Thursday, July 30, 2009

Being Heroic

We talk often about what makes a superhero "super." It's not always about powers, and its not always about a costume, though it often is about these things. Pete Coogan, of course, has a well-developed argument about the definition of the superhero which he published recently as Superhero: The Origins of a Genre. Jess Nevins, author of Fantastic Victoriana and those wonderful annotations to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, has a useful counter-argument which he presented at this year's Popular Culture Association conference. And both of them are ultimately arguing against Frank Miller's perfectly quotable definition of the superhero: "A person in a funny costume saving innocent people from bad things."

But I don't want to talk about what makes the superhero "super." I've been wondering what makes him a hero. I don't think this is a silly question, even though we take the heroism of characters for granted much of the time. When we say we want our heroes to be more heroic, what exactly do we mean? The answers are, I think, more complicated than they first appear, and often contradictory.

Overwhelming Odds
We like our heroes to face overwhelming odds and triumph. Note that the form of these overwhelming odds can vary tremendously, even for a single character or within a single story. In the recent "Dark Knight" film, for example, Batman is almost always confronted by multiple foes at once, be they Joker goons or SWAT members or Arkham inmates. No sooner does he defeat this batch but he immediately leaps/swings/glides to the next half dozen and lays into them. But overwhelming odds does not have to be represented solely by sheer numbers; sometimes the hero faces a single foe who is, as far as we can tell, vastly superior to him. We see this in Iron Man, for example, when Stane's Iron Monger armor is huge compared to Tony's, and we see it again in Norton's Hulk, when the Abomination is similarly over-large. (Hollywood likes to rely on "big" as short for "more powerful.") The "Matrix" trilogy uses both types of overwhelming odds in sequence, with Agent Smith set up throughout the first film as an unbeatable foe, only for him to be relegated to an army of minions in the second.

Power Loss and Recovery
Related to the notion of "overwhelming odds" is the concept of "power loss." A hero often loses his powers, and must either defeat the hero without them. This makes the hero's struggle more dramatic, and makes his victory more satisfying. Again, see the finale to Iron Man, when Tony's energy supply fails in the battle with Stane, forcing Tony to rely on good old fashioned explosions to save the day. Power loss often occurs as a kind of sacrifice or denial on the part of the hero, who decides the cost of being a hero is greater than he is willing to pay. Bruce Wayne gives up being Batman once Harvey Dent proves he can take on the Mob, Peter says "Spider-Man no more" so that he can be with Mary Jane and have success in school, and Banner gets rid of the Hulk just as the rampaging monster becomes necessary. These instances of the hero giving up his own powers so that he may later reclaim them under duress seem to be a variant of the classic "hero's choice," in which the hero is forced to decide between saving someone close to him personally on one hand, and an anonymous stranger on the other. In this case, the "anonymous stranger" is a stand in for the heroic life in general. The hero is forced to choose between selfish and selfless behavior. And this leads us to ...

It's tempting to call the hero a martyr, but that word has many negative connotations in our modern capitalistic society, and it is perhaps less loaded to simply call the hero a consciously selfless individual. That is, the hero wants what we all want, he needs the same things we all need, and he would like to take the easy road through life just like we all do. However, the burden of being a hero means that he must do what is difficult, not what is easy. He must sacrifice things important to him in order to be the hero. This often manifests in damage done to his personal relationships -- his marriage is a shambles, his children are alienated from him, his home is a soulless den. While he wishes for a time when he does not need to be the hero, and even occasionally tried to deny his heroism, his moral code is such that he must take action when confronted by cruelty and injustice. When he takes this action, it sets his own friends against him either because they do not know that he is a hero, or because they do know and they fear for his life. Now, related to this is the hero motivated not by a sense of altruism or a moral code, but instead by revenge. This is an old trope. Shakespeare milked it for thousands of lines, and he didn't invent it. It's not unrelated to the concept of Selflessness, but seems to be a reactive version rather than an active one. That is, the Revenge Hero still suffers the loss of personal relationships -- family, loved ones, friends -- but this all happens before he becomes a hero, so that he has nothing left to lose and this is what makes him dangerous. The revenge hero is not heroic because of his need for revenge, he is heroic because in the quest for his revenge he also faces overwhelming odds, looses his power and regains it, or what have you. His revenge is, if anything, an anti-heroic quality -- which probably accounts for why so many people like revenge heroes.

Great Power
And here, I think, is where it gets complicated. Because we want our heroes to face great numbers and terrifying foes, we want him to sacrifice, and we want him to persevere even when he has no powers at all, but we also refuse for him to be a powerless wimp. And before everyone gets up in arms about how a hero doesn't need "powers" to be a hero, of course I am talking about powers in a relative sense. In a world like that of the Batman films, Batman has powers -- his incredible martial arts skill, his arsenal of gadgets that include everything from body armor and spring-loaded batarangs to ultrasonic bat-callers and cars that drive on top of buildings. Within the context of the science fiction trappings of the Iron Man movies, Tony Stark has powers -- he's smarter than everyone else.

In any case, try to imagine Tony Stark who wasn't all that brilliant, and the whole house of cards sort of collapses. Bruce Wayne actually has his moment without powers when Ras finds him in the Chinese prison. At that moment, Wayne is just a brawler. He's just a man who beats people up. That's fine, as far as it goes, but what he really needed was the power to become invisible, the power to terrify. There are films which investigate this question of the non-powered hero, the everyman, the schlub. Mystery Men comes to mind. But ultimately by the end of Mystery Men the characters have demonstrated that they do, in fact, have powers, and those powers are what led them to succeed. I think the only one who actually gives up being a hero is the Bowler, who unwisely decides to go back to grad school. I thought she was smarter than that.

Looking back, its easy to see why suddenly writing heroic stories is a lot harder than it seems to be at first glance. We want our heroes to have extraordinary ability, but they can't be too good, because if they walk through a dozen foes without breaking a sweat that gets boring fast. The hero has to have some kind of power, but also want to give up that power in order to be an ordinary person. He has to be selfless and think of others, but his preoccupation with his own powers means he is also always thinking of himself. We want our heroes to be recognizably like us, and yet also overmen who are unfazed by all those petty concerns which annoy us in real life. The hero is wish fulfillment on one hand and catharsis on the other, both greater than any of us, and yet somehow more stepped upon, more taken for granted, and more a victim than any of us would dare to allow.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Comic Book Combat

I had some thoughts on comic book/cinematic action, specifically how it relates to computer gaming. However, because my discussion includes Champions Online in occasional detail, I had to gate it behind the Preview Forums firewall.

If you have access to that game, you can read the post here. If not, well, I talk about Thor a lot. So just go read Journey Into Mystery instead.

Thursday, July 16, 2009


A recent conversation on the CO Preview forums (which, alas, I cannot link to) brought up that old canard that superheroes are basically reactive creatures while villains are proactive ones, and this explains why everyone likes supervillains better. I got to thinking about this, and partly out of a desire to pull my weight, but more out of a desire to get back into a good writing habit, I thought I would tease out that notion a little bit, put some pressure on it, and see how it holds up.

First off we have to acknowledge that this idea is pretty ingrained in comics culture, ingrained enough that writers like Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis, a couple of pretty smart guys, have intentionally crafted books that go against this idea, with the goal of being innovative and different. The Authority was pretty clearly this sort of book from the get-go, with Sparks and later Hawksmoor making clear an intent to change the world. There have been many other books like this, some glorious (Squadron Supreme), some in- (Force Works, anyone?). This does not tell us that the premise that heroes are reactive creatures is true, but it does tell us that many writers act as if it is true, and then it tells us that the product of these writers thwarts that premise. This is something you learn fast about superhero comics analysis: there have been so many stories over the years that you can find an illustrative example for just about any thesis, and usually you don’t even have to look very hard.

Which is, of course, what I am going to do, because pro-active superheroes are far older than The Authority. Let’s start with something like the Armor Wars, perhaps Iron Man’s second-best story arc after the Obadiah Stane reprise of the original Demon in a Bottle. (Having re-read Demon in a Bottle recently for my dissertation, I am obliged to note that a story in which Tony fails to become a drunken bum is not nearly as good a story as one in which he does). Tony discovers that virtually every high-tech villain in the Marvel Universe uses equipment based on Stark designs, so he arms himself with special anti-Stark limpet mines and goes hunting them one at a time over the course of a year. Obviously, Stark’s sudden desire to go out and beat up the Beetle instead of waiting for the guy to rob a bank or, you know, actually do something bad was just a pretext for a long line of brawls with armored foes, but the fact that this was a marketing ploy intended to raise sales does not, in itself, make the story any worse. The end does not injustify the means. Tony’s willingness to go outside the boundaries of the law on his quest to make the world safe has become extended by later authors into a broad arrogance about Tony, a “my way or the highway” attitude which we see in many other stories, from his willingness to mind control everyone on Earth in order to conceal his secret identity to his role in the Civil War. And, to some extent, that attitude, that arrogance, has become something which many fans like about him. He doesn’t take any shit. And that attitude is admired by the same people who insist that villains are the proactive ones, and heroes just sit on their butts waiting for the Batphone to ring.

But we don’t have to linger on Iron Man to find proactive heroes. The Fantastic Four got their powers when an enterprising scientist led his family onto a rocket rendezvous with destiny, and those writers who have understood the FF in the many decades since have consistently written them as explorers, as “imaginauts” who travel through space, time, the Negative Zone, the Microverse, etcetera etcetera ad nausueum. This isn’t a book about stopping crime, it’s a book about Boldly Going. The X-Men were founded not to prevent bank robberies, but by a schoolmaster, an academic, who envisioned a future in which mankind and mutants lived together peacefully. The Xavier school was created to make that future into reality. Its hard to get more liberal and progressive than that, and more proactive. But I think the ultimate demonstration of Action/Reaction has got to be Peter Parker. When that blonde Ditko crook ran past Spidey and shot Uncle Ben, Pete learned that a true hero could not wait for the bad guy to do something before taking action. The hero does not linger or loiter. Any hesitation could result in an awful tragedy from which there is no recovery. And so Peter sacrifices everything, his personal life, his family, his career, so that he can patrol the streets by webline looking for Ditko crooks.

The trouble is not that superheroes are reactive, it’s that they’re so damn busy. They don’t have time to come up with complicated schemes designed to trap the villains before the bank has been robbed. That’s because, unlike the villain, the hero is on 22 pages every month, and if he’s not doing something on every one of those pages, the reader gets bored. We want our heroes to be constantly pulled in a dozen different directions at once – trying to get Gwen Stacy back from that jerk Flash Thompson, hiding from cops when you’ve been framed for a murder you didn’t commit, trying to pass your classes at New York University, pay your rent and still catch the Shocker. Only off-stage characters, mostly villains but sometimes notable vigilantes like Punisher or (a great example of proactivity for you) the Scourge of the Underworld have vast leisure time in the gutter in which they can plan, scheme, and conspire to make the world a better place. The exception to this rule is a story like Armor Wars, in which the hero drops everything else in his life in order to focus on bringing down the bad guys before something awful happens. We like those stories, not because the hero is suddenly proactive but because they are tales of sacrifice. If Tony wants to catch the Crimson Dynamo, Titanium Man and Red Ronin all in one day, he’s going to have the pay the cost, and that cost is not bruises and broken bones, it’s broken relationships, a suffering company, the alienation of his friends and colleagues and a spiritual withering that comes from a man who is too focused on the job. Read the first issue of Astro City and I dare you to call the Samaritan “reactive.” If watching a hundred re-runs of Buffy the Vampire Slayer has taught me anything, it’s that we do love our sacrifice stories.

Stories of proactive heroes like this tend to work well as limited runs. Warren Ellis and Garth Ennis could write their stories about the Authority changing the world, and then they could just turn the results over to someone else. Because now that the world has been changed, the heroes are once again trying to defend it or protect it from whatever comes next, and any claim to an innovative proactive narrative is gone. The original Squadron Supreme miniseries started with the Squadron’s efforts to change the world and ended in a cataclysmic bloodbath; see Kingdom Come for a prettier but less complex version of the same story. Both these comics end in the failure of the hero’s grand scheme, and there’s a reason for that; as with Tony Stark, these kinds of “proactive” stories are really about all-consuming arrogance. Superman and Wonder Woman think the current crop of superheroes is inferior, so they go about rounding them up and putting them in a concentration camp. Hyperion decides the world would be safer without any weapons, so he rounds them all up and destroys them. Our world is not that simple, and when these plans fall to pieces, the writers are showing they understand that. You cannot simply make people do what you want them to do. How many MidEast nations do we have to invade before we learn this? You have to negotiate. You have to persuade. You have to find common ground. And all that sort of thing takes time, time the superhero does not have.

Fans who say they want their heroes to be proactive are not only blind to the fact that the characters actually are already pretty proactive, they also are asking for arrogant anti-heroes who don’t ask for permission or forgiveness. You want to know what’s down that road? Azrael dressed up as Batman, that’s what, and all the rest of those ‘90s dark-and-gritty Watchmen wannabes, including a great many otherwise interesting heroes who suddenly never found a suit of combat armor they didn’t like. Yes, Daredevil, I’m looking at you. Superheroes don’t want to spend their day sitting around waiting for crime to happen; only peeping toms like Martian Manhunter volunteer for monitor duty. They have lives, lives which we see unfold for us every month. If you put a villain in the same situation, he suddenly looks pretty “reactive” too; suddenly all the little bits of life which used to happen off-panel are on. He’s not only got to kick that poseur off the throne of Latveria and fight SHIELD with an army of robots, he’s also got a weird love/hate thing going on with a sexy rival and he’s surrounded by an entourage of hangers-on and fanboys who all insist he get involved in their personal issues. There just aren’t enough hours in the day, and if you want to focus your attentions like a laser beam, you had better plan on making it a story arc that’s easily shelved in a trade paperback, because as soon as you finish up and give the character back to another writer, he’s going to shift gears and move on in a Bold New Direction.

Because there are monthly sales goals to meet, and “changing the world” is a story you can only tell once.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Words, Words, Words

There has been no shortage of wonderful topics to blog about over the last few months, from political issues like Palin’s sudden resignation or that delightful business about flying to Argentina to get a little sum’m sum’m to comics-related topics like the Shakespeare & Comics book I am working on with Kate Laity at the College of St. Rose, to gaming topics like my personal D&D campaign or my upcoming project from Vigilance Press, Arthur Lives! Yes, there are many, many things I could have been writing about but did not. No excuses offered.

I’ll start with something I have been having a lot of fun with lately, the Champions Online Beta test. Now, for contractual reasons, I can’t go into any detail about what the game is like, other than to say that I am enjoying it immensely, having logged probably around 25 hours on the game at this point. What I can talk about is Champions in general, which for years was simply the game which I preferred, played, and ran above all others, from junior high all the way through my undergrad years and beyond.

I discovered Champions at OrcCon sometime around 1980, when it was a 1st edition boxed set. I picked up the game and a couple of adventures, “The Island of Doctor Destroyer” and “Stronghold,” my first exposure to the “super villain prison” idea which would eventually see its result in “Escape from Alcatraz!” To that point I had played a lot of AD&D and a little bit of other games like Traveler, Gamma World, and various home-made systems, but nothing like Champions. Let’s face it, I learned how to read on comic books and they will always remain the genre closest to my heart, beating out even Tolkien if forced into a blood-for-money cage match. My first Champions character was Doctor Starr – I guess I wanted a doctorate even at the age of 12 – a super-agile staff-fighter who wore a five pointed star medallion that, in hindsight, looks like sort of a hippie bling thing. I drew him, I painted him a lead miniature complete with painted pin for a staff, and I don’t know if I ever played him more than once or twice.

That’s because I was always the GM for Champions, and when I moved to a new high school I took Champions with me and soon had a whole circle of friends defined mostly by the fact that they were my Champions group. I don’t remember a single adventure I ran for them, but there were a lot of them. The game was evolving in fits and starts back then, with additional rulebooks coming out which expanded the game’s core. Champions II and Champions III gave us vehicle rules, a few new powers, a random character generator which I never much saw the point of, rules for mental combat, and a cover which had upon it a picture of Flare bearing breasts so large that I was actually embarrassed to be seen with it. Champions II got hidden inside my notebook a lot.

I went to college in Reno and somehow, I have no idea how, it turned out that Champions was very popular there. I fell in with a couple of guys who had been playing the game even before the rules had come out, and for the first time got to play instead of GM. Champions became more or les the official game of our science fiction club, Ad Astra, and was popular enough that I used it to raise attendance at the meetings. I would run a Champions game at the end of every meeting, and you could only play if you came to the meeting. The tactic worked too well, as I had 20 players in the game that followed. For those of you that have ever played Champions, let me assure you that trying to run it for 20 players at once was a real experience and really got me thinking about how to be a better and more efficient GM.

As an undergrad, our biggest Champions project was a shared world which we called Earth-7. There were several of us who ran the game, and we each took a different city in the same world, allowing characters to move around and interact from one city/campaign to another. I had LA. Personal relationships heated and cooled – you know how it is in college – but Earth-7 remained a gravity well around which we all circled. I was still a GM far more often than I was a player, mostly because I enjoyed it, but I did finally get a character up past 100 experience points in James Mueller’s Earth-7 game. That was Manhunter; he was the son of Fiacho, a master criminal from the Champions Universe, and his only power was a devastating eyebeam, backed up by some martial arts training and a lot of skill. Manhunter had some interesting mechanics, a fun back story, and an effective role. I remember him fondly indeed.

My great failure as a Champions GM was that I could not seem to sustain a campaign beyond about 4 1/2 months. Now that I look back, that’s pretty much one semester of school, but perhaps that was just a coincidence. Anyhow, after graduation I finally managed to break that record with a new Champions game set in Europe. Earth-7 had pretty much become James’s baby by then and I wanted to play in a world which I could drastically alter once play had begun – something that was obviously problematic when you were sharing said world with other GMs. I was also able to create a central storyline and make the heroes very important in the setting, which was hard to do in a shared world. The game ran for 9 months and I was very proud of breaking my record. I still have notes for that campaign sitting in my old computer files.

It was during this time, and in the year or so that followed after I moved to Vegas to run a bookstore, that I began writing projects for Hero Games with an eye towards publication. I did a couple of articles for Adventurer’s Club, no big deal, but spent a lot more time on “Blades,” which was originally a bunch of bad guys and their magic swords scheduled for “Organizations Book IV.” Those of you who are old time Champions hacks will know that there never was an Organizations Book IV, though not for lack of trying. At the time I was working with this guy named Monte Cook, who was the editor for the Hero Games line at Iron Crown, another company which had partnered with Hero because Iron Crown had printing presses and Hero did not. There just wasn’t enough money to rationalize another Organizations Book, Monte eventually decided, so he sent my material back to me with playtest notes and suggested I seek out third-party companies who published Champions material. Instead, I completely rewrote the book and it was published by BlackGate for their cyberpunk/Highlander mash-up, Legacy. That was my first respectable RPG publication, and I remain pretty proud of it, even if no one ever played Legacy.

The next and larger project I did for Champions was a sourcebook based on the Tarot and inspired by Scott Bennie’s wonderful Viper sourcebook. TAROT: Agents of Destiny was a massive book with 70+ characters, a large collection of equipment and vehicles, and multiple adventures. Jerry Grayson did most of the art for the book, but I was told at one point Hero was commissioning a different artists to do the 22 Major Arcana characters, which I thought was something of a shame and which suitably ticked off Jerry, who felt like he had slogged through dozens of boring Wands, Cups, Swords and Staves only to be denied the reward. But then Hero Games and ICE parted ways. While this was a good thing in many ways, as Hero Games had not been in control of its own destiny and ICE had not paid many freelance creators, this also meant the bottom fell out of whatever budget Hero once had. TAROT was put on hold and never did come out, even though the manuscript and art was complete.

I became somewhat disenchanted with Hero and Champions after that. There were a lot of other games out there to experiment with, and in Vegas I had players willing to try whatever I threw at them. I ran a Dark Champions campaign set in my city of Victoria, but it died at the 4 1/2 month mark (again!). Time passed and life went on, I moved back home for a little and then back to Vegas to get married, and this was a time when Vampire and its relations were the game everyone wanted to play. Then D&D 3E happened and that led to Mutants & Masterminds, which is just so much easier than Champions and arguably even more fun that I don’t expect to ever run or play the game again.

At least on the tabletop. Champions was always a fairly intimidating game system to learn. Even Ken Hite, who managed to rave about it, acknowledges that he has never bothered to actually learn how the game works. He just lets everyone else at the table learn the rules, and they tell him what to roll and when. The latest edition of the Hero System is just getting crunchier and crunchier, which is great for the people who are devoted fans, but lousy for introducing new players. I have seen far too many eyes glaze over for me to ever try to teach Champions again. But this is exactly what makes it perfect for an online game, because now a computer can do all those mechanical things for you, and you can just play. You can fire your energy blast, and let electrons do the heavy lifting. It’s a perfect match, in my opinion. Champions has a solid setting, a long history, and much personal appeal for me. I’ll be one of those players who sticks with the game for a long time just because I recognize it. It’s comfortable, familiar, and fun at the same time.

I haven’t kept in really good touch with all the old Champions gurus, despite writing on Rogues Gallery (the Hero Games zine) for several years. I bumped into Bruce Harlick at the first GenCon West, but that’s about it. How wonderful it must be for all the Hero Games folks to see their world made into an exciting MMO. Bruce is pretty much responsible for Foxbat in the first place (I’m not entirely sure; there are conflicting origin stories), and Steve Long has labored for years to make the Champions Universe as strong as he possibly can. Now those heroes, plots, adversaries and even the innocent victims are there for millions of players to experience in a way they never would have. I read that Steve is working on a new edition of the game meant to capitalize on the MMO. It’s going to be even “grainier” than ever; a decision I can’t say I understand, but it’s not my game. All I know is that Champions is still going to be making eyes glaze over, only this time it will be from spending too much time staring at a video game, instead of from trying to understand how to allocate the points in your Variable Power Pool.