Monday, April 25, 2011

Making my job harder

It’s a terrible thing, writing for an audience.

Not you guys—I’ve always written for you, in some way, and I’m used to the gentle pressure of your eyeballs on my brain. (At least, that’s what it feels like; perhaps it’s just another manifestation of the voices in my head.) And yes, writers are always supposed to have their audience in mind.

But more and more, as I write the serial, I find myself thinking about an audience of one.

After much soul-searching and a certain amount of patient negotiation, I secured parental permission to let one of my students read early drafts of the series. (It’s not going to take time away from her studies—she's on break right now, and anyway this is one of those kids who finishes everything two weeks ahead of schedule.) I knew I needed at least a couple of teen readers who enjoy YA fiction among my betas, and the time just seemed right for this girl. I’ve known her since she was 11 years old; I’ve coached her for the local spelling bee and helped her with her math. She’s 13 now, rapidly closing in on 14—the age I was when I began writing Rae Masterson’s adventures. And even though I know I’m writing for the larger world—or at least the larger internet—I find myself keeping her more and more in mind as I write and rewrite.

This girl is smart. Imagine an American Hermione Granger, only a bit less bossy and a bit more interested in pink sparkly things (despite my best efforts to the contrary—sigh). She’s the girl who always knows the answers in class, loves to read almost as much as she loves to dance, and runs up to me excitedly and often to pirouette and ask me if I’ve read this or that and what I think and what kind of books I might recommend. She waits patiently while I help other students, although she sometimes snaps at them when she thinks they’re wasting my time. It only takes one word of praise to get a dazzling smile out of her, and sometimes a joyful little quiver. She’s a bit like I was at her age, only with more friends and less of a desire to kill the people around her (I attribute this to those extra friends—the occasional desire to kill her brothers hardly counts). Early adolescence has not yet driven her completely psychotic, and she may even come out the other side of it with her self-esteem intact. I hope she does, because right now she has a spirit like a small fire—bright and burning, glittering and dangerous, but you can’t help wanting to stand near it and get warm.

And so I find myself thinking about her as I hammer my early drafts into submission. Chapter 3 is giving me particular trouble—how do I introduce a complicated character in a complicated situation, involving feelings I’m pretty sure this girl’s never been unfortunate enough to experience, in such a way that I don’t turn her off? How do I maintain the gossamer fantasy every 13-year-old girl has about what it’s like to be 16, while layering in the truths about being 16 that she will need to carry in her heart—that alone is not the same as wrong, that different can be beautiful, and most of all, that the ridiculous “be yourself” platitudes adults heap on you do make sense, but only after you figure out that the first step is figuring out who you are, and the second step is being that person? Because that little lesson is turning out to be the heart and soul of the story, and it very nearly broke me once in the learning.

I am a youngest child, and an only daughter. I never had a little sister—never had a sister of any kind until my eldest brother married and I acquired the world’s most awesome sister-in-law. So I wonder how much of this is parent-ish concern for my student’s welfare, and how much sister-ish concern. And how much of it’s just me obsessing over my own adolescence, and trying to make someone else’s less horrid. This girl is beautiful, and brilliant, and will be quite a spectacular human being if she can just get around the things in her life that encourage her to be shallow and ordinary. She’s excited about getting to help me with my book, and I want to live up to those sky-high expectations.

So back I go to Chapter 3. To make it perfect, or as perfect as I can make it. To spin the tale I wish someone had spun for me at 14, the story I’ve been seeking ever since. To speak the truth, and make her smile.

It’s a difficult job, but I eagerly look forward to the reward. 

*P.S. The photo is not of my student. But it's someone else involved in The Serial. And look, a kitty! 

Monday, April 18, 2011

Evented to death

I’m probably the last person in comics fandom to say this, but for the benefit of the non-comics folk reading this blog, I’ll say it anyway: comic crossover events have jumped the shark.

What, you may ask, is a crossover event? On paper, and every once in a while, it’s something that sounds like a good idea. The two biggest comic companies in the U.S.—Marvel Comics (the guys who make Spider-Man and the X-Men, now owned by Disney) and DC Comics (the guys who make Superman and Batman, owned by Time Warner)—make a big deal out of their various comics taking place in a shared fictional universe. Sometimes it’s subtle, like people making Spider-Man jokes in a Captain America comic or complaining when the Teen Titans show up that people were expecting the Justice League. Even if you don’t get every single character and franchise into a given title, you can have little hints, little threads that run out to the larger world. It’s a good conceit, and helps make the stories feel more real (for a given value of “real”—remember, this is still guys in tights whumpin’ on each other).

However, there are also more obvious manifestations of the comic-book-company-as-universe phenomenon, and the crossover event is one of the plainest. In a crossover event, most of the titles put out by a given company participate in a single larger story—say, a few months or a year where aliens are invading and every superhero is called on to fight off the aliens in his or her own way. Plot points to that larger story, like someone discovering a weapon that can defeat the aliens or the alien leader being assassinated, may be scattered throughout those various titles, although it’s generally understood that the really important plot points will show up in either the big-name titles or those most strongly associated with the storyline (translation: if the aliens have mostly fought the X-Men or the Green Lanterns in the past, those guys will be carrying the weight of the plot).

There are good and bad points to crossovers. On the plus side, a crossover event can boost flagging sales in a title that’s very good but doesn’t get much attention, thus ensuring more of those stories for the fans who love them. They also present readers with a chance to see their heroes in new and unusual situations, and compare their responses to those of other characters. On the minus side, however, crossover events often disrupt or derail smaller ongoing stories—some of which are better than the crossover story (it’s hard to keep your story going when the big crossover just killed off your main character). And they rather shamelessly try to get fans to buy every single participating comic in order to get the whole narrative. And too often, the events spin out of control, with the result that the stories vary widely in quality, so there’s no guarantee you’re getting good entertainment for your comics dollar.

Once in a while, crossovers are interesting. But there have been way too many of them in the past decade.

The current wave of event comics pretty much started in 2004, with the Avengers Disassembled storyline in Marvel Comics and Identity Crisis at DC. Disassembled was about the superheroine Scarlet Witch having a meltdown and killing a couple of her Avengers teammates, leading to the dissolution of the team and a lot of psychological damage to Marvel superheroes generally. Identity Crisis was a well-structured murder mystery in comics form (written by Brad Meltzer) about the sudden death of the wife of the Elongated Man and the nasty secrets that get uncovered in the course of the investigation, including a brutal rape and Batman getting lobotomized. Both of these events were relatively self-contained, with only a few tie-ins for titles directly associated with the storylines—Captain America, the leader of the Avengers, had a few Disassembled issues, and Batman and other characters involved in Identity Crisis were seen processing clues and working on the mystery in their own titles.

Then things got a little hinky.
In Marvel, Disassembled led to House of M and a series of storylines in the X-Men titles wherein the still-insane Scarlet Witch robbed mutants of their powers. Then public outcry over assorted superhero malfeasance led to the passage of a law requiring superheroes to register with the government, creating pro-registration and anti-registration factions in a storyline called Civil War. That storyline was followed by the wobbly Secret Invasion, where a bunch of shape-shifting aliens turned out to have been impersonating a bunch of superheroes all along; Dark Reign, where the alien invasion left the Green Goblin in charge of, oh, most of the American government; Siege, where the villain laid siege to Asgard, kingdom of the Norse gods, and finally blew his remaining credibility; and Shadowland, where Daredevil went off the deep end because of all this and turned New York City over to evil ninjas (writer Andy Diggle, I hate you a lot).  In the meantime there were some genuinely awful Spider-Man crossovers that involved retconning a lot of his backstory, including removing his relationship with Mary Jane, and storylines where the Hulk got his own planet, saw that planet destroyed, and came back to try to trash Earth in revenge (World War Hulk). Now they’re doing something called Fear Itself that I don’t even want to know about.

Meanwhile, at DC, the editors apparently lost every thesaurus in the office, leading to a series of crises: Identity Crisis; Infinite Crisis, which involved a whole bunch of parallel worlds colliding; and Final Crisis (which I immediately began calling “the last crisis, pinky swear”), about the alien Darkseid trying to destroy all reality, resulting in the death of a bunch of superheroes and “the day evil won.” That led into Blackest Night, with a bunch of dead superheroes and supporting characters coming back as zombies, and Brightest Day, wherein a bunch of good guys and bad guys were fully resurrected for an unknown purpose (and I still don’t know what that purpose might be, because I didn’t bother to read it). Lesser crossover storylines included Batman R.I.P. and Batman Reborn, which are about what you’d think they’re about, and Amazons Attack, whose whole premise is summed up in its title.

This is why I buy event comics only if a) it’s a title I buy every month anyway; b) it prominently features a character I like; or c) it features a trusted writer with a really good premise. I require at least two out of three before I open my wallet.

The problem with all these crossover storylines, at least from my perspective, is that they erect an unnecessary barrier to entry for new readers. They make it harder and harder for comics to entertain people who aren’t buying every single comic on the stands. With comic-book movies raking in the bucks, you’d think the Big Two would be trying to pull in those new fans, but no such luck.

Take a case in point: I blogged recently about lending a Teen Titans collection, published in 2004, to a friend. I didn’t have the next couple of trades, but she wanted to read them, so I ordered them from a used bookseller, knowing the storylines were pretty good. To tide her over in the meantime, I lent her the first two collections of the Red Robin series, published in 2009 and 2010, which features a mutual favorite character—Tim Drake, formerly known as Robin. The conversation went something like this:

“Okay, you know how Tim and Superboy are best friends in Teen Titans, and Superboy’s just found out he’s got Lex Luthor’s DNA? Well, before the first Red Robin book, Lex Luthor activated Superboy’s subliminal programming and he went crazy and tried to kill the Titans and died in the process, so Robin’s all messed up about that. Oh, and Kid Flash died, too, and Tim started dating Wonder Girl and trying to clone Superboy back to life, which kind of screwed up that relationship, so that’s why Wonder Girl’s acting like this now. And Batman’s dead, I forgot about that, and the freaky little midget in the Robin costume is Batman’s son by Talia al Ghul, and he hates Tim for, well, he doesn’t need a reason. But don’t worry, Superboy and Kid Flash are both alive again by volume 2, which is why Superboy randomly shows up halfway through and Tim hugs him like a six-year-old. He’s just had that kind of year. And Batman comes back to life around, oh, the end of that second volume, but you don’t see him because it happened in a Grant Morrison series that nobody understands, though I should probably show you that one page where Tim locks everyone out of the room and—uh, you’re looking at me kind of funny. No, I’m not making this up. Yeah, I’m afraid so. Er, sorry.”

Dear comics industry—please stop.

Oh, well, at least this summer’s serial (which, yes, does involve superheroes) takes place entirely in my own fictional universe, and all the chapters will be free, so it won’t bust your budget. Oh, and I’m running the whole thing, so you know you’ve got a solid writer cranking out all of the epic guys-in-tights adventure. And while there is a certain amount of cosmic whoozis and the fate of the world is rather at stake, all you’ll have to do to find out what happens is keep showing up at the blog once a week. Same Bat-time, same Bat-URL, to bastardize a phrase. Good old-fashioned storytelling, with extra guys in tights whumpin’ on each other and a discreet amount of kissing.

You’re welcome.

Monday, April 11, 2011

Little bird, little bird

It’s pretty much a constant in nerd-dom: where two or more nerds are gathered, they will argue about their favorite incarnation of a beloved character. Their favorite James Bond. Their favorite Doctor (of Who fame). Their favorite Jedi or Starfleet captain. It’s a natural consequence of long-running media franchises that must occasionally replace their stars.

Comic books, however, have a unique option. Not having to rely on flesh-and-blood actors, they can happily use the same hero in story after story for decades—and often do, at least when he’s as popular as Superman or Spider-Man.

And yet, with many, many characters below that top tier of comic-book bestsellerdom, a third option is surprisingly popular—kill the main character and put someone newer and cooler in the same costume, with or without cosmetic changes, in the neverending quest for better sales.

So it is that comic-book fans have some of the bitterest who’s-your-favorite arguments. They’re not just arguing over whether one actor or another plays a character particularly well—they’re arguing about what kind of character best embodies the kind of mythic concept that tends to get wrapped up in a superhero. It’s not about whether Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner is the better Green Lantern—it’s about whether Green Lantern should be Hal Jordan or Kyle Rayner. (Personally, I have a soft spot for Alan Scott, the Green Lantern of the 1940s—so I’ve learned to stay far away from the hardcore fan arguments there.)

I tend to be pretty mercenary on these matters; I’ll read about any character who gives me a good story, and if that story is tied in to a concept that means something to me (like Daredevil), I’ll read more than one story. So while Alan Scott may be my favorite Green Lantern, I’ve read some Hal stories I liked just fine and even some Kyle stories that were pretty good. I like Captain America, and Steve Rogers will always be the unsurpassed original for me, but I’m getting a real kick out of the current storyline in the comic wherein Steve’s out of the uniform and his former sidekick, James “Bucky” Barnes, is trying to build himself a life inside that costume.  So my list of genuine irrational favorites—characters whose presence or absence in a particular union suit will make or break the story for me—is pretty short.

But I think it starts with Robin.

Yeah, the kid in the tights. Or the lack of tights, if you go back to the original costume. Robin was created as a way to capitalize on Batman’s popularity and give kids an additional in with the character—a kid right there in the story to help every funnybook-reading boy imagine he too was in the middle of the action. He’s bedeviled writers ever since—how do you make a laughing kid in a circus costume fit into the grim world of the Dark Knight?

There have been five major Robins in the character’s 71-year history. Dick Grayson holds the record for longest tenure—he was the original Robin and held the post until the early 1980s, when DC Comics’ writers let him grow up and become the adult superhero Nightwing. (He also got some pants, at long last.) Dick was a circus brat whose parents were murdered and who joined up with Batman, apparently for lack of a father figure. Dick was the bright spot in the typical Batman adventure, cracking jokes while he kicked people in the head, and as the original Robin, he helped define what it meant to be a sidekick, for good or ill. When written by Devin Grayson, he also provided one of the character insights that led me to create Trevor Gray—the idea that a kid adopted by a superhero might want to become a sidekick not just because superheroing was so cool, but because it was the most immediate way for a child who’d lost a parent to protect a new parent figure. That little bit of character development led directly to something you’ll see in the new serial this summer, too.

After Dick took off, the Bat-writers dropped in a street kid named Jason Todd, who was introduced when he tried to steal the wheels off the Batmobile (really). At first a bland stand-in for Dick Grayson, Jason eventually morphed into a brat with an attitude problem, and in a controversial 1988 publicity stunt, was killed off after fans voted in a telephone poll to let him die in an explosion. (Longstanding rumor has it that a guy with a Macintosh and a grudge rigged the voting, but if true, the culprit has never been publicly identified.)

A year after Jason was blown up, a new Robin appeared—out of costume. Tim Drake first showed up as Bruce Wayne’s nerdy, thoughtful neighbor … who had long since figured out that Dick Grayson was Robin, and therefore that Bruce Wayne was Batman. Tim didn’t feel the need to do anything about this until Dick quit, Jason died, and Bats began showing signs of mental instability. Without anyone to look out for, Batman was developing a death wish. Tim started out by trying to get Dick back into the game, but finally ended up donning the costume himself and holding down the job, with a brief interruption, for 20 years.

There have been two Robins since Tim—his girlfriend, Stephanie Brown, took over briefly after Tim’s father made him quit the sidekick biz, and Bruce’s son Damian recently took over the role when Dick replaced Bruce as Batman—but I had a conversation recently that made me realize that I wasn’t just looking at Tim Drake as a favorite character, but rather as a favorite Robin, specifically. (Fair warning: I loved Dick as Nightwing, so I ain’t knocking the circus kid.)

I lent a friend the first volume of Geoff Johns’ Teen Titans run, “A Kid’s Game,” and told her to look for two lines as she read. Only later did I realize they were both Tim moments, and summed up nicely why I like the character so much.

The first line I gave her was, “Did you just lie to Starfire?” About halfway through the collection, after team member Impulse has gotten his kneecap blown off by Deathstroke the Terminator (yes, that’s his name), Tim, Superboy, and Wonder Girl try to go after the bad guy, but team leader Starfire stops them on the grounds that they’re minors and that Deathstroke has a history of killing young Titans. As Superboy and Wonder Girl continue to argue the point, Tim politely agrees with Starfire, shocking both of his friends. They follow him up the stairs to his room, yelling at him for caving … and then notice that he’s calmly cutting a hole in his windowpane. He explains that they’re going to go visit Impulse in the hospital, then kick Deathstroke’s butt. “Wait a second,” a shocked Wonder Girl says, “… you just lied to Starfire?!

Tim pauses, looks over his shoulder, and says, “I lie to Batman.”

And, in fact, he did. After his father was killed, 16-year-old Tim manufactured an uncle to take custody of him so Bruce Wayne couldn’t adopt him. And he fooled Batman for quite a while with the quality of the forgery. It was one of the more impressive bits I’d seen in the history of sidekickdom, and established one of my rules for writing young heroes—they have to have their own motivations and their own view of the world, whether or not it conflicts with adult heroes who may or may not know better. When asked later how mad he thinks Starfire is at him, on a scale of one to ten, the normally reserved kid replies, “I hope fifty.”

The other line I gave my friend was, “You could go bald.” Tim’s best friend, Superboy, finds out in the course of the book that he’s not actually a full clone of Superman—half his DNA came from bad guy Lex Luthor. Tim, without his friend’s permission, runs a DNA test and confirms the finding. Superboy yells at him that he doesn’t want to deal with having a 50% chance of being either the world’s greatest hero or the world’s greatest villain.

To which Tim replies, “Not to mention—you could go bald.”

I dare you to read that line without smiling.

That’s the other thing I like about Tim. In addition to being the nerd Robin—a computer geek and a gifted detective who had to work extra hard to meet Batcave standards for hand-to-hand combat—he’s a thinker and a listener and a keen observer of human nature, at least when he’s written right. I have a comic somewhere in which Batman, after discovering Tim’s fake uncle, privately tells Alfred that Tim is probably smarter than he, Batman, is—and that they’ll both end up working for the kid someday. Tim knows how to talk Superboy down from a rant, and how to pull Batman back from a very dark and violent edge. And he keeps an eye on the practical side. Never mind the good/evil thing—one of your dads lost his hair at a very early age, and are you prepared to deal with that?

I’ve been reading a lot of Tim’s adventures as I’m writing the serial, which is appropriate because I’m writing young characters who, like Tim when he first appeared, are in over their heads. They’ve got grownups telling them this is a bad idea, but they’re smart and they’re determined and they’ve noticed that nobody else is doing this very important job. And while they may not be the sort of kids you’d bet on in a straight fight, I’d put my money on them every time for intelligence, and compassion, and occasional trickery. I like them, and I think you will, too.

Further bulletins as events warrant … 


Monday, April 4, 2011

Superhero trailer park

I remember one of Stan Lee’s Soapbox columns from the late 1990s where a reader wrote in to ask which Marvel Comics properties, if any, were being developed as movies. The list old Stan reeled off was truly staggering—everything from big-name properties like the X-Men and the Hulk to relatively small potatoes like the Black Panther and the Sub-Mariner. For those of you not old enough to remember the bad old days, let me provide a little perspective. I used to get together with a couple of friends in junior high school and do weekend superhero-movie marathons—and a good half of the bill was made-for-TV specials of indifferent quality. I grew up pretty much liking the 1990 version of Captain America because it was still a cut above things like Nick Fury: Agent of Shield starring (ugh!) David Hasselhoff.

Now, of course, it’s a whole new world.

I still can’t get over the fact that they made a Daredevil movie (and I’ll never get over how badly it sucked—Mark Steven Johnson, you’re on my list). Seeing X-Men on the big screen made me like the character of Wolverine for the first time in … well, ever. Ye gods, they finally untangled the rights to Spider-Man and made three movies, only one of which stank, and they’re making yet another. And DC Comics hasn’t fared too badly—Superman Returns bombed and The Spirit is the only movie I’ve ever walked out of (and I refunded my companion’s ticket by way of apology), but even the snoozefest that was Watchmen can’t eclipse Christopher Nolan’s Bat-extravaganzas.

This is a long way from a weekend movie binge where top billing was split between The Shadow and The Phantom (although I still like that last one enough that if I can write a role for Billy Zane into Masks, I will).

And now we’re facing what seems like an interminable summer of yet more superhero flicks. So I thought I’d weigh in on what looks good and what I’ll be sitting out. I rate superhero movies on the basis of overall story quality (plot, characterization, etc.), overall movie quality (caliber of writing, direction, etc.), and comic-book correspondence (whether and how the movie is faithful to the comic-book original, and whether that was a good idea). For comparison purposes, Batman Begins is an A+; Jonah Hex is an F.

1. Thor (May 6): Okay, I’ll be the first to admit I’m not a huge fan of the character. Basically, the only Thor comics I’ve read with any relish were written by J. Michael Straczynski, and even those are uneven. But this big-budget Norse mythological extravaganza, about the prince of Asgard being banished to Earth and ending up in the New Mexico desert, looks a bit promising. Chris Hemsworth seems to have real presence even in the face of hokey dialogue, Anthony Hopkins is chewing the scenery for all he’s worth, there’s a lot of wacko hat action going on, and I can’t see anything particularly stupid that director Kenneth Branagh has done with the concept or the script. Bonus points for pretty cinematography and the line in the trailer: “Oh, no. This is Earth, isn’t it?” Projected grade: A-

2. X-Men: First Class (June 3): The trailer they’ve released so far has played things pretty close to the vest, but this movie seems to have wandered a long way from the comics that inspired it. Following the early years of the Magneto-Professor X relationship from X-Men seems like a solid story—the conflict between their philosophies was always central to what made the comic work—but putting kiddie X-Men in the middle of the Cuban Missile Crisis a) screws up the timeline of the later films (Cyclops has only aged, what, ten years by the time the supposedly  near-future X-Men rolls around?) and b) doesn’t seem to add much in the way of character or weight. Projected grade: B-

3. Green Lantern (June 17): I’m calling it now—bad, bad, bad. Ryan Reynolds may be trying to invent himself as the superhero movie guy, but I haven’t yet seen him pull it off. His Deadpool in Wolverine was more irritating than amusing, his Hannibal King in Blade: Trinity just would not shut up, and I don’t see him improving in the role of a test pilot recruited into an alien police force. Judging by the trailer, this movie has a serious problem balancing goofy Ryan Reynolds comedy with kickass cosmic adventure, and the adventure is losing. And is anybody else creeped out by the fact that he transforms into Green Lantern with a pose reminiscent of a subway flasher? Projected grade: C

4. Captain America: The First Avenger (July 22): I am so, so torn about this. On the one hand, I want to smack whoever cast Chris Evans as the World War II wimp turned super-soldier. I saw Fantastic Four, guys—he showed all the acting ability of a plank, and his personality seemed to be set permanently on “lech.” I do not want to see this guy carrying the shield, period. That said, Joss Whedon apparently did a script polish on this one, and the man knows his superheroes, and I’ve heard good things about Hugo Weaving’s sinister Red Skull and generally good things about Sebastian Stan, who plays Cap’s sidekick Bucky (and you’ve all heard me go on about him). So this one gets my dollars, at least at a matinee price, though I may live to regret it. Projected grade: B+

5. Cowboys and Aliens (July 29): Yes, this is based on a comic book. Shut up. On the plus side, they’ve got Harrison Ford in a movie whose whole concept is wrapped up in its title. The trailer looks decently creepy and well-balanced, with an intriguing main character in the desperado (Daniel Craig) who survives an alien abduction. And there’s director Jon Favreau of Iron Man fame. On the minus side … cowboys and aliens? Really? There had better be one hell of a story here. Projected grade: B-

6. Conan the Barbarian (August 19): Not technically a comic-book movie (Conan was a pulp hero first), but close enough. And no, I don’t see this going anywhere good. They’re remaking an Arnold Schwarzenegger flick with Jason Momoa of Stargate Atlantis, and the release date’s been pushed back to August, well-known as the month where summer movies go to die. Projected grade: D