Saturday, September 24, 2011

3 Things Batman Can Teach You about Creating an Icon

The first issue of Batman: The Dark Knight Ret...Image via Wikipedia
Most writers want to create the next Harry Potter or Holden Caufield or Tom Sawyer – a character who resonates with the public, transcends race, class, and gender, and appeals to subsequent generations of readers.  In short, an icon.

Recently, TNT aired The Dark Knight – a three-hour blockbuster and the most recent in a long string of movies featuring a perennial American icon, Batman.  While watching the film for the fourth time, I became struck by how fresh it remains and how it reinterprets the character – keeping his essential qualities intact while updating them for a modern audience.

Batman also continues to star in multiple comic books each month, was the subject of a much derided (but still famous) 1960s TV series, and shows up each year as a costume for kids at Halloween.

Not bad for a character who dresses up like a bat, beats up bad guys, and is 72 years old.

So, what makes Batman an icon?  Here are three ideas:

1.  Batman has no powers.  He’s a self-made hero – someone who relies on his training, hard work, and wits.  This idea resonates with many Americans who see themselves as independent hard workers.

Most kids know they will never grow up to be Superman or Green Lantern (unless an alien with a powerful ring happens to fall from the sky into their back yards), but, with enough determination, they could become Batman.

One aspect fans overlook, however, is that Batman (Bruce Wayne) was born wealthy.  He has the resources to train, to create the Bat costume and gadgets, to hide in a secret but well-equipped Batcave, and to employ a butler to look after him. 

But, in a way, Batman’s wealth appeals to another American notion: the idea that we are, as David Brooks put it, “pre-rich.”  All we have to do is win the lottery, work hard, invest, etc., etc.

2. Batman is a loner.  Superman has Lois Lane.  Other characters have or have had steady girlfriends, wives, and soul mates.  But Batman, throughout his long history, has never had a significant other.  Sure, a number of women have come and gone (Julie Madison, Vicki Vale, Silver St. Cloud, to name a few), but none have come to the fore as the one he is destined to be with – except possibly Selina Kyle (Catwoman), but her status on the opposite side of the law precludes Batman from having a long-term relationship with her.

Instead of a regular love interest, Batman has a core group of “buddies” – Robin/Nightwing, Alfred, Commissioner Gordon.  They share in his mission but are not allowed to get too close.  Think this would be a detriment to the character's appeal?  Next time you're with a group of guys, listen to them talk about sports, their cars, their jobs, movies, or anything else that is external to their own lives.  Many men, in particular, like to keep that personal distance and to focus on the "task" at hand.

3. One word: gadgets.  Batmobiles.  Batarangs.  The Utility Belt.  Let’s face it: gadgets appeal to us.  Who wouldn’t like to be able to pull out just the right tool for the job, the right item for the occasion?  Plus, Batman’s gadgets are always cool looking.  In short, Batman is James Bond times ten.

Batman’s reliance on gadgets also separates him from other heroes, such as Superman (who has no gadgets) or Green Lantern or Spider-Man (who rely on one gadget each – power ring and web shooters, respectively).  The only major super-hero who comes close to Batman in terms of gadgets is Iron Man, who wears a suit of amour loaded with technological wonders.

But Batman’s gadgets seem to have a more working class appeal.  They rest in his utility belt until he needs them.  And when he uses them (such as the batarang), he grips them like a hammer. 

There are many other reasons why Batman’s appeal has endured – the tragedy of losing his parents at  a young age, his outlaw status, to name two – but these three factors resonate strongly in The Dark Knight. 

And there are many icons who appeal to us for other reasons.  Superman, as mentioned above, is virtually Batman’s opposite in every way.

So, what makes an icon?  Tapping into that deep reservoir of emotions and associations that make us who we are and who we want to be.

Who is your favorite icon and why?
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Saturday, September 17, 2011

Celebrities: Your New Best Friends

The other day, I asked my composition students to write a paragraph describing someone in their lives.  Most students wrote about a friend, a parent, a sibling, or even a child.  One student, however, wrote a glowing paragraph about Mike Vick, the NFL quarterback who served 21 months in prison for operating an illegal dog-fighting ring.

“I’m not judging him for what he did,” the student wrote.  “Mike Vick has been traveling across America[,] teaching people about the lesson he got from his behavior[.]  . . . He has been so humble as a sign of asking forgiveness to the American people.”

So it goes.  Every semester, I get a student paper championing Lady Gaga or Kim Kardashian or some other celebrity.  There’s nothing wrong with this on the surface.  Celebrities have always been a part of American culture, and they have a tremendous impact on young people.

Writing about celebrities also seems perfectly natural.  When I was in high school, I brought a book on the Beatles to school to do a book report on someone I admired.  Before I wrote a single word, however, I was informed that, at my conservative school, we weren’t supposed to listen to that kind of music.

But what troubles me about this most recent experience is how the student interpreted the phrase “someone in your life” to mean a celebrity – a person he had likely never met and knew of in the same way most of us learn about celebrities: through the media.

Now, I’m not questioning his choice of Vick as an idol or the sincerity of Vick’s humility.  Being the non-sports fan that I am, I hadn’t even heard of Vick until I read the student’s paper.  And the celebrities of my generation were also known for bad behavior and acts of public contrition.  Ex-Beatle Paul McCartney served ten days in a Tokyo jail in 1980 (the year Vick was born) for attempting to smuggle marijuana into Japan.  After expressing regret over his actions, McCartney went on to have many more solo hits and even to be knighted.

However, the student’s paper got me thinking about the huge role celebrities play in our lives, how they become like intimate friends to us, and how we buy into the narrative of fallen celebrities making comebacks  – and the dangers this narrative poses.

Celebrities matter to us for at least three reasons:

We get to know them better than we know most of the people in our lives.  Our families and friends may have secrets they keep from us.  If we ask too many questions, they may tell us to mind our own business.  But celebrities’ lives are out there for all to see: the good, the bad, the ugly.  If a celebrity makes a mistake, you can bet it will be all over the news.  (Think of Michael Jackson dangling his baby over the balcony, or Michael Richards or Mel Gibson making racist remarks.) 

Constant coverage may seem to glorify bad behavior; however, it also serves a vital purpose in showing us the “truth” behind our idols – truth they can’t hide.  There is a sense of security in knowing the truth, no matter how ugly it gets.

It’s a one-sided relationship.  Celebrities ask nothing of you.  They don’t hit you up for money.  They don’t tell you to clean your room.  They do not ask you for the intimate details of your life, and they do not judge you for your own mistakes.

Celebrities, in short, can be anything we want or need them to be.  They are like the toys we played with as children: malleable, always available for our love and affection.

Celebrities make many of the same mistakes we make and come out winning.  Vick is a good example of this.  According to Wikipedia, he declared bankruptcy and was released by his former team, the Atlanta Falcons, after his conviction; however, he has since been reinstated by the Philadelphia Eagles. 

Of course, not every celebrity makes a comeback – Pete Rose, for example – but those who do assure us that we, too, can recover from mistakes.

In this sense, celebrities serve the same function fairy tales used to, before they were cleaned up by Charles Perrault and Walt Disney.  Early versions of Cinderella, for example, were replete with blood and gore, and real consequences for bad behavior.  Scholars such as Bruno Bettelheim believe that early fairy tales were meant to mirror children’s deepest, darkest feelings, not give them pristine role models to emulate. 

When a celebrity rebounds from a disastrous personal mistake, we rejoice – because if they can do it, we can, too.

And, on the surface, that’s fine.  Yet celebrities these days are so skilled at manipulating the narrative, of spinning it to their advantage, that one has to question what is really truth and what isn’t.

Think of Charlie Sheen, who spun his outlandish behavior into enormous media attention.  Even celebrities who have no apparent connection with him were asked to comment on him, including Sharon and Kelly Osbourne, when they were interviewed by Piers Morgan months ago.  And all the celebrities trot out the same blather: they think Sheen’s making a mistake, he’s ruining his life, etc.  But is he really?

And, for that matter, why is it that celebrities’ opinions matter?  Why do we need to know what they think about other celebrities, the president, the war in Afghanistan, or anything, really?  Yet they get asked.  And they opine.  And we eat it up.  (Or at least the media attention given to every celebrity utterance suggests we do.)

The downside to all of this?  The attention we give to celebrities distorts our perception of reality.  It creates false expectations of what we (especially young people) look for in real relationships.  (Think of girls who believe they need to look like supermodels in order to get boyfriends.)  It can mean that we overlook the real people in our lives – people who hide things from us and who demand something in return for their friendship and love, people who may reject us because we’re not perfect. 

What does all this have to do with writing?  Not much, really.  Except that many of us aspire to being the next J.K. Rowling, Dan Brown, or (fill in name of your choice).  Celebrity authors – and the characters they create – are not immune to the narrative and both the benefits and dangers it poses.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

8 Things Blogging Can Teach You

It’s been a little less than six months since I started “The Semi-Great Gildersleeve.”  I’ve posted 30-odd times about topics ranging from the writing process to getting published, from philosophical ramblings on the importance of super-heroes to chapters of my novel-in-progress. I’ve linked to other blogs, I’ve tweeted, and I’ve Facebooked (if that's even the right term).

So, what does it all add up to?

What have I learned from blogging? And what can blogging teach you, should you decide to start one (or even if you already have)?

1. Patience. It takes time to build an online platform.  A knowledgeable friend recently told me it takes a year to build an online audience.  With that in mind, the next thing I've learned is . . .

2. Gratitude. It's gratifying to look at your stats and see "hits" checking out your blog on a regular basis.  Not all of these "hits" may be regular readers.  Some may have discovered your blog by accident.  Some may be spambots.  But at least there's a reasonable expectation that SOME PEOPLE know you're out there and some of those are interested in what you have to say.    

3. Understand User-Tracking Tools.  Still a work in progress for me!  Back in May, I posted Google Analytics' source code (if I even have the terminology right) onto my blog.  For a few weeks, it tracked traffic, and then, after June 13, it showed my blog had flatlined, even though I knew it was receiving hits.

It turned out that GA had changed its code and you had to copy and paste the new code onto your site.  (Someone recently told me you have to paste this code onto every page!)  This is still a learning process for me, but it shows the tools that are out there to help bloggers grow their audience.

4. Find the right image. We're a visual culture, and readers expect to see something other than text when they log onto your site.  If you're a struggling writer like me, you can't afford to pay royalties for clip art, so sites such as Microsoft Office are a Godsend. 

The six-figure silhouette I’ve used for some of my novel chapters has turned out to be a perfect fit!  Each silhouette could easily represent a member of the Power Club's eventual lineup.  (Guess who's who!)  

On the other hand, it can be frustrating and time consuming to search for just the right image.  Some images have been selected for comic effect, others to create a sense of mystery.  A few have admittedly been a stretch. 

5. The benefits of networking. If you want people to visit your blog, visit theirs.  This is not as mercenary as it sounds.  Reading other blogs is rewarding – particularly writing and publishing blogs.  I’ve learned a lot through sites such as Wordplay and A Newbie's Guide to Publishing.  Interacting with other bloggers creates an all-important sense of community.

6. Know what your readers want.  I'm also still trying to figure this one out.  But it helps to have a target audience.  That is, don't expect the Whole Wide World to beat down virtual doors to read your blog.  Target readers who have the same interests you have.  My blog is geared toward writers -- particularly first-time authors who are serious about becoming published.  

But this blog also exists to promote my own work and to build a buzz for my novel-in-progress, The Power Club™.  Sometimes I feel that the two goals at cross-purposes (after all, my target audience for the novel is YA), but it's gratifying to see so many hits on my novel chapters.  

7. Begin. Just Begin.  Though I created this blog in 2009, I didn’t “launch” it until March of this year.  Why?  I had no idea why I was launching a blog to begin with – it just seemed to be the thing to do (which is never a good reason to do anything).  Even after I joined a writers’ group and learned the necessity of building an online platform, it took months for me to overcome inertia and dive right in.

But I’m glad I did.  If nothing else, I’ve learned the most important lesson of all:

8. Taking chances is worth it.

Saturday, September 3, 2011

Excerpt: Power Club Chapter 3: "Attacked!" [part 2]

Alley melbourneImage via Wikipedia

Now that September is here, I'm going to scale these blog posts down to once a week.
I hope you've enjoyed these glimpses into Damon's world.  If you have, leave a comment.
            The long, narrow alley—a purple-gray mixture of concrete and gravel—stretched the length of the block. Damon had never ridden his bike all the way down the alley before and hadn’t gone there at all since the year after he had moved to the district.  He and Eldon had wandered down there when an older kid jumped out of the back yard at the end of the block.  He said his name was Larry and that he owned that end of the alley, which he called “Larry’s End.”  When Eldon told him that no one owned the alley, Larry stretched his fingers apart.  They grew like huge spider-legs.  Larry chased Damon and Eldon halfway up the alley and told them never to come back.  Damon hadn’t, ever since.  But he was older now and riding a ram-handle-barred ten-speed.  He decided to chance it.
            Damon glided down the bumpy surface of the alley, his bike gaining momentum as he went.  He watched the pavement roll by beneath him, carefully looking out for rocks or other objects that might throw him.  The middle part of the alley smoothed out, and Damon took his feet off the pedals, pretending he was riding his bike on a high wire with a moat full of crocodiles underneath.  He almost didn’t notice as he approached the end of the alley.
            He heard leaves rustling behind a gigantic rose bush on his left.  He stopped his bike and said, “Who’s there?”  No one answered.  Damon shrugged and began pedaling again.  The end of the alley was just a couple of houses away.
            He was riding very close to the garages and back yards on his right.  As he approached the second to last garage, something shot out from the other side—a long, thin stick that looked like it was covered with skin!  Damon shook his head, not believing what he was seeing, and swerved to miss the stick.  However, the stick bent itself and followed him.  Before he could swerve again, the stick jammed itself into the spokes of his front tire, bringing it to a sudden halt.  Damon and the rest of the bike, however, kept moving.
            The world spun around and battered him from every side.  Pain shot through his knee and the rest of his body.  Jumbled images—the bike, the ground, a garage, a face, the rose bush, the ground again.  He cried out, his voice a broken stream of sounds. 
            And then everything stopped.  He was lying on his back, the concrete and gravel digging into his skin.  The sky and rooftops continued to spin—he felt sick to his stomach.  Pain everywhere. 
            “That was stupid!”
            Damon struggled to crane his neck and see who had spoken.  An older boy, thin and with short, cropped hair, approached.  He was older now, but Damon recognized him immediately.
            “I told you a long time ago, this end of the alley belongs to me!”
            “That’s right.”  The boy proudly held up his right forefinger, which was several inches longer than normal.  “My power’s grown some.  I can stretch one finger at a time and make it hard as metal . . . perfect for stopping twerps like you.”
            “You don’t own this end of the alley!” Damon bellowed.  He was trying not to act hurt.
            “Yes, I do,” Larry replied, his finger shrinking back to normal size.  “This alley belongs to me and my friends.”
            A boy with shaggy blonde hair came out from behind the rose bush.  Damon recognized him as one of the eighth graders from the playground.
            “We’ve never actually met,” the boy said as he stood over Damon.  “Name’s Rusty Reddick.  But I know all about you, Neumeyer.  See, I’ve been watching you and that four-eyed geek practice your powers at school.  I know what you can do.  Let’s see if you like what I can do.”  And as he said this, he leaned back and looked at the sun and his body began to glow.
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Sneak Peak at My Answers for the Local Author Fair Panel

On Thursday, November 5, I will be one of four authors participating in the Local Authors Fair Panel through Woodneath Library Center, Kansa...