Saturday, June 29, 2013

When Superheroes Kill—and Why Doing So Isn't Necessarily Bad



The buzz is all over the Internet, so I’m probably not giving away any spoilers, but just in case:

SPOILER WARNING: THIS POST DISCUSSES PLOT ELEMENTS OF THE FILMS MAN OF STEEL AND THE DARK KNIGHT,  AS WELL AS OTHER STORIES. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

Ready now?

Okay, to continue: It’s true.

Superman kills.

Once we move past the shock value, though, the questions before us are: Is the fact that Superman kills necessarily a bad thing?  Was it necessary?  Did director Zack Snyder and producer/writer Christopher Nolan deliberately turn the Man of Steel into the Dark Knight?

Fans are understandably upset when a beloved hero and cherished icon behaves in less-than-iconic ways. Some claim that Superman should have found another way because, after all, he’s Superman.

While this circular reasoning doesn’t answer the questions posed above, it does illustrate how important the character of Superman still is to us, even after 75 years of existence, and how he embodies the ideals we cherish. These ideals were even best expressed in the 1950s The Adventures of Superman television series: truth, justice, and the American Way.

But just as America sometimes fails to live up to its own ideals, so, too, does its quintessential hero fall short—and that, for storytelling purposes, can be a good thing.

Before we discuss why, though, let’s look at a few other incidents where superheroes have taken life.  This phenomenon, after all, is not without precedent. It goes back nearly 50 years at least.

Star Boy

In Adventure Comics # 342, March 1966, Star Boy—a member of Superboy’s buddies from the future, the Legion of Super-Heroes—kills Kenz Nuhor, a bad guy intent on killing him. Since he acted in self defense, Star Boy is cleared by the Science Police. However, that’s not good enough for his Legion comrades. They haul him before a court martial, convict him of violating their code, and expel him.

The message of the story is clear: superheroes do not kill. They are held to higher standard than us mere mortals.

Yet the story also illustrates the flaw in that standard. The Legion’s Constitution, we are told, is amended shortly after to permit killing in self defense. Not that doing so does Star Boy any good.

(Not to worry, though. Nine issues later, the Legion had a change of heart and readmitted him.)

This story remains controversial among Legion fans to this day. Could Star Boy have disabled Nuhor without killing him, as the story suggests? Even if he could, should he have been held to an impossibly high standard when he had only a split second to act?

It's telling that Superboy (a teenaged Superman)—the very hero upon whom the Legion's code is based--defends Star Boy at his trial. Because he is invulnerable, Superboy explains, he has less cause for killing than the other Legionnaires. Interestingly, the Legionnaires don't take this explanation into account when they vote to expel Star Boy. The ideal—as expressed by the code—prevails.

Hawkeye

In Avengers # 229, March 1983, during a climactic battle with the criminal scientist Egghead, Hawkeye the Archer shoots an arrow into the barrel of a Egghead’s “blaster” gun just as the villain fires. The resulting backlash kills Egghead.

Yes, it was an accident, but the villain died nonetheless.

Hawkeye, too, is cleared by the authorities and—unlike poor Star Boy—by his superhero comrades, as well.  He spends all of about two seconds feeling angsty before deciding he can’t feel sorry for Egghead: “If anyone deserved this, he did!” Hawkeye ruminates in the next issue.

While Hawkeye’s attitude may sound callous, it could also be seen as a healthy way of dealing with the unimaginable. Killing, it is said, damages the soul of the killer as much as it takes away life. In modern times, we are just starting to understand the effects of PTSD and wounded souls upon soldiers and police officers, who often must kill in the line of duty.

This story illustrates why killing should be avoided, but how it sometimes cannot be.

Batman

Yes, even Batman—in spite of some commentators’ claims—took life. In The Dark Knight film, Batman pushes Harvey Two-Face off a building when the latter threatens Jim Gordon’s young son. Both hero and villain fall. Batman survives. Harvey does not.

Some may claim that Batman did not intend to kill Two-Face; however, the result—as in Hawkeye’s situation—was the same. Besides, one could argue that Batman should have known, given the height of the building and his opponent’s lack of Wayne Tech-created armor, that death was likely to result. In any case, Batman, as the saying goes, did what had to be done.

The lesson: What has to be done isn’t always pretty.

Of course, many commentators have pointed out that Supeman is not Batman. Superman is about the joy of being a superhero (many reviewers have criticized Man of Steel as "joyless"), whereas Batman is about striking terror into the hearts of criminals. 

Batman, they seem to suggest, would be more justified in killing than Superman because he lives in a grim, dark, and dirty world while Superman lives in sunlight, primary colors, and Kansas.

And yet, as anyone from Kansas (or elsewhere) who has sent loved ones off to war knows, sometimes our ideals collide with reality and come back to us changed.

So, why was it necessary from a story-telling standpoint for Superman to kill?  Three reasons:

1. It shows that ideals are important.  Even if the ideals are simplistic and all-encompassing such as “heroes don’t kill,” heroes must believe in something higher than themselves.  (The difference between Superman and General Zod, we are told, is that Zod and his followers have no moral code.)

2. It shows that ideals, however, are not perfect.  No ideal or standard can accommodate every situation or solve every problem. Ideals guide us, but they do not do our thinking or decision making for us.

3. It shows the difficult choices heroes (and all of us) have to face. Rigid adherence to an ideal can produce disastrous results—look at the 9/11 hijackers for a real-world result.

Had Superman not acted, Zod would have fried a man, woman, and two small children. Superman, then, would have been an accessory to murder, regardless.

(And, yes, the filmmakers could have written in some fail-safe where Superman wouldn’t have had to make that choice. It was a gutsy decision that they did not.)

This is not to say that superheroes should kill with abandon or without consequences. In fact, one of the movie’s failings (and it has several) is that it blithely ignores the thousands who must have perished when all those buildings collapsed during Superman and Zod’s battle.

This failing, of course, is not unique to Man of Steel. Most Hollywood blockbusters these days follow the ethic of making as many things explode as possible. Modern blockbusters resemble video games in their nonstop focus on action. This, I’d argue, is irresponsible film making, but that’s the subject for another post.

However, the fact that Superman violates his own code against killing is not in itself a weakness of the film. Rather, it challenges us on two fronts: to consider what a superhero can and cannot do, and to examine the limits of the ideals we impose on heroes and on ourselves.

Perhaps that’s the best thing any movie can do.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

When Did You Know You Were a Writer?



PW-you-are-a-writer-writing-contest
Image borrowed with permission from The Positive Writer.

 
I’m participating in the “You Are a Writer—When Did You Know?” contest on The Positive Writer.   

Here goes . . .

I'm a non-conformist by nature. I hate playing games that are rigged for the other side to win, no matter how much the other side tells me it’s my duty to play, no matter how much they tell me I’d better fall in line or something bad will happen. I particularly don’t like rigged games where the winners take advantage of other players.

So when I was 12, I saw a news story about Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, then middle-aged men, who were teenagers when they created Superman. They sold their creation to what became DC Comics, which went on to reap millions from Superman comics, movies, and merchandise. Meanwhile, Siegel and Shuster spent decades fighting to get credit and a pension.

In the decades since then, I've learned their story is more complicated than that, and that it's easy to paint the Evil Corporation as a predator gobbling up the works of poor, unsuspecting writers and artists (which, often, corporations do).

At the time, however, their story filled me with two contradictory but irresistible notions: one, the realization that people actually created comic book characters and got paid to do so, and, two, a sympathetic bond with Siegel and Shuster, who were not much older than I was when they conceived the character who would revolutionize the comics industry and inspire generations of young readers. Being 12, I thought I could do the same thing only better. I would not get ripped off. I would create a new character who would make me fabulously wealthy.

I returned to that dream time and time again as I encountered other games that appeared rigged: high school, employment, even my first forays into college. Every path in life, it seemed, required hard work but few rewards for those who did the actual work. There had to be another way.

Comics, though produced by a rigged system (the comics industry), yielded hope. They were a fringe obsession—not as popular or widely accepted as sports, films, and even literature. To enter those occupations, you had to be accepted into a rigged system. The comics industry was small enough that it resembled rock ‘n’ roll in the early days: any kid could pick up a pencil or typewriter and start creating comics. Any kid could afford to dream big.

Then reality set in. I wrote scripts, sent them to publishers, got rejected, and was “encouraged” to continue my education. So I wound up back in college, where grants and student assistance programs showed me that even a "rigged" system sometimes wanted new entrants to succeed, and where encouraging professors taught me I didn’t have to abandon my weird interests. I just had to reach deeper and see the connections between super-heroes and other things: mythology, fables, legends and stories of all kinds.  

Yes, Virginia, there is a reason why you should hang on to childhood notions.

Writing bridges the gap between individuality and conformity. Writing enables me to express myself and to connect with others. Writing requires a great deal of conformity—grammar, usage, audience, purpose—but provides clear reasons and benefits for doing so (e.g., getting your message across in the most effective way possible). 

Writing also bridges the gap between rigged systems and individual paths to success. Nowhere is this more evident than in modern publishing. Many writers, burned or rejected by traditional publishers, have found ways to get their work before an audience through self-publishing. Writers have mastered the tools of the rigged game and turned those tools to their advantage.

Writing is simultaneously subversive and conformist: It gives practitioners the tools to accomplish whatever they wish. Write a cover letter, a resume, a short story, a novel, a poem, a comic book, an argument, a thesis, an explanation, a synthesis . . . it's all there: a masterpiece of words waiting to be crafted.

And though writing may not lead to fabulous wealth and independence (though it might), it often leads to something deeper and more fulfilling: a path to self discovery.

Are you a writer?  Go to The Positive Writer's blog and enter the contest.  Then post a link to your blog in the comments below so I can read your story.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

3 Ways to Write a Story Your Readers are Sure to Forget

Adventure Comics 325 - Lex Luthor - Curt Swan, Sheldon Moldoff
TM and Copr. DC Comics. All rights reserved.


Every writer wants to write stories that are memorable, change the lives of the audience, or appreciated as something special and unique.

And yet every writer is guilty of crafting stories which look awesome but aren't, stories which leave the readers wishing they'd spent their time more productively, such as reading the phone book.

One such example is "Lex Luthor Meets the Legion of Super-Heroes" from Adventure Comics # 325, October 1964, written by Edmond Hamilton and drawn by John Forte.

Luthor, as every super-hero fan should know, is Superman's number one enemy: a bald, brilliant scientist who has bedeviled the Man of Steel since they were boys (at least in the original timeline). Their Silver Age feud began when Lex lost his hair after Superboy blew out a fire caused by a chemical experiment of Lex's gone wrong.

What most fans may not know is that Lex also fought Superboy's friends from the future, The Legion of Super-Heroes. But if you didn't know this story existed or forgot that it did, don't worry.  Despite the promise showed by the cover, it's not a memorable tale.

Analyzing what went wrong can help you avoid writing an equally forgettable story.

Spoiler warning: If you don't want to know how this story turns out, don't read the rest of this post.

Here is an abbreviated version of my recent review on the Legion World message board:

Adv. 325

This is one of those Legion stories which I know happened, but I often forget that it did until I re-read it.
Then I remember why I had forgotten it.

"Lex Luthor Meets the Legion of Super-Heroes" could have been an epic story, but it's not. Superboy/man's arch enemy finds a way to travel into the future and get his revenge on the Legion. How could such a story miss? Well . . .
It starts off with an excellent idea that could have developed into an outstanding story. A pre-evil, pre-bald Lex travels into the future where he learns he is destined to become one of Superboy's greatest enemies. Oh, the anguish! Oh, the drama as the Legionnaires try to find some way to prevent this likable guy from becoming one of the worst villains in history.  Well, that's what should have happened.
Instead the Legion brushes Lex aside with enough scientific babble that would put Star Trek to shame and then merrily sends him on his way. But no matter. Lex's pre-evil status is a ruse anyway; he yanks off his toupee and reveals he's truly evil as soon as he's alone.
Even at this point, the story could have been awesome as Lex puts his horrific scheme into motion. He builds a dissolver ray and ambushes the Legionnaires. He takes Mon-El, the mightiest Legionnaire, by surprise and he ambushes a handful of Legionnaires after calling them back from various missions. 
But by the time he disintegrates the rest of the Legion, all drama has dissipated as these scenes fail to build upon one another. Lex (who, oddly enough, serves as the story's protagonist) doesn't truly risk anything and has no obstacles to overcome. His victory over the entire Legion is far too easy.
But wait! It's trick ending time. It turns out that Lex couldn't build a dissolver ray, after all (why not?), so he had to settle for a paltry Phantom Zone projector. One would think if he could build the latter, he could build the former. But, in any case, it turns out he didn't actually dissolve the Legionnaires. He just sent them into that eerie, twilight place where Kryptionian criminals used to be sent and where no one ever ages.
This turns out to be a mistake, as Lex's first victim, Mon-El, has plenty of experience with the Phantom Zone. Mon spent 1000 years there until a cure could be found for his lead poisoning. He leads his teammates into messing with Lex's mind so that it is Lex himself who unwittingly frees the Legion from the zone. His scheme foiled, Lex returns to the 20th century with his tail between his legs and vows further revenge (which he inexplicably fails to carry out).
Ho hum.
So, what does this story teach us about how write an unmemorable story? 

1. Make your protagonist as unlikable as possible. 

Here, Hamilton was constrained, in part, by the Comics Code Authority, which mandated that criminals be shown to be unsympathetic. But that makes it all the more odd that he chose Lex to be the protagonist of this story. Lex is as unlikable as they come.

He's a classic Silver Age baddie, and, as such, not someone the reader is supposed to identify with.

And yes, even though the title of the series is "Legion of Super-Heroes," Lex serves as the protagonist of this particular story. It is told mostly from his point of view, and he has a goal and actively seeks to carry it out--the classic definition of a protagonist.

It's easy to see why Hamilton chose to tell the story from Lex's point of view; after all, he's the only character who knows what's going on. But, even so, it's hard to care about him, much less like him.

2. Make sure nothing is at stake. 

Even if we're not supposed to like Lex, we could feel a perverse sympathy for him if Lex were putting himself or something valuable to him at risk in order to accomplish his goal. (For example, in classic origin story of Batman's enemy the Joker, we're meant to feel his sense of tragedy at being disfigured, though we deplore his criminal actions.)

But sympathy--perverse or otherwise--doesn't happen. Lex simply sneaks up on the Legionnaires, presses a button, and they vanish.  In effective stories, suspense is built when the characters take risks. Such risks are all the more necessary when the protagonist is a villain or antihero.

Think of all the movies featuring bank robbers as protagonists. Will they get caught? Will their scheme work? Will something happen to their loved ones? (I'm thinking of Dog Day Afternoon here.)

In Adventure 325, Lex risks nothing.

3. Make sure nothing changes as a result of your story. 

If your story ends with the heroes laughing as the villain gets away, something's wrong.

Granted, Lex couldn't be captured and sent to prison in the 30th century.Yet in an imaginative series such as the LSH and with a writer as creative as Hamilton, something should have happened to make this story worthwhile.  

The Legion could have mindwiped Lex into forgetting about their existence. Lex could have escaped on his own after the Legion struggled valiantly to capture him. He could have been transported back in time by another Legion villain, the Time Trapper, whose agenda is always mysterious.

It doesn't really matter how the story ended--the Legion or Lex (and, by extension, the reader) should have learned something or been changed as a result of this story.

Interestingly enough, the Legionnaires don't do much in this story. They have no competing goal that conflicts with Lex's, and they don't even struggle much to get out of the Phantom Zone, so it's hard to care for them either.

Characters you don't care about + nothing at stake + nothing changes = recipe for a forgettable story.
    Conversely. if you want your story to be memorable, do three things: 1) give the reader a reason to care about your protagonist, even if he's a bad guy, 2) raise the stakes, and 3) have something of consequence happen.

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    Wednesday, June 12, 2013

    The Power Club Book Signing Saturday, June 15, 2013

    On Saturday, from 11 a.m.-1 p.m., I'll be at the 7th Annual Author Extravaganza at Town Crier Bookstore, Emporia, KS, signing copies of my recently published novel, THE POWER CLUB.





    I won't be alone, of course. Judging by Town Crier's website, about 40 other authors will also be there, including members of my critique group, the legendary Monday Night Writers.

    Based on the writers I've known and met in the past, genres represented will include fantasy, flash fiction, humor, poetry, science fiction, thriller, children's and Young Adult.

    Last year, I attended my first Author Extravaganza and it was a blast. The bookstore seemed crowded for all two hours, not just with writers but with readers. I chatted with several and, even though I had only published a comic book, GOLD DUST, at the time, it was well received.

    This year, both GOLD DUST and THE POWER CLUB will be available.

    So come on out and say hello!


    Friday, June 7, 2013

    Never Been Kissed?! What to Write About When You Have Nothing to Write About



    Sooner or later, every writer faces that topic she knows nothing about.  

    For a student writer, it may come when you’re in class and the professor puts on the board a writing prompt that makes you go “Huh?”  

    For fiction writers, it may be that moment in your story where your character comes across an artifact from the Ming Dynasty, and you know nothing about Chinese history, let alone the Ming Dynasty. 

    The most common way of dealing with this problem (other than research, of course) is to fake it. You’re a creative writer, after all—so create. And, if you’re writing your own book, you may be able to transfer the artifact from the Ming Dynasty to one from, say, the U.S. Civil War.  

    But if you’re writing for a professor or an editor, fudging may lead to disaster.

    So what do you do?

    Answer: Write about what you do know.

    You may be surprised at what you know, or how you can turn a writing situation to your advantage.

    When I was in college, one of my professors tried to get the class to relate to a particular story by making us write about our first kiss. The problem was, even as a strapping college freshman, I still had not had a first kiss.

    The worst part, of course, was being a college freshman and admitting I hadn't kissed a girl. Guys are supposed to get around to that stuff by age 15, or so our culture tells us. If you’re shy around girls, you don’t admit it.  If dating isn’t a priority for you, you keep quiet so your peers don’t think less of you.

    And here was a college professor asking me to describe a deeply personal experience I hadn’t had yet.

    Well, admitting that I'd never kissed a girl wouldn't do. And I didn't have it in me to make up an experience. But, as I sat there and studied the prompt, I realized there was a way to fulfill the assignment and preserve my dignity.

    It turned out that I had, in fact, had a first kiss.

    When I was five, a neighbor girl pressed me against her parents’ garage and started kissing me. This apparently continued until her mother glanced out from the house and yelled for her stop.

    In college, I barely remembered the incident, but I did remember my mother telling me about it—and teasing me over it—for years after.  That embarrassing experience—being kissed is always embarrassing to five-year-old boys—remained vivid enough that I was able to recreate it for the assignment.

    The professor even loved my novel approach so much she shared my essay with the class.

    The lessons I learned from this?

    • Play politician—if you can’t write to the spirit of the assignment, write to the letter.  (“It depends, your honor, on what kiss means.”)

    • Go for the emotion—even if it’s something which embarrasses you or makes you feel sad, chances are your reader will feel the same way (or at least see the humor in you feeling that way)—and that’s what you want: for the reader to feel something.

    • Recreate as many details as you can, fudge the rest—you can actually get away with this in a personal essay. No one’s going to track down that former five-year-old girl to see if she remembers things the way you do. At the same time, don’t fudge everything—too much fakery reveals itself.

    •  Look upon writing assignments as writing challenges—you’re in this to grow as a writer, not to play it safe.

    • Don’t be afraid to be vulnerable—audiences like vulnerability because they’re vulnerable, too.  Showing that you’re comfortable with your human side gives them permission to be comfortable with theirs.

    The bottom line in fiction as well as personal writing is to tell an entertaining story. If you can get that kind of mileage out of being kissed or not being kissed, it’s all good.

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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...