Saturday, April 28, 2012

"Would You Like Fries With That Murder?" The Thin Line Between Heroes and Villains

Here's an oldie but a goodie.

Back in 2003, I joined the Kansas City Comics Creators Network (KCCCN, later mercifully shortened to CCN)a group of enthusiastic artists and writers who were devoted to publishing our own work independently. The CCN eventually went the way of all things, but not before publishing a number of works, including three massive volumes of an anthology series called Show and Tell.

Show and Tell # 1 featured the first story I ever had published. It was also my first collaboration with an artist.

The artist was Travis Fox, best known for the comics strip Foxymoron, which has run in The Kansas City Star. The story: a five-page ditty called "Would You Like Fries With That Murder?"

"Would You Like Fries" parodies the ever-popular dark side of super-heroes. Are heroes truly good and villains truly bad? Is there much difference between the two?

The twist? The story is told through the eyes of a former super-villain who is forced to make ends meet by slaving away as a fast-food employee.

Hey, even super-villains have to make a living.

Enjoy!







Story © 2003-2012 Greg Gildersleeve.  Art © 2003-2012 Travis Fox.

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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Murder Your Words: Be Ruthless in Revision

This is a photo taken of a peer revision comme...
This is a photo taken of a peer revision comment from a writing class. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In his seminal book On Writing, Stephen King advised writers to “kill your darlings.”  A variation I’ve heard is “Murder your children.”

No, we’re not talking about a crime that will land you 25 to life. We’re talking about being utterly ruthless in revising and editing your work.

Any piece of writing becomes the writer’s child: You conceived it, you gave birth to it, you nurtured, clothed and fed it, and you will one day send it out into the world to make you proud. 

But, as any parent knows, sometimes children don’t turn out so well. Good parents, of course, love their children anyway.

Writing, however, is not something you should accept as-is.  Mediocrity breeds antipathy in readers. If you’re not excited about your work, how can you expect the reader to be?

That’s why writers have to become murderers—murderers of their own words.

Sounds extreme?

It is.

I learned this lesson anew when I recently went back and re-read some of the earlier chapters of my novel-in-progress, The Power Club. The story I had slaved over for months was good—but just good.

Writers, your new mantra: “Good enough is never good enough.”

So I wrote a new version of Chapter 1 and sent it out to my critiquing group. They raved over the improvements, but one member suggested even more drastic changes: cutting out the entire first half of the chapter, beginning the story with the mid chapter break, and filling in the previous information as needed.

My initial reaction?

Drat! More work. I thought this book was finished. I thought this writing gig was supposed to be easy . . .

No, I’m not being hypocritical. Although I said in a previous post that writing never gets easier, it’s perfectly human to have such thoughts. Besides, I didn’t ignore his advice. I gave his suggestion a shot, and I think he’s right:  the new beginning improves the story dramatically. 

Of course, this means other revisions have to be made . . .

But the bottom line is this: I want a book that’s going to set the world on fire, not wallow on the shelves and beg readers to pick it up. Experience has taught me that I don’t remember the struggles that led to self-improvement. What I remember instead are the feelings of pride and accomplshment. What I gain through the effort is self-confidence.

So, go ahead: Murder your words. Killing them makes you and your book stronger.


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Saturday, April 14, 2012

Should Your Character Be an Orphan?

Spider-Man debuts: Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1...Spider-Man debuts: Amazing Fantasy #15 (Aug. 1962). Cover art by Jack Kirby (penciler) and Steve Ditko (inker). (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
If you're writing a story that features a young hero, one of the most difficult questions you will have to answer is this: How many parents should your character have? Two? One? None?

Why is this difficult? Because writers often pattern their young characters after themselves at the same age, and killing off your character’s parents can feel like killing off your own.

Also, doing away with your character’s parents flies in the face of our normal human desire for our characters to be happy, healthy, and whole.

Yet heroes who have lost one or both parents dominate all kinds of fiction: Superman, Spider-Man, Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, Scout Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird, and so forth. “Cinderella,” “Hansel and Gretel,” and other children's stories also feature heroes whose parents are either dead or absent.

Why can offing your character's parents be a good thing? Let's take a closer look at some of the examples above:

Katniss Everdeen

Katniss lost her father to a mining accident some years before The Hunger Games begins, leaving her to care for her emotionally absent mother and very young sister. Although it’s not explicitly stated in the film, Katniss appears to be her family’s sole provider: she hunts and begs for food.

These dire circumstances imbue Katniss with a streak of independence and strength of character which make her actions in the story plausible. Protective of her sister, Katniss volunteers to take her place in the Hunger Games. Able to hunt and hide, she possesses an advantage over most of her competitors.

In short, the loss of her father has turned Katniss into a survivor.

Scout Finch

Jean Louise “Scout” Finch ages from six to eight in Harper Lee’s novel To Kill a Mockingbird, but Scout lost her mother when she was two. Although she and her older brother, Jem, are looked after by their father’s cook, Calpurnia, the absence of a close female role model becomes apparent when Scout’s aunt, Alexandra, comes to live with them. 

Alexandra tries to mold Scout into a lady and indoctrinate her into the beliefs and practices considered proper for ladies in their small, 1930s Alabama town. But tomboy Scout wears overalls, gets into fights with Jem and other boys, and sneaks into the courthouse to watch her father, lawyer Atticus Finch, at work. 

In fact, Scout’s close relationship with her father plays a significant role in her open-mindedness and acceptance of people who are different from her (such as black people and the Finch's reclusive neighbor, Boo Radley), attitudes which are decidedly at odds with the judgmental and racist views common in her town. Scout learns to see the world through another's perspective, echoing her father's philosophy.

Had her mother lived, the novel implies, Scout may not have had such a close relationship with Atticus.

Superman and Spider-Man 

Both are orphans. Superman lost not only his natural parents but his entire world when Krypton exploded.  Raised by the kindly Kents, he becomes orphaned a second time when they pass away (in the original continuity, at least). 

Why was it necessary for Superman to lose two sets of parent? The answer DC Comics gave was to show that, for all his powers, Superman was not a god. There were things he could not control, such as death.

Spider-Man’s parents died when he was young, and he was raised by his aunt and uncle. He, too, experiences a second tragedy when Uncle Ben is shot and killed, which provides Spider-Man with his motivation to become a hero: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

Would it have made a difference if Ben Parker were Spidey’s father instead of his uncle? Perhaps writer Stan Lee chose to distance Peter Parker from his natural parents because the death of a parent in story would have been too schocking or hard for his young readers to take. (Consider how the murder of Batman’s parents, which happens in story, makes that character so much darker and his readers’ expectations of him so different from the examples above.) 

Katniss, Scout, Superman and Spidey lost one or both parents years before each of their stories begins. In each case (except Katniss), they are too young to remember the lost parent or parents. This allows the reader to feel sympathy toward them without being too horrified or grief-stricken.

Damon and The Power Club

Readers of this blog who have checked out the chapters of my novel-in-progress, The Power Club™, may have noticed that I've violated this apparent rule: Damon's parents are both alive and well, at least in the prologue.

Truth is, it never occurred to me to kill them off before. Even nowI'm on the fence about doing so. Damon has plenty of other things to cause him consternation, and I want him to be an individual character, not an archetype.

Besides, some stories do feature heroes whose parents live. (The Waltons and numerous other TV series come to mind.)

Another besides: Damon’s entire story has yet to be be written, so who knows what the future holds in store for Mr. and Mrs. Neumeyer?

Tie Your Mother Down?

So, why should you consider offing your character's parents? Because in our world the traditional family unit of two parents and 2.5 children is, whether we admit it or not, often considered the normthe ideal standard for raising healthy, happy, and whole children. At least that's what many of our politicians say.

But your hero lives in an imperfect world (as do most of your readers). Something is missing and your hero sets out on a quest to find it. Or something is not right, and your hero tries to fix it. 

Taking your hero out of her "perfect" world sets your story in motion.

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Saturday, April 7, 2012

How to Kill a Super-Hero: The Death of Invisible Kid

All characters and images™ and  © 
DC Comics Inc.
It’s a cliché these days: Super-hero X died, but he got better.

At least since "The Death of Superman," comic book deaths have been a valuable marketing tool—a way to lure mainstream media into paying attention to comics by suggesting that some iconic hero of our collective childhood is going to bite the dust permanently.

But for comics fans, death has become a joke. We know that sooner or later the popularity and cash cow value of characters such as Superman and Captain America, who was also killed off in a major media blitz a few years ago, will dictate their eventual resurrection.

Even for minor characters, death is usually a sales ploy—a reminder that characters are commodities to be bought and sold however the publisher sees fit.

And yet, if handled correctly, the death of a super-hero can be meaningful and moving, and can resonate with fans years, even decades, later.

One of the most memorable deaths for me was that of Invisible Kid, a long-time member of Superboy’s friends from the future, the Legion of Super-Heroes, in Superboy # 203 (July-August 1974).

"Massacre by Remote Control" was written by Cary Bates and drawn by Mike Grell, marking the latter’s ascension as regular Legion artist. (Grell had debuted the previous issue, inking a story pencilled by his predecessor, Dave Cockrum).

As a writer, Bates is seldom remembered fondly by Legion fans, and with good reason. He played fast and loose with established Legion continuity and expressed his dislike for writing super-team books by featuring only a handful of Legionnaires in each story. (In Superboy # 200, for example, he sends only four Legionnaires after the villain, even though the entire team plus wedding guests—a total of about 50 super-heroes—are present.) 

Nevertheless, Bates was a master plotter who weaved twists and turns in such a way that they seemed inevitable (as the developments in every a story should be). More, he could write a complete, satisfying story in a single issue—a skill all but forgotten in the modern era of story decompression.

Bates also deserves to be remembered for reinvigorating the Legion in the early ‘70s. Partnering with Cockrum, he updated the team with more dynamic stories and new characters such as Wildfire (a hero) and Tyr (a villain). But Bates also cleaned house by dumping characters whose powers were considered too lame for the ‘70s, including Bouncing Boy and Duo Damsel (who married) and Invisible Kid.

But if Invisible Kid had to die, at least he died in style.

Massacre by Validus

The story begins as Invisible Kid (a.k.a. Lyle Norg) shirks his duty during a Legion training exercise by visiting a dimension he can enter while invisible. He has fallen hopelessly in love with Myla, a resident of the other dimension, and plans to marry her.  

But Myla has something to tell Lyle which proves so shocking it causes him to collapse and block her words from his memory.

Meanwhile, the Legion learns of an impending threat. One of their deadliest enemies, the mindless monster Validus, is barreling toward earth to attack them. The Legion can’t figure out how, since Validus can only be controlled by his master, Tharok—a half-man/half-robot—who is currently undergoing emergency surgery on his robot half in prison.

Validus lays waste to several Legionnaires, including Superboy, before Invisible Kid realizes what's going on: the monster is being controlled by a component of Tharok’s robot brain which the Legion kept as a souvenir. (Yes, super-heroes used to do that sort of thing. Batman had a huge trophy room in the Batcave, and Superman kept souvenirs in his Fortress of Solitude.)

Invisible Kid -- licked, but seeing
it through.
But just as Invisible Kid is about to destroy the robot brain, Validus bursts into the Legion Museum and grabs the hero. As Lyle crushes the brain with his bare hand, Validus, in turn, crushes the life out of him.

Grieving, the Legionnaires receive an unexpected visitor: Myla. The girl from the other dimension reveals she could not marry Lyle before because she's a ghost. But now that Lyle is dead, they can be together in her dimension forever.

So the story ends on a paradoxically positive note. The Legion loses a member, but they are assured he will, at last, be happy.

What Works: A Hero We Care For

Upon rereading this story, I was struck by how little fanfare was made of Invisible Kid’s passing. Nothing on the cover or splash page indicates a character is going to die. (Comics publishers are notorious for announcing deaths well in advance and dropping cover hints as subtle as bricks, as in the case of Ferro Lad, a previous Legionnaire who died.)  

As a result, Invisible Kid’s death is truly shocking and heart-wrenching.

Yet the story develops from a very traditional set-up and execution. Like most comics of that time, it is new-reader friendly. One can understand this story with very little prior knowledge of the Legion.

Bates also sets Invisible Kid up as a traditional protagonist—he’s the one we care for.  Lyle is in love and something (we don’t know what) prevents him from being with his love. Nevertheless, he wins our hearts by being determined to bring Myla back to our dimension as his wife.

Displaying his skill at weaving subplots, Bates develops not one but two mysteries. First there's the mystery of what Myla said that shocked Invisible Kid. (No jokes, please, about phantom pregnancies!) Then there’s the mystery of who or what is controlling Validus.  

The second mystery is particularly well played: The robot brain is visible in several panels, first disassembled and then in stages of self-repair—images that mean nothing to the reader until Lyle puts it all together for us (which makes it fun to flip back to previous pages and see that he was right). 

Then there’s the death scene itself. Alone and facing a gigantic enemy, Lyle stands his ground and does what he must, even though it costs him his life—the very definition of a hero.

(Side note: I’m currently reading Harper Lee’s classic, To Kill a Mockingbird, in which Atticus Finch tells his daughter, eight-year-old Scout, the definition of courage: “It’s when you know you’re licked before you begin but you begin anyway and you see it through no matter what. You rarely win, but sometimes you do.” In his own way, Bates made an equally profound statement by showing Invisible Kid's courage in action.)

What Doesn’t Work?

Very little, actually. “Massacre by Remote Control” is a product of DC Comics of its time, which means it offers little character development. Most Legionnaires serve the needs of the plot and do not come off as distinct personalities. (This is true even of Invisible Kid, who, to a degree, comes off as deep as a typical TV guest-star of the time.)

Is Superboy crying, too, or is he
just constipated?
The most obvious example is Phantom Girl, who, filling a typical role for a female character of that time, has little to do except give Lyle someone to talk to and cry for him at the end (because, you know, it would be umanly for Superboy and Mon-El to cry).  She doesn’t even get to use her powers, although she could easily evade Mon-El during the training exercise.

Some fans criticize the “happily ever after” ending as a sentiment that went out of style with the ‘60s. But I disagree.

If anything, the ending offers a bold, hopeful statement about the possibility of an afterlife. Bates never says Lyle went to heaven, but he leaves room for readers to interpret the ending through our own beliefs.

A Death to Remember

Killing off a beloved character always causes controversy, but these days such storms are often short-lived and hyped by a media that doesn’t know or care that comic book deaths are temporary.

(And even Lyle’s death proved somewhat temporary. A brief and ill-thought-out attempt to bring the character back floundered in the early ‘80s, and, of course, different versions of Invisible Kid have lived on in successive Legion “reboots”.)

But the death of Invisible Kid proved controversial for altogether different and more sustaining reasons. He died at a time when comic book deaths were rare enough to be permanent and in a way that left fans with mixed feelings. Yes, it was sad to lose him, but it would have been even sadder to bring him back and wrench him away from eternal happiness.

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Damon Starts the Eighth Grade in THE SECRET CLUB, and Then Things Get Worse

When I was a kid, the coolest thing I could imagine would be to possess a super-power. I wasn't picky. Any power would do: super-s...