Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right

About a year ago, I wrote a little post about Superman versus Cthulhu.  It was not merely an idle musing on how to marry the bright four color world of superheroics and the hopeless ennui of eldritch horror — it was the thesis for my work on the Strange Arcana universe from Sigil Entertainment and Aaron Acevedo. At the time, I was seriously considering doing some RPG self publishing and knew I would need some art for any such project. I tossed out a call on Facebook to get recommendations for royalty free art. Aaron, with whom I had worked in writing a story for his Maelstrom fiction anthology, suggested we team up and the rest is history. Strange History, in fact.

 

I did my first professional RPG writing for White Wolf Publishing (who didn’t, right?) on the kitchen sink, dialed-up-to-eleven epic fantasy RPG Exalted. Later I did some work for the d20 reboot of the famous post apocalyptic science fantasy game Gamma World. Unfortunately, real life got in the way when my kids arrived and I could not sustain a freelance RPG career. I always missed it, though, and when Aaron proposed an opportunity to get back into that world, I was ecstatic. And terrified.

 

It wasn’t easy. Writing for games is entirely different than writing fiction, and I had spend the intervening years focusing on fiction in hopes of one day Making It Big. (Spoiler alert: I am still hoping.) What was originally supposed to be a short turn around job has become a year long odyssey through this world of super heroes and malevolent forces. While the idea and the world belong entirely to Aaron, I feel a sense of kinship with the world we have developed. Both super heroes and Lovecraftian monsters are easily misused — both are subject to tired tropes and cliched stories. But I think our little team, which has grown well beyond Aaron and I, has found a way to make both new and fresh while simultaneously creating a world that blends the two and is more than the sum of its parts.

Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right is only the first piece of that world we want to share with you. It is a fiction anthology, culminating in a beautifully illustrated comic book, that introduces the weird world and strange heroes. It will be followed in early 2017 with the Strange Arcana RPG for Savage Worlds (and, if we hit our goals, hopefully Mutants and Masterminds and FATE as well!) and, we hope anyway, a long line of support.

I love fantasy and I love post apocalypse and I love cosmic horror, but no genre hits all the cylinders for me like comic book super heroes. It draws on all the genres we love and at the same time remakes them. And more than any other genre, it demands complex characters — those secret identities, love interests and recurring villains are there for a reason, after all. With the infusion of its own take on eldritch horror (far more than a simple Lovecraft retread) Strange Arcana promises to reinvent the super hero genre for years to come.

 

Get in on the ground floor. Back Strange Arcana: The Stars are Right Kickstarter. I guarantee that by the time you finish the anthology you will be clamoring for more.

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The Family That Geeks Together…

 

It’s fall and that means a new TV season. The show I have most anticipated the return of is The CW’s The Flash. Not only is the titular hero one of my favorites and the first super hero I encountered in comics — by way of the 1989 television show — but it is also the best super hero show that has ever been on television. Ever. (Okay, possible exception for Batman: The Animated Series, but it is a close call.)

 

There are a lot of good reasons to love The Flash on television. The effects are wonderful. It homages the comics in a way that is both respectful and fun. The cast is amazing. The story lines are unquestionably “comic-booky” while still being well done.  It is a CW show so there are love triangles and angsty subplots, but they at least move. But most of all, the thing that makes The Flash so good is that it eschews the grim and gritty tone of its sibling show Arrow and the rest of the cinematic DC Universe. That sense of humor, fun and hope makes it a joy to watch. yes, there are dark moments and some uncomfortable story lines, but they serve to underscore the optimism inherent in the eponymous hero and the show at large, not obscure or drown it.

 

This leads me to the point of this post: I decided I wanted to watch The Flash with the kids. My son is 12 and well into the realm of PG-13 (thanks Revenge of the Sith) but my daughter is 9. While I certainly would have watched The Flash at that age, I was uncertain with her. But, I asked and she said she would like to give it a try. I “spoiled” her on the scary stuff so she knew going in and reminded her that the gun play was just pretend. She took it all in stride and even rolled her eyes at me a little (which I take as a good sign in this instance).

 

How did it go? When the pilot was over, she said — and I quote — “I wish we could take a whole Saturday and do nothing but watch this show!”

 

I already force my poor wife to watch the current season and I am hoping my son decided he would like to join us in watching Season 1, but even if it is just us, I can’t imagine a cooler way to spend some father-daughter time.

Where the Hell is Superman?

 

A deranged pilot points an passenger jet at a mountain and murders 150 people, each one waiting helplessly to die before the end comes. An army of terrorists raze villages, leaving literally thousands of men, women and children dead in their wake, all in the name of God. A hateful young man goes from classroom to classroom, gunning down six year old children in a bid to make a bigger splash on the front page than his “hero.”

We live in a world in which these things happen all to often, a world in which villainy and evil goes unchecked until it subsumes the 24 hour news cycle and fills our feeds and our walls and our streams. In this world, the one in which we live, the one to which we have been sentenced, we are left to fend for ourselves against the most hateful and vile of our own kind.

But there is another world, a world of our imagination, where someone is there for us. He is a savior and a hero and he stands for truth and justice in a never ending battle. For us. For peace and life and liberty.

In that world, he flies in at the last moment and puts all his might against the engines of that passenger jet and brings it safely to a landing in the Alps. In that world, he moves at the speed of lightning, pulling Ak-47s and machetes from the hands of Boku Haram militants and freezing them with a breath. In that world, he hears the gunfire as it blasts through the front door of Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT and he is there, bullets bouncing off his chest, blazing eyes melting lead. In that world, Superman is there to save us from the worst of ourselves.

So where the hell is Superman in this world? In a universe of limitless possibility, where man can break the firmament with his scientific knowledge, where the power of the atom bends to our will and where we can hurl spacecraft millions of miles across space to land on other worlds, where is Superman? In a world that many believe allows for miracles, where angels deflect oncoming traffic and where gods provide winning lottery tickets, where is the Man of Steel when we so desperately need him?

Superman is the creation of our collective desire for hope in a hopeless world, for justice in an unjust world, for peace where sometimes it seems only war and pain and death surround us. He is the latest in a long line of fantastical heroes that embody not just might, but the truest virtues of the people that created them. Gilgamesh and Heracles and Karna and King Arthur and John Henry are all iterations of this hope.

But for all Superman’s super-strength, his super-hearing, his superiority, the true greatness of Superman is his super-humanity. Superman is not “Superman.” Nor is he “Kal-El” of Krypton. For all his godlike power and his alien origins, Superman is Clark Kent, the son of middle American farmers who cares deeply for people, who understands that his power, his ability to stop crashing airlines and half genocides and stop the senseless massacres of children do not exist as Deeds in and of themselves as the heroes of old might have viewed them. Rather, the deeds of Superman are merely reflections of a devotion to the Peace, to Justice, to the Good of All.

So where the hell is Superman? If we allow him to be, he is within each of us, he is an agnostic symbol of Hope, of Justice, of Peace and of true Goodness in a world that so desperately needs him. Superman is not real, not in the physical sense. But if we allow him to be, he can be real enough.

Superman vs Cthulhu: Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror

 

A new project has me thinking about how Super Heroes and Cosmic Horror interact with one another. At first blush, these two genres would seem to be mutually exclusive.

Super Heroes are ultimately symbols of optimism. Their stories are generally about normal people who, when granted powers far greater than those of their peers, seek to bring justice and peace rather than bring war or ruin. Some modern interpretations disagree, of course, but these kinds of deconstructionist views act as the exceptions that prove the rule: you would not have an Authority, for example, without Superman and Batman engaged in the neverending battles and crusades.

On the other side of the genre coin, you have the kind of existential horror exemplified by the work of H.P. Lovecraft and his many collaborators and imitators. Here, heroism is, at best, a naive notion that is quickly dispelled by despair and madness. In cosmic horror, there is no justice or peace, and even war and ruin don’t matter, for the real terror comes not from the amorphous things living just outside of our vision, but from the unfeeling and uncaring universe. Everything is sliding toward entropy and nothingness. Even the monsters are doomed. It is the ultimate expression of pessimism and nihilism.

So how do we bring these two genres together? And, more importantly, why? What can we hope to create from mixing these reagents, and how do we avoid blowing ourselves up in the process?

Is that a deep one?

 

Comic book super heroes and undulating weird horrors have cross paths many time before, of course. super heroes emerged out of the same primordial pre-pulp fiction as did Lovecraft’s work, who was inspired by Edgar Rice Burroughs and Algernon Blackwood. The violent, criminal yet essentially “good” masked heroes of the pulp era gave rise to the earliest Super Heroes (the Man of Steel owed much to the Man of Bronze, and Bat-Man was heavily inspired by The Shadow). The pulps were waning just as comics started to rise, but many of the young men (and a few women) creating those early costumed heroes had cut their genre teeth on pulp magazines like Weird Tales. Characters like Dr Fate and The Specter appeared very early on and considered great cosmic powers and elements of horror in their stories.

Super hero stories have always mined horror for villains and plots, embracing whatever monstrosities sit atop the cultural consciousness. Vampires and werewolves have always been popular, usually inspired by the Universal movie versions of those creatures, and there are a number of Frankenstein’s monster analogs and even outright uses. Zombies, the current favorite of pop culture horror, are everywhere and have devoured both the Marvel and DC universes within the last few years. And there are many comics and heroes that site squarely in a place of horror, from Marvel’s Blade and Morbius the Living Vampire to Todd MacFarlane’s Spawn to DC’s Swamp Things and more recently Justice League Dark.

From the Official Dark Horse Hellboy website.

One book in particular, though, really embraces the Lovecraftian side of horror (mixed with just everything else as well). Mike Mignola’s Hellboy — the titular character is a demon, but also a super hero — is a horror comic that does super heroics, or a super hero comic that does horror. In either case, it represents probably the most perfect marriage between the genres, and Mignola’s evocative art and tight scripting do not hurt. However, as good as Hellboy is at mixing these oil-and-water genres, in doing so it pulls the Hellboy character out of the lofty clouds of primary colors, capes and cowls and grounds him with the guns and the ever-present gritty cape analogue of the trench coat. So while we can use Hellboy as a way to start thinking about Super Heroes versus Cosmic Horror, it is just a point of beginning (but a damn entertaining one).

 

You don’t get much Super Hero vs Cosmic Horror than Starro

 

What would Superman do in the face of Cthulhu? How would Batman react upon discovering the Shadow Over Innsmouth? Could Captain America maintain his sanity when confronted by vast uncaring cosmos via the Color Out of Space?

Although the trappings vary, all super heroes essentially punch things for justice: they use direct intervention against enemies that can be beaten, captured and otherwise negated. In short, super heroes can win. By definition, the terrors of cosmic horror cannot be beaten — their victory is inevitable and the only succor against that knowledge is to retreat into madness. This seems at first to be an insurmountable problem in marrying the genres.

What I think allows the super hero to continue to not only exist but to operate and even succeed after a fashion in the context of cosmic horror is their inherent optimism. Super heroes fact insurmountable odds daily — or at least monthly. A meteor rocketing toward the Earth, a virus transforming people into mindless drones, an army of hyper intelligent gorillas invading from two universes over, these are all familiar threats to the super hero, and they all threaten the very existence of mankind. Yet, the super hero soldiers on and preservers.

The only difference between those typical comic book threats and the threat posed by cosmic horror is that the latter cannot be overcome. But that is knowledge reserved for the audience. As far as the super hero is concerned, that elder thing spreadings its dark influence throughout the world and threatening to wake is just another villain to be defeated. That heroic optimism provides the hero with not only the will to face these eldritch horrors, but also at least a modicum of protection against the mind rending, soul shattering truths at the heart of cosmic horror: that we are insignificant in the fact of the enormity of time and space and that we are no more than insects to the vast and incalculable minds of the monstrosities that exist in the dark between the stars.

Moreover, even for the hero that has accepted the inevitability of the ultimate end, the true motivation of most super heroes remains: protect the innocent. In this case, it means saving potential sacrifices from cultists who would hasten the rise of the elder thing, destroying the weird alien creatures that wander aimlessly into our reality, and, occasionally, push back the timeline of that waking just a little longer. It may also mean something else, often outside the usual purview of the super hero: protecting people by hiding the truth from them, sparing them the madness that invariably comes with recognizing the futility of it all.

As different as the genres seem, I think the combination of super heroes and cosmic horror provides a lot of potentially compelling stories, without needing to tarnish or deconstruct the heroes or water down the existential threat of the cosmic horror.

 

The Flash: Doing Super Heroics Right on TV

 

Full Disclosure: The Flash is my second favorite super-hero (Superman being my favorite) as well as the one that got me into reading comics. Way back in 1990, I was in love with the John Wesley Shipp Flash television show. During its run, I found a copy of Flash #50 on news stand of my local general store.

As you can see, that is quite the cover. Inside, I was not only introduced to the wonderful world of comic books (sure, I had read a few here and there, but I was a scie-fi, fantasy and gaming geek, dammit, not one of those comic book nerds) but given my first lesson in the rules of adaptation: that is, nothing is sacred. On television, the Flash was Barry Allen; in the comic, the Flash was Wally West. There was a relationship between the two, something familial, even fatherly, but I could not parse it from the limited information provided. Some support characters were the same, or at least had the same names, and the TV Barry had some things in common with the comic book Wally (needing lots of food for energy, for example) but it would be months before I figured out which were chickens and which were eggs. In the end, though, none of those details mattered: a comic book reading, super-hero loving geek was born! It was as if I looked at my D&D books and fantasy novels and thought, “Nope, not enough, there is still a chance I might accidentally get laid.”

 

Flash forward (I am SO sorry) 25 years and The Flash is once again on television and is once again fueling my comic book super-hero nerdity. I never stopped reading comics and I have maintained a pull list at the same awesome Cave Comics for well over a decade now. That said, for the last few years I have been estranged from the majority of super hero comics, including my beloved Superman and Flash (among many, many others). Long story short: the Event Treadmill that consumed DC Comics for years starting with Identity Crisis, moving through Final Crisis and finally rebooting the Dc multiverse entirely with Flashpoint wore me out. I just wanted good stories starring the heroes I loved, not universe shaking event and universe shaking event. After all those, I dropped DC Comics entirely, never moving on to the New 52. Marvel, which I had read only intermittently anyway, was in the throws of its own Event Treadmill, from Civil War to the Secret Invasion and beyond, so I decided to take a year hiatus from both companies. When I did return, I followed creators instead of companies, picking up Mark Waid‘s Daredevil and Indestructible Hulk as they debuted with new Marvel Now #1 issues, as well as the return of the amazing Astro City by Kurt Busiek.

 

But I am nothing if not a fickle nerd and first my pull box and then my “to-read” shelf started to fill up with unread comics. It is something of a pattern with me. I will cycle between geek preferences, from video games to table-top games to comics to prose sci-fi and fantasy and back again. This time, though, my time away from comics was longer than it had been for any number of these “cycles.” Judging by the number of Astro City books on my shlef, unread, it had been at least a year since I had read any of the books I bought (and probably longer if the number of Waid’s Daredevil issues were any indication). That is a long time and a lot of comics.

 

In the last two weeks I have cleared out my to-read shelf and even started looking for new and interesting super-hero titles to start following. Why? The title of this post may be a hint: The Flash on the CW.

 

The Flash is not the first comic book super hero TV show to recently attract first my attention and then my slavish dedication. I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it is called, and therefore started watching Agents of SHIELD with great expectations when it premiered last fall. Also last year  I started watching Arrow, which I had avoided in its first season because it was a CW show (I watched Smallville for 6 seasons before the pretty people soap opera was too much to bear). I started watching Arrow exactly because it promised to introduce Barry Allen early in its second season, so I figured I could give it a few episodes just to see. Very soon, I was hooked, in no small part due to the depiction of Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator. Rarely has a comic book adaptation nailed a character so perfectly. Also, I just liked Arrow. It was the best Batman show we could hope for. (Come on, the main villain organization is Ra’s al Ghul‘s League of Assassins and it is about a revenge driven billionaire with mommy and daddy issues.)

 

All that said, neither SHIELD nor Arrow, or even The Walking Dead, reinvigorated that comics love. The back issues continued to pile up. (I did, however, seek out Walt Simonson’s Thor run after seeing Thor: The Dark World. Weird, that.) No, it was not until Flash premiered a few weeks ago that I got the super-hero big again and started burning through my unread comics, but also firing up my Marvel Unlimited subscription, which had sat largely unused for the better part of a year, to dabble in various series. (As an aside, if DC Comics would create a similar service, I would be an instant lifetime subscriber. There are so many great DC Comics not collected in trades from the 70s, 80s and 90s that it would take a lifetime to read through them all.) The strength of the show is its unabashed love of the genre. Where Arrow tries to bring super heroics down to the ground and revels in its gritty (dare I say, “Batman-esque?”) tone, The Flash on the CW is openly and proudly a comic book super hero television show, bright red costumes and villains with goofy code names included. But it is not a joke or a parody or even particularly self referential. It knows what it is, knows that its audience appreciates what it is, and treats both with both a wink and respect. By contrast, the other new DC comics inspired show, Gotham, is confused in its tone, part noirish Nolan-Batman and part weirdo Burton-Batman. (I love Gotham, too, but despite its tone, not because of it.) None of which would matter if star Grant Gustin did not infuse his Barry Allen with such charm and depth.

 

If you have not given The Flash a try and you love super hero comics and television, I implore you to do so. It really is a great achievement in the genre and for me at least, the shot in the arm an old comics fan needed to remember how grerat comics can be when they are about great characters in great stories, not just big events.

75 Years of Solemn Heroism

 

This year marks the 75th anniversary of the creation of Batman. Last year, it was the 75th anniversary of Superman and while that hero enjoyed broad coverage in the media, I think the Dark Knight is going to be more difficult to celebrate. Not, certainly, because Batman is less well known than Superman — if he is, it is only by the slimmest of margins. Rather, the problem lies with the very nature of the two characters, their inherent differences and their opposite but equivalent places on the spectrum of iconic heroism.

 

Superman is a messianic figure, a savior on par with Mithras or Moses. He represents, in short, hope. Superman fights bad guys, of course, but he is as likely to save innocent lives from earthquakes and meteor showers. His powers are so great that he can halt a tidal wave, extinguish a raging inferno or even turn back time itself. He is a god-like being whose primary interest is in protecting humanity and helping humanity succeed. Superman could end war by enforcing peace, and often writers will have Superman or analogs do just that, but he does not. A favorite trope in Superman stories, when writers are too lazy to create compelling narratives with the so-called “boyscout” Superman, is to cast him in the villain’s role, corrupted by power or despair or rage. But those depictions of Superman serve only to reinforce his fundamental nature as the goodest of the good guys.

 

Batman, however, is different. If Superman represents our desire for a savior, then Batman is a symbol of our desire to act, our need to sometimes get our hands dirty in order to bring about justice. Where Superman is a being of light whose depictions sometimes swing into dark places, Batman is the opposite. His time in the light is a parody of himself; he is most at home in the darkness. Where Clark Kent is the ultimate adoptive child, raised by loving parents to see the good in all people, Bruce Wayne is the ultimate orphan, a victim who is constantly reliving his tragic loss. This is not to imply weakness on the character’s part — some writers depict it as such, an obsession that paralyzes Batman into inaction, while most depict it as the source of Batman’s unending dedication to his his quest for justice. Rather, it is an exquisitely human motivation, one that we can understand, embrace and even, in our darker moods, imagine for ourselves.

 

Both Batman and Superman are adolescent male power fantasies; I do not refer to them in that way to as a pejorative, but as a fact. The men who created both characters were, in fact, adolescent males and they were powerless in a world of depressed economy, crime and corruption. Their heroes had the power to confront these issues, Superman and Batman each in their own ways. Their careers would run parallel from then on, Superman always in the light while Batman would emerge from his shadows to combat alien menaces and laughable villains, only to be drawn back into the shadows where he belonged.

 

This story from CNN illustrates the difficulty with which the modern popular media will have in trying to do stories about Batman at this anniversary. While the people interviewed were certainly inspired by Batman, one feels the need for quiet reflection on them rather than the parades and ballyhoo that Superman’s anniversary engendered.

 

If we imagine for a moment that Batman were real, that Brice Wayne was real, we imagine a hero who is equal part victim. We imagine a man who has spent three quarters of a century trying to come to grips with the worst tragedy a child could possibly suffer, the worst images a child could possibly witness. We imagine a man who has dedicated everything he has, everything he is, to the singular goal of ensuring no child ever suffers like he did, that no person ever suffers like he continues to suffer every day. Batman does not stop earthquakes or alien invasions, he stops killers. Batman does not turn back tidal waves, he turns back tragedy. Batman does not fly in to save our lives, he swoops in to save our hearts and minds. It is heroism, but it is a solemn, dark heroism that asks us to feel dark and solemn things as we consider it.

On Being Batman

I have to admit to spending too much time playing the games in the Batman: Arkham series over the past week or so and not nearly enough time writing. With the arrival of the newest game in the series, Arkham Origins, I knew that I had to force myself to put ass to chair and fingers to keyboard lest another day disappear in the murky dark of Gotham City. While I can congratulate myself for managing to do that much at least, my mind is still focused on the superstitious and cowardly lot that so desperately deserve the swift boot of justice.

 

The Arkham games are unique in a couple of ways, not least being they are super-hero video games that are actually good. Despite being a  genre defined by larger than life characters and huge science-fantasy action, super-heroes have not often translated well to the video game medium. Of course, the genre had the same difficulty with motion pictures for many years, with only a few diamonds (Donner’s Superman, Burton’s Batman) among a great deal of coal. I think the same elements that allowed comic book heroes to make a successful transition to the big screen — advances in technology, creators who took the stories seriously (but not too seriously), and a cultural zeitgeist amicable to heroism — are in place to do the same in the video game medium.  The Arkham games have been consistently strong and there are some other examples like the various recent (non-movie tie-in) Spiderman games. If developers start applying the super-hero genre to other video game genres — that is, not assuming that every super-hero game has to be a third person open world actioner — we’ll likely see a lot more good super-hero games.

 

But more than just being good super-hero games (and good games in general) the Arkham games do something else that few games manage to do: they make you, the player, feel like Batman. Not only are all of Batman’s skills and tools at your disposal in play — not just batarangs and grappling hooks, but smoke pellets and CSI -like evidence analysis — but the look, sound and atmosphere of the game is everything you would imagine from living as the Dark Knight. This is important because when it comes to combining games and storytelling, long the province of table-top RPGs and point-and-click adventure games, immersion is key. When you are attempting to do so with a character like Batman who is well known, beloved and has had many different successful iterations over the decades, it is doubly important. Each element of the overall product is bent toward enhancing and enforcing that sense of being Batman on behalf of the player. All the player has to do is relent and psychologically put on the cowl.

 

From a storyteller’s perspective, this achievement in immersion is worth examining. An immersed audience is, by definition, invested, and an invested audience buys into whatever stakes the storyteller has presented. When that happens, the outcome of the story suddenly matters, at least for the time that the audience is immersed. Whether a film or novel or comic or video game, a work that draws (or drags) the audience in is more successful (for certain definitions of success). Certainly there are times when we want the audience to experience a story or part of a story from a detached perspective. You see this a lot when storytellers shift points of view from the protagonist to that of either the villain, who is supposed to remain mysterious and/or inscrutable, or a hapless victim. The creator pulls back, bringing the audience along, to get an aerial view instead of an internal one. The opposite is true sometimes, too, when what the storyteller wants is a visceral but uncertain experience on the part of the audience, Suddenly, we are seeing through another’s eyes and only getting limited information filtered through pain, fear, desperation or what-have-you. But both of these shifts in immersion are temporary, where the kind of immersion experienced in being Batman must be carried through the entire storytelling experience.

 

The next time you sit down to write for writings sake, try creating a truly immersive narrative based on a well established character. Let your reader become Sherlock Holmes or Superman or Richard Nixon. Without the benefit of music and high resolution digital imagery, you’ll have to rely on the key components of what makes the character iconic and then transfer those not just to but into the reader via prose. Good luck.

 

And now, I think I see the Bat Signal alight in the sky…

Comic Books and Genre Freedom

I recently purchased a subscription to Marvel Unlimited, a Netflix like service from Marvel Comics that lets you read tens of thousands of older (from the earliest days to just six months old) Marvel Comics. I dove right into The Mighty Thor series from the 1960s, specifically Walt Simonson’s run. Those stories always seem to top “Best of” lists not only for Thor but for Silver Age Marvel Comics in general, and since I am not nearly as well versed in Marvel lore as I am DC, I thought it would be worth my time.

 

And boy has it been so far. The most surprising aspect of the run is how modern it feels, relatively speaking. Both the art and the writing would have me place the book much closer to the 1980s, when I started reading DC Comics. The other thing that struck was just how Out There the stories are, not only steeped in Norse mythology but also science fiction and cosmic horror and, of course, super-heroic derring do. If you have never read the saga of Beta Ray Bill, alien champion who wins the mantle of Thunder God, I urge you to do so at your earliest convenience.

 

The “Out There” quality is what inspired this post, as recognizing it helped me coalesce a thought that has been swirling about in my head will-o-the-wisp like for ages: in comic books, it seems to me, one has license to break the rules of genre as nowhere else. That is, in comic books, be they superhero tales or science fiction, fantasy and horror stories, there is an implicit freedom to go a little gonzo and let your imagination run wild. Sure, there are many slice of life, realistic and even “hard” sci-fi and “low” fantasy comics out there, but by and large, comics are a place where creators are keen to indulge their most extreme flights of fantasy, often to the benefit of their readers.

 

Allow me to present a personal example: I have had, for some time, this idea about a “reverse Superman” of sorts — a human character from Earth who, when he travels to another planet, he gains super-human powers. In this tale, the “planet” is actually a system of moons around a super-Jupiter, and it is the strange radiation from that world that gives the protagonist his powers. The hero is the fiance of an alien princess who was “slumming” on Earth before her pre-arranged marriage but fell in love with our hero. When she was forcibly escorted back by the agents of her father and husband-to-be, he stowed away and only upon their arrival did he learn of his powers. The moon worlds are all pulp sci-fi environment worlds — and ice planet and a desert planet and an ocean planet, etc… — and his adventures are equally operatic.

 

It used to be that this sort of non- or wrong-science adventure was the province of the pulp magazines. Over the years, though, prose science fiction and fantasy has gained a certain level of respectability, or at least there is a level of expectation from fandom that works will be either “realistic” or, at the very least, quite serious in their treatment of fantastic elements. But in comics, that unwritten rule has never taken hold. In comics, John Carter can still adventure on Mars and Thor, God of Thunder, can team up with a genetically engineered cyborg hero to fight demons from a dimension beyond space and time.

 

Why is that? When Simonson was writing, at least, one could point to comics as a medium aimed at children, so adherence to any sort of scientific or internally-consistent standard was unnecessary, even unwelcome. My response is: Perhaps, but that does not explain why comics continue to be that way now. We still accept an alien from Krypton who can fly under the power of our yellow sun’s radiation and who fights cyborgs powered by pieces of his dead homeworld. Ridiculousness, to be sure, but both acceptable and preferred, even. Comics readership has gotten older with each passing decade, and more and more speculative fiction media, including the newest in the form of video games, tries to enter the field with solid grounding and “realistic” speculative elements.

 

I think it because strange ideas, the kind of things present in the pulps of yore, are more easily conveyed through the juxtaposition of image and art and that we, as a community of readers of speculative fiction, still need a little gozo to go with our hard sci-fi, low fantasy and psychological horror. In a few strokes of an artists pen and a few captions of a writer’s words, whole worlds can be created. Moreover, because most of us do come to comics when we are children or adolescents, we retain a childlike wonder in engaging comics and are more accepting of the wondrous in panels and thought balloons.

 

Sometimes I worry that I am simply being “lazy” wanting to write comics instead of prose, but the reality is that often what I am looking for is not ease of creation — it is said Allan Moore’s scripts are longer than most novels, and he is perhaps the greatest of all writers who embrace the gonzo aspect of comics storytelling — but the freedom to use ideas I fear are not “acceptable” for prose, like humans made interplanetary superheroes by way of gas-giant radiation belts.

 

Non-Visual action Description 3: Arkham Origins Trailer Adaptation

The following is a prose adaptation of the Batman: Arkham Origins cinematic trailer. This is part of an exercise in how to write effective prose action scenes without over reliance on visual descriptions. The exercise was inspired by my reading of what I considered to be little more than a transcription of the very cool Star Wars: The Old Republic cinematic trailer titled “Deceived” in the novel by Paul S. Kemp of the same name. It is my opinion that the strengths of prose are very different than the strengths of visual media like film or comics and therefore an adaptation of a visual media should not solely rely upon a by the numbers description of the events in the inspiring work.

 

Here is my attempt to create a prose version of such a primarily visually arresting action sequence.

 

———-

 

From across the bay, Gotham City on a winter’s night appears civilized, almost serene. It’s concrete and glass towers twinkle with reflected Christmas lights from the streets below and a layer of pure white snow lays over the city’s ugliness like a shroud over a corpse. Closer in, along the waterfront where the empty docks and abandoned warehouses decay, the snow is just another layer of makeup on a whore long past her prime.

 

The Suburban — black, of course — came in hot, smearing that make-up like a slap across the face as it skidded to a halt. Jay B was driving and he was mad. Driver pay was half what muscle pay was. Later, he would realize what he bought with that lost cash and he would know he made out on the deal.

 

Before the SUV was completely stopped, Freddy D stepped out of the back driver side door and slammed it behind him. When his feet touched the pavement he could feel the layer of grit and grime covered up by the snow. It made him feel at home. The Bushmaster slung over his shoulder made him feel safe. He opened the rear door of the Suburban. He reached in and grabbed one handle on the big, green box they had been hired to deliver. His brother Billy D was already out of the SUV, too, and grabbed the other side of the box. They lugged it quickly toward the warehouse.

 

Donnie X sneered after the D brothers. Carrying heavy things and breaking weak bones were about all the two were good for. He pushed the back of the Suburban closed and pounded on the door, telling Jay to get lost. The kid did not hesitate and stood on the gas. He had potential, Donnie thought.

 

Inside, the warehouse was not so abandoned. Donnie and his crew had been working out of it for weeks, in fact, marking off the days until finally, on Christmas, tomorrow, the job would be done and their pay would come in. All they had to do was wait, and not screw this up.

 

Freddy and Billy apparently tired of lugging the box and dropped it. The crass echo sent a shiver up Donnie’s spine and a rush of heat to his face. He jerked off the mask, the hard plastic skull face that had come with the job instructions, and tossed it onto the table where his calendar and last nights lo mein sat. He did not dare take off the ski mask, though: If The Ds were not taking off theirs, he sure as hell was not taking off his. In a city where one boss could end up in Arkham Asylum and you had to find work with a rival boss, anonymity mattered.

 

The warehouse was dark except for the moonlight streaming in through the windows. Donnie flipped the switch to bring up the coils of Christmas lights wrapped around the rafters — in Gotham, it paid to illuminate all the dark corners. They sputtered slowly to life, bathing the place in a mockery of cheer, before one popped and darkness swallowed the corners again. The heat in Donnie intensified and he grumbled a curse.

 

He let the D brothers stand there stupidly for a three count before he barked, “Check the breaker!” at Freddy — or Billy. He couldn’t tell the difference, nor care.

 

It was Billy. Donnie should have known because of the two simpletons, Billy was the dumber one, which he illustrated by unslinging his submachine gun and tossing it to Freddy. Billy walked into the darkness away from the windows, armed only with a small Maglight.

 

He found the breaker box, opened it and stared at it. He thought to admit he had no idea what he was doing, to call out to Freddy for advice, but decided he did not want to appear an idiot. Instead, he put the Maglight between his teeth and stared harder at the open breaker box. It is possible that given a few minutes he might have figured out which breaker had flipped. He did not have the time, however, as the box suddenly rushed at him — then nothingness.

 

The crunching of bone against metal and the crackling of electricity against skin propagated from shadow to shadow until it hit Donnie and Freddy. They looked at each other, Freddy’s eyes dull and questioning, Donnie’s narrow and commanding. With a jerk of his head, Donnie ordered Freddy to investigate and Freddy, SMG in hand and ready, complied.

 

Freddy had never given much thought to what was beneath the wooden warehouse floor. If you had asked him, he might have guessed a basement or a mechanical room. A few seconds after he left Donnie’s side, he found out. He was more confused than frightened when the floor broke upward. The terror did not take him until he realized he was being dragged down not by gravity but by an iron grip around each ankle.

 

The steadily growing frustration finally boiled over. Donnie pointed his weapon at the hole and sprayed the gaping darkness with lead. He told himself it was rage, not fear, but in either case he held the trigger for two full seconds after the last bullet left the barrel. The void in the floor seemed to sigh at him and he retreated as he reloaded. He backed up one step, then two and three.

 

Later, Donnie would have just a brief moment to reflect on how it happened. Had he seen him out of the corner of his eye? Had he felt his presence behind him? Had his soul shivered against the night-creature that inhabited that armored suit? In any case, Donnie spun and fired but to no avail. The bullets landed harmlessly in floor, beam and wall. A powerful grip wrapped around his throat as his body strained against the steel cable strong muscles. He looked into the face of his attacker and he knew it was over. Square jaw. Black cowl. Pointed ears that were really devilish horns. Batman had him and there was no escape but inevitable unconsciousness, which Donnie accepted graciously.

 

 

Batman dropped the nameless thug. Sweat and splinters irritated where his cowl met his skin. He ignored the discomfort; that was his motif, after all. He scanned the room quickly to ensure no other enemies lurked. Satisfied, he approached the green Queen Industries lockbox dropped so unceremoniously on the floor. They did not know what was in it, he deduced. Nor did they care. This was a paycheck, a wad of cash to be burned on drugs, women, overdue rent, sick grandmothers, whatever — the motivations of the enemy only mattered insofar as it exposed their crimes.

 

Queen Industries was a strange choice for a target. Was Oliver hiding something — producing weapons, perhaps, or over reaching in his efforts to save people from themselves? Eager to find out, Batman kicked the strongbox open.

 

His first thought was to chastise himself for being so naive. His second thought was to move. The blocks of C-4 explosives and the chunks of concrete made for a perfect anti-personnel bomb. Whoever planted it wanted death — his death, no doubt — not property damage.

 

He forced his way through the wooden warehouse doors with one powerful, futile leap. Outrunning the shockwave was impossible. When the blast hit him, his armored cape absorbed the fire and the chunks of shrapnel. It was the concussion that slammed him hard against the snowy pavement. Like Freddy D, he felt the grit and the grim under the snow, and like Freddy it made him feel at home.

 

For just a moment, for a brief second of human weakness, the suit — the full utility belt, the armored undersuit, the heavily plated breastplate and arm greaves — felt too heavy. For just a flash, an imperceptibly short instant, he thought, “Stay down.”

 

It passed so quickly it might have never been at all. Batman pushed himself to his feet.

 

“Looks like you got my invitation.” The voice echoed from above, atop the stacked shipping containers. It was mocking and challenging and arrogant.

 

Batman allowed himself a half second to recover from the blast. For that very brief moment he felt every aching muscle and every bruise beneath the armor that had saved his life. He let his ears and head ring and tasted the blood in his mouth where the shockwave had loosened his teeth. Years before, thousands of miles away, he had learned to feel everything, just briefly, to accept it because it was true, but then move beyond it.

 

On the wall of containers, dressed in his blue and gold costume and bristling with weapons, the assassin known as Deathstroke the Terminator — aka Slade Wilson, enhanced super-soldier for the U.S. government gone rogue — said, “It’s just you and me. Come on!” and bolted. Batman’s half second meditation was over and he let loose with batarangs as he ran parallel to Deathstroke.

 

Batman might have worn the totem, but it was Deathstroke that seemed the avatar of animalistic power. He channeled nothing if not the leopard: powerful, fast, relentless. Batman’s blades sunk harmlessly into a container while Deathstroke sprinted, leaped and kicked his way along. He had trained for as many years as had Batman, and had also been given powerful, experimental drugs that made him equal to the greatest athletes and academics in the world.

 

Batman considered himself the best of both. This night would be the test.

 

Batman fired his line and flew. He was on Deathstroke, poised to strike like a bird of prey, but the assassin seemed to command gravity itself as he twisted and spun and knocked Batman aside with his quarter staff in mid turn. Batman hit hard and slid on the snow covered container He laid there longer than he wanted to too. His body still ached from the explosion. He was used to fighting thugs and common criminals, the superstitious and cowardly types that he defeated with his costume and voice before the first shot was fired or first punch was thrown. Deathstroke was different. He was not afraid.

 

Deathstroke leaped down and the butt of his staff dented the top of the container where Batman’s head had been.Batman came up swinging but was slow and weak. Deathstroke was a predator; e revelled in that weakness. Like a cat, he toyed with Batman, knocking aside one, two, three strikes before kicking Batman in the chest and sending him reeling ntil he slammed into a container wall.

 

What Batman needed was a moment, just a split second to regain the advantage. The truth was, despite the endless training and relentless self punishment, Matman relied mostly upon providence With luck or divine guidance or whatever one might call it, Batman would have bled out in an unmarked alley, killed by an unnamed thug, a hundred times in the year since he started his crusade. This night made it one hundred and one.

 

When Batman hit the container, the one above, obviously stacked lazily and hanging precariously, let go and slid at Deathstroke.The assassin dodge the container easily but the minor distraction was enough for Batman who leaped and kicked. Deathstroke flew off the top of the container. Batman allowed himself a singular hopeful thought, but it was quashed. Again, Deathstroke commanded his body, and this time his staff, so perfectly that he caught himself and used his staff like an acrobat’s bar and flew back out of the gap between containers.

 

His feet came first. Batman knew they were coming and let them, allowing the force of the flying kick to send him bouncing down to the next level of containers. Had he been unawares, the hit and the subsequent falls would have been bone shattering. As it was, Batman rolled with both kick and fall and ended up precisely where he wanted to be.

 

the fight had gone on long enough for Batman to analyze his foe. Deathstroke was faster and stronger than he, but he was also arrogant and unsubtle. In a direct fight he helf sure to win, Deathstroke was actually weaker than in a congested arena with what he considered an inferior fighter. Batman stood there and challenged him with a grimace. Behind his one-eyed mask, Deathstroke smiled and acceptance of that challenge.

 

Where before they had met as rams launching themselves at one another, this time Batman and Deathstroke came together in a fluid dance. Deathstroke drew one of his two priceless swords. Batman fought with his fists and the armored, bladed greaves on his forearms. Deathstroke’s feeling of inevitable victory faded a little each time Batman blocked his sword strike, then collapsed as Batman caught the weapon in his greave-blades and jerked. The sword, forged by Japanese masters who were afterward killed to preserve the secret of the weapon and its twin’s construction, shattered.

 

Deathstroke fought on with broken blade, fists and feet. Their dance became a brawl as they kicked and punched and drove each other into containers walls. With each successful hit, Batman asserted his power. With each failed slice, Deathstroke grew more frustrated and less focused. By that time, the assassin was easy to fool. Batman allowed Deathstroke to grab his throat, only to reverse it by walking the wall of the adjacent container and then sending Deathstroke flying across the container on which they stood.

 

Deathstroke drew his sword. The pleasure of the hunt had disappeared. He only had murder in his heart.

 

Batman moved into a defensive stance. He had already won.

 

Suddenly, inexplicably, Deathstroke’s sword snapped in half. A moment later it was cut down to barely longer than a dagger. Fury consumed Deathstroke for just long enough for Batman to take advantage. While Deathstroke peered over the bay, searching the tall bridge piers for the shooter — it was the only logical conclusion — Batman upholstered his bat-line and fired. The grapnel caught Deathstroke’s shoulder and Batman jerked it in.

 

Deathstroke’s enhanced intellect and perception assessed the situation halfway through his tumbling crash against the container after Batman clotheslined him. Without missing a beat, Deathstroke changed strategies and was firing the .45 as he stood.

 

Batman was ready. That Deathstroke carried firearms at all meant he was ready to use them. That he had not yet meant that he reserved them for particularly dangerous foes. Batman had actively worked to put himself in that category. Against an equally skilled and medicinally enhanced opponent, Batman was fated to lose a martial contest. But he had trained every day of his life since he first saw the shattered corpses of his parents leaking their lives onto the broken pavement of Crime Alley to combat gun wielding scum. It did not matter whether it was a gang banger trained on the street or an assassin trained by the government, an enemy that relied on a gun was no match for Batman.

 

Batman disarmed Deathstroke with a sweep and moved in.

 

 

Batman and Deathstroke fought, punching and kicking and jumping and flipping. Deadshot shook his head with distaste. Fighting close, fighting fair, these were things that got one killed.

 

Deadshot pulled back the action on the .50 caliber rifle and peered through the scope. His cybernetic eye prosthesis, courtesy of the same government that had given Deathstroke mind and body enhancing drugs, calculated all the options. As the two warriors threw each other down into the snow and against cold steel walls, Deadshot found the perfect target.

 

When he squeezed the trigger, he felt like a child on Christmas morning, opening a present. The kid knew that it was almost certainly the thing for which he had asked, but he could not be sure. Deadshot was the same way. It was almost certain that his shot would hit is mark, but there was the tiniest possibility that it would fail and surprise him. That was really what he longed for every time he pulled the trigger: a surprise.

 

There were no surprises this time. The bullet cleaved the chain that held a container aloft above the battlefield. The container crashed down and Batman disappeared in a flash of steel and snow.

 

 

I had watched all of this from afar, by turns amused and disgusted. I needed to see for myself how skilled this Batman was, not to mention those assassins I hired. All had performed precisely as expected.

 

“Did you find a body?” I asked Deathstroke.

 

“No,” he answered. Of course he had not. Batman was far better than that. “And next time, keep your other assassins out of my way.” Such possessive bravado.

 

“You had your shot Deathstroke,” I replied, testing him. “But you’re not the only assassin. And the night is young.” When hunting Batman, a little motivation by competition could not hurt.

 

I left Deathstroke to his frustration then. He was as likely to go after Deadshot as he was Batman, but that hardly mattered. There were others waiting in the wings. Besides, I had more pressing matters: failures.

 

Donnie X was dragging himself away from the burning ruin of the warehouse when I found him. Billy had died in the explosion. Freddy was dead before that, sprayed full of bullets by the terrified Donnie. He was working very hard to get away. I admired that, in a way.

 

The reason I wear a mask, the reason I call myself Black Mask, is because I know Death. He and I are the best of friends. He has been with me since I took my first breath. I wear his face as my face and I move my hand as his hand. So when I picked up that burning two-by-four and used in to collapse in Donnie’s skull, I was not acting out of rage or psychosis. I was merely acting in my nature.

 

He is out there somewhere. Batman, I mean, He is probably testing ballistics from the shell casings Deadshot was too stupid or too arrogant to eliminate from her perch atop the Gotham River Bridge. It doesn’t matter. He is the World’s Greatest Detective. I expect him to find me.

 

How else am I supposed to kill him?

 

Exemplar: Ten Years Later

Two things I love are fiction in the form of “alternate reality journalism” and super heroes. So here’s something that combine the two.

———-

Unless you are a recent arrival from a parallel universe, you have spent the last week memorializing super-heroic paragon Exemplar whether you wanted to or not. Ten years after his death in the line of duty against would-be world conqueror Oversword’s devolution bomb attack against Washington, D.C. we are still writing op eds, holding candlelight vigils and throwing solemn parades in his honor. If first anniversaries of major, tragic events are the hardest, tenth anniversaries are the worst: the pain has all but disappeared and all that is left is a desire to exalt the heroes and editorialize on the events impact and relevance ad nausea.

 

Exemplar, now known to be a synthetic being sent back in time to our era from the year 10,000 AD (more or less), was a tireless champion of nothing so much as life. A being with his powers could have changed the course of history forever, as easily as he changed the course of mighty rivers, but instead he focused on individual lives. While there are no recorded instances of Exemplar pulling kittens out of trees, his recorded activities are no less cliched: pulling children out of burning buildings, stabilizing earthquakes with sheer physical force, plugging erupting volcanoes and draining flood waters by tilting landmasses. The power at Exemplar’s disposal was immense, almost unimaginable, yet he never exerted it against one regime or another, no matter how vile.

 

In 1971, Walter Cronkite in a live televised interview asked Exemplar why he did not intervene in international conflicts or political affairs. Exemplar (and remember, we did not know then either that he was not human or that he was from the far future; at that point we assumed that Exemplar was, like most super heroes, a gifted individual with a secret “normal” life) responded with the following:

 

“Every life is sacred. You can’t begin to imagine how important one life can be. All the things a person does, from their first cries all the way to how they die has an immeasurable impact on everything around them. Even if a person does not seem to do anything great or important with their lives, who knows what their kids or grand kids or ten generations later descendants will do. Life is funny that way; it is totally unpredictable but at the same time we can see how it might turn out.”

 

Year later, after the massacre at the 1988 summer Olympic Games in Seoul at the hands of The Hive, Exemplar said: “Thousands of lives from hundreds of nations, all extinguished. The potential futures they created by their very existences have been snuffed out, leaving a void in eternity that can never be filled.”

 

It was after this incident that Exemplar “came out” as both a time traveler and a super-sophisticated artificial being. He later admitted that he did so at least partially out of guilt. After all, The Hive was not only a collective of autonomous machines, but literally one of his ancestor entities.

 

After this revelation Exemplar’s heroic career was often sidetracked by requests for information about the future or accusations about his motives in saving the people he did. Hero turned villain The Seer, who used genius level mathematical intellect to calculate probability, accused Exemplar of having a secret agenda. He suggested that Exemplar was trying to establish  a future timeline in which he was supreme ruler of the world by laying the groundwork in our present, on the corpses of those he did not save. Most people did not buy the crackpot theory of a known criminal, but a few did. And some of them were United States Senators.

 

It is unfortunate that Exemplar’s last few years were so  tarnished by politics and media glad handing. Sadly, it is what people seemed to be in the mood for: stories of Exemplar saving busloads of school children were given short shrift while every self identified lover or nefarious ally was given a microphone. In the 1990s, we wanted to deconstruct our heroes and Exemplar, being the best, suffered the worst of it.

 

Washington happened when Exemplar was almost considered a villain. His legacy had been tarnished and his status as a synthetic entity was being held up as evidence to mistrust other such beings, including The Perfect and Queen Calcula. Time travelers like Mister Know-It-All did not fare much better. Even so, Exemplar carried on. Without a “secret identity” or even the need for a “normal life” (even though he indulged in one periodically throughout his career; portions of his strange relationship with Post reporter Angie Abernathy filled many a tabloid during the ‘60s and ‘70s) Exemplar was able to ignore most of the bad press and keep operating as he normally did. The only difference was he tended to flee the scenes of his activities upon the arrival of authorities and reporters, instead of staying to give statements as he used to do.

 

Oversword acquired his devolution weapon from members of the villainous, international weapons manufacturing organization called Armament. From interrogations after the incident, his goal was to turn the entire population of Washington D.C. (specifically the members of the government) into proto-human cavemen, thereby bringing the nation to its knees, ripe for Oversword’s plucking. Of course, Exemplar was aware of the plot — how has remained a mystery; some suggest Exemplar accessed a database of past events (from his perspective) but others have argued every change he made would further invalidate any record of events he possessed from the future — and interrupted Oversword’s attack.

 

It seems that even Oversword was surprised when Exemplar flew the devolution bomb into space and was caught in the blast, turning into a typical Hive drone and burning up upon re-entry. That the devolution bomb would work on artificial beings as well as biological ones was unexpected by all.

 

Or was it? Throughout his career, from his first appearance in the aftermath of World War 2 to the day he was “killed,” Exemplar displayed not only an uncanny understanding of the enemies he fought but of the course of events in the world at large. He never seemed taken off guard, even after an apparent defeat or event he could not stop. Maybe there is something to all those conspiracy theories about Exemplar.

 

In either case, the parades an memorials go on. Like all good martyrs, Exemplar received a white-washing upon his ultimate sacrifice and is now enshrined in museums and in public squares by statues, plaques and displays as the greatest of all American super heroic champions. So you will have to forgive me if I shed no tears for the time travelling android that could very well have planned his own “death by devolution.”