CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? Virtual Panel: Meta-Might

corruptsThis week, Ragnarok Publishing released the definitve version of my 2012 superhero anthology, CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? This new edition features brand-new cover art and design, as well as two new stories not included in the original release.

To celebrate, I’m dusting off several virtual panels I conducted with the authors to promote the anthology. Today, I have Tim Marquitz, Ani Fox, Jeremy Hepler and Kris Ashton, four of the anthology’s contributors, here to discuss what it might be like to have too much power.

Lincoln Crisler: What do you think draws readers to stories about people with uncanny power?

Tim Marquitz: For me, it’s the idea of being able to do something so far-fetched, so far out there in comparison to the rest of the world. The idea allows for a unique case of individuality and freedom. We’re all human: we can each do what the others do, at least to some degree, but slipping into the idea of superhuman abilities, suddenly a person isn’t defined as everyone else.

A.S. Fox: There’s a certain amount of wish fulfillment in any story about magic, mutation or other incredible powers. Mythology and religion abound with miracle stories because people want to believe power beyond human limits. It explains the chaotic and dangerous nature of life, it allows for an outlet to our hope and fear and when it crosses into fiction it allows catharsis through cathexis, which is a pompous way of saying, it lets us release our inner conflicts via a little obsessive suspension of disbelief.

My story, Ozymandias Revisited, covers two of my favorite ideas – the Christian Apocalypse and the enduring notion of Hubris from Greek Tragedy. In a way, great power exaggerates and amplifies the story much like opera intensifies the theatrical nature of song. It allows the reader to explore an idea taken to an extreme and if done well is almost Socratic in its inquiry into life, nature and whatever ethical dilemma the author decides to tackle. Done wrong it’s guys in tights smashing the Nazis while babes in titanium bikinis reaffirm every sexist trope they can stuff under fan service. That’s a different kind of catharsis.

Jeremy Hepler: I believe a majority of people are drawn because these stories typically operate under the naive principle that the person with uncanny abilities has an altruistic nature and will always intervene in domestic and global disputes with a benevolent, selfless intent. After decades of repeated themes and stereotypical characters, readers have been led to believe that any character given (or chosen to have) powers will embody what we believe to be the best in ourselves, and that these characters are static, permanent, stable—something which feels comforting to anyone living in a reality where they are confronted by the same worries, pressures, and dangers on a daily basis with little or no hope of change. I believe other people are drawn simply because the possibility that there is a magical plane hidden within our science-governed world that certain chosen people are allowed (or have been forced to) tap into is exciting and hopeful.

The reasons above and their general good-heartedness is exactly why Corrupts Absolutely? appealed to me so much as a writer and reader. Lincoln said let’s strip away these hopeful stereotypes and be honest this time. Let’s give the readers something different. Let’s read about how people would probably really use uncanny powers. I think that any superhero, meta-human, supernatural, sci-fi, or supernatural fan will find this concept extremely entertaining and insightful. It encourages people to look not at what they hope they would do if given unique power, but deep down inside, if they’re honest with themself, what they would do.

Kris Ashton:I think it’s because we so often feel powerless in our own lives. When we’re small children, our parents control our destiny. In school, bullies make us feel weak. Then, when we join the workforce, it only takes one bad boss to make us feel powerless. To my mind, the best stories about people with uncanny powers provide some sort of catharsis for these deep-seated feelings, which are often closely related to rage and desire for revenge. Would your boss dare to question your intelligence in front of your colleagues if you could make his head explode ala Scanners? Beyond all that, I think the human race has always been fascinated with beings that transcend mortal limitations. As soon as people could communicate, they started sharing stories about those who were faster, stronger and smarter than any human ever could be. You see it again and again in every culture all over the world.

LC: Do you think power, super- or otherwise, comes with strings attached?

TM: Most definitely. Each case of power, each person wielding it, comes with a different set of responsibilities. You can’t do something without there being a reaction. While a person might not care that someone else is killed or hurt in the use of their power, someone else will, and eventually something will circle back around. We’re all interconnected as people and the misuse and abuse of any will ultimately create waves that affect everything. With my character in Retribution, he’s given the power to revenge himself upon the people who killed his family. For him, there are definitely strings. He finds himself part and parcel of the government and has to undergo a number of changes in order to reach the point where he can exact his revenge. In doing so, he inherits a number of masters and controls he didn’t have before the power.

AF: I have a teenage daughter and we try to teach her that power, responsibility and accountability should be equal and interlocking. That’s my ethical view. Historically that’s also rare and the idealized fantasy of power. Power comes in a lot of forms and extreme power should be the rare and idealized fantasy but does exist in our here and now life. Genocide, fascism, suppression of women, all sorts of really nasty forms of man’s inhumanity to man require super-powers to act upon a society and with ugly consequences. I’m a pessimist when it comes to cultures and power: I believe that while a person may be inherently good, power with its brass knuckle effectiveness, allows even the best of us to cut corners. From there it’s tempting and human to make your annoying neighbor’s Chihuahua disappear or get some much deserved revenge on that jerk that got you fired.

Power without accountable consequences creates an addictive thirst and unless you’ve been born with a will iron and the strength of ten pure souls, you will go down the deeply satisfying road towards gritty, smelly human evil. Now cook into that something like Superman’s powers and you have a recipe for terror. Why do we admire heroes? Because they can hurt others and choose for a variety of reasons to take responsibility and become accountable even though they don’t have to and are often penalized for doing so. There are strings attached if you believe in the soul, karma or a hereafter. If you’re existentialist then frankly let’s hope you are not the one bitten by a radioactive spider.

JH: Of course. Every form of power, whether it’s the power over your children as a parent, or over your co-workers as a boss, or the power to override the laws of nature with some supernatural ability, has strings attached. And the stronger the power, the larger the number of strings, and the harder they tug. In The Real Church, my story appearing in Corrupts Absolutely?, my protagonist Owen’s inner conflict is based on this exact issue. He is forced to decide whether or not the strings attached to his power are too horrific and immoral for him to continue using the power for his desired purpose. Initially unsure, he sets up several tests to see if the consequences of his strings are going to be too tough to endure, tests that could be catastrophic for those involved. He, like anyone given unique powers or power, struggles to find a balance between the pull of the strings attached to him and the benefit of the power. This is what makes the power powerful—the magnitude of the rewards and consequences that come with it.

KA: Always, and it has been one of the great themes in literature. Whether you’re team leader at McDonald’s, CEO of a company, or president of the United States, you have the ability to affect other people’s lives, perhaps even change them irrevocably. That’s fertile ground for drama and tragedy. No one ever said it better than Stan Lee in Spider-Man: with great power comes great responsibility. Every story ever written about meta-humans has touched on this theme in some way. Even characters like Hellboy and the Punisher, who operate on the shady fringe between good and evil, are forced to confront the toll their actions have taken on others.

Actually, thinking about that theme helped me create my story ‘Threshold’. The concept of a pain-driven vigilante excited me, but for a long time I couldn’t figure out how to make it work in the context of a story. Trying to weave a surprising or suspenseful plotline around a largely fatalistic character is tough going, let me tell you. I’d just about given it up for dead when I was commissioned to edit a one-shot movie magazine called Celluloid Superheroes. It really got me into the headspace, and I started thinking, ‘What if the protagonist’s power somehow turned against him? How could it create drama?’ After that, the entire narrative fell into my head.

LC: What power would you have if you could choose one? Why? What would you do with it? TM: While my mentality has always been the “Hulk smash!” kind, and I would love to have the raw physicality of the classic brick, I think I would prefer a more subtle power. I would love to be able to manipulate people mentally and emotionally. As for what I would do with the power: I’d get in trouble. Lots and lots of it…or not, as no one would know. Then again, I’d probably only use the power to make my life less frustrating. I’ve always found interacting with people difficult (the general populace) as I’ve gone about my daily life, and it would be great to be able to circumvent that annoyance. I’d love to go to a bar and have a drink and enjoy the evening without getting into a fight. I’d love to drive down the road and not have some idiot try to kill me and my family because they need to shave two seconds off their trip. I would love to get my order correct at the drive-thru and not have to spend twenty minutes explaining basic math or the difference between BBQ sauce and sweet & sour.

AF: I’d like to grant wishes. Of course it’s a corny thing and a bit altruistic to say so, but I’m being terribly selfish. Any power I get for myself I am responsible for and what happens when I lose my temper and fry the aforementioned dog next door? Warping reality would be awesome and having some control over who gets what allows me a certain buffer between the dehumanizing temptations of power and the reality of wanting cool stuff, good luck and a healthy happy life. It would let me help friends and family without unduly screwing up the universe. They make the wish, I get to decide if and how it gets fulfilled. Of course I implicitly trust my wife to ask for awesome things and this would allow us to work together to make positive changes in our life and the world. I was raised by hippies, believe in giving peace a chance and really would like to see every person on the planet eat 3 square meals a day, go to school and have basic human freedoms. I’m also pretty sure that given the chance I could screw up a two horse parade and should not be trusted with unlimited power – I think people are mildly horrible which is why I like writing about them. So I’d go with a superpower that in theory lets me evade the obvious pitfalls of being human. I’m also convinced I’d be the life of the party at any genie themed event.

JH: If I’m honest, like Lincoln asked authors to be with their characters in this anthology, I wouldn’t choose a power that demands great responsibility. I wouldn’t want that many strings attached. I’m a pretty introverted guy. If given a choice, I would choose the ability to fly. I would use the ability first and foremost for my own pleasure. I have struggled with addictions to various physical pleasures since a teen and this would be something that I could get thrills out of with the fewest strings attached (as long as I put forth the effort to keep the ability secret, which I think would become harder and harder due to my addictive nature). After enjoying the sensation of free flight for a while, I would then soar around the world to see all the places and things I’d probably never be able to afford to see otherwise. I would take my wife and five year old son on the rollercoaster rides of their lives. I would also use the ability to do household chores that I would otherwise have to pay someone to do, like trim the giant elm tree in the backyard, or paint the awkward eaves above the garage. I would help people in need if I came across them just like I would now, but I don’t think I would fly around searching for hero situations and notoriety.

KA: Ever since I was three or four years old, when I first watched The Incredible Hulk on TV, I have wanted to be him. It’s not just the super-strength thing – being Superman doesn’t interest me – it’s also the idea that the power has to be triggered. There’s a pervading sense of karmic justice around the Hulk: do something bad to David (or Bruce in the comics) Banner and something bad is going to happen to you. I also think it would be intoxicating to be seven feet of pure, invincible, irradiated muscle. And at a basic level, the Hulk speaks to the enraged child inside me, the one who just wants to SMASH everything when life takes a bad turn. Hmm, revenge, intoxication and smashing stuff. Looks like I’d make a very selfish superhero.

CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? Virtual Panel: Meta-Mates

corruptsThis week, Ragnarok Publishing released the definitve version of my 2012 superhero anthology, CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? This new edition features brand-new cover art and design, as well as two new stories not included in the original release.

To celebrate, I’m dusting off several virtual panels I conducted with the authors to promote the anthology. Our third panel gives us Malon Edwards, Wayne Helge and Anthony Laffan, here to discuss superhero partnerships.

Lincoln Crisler: What makes a good comics partnership, to you? A bad one?

Malon Edwards: I should first start by saying I don’t like the traditional superhero duo partnership. I know that doesn’t make much sense, considering my short story, “G-Child,” is pretty much that, but hear me out. The traditional comic book partnership never really did it for me, and the live-action Batman television series from the ‘60’s (probably unfairly) is to blame. It was just too silly, too campy and too overdone. But my brothers and I watched the hell out of it every day during the summer when we were growing up.

The comic book partnerships that did it for me were the male-female ones—Peter Parker and Mary Jane; Havok and Polaris; Gambit and Rogue; Storm and Forge (I read a lot of Marvel). The appeal for me with these kinds of partnerships was simple: hormones. I couldn’t help but be intrigued by beautifully drawn women who were more than just a pretty face and a tiny waist. These women were strong, they could kick ass, and that was cool as hell. My fourteen-year-old-self wanted to be their boyfriend.

Wayne Helge: I really enjoy a partnership with some degree of emotional tension stemming from the relationship. And so the newest Robin has been great, whether paired with Bruce Wayne’s or Dick Grayson’s Batman. Damian Wayne wasn’t trained by someone who abides by Bruce Wayne’s pedagogy. The tension that results is great because Batman is not only concerned about solving the crime–he’s also concerned about Damian’s behavior. Will he stay in line? Will he act out and take a life? I love that aspect of the relationship, since Dick Grayson and Tim Drake always seemed to stick close enough to the spirit of Bruce Wayne’s instructions.

This aspect of a partnership isn’t just in comics. Ford Prefect became much more interesting once he wasn’t there just to escort Arthur Dent through the Universe. And Paul and John? Much more interesting after about 1965. Another great partnership in comics was Yorick Brown and 355, from Y: The Last Man, where the tension was a romantic one that built very slowly. I don’t want to say much more. I’m still in mourning over the outcome of that one. Peace out, indeed.

It’s hard to pinpoint a bad partnership, because there are so many ways to do it wrong. But a partnership without internal tension seems, to me, to be missing a great opportunity to make a story more intriguing.

Anthony Laffan:A good partnership in any medium needs to have some element of conflict in it, at least in the beginning. This conflict between the two partners allows for a different level of tension and drama to develop as the characters bicker and jockey for dominance with their personal viewpoints of the world and how it works. In comic books you can see this in many of the depictions of Batman and Superman where they don’t agree with the other’s methods and both strive to have it done their way. In Marvel the best analogue – sticking with popular characters anyhow – would be something like Spider-Man and Wolverine.

Obviously, over time the partners accept the differences and move forward as a truer team, but this can only happen because of those conflicts. The conflicts also enable the partners to make a stronger team because the different view points often show us different strengths and weaknesses with each character, and those strengths and weaknesses can be made to compliment or protect the duo as need be.

Sabre and Fox (from Laffan’s story in CORRUPTS? –Ed.) would be this kind of teamup. One that is beyond the point where the quirks and difference in views of the other is a regular problem or point of contention, and where the two – while possibly disagreeing on a point – can respect the other person and know that the methods are at least still viable.

On the other hand, most of the bad matchups I’ve seen have been ones where there isn’t this level of personal conflict between the two characters at any point. Imagine a pairing between Superman and Spider-Man. Where is the tension? They’re both, basically, boy scouts. There is no tension between the team, no conflict to overcome and thus make stronger bonds. It gets boring really fast.

LC: What made you want to tell a story about a metahuman partnership?

ME: I’ve never told anyone this (except my wife, and my oldest brother, the only person I showed my work back then), but when I first started writing—I mean really writing—I wrote young adult fiction. It was pure escapism. In middle and high school, I was quiet, shy and socially awkward, especially with girls. So my main male character, Kris Parker, was the opposite. I filled up legal pad after legal pad of stories about Kris Parker and his on-again off-again girl, Kim, and then one day I threw them all away and started writing science fiction.

A few years ago, I started writing a series of stories about teenaged metahumans whose mothers took an experimental prenatal drug while pregnant. Some of these children developed powers when they were teenagers, and were recruited by the government to be part of special ops teams. While that’s the basis of “G-Child,” I went back to my young adult roots for this story. But I shook it up a little. Instead of having a first-person narrative by a male character, Bliss is narrating the story. Her relationship with Rayge is strained, though, but the romance is still there. Subtle, but there.

WH: I’m very interested in the tension between a sidekick who grows into a full-fledged hero and the mentor who refuses to acknowledge (or decides to ignore) the sidekick’s new role. This is the tension that I tried to emphasize in Gone Rogue, where the sidekick is beginning to display some proficiency in handling the bad guys on his own. Once that happens, how long will the sidekick be content in working under the mentor’s shadow? When does the sidekick earn equal billing? With only two people in the relationship, the answer depends greatly on the individual personalities. What is the sidekick’s tolerance for b.s.? How much does the mentor relish in the role of teacher? And what are the perks associated with being the mentor? The various Robins have always had a disadvantage because Batman never seemed to want to give up his patrol of Gotham. But what about the mentor who wants a night off? Or two nights off? Or a week’s vacation?

The other aspect I wanted to explore was how a sidekick develops his own rogue’s gallery. I believe Gone Rogue takes this element to its logical conclusion. A close relationship handled incorrectly could easily lead to hard feelings.

AL: I’d say it was less an issue of wanting to write about a partnership and more about the need for the story itself. The story I wanted to tell with Sabre was about how I see a character like Tony Stark really working out. Sabre’s ploy isn’t something that she alone can pull off, which means that she needs someone else to pull weight in those areas where she can’t. Fox provides all of this, and a bit more, which also allowed me to show more of Sabre and just how she works.

This goes back to the previous question, but when you only have a short space of time to show a lot about a character you need to delve into the bag of tricks. One of the best tricks for showing a person is to show a partner, what the partner does, and how the two work together. With every light brush you give to define the partner, you also define the main character which effectively gives each line twice the work.

LC: What’s your favorite team-up, comic or literary?

ME: The first that comes to mind is Johnny Mnemonic and Molly, and I’m not talking about the movie version. Johnny is just enough street for me to like him, and Molly is just badass. Cayce and Bigend in Pattern Recognition (I read a lot of William Gibson) might be an odd choice as another favourite, but something about their partnership just does it for me, even though it’s not romantic. Cayce is quirky as hell and Bigend is an asshole and crazy rich, and together they’re so interesting.

My hands down favourite, though is Gambit and Rogue. I thought they had such a complex relationship in the beginning, despite the annoying and persistent mystery surrounding Gambit. I liked that Rogue was tough as hell, could kick some major ass, but then was so fragile mentally and emotionally at the same time. She was more than just a pretty face and a small waist.

Bliss in “G-Child” is very similar that way. She can hold her own and go toe-to-toe with the best in the business, but take a peek into her mind, and you won’t like what you see. And then she’ll make sure you never see anything ever again.

WH: I grew up with and always loved Tim Drake, who was a detective before he was a sidekick. But my favorite Robin stories were usually with him alone, trying to prove his skills to his mentor. Of course, a sidekick detective who could outthink the mentor is an asset… or a potential threat. I’d love to see if somebody takes advantage of that aspect of Damian Wayne in the next few years (or did we already see the result of that in issue 666? Does issue 666 still matter? Does anyone out there follow me?). I’d love to see a Simon & Garfunkel-level hate spin out of that Batman/Robin relationship. Last, I don’t want to miss a chance to rave about the greatest team-ups – my favorite writer/artist teams: Hill/Rodriguez, Vaughan/Harris, and Aaron/Guera have been the core of my comics habit for the last 5+ years.

AL: I’m going to have to cop out here and say I don’t have one in particular. My favorite team-ups though are the ones where you get the “hero” and the “villain” working together towards some greater goal. Sure, this means that the stakes have to be higher – why else would established villain A be working with the hero who keeps putting him/her in jail? – but it also gives you a lot of awesome tension between the characters as well as a chance to see at least one of the characters – usually the villain – in a new light.

When you have these team ups though, your head is always running with questions. I mean, you know that the partnership can’t last, so the question is how long will it last? When will one of them betray the other? What if the villain plays it straight? Usually not, true, but sometimes they do. These stories also give the writer a lot of different ways to mess with the audience. Subtle innuendo can be wildly misconstrued just because of what we know about the characters and how shaky the partnership they have actually is.

CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? Virtual Panel: Meta-Misses

corruptsThis week, Ragnarok Publishing released the definitve version of my 2012 superhero anthology, CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? This new edition features brand-new cover art and design, as well as two new stories not included in the original release.

To celebrate, I’m dusting off several virtual panels I conducted with the authors to promote the anthology. Our second panel gives us Jeff Strand, Ariyana Spencer and Trisha Wooldridge, here to discuss female characters in metahuman fiction.

Lincoln Crisler: What about your story demanded a female voice?

Jeff Strand: “The Origin of Slashy” is about a woman who is raped and then seeks vengeance against all men, so it would have been a bit trickier to do with a male protagonist. I’m not sure that the level of sympathy for our “hero” would be quite the same if the roles were reversed. Not that a man couldn’t be raped by a woman and then seek vengeance against all women, I suppose, but that’s not the story I was trying to tell. That might be interesting, though. Maybe I should write that. Except that one rape story is probably sufficient for my oeuvre, so I probably won’t.

Ariyana Spencer: Cat’s Eye as a character appeared to me, complete with backstory and gender, before my story was ever written, but for this specific tale, I think gender was important in regards to the content, as well. Parents impact us on such an extreme level, genetically and environmentally. In my story, “Oily,” Cin, AKA Cat’s Eye, was shaped by her relationship with her parents, the absence of her late mother and the closeness with her father, the only person who knows about her secret identity. “Oily” also deals directly with a mother character, and I think Cin reacts the way she does to this woman, emotionally, both because she herself is a woman and because she doesn’t have a maternal figure in her life.

Trisha Wooldridge: When I write, the character comes to me first, so it’s not so much as the story demanded a female voice, but that Victoria came to me and demanded I tell her story.

I had been holding onto the call in my inbox for a while, intrigued with the idea of more believable, human, responses to having super powers, but it wasn’t until I saw the update that there was a lack of female protagonists and there was a desire to see more mechs, more people with intellect that allows them to create powerful weapons – like Tony Stark, for example – that Victoria stood up and wanted to tell me a thing or two about dealing with people who had such grand aspirations and issues. And oh, what happened when they put their super-egos up against someone with actual superpowers!

Regarding the question wording, though… I don’t think most stories “demand” a male or a female voice. The story – or the plot – depends on the characters actions/reactions – you’ll often have a different path of resolution based on how a character defines him/her/zirself in regards to gender, sex, and sexuality, but there is also an important aspect of having incidental gender/sex/sexuality, too. With Victoria, her Latina identity is incidental; there’s nothing in the plot hinging on that–it just is. But, in life, not every adventure or problem hinges on race, gender, sex, etc. Sometimes those things don’t matter at all. While some of the choices in how Victoria deals with her family and work are, in my experience, much informed and influenced by being a woman, the plot of an oppressive, overly-entitled, a$$hole boss challenged with someone who refuses to submit to his/her/zir whims could be resolved similarly if the characters’ sexes/genders were changed. What goes on in each of their heads and how they are motivated, however, would be what changes.

LC: What are your thoughts on the use of women characters in speculative fiction (frequency of use, quality of storytelling, male authors writing women, etc.)?

JS: I think that when male authors have poorly written female characters, or vice-versa, it’s less a case of getting the gender wrong as much as getting the character wrong. All women are different. All men are different. Yes, in general, men scratch more often and are less inclined to drown their sorrows in chocolate, and women are more likely to purchase unnecessary footwear, but we’re all individuals. When you read something by a man and say “This author doesn’t understand the female mind,” it’s very rarely a case of getting the “female” stuff wrong. A one-dimensional character is a one-dimensional character.

AS: I try, purposefully, not to think too hard about the use of women characters in any fiction. Of course, then a glaring stereotype comes along and slaps me across the face. I think, though, that male characters are just as likely to suffer from lack of use as main leads in some sub-genres (the paranormal genre comes to mind) and from stereotyping. I think what is most important is that women characters appear in a storyline organically, instead of being forced into a plot. It’s very obvious when a female has been added to the cast just for the sake of having a female heroine, and it’s equally as obvious when a honking dose of “femininity” has been dumped into the filler, just in case a reader somehow didn’t notice the character’s sex. I think male writers can write very well for female characters, just as women can write believable male characters. A well thought out character is a well thought out character, no matter the gender.

TW: I’m coming to this as the current president of Broad Universe, which is a feminist organization dedicated to giving more voice to women who write sf/f/h… and also a perpetual panelist at conventions on women characters in sf/f/h… so, forgive me as I try to avoid hopping on a soapbox, here. :)

The easiest of your questions is regarding my thoughts about male authors writing women… I feel the same about that as anyone writing about a gender they don’t identify with–I complain to women writers who write crap men to talk to men. For anyone, if you construct the character with the truest intention, chatting as much as possible with members of the written gender, sharing with beta readers of that other gender, you’re doing good. That goes for race, ability/disability, class, cultural experience, etc. No writer, male, female, otherwise, should assume they can write without research and support–and in this day and age of global awareness and connectedness, there’s no excuse to not do your research, reach out to others, and be informed.

I can probably ditto that comment in regards to quality of storytelling.

As for frequency, that’s more complicated.

If you look at paranormal romance and much of YA, you’ve actually got a lot of female protagonists (and antagonists) who are well-written and believable… to the extent that there is actually more room, and even some work needed, in writing believable male protagonists and side characters. You’ve also got a predominantly female author base. Moving towards horror, science-fiction, and the better-known high fantasy, the authorship is still, currently, very male dominated. I have definitely seen positive growth in female characters in all genres, but you still have a lot of place-holder, two-dimensional, or outright delusional/crazy women.

I believe a lot of this is simply because people prefer to write some of themselves in their protagonist. There is a clear correlation between the gender/sex of the author and the gender/sex of the protagonist. That leads to much of the problem being in publishing – Of course, now, you can’t turn an ear in any direction without hearing how the whole publishing industry changing. I have seen a definite, positive change in female characters since I started devouring books in my tender single-digit years, and I have seen a definite, positive change in the number of women getting published and recognized in genre fiction. Is there still room for improvement? Absolutely! But I look forward to seeing us continue the growth and balance that’s happening.

LC: Is there something you do differently when writing a female main character as opposed to a male one?

JS: I avoid describing their penis, and I try to include at least one “soaping up breasts in the hot shower” scene.

No, I don’t approach it that much differently. “The Origin of Slashy” required a female main character, but my thought process was not “How would a woman behave in this situation?” It was “How would somebody behave if they lived their life afraid of other people, and then were horribly violated by another human, and then suddenly acquired superhuman powers that eliminated the need to live in fear?” (Answer: Their reaction would probably be socially unacceptable.)

AS: My short answer? Not really. I rarely put much thought into a character’s gender when I’m writing. When a story comes to me, I instinctively know who should be telling the tale, which point of view I should explore. Whether that POV is through male or female eyes is a decision made on the subconscious level. So, when I write for a character, I consider who they are as a person, including how gender roles have impacted them throughout their lives, but I don’t really consider how to make them come across as more feminine or more masculine. If I’ve done my job, if I’ve properly fleshed out a character, then the rest should come naturally.

TW: Yes, and no… and it’s not necessarily limited to main character or point-of-view.

No, in the fact that I research all my characters. Yes, I’m a woman, but I don’t relate to many women outside of SF/F/H fandom; I simply don’t understand their conditioning and motivation. So, I ask lots of other female friends of mine who are only barely on the fringe of fandom to give me feedback on how my women are. For Victoria, in particular, I’ve been out of the corporate world for so many years, that I was especially happy when a woman in one of my writing groups helped me finagle my main character through proper corporate protocol and meetings in the manner of most businesswomen. The fact I research and double check is the same, no matter what gender or sex I write.

Yes, in that I specifically ask my husband and other male friends if I’m getting my men right. I’m fortunate to have a fannish husband who, himself, is a good writer and an avid reader. I’m also fortunate to be part of one particular writers’ group with a lot of men who indulge me by explaining certain male motivations and body language. I’ve learned a lot from them over the years, too, because I was especially delighted when they had very few critiques of Bill, Victoria’s husband, and how he acts. I was, like, “Yay! I got it right!” Which, you know, is a totally girly squee.

CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? Virtual Panel: Meta-Morality

corruptsThis week, Ragnarok Publishing released the definitve version of my 2012 superhero anthology, CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? This new edition features brand-new cover art and design, as well as two new stories not included in the original release.

To celebrate, I’m dusting off several virtual panels I conducted with the authors to promote the anthology. Today’s dip into the archives gives us Ed Erdelac, Jason Tucker and Wayne Ligon discussing morality and how it applies to superpowered characters.

Lincoln Crisler: What is the best example of a moral conflict you’ve read in genre fiction?

Wayne Ligon: Magneto. After several retcons he’s been remade from a simplistic bad guy into a man who has been placed at a significant remove from society at various times, once because of his religion and again because he’s a mutant, and decided to strike back. The irony of him being a Holocaust survivor who now sees himself as superior because of his genetic heritage, and as the only possible mentor for his species, is what makes him one of the great villains in the hands of a competent writer.

Ed Erdelac: That’s tough, trying to narrow it down to all of genre fiction. The first thing that comes to my mind, probably because we’re talking superhumans and because it’s been in the news lately, is the moral choice the survivors of Watchmen have at the end of Alan Moore’s graphic novel, to either ‘out’ Ozymandias’ scheme and bring him to justice for his crimes, or go along with it and allow the nations of the earth to turn away from the brink of annihilation and unite in a common, if false cause. It’s especially meaningful I think for the Rorshach character, who is inseparable from his severe moral code. And of course, he chooses selfishly, but we still feel for him. It’s a wickedly well written moment.

Jason Tucker: You can find quite a few good examples of moral conflict when it comes to genre fiction, and it’s hard to choose the best. In Frankenstein, you have the moral conflict of creator versus created. Is it okay to kill the thing you’ve created – and should you have created it in the first place?

Stephen King’s Pet Sematary sticks in my mind as a tale with both moral and spiritual conflict. Is it okay to bring someone back from the dead? King shows us that the things that come back aren’t the same as the things you’ve lost. It’s morally wrong to do so, and it’s dangerous. But that doesn’t stop the longing to regain what was lost. It doesn’t stop Louis Creed from burying his dead son there, and subsequently his wife even though he knows what could happen.

LC: What do you feel makes for a good moral conflict in a spec-fic story?

WL: Man versus Society. With the introduction of extraordinary abilities or resources usually present in most spec-fic, any struggle between the human and the metahuman is usually a forgone conclusion. You have Superman versus Bank Robbers. The only possible story there is spectacle and you can only run that a couple of times unless it’s for comic effect. Superman versus an overloaded court system, though, can be a viable story. He can triumph against individuals all he wants, but he still has an ongoing struggle against a social construct that can’t be dealt with except over time.

EE: In any fiction I think a provocative moral conflict arises when the needs or wants of the protagonist do not entirely coincide with the greater idealistic ‘need.’ In term of heroic fiction, it’s when the hero would just rather settle down with the girl or go read Tom Sawyer, but he knows in his heart these simple things are going to be denied to him because he’s the guy in the moment – the guy that needs to do what needs doing. T.E. Lawrence doesn’t want to lead the Arab revolt because he sees where it’s going and that he’ll be blamed for it. He wants to go home to England and ride his motorcycle. In The Last Temptation of Christ, Jesus wants to settle down and raise a family. In my own Merkabah Rider series, the Rider’s quest for revenge balloons into him having to save Creation. He just wants to satisfy his personal vendetta and go have a normal life or return to his studies. But it’s the guy making the right choice that we want to read about, because that’s the guy we all like to think we can be. Or at least I do. Of course, the reverse it equally as interesting if it’s done well. What about the guy who abandons his post and then has to live with it, or die because of it? People can be self serving, but they can be selfless too, and both sides of the coin are worth a look.

JT: Conflict of some sort is integral to any story, speculative fiction or otherwise. Moral conflict is a slightly different beast and it can be very powerful. The beauty of moral conflict in a story is that you have the ability to dig your way right inside a reader’s head. When a reader has to question morality (as agreed upon by modern society) and see that the world is gray and not black and white, it can have an effect. It can make the reader question right and wrong and understand that some decisions, even though they may seem wrong, are for the better.

Murder is a good example of this. Yep, murder.

Most people are going to agree that murder is wrong. Yet, I believe that everyone has the capacity for murder under certain conditions. Everyone. Ingrained morality is one of the things that make people, refrain from murder. Fear of reprisal is another. Yet, murder is just a few bad minutes away in all our lives. If someone breaks into your house and tries to hurt you or a loved one, you will murder to survive and to protect your family. Is murder in that case morally wrong? I don’t think so. And in most cases, it’s not wrong from a legal standpoint either.

What if you can’t prove the person you murdered was trying to hurt you or someone else though? In “Enlightened by Sin”, my story in Corrupts Absolutely?, the protagonist is able to see peoples’ past and future sins. Knowing all of those bad things people have done and the things they will do drives him to kill. Victor Ives a villain by most accounts. Yet all of the people he murders are killers themselves.

What would you do if you had the power to see into people’s minds and you really knew the bad things they’d done? I have a feeling that more than a few people would take the same path Ives does.

LC: What’s the best part of using metahumans to tell a story about human morality? The worst?

WL: Transcendence. For mortals, moral conflict is something they face but often their choices are dictated to them by their abilities. A rich man, for example, in many cases has more options open to him when faced with such a conflict than a poor man. If the guy at the loading dock realizes that the goods he’s shipping are made by enslaved children, quitting may be his only option. He can’t help the children personally but he can at least remove himself from the system and hope that his part was large enough that change could occur. The president of the company, however, could bring to bear economic sanctions or public pressure that are much more likely to result in better working conditions.

For a metahuman, their range of choices expand exponentially with their abilities. If our loading dock guy suddenly gets superspeed, he could then take a personal hand in correcting the problem by moving the children to a safer area or by dismantling the factory. Their transcendent abilities allow them to become personally involved in situations while most folks can only engage through layers of intermediaries, if at all.

The problem with using metahumans to tell such stories mainly comes when artificial constraints are placed on them so that the status quo is maintained regardless of what they do. For episodic fiction, that can be understandable but the restraints either have to be believable or their power needs some significant checks on it, either externally (their power isn’t really all that super or they have some significant opposition) or internally (“You know, I really don’t care where my cheap shoes come from, so long as I have them”).

EE: I think the best part of using metahumans to showcase moral conflict is you can exaggerate the emotions and stakes to the nth degree. You almost have to, to give readers what they expect. But you can use metaphor to get a message to people who wouldn’t normally be open to it. That, in my opinion, has always been the goal of good genre fiction. Planet of The Apes could address racial and economic injustice in the framework of a science fiction story. Star Trek did episodes about the ethics of euthanasia and religious tolerance (or intolerance), and a myriad of other issues.

In my story Conviction, the main character is this picked upon inner city youth who has been told his whole life that he’s utterly worthless. When a sympathetic social worker comes and gives him a sliver of hope, something no one’s given him before, he takes the notion that he can control his life so literally that he awakens a dormant power within himself. Yet when he goes about setting things right, the stakes continually escalate. As he cuts through the symptoms of crime and corruption in the housing project where he lives, he begins to realize that nothing is right anywhere – there is no end to the problem. It’s like a root you keep pulling and pulling at. Now this slow dawning socio-economic realization of his can be depicted with exploding gang bangers and imploding police cars because it’s a dark metahuman story and I can take these real ills that might be shown in a more subtle (but probably more harrowing, more shocking) manner in something like Precious or Native Son, or Boyz N The Hood, which are all grounded in reality and disguise them, or paint them in broad colors.

The trick, and this is what is worst about trying to tackle big issues in a story about super (or not so super) heroes, is it’s a very fine line to walk, between saying something and coming off like a pretentious dork, because of course metahumans are inherently silly. Despite the strides made with books like Watchmen and From Hell and The Dark Knight Returns, superheroes are still four color comic book denizens with two color ideals in a lot of peoples’ minds, and not something to be taken seriously. That’s the worst –and it’s pretty bad. Alan Moore works in a variety of different mediums, but he’s still predominantly known as a comic book writer, and for all his accolades and well deserved respect within certain circles, the greater populace will still roll their eyes, and the ‘literary’ elite, for the most part, will dismiss him. But do creators of metahuman fiction write for those people anyway? Probably not. Should they? Everybody wants to cross over. If we don’t are we just preaching to the choir? Eh, I don’t know. For my part, I write the stories I would like to read, because they’re not out there.

JT: The best part is the freedom you have to develop larger than life characters and plots, and you can get away with some crazy stories. Superheroes are modern day mythological characters. Hell, you’ll even find mythological characters cropping up in comics – Thor, Odin, Hercules, etc. Using metahumans allows writers to develop grand, impossible situations that no human would ever have to endure while still imparting stories about the human condition.

Also, it’s just really fun to make up superheroes and villains.

Of course, you have to be careful when writing metahuman characters. If you aren’t careful, the story could dive into campiness rather quickly. If campy is the type of story that you want to tell, that’s fine. But if you are trying to tell a gritty, superhero noir tale that seems real, you have to be careful about the language, characters, and situations that you use. Otherwise, it becomes parody, and your original point might be lost.

The Walking Dead Season Four Retrospective

The week after the season five finale, I soothed my soul by rewatching the show from episode one. After the short first season, I discovered the better way to watch Season Two. As much as I feel Season Two improved on the show’s initial effort, watching Season Three all over again did nothing to change my opinion that it’s where the show really found its legs and turned into what we love today. Season four is, in many ways, a continuation of Season Three, which might be a big part of why I feel Season Three was the show’s launchpad into its current state of glory.

— I enjoyed the initial sickness threat that plagued (pun intended) the survivors at the start of the season. It was part of the logical progression of things, as anyone who’s been around an elementary school daycare or soldiers’ barracks can tell you, and it was something they hadn’t faced before–an enemy they couldn’t fight with their hands and weapons.

— Nothing really compared to the continuing threat of the Governor, though. As groan-inducing as the prior season finale was when it didn’t end with his death, as a storyteller myself and as a fan of the show and comic, I was glad they didn’t dispose of such a great character so readily. His two-episode solo arc kicked ass, leading into an outstanding (well, not for Hershel, I suppose) mid-season ending.

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— Carol’s arc this season was a complete departure from the comic storyline, and I loved it. From the season premiere she was presented as having inherited Comic Andrea’s badass crown–something the television version never had, and she’s been delivering on that promise ever since. Given the demise of her character far earlier in the comic version of the story, she’s as much of a wild card now as Daryl, a character created specifically for the show.

— Remember how I said Season Two was much better when binge-watched? The back end of Season Four is like that, too. I heard/read a good amount of complaining about the character-specific episodes after the group was scattered in the aftermath of the Governor’s attack on the prison, and it’s not nearly as vexing when you know you can watch the next episode right away. We wouldn’t have had “The Grove” (while we’re on the subject of Badass Carol) or the development of Beth into a character we cared so much about without this type of writing.

— Abraham, Eugene and Rosita’s introduction. Perfection. ‘Nuff said.

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