Friday, September 30, 2011

Now It Can Be Told!

1969. The offices of Marvel Comics.

STAN: So, Jack...we've built up the Marvel brand, established ourselves as an exciting new comics line for adults as well as children, and created some iconic characters that will stand the test of time. I think it's time we dealt with our major competitors.

JACK: Walt Disney?

STAN: No, I think our plans for Disney will have to be...longer term. No, I was referring to DC. Their brands continue to be more recognizable than ours, and their reinventions of classic Golden Age characters are proving to be dangerously popular. I think it's time to crush them. Are you ready to implement "Plan Poison Pill"?

JACK: The alliteration thing, Stan? It's got to stop. It's become a sickness.

STAN: I don't know what you're talking about, my astonishing artist of pencil-pushing perfection! My magnificent mind is every bit as alert as an amazing aardvark, and my brain is bursting with brilliant bideas bat brush balefully babble bubble **slaps self** You're right, Jack. But I only have to hold it together for a few more years before I can pass the editorial reins on to my disciples. And we won't have to worry about competitors, not if you're willing to do your part.

JACK: My part? I've been working on every book we publish for almost a decade, Stan. I've strip-mined my imagination for every sellable concept I ever came up with, from the Fantastic Four to the X-Men to Captain America. We even threw in Toomazooma the Living Totem, Stan! Let's face it...I can't come up with another best-selling idea.

STAN: I know, Jack. That's not what I'm asking you to do. What I'm asking you to do is far more sinister, far more devious...a plan that will cripple DC for decades to come. I want you to defect, Jack.

JACK: Defect? But they'll never--

STAN: Of course they will. We stage a falling out. Some nonsense over money, we'll funnel your royalties through Swiss bank accounts for a while. You'll decide to look for a better deal elsewhere, and who better than our major competitor? And then...

JACK: And then what? I write their titles? I don't exactly think that's going to cripple them, Stan. Not unless your plan is to have them trip on piles of money.

STAN: Oh, you'll make them money. That was never in question. But it's what else you'll do to them that interests me. Remember those "New Gods" ideas you had? The ones we agreed were cool but uncommercial?

JACK: ...I think I see where you're going with this one, Stan. You want me to introduce them into the DC Universe.

STAN: Exactly! They'll never sell, but DC's writers and editors will be fascinated by them! They'll keep trying to launch them and relaunch them, make them the centerpiece of their mythos, maybe even launch a gigantic company-wide crossover based on them! But they'll never be anything more than a cult phenomenon. DC will slowly sink into obscurity trying to make them popular, while we will rise to the heights of popularity!

JACK: And I get to finally write all the characters we thought were too crazy to publish! Kamandi, the Forever People, Mister Miracle, Glorious Godfrey, Granny Goodness, Devil Dinosaur--

STAN: Wait. Let's hang on to that last one. I kind of like the sound of it.

JACK: Seriously, Stan. Get help.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Eleven

Surprise doesn't take long, when your mind moves at superhuman speeds. Shock takes a little longer, though. When I got ambushed by two gangs of Lord Raptor's mercenaries, each one about eight people strong, each one equipped by a wide-beam stun projector that pretty much negated my speed advantage, I just stood there for a long moment in stunned panic. The alert sirens blared, Lord Raptor's men shouted, and I felt the panic stretch out into an eternity.

Somewhere at the end of that eternity, I realized that they were shouting at each other. I also realized that the alarms weren't about me.

Obviously, I wondered what they were about, but now that the shock was over, I was back in the zone. I broke right, sprinting headlong down the corridor towards the first group of thugs and diving into a skid as they finally realized that they needed to keep their attention less on the new situation and more on the superhero right in front of them. They blasted the stun projector over my head just as I grabbed the ankle of the guy holding it and dragged him backwards into his buddies. They went over into each other in a tangle of limbs, and I'm not ashamed to say I bounced a few heads off of the floors to make sure they didn't get up.

I looked down to the other end of the corridor, hoping I might see a group of semi-conscious mercs at the other end, but no such luck. The armor they wore protected them against their own weapons. They'd shrugged off the stun blasts easily...

...and at hummingbird speed, I had just managed to get the chestplate off of the lead soldier and duck behind it when they got their first shot off.

To the soldiers at the other end of the hallway, it probably seemed like they were fighting under a strobe light. The stun cannon fired so rapidly it lit up the hallway almost twenty times a second, but even on full auto, that left me plenty of time to pop up and run about five steps before I had to duck behind my improvised shield. The strobe effect probably made it seem like I moved even faster; I could see the expression of sheer terror on the face of the trooper holding the gun just before I kicked it out of his hands and laid into them.

A few seconds after that, and it was all over. Mind you, I was sweating like a pig and craving Kool-Aid so bad I could almost taste Sharkleberries, but I had taken out sixteen full-grown battle-hardened mercenaries with my bare hands. My adrenalin was pumping like a freaking beast.

I went for the door, but my opener had stopped working. So I grabbed one from an unconscious soldier. On further thought, I grabbed them all. Even if I didn't need them, I figured that was sixteen guys who weren't going anywhere soon.

Every few minutes, I had to track down a new goon to get a fresh one, but I really felt like I was making progress. There weren't nearly as many soldiers, and the ones that I did bump into seemed distracted and panicky, easy to evade. After a while, I started following them just to see what the fuss was about.

Pretty soon, I found out. A squad I was following charged through a bulkhead that slammed shut behind them. I heard the zap of stun projectors, a bone-jarring crunch that was like no sound I'd ever heard in a fight, the crash of metal hitting metal. Then silence. I ventured towards the door cautiously, uncertain of what might be on the other side...and then I found out.

The bone-rattling thud sounded again. Then a third time. The door began to buckle under titanic strain, its surface bulging suddenly with each blow. Finally, it crumpled completely and a man stepped over it to face me.

And that was how I met Captain Light.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Storytelling Engines: Web of Spider-Man

(or "Spider-Man, Part Four")

When you read the first eighteen or so issues of "Web of Spider-Man", there's a very real sense that this is a title in search of a direction. You can hear the different writers (and there was something of a revolving-door creative team at the time, as writers shuffled off of other Spidey books and onto "Web") struggling to find out what makes this Spider-Man series unique, what sets it apart from the other titles featuring Peter Parker and makes it a series that people will buy for its own sake.

It's really about half-way through that they seem to figure out the answer to that is, "Nothing much, really."

This isn't to say that the series is bad by any stretch of the imagination. There are a couple of issues in there that I would probably put up in the first tier of all-time Spider-Man stories (there's a great one where Peter finally gets fed up with Jonah's harassment of him in print and gets ready to beat him to within an inch of his life.) There are good Spidey stories, indifferent Spidey stories, goofy Spidey stories (Peter gets arrested on a vagrancy charge and winds up in a "Most Dangerous Game" pastiche...) But there's nothing that couldn't have been told in any of the other books. New villains like the Vulturians, old villains like Doc Ock, these are all the kinds of stories anyone could tell in any Spider-Man book. It uses the exact same storytelling engine as "Amazing", which in turn uses the exact same storytelling engine as "Spectacular".

And you know what? That's okay. It's okay because Spider-Man is one of those characters with a particularly amaz...um, spect...well-designed storytelling engine, one that generates large numbers of stories very easily. His supporting cast is large and interesting in its own right and can sustain lots of subplots, his job and his personal life provide him with lots of entry points into new stories, and he has a wide and varied Rogues Gallery that can easily hold an audience's interest over multiple appearances. This storytelling engine is so good that it can generate three good story ideas a month without any real difficulty, and the character is popular enough that there is a demand for three Spider-Man stories a month.

Although not exactly equal demand; for some reason, despite offering plenty of good stories, and plenty of crossovers and tie-ins, "Spectacular" and "Web of Spider-Man" never had quite the same level of sales as "Amazing". Which is why, eventually, they just decided to start publishing "Amazing" three times a month. Different titles, but the principle is pretty much the same...the more Spider-Man audiences get, the happier they are.

And because it's Spider-Man and not, say, Brother Voodoo, we're just fine with that.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Sef-Taught Superheroes, Part Ten

My dream kind of skipped ahead to the point where I got caught.

In real life, it didn't happen right away. In real life, I managed to shift some of the sacks of rice around to the point where I could make a little bit of space for myself to squeeze into (I'm not actually very big. Like I said, I think I've probably got one more growth spurt in me. Either that, or I'm always going to wind up with a reputation as a dirty fighter solely because enemy groins are actually closer than their chins.) Lord Raptor's men unloaded the goods with the kind of bored, passive indifference you might expect from people who were hardened mercenaries dealing with non-threatening groceries, and left me in the pantry.

I pulled myself out of the rice as soon as they left. I figured they were probably leaving the putting away of the food for the actual kitchen staff, and I didn't want to hang around while someone put each bag of rice on the shelf and noticed the toy surprise at the bottom. I slunk over to the door, keeping an eye out for security cameras the entire way...and the door didn't open.

That was a little awkward, to say the least. Although superhuman reflexes did save me from smacking headlong into it.

After a few seconds of examination, I found the electric eye located alongside the door, and it didn't take a genius to figure out that Lord Raptor's men had some kind of device to open it. It was actually a really good idea; even if someone did get into the base, they'd have no way of moving from room to room without an escort, while Lord Raptor could maneuver troops around freely. It was the kind of detailed, extremely significant intelligence on Lord Raptor's operations that I really wished I'd known before I snuck into their base.

Then the door opened. I'm not sure who looked more startled, me or the guy staring at me.

He didn't stay startled for long, though. One of his hands was already reaching for his belt when I grabbed it and dropped my hips into a throw that sent him sliding into a few dozen cartons of eggs. (Jujitsu. Seven point six minutes, seven hundred ninety-six in the Dewey Decimal System. Time well spent, I think.) Because I didn't stay startled for long either. I covered the distance between us in a sprint that would have made Usain Bolt slink away in shame and converted my momentum into a kick that had very little mass, but lots of velocity. The mercenary's eyes rolled back in his head and he slumped into unconsciousness.

I searched him for anything I could find that looked like it might be a door opener. Took me a couple minutes, but I found what I was looking for. After that, it was off into the rest of the base. That was about when I realized just how stupid I really was when I came up with my plan. The base was huge, with miles of featureless corridors and no maps to be seen anywhere. Probably Lord Raptor's men drilled for ages to learn where the barracks were and how to find your way to the bathrooms and stuff, but I didn't know where I was going even if I knew how to get there, which I didn't. And of course, I was wearing a bright green and white outfit with a red mask covering my mouth. I could not have stood out more if I'd actually been wearing the cheerleader outfit I was dreaming about.

And I didn't know it was even worse than that. The doors were linked to a central computer system, and each door opener had its own unique serial code. As far as the computer was concerned, Raptor Soldier #97681 had just wandered away from his station and was taking an erratic walking tour of the entire base. Took them about ten minutes to decide to go after me and about thirty seconds to find me after that. Well, that's just a guess--it's not like they gave me their split time or anything--but given that they could track my exact location every time I went into a room, I figure it wasn't exactly hard for them.

Which was right where my dream jumped to. Me, in the middle of what seemed like endless featureless corridors that branched onto endless featureless corridors, suddenly finding herself trapped between two groups of soldiers wearing stun cannons.

That's when the alert sirens went off.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Empire Strikes Back Love Must Stop!

So I decided to indulge my love/hate relationship with John Scalzi's opinion pieces this morning by reading a column he did for Film Critic on how Ripley's status as the preeminent female character is as much due to the dearth of genuinely well-written female characters as it is due to Ripley being awesome, well-written, and well-acted. (I also decided to indulge my love of starting a blog post with "So I...", which I try not to do so much anymore.)

And what do I find? Apart from an actually extremely well-written essay about the way that even the "strong female characters" in sci-fi and fantasy are really just male fantasy figures, only nowadays they can kick people's ass, that is. I find this quote: "Some distance behind Sarah Connor is Princess Leia, who looks great on paper (a senator at 19! Leader of the rebellion! Feisty with Han Solo!) but who is woefully underwritten in every film she's in except The Empire Strikes Back and who isn't the focus of the series in any event."

So let me get this straight. When Princess Leia was risking her life by covertly spying for the Rebel Alliance, when she withstood brutal interrogation and truth drugs, when she cunningly stalled for time by "confessing" false information under duress, when she single-handedly took charge of her own rescue and shot her way out using someone else's blaster, then planned her own escape route, then deduced that the rescue was too easy and that they needed to act as though they were on a timetable...that was the "woefully underwritten" Leia.

When she got dragged around like a sack of potatoes by Big Strong Man Han Solo, when she carped and whined about every decision Han made only to be proven wrong at every turn because Han knows better about such things than a silly little girl, when she got forcibly kissed by Han only to swoon into his arms because all a woman really needs is a take-charge man who knows what he wants in the bedroom, when she hung out in her room changing her outfits and doing her hair and leaves Han and Chewie to make sure the Falcon gets repaired and C-3P0 gets found, when her primary contribution of the entire movie was to have a sudden "female intuition" that Luke is in danger...that's the strong female character who almost competes with Ripley.

This is how badly fan opinion has ossified in regards to the Star Wars trilogy. Even on a level where one movie is blatantly, demonstrably, provably superior to the other, even when a respected and devastatingly brilliant sci-fi writer like Jeanne Cavelos has already published a scathing essay pointing out how obvious it is that Leia becomes less and less feminist as the series progresses (my comments above owe a great debt to said essay, BTW)...we still get a token, "Empire is the best movie" thrown in there. Because it's just the Truth now, and facts only get in the way.

And since there are no comments on that column, I have to rant about it here and hope he sees it. Hey, it worked once before...

Monday, September 19, 2011

My New Fan Campaign (Football, Not Comics)

For those of you who may not know, I'm actually something of a fan of football. Not rabidly so--this weekend's football did not, for example, take priority over a trip to the zoo with my sisters and our kids--but I do enjoy the game. And even though I'm a Minnesotan and hence a Vikings fan, I appreciate good football no matter who plays it. (Unless they're the Cowboys, but thankfully I haven't had to worry about them playing good football in a while.)

And as a result, I've been paying more than a little attention this year to the Indianapolis Colts. For those of you who are unfamiliar with the team, they have had a long run of dominance in their division and frequent trips deep into the playoffs (and a Superbowl win.) But this year, quarterback Peyton Manning, after a long streak of consecutive appearances that threatened to someday eclipse Brett Favre's record, suffered a neck injury and has not been able to play. In his first two games out since his rookie start, the Colts have suffered humiliatingly large losses to the Houston Texans (who they used to regularly dominate) and the Cleveland Browns (a perennial cellar-dweller team.) Replacement QB Kerry Collins has looked utterly overmatched.

Which is why I'm proposing a fan campaign to nominate Peyton Manning as this year's NFL MVP.

Think about it. The Most Valuable Player is the player that makes the most difference to the team, and clearly, this year Peyton Manning is demonstrating that he is the one thing that stands between year after year of double-digit wins and playoff appearances...and losses to the Texans and Browns. Who better to be the MVP of the league?

Next week, the Colts are playing the Steelers. Tune in for the next chapter in the saga of Peyton Manning, future MVP!

Monday, September 12, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Nine

One of the things they never really tell you about being a superhero is how boring it gets.

I know, not exactly the best way to begin another installment of my wild superheroic adventures, right? But it's true. When Batman or Spider-Man go out "on patrol", they always run into power-mad supervillains or rampaging monsters or cosmic weirdness. At the very least, they get to whale on some muggers or rapists. But you don't really hear much about the issue where Spider-Man wanders around the city all night and doesn't see anybody and he finds out the next day on the news that a burglary happened six blocks away from him and he missed it.

All of which is by way of pointing out that when I was asleep, my subconscious compressed about six weeks of patrolling and dullness and really minor crimes into a sort of weird jumble that felt like it took no time at all, and it was already the next time I fought Lord Raptor's men. Which, believe it or not, happened at the supermarket.

I mean, in retrospect, it kind of makes sense. You're feeding a small army of mercenaries, you're trying to keep from establishing any kind of paper trail that would lead back to you, and you have no scruples about stealing...of course you're going to raid supermarkets for supplies. It was the Lord Raptor way of doing things, really. Never buy what you can take. And lucky me, I just happened to be out picking up dinner at the exact store they attacked. (Dinner...and twinkies. And Kool-Aid. And pixie stix. My pixie stix budget is roughly a hundred bucks a month.)

The first sign was the sound of stun cannons. They make a sound that you'll never forget once you hear it, a sort of cross between a bass string twanging and an elephant getting a suppository. The second I heard it, I knew. I raced into the women's room, pulled on my costume...

But one of the nice things about experiencing the world in "hummingbird time" is that you have a good long chance to think things over in a crisis. And what I thought about was the fact that Lord Raptor had a lot of men. And a lot of ships, too. Stopping these guys from raiding this supermarket would just mean a half-dozen guys who went to jail for about a week before they got broken out, and maybe Lord Raptor would go hungry for a few days until he went and raided a supermarket where I wasn't. And I'd be spending weeks waiting to be in the right place at the right time. I had to come up with a better plan than that.

So instead of beating up Lord Raptor's thugs, I sprinted down the aisles, darted across the checkout counters during the split-seconds when Lord Raptor's men were distracted by a would-be hero who wound up with thirteen stitches across his chin where he hit the floor after falling asleep in mid-stride, used the pallets that Lord Raptor's men were already loading as cover, flung myself into the cargo hold, and ducked behind a stack of industrial-size jars of barbecue sauce. It took me about two seconds.

I should mention that one of the lousy things about experiencing the world in "hummingbird time" is that I'm impulsive and prone to making decisions that I regret much faster than an ordinary person is capable of. But by then, it was too late; a huge pallet of uncooked rice got shoved in next to me, and I didn't really have any choice but to stay where I was while they loaded the rest of the cargo bay and took off.

In "hummingbird time", I had roughly the equivalent of six weeks to think of a plan for what to do when they unloaded all this stuff and saw me.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Saturday, September 10, 2011

Awesome Team-Ups I Want To See, Volume X

The "Criminal Minds" team heads to Gotham.

Think about it. Garcia and Oracle would totally make bestest cyber-buds, Reid and Tim Drake could work together to solve a mystery, Morgan and Nightwing would go out and kick ass together, and Hotch and Bruce can have a chin-measuring competition. And of course, depending on which season you set it in, either Gideon or Rossi would sit down with Alfred and have an incredibly interesting and illuminating conversation about Batman's psychology. (Still not sure who Greenaway would work with. Maybe Huntress? It seems like a good fit...) J.J., of course, would be working with Commissioner Gordon. (Supposedly, the writers of "Criminal Minds" structured the entire thing as a metaphor for the Knights of the Round Table. I think that the Batman mythos are an even better fit, though.)

And naturally, they'd be up against a whole freaking Rogues Gallery of Batman's foes. (The comment that inspired it all came from my lovely wife, who pictured Gideon describing the Joker from 'The Dark Knight' as "an organized serial killer whose M.O. is pretending to be disorganized.") The Riddler, the Mad Hatter, Zsasz, Scarecrow...seriously, why is someone not making this right now?

Who am I kidding, I'm saying this on the Internet. I could probably get twenty thousand hits searching for the fanfiction alone.

Wednesday, September 07, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Eight

(Apologies for the delay...last week just kind of disappeared on me. 57-hour, six-day workweeks will do that to you...)

In my dream, I felt just like I did when it all happened. The excitement, the exhilaration...fear kind of got mixed in there, too, because I knew it wasn't a game--the guys I was fighting had real guns and they were really trying to hurt me. Maybe even kill me. But the feeling that surged through me that first time was confidence. I was out there, fighting bad guys with my brand-new superpowers, and I realized right away that I had a knack for it. As soon as I put on that costume, I knew I could do this.

Of course, in my dream, the costume was Buffy the Vampire Slayer's cheerleading outfit from Sunnydale High. But in my dream, that made perfect sense.

I caught up with my very first bad guys outside of a chemical supply warehouse in downtown Cleveland. They weren't hard to spot, really; they'd landed in a giant airship that looked like what you might get if a vulture and a helicopter had ugly little babies, marched out, and shot the security guards with stun cannons. Half the group was holding the police at bay, and the other half was looting the warehouse. And me? I was running there at a good sixty mile-an-hour clip. (I think if I get another growth spurt, I might be able to do ninety, but right now my legs just aren't long enough.)

(I also think that I didn't really have blue sparks shooting out from under my feet whenever I took a turn, but I did in the dream. And it was awesome!)

I heard about it from my dad. Not that he had connections in the law enforcement community or anything; he just was on the phone to the warehouse placing an order when it all happened. I was in the lab for a check-up; he does monthly check-ups with me ever since he gave me the serum, about nine months ago. (It's weird, the way so many things started happening "about nine months ago"...that was when my dad cracked the cure for my chronic fatigue syndrome, that was when Captain Light made his first appearance, that was when Shining Dragon Fist left her monastery...I'm not a big believer in "fate" or anything, but nine months ago was like a sort of starter's gun to the new crazy world we live in.)

Oh, and nine months ago was when Lord Raptor's men began stealing stuff. Big, bold, crazy robberies, done from VTOL airships in a pattern that nobody seemed to be able to spot. They must have been around before then, of course; you don't assemble that kind of manpower and equipment and a gigantic hidden fortress from which you plan to hold the world's capitals hostage all overnight. (Ooh, spoilers!) But nine months ago was when they went public.

And eight months ago, they robbed a warehouse in Cleveland and I heard my dad talking about it on the phone, telling his friends to stay hidden and let the bad guys take whatever they wanted. And I thought about my costume, hidden in my room, and about the news stories I'd been reading about the mystery flying man in Chicago who fought crime...and I knew what I was going to do. I ran back home, changed into costume, and sprinted for the warehouse.

Along the way, I stopped for a few minutes at the local library to learn kung fu.

And when I got to the warehouse, I put it into practice. It was incredible. The bad guys looked like they were moving in slow motion. I could actually see the energy blasts coming out of the cannon, and I could even dodge them. I hit one guy with a sweep kick, popped back up while he was still mid-fall, and elbowed him in the chest before he hit the ground. Their body armor stopped some of it, of course, but I was actually kicking butt! Me, a sixteen year-old girl who used to have a permanent excuse letter from gym class, beating up genuine evil mercenaries with guns!

Liam Neeson didn't really tell me what a good job I was doing, though. That was just in the dream again. (It was Liam Neeson from 'Batman Begins', by the way, not Liam Neeson from 'Phantom Menace' or Liam Neeson from 'Krull' or Liam Neeson from 'Darkman'. Although weirdly enough, later in the dream it was Liam Neeson from 'Clash of the Titans'.)

The problem was, there were a lot of them and they'd already gotten most of what they were after by the time I got there. Their leader--he had red shoulderpads--gave the order to evacuate, and a few guys stayed behind to keep me busy while their ship took off. I kind of made the guys regret their career choice, though.

In real life, lots more stuff happened after that. But in the dream, it only took about five minutes before I fought Lord Raptor's men again...

TO BE CONTINUED...