Saturday, September 10, 2011

Comics, Batman, and Violence

(Note: I wrote this post before I read yesterday’s post by Jay. So, before you read this post, read his, too.)


Scott D. Parker

Maybe it’s just an age thing, but I’d like to run something by y’all today.

As a lifelong comic book reader and a DC Comics one in particular, it was with great anticipation that I looked forward to the big re-launch of all 52 titles. Granted, part of me was upset that the renumbering scheme would eliminate the possibility of Action Comics #1,000 or a Detective Comics #1,000, but, if the stories were good, I’d just go with the flow. What was the alternative? Stop reading comics? Not likely.

Last week, DC released only one title, Justice League. With Batman as my favorite character, I enjoyed his prominent place in that book. The first Bat-centric book to be released was this week’s Detective Comics #1. And, in retrospect, the first harbinger of what I experienced when I read this issue was present there on the cover. BTW, to extoll what shocked me, I’ll be giving away the ending of this issue, so SPOILER WARNING in effect.

Artist and scribe Tony S. Daniel draws a good Batman and has since he started a few years ago. Nothing wrong with that. Take note of Joker. See that blood on his face? Yeah, well, that’s not some marketing ploy to get a casual reader to open the cover. That’s part of the story. Joker has always been an insane murderer, it’s just the scope of said proclivities ebbs and flows with the decades. True, a malevolent, maniacal Joker is a horrifying character, but that’s what makes his great.

Here’s where I’ll give you a little insight into me, for context. I don’t have a problem with violence. Some of my favorite action movies—Die Hard 1 and 2, Casino Royale, The Rock, Pulp Fiction—are filled with violence and blood. No big deal. In recent years, however, I’ve become a bit bored with all the graphicness of modern torture-porn movies. Frankly, I just don’t want to see it. Doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate a good bloodfest in the interest of a good story, but I don’t need to see it just because it’s possible to show it. Is that a sign of age? Maybe.

Then there’s Batman. Love the character and love how I learned about him during my life. First, it was the reruns of the old 60s TV show and all of its campy goofiness. Next, was the 1977-era cartoons with Bat-Mite cheesing it up. By 1986, Frank Miller’s Dark Knight showed up as a violent Batman, followed soon thereafter by Alan Moore’s Joker. Once that template was set, the fun Batman mostly disappeared. And it is a shame, too. There should be a place in the world for fun comics and fun superheroes.

In recent years, that role has been filled by the animated series Batman: Brave and the Bold. Here, Bats teams up with just about everybody in the DC universe and fights just about every zany crook out there. It’s filled with one liners, alliterative phrases, and laugh-out-loud moments. It’s a gateway for youngsters to become introduced to superheroes*. And this relaunch is supposed to bring in more readers. But, I’m wouldn’t let them read the current crop of Batman titles.

Back to Detective #1, Joker is here, in all his homicidal glory. Early on, he gleefully stabs some dude, and, while the blood splatters, the more gruesome aspects are blessedly “below” the comic panel. Not so the last page of the issue. Here, Joker has his initial check-in at Arkham Asylum. Here, he meets an unseen person named Dollmaker and it is here where we see the feat that Dollmaker does: cut off Joker’s face and hangs it on a wall.

Yes, you read that correctly. Think the movie “Face/Off” but more grim. It’s a shocking moment, but it’s supposed to be shocking. The adult in me was interested in the direction that writer Daniels might go. Imagine, if you will, a Joker out on the loose that could look like anyone. Darn scary. But another part of me flipped to the cover to see if there was a Mature Content warning I might have missed. Not there.

But it should have been.

So, am I just getting old or has Batman comics (only ones I can speak to at the moment) becoming more violent just because? Is Batman only good as a grim avenger? And, as we commemorate the incredibly violent act that was the September 11th terrorist attacks, are comics (and movies and books) just reflecting our reality?

*Note: Brave and the Bold, in all of its silliness, has been cancelled to…wait for it…make way for a new, darker Batman cartoon.

Apps of the Week: Comixology and NFL 2011. The former so you can read the 52 new titles on the day they are published and made available in comic stores. Huge deal for someone like me who still likes to read comics but not necessarily collect them. Love it. The latter so you can follow your favorite NFL team (Go Texans!) and every other tidbit of NFL news. From what I’ve seen so far, it’s a great app.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Got your 'New 52' right here.

By Jay Stringer

First things first, the guys over at The Deceptionists podcast are recording a crime fiction special tonight. What makes a story into crime fiction? What marks out the genre? How do you write it? As long as my secret formula (coffee) works, I'll be guesting on the show to throw in my own two cents. But what do you guys think? If you have any questions you'd like to ask, head over to their twitter account (@deceptionists) and holler.

Okay. As long time readers will know, I'm a comic book reader. They're how I learned to read, and I've never stopped. I'm not the only DSD'er who reads 'em, but I'm the one who has the platform today, bwahahahahahahha.

/Evil laugh.

Anyway. You've probably heard about the DC relaunch. The 'New 52' has been quite a news story, the idea being that DC has relaunched it's entire main line back to number 1. It's not a total CASINO ROYALE style reboot, because some of the bigger titles are carrying over a few chunks of continuity. Think of it more as a new show runner on DOCTOR WHO; the past is still there, in an undefined way, but the current story can also act as the first one for a whole new generation.

The real excitement for me is that DC is also using this as the launching pad for day-and-date digital releases. That is, new issues can now be purchased digitally on the same day the print versions are released into stores. Anyone reading this is well versed in the online crime fiction community, and it's obsession with debating print vs digital, so you'll understand what a big step that was.

There's a sense of excitement in the air right now. Twitter is full of people talking about comics in excited tones and caps-lock. It's really great to see.

I know that there are people out there who read our occasional foray into comic book chat and think, well, I like the idea of comics, but I never get the time or I'd be lost in a comic book store. Another that I hear is, but there's all that continuity to learn about. Now is your time.

Head on over to comixology every Wednesday this month and check out a couple of titles. Not all of them will work. Not all of them will entertain or grasp you. A simple fact of producing 52 titles is that some will miss the mark, and different books will cater to different tastes. But along the way I think there will be something in there for each of you.

Warning, it's habit forming. Bwahahahahahhaha.

/Evil laugh #2.

What has been interesting for me in these first few days of the relaunch has been the handling of exposition. Clearly, there is a mandate from the editors that this is all about new readers. Every concept needs to be explained in the first issue, and as quickly as possible.

Just like the digital debate, this is an issue that's our stock-in-trade. How do you get past history across to the reader? What exactly is show-don't-tell, how much is too much? All issues that we could talk about, and all issues that Chuck Wendig can do better than I can.

But it's been fun watching the different ways in which the writers are handling it. There have been some that simply haven't worked. Heavy handed, clunky writing. There have been a couple of issues that have been zipping along nicely, then hit a brick wall when the writer feels the need to then explain something that probably should have been left to the reader.

I'll be interested to see what any of you have been thinking so far. Especially if you're one of those new readers that editorial mandates are trying to cater to. How much can you pick up as you go? And, as new readers, are you noticing this exposition is slowing the story down, or has you felt that you've needed it?

In closing, I'd like to single out one of this weeks titles for special praise. If you're only going to try one book during all of this, well, then I'm going to cry down in the DSD basement while uncle D asks to be let out for another flash-fiction challenge. BUT then I'll come back upstairs and say, if you're only trying one, make it ANIMAL MAN.

I read it about an hour ago, and then read it again straight away to see how it had worked so well.

It has more work to do than almost any of the other books. We can all pick up a book with Batman or Superman in it, and we'll know know at least half of what we need already, even if we've never read a comic. But ANIMAL MAN? That's a harder sell. The writer, Jeff Lemire, needs to get across a complicated back story, an unusual superpower, and a fairly unique home life. All of this needs to be gotten across in 20 pages, whilst also giving us an exciting stand alone story, making us care about the characters, and making us excited about the future. And issue 1 delivers on every single one of those.

If you open the book knowing nothing about ANIMAL MAN, you'll reach the other end knowing all that you need, and wanting to know what happens next.

Considering that this was a week when we had a new stories for Batman, Superman, Green Arrow and Bat Girl, it's a stunning achievement that the easiest and most effective read was ANIMAL MAN.

Go for it.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Tough Guys

John McFetridge

Over the past week here we talked a little about ‘male’ books and that discussion brought up Tom Clancy and Lee Child and the strong, silent (or at least not overly talkative) types – the stoic heroes – and we talked about characters being, “put through the wringer,” which has been pretty much standard operating procedure in crime fiction since... well, who first used the phrase, “When I came to,” in a story?

At the same time here in Canada our news was full of stories about three young men, hockey players, who died this summer. All three were “tough guys,” known more for fighting and hard-hitting than for scoring goals. It’s now known that two of the three young men battled depression for years and both committed suicide and the third died from a combination of alcohol and painkillers.

One thing that came up in many news reports about these tragedies was the link between depression and head injuries. There’s a lot of info on the net, of course. This article said, “The incidence of major depression among 559 people with traumatic brain injury was nearly eight times greater than would be expected in the general population, the researchers report in the May 19th issue of the JAMA/Journal of the American Medical Association.” Eight times, wow.

And it seems to me that a lot of the characters in crime fiction suffer head injuries, maybe as often as a hockey enforcer.

One of those enforcers, Georges Laraque, recently talked about the amount of stress involved in being a tough guy, "This job is so hard, physically and mentally," said Laraque. "You can go to a movie theatre the night before a game and you're thinking of the fight you're going to get into the next day. On the day of the game, some guys might be sweating because of the anxiety, have a hard time having their pregame lunch or even pregame nap. It’s often why when two tough guys face each other in a game, they want to get it over with as soon as possible so then they can play and not worry about it. This mental struggle is constant, because when this game is over, then there’s the next one, then you think about the next guy, and after a while this can drive you crazy. On top of that, you got the pressure of doing well, you want to keep your teammates’ respect, and, of course, you want to keep your job. You know one bad loss in a fight can cost you your job. Tough guys are easy to replace.”

That sounds like some characters in crime fiction. And living with that pain and that stress leads to painkillers. As one hockey player said, “Percocets are golden in the hockey world.” Former Flyers enforcer Riley Cote, now an assistant coach with Philadelphia’s top minor-league affiliate, wrote on his FaceBook page that “someone needs to step in and speak up about these very preventable deaths. This is absolutely crazy. These [painkillers] are mass produced, way overprescribed and are flooding the black market with pharmaceutically made, very highly addictive drugs. This is a growing epidemic all across North America. We need some action ASAP otherwise there will be plenty more of these sad stories.”

And, of course, many, many articles are saying the same thing – that we need to talk about this more, that maybe being strong and silent isn’t so heroic.

I remember getting annoyed with how much of the stories the psychologist Susan Silverman started to take up in Robert B. Parker’s Spenser novels. Looking back now I’m starting to understand what Mr. Parker was up to and what he was up against.

One of the things I really liked about The Sopranos was how well Tony’s battle with depression was dealt with on the show. By the end when it became known to the mobsters that Tony was seeing a psychiatrist some of them didn’t even think it was a big deal.

When I was working on the TV show The Bridge one of the stories we were hoping to develop was based on the true story about the psychiatrist that the police union set up for its members to see in secret. It seemed that police officers were even more worried than Tony Soprano was that talking to a therapist would be seen as a sign of weakness and damage their careers.

So, where are we at in crime fiction these days?

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Guest Blog Jim Winter

Jim Winter's been around quite a while. He's published numerous short stories, mostly featuring PI Nick Kepler. He's opinionated. His blog is full of tales of politics, e-bookery, and Cincinnati. Last week, he release his first e-book, ROAD RULES, which you can find on Amazon, Barnes and Noble annnnd that ol' Smashwords thingamabob. He asked me if he could do a guest blog, and since I'm a nice dude, the school year's just starting, and Jim always has something interesting to say, I agreed.

Plus, I kinda felt bad for Jim. He's hails from Cleveland:

Unlikely Heroes

There are a lot of potential heroes in Road Rules. The traditional heroes. Lt. Estevez is the grizzled veteran cop on one last case. Terri Kennedy is a senior FBI agent trying to juggle a major case with her family life. Robert Jordan is a PI with a bit of a chip on his shoulder and a personal stake in the game. Then there’s the mismatched pair of feds – Vodrey and Scalzi – who show up in Savannah to bring this caper to a close, or try to.

None of these are really major protagonists. No, this story is not driven by the world-weary tarnished night, the dedicated agent of the law, or the latest take on the buddy cop duo. Instead, Road Rules focuses on – and is ultimately brought to a close by – a well-meaning idiot, a wimpy out-of-work insurance guy, and a woman trying to prove herself by retrieving a car she let thieves steal while she was in the john. Sounds more like Harold & Kumar than Elmore Leonard.

Or does it?

One of the things that makes a story work is shaking up our expectations. Our hapless trio isn’t trying to save the day. They just blunder into it. Of course, it doesn’t hurt that they’re up against criminals whose greed exceeds their intelligence. Of all the antagonists, only Loman, Julian Franco’s right hand man, shows any sign of self-discipline. Hence, he is the only character to get his own short story (“In Collections”).

But how realistic is this?

Here in Cincinnati, we had a safe-cracking team that seemed to be unstoppable. The ringleader watched CSI and gleaned enough from the show to keep from leaving fingerprints and DNA evidence. So what brought them down? The leader kept most of the loot and paid a couple of his cohorts in cigarettes. That’s a winning gambit to ensure loyalty. Plus, he had a habit of waltzing into an East End bar – one I used to frequently deliver pizza to years earlier – and brag about the jobs he pulled. Trouble for him was two District Two patrolmen also frequented that bar. It was only a matter of time before the uniforms had an amusing tale to tell the detectives at work.

You see it time and time again. Some criminals are smart enough to get away with their misdeeds, but most generally call attention to themselves in their attempts to hide their crimes. I know of one guy dealing in prescription pills who beat up a man who caught him stealing money. Guess what happened to him. Can you say “parole”?

Or let’s look at Casey Anthony, a poster child for the criminally stupid at best. Her daughter was found by accident. Yes, Casey managed to get the entire state of Florida looking for her missing daughter only to have some guy reading meters find the body by accident.

Quentin Tarantino once talked about this. He said he didn’t just want to go through the motions where the bad guys slip around the corner and run for the getaway car. The whole premise of Resevoir Dogs, he said, was that the bad guys get the loot, slip around the corner, and get knocked over smacking into an old lady who just happened to be in the way. That’s reality.

It’s also pretty funny, and no one does that kind of humor as bloodily as Tarantino.

I’m not nearly as intense as Tarantino, though I’ve done my share of trading Pulp Fiction and Jackie Brown quotes over the years. But Road Rules is based on the premise that much of what happens in crime is based on luck. Whether it’s good luck or bad all depends on what happens and to whom.

Stan, Mike, and Cinnamon turn their bad luck into good, at least for a time.

Monday, September 5, 2011

When Life Conspires...

Practice pitching. That way, when life hands you lemons you'll have good aim and free ammunition.

That's my motto. I never heard it from anyone else, but have scrawled that in countless places, including books I've signed.

It says a lot of about me.

For one, notice I've assumed life will hand you lemons. There's no if or maybe about it. When life hands you lemons. Expect it. Prepare for it.

That says a lot about me. As a kid, I think we had a certain amount of instability in our house, and I felt like I spent all my time waiting for the other shoe to drop. As a result, I really don't like surprises. I like to be prepared, to know what's coming. I will obsess about possible scenarios and outcomes.

Brian will tell you that I talk things out. It's a good thing he's good at tuning me out, or he might have gray hair by now.

Last month was a month that conspired against us. We've been having an ongoing technological issue with Spinetingler that's irritated me greatly. I threatened to wipe the whole site at one point, and that's the least of our drama.

Brian fractured his foot, and almost died*. Okay, before he jumps on here and says I'm being overdramatic about it, you didn't see him. He didn't see him, because he couldn't hop to a mirror. We don't even know how he fractured his foot. Just woke up one morning and could barely walk. And then bad things started to happen. A piece of bone had broken off and caused internal bleeding and by the time we went for medical treatment the infection in his blood was having a field day. He lost 9.2* pounds over the next 24 hours because the medication was that nasty. We had to drive to his parent's house to pick up the kids because this happened smack in the midst of our vacation week, and I had to pull over every half hour or so to let Brian vomit.

I've definitely had better days. So has Brian.

Then we had an earthquake. Some minor damage outside the house, but we were fortunate.

Of course, then we had Hurricane Irene. That was fun. Moving everything inside, filling jugs of water, just in case. We battened down the hatches and braced ourselves.

I won't downplay the storm at all. We caught the edge of it, and still lost power a few times, although the duration was brief. Only a handful of small branches fell in our yard. On the road behind us, and further up the road from us, trees blocked roads, covered lawns, and blocked driveways.

Some of the trees at the park up the road didn't make it.

The thing is, if you asked me how my summer was, I'd give you a pretty positive response. Last month was a good month, for a lot of reasons. Just general little things that only matter to me, or my family. Career changes, book sales, personal milestones.

We caught Brian's infection in time, and he's healed, although the limp returns when it's time to talk about mowing the lawn. ;) The earthquake shook us a bit, but not enough to hurt us, just enough to give us something to talk about.

And we were largely spared Irene's wrath. I won't downplay the hurricane for a second. Just a ten minute drive from our home, there were places without power for several days. Although this state was spared the brunt of it, I believe lives were saved by the precautions taken. I don't regret any of the things we did to prepare.

All of these events did get me thinking about writing. A lot of crime fiction is about restoring order after a crime, or settling a score by committing a crime. It's when life pulls the carpet out from under you that you most clearly see the truth about your own character, or the character of others, and that's what makes tragedy a great platform for character development in writing. All too often, I see writers who sidestep a major conflict for obstacle for their character, because they don't know how to resolve it, but it's a shame, because those are ideal opportunities to really define the character and set them apart.

Writers, don't pull your punches. Let them land, and land hard. Show us what your protagonist is really made of.

Challenge: Name a book/character/series where the author really kicks the crap out of them and it makes it a better book.

* Perhaps some slight exaggeration is included in these statements. Slight. But I really couldn't weigh him, so it's anyone's guess, and it doesn't matter because he's regained it all.

Sunday, September 4, 2011

Gone Fishing

by: Joelle Charbonneau

I’ve been working on a presentation I’ll be doing this week at a local library on the importance of the first five pages of a book and decided it would be interesting to chat about it here on DSD. With editors and agents coming back from summer vacations, this is a great time to submit your work. And, if you are like me, you might have a project under contract that you need to get a jump on. Regardless of where you are in your publishing career the same rules apply. The opening of your book matters – A LOT!

Think about it. If you are in a book store, chances are you’ll see a cover that catches your interest and flip to the first page. If that first page doesn’t grab your attention (and you don’t have a previous love affair with the author’s work) you’ll put the book down and move onto something else. Just that quickly you will have either pulled a reader in or lost them. Sigh… That may seem unfair, but it’s the way it is. Kind of like fishing…


Yes. Fishing. Have you ever gone fishing? You have to pick the right bait, put it in the water and hope the fish decides it is tasty in order to reel it in. The wrong bait and the fish doesn’t take a bite. And even if they do take a bite you have to keep the tension on the line just right in order to land the fish in the boat.

Same goes for writing. With writing the opening line is your bait. You want something that will attract the reader and get their attention. The next several paragraphs are the hook. Do you give enough information and action to make the reader want to turn the page? The next several pages of the book are part of the reeling in phase. Your writer voice, the pacing, the story questions and the characters we meet will determine whether you land the reader or they wiggle off the hook.

With that in mind, what books hooked you from the opening pages and why? I’m betting anything if you take a look at those books you’ll see that they gave you the right bait, got you hooked and reeled you in.