This is the fourth of five virtual panels that I’ll host this month in support of CORRUPTS ABSOLUTELY? You can see the full schedule here. 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.