Saturday, October 17, 2009

Why I Should Write SEVEN SOLDIERS #5: Bulleteer

Generally speaking, I dislike overthinking superheroes. Maybe that sounds odd coming from a guy who writes Superhero Theory posts (used to anyway), but there’s a very specific kind of overthinking I find insidious in large enough doses. Why doesn’t everybody figure out Superman is Clark Kent? Why can’t Reed Richards cure cancer, and really, what’s the great benefit to society of exploring weird alternate dimensions anyway if it seems to have no practical application in the everyday Marvel Universe? If the Hulk causes such massive property destruction when he rampages through town, shouldn’t he be causing thousands of deaths? And really, shouldn’t Batman just kill the Joker and save all his potential future victims?

The truth of the matter is, mainstream superhero comics don’t hold up to such logical scrutiny because they were never designed to. They’re not about that, which is why it’s not important (on a story level, anyway) why the dark Jedis have red lightsabers, and why Rebel ships have red lasers when Imperial ships have green ones. The original trilogy has more important things to talk about (and the reason the prequel trilogy suffers is because it doesn’t have anything more important to discuss and so engages with that sort of menial business).

Generally speaking, I find a conversation about superheroes’ sex lives in a Justice League comic just unpleasant.

But the function of Bulleteer is that she’s not a “mainstream” superhero. She’s on the fringes, and so that frees her comic to deal with the fringes of the superhero set. If you point out in a Superman comic that glasses and playacting are a crummy disguise, you cheapen Superman, or at the very least you poke the concept so full of holes it can’t stay above water. But you can play with superhero tropes using these marginal figures. Morrison made Mind-Grabber Man a straight man pretending to be gay for the attention, and used Bulleteer herself to examine the superhero as fetish object.

If Superman and the Justice League can be likened to A-list Hollywood stars, Alix Harrower and her ilk are the David Faustinos of the DC Universe. The seedy underbelly of the superhero world.

Here’s a book where you could deal with what happens when a superscientist thinks he’s discovered the end to all disease, but drug companies try to keep it under wraps. The great agony of what it would really be like to have Daredevil's heightened senses, where all the world's a garbage can, rain is hell, and you're eating nothing but plain noodles night after night because you can't handle anything with a stronger flavor to it. How the Rook, Tomahawk City’s moral paragon protector, deals with the fact that his bloodthirsty vigilante rival Simple Simon is actually getting more tangible results than he is. Another city rejects its longtime superhero when it’s discovered she actually hails from another dimension and is thus technically an illegal alien.

Again, not something I’d want to see in Daredevil or Superman's books, but this is a place you could grow and cultivate these ideas while still keeping them safely quarantined in their own little corner of the DC Universe.

Right, but I haven’t established the status quo. In Seven Soldiers #1, it’s revealed that she’s the descendant of Aurakles, the first superhero, and that her ultimate destiny was to kill Queen Gloriana. In that issue, a policeman tells her after questioning, “You’re free,” to which Alix replies, “Am I?” As the series begins, she’s still asking that question. You know how in the Bill Bixby Incredible Hulk show, David Banner is always extremely coincidentally in the right place at the right time to make a difference? The same thing happens to the Bulleteer, only she recognizes it, and interprets it to mean that she isn’t free, that she’s being controlled by fate -- or, in the interest in imagistic unity, that fate is the gun, and she is its bullet.

So she has a tendency to just let things happen. She rarely pursues hero-for-hire gigs, they just seem to fall in her lap. Her accountant and financial manager Morgan Chapel, a regular supporting cast member, is just a guy she picked out of the phone book at random, and though he has no experience in superhuman affairs, he proves himself a natural at it. After getting fed up with commercial air travel (it's a pain to get past the metal detector when you are in fact made of metal), she happens to save the life of the Machine Queen, a 52-year-old mechanic who specializes in esoteric vehicles and builds Alix an inexpensive Bulletcar (complete with ejector-seat “launcher”) out of an old Dodge Dart, and she becomes another supporting cast member.

This drifting attitude has a number of unintended consequences. Remember Crazyface from Morrison’s Shining Knight? Alix is tricked into recovering his super-enhanced cybernetic eyeballs for his brother, who gets them implanted and becomes the Reverse Crazyface to avenge his death. (This will eventually lead into a crossover involving Bulleteer, Manhattan Guardian, and Zatanna, but I’ll get to that later.) She can also sometimes seem cold and distant, but ultimately her compassion wins out (she did, after all, try to take Sally Sonic, the woman who ruined her marriage and indirectly led to Alix’s husband’s death and her “condition,” to the hospital after their fight).

This I see as the overarching conflict in the series: Originally her trying to fight fate was jeopardizing the world, but now having completely surrendered to it isn’t proving any healthier.

The format: I’d like these to be largely self-contained stories, to be told, for no real reason other than it seems right to me, in a sort of action movie/new wave/neo noir mashup style; Cowboy Bebop is my stylistic guide here.

And there will be time for subplots. For example, the Machine Queen has long been building a working, full-scale Batmobile replica as a hobby, but when it’s stolen, Alix has to track down The Man Who Would Be Batman. As for Alix herself, her husband’s secret superhero fetish has put her off romantic entanglements to some extent. She finds nebbish, timid Morgan Chapel nonthreatening, but is that a good foundation to a relationship? (Note: It is not.) And is Morgan even interested? It turns out an ageless, perfect physical specimen encased in shining indestructible metal is not to everyone’s taste. Frankly, I’d like to see a relationship in a superhero book that’s weird and awkward and has serious foundational problems and maybe just doesn’t work instead of the usual storybook whirlwind romance.

After all, this is the book to do it in.


plok said...


This is a good one...!

Justin said...

I hope to be forgiven for stealing that thing about the red lightsabers from your Klockterview just because that really broke open what I wanted to say about this phenomenon.

Because saying "Oh, mainstream superhero comics didn't talk about this when I was a kid" or "Comics are for kids and shouldn't be sullied by that sort of thing" and all that isn't useful or intelligent in any way. But this is a more precise way of identifying things that are out of place -- you can point to that James Robinson Justice League comic where Hal Jordan talks about a wild night with Lady Blackhawk and Huntress and go, "You're doing a comic with a space policeman, talking gorilla, Supergirl and TWO incredible shrinking men, and THIS is what you're spending a whole page on?"

Geoff Johns is ACHING to know why those lightsabers are different colors, isn't he?

Josh said...

OOOOO! a new profile pic. You've won me over. Also, you've got interesting ideas and junk.

Justin said...

Glad you like the photo. It was taken by a FOR REALS photographer friend of mine. I got a professional-quality photo done for my own use, and she got a damn handsome model to practice studio lighting on.

ALSO: I have been meaning to speak with you about your sketchblog, but the predominant thing that comes to mind is how hard do you think it would be to convince Mattel or whoever holds the rights to let us do some proper frigging Masters of the Universe comics? Like, after the last revival didn't take, do you think just an elaborate PowerPoint presentation would do it? Your Battle Cat is the BEE'S KNEES.

Josh said...

Thanks for the kind words bud. Check out my new feature "DAWG thursdays." Having a professional photographer fora friend is convenient. Thats how I got my wedding shot for free. YAY FREE!


plok said...

No, I stole the "red lightsabers" thing myself!

And anyway I may steal the David Faustino line...

Aside from all the other stuff (like the replica Batmobile -- playing nicely into the truth-telling aspect of Bulleteer, I think Alix should be the only one who realizes things like "for God's sake he can't go cruising around Gotham City in something that looks like Batman's car HE'LL BE KILLED IN MINUTES!"), what I think is super-appealing here is the idea of Alix not being able to have a normal relationship because she's a superhero -- which is after all just the same junk all the superheroes use to avoid girlfriends ("but my enemies..." "but my powers..." "but how could she love a monster..."), except it says straight out what they're all being coy about, that that scenario is just all fucked unless the person you're interested in is a fetishist...the standard delusion is that all the normal superheroes would get some action from their carry-on luggage because those people are in love with who they are deep down...but the superhero won't actualize anything blah blah blah. Alix, on the other hand, being really a normal woman might try...and actually be rejected!

And that. Is. COLD. That's some extremely heavy shit. I'd love to see it. After all, who could really love the superhero "deep down" except the reader, eh?

I like it!

The "fatedness" you bring up is equally interesting, if it were played just so: I mean, that was Alix's thing, that she just wanted out. But she would still do what a normal, empathetic person would do, and not a superhero...she'd drive Sally to the hospital, just a regular hospital, and she'd drive in a regular car. So she isn't a superhero really, so this isn't great power = great responsibility, it's completely in line with the "what would you do if you had superpowers" thing, that fantasy -- but it's a fantasy that only works as fantasy, if you had 'em, you wouldn't do any of those things you said you'd do, you'd just be really confused and kind of diffident, maybe just resigned after a while, possibly a little depressed. And then all this shit would start happening to you, and you'd try not to go so crazy that that stuff started to feel almost like the normal stuff...because, you know, once you cross that line you're ten steps from being Peter Parker, and who needs that in their life.

Did I mention I like it?

Justin said...

Yeah, looking at it, this Bulleteer pitch is this weird sort of inversion/update of the Thing concept. Ben Grimm has a terrible accident and becomes an ugly mosnter, but plays against what you might initially expect given his appearance and becomes a hero. Alix Harrower on the other hand becomes a *beautiful* monster. And now that the monster hero is an established trope, everyone just assumes this accident survivor is going to use this terrible tragedy to help everyone out, when she's not really interested or all that capable, really.

One of the things I really enjoyed about Morrison's series -- she did the hero for hire gig just out of desperation, because nobody'd hire her for anything else. For her, it's all "just a job," and not in that hard-boiled detective way, but like you had to take some crappy job to make ends meet -- humiliating and depressing, not stoic and cool.

And yeah, the relationship thing goes back to Ben Grimm as well, I suppose. All sorts of women are able to find his inner beauty or nobility or whatever (and look, Alicia Masters may be blind, but it's not like she doesn't have a sense of touch, y'know), but Alix becomes perfectly beautiful forever -- and it puts people right off. "You're very attractive and kind, but your skin temperature is sixty degrees, and I'm just having trouble getting past that." Guys sit around bars and make all sorts of ribald comments about her, but they meet her and everybody shuts right up.

Basically: superheroism as indignity.

plok said...

Another great thing about the Thing is that he always figures out something to do -- he's an action-oriented guy. Or some other superhero has some expertise that's transferable to superheroic know the kind of crazy stuff I mean, like if a Super-Baker fought Galactus or something he'd come up with some tortured analogy having to do with adding too much yeast to the "energy matrix" or some kind of SHIT LIKE THAT...oh, don't get me wrong, I love it...but Alix isn't an adventurer, she wouldn't think of things like that, she doesn't remember her high school chemistry, she's thinks like an innocent bystander most of the time.


You know, if they put out a Bulleteer comic like this, I'd buy it.

Justin said...

I'm also interested by that bit you mentioned about "who could really love the superhero 'deep down' except the reader?" I'm going off at a weird angle, but that puts me in mind of 30 Rock, which is partially based on the premise that men do not find Tina Fey attractive. But of course, the viewer is meant to *adore* the character, so the viewer forms a sort of protective affection for her: "Oh Liz Lemon, nobody understands you like I do!" (I'm trying to think of a male equivalent for this but drawing a blank at the moment. Chandler from Friends? But that's not quite it, either. Might be more likely to find something in pop music, actually - "Nobody loves this attractive, famous millionaire".)

If it's as deliberately calculated as it seems to me, and if I'm not projecting some sort of "male gaze" thing where it's not intended, it's kind of an uncomfortable effect when you see it. In any case, that would be interesting to play up in a Bulleteer series, where the reader ought to be made to feel a bit uncomfortable.

Holy crap, maybe Alix and Rita Farr could be friends!

plok said...

Well, Betty Brant and Gwen Stacy and even MJ are all stand-ins for the reader's affection for Peter seems to me that MJ loses this status as soon as she finds out he's really Spider-Man, weirdly...they love him though they have no reason to. No reason except that we do. To peel that away, alienate the reader from their stand-in in the story, that's a new move, and potentially very fruitful I think...'til only we are pining for Alix, the superhuman sex symbol who's eternally and tragically misunderstood. And no one else is.

As to Liz Lemon -- oh, suddenly the beer is hitting me, but I think this isn't a weird angle to go off on at all, however I'll probably be better able to comment on it tomorrow when I'm hung over, than now when my brian is suddenly sizzling...

Because I think there's a lot to pull out of that link!

cease ill said...

Oh, awesome! I haven't been in a comics store but once in several years, to drop off my copy of Obama v. Hilary as Superman v. Batman comic...I don't have SEVEN SOLDIERS, but I will! This commentary, however, evokes one of my own characters, a monster/ beauty of a different sort...I will carry that idea of "no one but the reader can love her so" going into her initial adventures, but I have a twist on the object(s) of her affections you just won't see on the lunch box heroes...forgive me being cryptic! I really just mean to say "thanks" because you're making me twist my own characters around and look at their interpretation---the whole reason I've been fascinated by SUPERHERO THEORY.