Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Astonishing Adventures: Mini-Profiles

I decided to do some mini-profiles for some of the supporting characters in my story. As usual, any artwork is not mine or of my character. Since I don't have the ability to draw, I scour the internet looking for pictures of people or characters who resemble them. This helps the character seem more real, not only for you, but for me too.

All set? Here we go.

Dietrich von Frankenstein

He is the great grandson of the legendary Victor von Frankenstein who has co-opted the cultural cache of his ancestor to build himself a bit of celebrity. He is the original goth; a poser of the worst kind. Although he has learned a lot of occult tricks, most of his mastery of monsters and witchcraft was stolen from others. He is the first to boast over a captured enemy, and the first out the door when that enemy escapes.

Dr. Josef Mueller

A mild-mannered, idealistic German scientist who raised a eugenics experiment as his own daughter while he taught the young Mechanic. At his daughter's insistence, he joined the Nazi Party in their search for Atlantis and was exposed to the Atlantian's telepathic library. The experience changed him and turned him into a man who will stop at nothing short of transforming the world into his own twisted utopia.

Die Gestapo Geist

An elite German soldier who, after the death of his family, volunteered for an experiment that gave him the ability to turn intangible. It also changed his molecular structure so that the color of his body is not reflected leaving him looking like a real life black-and-white photograph. Generally, he's just referred to in the story as Geist. I've had this character in my head for a long time and I really love the character. His emotionless and colorless nature reflect a simplicity that underlies his motivation. Like a good soldier, he does what he's told, but Geist's service has extended past death... past ideology or ambition. He is simply a force of cold, murderous will. Still, I see him as somewhat sympathetic due to his ability to see past the foolishness and hubris of the living and to the bitter nihilistic reality of death.

The Hidden Khan

While on the surface there isn't much to distinguish this character from the average Asian megalomaniacal stereotype, to me he represents the end of imperialism and the decadence that comes with it. While his arch-nemesis, Dr. Alchemy, is trying to redeem his soul before death, the Khan is desperately trying to escape death, not only to preserve his existence but his way of life. Yet for the world to move forward, his way of life has to die. This makes him something of an endangered species.

The Illusionist

If a villain loses all of the time, how can he be a serious threat? What if he arranges things so that even when he loses, he still wins? That was the idea behind the Illusionist. He has grown so bored with mundane society that he creates huge games to amuse himself. His latest game is supposed to make the Enigma just like him. The Illusionist would mentor him again, if the Enigma would allow that, but instead he is going to force the Enigma to see the world as he does by baiting him into conflicts.

Milla Mueller

Milla was the first generation of an early eugenics and special breeding program. The Mechanic met and fell in love with her as a child while she was contained in a special chamber designed to control her environment with additional air pressure and controlled contaminants designed to increase her strength, speed, stamina, and resistance to disease. As she grew up, she became a leading member of the Nazi party believing that she is following the destiny of her blood. She is one of the few people the Mechanic has met who is a challenge for him both physically and mentally. The Mechanic shot her eye out for threatening Padre's life, now she both wants to kill him and marry him.

Lizard King

The lizard king was once a normal person until Dietrich subjected him to modified alligator hormones. Now as the Lizard King, he has become bitter and angry. He has allowed his monstrous appearance to define him and sought the physical pleasures which are all he has left. Since only the Nazis have offered him that, he has made some very powerful allies.


This is the Mechanic's best friend... which shows you how socially inept he is at heart. Padre got his name from a white stripe on his neck that vaguely resembles a priest's collar. He is extremely well read, spending almost all of his time in the library. His other favorite hobby is flying. He is the helmsman on the Mechanic's airship and frequent pilot.

Rosie Rocket (AKA Rosario Rios AKA Rosie the Riveter)

Rosie is one of the few sidekicks I have in this story. Possibly the only one. My rough plan is to have her start out as the Enigma's best friend, confidant, and Girl Friday, and then to gradually allow her to become a protege to the Mechanic and take an active role in the war. For me, Rosie represents demands of a female show of strength that was important during the war and inappropriate after the war. The fact that she is (to borrow Kevin Smith's phrase) "a male affectionate lesbian" not only gives her a "one of the guys" quality on the team, but also means she doesn't need a man to complete her... which I imagine a lot of American women were learning at the time. Still, she has her own issues with love which should come into play at some point.

The Silk Spider

A late addition to the war, the Silk Spider is a spy and assassin who is only a rumor in the highest offices of defense. She seems to have superhuman abilities of seduction and manipulation, but nothing so overt as to define it as a power. On the surface, she has a flapper's laisez faire, hedonistic demeanor, but what's going on behind that is anyone's guess.

Tin Man

A Nazi war machine invented by Dr. Mueller, discovered and befriended by two orphans and their young dog in the middle of dust bowl America. This is one of my simplist and most fun ideas for this project. It's like a "boy and his dog" story, but instead it's a boy, a girl, a dog, and their Nazi war machine. The Mechanic meets it at some point and invites Tin Man and the kids to join him in their secret headquarters figuring that nowhere in the world is particularly safe right now.

Tokyo Rose

Tokyo Rose is a young female samurai in the direct service of Emperor Hirohito, but conflicted by her Zen and Confusian principles. She rides an A6M Zero like it was a horse and keeps at her katana and Type 26 hammerless revolver on her at all times. She is a highly skilled warrior, incredible disciplined and serious as death. Unlike a traditional samurai, she wears fairly light armor, preferring mobility and speed over protection. I'm not sure what I'll do with this character, but then, it's best not to have everything planned.

Twilight & Dawn

There is a comic book cliché of people (almost always men) who are perfect in every way mastering everything that is cool to master from boxing and swordfighting to detective work and science. There was often a certain arrogant charm that came from that kind of hubris, like they are genuinely disappointed with everyone and everything for being so flawed. I decided to mix that stock character with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr. and the Thin Man series and twist it into an eccentric Hollywood couple of the most glamorous sort with a penchant for adventure. I used this picture of Fairbanks and Ginger Rogers to say, "Anything Twilight can do, Dawn can do backwards and in high heels."


This character is pretty much a blend of Marvel's Thor, DC's Superman, and Nazi ideology. I always thought it was unfair to criticize other countries by making their heroes into monsters. Don't get me wrong, Übermensch is as much a monster as Hitler, but I want my readers to see him as someone who can proudly embody the Nazi ideal. I want them to imagine the hope, faith, and love that the German people must have placed in their leaders, because that is one of the worst evils. Übermensch was created in a Thule Society ritual designed to summon the Norse god Thor, but the rules of magic manifest him in the form of the creator. He is, therefore, a modern Nazi ideological distortion of the original character. He truly believes in the Nazi ideal, but that's easy when it says that you are the most perfect being on Earth. As of yet, he is far more powerful than any one of the Allies... perhaps more powerful than all of them combined.

Well, that's it for now. Comments, questions, and criticisms are always appreciated.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Recommendation: Scud - The Disposable Assassin

[The criteria: (1) Self-contained stories; no background knowledge required. (2) Widely available. (3) Fairly inexpensive; no price gouging. And of course (4), highest quality.]

In 1994, riding the end of the collector's bubble, a black and white, independent comic became all the rage. It had four spin-offs (two minis, two ongoing) and two video games. In 1998, issue #20 had the protagonist swear that he was going to assassinate the Earth... but it wasn't until ten years later that issues #21-24 came out finally finishing this oft-overlooked fan favorite.

Scud: The Disposable Assassin was created by Rob Schrab (pronounced "Shrob" but not followed by "Bo Bob") and Dan Harmon, but the bulk of the credit goes to Schrab. Like many of us, Schrab gave birth to this creation through a mixture of depression and cheesy old movies (in this case, westerns and exploitation films), but unlike most of us, Schrab and Harmon come from the Dead Alewives, a comedy troupe out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Since creating Scud, they have gone into film and television writing Monster House for Columbia Pictures and currently working on The Sarah Silverman Show for Comedy Central. They also did an unsuccessful pilot for a show satirizing '80s superpowered action shows (a la The Incredible Hulk and Knight Rider) called Heat Vision & Jack starring Jack Black with the voice of Owen Wilson as his talking motorcycle. It was produced by Ben Stiller after he became a success, but before the other two did.

Getting back to the comic, the plot is fairly simple, as dramatized by this image (right). Basically, the story is set in what I would call a pop-culture mish-mash alternate reality. Like a cartoon reality such as Doug, Rocko's Modern Life, or even Duck Tales, it resembles our world, but does not conform to it. For example, when you have a problem with someone, you can always spend a few Franks at a local vending machine and get a robot assassin. Just so there are no loose ends (and so the company can make a greater profit), the assassin will self-destruct upon termination of its target.

This story is about one Scud, who upon seeing the warning sign on his back, decided he didn't want to self-destruct and so shot the arms and legs off of his target and put it on life support. Then he had to become a freelance assassin to pay the bills. Along the way, Scud encounters Jeff, the mother of the Apocalypse; Ben Franklin, self-proclaimed master of sex and voodoo; La Cosa Nostroid, the android mafia; Drywall, a blue... uh, interdimensional... storage... thing; Sussudio, the beautiful master thief with a robot fetish; and many more bizarre creatures.

Scud is one of those things, like web comics (or variety show podcasts), that you can see quickly evolve from its crude and rough beginnings as both the artist learns his craft and the art finds a unique form all its own. Despite all of the witty rejoinders and casual brutality of the series, there is obviously a lot of love here. The comic was originally created to impress a girl that Schrab was interested in (hence the name "Heartbreaker"), but ended up impressing Schrab himself. The long break between the twentieth and twenty-first issues was actually, in part, due to another romantic relationship falling apart and the anger and cynicism associated with that breakup. Naturally, you don't need to know all this to enjoy the comic, but it feels like a very personal work, and when you learn the history behind it, it just makes sense. It isn't just a story, but an exercise in free expression forming in the ether of one man's own demented psyche.

Just the sort of thing I love.

Until recently, if you wanted to read Scud, you would either need to illegally download it, order it from the website, or painstakingly track them down in comic stores, but with the final four issues completed, Scud has been collected in one edition titled Scud: The Whole Shebang boldly including a beginning, middle, AND end at no extra cost! Cover price is $29.99 (S19.59 from Overstock, $19.79 from Amazon) for 786 pages or 3.5 pounds of zany goodness. I don't own it yet, but I expect to resolve this problem as soon as possible.

Further web links-
Rob Schrab's Official Webpage
The Official Scud Webpage (last updated in 2003)
Schrab's Scud related video clips

Friday, December 26, 2008

Myth and History

I took a look on Wikipedia's List of time periods to give myself a better sense of history and to help put my story in context. Unfortunately, I feel that the truth often gets lost in the facts. When you tell of your people's history in myth, you can learn from history. When history is just a collection of facts, it loses all meaning.

Of course, the next logical question is "Whose truth is the right one?" Well, if you study history, you notice certain trends and traditions which have often been satirized in fiction, however they are often contained in metaphor, historical fiction, speculative fiction (or science fiction to all you non-nerds out there [Heh. As if anyone who reads my blog isn't a nerd.]), or what have you. And the closer history gets to the present the more facts we have and the less truth.

We have a layman's American mythology of history... of Greece, Rome, the Dark Ages, the Renaissance, the Age of Exploration and Colonization... It basically goes something to the effect of...

Once upon a time, people (that is to say white people) were really, really stupid and dug around in the dirt a lot until we got smart and built shit. We got temples and columns and built silly little temples to a bunch of gods we had for all sorts of elements. We thought the world was made of the four elements, but we are a lot smarter than that now.


So we founded Greece and the Romans took over Greece... and kinda became Greece but now they called themselves Rome and they were really smart too and took over all sorts of stuff but then this dude Jesus came, they killed him, and God squished Rome into the Dark Ages. Which was awful because you couldn't see anything.

I'm pretty sure I stole that last joke from Eddie Izzard. Anyway, then we had castles and knights and princesses and fairies and magic but then Merlin said the world was becoming too Christian and decided to go some place that wouldn't kill him for his beliefs. Meanwhile, we went to the Middle East to kill people for their beliefs... and since we were already there anyway, we helped ourselves to the wealth of jewels and spices.

Speaking of spices, the kings of Dumbsfuckylvania needed to be snootier and prissier than the emperor of Marzipan so he sent ships out to get a bunch of it and in the process discovered there was more to the world than just him. Naturally, this terrified him and so he set out to conquer and enslave everything... which he did. He manage to do this in the most dickish way possible by pretending to be everyone's friend, talking to them about Jesus, and stealing all of their shit. It was the great European pyramid scheme which fell apart when the rest of the world realized that (A) we are dicks and (B) they outnumber us.

Now stay with me for a slight detour. I'm reminded of a line from Buffy the Vampire Slayer where one vampire says something to the effect of "A lot of guys talk about the end of the world, but they don't actually do it." Similarly, a lot of people tried to take over the world, but it wasn't until Hitler that anyone would really do it.

My story seeks to merge myth with history. The setting is factual. The stories are fiction... but true none the less. Not to sound too much like Winston Smith, but there seems to be no sense of history any more.

Anyway, I came across a list of historical ages that coincide with comic book eras pretty well. This is in what they categorize as the Post-Modern era.
  • The Atomic Age (circa 1946-1957) - Perfect! I was already using this name and it is the perfect period. I'm sure I heard this somewhere before, but it's nice to know this phrase is a reckognized term.
  • The Space Age (1958-1971) - This fits almost perfectly with the period that comic historians call the Silver Age. They both are representative of the same things: hope and change.
  • The Information Age (1972-present) - This corresponds to the Bronze Age... although I'd say the Bronze Age ends in 1986 with Crisis on Infinite Earths and the Watchmen. We are currently in the Modern Age of comics, they say. Perhaps its time for the post-modern age of comics.
Douglas Rushkoff once suggested that the Information Revolution is poorly named because information can be quantified and measured (like facts). This was, in fact, a Communications Revolution... dictated by unmeasurable truths.

I'm thinking about calling the period after the Bronze Age, representing 1988 to 2000, the Silicon Age, but I'm not certain. It is meant to represent the beginning of the computer age and the internet, of course. I think the end of using precious metals to define ages is significant. Maybe I will just call them The Age of War, The Atomic Age, The Space Age, The Information Age, and The Silicon Age. I don't know...

The Spirit, Will Eisner, and the Eisner Awards

With the new movie coming out, I thought I would answer the question on everyone's mind, "Who the hell is The Spirit and why should I see it?" If you watch the trailers, the answer is "A movie by the creator of 300 and Sin City." If you ask me, it's because either you watch every comic adaptation ever made (like me) or there won't anything better on top of your Netflix queue in six months when it hits DVD.

To understand the Spirit, it helps to understand the creator, Will Eisner, and why he is so revered in the industry. If you haven't read the Pulitzer prize winning novel, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, you may not know that the comic industry was formed mostly by first and second generation Jewish immigrants in New York City. They were paid little, worked hard, and rarely had any creative or intellectual property control (an issue that still has repercussions in the industry). These weren't artists working on their dreams, they were young, Depression-era craftsmen working to put food on the table. Consequently, none of them thought of their work as art. It was just cheap entertainment for kids.

The Spirit was Eisner's first big break. It first appeared in June 2, 1940 and lasted for twelve years. It actually wasn't a comic book, but a seven-page comic "strip" featured in major newspapers as distributed by the Tribune Syndicate. It's worth noting that at this time, the comics section wasn't just something you threw to your kids while reading the business section. Comic strips, unlike comic books, appealed primarily to adult audiences and often sold issues.

"They gave me an adult audience", Eisner said in 1997, "and I wanted to write better things than superheroes. Comic books were a ghetto. I sold my part of the enterprise to my associate and then began The Spirit. They wanted an heroic character, a costumed character. They asked me if he'd have a costume. And I put a mask on him and said, 'Yes, he has a costume!'"

The protagonist was a private investigator named Denny Colt who appeared to die due to exposure to experimental chemicals. Fortunately, Colt's "lifeless" body was sent to his family crypt where he woke up several days later. Deciding he could work better outside the law, Colt came to live in the crypt in Wildwood Cemetary, started wearing a domino mask, and called himself The Spirit.

Unlike the superheroes, the Spirit's charm is not due to a compelling origin story, but the creator's own storytelling abilities. Eisner was one of the first creators to consider what he did art and it shows in his work. Perhaps the most distinctive and innovative aspects of The Spirit was the title page which often integrated non-diagetic material (i.e. title and credits) into the picture.

But what truly distinguishes The Spirit from the competition is the warmth and humor of the series which would often use its title character in a minor role while elevating bit characters to the role of the protagonist. These characters were as human as they could get, often working men or criminals. One story features a criminal who escapes from jail and runs into his exact double. He switches places with the man who goes to jail while he returns to the man's home. Unfortunately, the stranger was a hen-pecked husband who finds that he enjoys the peace and quiet of prison more than the stress of his home life. Eisner's stories are filled with humor, action, and sentiment... often all in the same story. His art style, though fairly conventional in its early years, becomes quite intelligent and complex. Eisner, in fact, wrote the book on telling story through art with his book Comics & Sequential Art, which is used as a text book in most college-level comic book classes.

In 1942, Will Eisner was drafted, but The Spirit was still being published by Eisner's colleagues with his permission. Eisner himself used comics to train military personal. Following both the war and The Spirit, Eisner helped start PS, The Preventative Maintenance Monthly which instructed soldiers on the proper maintenance of their equipment. It was started in 1951 and continued publication into the sixties.

In the 1970s, Eisner coined the phrase "graphic novel." With the word "comic" having a pejorative connotation held over from its comedic roots, the phrase "graphic novel" was a way to suggest a more mature and intelligent form. Eisner's first graphic novel was A Contract with God and Other Tenement Stories. These are stories inspired by his childhood growing up on the streets of the Bronx in a poor Jewish community. I highly recommend it to anyone, comic fan or not. Other works include Fagin the Jew (a fresh look at the Oliver Twist character who is often considered an anti-semitic stereotype), The Plot (an account of the conspiracy hoax known as The Protocols of Zion), and Last Days of Vietnam. Despite his popularity and reputation, Will Eisner never did any work for Marvel or DC Comics, apparently having no interest in writing or drawing superheroes.

As a champion for the integrity of the form, the greatest honor a comic book can receive from the industry is an Eisner Award. These are distributed every year at the Comic-Con International in San Diego. They are like the Academy Awards of comic books. For my money, they seem to be pretty fair. Awards are distributed to mainstream, independent, and foreign publishers with roughly equal spread.

Now, to tie this all into the movie, Eisner and Frank Miller (the film's writer/director) were friends who respected one another's work. Miller admits that he stole his famous and renown Daredevil/Elektra storyline from a Spirit story. Together, they produced a book appropriately titled Eisner/Miller where they discuss the comic industry from an insider's perspective. But as I've said before on this blog, their storytelling techniques are as different as Hitchcock and Capra. Both grew up in New York, but Eisner focuses on the humanity and soul beneath appearances while Miller focuses on brutality and image. This is not to say that Miller's approach isn't as good (it isn't, but that's not what I'm saying), but rather that it is not appropriate for the material.

Public opinion seems to agree as reviews of the film range from "good if you aren't a Eisner fan" to outright horrible. The usually reliable has given The Spirit an appauling 15%. Personally, I want to get my hands on the 1987 failed pilot, but I'm sure I'll see this train wreck eventually.

Will Eisner died on January 3, 2005 at the age of 87. He was writing and drawing up until the end.

He will be missed.

If you would like to read The Spirit, they are collect in 26 hardcover volumes for $50 each. Or if you don't want to spend $1300 on comics, pick up The Best of the Spirit (which is probably an easier read anyway) for $14.99. Or if you want a more faithful modernization of the character, check out The Spirit Vol. 1-2 by Darwyn Cooke.

As for other recommendation, any of Will Eisner's graphic novels are fantastic, but A Contract With God is his most recognized artistic achievement.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Astonishing Adventures Profiles: Dr. Alchemy

Sometimes I forget that the primary purpose of this blog is not to show off what I'm working on, but as a place where I am forced to explain my concepts to other people in order to make the concept more stronger... particularly with feedback. Consequently, when I am struggling with a character, I'm hesitant to write about it for fear that people just won't get why I like it. The truth, more often than not, is that I'm not sure what I like about it. But when you have had a character in your mind long enough, you know that there is something worth keeping. Something you can work with.

This brings me to Dr. Alchemy (AKA The Alchemist AKA Smoke AKA whatever name I decide to give him next).

Dr. Alchemy (as I have now taken to calling him) is the dark side of superheroes. His motivation doesn't come from a hope that we can better ourselves like the Mechanic's. It comes from witnessing the evil of the world.

The archetype of the "dark knight" is a classic adventure adaptation of the anti-hero. He is often rich, sophisticated, and obsessive. This character type can be seen, most notably, in Zorro, the Shadow, and Batman. Both the Shadow and Batman (amongst numerous others) follow a tradition in comics that... well, urks me. That is, the white guy who goes to China, studies under some master or another, and becomes one of the best martial artists in the world. Consequently, the comic book universe ends up with a lot of white martial arts masters and very few Asian ones.

For that reason, my protagonist is Chinese, although a westernized aristocrat to some extent. I imagine him being very proper and uptight, wearing old fashioned, Victorian clothing as he sips tea with perfect posture and a penetrating stare that meticulously catalogs the flaws in every person he sees. He is terse, blunt, and uncompromising. He doesn't try to make friends because he doesn't trust many people, but he will make allies if it suits his purposes.

Despite his aristocratic demeanor, Wu-Chen Li (AKA Dr. Alchemy) was raised an orphan on the streets of Hong Kong and made a living by joining one of the tongs (Chinese mafia). His work brought him to the attention of the Hidden Triad, a network of spies and assassins descended from the personal intelligence operatives of an ancient and paranoid Chinese emperor.

Li was trained in their secret techniques including multiple forms of combat and espionage. He was trained to handle a variety of weapons from the latest guns to the most ancient swords, spears, and bows. He was also trained in both Western and Eastern medicine (after all, the best killer is an expert on anatomy). He has learned how to blend in with all walks of life from German aristocrats to Cuban cabañas, but he found a certain comfort in blending Victorian sensibilities with some native Chinese influences (although he wouldn't adopt this as his style until much later).

He soon became one of the top assassins and member of an elite fraternity with each member poised to take control at the death of the Hidden Khan. The Khan is an amalgamation of Fu Manchu, the Mandarin, Kaizen Gamorra (left), and every other meglomaniacal, long-fingernailed, long-mustachioed Asian villain stereotype. He is roughly one hundred fifty to two hundred years old, kept alive through ancient alchemical practices, but although he is still quite powerful, he is extremely close to death. He has long been in pursuit of the fabled "Divine Elixir" which is supposed to grant immortality.

One day, the Khan sent Li to an ancient temple hidden in the Himalayas which was rumored to hold the secret of the Divine Elixir. After killing the Buddhist priest, Li was shown to the elixir. Unable to help himself, he drank it for himself, but it was not the gift of immortality. Li felt a burning in his blood as his third eye was forced open. He saw himself burning at the 18th level of Naraka for killing an Arhat, an enlightened being.

Li descended into a great fever for weeks and was tended to by the peaceful monks whom he assaulted, yet it isn't until one of his fellow assassins arrives to find out what happened to him that Li makes his choice to defend these people against the Khan. After a furious battle, Li delivers the body of the assassin to the Triad with a warning that he will do everything in his power to stop them.

Originally, I wanted him to resemble the Shadow with his broad-rimmed hat, scarf pulled up to his nose, and big bulky jacket, but now I'm thinking more of a cowl that covers up all or most of his head. Instead, I've been looking to the Sandman (left), Dr. Mid-Nite (right), and the recent Spider-Man: Noir (top) for inspiration. Li takes his work very seriously, so his clothing and weapons tightly conform to his body without restricting movement.

Part of the charm of this character is that I easily find ways to incorporate ninjas, Nazis, and demons all into the same story. The character blends martial arts with gritty, street-level crimefighting and some minor mysticism (think excorism and charms of protection, not Gandalf and Harry Potter). Add to that, fairly steampunk-ish body armor, two long silver pistols, and an assortment of realistic period utilities including smoke bombs, grappel lines, acids, explosives, and anything else he might have a need for. One idea I had was that he uses a powerful inhalant to put himself into a death-like trance that grants him powerful strength and speed while making him mentally focused... sometimes with frightening results. I'm not certain if I will retain that idea.

One thing I am sure of is Dr. Alchemy's car: a 1938 Phantom Corsair. The moment I saw this car, I knew I had to work it into the story. This was a prototype design that never made it into mass production. It's a six-passenger coupe capable of speeds of up to 115 MPH... but maybe Rosie or the Mechanic can upgrade it with a nitro boost, oil slick, smoke screen, tire spikes... the usual stuff.

Also, Dr. Alchemy was going to be a San Francisco based superhero. Besides being a visually compelling place, this would enable me to structure stories around the Chinese immigrant community... however, I found out, much to my disappointment, that the height of the tong wars in San Francisco took place in the 1920s and 30s. Also, white police were actually instrumental in negotiating that peace by showing respect to the Chinese community. It didn't exactly support my cynical nature. I also wanted a featured hero at America's biggest cities to respond to historical events, but maybe I need to start letting go of a lot of big ideas and respond to the demands of the character... rather than making the characters respond to the demands of my ego.

Monday, December 22, 2008

Astonishing Adventures: The Atomic Age

I'm having some trouble on my two other supporting characters right now, so I'm going to move on to the second phase of my big project just to give an idea of where I'm going in this story.

After World War II, superheroes fell out of popularity. It's hard to say exactly why, but one might imagine that superheroes became so tied to the Nazi threat that they went with it. The only superhero comics that continued to see publication were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman. Publishers phased out the superheroes and replaced them with teen humor, "funny animal," horror, western, romance, and science fiction comics.

Ironically, the concept of the superhero probably never would have dominated the industry were it not for Dr. Fredric Wertham's book, Seduction of the Innocent (1954), which claimed that comic books were the primary cause of juvenile delinquency. Wertham derided "crime comics," a category which he believed included superhero and horror comics, as an "injury to the eye." He also cited the covert homosexuality of Batman and Wonder Woman as contributions to delinquency. (While most comic fans will tell you that Wertham is a raging hemorrhoid, I will agree with them with one caveat. Sure, he was a censorship loving, child-hating, conservative nut job, but many of those comics would be considered extremely unacceptable for a child even today! It doesn't surprise me that the gay innuendos we make jokes about would be the subject of censorship in the fifties.)

In part due to Wertham's book, the Comics Code Authority was formed. This was a self-policing agency requiring comic books to conform to a code of ethics. Although it was not legally required, distributors would often refuse to carry books that did not have the code thereby making it de facto censorship. Included in the CCA are rules that:
  • prohibit the presentation of "policemen, judges, government officials, and respected institutions ... in such a way as to create disrespect for established authority."
  • "in every instance good shall triumph over evil."
  • discouraged "instances of law enforcement officers dying as a result of a criminal's activities."
  • prohibit "excessive violence... [and] lurid, unsavory, gruesome illustrations."
  • forbid vampires, werewolves, ghouls, and zombies.
  • prohibit the words "horror" or "terror" from being used in the title (the word "crime" was restricted, but not prohibited).
  • prohibit "sex perversion," "sexual abnormalities," and "illicit sexual relations," as well as seduction, rape, sadism, and masochism.
  • required love stories to emphasize the "sanctity of marriage."
  • required scenes portraying passion to avoid "lower and baser emotions."
Needless to say, my comic will be breaking as many of these rules as I can... 'cause I'm a jerk like that.

Many of these rules were specifically incorporated to challenge prolific horror and crime publisher EC Comics (best known for Tales From The Crypt)... and it worked (Side note: MAD actually changed to MAD Magazine in order to avoid the restrictions of the comic code.) The first comic to "break" the code was actually an EC Comic story called "Judgment Day" in Incredible Science Fiction #33 (1955).

From Wikipedia:
The story depicted a human astronaut visiting a planet inhabited by robots as a representative of the Galactic Republic. He finds the robots divided into functionally identical orange and blue races, one of which has fewer rights and privileges than the other. The astronaut decides that due to the robots' bigotry, the Galactic Republic should not admit the planet. In the final panel, he removes his helmet, revealing himself to be a black man. Murphy demanded, without any authority in the Code, that the black astronaut had to be removed. As Diehl recounted in Tales from the Crypt: The Official Archives:

"This really made 'em go bananas in the Code czar's office. 'Judge Murphy was off his nut. He was really out to get us', recalls [EC editor] Feldstein. 'I went in there with this story and Murphy says, "It can't be a Black man". But ... but that's the whole point of the story!' Feldstein sputtered. When Murphy continued to insist that the Black man had to go, Feldstein put it on the line. 'Listen', he told Murphy, 'you've been riding us and making it impossible to put out anything at all because you guys just want us out of business'. [Feldstein] reported the results of his audience with the czar to Gaines, who was furious [and] immediately picked up the phone and called Murphy. 'This is ridiculous!' he bellowed. 'I'm going to call a press conference on this. You have no grounds, no basis, to do this. I'll sue you'. Murphy made what he surely thought was a gracious concession. 'All right. Just take off the beads of sweat'. At that, Gaines and Feldstein both went ballistic. 'Fuck you!' they shouted into the telephone in unison. Murphy hung up on them, but the story ran in its original form."
The next time the code was challenged was in 1971 by Stan Lee who wrote a Spider-Man story about the evils of drug use at the request of the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. Despite the fact that the story was clearly anti-drug, the CCA determined that context was irrelevant. In response, Marvel removed the CCA stamp from the Amazing Spider-Man for three issues. ... There were absolutely no repercussions for Marvel, but the code was soon revised to meet the less conservative (and preposterous) values of the time. In 2001, Marvel officially retired their use of the CCA stamp thus effectively ending the CCA's power over the industry, although it is still used by Archie Comics and some DC Comics.

This is the metaphorical setting for The Atomic Age.

Technically speaking, in comic book history, the fifties are considered an extension of the Golden Age, but it was a strange decade where superheroes either didn't work, weren't allowed, or both. It also represents a strange period in American history after the Great Depression and World War II. It was a time of the nuclear family, white flight, "the [blank] of tomorrow," McCarthy hearings, the Cold War, the Korean War, Beatniks (the real ones, not the parody), Elvis, and Eisenhower. It proceeded the cultural turmoil of the sixties with a culture of repression and consumerism.

The Atomic Age is going to be very different in tone from The Golden Age. Where the Golden Age is about heroes popping up and proving themselves individually before gradually gathering together, the Atomic Age is about a small group of abnormal men and women who find themselves hunted by a government who is unwilling to ever let the fate of the world fall into the hands of freaks. To this end, they have formed Majestic-12, an intelligence department tasked with keeping complete control and confidentiality over all supernormal activity.

By this point, most of the Golden Age heroes are either dead or missing. Dorothy Dale (AKA Lady Liberty) is under investigation by HUAC for Communist ties, the Mechanic [spoiler block], the Enigma is working as an international spy, and the Alchemist simply vanished at the end of the war and was never heard from again. This story will feature a new set of protagonists in order to set a completely different tone for this series. Included are a Jack Kerouac-style Beatnik, a popular lounge singer turned vessel for a voudoun loa (based loosely on Nat King Cole), the ghost of an Apache renegade and gunslinger, a traveler from the future who calls himself the Chrononaut, and his alien robot.

I want to play up the illusion of suburban bliss, the fear of monsters in the midst, and the bigotry of the period. McCarthyism and Wertham's influence over comic books will blend into the subtext of the story along with Cold War divisions. We will be seeing some Soviet mystery men who were allies in World War II become reluctant enemies. We will also be seeing early experiments in atomic power applied to superhuman mutation.

This is planned as a much darker, personal story than the epic adventure of the Golden Age. There is no glory and little honor. Like the other eras, I want the style of the book to reflect the popular comic forms at the time, which is why most of my protagonists fall into the genres of western, science fiction, and horror (I still want to develop characters who fit in with teen humor, romance, and even funny animal), but I want to use those genres to show the moral hypocrisy through the very types of storytelling techniques that were banned by the comic code.

I have always had a fascination for battles that are fought privately. This is a story of unsung and forgotten individuals, neither heroes nor villains, who didn't have the luxury of a clear enemy and the support of the free world. They fought for survival and freedom from a society that hates and fears them. If it weren't for them, the age of heroes (the Silver Age of Comics) would not have happened.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Saving the Franchise: Superman - Part 3 "The Rest"

I've decided to finish up my conclusion to Saving the Franchise: Superman (Part 1, Part 2, and Part 2.5) because there are a couple things that need to be said before I wrap up this subject.

Just say no to Kryptonite!

You know what I think every time I see this hunk of rock appear in a Superman movie or TV show? "Oh great. Now I have to sit through at least five minutes of horrible acting where the actor stumbles around the set for a while pretending to be generically sick and weak before, inexplicably, managing to overcome the sickness presumably through the power of will." It has all of the dramatic tension of food poisoning.

Kryptonite is a writer's crutch for when they don't have a threat big enough for Superman. Any idiot can stop Superman with a little bit of kryptonite. It is a hold-over from when Superman fought mostly gangsters, but it is repeatedly used as a check to Superman's incredible powers.

But kryptonite is essentially a cop out and it makes the story worse. It moves the threat from a villain or a natural disaster to a rock. Granted, a glow-in-the-dark rock, but still. At its best, kryptonite is used to accentuate the existing threat by fashioning a kryptonite bullet or bomb which presents an immediate threat rather than a tedious scene of overcoming discomfort. But for the purposes of a movie, I say leave it out. It isn't essential to the story and depicting Superman as being vulnerable to more than one thing would go a long way to restoring public interest in the character.

Michael Cera should play Jimmy Olsen

It's not even open to discussion. Sure, Jimmy Olsen was one of the better parts of the last movie, but he was such a caricature of a dorky cub reporter that if he had any more screen time, I'd want to kill him.

Superbad's Michael Cera would bring some much-needed street cred to a movie which comes with the baggage of being perceived as hokey and out of touch. Yet, at the same time, Cera has an awkward sense of humor that would fit the character like a glove.

The Fortress of Solitude and Krypton

Superheroes have secret headquarters for the same reason that boys have club houses. It is a place that is completely for them where they can just be themselves and play with their toys. In the current series of movies, the Fortress of Solitude is depicted as a crystal palace that is completely lifeless and unwelcoming.

I always thought that this was the dullest place in the world, nothing like Superman's original Fortress of Solitude which had a key so large and heavy that only Superman could lift it. It included a team of Superman robots, an alien zoo, hundreds of super-science experiments, a trophy room, and a huge statue of his parents holding Krypton over their heads.

This is the Fortress of Solitude I want to see in the movies. This is a place I would actually like to go. Similarly, I'd like to see what Krypton was like before it was destroyed. Often, it is shown to be cold and lifeless, but to me, that makes it seem like Superman was lucky his planet was destroyed. I want to see the majesty of the Krypton that was, complete with Fire Falls, Gold Volcano, and Jewel Mountain.

Well, that in a nutshell is what I think would make for a great Superman film. What do you think?

Recommendation: Bone

Well, it finally happened. I decided that as long as I am talking so much about comics, I might as well put together a few recommendations. But I didn't want this to be a completely masturbatory process for me, so I came up with a few ground rules to make these recommendations a bit more palatable.

1. All recommendations will be self-contained stories. They may be part of a series or they may have sequels, but you won't feel like you are getting an incomplete story when you read it. If they are superhero stories, I will assume the reader has a passing knowledge of comic books gained from television and movies. I will recommend nothing that requires background knowledge.

2. They must be readily accessible. I will not recommend anything that is out of print or is only available in single-issues. I will assume my readers find being in a comic store as uncomfortable as being in a twelve-year-old boy's treehouse. (Furthermore, I will assume my readers find being in a twelve-year-old boy's treehouse uncomfortable.)

3. They must be relatively inexpensive. Of course, prices wildly vary for comics and cost/benefit analysis should also take into account page count amongst many other factors, but I will not be recommending any comic that I believe is unreasonably expensive for the casual comic reader. This includes oversized hardcover editions marketed to hardcore collectors and other forms of price gouging.

That said, let's begin with my first recommendation: Jeff Smith's Bone. This is a young adult comic in the fantasy genre starring several oddly cartoon-ish protagonists collectively known as the Bones from Boneville. Leading the group is the humble Fone Bone accompanied by his cousins, the greedy Phoncible P. "Phoney" Bone, and the goofy, cigar-chomping Smiley Bone. After Phoney's failed campaign for mayor led to the group being run out of town, they wander into a mysterious valley full of strange humans where they are pursued by evil rat creatures and locusts. They take refuge with a kindly, young woman and her tough-as-nails "Gran'ma Ben." They soon find themselves drawn into a mythological adventure to stop the Lord of the Locusts to wake the world dragon Mim and thus end the world... but not before Phoney tries to rig the great cow race to cheat the local villagers.

Bone has won an unpresidented 10 Eisner Awards and 11 Harvey Awards, the industry's two most highly regarded accolades. In their list of Top Ten Graphic Novels of All Time, Time Magazine called it "as sweeping as the Lord of the Rings cycle, but much funnier." I agree whole-heartedly. Like any great fantasy novel, reading Bone is an experience that makes you feel like you were there, and Smith's characters are so rich and dynamic that, by the end, they feel more like friends.

This comic is available in two main formats. For $39.95 ($25.62 from Overstock, $26.37 from Amazon), you can buy Bone: The One Volume edition. This collects all 1300 pages of the series in its entirety in the original black and white. I own this volume and it is one of my favorites. However, for $9.99, you can get the colorized volumes released by Scholastic Press. They look beautiful, but with 9 volumes, that comes out to a total of $90. Until they have the colorized version in a single volume, I think I'll stick with black and white.

Further web links:
Boneville - The Official Bone website
Bone games from Scholastic

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Creating a character: Part 3

C) Cathexis

So now I have three ideas. It is important not to confuse ideas with characters. My ideas might tickle me in naughty places, but if I think of them as characters, I will soon realize that they have no depth, personality, or dimension and start to hate them.

Obsession is a writer's greatest friend and worst enemy. It compels you to dig into every detail of your world, but you often lose sight of the big picture. For this reason, I've found that it is useful to draw on a wide variety of influences to help shape your story. Ideally, these influences will range from being extremely similar to being extremely different, therefore creating something recognizable, but still feeling original.

Bitch-Monster Seductress

The first thing that strikes me about both Fantomah and the Black Widow is their resemblance to period actress Veronica Lake. Now there is a woman who not only looks like she could consume a man's soul, but most men might just let her.

I've found hair to be very important to distinguishing characters. Hair color immediately leaves an impression on the reader about what kind of person this is (of course, there are more options available to us anglo-saxon folk). Dark hair connotes a certain seriousness and stability, which is why Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman all have jet black hair. Brown hair connotes an average, boy (or girl)-next-door quality, and a bit of blue collar identifiability (i.e. Spider-Man, Han Solo, Cyclops, or Kitty Pryde). Redheads suggest fire and passion (i.e. Jean Grey, Mary Jane, or Guy Gardner). Blondes suggest a certain... divinity (i.e. Captain America, Luke Skywalker) that is actually consistant with the Nazi ideal. Often, blonde hair is a mark of purity of spirit, but it can also suggest a false purity; a purity for "evil" or a corruption of an ideal.

I see this character as having very pale, sickly blonde hair... jaundiced, even. She is the embodiment of the romantic passion of death. This should play well against the Enigma who is a life-affirming being who flirts with self-destruction.

To ascribe yet another archetype to her, she is a vamp; deadly as arsenic and sweet as chocolate. I would consider making her a literal vampire, but it doesn't really interest me. Even though this story is designed to embrace all types of popular fantasy, vampires have been so overdone. If I bring them into the story, I want to try to refresh the mythos and this wouldn't help reinforce the dominant themes of my story.

But it might be fun to tease her vampiric qualities. She might be particularly sexy as an Eastern European woman. Possibly even a Jewess (Am I enjoying using common period racism a little too much? Probably.) whose hair was dyed or shocked from stress. I kind of wanted to have a character who represents European Jews and Old Testament wrath. She might just be the character.

Where the Black Widow received her powers from Satan, my character can receive her powers from God... but not a (supposedly) loving Christian God. This reminds me of the Specter, a superhero embodiment of God's wrath. The problem with that character is that he was basically all powerful. I want someone who has to get a little more... creative with her vengeance. In fact, she doesn't even have to be God's wrath, she can just think she is... or she can be and not know she is. So many options...

Since she would play well off of the Enigma and is an Eastern European woman, maybe I'll tie her in with my gothic mad scientist, Dietrich von Frankenstein. Essentially, Dietrich is the eurotrash descendent of Victor von Frankenstein who not only stole his formula for the re-animation of life, but also many other secrets of the occult. He travels to Los Angeles to consult on a new film (which will be a legally-distinct homage to the classic Universal monster movies) and ends up inflicting monsters upon the city and our hero in particular. Perhaps this character could be his assistant and creation who turns on her creator.

For now, I will call her Lilith in reference to the Biblical woman predating Eve, often associated with demonic qualities.

Biker Chick

When going through the list of Golden Age superheroines, two of them really stood out to me: the Phantom Lady and the Black Cat. Maybe it is because, unlike so many comic women of the time, these two were actually pretty damn sexy. (As a sidenote, the word "phantom" seems popular when describing women; Phantom Lady, Fantomah, Blonde Phantom... I may want to exploit that.)

The cover here is by Matt Baker who is, incidentally, the first known African American comic book artist. I find this cover particularly astounding because it is one of the few comics I've seen from the period that gives real weight and shape to the character. Of course, it doesn't hurt that she looks like a Bettie Page fantasy (although this cover is from two years before Page started modeling). Since the character is a model, maybe I can draw from Bettie Page to develop her character.

I'll take a moment here to wonder if the idea for a crimefighting, bike-riding model who can turn invisible and participates in bondage photography is more of an adolescent fantasy than a character. Perhaps, but the origins of all comic book characters are contained in adolescent fantasy. The trick is to give life and motion to that adolescent fantasy.

Now, unlike Lilith, I have a superpower chosen for this character; that is, the ability to turn invisible. There are many ideas for how one might turn invisible. Like the Fantastic Four's Sue Storm, one can bend light, although this always sounded far to complicated for me. Or the Shadow could "cloud men's mind" to become invisible. It was also a method used in The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy with the "Somebody Else's Problem field" and in The Belgariad as well. I always liked this idea that you could see something, but just not notice it. Of course, that might not be as interesting visually when I could have her fade gradually or one part at a time.

To look at all my option, I search for "invisibility" on Wikipedia (I use wikipedia a lot) and investigate my various options. Naturally, I look to "invisibility in fiction" first. I will delve into the scientific side later.

One thing that stands out here is a 1942 film called "Invisible Agent" where the grandson of Jack Griffin, the original Invisible Man, lives in the US and uses his grandfather's formula to become a Nazi agent. It's just contrived enough to work. Rather than develop my own half-assed explanation for invisibility, I can borrow someone elses. Besides, the works of HG Wells are public domain, so they could help flesh out this world.

I almost forgot that Jack Griffin goes insane from using his drug. I can retain this element if I want to, or I can say that flaw was eliminated over the years. Maybe it can even be controlled through will... or maybe our heroine was the unwitting subject of experimentation and produces the chemical from an artificial gland. Not only is that creepy, but it explains why she would have some degree of control over her powers.

Ah, now someone points out that perfect invisibility would likely blind an invisible person because no light would be absorbed by the retina. It would be interesting if the one flaw to her power is that her pupils were visible. A clever person would notice such a thing... and lord knows, my story has a lot of clever people.

As a side note, I really like the Black Cat's costume. It is simple, but elegant. Women in comics today don't cover up their butt-cheeks. I wouldn't call myself a prude, but I really don't understand why we expect mature women who fight crime to dress like strippers.

I think there are far too few representations of strong women in the media, so ones that I find strong stand out. In addition to a good script, a strong female role also requires a good actress. One show I've been watching lately is Weeds starring Mary-Louise Parker who I find incredibly attractive, not only physically, but verbally. She has a beautiful voice, excellent timing, and ample wit. These are qualities I would like to appropriate for this character.

One thing I like about her character in Weeds is her ability to adapt to different social situations. She can go from snobbish, gossipy middle-aged housewives to gang meetings and hold her own in either arena. It's an admirable quality and something I would like to have in this character.

For now, I'll call this character Mary Jane as an homage to both the actress and the show.

Having linked the character to this role, I find myself thinking about the stuck-up warrior princess that I was supposed to work on next and thinking maybe I should blend that quality into this character. Sure, she is slumming it and full of herself, but that just means she will have to be humbled.

Now I find myself in an appealing dichotomy whereby I both want to illustrate her inner strength and humble her. I've found, through study and experience, that irony is a writer's best friend. It is that entertaining balance between extremes that engages the reader. I should also be able to lead the reader's expectations of her simply by showing her in different contexts. By showing her as an heiress and a model, I can make people dislike her, then slowly start to build their respect.

I even have a crime-fighting name for her: Vesper. It suggests intangible, ghost-like qualities, feels era-appropriate, and is sexy. Now I just need to decide... black hair (like Bettie, Phantom Lady, and Mary-Louise) or auburn hair (like Black Cat)? I'm leading toward auburn.

D) Conclusion

So I didn't end up with three characters as planned, but I think I came up with two pretty good ones. Giving me a total of five important and unique female characters in my story. I think Lilith and Vesper will make a fine addition indeed.