Saturday, April 30, 2011

Why I Write about Super-heroes and Why You Should Care

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When you think of super-heroes, you probably think of Batman swinging across Gotham City and punching The Joker in the face. 

Or you think of Superman flying high above the Capitol, bearing the American flag. 

Or Spider-Man cracking wise as he bundles criminals in webs and leaves them for the cops to find.

All indelible images. But that’s not the whole story.

Yes, super-heroes stand for truth, justice and the American (or Krytponian or Asgardian) way. But they also stand for much more.

My novel in progress, The Power Club, started with the idea of kids having super-powers. I did not call them “super-heroes” because I wanted to avoid the clichés that people think of when they think about super-heroes. But when I’ve described my novel to others, they inevitably associate the concept with super-heroes.  

This, I’ve learned, is not necessarily a bad thing.

Furthermore, my main character, Damon, wants to turn his super-powered friends into heroes. Why he wants to do this is central to our understanding of super-heroes and why they matter.

Adolescent Power Fantasies? Yes and No

Super-heroes represent our primal need for three things: power, authority, and acceptance. Children become aware of their own power (or lack thereof) the first time they encounter a bully. They become aware of authority early on, and when teachers, police officers, or other adults fail to protect them or to seek justice on their behalf by punishing said bullies, they become aware of the limits of authority. They also learn early on that, in order to gain acceptance from other kids, they usually have to learn the pecking order and change their identities (including their interests or the way they dress) in order to “fit in.”

Super-heroes paradoxically help children both deal with the harsh realities of life and to escape from them. They do so by offering elaborate fantasies in which the kid has power, can fill in the gaps of authority, and wins acceptance from the general public or other super-heroes.

But the appeal of super-heroes does not stop at childhood.

Adult Power Fantasies and Male Ego Trips

Super-heroes continue to influence and inspire us even into adulthood. Consider just about any movie Arnold Schwarzenegger has ever made. Sure, he doesn’t wear a cape or bend steel with his bare hands (except, perhaps, in the Terminator films), but he’s a super-hero, nonetheless. Perhaps “action hero” is the more acceptable term, but it’s the same thing.

Consider Chuck Norris (whose martial arts expertise is portrayed in films as almost super-human), Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Will Smith (in certain roles). They all accomplish the seemingly impossible, endure horrendous physical abuse, and win over crowds by triumphing over the forces of evil.

Super-heroes all.

What about Women?

Someone recently told me that girls get short shrift as super-heroes, and, unfortunately, she was right. As recently as 2007, Warner Bros. slighted girls when it marketed Happy Meal toys at McDonald’s to tie in with the cartoon series Legion of Super-Heroes. The LSH is a team that contains at least ten super-heroines, but none of them were marketed as toys. 

Furthermore, female super-heroes often endure story lines that undermine or destroy them as super-heroes. Batgirl, in the famous Killing Joke comic (1988), was shot and crippled by The Joker. Now she’s the wheelchair-bound computer genius known as Oracle.

But in some ways, these stories mirror the struggles women face every day: glass ceilings, lower wages than their male counterparts, and sexist attitudes in a culture that is still coming to terms with equality. Super-heroes, therefore, have something vital to say to women as they do to men.

So, why do I write about super-heroes and why should you care? Because, in essence, every story is about someone facing the challenges super-heroes face: understanding power, dealing with authority, and seeking acceptance. No other genre brings this struggle to life as vividly or in such clear-cut terms.

Who are your favorite super-heroes and why?
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Saturday, April 23, 2011

Super-Hero Leaders

Being a leader means making tough choices. But it also means much more. Good leaders inspire others to follow their lead, know their teammates’ strengths and weaknesses, and serve as role models for the entire team.

If you’re the leader of a super-hero team, you must do all of that and call the shots in battle, knowing that every decision you make may cost lives or even destroy the world.

I began thinking about comic book leaders because of a recent discussion on the Legion World message board. In my novel, my 11-year-old protagonist, Damon, has recently been elected leader of The Power Club. Of course, they aren’t heroes—yet. But Damon wants them to become heroes. If he succeeds, what will be in store for him? Will his greatest challenges come from “villains” or from within the team itself?

Probably both.

Here are my thoughts on two comic book leaders, their personalities, and the tough choices they made:

Mr. Fantastic (The Fantastic Four)

Reed Richards is the classic workaholic who is so devoted to his research (or to saving the world from Doctor Doom) that he often ignores his physical needs and his relationships. In the real world, this obsession is not a good sign for a leader, and, even in the comic book world, Reed often pays a price for his single-mindedness.

In Fantastic Four # 112, Reed’s teammate and best friend, Ben Grimm (The Thing) is locked in deadly battle with The Hulk. Reed refuses to join the battle because he is working on a doohickey that will cure The Thing of a condition that has altered his personality, making him more aggressive. Even when The Human Torch tries to fly to Ben’s aid, Reed -- who needs Johnny's help to build the device -- stops him by dousing the Torch’s flame with a fire extinguisher!

Reed completes his doohickey, but too late. He and Johnny arrive on the field of battle just after The Hulk delivers a death blow to the Thing.

(Of course, this being comic books, Ben eventually gets better.)

Did Reed do the right thing? He thought he did. He weighed the options and determined the best path to help his friend. His gambit failed miserably, but that’s the risk of being a leader.

Invisible Kid (The Legion of Super-Heroes)

Unlike super-teams that have permanent leaders, the Legion elects a new leader every year. Invisible Kid (Lyle Norg) was, as his name implies, one of the least visible Legionnaires – a second stringer on a team that included powerhouses such as Superboy, Mon-El, and Ultra Boy. So, it came as a surprise when he was elected leader for one term back in the 1960s. How much of a surprise? Even one of his own teammates didn’t take him seriously.

In Adventure Comics # 350-351, when the Legion admits two masked members, Sir Prize and Miss Terious, Invisible Kid promises that the team will respect their anonymity. However, some Legionnaires suspect that the newcomers are really villains, so Ultra Boy defies Invisible Kid’s order and starts to use his penetra-vision to see through Sir Prize’s lead mask.

What does Invisible Kid do? He asserts his authority by punching Ultra Boy in the jaw.

In the real world, Lyle would probably be brought up on all kinds of charges or even impeached. But it took chutzpah to go up against one of the most powerful Legionnaires. More, Invisible Kid established that, as leader, he was the supreme authority of the Legion and, when he made a promise for the entire team, everyone better keep it!

But what if Lyle had been wrong? What if Sir Prize and Miss Terious actually were villains? That’s the risk the leader must take. Leaders, as Lyle showed, must stand for something – an ideal that rises above unfounded fears and suspicions. In other words, Lyle had the moral authority to decide what was best for the Legion and the integrity to enforce that authority.

Being a leader is not easy in the real world. In the comic book world it’s even harder. But, at their best, real and fictional leaders make the choices we don’t want to make and inspire us to better ourselves.

Leave a comment: Who do you think are the best super-hero leaders and why?

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Character Sketch: The Powers We’re Born With.

Denton Neumeyer daydreams of being able to fly, of being super-strong, and of running super-fast, but he can’t do any of those things. Instead, he creates darkness. It’s not a bad power, as far as powers go, but it’s not cool. And Denton wants to be cool. He even changes his name to “Damon”— after a character in a movie.

But he can’t change his power.

Damon is the central character of my novel-in-progress, The Power Club. When we first meet him, he’s six years old and has discovered his power only a few months ago. He’s the only kid in his neighborhood with a power, and he uses it to amuse his friends: creating a “darkspace” in which they can run and hide. But when one of his friends blindly runs out into the alley and is nearly hit by a car, the government learns of his power and does what the government always does : It “encourages” Damon and his family to move the district, the place where people with powers live.

For the next five years, Damon grows up alongside other kids who can do amazing things. One of his classmates can freeze objects by breathing on them. Another possesses radar vision. But it’s the kids in Damon’s new neighborhood he most wants to be like: a teleporter, a speedster, a giant. Even the girls have more fascinating powers: one can fly, another can see the future.

But we don’t get to choose our powers.

Some people are born with musical talent. Others can draw. Some are good at organizing. Others have people skills. Some have an aptitude for mathematics. Others for medicine.

Where do powers come from? God? Genetics? Can anyone master a given ability? I think not.

I’ve tried on at least three separate occasions to learn guitar. I know where the chords are, and I can play the melody lines of a few songs. But Eric Clapton and Ritchie Blackmore have nothing to fear from me. Somebody once told me that I didn’t persist in my efforts to learn music, but I know when it’s not going well. I know when I’m not enjoying it enough to do the work.

On the other hand, I’ve spent my life learning to write (no one ever truly masters writing). I enjoy it, and I think I’m reasonably good at it. I may never be the next Stephen King or Orson Scott Card, but I don't have to be. I'm content to be the first me.

In other words, my gifts lay elsewhere.

Damon may never get to fly or bench press a Hummer. But he has been given a wonderful gift he can develop and use to help others or cause great harm. Which path will he choose? To answer that question, he must first know himself better.

The Power Club will take him on that amazing and terrifying journey.

How did you discover your gifts?

The foregoing is © 2011 Greg Gildersleeve. All rights reserved. Unlawful use will result in the culprit being placed in the darkspace for an indeterminate period of time. And we don’t want that to happen, do we?

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