Thursday, August 13, 2009

Spanner: Destroy the Superhero Universe?

And now, to explain the apparent arrogance of that last entry...

I started collecting comics in 1989. By 1991, when I (re)discovered anime and started writing my first story notes on what would become Spanner, I'd gotten tired of superheroes: they had begun to blur together into one featureless super-blob. By 1994, I was a pretty fanatical otaku and had begun openly proclaiming to my fellow anime club members that the only way to break Marvel's stranglehold on the American comics industry was to destroy the superhero universe altogether. Manga publishers Viz and TokyoPop eventually broke that stranglehold, driving Marvel to the movies, but by then my purpose was fixed.

My original purpose for Spanner: to destroy the superhero universe!

By 2005, I discovered just the weapon I would need: public domain superheroes. The American Crusader, the Scarab, and other public domain superheroes have been used by others, but I'm giving them my own demented twist as I make them conform to my 1994 redefinition of "superhero" to become something more Nietzschean, Wagnerian, and downright scary. Part of the reason for my prequel "Dictel trilogy" of NaNoWriMo novels (current WIPs: Bad Company and Black Science) is to establish the "science-fictional" premises of Spanner with as much scientific plausibility as possible, including superpowers, augmented reality, and even vampires. (Yes, I can give you a perfectly scientific/medical explanation of the vampire, and a major plotline in Black Science will give the full explanation.)

Just as I'm defying the conventions of science fiction (including cyberpunk) in both the Dictel trilogy and Spanner, I'm also defying the hallowed ancient conventions of the superhero genre. I start with a definition of "protagonist": the character who puts the story into action and dominates it (usually; sometimes the protagonist dies and is replaced by another who carries out their mission) until they win or lose the story's central conflict. In the case of superhero stories (and cop shows as well), the villain is the protagonist. This must be so, or the superhero will be in danger of becoming a villain, like Ozymandias in Watchmen. In Spanner, the superheroes are still technically antagonists, but they are no longer necessarily heroes, just as Ozymandias is no hero. Basically, you can't allow your basic law-and-order superhero (or cop hero) to be the protagonist, or he'll probably turn vigilante — or worse (see: Ozymandias).

Contrast this with Spanner. One of the core concepts behind it is the catalyst hero, who gets the story rolling and brings others into it. Take a precocious teenage girl with charisma, lots of friends and social connections, a deliciously scandalous reputation, and a lifelong intolerance for bullies. Stick her in a corporation-ruled country consumed with that notorious Anglo-Saxon affliction known as tall poppy syndrome. Now, corporate bosses are notoriously conservative, and in a corporatist state they form the aristocratic elite. And this particular corporatist elite — that of the "Corporate Empire" ca. 2014 — is as obsessed with eugenics as it was a century before (see: Black Science). Also consider that Shira's family (the Richter-Thomases) and the Beckets are locked in a family feud dating back at least to the founding of Dictel Corporation in 1947. Shira is jealous of her freedom, but the Beckets (especially their patriarch, Lord Dictel, the cyborg dictator whose body is the corporation itself) are equally jealous of their control. Put them all together, and you have — trouble!

Besides the basic narrative structure of the superhero story, there's other genre conventions I'll be horsing around with. Take, for example, the "origin", or story of how a character became a superhero or supervillain. Take, say, Jackalope Man. His origin? He got bitten by a radioactive jackalope and gained super jackalope powers. Once early on, Shira jokes, "Oh no, I think I just had an origin." It'll be a running joke among the heroes.

I said I wanted to destroy the superhero universe with Spanner. But things have changed in the fifteen years since I made that decision. For one thing, superheroes no longer define "mainstream comics"; that label now belongs to the mass of manga imported from Japan. I got my wish: superheroes are now just one genre among many in comics. Second, with the long slow collapse of the comics direct market of specialty shops, Marvel and DC realized that if they wanted to keep superheroes in the cultural mainstream, they would have to go to movies and television. And they did. So superheroes are no longer strictly a comic-book phenomenon.

So there's no question of destroying the superhero universe anymore: you can't. Marvel no longer has the stranglehold on the comics medium that made me resent it so bitterly fifteen years ago. But I can violate and mutate its conventions so that it becomes something completely different, the same thing I'm doing to cyberpunk. The superhero universe isn't what it was in 1994. So why destroy it?

On the other hand, there's the problem of science fiction. Either it has to be resurrected, or it will be destroyed. In either case, I expect outraged fen to troll me any time now...

Back to Spanner’s World...

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