Monday, January 25, 2010

Bring on the bad guy ... and Tinkerbell

I was going to write about Cobalt in this entry, but I can’t write about Cobalt without writing about John Lawrence, too.

I was never a big fan of superhero teams, but my older brother picked up Grant Morrison’s celebrated run on the Justice League of America where, after years of C-list superheroes and D-list plots, the comics gods finally reunited the so-called Magnificent Seven of DC Comics—Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Aquaman, the Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter. The run combined zippy plotting, high-octane action, and occasional little asides that reminded you that these people were more than just steroidal bundles of superpowers. And while I never read Morrison’s JLA for more than a free extra superhero adventure every week, a line from the first issue stayed with me for years.

The moment comes as the heroes are speeding off to some crisis or other, and Superman is flying alongside the Batplane and talking to Batman. Bats is pretty blunt in his opinion that this team thing isn’t going to work, and that he’s not going to take any silliness from rookies like the then-new Green Lantern. And he tells Superman, “I don’t have superspeed or invulnerability. I can’t risk wearing a bright costume that makes me a target and I can’t afford to trust poorly-trained people who do. Present company excepted.”

Present company excepted.

That was the thing that always puzzled me about superhero teams. Batman and Superman shouldn’t get along. They certainly shouldn’t be pals. So why are they standing next to each other in the group photo? What is Captain America, a glorified acrobat with an invulnerable trash-can lid as his primary weapon, doing leading the Avengers, a team unironically subtitled “Earth’s Mightiest Heroes”? Don’t get me wrong—I loved the idea of mere mortals clawing their way up to Olympus and elbowing gods aside for a spot in the pantheon. Scrappy heroes with few or no powers were my favorites. In a Superman-Batman fight, my money was on Batman all the way—forget heat vision, give me a zillion dollars and the ability to think fifty moves ahead! And while I may joke about the silly shield, I haven’t missed an issue of Captain America since 1997, and I would pit my favorite walking anachronism against any cosmic supervillain you care to name at better-than-even odds. I love nothing more than the underdog pulling it off, which is probably why these stories keep getting published. But seriously—what musclebound megapowered meathead is actually going to like having these guys on his team?

All of which led me to Darth Vader and Tinkerbell.

I originally designed John Lawrence and Cobalt as polar opposites who were frenemies before the term was coined (and, five seconds later, run into the ground, so you won’t see it again in this blog). Lawrence was my Superman, my Apollo, designed to be so perfect and so perfectly good-natured that he drove everyone privately up the wall. Blond hair, blue eyes, big muscles, big grin, constantly glowing from within with the mysterious energy that powered him, apparently centered in the sun-like amulet on his chest. His costume was gold and white to show he never got dirty, he didn’t use gloves or a mask or a codename because he had nothing to hide, and his cape had a mind of its own, wafting and billowing even when there wasn’t a dramatic breeze. Cobalt, meanwhile, was the other end of the spectrum, the apex of the grim and gritty—body completely covered with kevlar armor and a computerized breathing apparatus, draped in shadows and midnight, carrying a seemingly unlimited arsenal but moving as lightly and silently as a cat in a mortuary. The only warning of his appearance was the blue glow of his eyepieces—the source of his name. Maybe he was human, maybe not—and you definitely didn’t want to get close enough to find out.

Lawrence and Cobalt were natural rivals, so I threw them into a power struggle over control of their team, the World Justice Federation. It came to a bloody and surprising end in the series, with the revelation of the real source of Lawrence’s powers and Cobalt’s true identity, and the Rider galloped away with more than one soul. It was the first time I’d done real big-gun superpowers, outside Rae’s and Trevor’s dark and quirky little world of rookie heroes in a devastated city. It was like having your garage band open for U2. And to be honest, it was kind of cool. But when I sat down with a long list of elements from the series and decided what was and was not going into the book, Lawrence and Cobalt were one big question mark. Did I want to make my world that big, that soon? Sure, their rivalry made a good story, and the final revelation made a real wow finish, but how was I going to tie them into the story of two powerless teenagers solving a mystery in the ruins of a city that, by definition, did not have any “real” superheroes?

And then I thought of “Peer Review.”

I read Michael A. Stackpole’s short story when I was 12, and it was the beginning of my love affair with superhero prose fiction. The story (which you can now download for $3.00 at Stackpole’s Stormwolf website) is about a nonpowered hero (a self-described “ordinary man with a few tricks and a cape”) who, in doing a good but dangerous deed, runs afoul of a typical high-powered superhero team. The team later holds a hearing on their disaster of a mission; to their surprise, the caped mortal shows up to confront the witnesses against him, and the twist ending is memorable. I love this story. I can recite paragraphs from it verbatim. I love it so much that Rae’s mask name in early drafts was Revenant, after Stackpole’s hero, and in every draft there has been a cool character in a blue cape in his honor. I love this story so much that I worked my tail off making sure that no part of Masks was actually taken from it, because I love it too much to steal it. But what makes the story work—aside from the great dynamic between Revenant and the six-year-old boy he’s trying to rescue—is the idea that the caped-mortal crowd crosses paths with the tights-and-flights crowd whether they like it or not, and people with superpowers view mortal meddlers about the way cops view overly enthusiastic police buffs—what are you doing here, and why can’t you leave this up to the professionals?

Of course, superheroes are all amateurs to one extent or another, so the prejudice is much less fair. And there I found the toehold for Lawrence and Cobalt in the world of Masks. They’re the pros. Cobalt’s spent his life clawing his way up to Lawrence’s Olympus, but he’s there, and Trevor and Rae are definitely not. Trevor dreams of someday being invited to join a team like the World Justice Federation—it’s part of his idea of being a true hero—and Rae is used to having her entire city snubbed by the more fortunate capes.

And so when Rae sees Cobalt try to blow a captured villain’s brains out—yes, I’m deliberately playing against my own prejudices by making the caped mortal the bad guy—she naturally assumes that no one but another Z-lister will believe her. Even when Lawrence takes an interest, he has a few fundamental prejudices of his own that skew his perspective on his teammate. So ultimately the story boils down to whether a couple of kids can solve the case and save the world by making it up as they go. And when Lawrence (who jokes that he can’t be taken seriously because “I glow like Tinkerbell and wear white after Labor Day”) comes to his own conclusions about the scrappy kids who have suddenly entered his life—just as Cobalt is reaching his own endgame—you’d better watch out …

No comments:

Post a Comment