Saturday, November 26, 2011

One Writer’s Inspiration: Artist Dave Cockrum (1943-2006)

A gathering of the 30th century's finest heroes, from Superboy # 197.
All characters and art © DC Comics.
Dave Cockrum passed away five years ago today.

"Who was Dave Cockrum?" you may ask. He was a comic book artist who worked on various Marvels and DCs from the early 1970s.  He is best known for his role in relaunching Marvel's X-Men in the mid ‘70s, building the foundation for the extremely popular franchise of today.

Cockrum's name, unfortunately, is not as widely known as some of his creations: Storm, Nightcrawler, Colossus, and Wolverine's feral appearance.

But I’m honoring Cockrum for a different reason. Before his X-Men stint, he worked on DC’s Legion of Super-Heroes with writer Cary Bates.  The Bates/Cockrum era spanned just twelve issues over a two-year period (1972-74), but it played an enormous role in my developing interest in comics and super-heroes. Simply put, without Cockrum and Bates, there would be no Power Club.

(If you’ve never heard of the Legion of Super-Heroes, it's because they, too, are not as widely known as certain other comics heroes, despite having been around for over 50 years. The Legion, or LSH, is a team of young heroes who live and operate a thousand years in the future. While the Legion has been rebooted several times, in most versions they befriend Superboy (Superman as a teen), who, through time travel, joins them and participates in their futuristic adventures. For more information on all things Legion, visit the Legion World fan site.)

Element Lad and Brainiac 5 ambushed  by one of the Fatal Five (issue # 198).
By 1972, the Legion had been relegated to an occasional backup feature in Superboy. Cockrum, an up-and-coming young artist, turned the series on its head. No one was paying much attention to the Legion in those days, so he was free to redesign the Legionnaires’ costumes, most of which had been unchanged since the early ‘60s. His Legionnaires were sexy and elegant, not overly developed as later became the norm in comics. His science fiction settings borrowed liberally from the original Star Trek series (then growing in popularity due to reruns). Acknowledging this inspiration, Cockrum even drew Mr. Spock into a panel of one issue.

Not to be overlooked, writer Cary Bates (who is better known for his 17-year stint on The Flash, from 1968-85) specialized in inventive plots with surprise endings. In one memorable story (Superboy # 195, June 1973), the Legion rejects an applicant, ERG-1, who does not appear to have an original super-power. Refusing to take no for an answer, ERG-1 vaporizes a monstrous machine the Legionnaires cannot defeat – but apparently gives his life in the process.

(Not to worry: ERG-1 survived and became Wildfire, one of the most popular Legionnaires.)

The triumphant return of ERG-1
(Wildfire) in # 201.
The Bates/Cockrum run proved so popular with fans that, two issues later, the Legion “took over” the series and were given cover billing: Superboy starring the Legion of Super-Heroes. Although Superboy remained the central character, nearly every story afterwards took place not in his home town of 20th century Smallville, but in the Legion’s 30th century. No longer a solo hero, Superboy shared his title with the likes of Brainiac 5, Saturn Girl, Timber Wolf, Dream Girl, and Star Boy.

Alas, Cockrum left just a few issues later, following a dispute with DC. His last issue was # 202 (June 1974).

The Legion prospered without Cockrum, but many fans feel that, had he stayed, the Legion could have become as popular as the X-Men eventually became. (Some of the characters Cockrum intended for the Legion turned up in the X-Men, most notably Nightcrawler.) 

Despite its brevity, Cockrum’s run had an enormous impact on Legion fans, particularly this one, whose writing to this day remains influenced by those issues. The Bates/Cockrum Legion was full of optimism, fellowship, confidence, and even humor. Other creators have developed those aspects of the Legion to varying degrees, but there was something special about that era: It was cool, sexy, and fun, as well as heroic. Cockrum's art conveyed a sense of urgency and semi-realism. His Legionnaires had distinct personalities in their faces and body language. His 30th century seemed both dangerous and inviting.
 
Future newlyweds Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel at play (# 200).

In a previous post, I mentioned that no story springs whole cloth out of nothing. Every story has antecedents it refers back to, deliberately or not.  I’m proud to acknowledge the LSH—and particularly Dave Cockrum’s version—as one of my antecedents for The Power Club

There are, of course, significant differences. Damon’s world exists in the present, not the future, and the team he joins will be much smaller and does not use code names such as Lightning Lad and Phantom Girl. Figuring out what to do with their powers will be a lot harder for Damon and company than it often seemed for the Legion. 

But every story begins with an idea or model that sparks the flame of its own individual growth. Dave Cockrum ignited such a spark for me.

Thanks, Dave.
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Saturday, November 19, 2011

Should Writers Be Original or Do What the “Experts” Say?

originalityImage by autiscy via Flickr


It’s an age-old battle between writers and the “experts” – agents, publishers, writing teachers, and so forth.  You (the author) have written a story unlike anything that’s ever been published before. It’s going to set the world on fire with its deathless prose, stunning turns of phrase, brand new characters and settings, and brilliant themes. It will blow away agents and publishers. You can’t wait for the bidding war to start.

And then you get your manuscript back with a form rejection letter: “not our market.”

Originality is one of those words that’s hard to define, but (as a Supreme Court justice said about pornography) we know it when we see it.

But how original does a story have to be? Does anything spring whole cloth out of nothing?

Every story has antecedents – ideas, stories, characters, situations that it refers back to and which it was influenced by.  Even Harry Potter, that benchmark of children’s literature these days, is basically a story about a kid who becomes a wizard.  This concept is not wholly new – J.K. Rowling merely added her spin on it.  And this is a good thing.  Even if you’ve never heard of Harry Potter before, you probably know what a wizard is, so you have some idea of what Harry’s books are about.

Growing up, I was a huge fan on the first Star Trek series, which was unlike anything else on TV at the time.  But even Star Trek had antecedents. It was a spin on Wagon Train (an earlier TV series about people exploring the Wild West), Horatio Hornblower (a series of books about a 19th century British naval officer), and, well, just about every science fiction series that came before it.

The experts tell you that if you want your book to be published, know what market your book best fits into, understand what readers of those books want, and tailor your work accordingly. And they’re right. Here’s why:

Book publishers publish what they think will sell. Obvious? Yes. But how do publishers arrive at their opinions? They watch what has sold in the past and what is selling now. It’s not an exact science, but trends can provide indicators of what an audience wants. Consider the popularity of vampire novels.

I read a newspaper headline yesterday which asked if Hunger Games was going to knock vampires off their lofty perch. I don’t know (or care) if it will, but the headline illustrates a point. Popularity of a particular type of book plays a key role in determining what publishers will publish.

Human beings like to read what’s familiar. We crave comfort through characters we can identify with, settings we recognize, and situations that are similar to those we’ve experienced. Harry Potter is about a kid going to a new school – everything else springs from this simple and universal concept. Star Trek was about exploring new lands (or worlds) on a ship – a call to adventure that is central to the human spirit.

This does not mean there is no room for originality. But originality works best in small doses, when it adds a fresh ingredient to the stew. Gene Roddenberry may have built on existing works when he created Star Trek, but he also added social themes (unheard of on television at the time), an optimistic future (unusual for the Cold War era), an interracial cast (also new to TV then), and serious, intelligent science fiction stories (going completely against the grain for TV).  

And Roddenberry knew what TV viewers wanted (or at least what the experts told him they wanted) – that’s why you see ray guns (phasers), fist fights, and battles with aliens on Star Trek!

So, go ahead. Be original! But know when not to be.


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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Why Sad Stories are More Satisfying than Happy Endings

Dionysos mask, found in Myrina (now in Turkey)...Image via Wikipedia


After losing her father, a teenage girl prays for God to send her small town a doctor so no one close to her will ever get sick again. 

She gets her wish – sort of.

After the healer arrives, an unexplained illness grips the town. The squeamish doctor cannot find the cause – or is he the cause?

Sounds like the setup for a comedy – but it’s not. It's the premise for a tragic play called Anatomy of Gray, currently being performed at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park, KS. 

Anatomy of Gray, written by James Leonard Jr., has nothing to do with a similarly named TV series. Set in the 1880s, the play takes us through the gamut of emotions from funny to sad.  But even though the play ends badly for most of the characters, it leaves us with a ray of hope as one character discovers her true identity and the courage to leave behind her sheltered life.

(The JCCC production is excellent, by the way. Full disclosure: I teach composition at the college. But even though I might be letting my bias show, I'm going to recommend the play anyway. It is free and open to the public, and more information can be found at the above link.)

The Ancient Greeks called these types of stories tragedies.  Such stories were meant to make the audience feel a sense of catharsis, or release of emotions, as we watch characters suffer catastrophic events brought on by their own failings.  The characters in Anatomy of Gray certainly have failings – most are superstitious townspeople who refuse to let the doctor examine them.   But do they deserve their fates, as certain characters in Greek tragedies do?

Only a heartless (fill in sobriquet of your choice) would say yes.

So, why do we do it?  Why do we watch or read sad stories? 

Simply put, sad stories satisfy needs that happy endings cannot.

Sad stories force us to respect the fragility of life.  When characters we’ve come to know suffer, we care about them.  We know the same things can happen to us and our loved ones – or have already happened.

Sad stories make the “good times” even better.  The teenage girl’s crush on the doctor is played for laughs, but this very ordinary circumstance takes on even greater significance as the tragedy unfolds.  The humor magnifies the tragedy and vice versa.

Sad stories make profound statements about the human condition.  Some wonk once tried to discourage writers from having anything meaningful to say in their stories by suggesting that, if he wanted to send a message, he’d call Western Union.

Balderdash!

As human beings, we want and need stories that are deeply meaningful, that stay with us after we’ve left the theater or put down the book, that challenge us, provoke us, make us think and feel.

This does not mean that every story must rely on gloom and doom.  In fact, overwrought dramas and shock endings can desensitize the audience or leave them unfulfilled.  Such stories (like many happy endings, where everything works out all right for the main characters) can thrust us into the realm of fantasy where we don’t have to deal with reality as it is. 

Sad stories make us confront reality head on.

Which brings me to my last point:

Sad stories help us cope with life.  Even when characters suffer catastrophe, they can leave us with a sense that the order of the universe has been restored.  In the classic Greek tragedy Antigone,  Creon, the king of Thebes, loses just about everyone dear to him because of his pride and rigid grip on power.  We’re meant to understand that these failings have led to his undoing.

When the townspeople in Anatomy of Gray refuse to let the doctor examine them, we understand how their fear and ignorance make their situation worse.

Sad stories reinforce “universal truths” better than happy endings can.  If you’ve ever put down a book or finished watching a movie or play and thought it would be a good idea to reexamine some of your own beliefs or shortcomings, the story has done its job.  Sad stories, in other words, can remind us not to be too rigid in our own lives or highlight areas in which we need more education.

Sad stories can also reaffirm that life is good, even when bad things happen despite our best efforts.

What do you think?  Have sad stories impacted your life?  Which ones?

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Saturday, November 5, 2011

When Does Writing Become Easier?

MUNICH, GERMANY - OCTOBER 20:  A student is wr...Image by Getty Images via @daylife


The short answer: It doesn’t.

The longer answer: One of my composition students recently wrote on an anonymous card (a method I use to encourage honest feedback), “Why does writing have to be so difficult?” He or she was referring to the practice of crafting thesis statements for essays, but the question could easily apply to any aspect of writing, including fiction.

My initial answer, trite as it may sound, was that nothing worth doing is easy. I don’t have to be a sports fan to admire the dedication and hard work athletes put into perfecting their skills. Musicians work long and hard hours to master their instruments. Mechanics and doctors study for years so they can diagnose a problem and fix it.

Writing, like all of the above, is a skill as well as a talent. To write well requires hard work, dedication and that old axiom: practice, practice, practice.

And the more you practice, the easier some aspects become. After writing several essays, my student will probably develop a sense of what makes an effective thesis statement and what doesn't – so, in future classes, he or she won’t become bogged down by anxiety when given a writing assignment. Likewise, the writer who writes more than one novel or short story develops a sense of when scenes don't move the story along, when there's too much description (or too little), when characters lack distinct personalities . . . and how to fix these things.

But!

There are always new challenges to face. For fiction writers, one such challenge comes after you’ve spent long hours and years perfecting your writing skills. How do you go about selling your work to an agent, editor, or reader?

Which brings me back to my initial answer to the student: Nothing worth doing is easy.

I'd love to read your comments. What aspects of writing have become easier for you? Which ones do you still need to master?

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What Does The Power Club Have to do with Poetry?

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