Saturday, September 8, 2012

My Introduction for Beat to a Pulp: Superhero

(When David Cranmer asked if I wanted to help him put together his latest anthology, Beat to a Pulp: Superhero, I jumped at the chance faster than a speeding bullet. I have loved comics since the day I first read them, and I've read them, almost without a break, for over 35 years. As teaser to the anthology, I present my introduction. The book will be available soon [and, as I'm writing this on Thursday evening, it might even be available now].)

In the 2008 film, The Dark Knight, the Joker tells Batman a simple truth: "You've changed things. Forever. There's no going back. You see, to them, you're just a freak. Like me." The roots of that famous line, uttered by one freak to another, can be traced back to one man: Frank Miller. And that's when you realize that it's all his fault. 

What did Miller do? Largely, as the result of his 1986 Batman story, The Dark Knight Returns, he brought serious, heavy, psychological issues to the realm of comic books all within the gritty sheen of reality. And, yes, he brought in a lot of violence. For better or worse, he changed superheroes. Forever.

Depending on your age, the word superhero conjures particular images in your head. If you were a child in the late 1930s and 1940s, during the dark days of the Depression and World War II, the superheroes you think of are color-splashed Superman, Batman, Robin, Wonder Woman, and Captain America. If you're a baby boomer, your heroes of the atomic age and the Cold War are Spider-Man, the Fantastic Four, Iron Man, the Avengers, and the updated Flash and Green Lantern. If you are like me, a child of the 1970s and early 1980s, all the above were firmly entrenched in the collective consciousness, with a few interesting space aged additions: ROM the Space Knight, Cyborg, and the mutants from Alpha Flight. For those readers who were born in the 1980s and came of age in the 1990s and 2000s, superheroes often take a darker turn: Spawn, Animal Man, Hellboy, or Rorschach.

We all know why these heroes do their thing. Stan Lee, in his origin of Spider-Man sums it up best: with great power comes great responsibility. And all the antics of these folks really are philanthropic. They really are trying to help people. And, through the ages, the stories of the colorful world of comics and superheroes, while grandiose and over-the-top, usually skirted real-world issues. Sure there were some doses of reality injected into the tales--the alcoholism of Tony Stark or the drug addiction of Speedy, Green Arrow's sidekick--but writers did not dwell in the bleakness. 

Miller did. In Miller's version of reality, Bruce Wayne is just as mentally messed up as the Joker. The hero, like the villain, is basically a psycho, and it's up for us normal folk to pick a side or get out of the way. And where Miller went, others followed. In the past twenty-five years, all the major characters have had their turn at gritty reality. New characters from new creators have popped up, each with their own psychological scars and back stories. Serious questions have been asked. What kind of toll does it take on a person's body over the years as he patrols a city night after night? What kind of mental scars form when you witness friends perish or worlds collapse? What is that special something that stops a so-called "hero" from succumbing to the darker sides of every issue? As an adult, I enjoy these serious conversations and how these stories speak to the deeper, darker parts of human nature, the parts we normally never let out.

But there's another part of me that loves the kookiness of it all. Staying with Batman but changing Jokers, in the 1989 Batman film, a different, funnier Joker asks a pointed question: "Can somebody tell me what kind of a world we live in where a man dressed up as a *bat* gets all of my press?" In this real world of ours, you might ask a corollary question: why does a man dress up as anything and go out and perform feats of wonder? 

One reason might be that it's just so much fun! Think about it: you're parents are murdered right in front of your eyes and it makes you so angry that the only outlet you can conceive is to dress up in a costume and fight other bad guys. Or: you are a high school science nerd who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and, after your uncle is murdered, you decide to dress in a costume and fight other bad guys. Or: a dying alien, the first one you've ever seen, bestows upon you a magical green ring and tells you that you are now a space cop. Or the quintessential example: you are the last son of a dead planet and you're alien DNA makes you more powerful than a mortal man on this, your adopted planet.

For a long time before Miller's seminal story, being a superhero was fun. Yes, you had to combat and defeat an army of mole men or the crazy villain who always sent you riddles or the weirdo imp from another dimension, but, in the end, the good guy always won, the bad guy was always defeated--but never killed--and the day was always saved. Being a superhero and, more important for us mortals, reading about them, was pure bliss. They took us away from reality. Who the hell wanted to read about the bad parts of life if you saw the bad parts every day? Comics and superheroes transported us to other dimensions, other worlds, where heroes would always put things right. 

Most of the major superheroes have been around anywhere from fifty to seventy-five years now. Countless writers and artists have each stamped their own unique take on these characters, changing them with the times--powerless Wonder Woman in a while suit anyone?--but the core essences of these heroes have remained the same. And that is the key to enjoying the exploits of superheroes. They are, basically, a blank canvas with carefully shaded borders around the edges. Any writer or artist can take the basic tenant of any particular hero and do what they want, to write or draw what the word “superhero” means to them. Some, like Miller, punch holes in the frame and let in something new. Others, like most of the writers before Miller, were happy and content to play within the confines of the existing borders. Writers and artists working today have the chance to do multiple things with these characters. If they want to stay within the known confines, there are always stories to tell. If not, well, the sky's the limit.

It is this sense of opportunity that the writers of this anthology bring to bear in these tales of superheroics. These stories run the gamut, too. There is the innocence of Billy Mitchell, the six-year-old Red Avenger in Kevin Burton Smith’s story. Here, that special something that draws us to want to don a mask and tie a towel around our necks is on full, nostalgic display. Steve Weddle dissects the reality of a world in which you have super-powered “others” in the midst of normal people who tend to quote only parts of the Bible. And there is the hero of James Reasoner’s tale, a story set in a time not usually associated with superheroes—the American Revolution—but nonetheless finds the classic essence of a superhero.

Did Frank Miller change things? Absolutely, but not in the way you might think. He expanded the definition of what a superhero is and what a superhero could be. He included more people into this great collective of readers and viewers who enjoy the adventures or misadventures of superheroes. He was so successful, in fact, that if you go into any comic book nowadays searching for something new to read no matter your predilection, there will be something for everyone. 

Just like this anthology. Enjoy.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Acting Out

By Russel D McLean

The third act.

I always said the McNee books would be five acts and here we are at (approximately) the halfway mark. Not to say McNee won’t return after book 5 but there things I want to do to him in these fives books that will be wrapped up by the end of CRY UNCLE, providing anyone ever lets me publish the next two.

FATHER CONFESSOR will reward readers of the last two books (I think) and should still be accesible for new readers (I hope). This is where seemingly disparate threads start to come together. Ernie Bright’s apparent corruption. McNee’s guilt. Susan’s sacrifice at the end of book 2. The whole simmering thing between McNee and Susan that has some of my readers fighting over whether they should get it on. For those readers, there may be some answers but perhaps event more questions.

But at the same time, Act 3 a place where there’s a whole new set of challenges to face. McNee has been coming to terms with what happened to Elaine, but now he has to face with what happens to his life when he deals with that loss. What happens when he is no longer looking for someone to blame?

Susan will have her own demons to deal with. She’s been a support to McNee so far, there for him when no one else was. But now she is facing her own loss with the death of her father (that’s not a spoiler, its the premise of the book) and this turnaround in roles will decidedly not be smooth, and will test her character mentally and morally.

Act 3 is always about change. Act One introduces the characters. Act Two sets event in motion. Act three changes everything we thought we knew and challenges the characters in ways they can’t expect. Act four? Well maybe we’ll talk about that next year (or whenever the next book comes out).

But in the meantime, I hope you enjoy FATHER CONFESSOR. Its been a long time coming, but I’m damn glad of the wait which allowed me to give you the book I wanted rather than compromise on it. And as ever, thank you to the folks at Five Leaves and my agent, Al Guthrie at Jenny Brown Associates, who not only suggested genuine changes to improve the book but worked with me to achieve and hone the vision I wanted to give to you, the reader.

Thursday, September 6, 2012

Devaluation Of Content

So at Harrogate this year there was apparently a panel about the Ebook. It was called Wanted for Murder: The Ebook. It had a few folks sat on it. You may have heard of it. I don't think anything controversial happened.

Oh, hang on, Weddle is passing me a note.

What? Oh, shit.

Okay, so we all know about that panel. Some stuff went down. I should say here that I'm not blogging today to grind any axes with the people on the panel. Steve Mosby in particular is a fine writer and I usually find myself in agreement with the vast majority of what he says. Any snark that arises in the post is simply because, well, I can be a bit snarky. But it's aimed at no individuals. It would also be unfair to assume that anything the panelists said represents the whole of their opinion on the subject. They got a few moderated questions and I get a whole blog, so the balance would be tipped a wee bit in my favour if I was going to try anything unfair. If anyone I quote wants to use DSD to expand on their views or to challenge how I've quoted them, jump on in.

The final thing to point out, after teasing you all with mention about THAT panel, is that I'm not writing about THAT. I found one of the other issues was the one that burrowed into my brain. And the reason I'm going out of my way to play nice at the start here is that before the phrase sockpuppet exploded the writernet, and before some hard working writers and journalists ran with that issue, the thing I'm writing about today seemed to be the thing that was stirring up emotions on the first few blogs and reports of the event.

I'm here to write about value. It's a word that got used a few times during that discussion.

To quote panelist Ursula MacKenzie (of the LittleBrown group);

"What people don't seem to get is that value is not in the means of's in the words, it's in the brainpower....and that's what people should be paying for"

Patrick Neale (a Bookseller at Jaffe and Neale) says;

"The most important point of this debate, I think, is to give a value to the work done." 

The ebook is doing nothing to devalue content.We're not fighting a losing battle here. There is no battle. The truth is, the value has never been in the content, it's always been in the delivery.

Let me back up on that briefly. Of course there is value in the content. We all treasure the content. But what we're really dealing with there is the subjective, emotional and intellectual value of art and entertainment. It's value is in and of itself, but it's not financial.

Firstly let's talk about the argument that we need to fight for a higher value being placed on art. No we don't. Art is art. It is many things; it's subjective, it's relative, it's sometimes offensive and sometimes challenging. Sometimes it's in service of a larger point, sometimes it's only in service of itself. But the minute we start to discuss what value should be placed on art we lose the fight. It then becomes that old joke about the man who asks if someone will give him a blow job for a thousand pounds, then starts to haggle on the price.

It's every conversation about a film that's ever been framed with the subject of how much money the film has made. It's every time we've tried to defend state subsidy of art by talking about the occasional financial hit that comes from those subsidies.  It creates a framework for the conversation where the purpose of art and content is to make money. This misses the point, and brings emotions into the debate that shouldn't be there. It's always been the delivery. That's what people pay us for.

We all need to be paid. Partly we need to be paid as a recognition for what we've produced. Partly we need to be paid to separate those who talk about writing from those who write. Mostly, and this is probably the least contentious point I'll make today, we need to get paid because we all have a powerful desire to eat.

When ebooks first started to grow we developed the cliched complaint that books have a smell. When Vinyl was threatened by CD's, people would talk about the smell and feel of vinyl, the scratch of the needle, the customs that surrounded slipping the record out of it's sleeve and giving it pride of place on the turntable. When digital music started to threaten the physical form altogether, we would hear about peoples need to have liner notes, to have the sleeve, to have the tactile feeling of interacting with their product. The biggest step for me as a comic reader was learning that I could let go of rolling up a comic book and having it in my back pocket, of passing around for friends to read. I learned eventually to embrace reading it on the screen. As I have with ebooks, but even that now comes with its own little tics. I love the feel of the Kindle in my hand. I've developed a sensation and a mood for reading from Kindle just as I did from a paper book.

None of this is content, it's all the fetish of delivery method.

I worked in book-selling for a number of years. It's one of the best jobs I've ever had, and I still miss it. But it's given me a chance to see this argument evolve. Right now it's all this blether about the ebook, and how it's devaluing content (boooo ebooks.) The biggest bone of contention for most of my time in book-selling was the supermarkets and how the prices they were selling them at devalued the content (boooo supermarkets.) When I first started book-selling I caught the tale end of all the fuss over the '3 for 2' and 'doorbuster' book promotions in book shops, and how they were devaluing content ( shops?)

Every generation needs it's folk devil, but you know the one thing that hasn't been affected by any of these changes? Content. To steal from James M Cain, the content is fine, it's still right there on the shelf.
Content is what we get our pride and sense of achievement from. They are a source of value to us as writers, but it's an emotional and intellectual value. It's self worth, self esteem.

The delivery is our bread and butter. And in that way, its also business. It is that old man in the joke haggling for a certain favour. Unless we are someone like Steve Jobs our role in business is to supply to an audiences demand, rather than to have expectations to set a demand. We find prices and promotional methods that work, and we use them to put food on the table (not that there shouldn't be limits to the promotional methods, the last few weeks have shown that all too clearly.)

What the panel ended up discussing was price point. And this hopefully will be the only time I ever blog on the subject. I think it's dangerous to muddle up the issues of ebooks with that of price points as if they're the same thing. It's also dangerous to muddle up ebooks with self-publishing as if they're the same thing. There is certainly a large crossover between the three, but none of them do anything to devalue content.

Steve Mosby (sorry Steve) talks about how the kind of marketing Leather was talking about was leading towards books being seen as a disposable item. This is not an ebook issue. It's also not a price-point issue. They've always been that disposable item. That's actually part of why paperback and hardback books are so perfectly designed. That's also why one of the major cornerstones of the book industry for readers -certainly any who've had low incomes- has been the second hand bookshop. Do we want to close down the second hand bookshops? Wipe out Haye-On-Wye in one move? (well, that might reduce the amount of tweed and sideburns in the UK) I've reached for the easy jokes there, and Steve is probably making points about how quickly we move on from content in our modern culture. In, out, move on. Fast food. But I don't see price point or format affecting content here, either. The fact that a reader may dispose of the book afterwards does not take the content out of their brain, nor alter the emotional investment they've had with the work that you created. Sure, it means there will be less paperbacks on shelves in future, but that's taking us back to the fetish over delivery methods, not content.

What I see here, with no disrespect to anyone who makes the argument, is that the talk of content being devalued is actually a fear over the changing market, and how to put food on the table. And that's understandable, but it's nothing to do with content. Let's focus on the real issues. The only conversations we should be having about a race to the bottom in publishing is about crap writing. And even that conversation would be a minefield, with everyone having a different standard. That's where any downward race is. The rest is just folk devils and moral panics over the very thing that has always been what the 'punter' is actually paying for- the delivery.

If we focus on that we can move on to a less emotive debate and work out how everyone puts that food on the table.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Author vs Reviewer

By Steve Weddle

I've been known to see something that doesn't make sense, then poke it with a stick.

Usually it's people acting like jackasses. Best-selling authors. Dumb arguments. Unmitigated arrogance. Poorly applied hair color. Hypocrisy. Sexism. Salinger's history of drinking his own urine and writing letters to teenage girls. Bigotry.

I'd fully intended to go off today about how the Hugo Awards have somewhere around 83 categories, but have decided not to have a YA category. What is YA, I think they argued. Are Harry Harrison's Stainless Steel Rat books (some of my favorites) Young Adult fiction, for example?

But then I read this lovely post from Laura Lippman. (HatTip, Laura Benedict) And, as we all remember, Laura Lippman and I sat near each other once, so we're pretty much besties.

That post led me to this post, about the fight between a reviewer and an author.

Not long ago, I poked a stick at, well, yes, that idiot. But I mean another situation. Not him. No, no, not her. [EDIT: Links removed upon the advice of counsel.] I mean that whole piracy thing in which the author posted personal information about someone who had illegally pirated the author's book. To me, the piracy/personal-info situation wasn't as much a "look at this ass" kind of thing as it was something to consider. How, as authors, are we to deal with piracy?

Part of the concern was that the pirate might be targeted for retribution, that the author might send legions of fans out on "stallions dark as blackest night" (or whatever that author would say) to attack the pirate.

I also, at some point in some rant, blathered on about authors attacking bad reviews, clearly hoping to send their readers to defend them.

Well, this blog post (the one Laura Lippman mentioned) about Emily Giffin and her fans borders on the tl;dr, but I'd suggest you give it a good look. It's a perfect example of where we are. I don't know any of the participants personally, and I hesitate to make any judgment calls on them as human beings. But this behavior is completely ridiculous. Have a look.

Also, there are some great new books out. The new THUGLIT is one of them. PROTECTORS is also out. BTAP: Superhero should be out shortly, as should OTR:2. Full Disclosure: I have stories in those last few. More full disclosure.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

You Call This Disabled?

By Anonymous-9

On Saturday, I was wondering how in the world I came to write a disabled main character into my first noir novel—especially when I really don't have all that much experience with disabled people.

And then it came to me.

I have a hell of a lot of experience with disabled people. It's just that I came to know each of them so well their disabilities became invisible to me, part of the landscape, like the shape of a nose or the sound of a voice—so integrated with how I related to them that the so-called "limitation" no longer registered on my radar.

My first experience with "the disabled" (I dislike that label, but for lack of a better term, that's what I'll use) was as a child. At first glance, Vicki was a young girl in a wheelchair. Her arms and legs were misshapen and tiny, while her face and torso were normal. It would have been easy to withdraw or walk on eggshells around her except for the strength of her personality. She was quick and intelligent, with a bright bell-like voice, ready for lively conversation with anyone willing to see past her physical appearance.

Years went by and suddenly we were 16.  Vicki was not only dating, she was exploring her sexuality. My jaw hit the floor the day she told me about her first highly pleasurable and ear-splitting orgasm caused by a male schoolmate who was "exploring" with his hands underneath her clothes.  He was also disabled. For a "poor little wheelchair girl" as some regarded her, Vicki sure seemed to be having a good time. Me, the "normal" one, was crawling with an inferiority complex and too insecure to go out on dates. In this case, the disabled girl was way ahead of Miss Normal.

Fast forward to 2002, and I was pursuing entertainment journalism in Hollywood. One of my fellow journalists, let's call him Carson, had a missing hand. He opted for no prosthetics, just left his arm the way it was, in short sleeved shirts. He was sent out on plum assignments by the editor of a premiere screenwriting journal—interviewing the likes of Oliver Stone, David Lynch, Harlan Ellison and more, A-list all the way. Carson's work was superb. He earned every golden assignment thrown his way.

I only realized how laborious transcription was for Carson the day I broke out my laptop and starting typing at my usual speed, about 80 words a minute. Carson stared at my hands but he didn't say anything.  In a flash, I realized that he must have spent dozens more hours than I had to, typing out lengthy interviews and editing them into shape.

Did he ever complain? Never heard a word. Because he never spoke of it, no one around the magazine thought to treat him differently or question his ability to handle the heavy-weight work. Carson showed people the way he wanted to be treated and we just naturally responded. It was a great lesson.

I could go on and on with more examples of disabled people including Mark, my landlord, a blind guy who works an IT job 40-hours a week and owns the little place I rent. When Mark walks around the property it looks like he can see, but that's only because he has every step and object memorized.

All these people (and more could be mentioned) taught me one of the most important things I ever learned: the biggest hurdles to anything, including disability, lie in the mind. We are all as abled or disabled as our minds allow us to be. Vicki, Carson and Mark inspire me and I'm so lucky to know them.

What do you think? What's your experience with disability?

Monday, September 3, 2012

Narrative Traps

I've been thinking lately about narrative traps. Where it appears on the surface that the narrative has done one thing but upon further examination a different interpretation or direction reveals itself. 

I want to talk about a couple of narrative traps that I've seen recently in Breaking Bad and Prime Suspect.  The narrative trap in Breaking Bad is a more obvious and long reaching one and the narrative trap in Prime Suspect is more subtle but puts a whole different color on the first series. 

I think a number of people hit a certain point when they watched the opening of the recent Season 5 episode of Breaking Bad, "Buyout".  For them a final line was crossed and in the opening minutes of that episode Walt became a bad guy. 

With the start of Season 5 of Breaking Bad Sandra and I went back to the beginning and started watching Season 1.  It was good to go back to the start and see where things had been and how far they had come. 

But we quickly realized something.  The Walt from Season 5 was always there. When Walt was confronting Skylar about her plan in Season 5 and shooting all of her options down?  He did that in Season 1 when Jesse wanted to kill Tuco.   

When you first watch the show you feel like you understand where Walt is coming from and that he is a relatable, every-man character...on the surface.  But the emotions roiling beneath that character lead him and the viewer to some very dark places.

So while there is a narrative trap of sorts in Breaking Bad it really is more of a case of something hiding in plain sight. 

The narrative trap in Prime Suspect is a more devious one. 

There are a series of events that make up the endgame of Prime Suspect.  Tennison's chief detractor, Otley, is removed from the case.  Tennison's old partner, Amson, is brought on to the case from a different department.  They close in on and catch the bad guy.  The cops under Tennison all sign a letter saying that she did a commendable job and they want her to stay on as boss.

All is well.  Or is it?

A couple of small scenes that go by quickly and aren't brought up again deserve a closer look: 

1) Before Otley's removal from the case Tennison demands a list of the cops who have slept with prostitutes. 

2) Amson says Otley gave him the list. 

3) Before Tennison's support is announced there is a very brief scene where Amson says something to three of the detectives ( I can't remember the exact line but it was something like "...and especially you three...").

These moments are all given their own time on the screen and I think they are intended to be linked liked this: Amson gets the list from Otley. Sees the names of the three detectives on it. Uses that knowledge to get their support for Tennison thus making the support appear unanimous.

This adds a much darker wrinkle to the narrative then the surface would indicate.  That the support for Tennison wasn't wholly earned or honest but was manipulated behind the scenes.  Further still, what if Tennison knew and used Amson as her henchman. 

Do these narratives have traps in them?  Do you like narrative traps? Even if they undermine the story?

Currently Reading: Weirdo by Cathi Unsworth

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Mom vs. writer

By: Joelle Charbonneau

This week marks an important change in our family.  My son starts school.  For any of you paying attention, you might be wondering why this is a change since the small person attended pre-school last year.  Well, this year the tot will embark upon pre-K….his first five day a week school adventure.


As a writer this makes me kind of excited.  School is only 2 ½ hours long, but that is 2 ½ hours every morning in which I can fire up the laptop and write.  Deadlines, watch out!  I’m coming for you.

However, the mom is a little wistful.  Maybe even sad.  Because while I LOVE that my son loves school and that he enjoys his friends, I know this is the first of many important steps that will help him form into the adult he will become.

That probably sounds melodramatic.  I mean, he’s only 4.  There are over a dozen years before the kid will graduate high school and take his steps into the world as a government acknowledged adult.  Before then he’ll have highs and lows.  Love school one day and hate it the next.  He’ll make friends.  Lose friends.  Enjoy activities and then ditch them for newer, more exciting adventures.  Lots of excitement lies ahead.  Lots of exploration of the world around him.

And perhaps while he started exploring more of that world last year when he attended pre-school 2 days a week, the 5 day a week schedule feels more permanent.  More grown-up.  More official that he is now his own little man with a schedule and explorations that have nothing to do with me.  That his path, while still running alongside my own, is his own.

I’m proud.

I’m sad.

The writer imagines the paths he will explore.
The mom is hopeful that his journey is filled with wonder and that his smile is just as bright (if not brighter) when he reaches the end of the year as it is now.