

Have no fear. We can fly.

character games story superheroes writing

Arkham City – the writing dos and donts

I don’t think anyone will be terribly surprised to hear that I spent most of the last two weeks playing Arkham City, rather than Christmas shopping, writing or spending quality time with my wife. I mean, come on, it’s a video game about Batman; the only way to make that more attractive to me as a package is have it dispense a shot of bourbon from the controller every time you get an achievement.

But as of yesterday I have finished the game (both the core plotline and the host of side missions) and having done so I think there’s a lot to consider from a writing POV about the way the game handles its stories and characters. Arkham City does some things right and some things wrong – more the latter than the former, to be honest – and a lot of that is pretty directly applicable to writing fiction. So let’s step away from the fact that the game is a lot of fun and features my favourite character and see what else we can learn from it.

(No, this isn’t a transparent attempt to justify the hours I’ve spent beating the crap out of bad guys on the TV. Honest. Cross my heart.)

Also, warning: if you haven’t finished the game yet, there’ll be some spoilers here. They might ruin your enjoyment. Or they might not.

Plot from premise

For a start, let’s talk about plot. Although promoted as being sandboxy and ‘open-world’, AC has in fact a very central plotline. More specifically, it has two central plotlines. First up, Hugo Strange has turned half of Gotham City into a giant prison, full of psychopaths and lowlifes, and Batman has to find out what Strange is really up to. On top of that, the Joker has infected Batman and a lot of hospital blood supplies with a deadly disease, so Batman has to determine and find the cure before he (and hundreds of others) die.

This is classic stuff – you have an A-plot and a B-plot, you move the spotlight between the two as the story progresses, and you use developments in one to modify the other. It’s very much the approach I’m taking with The Obituarist, for example. By having two main plotlines, you can build tension in one and then move to the other to maintain suspense, or pull the trigger in one to ramp things up in the other. Having just one core plotline in a long-form work doesn’t give you the same richness or as many tools, and you run the risk of pushing that plot too hard and boring your readers.

In addition, AC has about a dozen side plots and missions, plus a parallel storyline about Catwoman. Most of these link strongly to the strong central premise of the game – Gotham City is now a prison that causes far more problems than it solves. As I’ve said before, a strong premise is a constant story generator; you can bring an simple idea to it, put it through the premise/machine and some kind of plotline will come out. Video games tend to be premise-driven, of course, but AC‘s a good (not exceptional, but good) example of how it can work.

Bait, switch, drive a truck through the holes

But while AC has a central plot, that’s not to say it’s a strong plot. Or a coherent one. Or one that makes a goddamn lick of sense in some cases.

So yes, Hugo Strange is doing something bad. But you spend most of the game ignoring that, despite the fact that it’s the A-plot that’s central to the premise and plastered all over the blurb of the CD case. Instead, the Joker-infection plot takes over the core of the game and drives it forward, forcing you to ignore the increasing urgency of prison developments while you look for a cure. Which requires you to fight ninjas in an abandoned subterranean steampunk cult temple.


You’ll go on a vision quest. You’ll punch a giant shark and a pair of one-armed former Siamese twins. Solomon Grundy throws electrified balls at your head. And a bunch of other stuff that floats in and out of the story for no really comprehensible reason. Finally you’ll get a cure, only for it to be stolen and the Joker to target Batman. At which point the A-plot comes back and Strange gets the legal right to kill everyone in the prison (!), and you rush to stop him while the Joker allies with the ninjas. Except that’s all bait-and-switch too, and brings with it a couple of plot holes that left me staring slackjawed at the TV, wondering how no-one on the writing team stopped and said ‘wait, correct me if I’m wrong, but that’s just fucking stupid’.

The main reason why these plot turns and events are problematic (apart from the huge holes) is that they’re divorced from the central premise discussed above. Playing a shellgame with plotlines can be interesting if done well, but are frustrating when bungled, and when your story wanders too far afield from the concept that got the reader interested in the first place. Similarly, while some side plots emerge fairly naturally from the central plotline and core premise, others come out of nowhere and feel completely tacked on (especially the one involving Azrael, which is either utterly pointless or an extended teaser for the next game in the series). Fun in and of themselves, their stories don’t satisfy, just as a disconnected subplot in a novel leaves the reader feeling distanced from the main story because of the apparently-pointless detour.

Oh, and the game finishes before you get a chance to cure the hundreds of infected patients in wider Gotham. Apparently there’s a post-credit epilogue that deals with that. But here’s a free tip for writers – if 80% of your novel has focused on a race towards a vital goal that must be achieved, forgetting about it and leaving it to be resolved off-screen and mentioned after the novel wraps up is bad fucking writing.

Rising tension

The advancement model of most video games is well-established by now, and AC does not do anything all that different. You start off fighting small groups of weak opponents, mooks and thugs who do their best to fuck you up but fail because you put your boot through their faces. You fight a few more groups, encounter a boss who has to be fought using different tactics, gain a new gadget or skill, and after a scene advancing the plot you’re back on the streets – except now the groups of thugs are a little bigger, a little tougher and using new weapons/tactics that you have to adapt to with your new powerups.

This is so far from radical it’s practically voting for Malcolm Fraser, but AC does it very well indeed. As the inmates form into massive gangs and get access to guns, shields, body armour and other toys, you never get the chance to feel complacent, even though you’ve also gained new advantages. There’s a constant pressure there to counterbalance but not negate your sense of achievement and to push you to do better, to give you the feeling that the stakes are continually rising.

As in games, so too in prose. This kind of rise / plateau / fall back to a slightly-elevated status quo / rise again pattern occurs over and over again in novels, and that’s because it works. It’s a slow dance of action, consequence, elevated stakes and into action again that gives a story an engaging pace and a reason to keep reading, if only to find out how the protagonist deals with this new turn of events. And it works for both action-packed page-turners and more introspective works; the raised stakes may be bruised emotions rather than 20 dudes with knives and tasers trying to slice your nipples off, but it’s an elevation nonetheless.

Too many c(r)ooks

The premise of AC gives a lot of room for including distinctive characters, as does Batman’s massive rogue’s gallery, almost all of whom have enough depth and history to be a convincing central threat as a core antagonist. What we get instead is a lumpy mishmash of unclear roles and pointless cameos, where characters that deserve substantial development time instead get five minutes of focus before tagging in a replacement to handle the next blip of plot. Within the main plotlines alone there’s a confusing blur of characters, from Mister Freeze to Two-Face to R’as al-Ghul to the Penguin, and they fall over each other in the race to take centre stage and justify their existence.

The side quests are even more rife with these additional characters, such as Mr Zsasz, Mad Hatter, the aforementioned Azrael and (sigh) Hush. In addition, riddles and clues about the whereabouts of more villains are all through the game, in such volume that they become overwhelming. When you find Calendar Man, of all people, sitting talking to himself in a glass-walled cell under a building, not contributing anything to any plotline in any way, it doesn’t make you feel that you’re glimpsing a wider world, it makes you feel like DC is throwing every bit of their IP against the wall in the hope you’ll go on to buy the action figures. Or inaction figure, in this case.

More is not always better, and a massive dramatis personae doesn’t automatically make your setting feel vast and varied; if you stick them all into your story at once, it makes it feel cramped and cluttered. It’s better to use a small number of characters and give them multiple story roles, so that they have recurring reasons to take focus, undergo development and then organically move that focus to another character with an overlapping remit.

Also, don’t put characters behind glass. They might suffocate.

The perfect antagonist

But for all that there are too many characters, there’s one that stands out above all the others as an incredibly engaging and fascinating opponent.

No, not the Joker or Two-Face, and certainly not the barely sketched Hugo Strange. No, it’s the Riddler. Who can kiss my entire arse.

The Riddler’s shtick is that he’s littered Gotham with riddles and trophies, which you obtain by solving puzzles, some of which are simple, some of which are just goddamn bullshit. You could ignore them, but he has hostages, and to free them you need to solve the puzzles, unlocking the locations of deathtraps as you go. And all the while he’s alternately mocking you for your stupidity and accusing you of cheating when you work out the combination of tricks and gadgets required to save a hostage.

It took me a week to finish the core plot. I spent the second week collecting trophies and solving ridiculously complicated puzzles because it was personal – because everything about this plotline was the Riddler saying that I, the player, was not smart enough to figure out his shit. So when I finally found him, pulled him through a set of weak floorboards and punched the question marks off of his hat, the triumph wasn’t just Batman’s, it was mine.

Now, as a writer, you can’t make the reader solve puzzles to turn the page – not unless you’re doing some very interestingly ergodic sort of stuff – but you can target the reader directly through a character’s portrayal and development. If you can make the reader take a character’s actions personally, whether thanks to identification with the protagonist or pushing emotional buttons directly (which is tricky, but kudos if you can pull it off), you give the reader a big reason to care what happens next. Don’t just leave them wanting the protagonist to succeed – leave them wanting the antagonist to fail. Do that and they’re yours.

Action is character

I’ve harped on this in the past, and I’ll probably harp on it again in the future, but action – stuff actually happening, onstage, front and centre – engages the reader and defines character far more than description. And like most video games, AC is action-adventure focused, and you’re constantly doing stuff. Well, more precisely, Batman is constantly doing stuff, and that’s a meaningful distinction. You’re more like a director than an actor or author in this game, guiding and making decisions for Batman rather than micromanaging him. He knows what he’s doing, and his actions show it – he fights hard, he always knows what gadget to pull out, he moves confidently from hiding place to hiding place, pausing only to silently smother a goon or electrify Mister Freeze’s armour. And outside the fights, it’s action – confrontation with villains, working out puzzles, infiltrating hideouts – that advances the story (albeit unevenly at times). There are cut scenes and conversations, yes, but those are still focused around conflicts and the actions required to resolve them.

The upshot of this is that the story never stalls, because there’s always something happening – even if, yes, that story and those actions don’t always make sense or connect properly. And because of this, we never have to be told that Batman is a man of action, that he’s prepared to do whatever it takes, that he thinks on his feet and refuses to lay down even when weakened near to death by the Joker’s disease – because we see him doing those things, and because we help and guide him as he does those things. There are dozens of backstory snippets that you can collect as the game goes along, but you lose nothing by ignoring them, because the story and character development doesn’t take place there – it takes place in the now, in the action, and in the immediacy of the moment. Just as it does in a novel.

Action is character, even when you don’t want it to be

The flip side to the above, of course, is that when a character says one thing and does another, it’s the action that presents the character to the reader.

And what AC presents is a Batman that talks a lot about never killing and doing the right thing (he even makes a little speech about it at one point), but his actions say something else. No, he never kills anyone, but he’s fine with letting people die through inaction. The game is rife with instances where you stand by and let the body count rise because you’re too concerned with other priorities. For example, a plotline with Deadshot has Batman waiting for the assassin to pick off targets so that he can pick up clues afterwards, rather than working from day one to prevent the killings. And that’s not even touching on the ending, where Batman slowly and reluctantly gets himself organised while Strange’s men deliberately massacre a third of the inmates, or where he carefully knocks out and incapacitates half-a-dozen armed gunman and leaves them littered around Strange’s HQ, only to abandon them to die when the joint explodes. These actions reveal him as either callous or incompetent, no matter his stated plans and sensibilities.

Ditto the thuggishness of his brutal interrogation of captured henchmen – bad guys or no, you can’t help but feel a moment of sympathy for them when Batman first terrifies them and then smashes their heads into brick walls or drops them off ledges once they spill the beans. I get that Rocksteady’s vision of Batman is darker and grimier than the traditional DC version – although it’s a pretty good fit for the less-well-written depictions in the new DC continuity that’s deliberately targeting the age-18-35-male demographic – but they’re still trying to describe the character as heroic within the game, and his actions belie that, leaving their protagonist more like an easily-distracted bully.

As I’ve said before, actions speak louder than words, especially in prose – which is weird, given that it’s all words, but you know what I mean. It’s all show not tell once again, and if you show your character doing the opposite of what you tell the audience he’s doing, they’ll think he’s a hypocrite and that you’re confused about your work. Make sure it all lines up, and remember that what happens on the page is what the reader will take in above all else.

See, folks, that’s all it takes to get me to write 2500+ words – Batman. If only he popped up in Arcadia I’d have finished the book months ago.

Next week, some flash fiction (plus visual stimulus!) for your Christmas reading. Just the thing for warming your heart after you have your pudding.