Archive for Comics

Superheroes II: Metropolis, we have a problem


Hello 2011! I hope everyone had a happy and safe holiday and are ready for a kick-ass year… wait, it’s halfway through January already? Oh boy. But hey, this year is an odd number, and a prime one at that. That’s got to be a good sign. Right? Right.

My last post about superhero prose fiction seemed to generate a few comments, not only here but also over at io9 who were kind enough to reblog it. I made a lot of omissions, some glaring, and I knew I would. I’ll return to the subject of superhero prose fiction later on where we can talk properly about examples of the genre. In that post I missed a lot of titles (Playing for Keeps, Brave Men Run, George RR Martin’s Wild Cards, Union Dues, In Hero Years, I’m Dead, to name just a few), but only because I don’t think these are (or were) signs particularly of a forthcoming movement towards superhero prose fiction. As I said last time, superhero prose fiction has been around almost as long as superhero comic fiction has been, possibly starting with The Adventures of Superman by George Lowther from 1942 (the plot of which, involving ghost ships and Nazis, sounds awesome). While it’s probably impossible (and foolish) to try and generate a comprehensive list of superhero prose fiction, we can at least take a gander at some prime examples of the genre a bit later. As it happens, my prediction might have been right up the wazoo anyway, as it looks like the YA dystopia is shaping up to be the Next Big Thing. I might be wrong but it seems to me that the vampire/werewolf trend originated in YA books too, before influencing more adult-oriented works. Although I’m not quite sure where the fashion for zombie originated – is there a YA zombie series that I don’t know about?

Anyway, I wanted to touch on superheros again for a moment as there is something that has been bugging me recently. NBC’s new superhero TV series The Cape has started, as has the Cartoon Network’s latest DC universe animated series, Young Justice. The fact that they both debuted at more or less the same time is just coincidence and not particularly relevant, but it does serve to illustrate a little problem I – a comics fan and superhero write –  have with the genre.

Live-action superheroes just don’t work.

Uh-uh. Hold the hate mail and move the mouse away from the comment button. Let me explain.

The Cape is attempt – one of the first, I think – at creating an original, made-for-television costumed superhero. Costumed is the key here, although it’s probably unfair to single out this one particular issue with The Cape given that it really is the least of the show’s problems (which, off the top of my head, include the title, the premise, the cast, the characters, the plot and the writing… but other than that it’s pretty great, no?), but it does illustrate my point. Vince Faraday, aka The Cape, looks immensely silly when dressed up as the superhero. Okay, the suit is assembled from bits and bobs from the Carnival of Crime (yes, the Carnival of Crime) and based on a comic book character beloved by his son (although not a comic book written like I have ever read, although I suppose Vince was adding in the exposition and description himself when he read an issue to his son in the first episode). But… no. It’s impractical and is looks silly.

So what’s new? This is comic book stuff, right?

Actually, yes it is. The Cape would work fine as a comic book, assuming it was written by someone who knew what a comic book was (unlike the writer of the TV series it seems). The bits we see of the actual (fictional) comic in the TV show looks okay. And superheroes in cloaks and hoods are a dime-a-dozen, and there’s plenty of scope for dramatic flowing fabrics.

It’s perhaps telling that other, more successful television superhero shows have neatly avoided the problem of silly costumes by not featuring them at all. Everyone in Heroes was in civvies. The other currently screening superhero TV series, No Ordinary Family, likewise has avoided comic book cliche, visually at least, even if the central premise of the story is as old as the hills. Misfits, that UK subversion of televisual superheroics clad our anti-heroes in the orange jumpsuits required by their community service, and even cracked a joke about traditional superhero costumes in one memorable scene from the second series. Notably, when a costumed superhero does appear, things start to get creaky, because it’s a guy in a silly suit (although they didn’t do that bad a job). Looking at earlier examples, The Flash was stuck in a bizarre muscle suit in 1990, and the less said about the 1997 attempt at a live-action Justice League of America, the better.

The prime example is The Dark Knight. I’m a Batman fan and I love this film… but Batman himself is a bit silly. When he sticks to the shadows like he should, no problem. But there is one surprising scene where he terrorises The Joker in a police interview room. A brightly lit police interview room. The Joker here looks amazing, as tailor-made purple suit aside, he is just wearing clothes. But in the glare of the fluorescent strips, Batman looks very, very silly. An interesting experiment in creating a more comic book-like Batman is the fan film Batman: Dead End, which features a Batman in grey spandex fighting… erm, aliens (as in Aliens aliens). Okay, so the story is a little odd, but Batman looks pretty good. However, sticking an actor in skintight lycra causes all sorts of problems with movement, result in the need for careful choreography to avoid unsightly creases and bulges. The forthcoming Green Lantern film is avoiding this by using an entirely CG costume, but from the trailer it looks a bit peculiar (although it would help if the eyes of the mask were whited out, like in the comic).

Of course, I’m generalising. There are exceptions. Marvel seem to be doing a better job. Iron Man looks amazing, by virtue of the fact that the suit is hard, metallic, robotic. The best example of successful live-action superhero costuming might be seen in the X-Men films. Here, brightly coloured spandex is swapped for dark leather which looks great and, importantly, moves well, despite Logan’s initial dismissal of the rack of jumpsuits. Spider-man likewise is pretty slick, if a little CG-friendly. Back in DC land, Watchmen too manages it admirably, with the current crop of heroes looking pretty cool while their predecessors, very cleverly, were clad in rather more home-spun costumes. Jonah Hex might have been a train wreck of a film but it looked pretty good, but then Hollywood has a long and glorious history of Westerns and, like the Joker in Batman and everyone in Heroes, the people in Jonah’s world just wear normal, if customised, clothes.

But what’s this got to do with The Cape and Young Justice? Well, Young Justice is better than The Cape in all respects, and is shaping up to be one of the best DC animated series in a long while. But visually, it is just so much better than The Cape. Superheroes just work in animation, which is perhaps not surprising given the ease of transition from static comic book pages to moving animated scenes. The inhabitants of the DCU, at least, have never looked better than in Justice League/Justice League Unlimited. Any impracticalities or craziness in superhero costume design that just fail in the real world fit perfectly into animation, just as they do on the comic book page. It’s the same when you’re reading prose superhero fiction – as a reader you’re in control of the action, and everything looks just tickety-boo.

Unfortunately/fortunately (delete as applicable) I’d say The Cape is set for cancellation before the season is out. Hopefully Young Justice will settle in for a long run, but on the basis of the double-length pilot episode, its well deserved. Looks aren’t everything – far from it, in fact – but certainly The Cape is not a great example of live-action superhero design.

Now if NBC were looking for a circus-themed superhero, why didn’t they just commission a live-action series of Deadman?

Superhero fiction: the next big thing?


There is an old writing adage worth paying attention to: don’t write for the market. What’s hot now may not be hot next year, and considering a book may take two to three years to come out after being picked up by a publisher – and that’s not counting the time it takes to actually write and sell the thing – deciding to jump on the current trend is not a good idea. This probably applies more to specific concepts rather than genres as a whole. For example, while zombies, vampires and werewolves are currently ruling the roost, horror as a general genre is also experiencing something of a resurgence. So although writing a paranormal vampire romance is not the best idea (unless you have something unique and/or amazing), writing something in the horror field might be a good bet, as a genre trend might have a longer cycle of popularity and decline.

Might.

Predicting trends is also pretty much impossible. Although you can spot signs here and there, a scene will have pretty much established itself already before anyone notices, and it’s only in retrospect that you can more clearly identify the key titles and writers responsible. Many publishers will try to pick a trend anyway, and some will even rush-release titles to cash in. You can usually tell which books these are, and I really have no idea if it works as a method of generating a quick buck. Bully for them if it does.

So far, so good. Two facts: don’t write for a trend, and trends are impossible to predict anyway. Got it? Got it. So whatever you do, don’t ask me what the Next Big Thing in genre fiction will be, because I don’t know, and if I did know I probably wouldn’t tell you.

But… maybe it’s superhero fiction.  I said maybe.

Superhero prose fiction has been around for as long as its comicbook equivalent of course, but has been paid far less attention than the original material for an obvious reason: superheroes are visual. They wore bright costumes in the late 1930s because the bold colours really stood out amidst the monotonous gray of the corner news stand. They caught the eye, and what better way to show Superman lifting a car over his head than to show Superman lifting a car over his head.

But prose is different. Everything takes place in the reader’s head, and what they see will undoubtedly be completely different to how the writer pictured it, even if he or she goes crazy with description. That’s how prose works and what makes it so brilliant. But this may explain why superhero fiction, while enjoying a modest level of popularity over the years, has never really caught on. In fact, I’ve met a lot of people who raise an eyebrow when I mention that I’ve written superhero prose fiction, so ingrained is the notion that superheroes are for comics and comics are a visual medium.

The most notable recent example of superhero fiction that had a slightly higher profile among the public was Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman. When this novel was released in 2007, public telephone boxes in the UK were transformed with wraparound advertising, playing on the traditional cliché of Superman. The book isn’t bad either, although it’s probably more important as an example of how superhero fiction can work outside of a visual medium.

Unfortunately, the momentum of Soon I Will Be Invincible was quickly lost – just last month the author updated his blog to say that he has some more books scheduled for 2011, but that’s a gap of nearly four years since Invincible came out, and in the interim trends in science fiction, fantasy, and everything genre have changed. Another notable entry is From The Notebooks of Dr. Brain, by Minister Faust, also from 2007, but while this comedy novel gained something of a cult following, like Invincible it perhaps arrived too early.

Why then am I breaking one of the golden rules and predicting an upswing in superhero fiction? Well, my friends, there are signs.

Superheroes have always been popular material for film adaptation, more so now than ever. I think this is because of all media, film (especially big budget film) is the one that can match the visual spectacle of comics. And just look at the line-up of comicbook adaptations coming in 2011 and beyond: Green Lantern, Thor, Captain America, The Avengers, The Dark Knight Rises, Iron Man 3… the list goes on.

But all of these are adaptations of existing properties. This is logical, of course – with the gargantuan amounts of money spent on Hollywood productions it makes sense to stick to the tried and true, and it’s also a good way for publishers like DC and Marvel to get their characters and stories to a wider audience. Off the top of my head I don’t recall an original superhero concept on the big screen, except for Pixar’s The Incredibles, and Megamind from Dreamworks, both of which are CG animation. Hancock, starring Will Smith, might be the only live-action original superhero film of recent times, but its not exactly a shining example of the genre.

More interesting than film – and possibly more indicative of a growing trend – is the explosion of superhero television shows, specifically original superhero shows. Heroes was the first, but after a spectacular first season it floundered terribly and was ultimately canned. Currently we have No Ordinary Family, a drama series about a family of four who gain superpowers after surviving a plane crash in South America, and the forthcoming The Cape, about an ex-cop framed for murder who joins a circus and, erm, gains superpowers and stars Summer Glau as a…*cough* investigative blogger. Actually, it looks better than it sounds. The SyFy network is also developing Three Inches, a series about superheroes with rather pathetic powers (cover your ears, Mur!), and Alphas, a series about… actually, nobody seems to know. Of note, The Cape appears to be the only example so far of series about costumed superheroes, and even in this case they have a rationale for it (the cape in question being a circus costume). Surely I wasn’t the only one wishing that the characters that populated Heroes would just cut to the chase and form a spandex-clad crime-fighting league?

Anyone? Moving on…

The most interesting superhero television series comes not from the US but from the UK. Misfits is about five delinquent youths sentenced to community service for a variety of small crimes. Caught in a bizarre electrical storm, they are each gifted a power, and over two series (the second of which has almost finished screening here in the UK) become embroiled in an increasingly bizarre sequence of events which include murder and lot of sex (although not always at the same time). It is easily the best written British television series at the moment and is a dynamite subversion of the superhero genre and concepts.

Really, it’s genius. If you can see it, see it.

So what of books then? What signs are there that superheroes are about to become something big? Firstly, there’s the Masked anthology, edited by Lou Anders, which features short fiction from a number of comic writers and well-known novelists. Angry Robot Books is set to release The Damned Busters by Mathew Hughes later in 2011, in which an office worker summons a demon who grants him his greatest wish, to be a superhero.

Numerous online magazines and fiction sites have also sprung up, extolling the virtues of superhero fiction – Superhero Novels, A Thousand Faces and Beta City, to name but three.

Perhaps an even bigger sign that Something Is Coming is the fact that comic writer Bill Willingham is the guest of honour at WorldCon 2011, being held in Reno, Nevada, a convention traditionally tied very strongly to science fiction and fantasy literature (ie, prose fiction).

Will 2011 be the year of superhero fiction? Maybe. The signs are there. If the superhero genre does explode, I’ll be very happy indeed, as I love superheroes and have written a lot of superhero fiction. If that bandwagon is a-comin’ to town, I’ll be jumping right aboard (and thus breaking rule number one. Le sigh.).

Am I right? What are your picks for superhero fiction, and what other signs have I missed? Or is this all for nothing, and you really can’t predict forthcoming trends? I’d love to hear your comments!

Apocalypse now


So, you like The Walking Dead, huh? It’s neat, right? An ongoing post-apocalyptic TV series about zombies, based on an award-winning comic. What’s not to love? And fortunately, they’ve done a mighty fine job on the adaptation. This viewer is pleased. Zombies are popular at the moment, cresting at the top of one of those unpredictable waves of fashion. The Walking Dead has come at exactly the right time, whether by design or accident, and all power to it.

But this series fits into another genre, that of the post-apocalyptic. And this is where I have a confession to make.

I don’t like post-apocalyptic. Post-apocalyptic is predictable, formulaic, and easy. There, I’ve said it.

This is, of course, not true. Post-apocalyptic is also hugely popular and always has been, not just with the general public but with discerning genre fans like you and I. It seems that wiping out humanity in some global catastrophe is something that, maybe, we all secretly wish for. I mean, if we were among the lucky survivors, it’d be free reign, right? No work, no more need for money. No more cruelty and tyranny, no more pollution, overpopulation or war.

And of course no people, no family, no friends, no loved ones, and the beginning of a huge struggle for survival against impossible odds in a situation likely to psychologically traumatise even the most hardened survivalist.

So okay, not so neat.

I said I don’t like post-apocalyptic, and that bit is true. Post-apocalyptic is formulaic, simply because the scale of the situation is such that any fiction set after the disaster must follow similar plot lines. The survivors are isolated, and then eventually find each other. Cities are empty or full of the dead (or the walking dead). There is no power, no medicine. Every manmade resource is suddenly very finite indeed. And so on, and so on. Plotwise, most post-apocalyptic stories are more or less the same.

I should point out here that I’m no expert. I have friends who are very dedicated followers of end-of-the-world stories, and no doubt about now they’re ready to put their keyboards through the computer screen in frustration. But hear me out. Post-apocalyptic may suck, plotwise, but where it really shines is in characterisation. Possibly more than any other genre, post-apocalyptic depends upon strong characterisation. Because if all the plots are the same, or similar (and I’m talking pure plot here, which is different to story and situation), then all you have left are the survivors. And it is how the survivors act in their new environment that makes the story. I’m not saying that characterisation is unique to the post-apocalypse, far from it, but I am saying that if you’re about to write an epic tale of an empty world, you’ve got to be prepared to engage the reader with some very, very powerful players.

With that in mind, and as a self-confessed post-apocalyptic skeptic, here’s my list of five tales that, to me, are among the best examples of the post-apocalyptic. I’m not just going to regurgitate a list from Wikipedia (and, my heavens, there is quite a list on there), these are personal choices that I think are either great examples of either characterisation or perhaps an unusual or uncommon take on the post-apocalyptic plot. Having just slated the genre for being formulaic, let’s see if there are any stories which break the mould.

Before I continue, there’s also an important distinction to make here between those stories which are genuinely post-apocalyptic, and those which are really apocalyptic. Post-apocalypse, by definition, implies that the menace, threat, disaster, alien invasion, plague, etc, have been and gone. What we are left with is the world and the people left afterwards. Stories like the recent film Skyline, or 2012, or great classics like The War of the Worlds take place while the disaster is unfolding. While the aftermath may be considered post-apocalyptic (although probably not in the case of The War of the Worlds), we don’t see that bit. I’ll admit here I’m going to cheat on one entry in my list below, but only because I think it’s a particularly fine and relatively unknown example.

The Quiet Earth


I’m really sure how well known New Zealand cinema of the early 80s is outside of that country, but The Quiet Earth is well worth tracking down. It tells the story of a man who wakes up one morning to find the world empty − whatever the apocalypse was (I shall reveal nothing), it actually physically removed the world’s population, so our hero (played by the wonderful Bruno Lawrence) finds himself genuinely alone. With a completely deserted Earth, not even a single corpse in sight, Lawrence carries the majority of the film on his own. It’s a remarkable performance as his character goes from confusion, to exhilaration (with nobody around the world is his oyster… if he wants to drive a giant earthmover through a gas station to see what happens, why not?) and finally to total paranoia and delusion. And after all, if you were the only human being left on the planet, wouldn’t you start to think you were special? The Quiet Earth is out on DVD and I’d recommend you grab it.

The Stand


The grand-daddy of all post-apocalyptic stories, Stephen King’s 1978 tale of the survivors of a super flu which wipes out most of the human population is rightly considered a classic. At an eye-watering 1300 pages, this book is a perfect example of character over plot. Of course, King is known for this, but while the concept of a superflu (one engineered by the military as a biological weapon that is released accidentally) was old hat when King wrote it, the journey of the survivors as they find each other and come to terms with their new world is brilliant. Although the central plot eventually reveals itself − that of the survivor’s journey to Las Vegas to make their stand against an evil that has arisen − how the characters react and cope is what makes this whopping tome a real page-turner. If you haven’t read any King, this wouldn’t be a bad place to start. Afficiandos think that this is his best work; while I personally prefer ‘Salem’s Lot, if you have any doubts about the post-apocalyptic genre, this will set your mind at rest, as it did mine.

Earth Abides


Twenty-nine years before The Stand was published, academic George R. Stewart wrote his single novel which might be called “genre”. Earth Abides is another that follows the standard post-apocalyptic formula − a super-sickness kills everyone, leaving only those immune to the disease alive − but you can forgive Stewart for this given that it was probably a newer story concept back in the 1940s. Earth Abides might be that one book that I’d take to a desert island, should I be so abandoned. It’s beautiful, moving and sad, and sticks in the mind not just because of the human characters and their journey but because of Stewart’s depiction of the world itself. In Earth Abides, the Earth itself is a character. Rid of destructive humans, it begins to regenerate, reclaiming itself and returning to an earlier pre-industrial (you might even say ‘default’) state. Stewart conveys this in a striking way, with a key motif being the silence of the world. Without humans and their cars, planes, factories and technology, the Earth is mostly silent, the loudest sound being that of a thunderclap. In this quiet Earth, the survivors gather and attempt to reconstruct society but ultimately they fail, instead regressing to a more primitive level of society. This only reinforces the central theme of the book. The Earth abides; humanity does not.

The Road


I’m cheating here. I’m not talking about Cormac McCarthy’s Pulitzer Prize-winning post-apocalyptic novel, one which dominated the responses on Twitter when I put out a call for recommendations. I’m talking about Quatermass creator and master of British science fiction Nigel Kneale‘s one-off BBC television drama from 1963, now sadly lost from the archives and only surviving in script form plus, it seems, one manky photo. Also, it’s not really post-apocalyptic. In fact, it is really pre-apocalyptic. In the 18th century, the inhabitants of an English village shun the road that runs through the nearby woods, for the woods are haunted and people have heard terrible things. As the story reaches the climax, it is revealed that the manifestations on the road are the echo of people fleeing an atomic explosion in the present day, somehow riverberating back in time. The juxtaposition of modern − police sirens, recognisably modern people running in abject terror for their lives − with the old, with the 18th century characters cowering in terror, completely unable to comprehend the sound which we, the viewer, recognise all too well, must have been both brilliant and chilling when it was first shown.

Survivors


I can’t make this list, self-confessed archive television nut that I am, without mentioning Terry Nation’s BBC TV series, Survivors. Again, the scenario is pure post-apocalypse cliche. Humanity is mostly wiped out by a plague, strongly implied to be deliberately engineered and released by accident. Over three seasons between 1975 and 1979, Survivors charted the journey of the survivors as they found each other and ultimately formed a community. Critics often bemoan the transformation from gritty science fiction survival story to “soap opera”, but I think they’re confusing soap opera with character-driven drama, and this is where Survivors shows its real strength (characterisation, see?). Survivors was remade for a modern audience over two seasons in 2008 and 2010, but here the tired nature of the premise was in full effect, rendering the remake flat and pointless. Survivors should be experienced in all its 70s glory.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth


A sixth entry, mainly because Nigel Kneale’s The Road doesn’t quite count. The Dalek Invasion of Earth was the second appearance of the Daleks in Doctor Who, and was broadcast in six episodes from November 21 to December 26, 1964. Despite the title, this isn’t about an alien invasion. By the time the Doctor and company arrive in a deserted, dilapidated London, the Daleks have been the masters of the Earth for a decade or more. Here we discover that the Daleks first employed a virus to weaken society before arriving in force, and years late the surviving humans are either enslaved or gathered in disparate resistance groups.

The Dalek Invasion of Earth is Doctor Who‘s first foray into alien invasion and one of the rare occasions it featured a genuinely post-apocalyptic story. Extensive location work around London makes this story something of a small-screen epic, and to this day it is regarded as one of the best stories of the show’s early years.

There are many more that are worth of this list − as already mentioned, The Road by Cormac McCarthy, but also Wall-E, Boneshaker by Cherie Priest (perhaps a rare example of post-apocalyptic confined to a very specific place, namely the walled city of Seattle). UK genre publisher Abaddon has a entire ongoing post-apocalyptic series, The Afterblight Chronicles, which are well worth checking out. Like I said I’m not post-apocalyptic scholar so please, nominate your own prime examples of the genre in the comments and teach me a lesson.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have the next episode of The Walking Dead to watch.

Comic Review: Superior


Superior
Issue 1
Written by Mark Millar
Drawn by Leinil Francis Yu
Inks by Gerry Alanguilan
Colors by Dave McCaig
Lettering by VC’s Clayton Cowles
Edited by John Barber
Published by Marvel (Icon)
$2.95
Out now

Simon Pooni has multiple sclerosis, a body that’s rebelling against him and exactly one friend, Chris. Every week they go and see a movie, every week they chat and every week Simon gets a little sicker, a little further away. What matters though is that for two hours he’s somewhere else, transported away from his body and into the film.

Then he meets Ormon, a monkey wearing a spacesuit, who makes him an offer…

Superior is the latest title from Mark Millar, write of Kick-Ass, Nemesis and numerous other titles and, like every Millar comic, it’s surrounded by a corona of hype and bile that resembles nothing more than a circus tent being set alight by an angry crowd who are paying for the privilege of doing so. Millar is a controversial writer, certainly, but this review isn’t about Millar, it’s about Superior and the more I think about it, the more I realize it’s about that moment of escape where pop culture grabs you and holds you and takes you away with it. That’s the moment the circuit closes, the moment everything is a little brighter, the moment the guitars kick in. Everyone has countless variations on that moment and for me, they’ve included President Bartlet’s first appearance in The West Wing, the final line in Daredevil and Liz Lemon rolling her eyes and yelling ‘Son of a MOTHER!;’ Everyone is different, everyone is right.

Simon’s moment comes when he looks at the movie version of Superior (Endearingly, they’re watching Superior 5) and doesn’t see the old fashioned heroics, hackneyed plots and CGI that Chris does. Instead, Simon sees someone who is strong, upright, capable where he’s not, free where he’s restrained. Superior is everything Simon isn’t and everything he desperately wants to be. What happens when he’s given everything he wants and how it affects his world remains to be seen.

Millar’s script is expansive and decompressed but there’s a sense of weight here, as we deftly get Simon and Chris’ friendship, Simon’s past, his relationship with his mother and Superior’s place in the world neatly established. It feels a little like a movie treatment but that’s more in the subject matter than the delivery and Millar takes to this sort of expansive, almost universal storytelling remarkably well. The art team are on top form, Leinil Francis Yu’s sharp, beefy lines expressive, fast but always detailed and with real weight, all neatly grounded by Dave McCaig’s colours.

All in all, Superior looks beautiful, feels confident and assured and is about as good as first issues come. It’s a good story, well told and that’s all that matters when it comes down to it. Well, that and the spacesuited monkey, that’s the icing on the cake.