Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why I Should Write SEVEN SOLDIERS #7: The Manhattan Guardian

I know, took long enough. Let me explain why.

Manhattan Guardian was my favorite of the original Seven Soldiers series, and it was also the one with the clearest direction for an ongoing series. Disgraced ex-NYPD cop Jake Jordan gets a second chance to make something of himself when he answers an ad to become a reporter/mascot/superhero for the Manhattan Guardian, a tabloid newspaper that doesn’t just report the news … they make it. The first three issues of the series lay out a very clear blueprint, I believe, for how the series is supposed to work: one- to two-issue stories, largely self-contained, with ongoing personal sub-plots running in the background.

Theoretically, you’d think that would make it the easiest to write, but it’s not the case. See, the the other six protagonists, by and large, ended up in a different place than they were at in the beginning of the series (I think Morrison knew in his heart of hearts that Klarion or the Bulleteer were unlikely to win their own ongoing series, but figured there was a good chance Manhattan Guardian could actually be a commercial success; so he gave the rest a complete arc, knowing that would probably be all they’d ever get, but left Guardian open). So the other six series required some conceptual legwork, and the question of “where do we go form here?” generates its own storytelling springboards.

But the direction of Manhattan Guardian was extremely well-established to begin with. Since the main meat-and-potatoes conflicts are one-offs, that means you have to come up with a ton of ideas; you just need to work up big piles of conceptual coal to run this train. So I had to take some time to do just that. But first: overall details about the series.

Superheroism in the post-Spider-Man mold is, of course, often portrayed as equal parts blessing and curse. Sometimes the curse part of it seems oppressive to the heroes, but their unerring sense of responsibility makes them stick with it, right? Jake Jordan, then, is quite refreshing, because for him, being the Guardian is the greatest thing that’s ever happened to him. An incredible opportunity giving him financial security, a sense of purpose and direction, and perhaps most importantly for him, pride. Jordan seems somewhat traditional-conservative, and I’d want this to be apparent in his characterization – the kind of guy where, not that he thinks his wife shouldn’t work, but that she shouldn’t have to. He’s also extremely level-headed, which is good for the high-pressure situations of his “job,” but it also makes him – well, it’s not “cynical” or “jaded” at all, but a kind of cool seen-it-all pragmatism. Idealistic but not romantic. He enjoys being a hero, but he’ll never let fame consume him. Right man for the job.

Jake’s fiancĂ©e, Carla, in the original series, was initially supportive but, following the death of her father during a Guardian “story,” found herself disapproving of the dangers inherent to the superhero lifestyle to the point where it nearly destroyed their relationship. It’s the one disappointment in Morrison’s series for me – “significant other who wants superhero to give up the life so she won’t have to worry that he’ll be killed in action” is a pretty well-worn clichĂ© (basically Mary Jane’s schtick in Spider-Man since they were married), and there’s no fresh twist given in the series. So I have devised a solution. Though she’s taken Jake back and worked through her issues to some degree, she still has that nagging fear in the back of her mind. You would too. But she does something about it by forming Super Significant Others, a support group for wives/husbands/boyfriends/girlfriends of superheroes. And since, of course, it’s difficult for the significant others to get together without compromising the identities of the superheroes, they come to meetings dressed in costumes as well; this not only conceals their identities but also helps them get firsthand experience of what it’s like to lead a double identity.

Oh, and I want most of the stories to be New York-specific; “Manhattan” is in the title, after all. I live in Wisconsin USA, and I never been to New York, but I have seen an awful lot of movies and television shows that take place there. Since Grant Morrison’s DCU-version of New York is one in which a number of fantastic and exotic architectural projects that were never built in real life were actually completed, I feel this gives me license to set the series in a hyper-real version of New York – not authentic in any way, but the romanticized version that exists in my head from watching Ghostbusters, The Critic, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Woody Allen movies and David Letterman’s shows; New York as American Narnia, sort of.

The DC Universe New York, as it happens, has never produced many costumed supervillains. Befitting an image of NYC gleaned from movies and TV, the city tends to be threatened by gangs and mobs; the subway pirates of the first two issues again establishes the blueprint to follow. Jorge Control from #3 appears as a recurring villain; not necessarily an “archenemy,” but a guy who shows up when we need him – an unscrupulous genius with an interest in social dynamics.

So, on with the plots:

- We are introduced to Three-Card Monty, who will be a recurring character throughout the series. A “street magician” or “urban mage” dressed in a firefighter’s jacket, he’s got no time for Aleister Crowley, uses Bicycle playing cards instead of the Tarot, and will kick your ass if you insist that magic should be spelled with a “k”. He tracks down Jake and informs him that the time has come for the myth of St. George to replay itself in the modern world – only the part of St. George will be played by the Guardian, and the role of the dragon will be played by one of the 100-foot long mutated alligators that rule the New York City sewers.

- Former Manhattan Guardian theatre critic “Playbill” Pete Petrowicz was fired when his reviews were deemed “too extreme,” so he became a gritty vigilante stalking Broadway in the name of good taste – a bad review from Petrowicz isn’t a thumbs down, it’s a bullet in the brain. So when Samson Frank Robbins’ new musical Sub-Rosa Subway, the story of Alfred Beech’s Victorian-era pneumatic subway system, opens, it’s the perfect target.

- The head of the Chicago Deep-Dish Syndicate is in town for a historic peace agreement with the New York Pizza Mafia. But when a delivery boy is found dead in the Bronx, the Guardian has to solve the murder to prevent all-out war. And the killer is not who you think…

- Twin brothers Romulus and Remus Parker are known as New York’s greatest criminal real estate barons – think Gene Hackman’s Lex Luthor in the DC Universe – and they’re about to pull their greatest coup by building in New York’s greatest undeveloped and unexploited piece of real estate: a floating skyscraper that hovers 100 feet above Central Park.

- A giant monster from an unknown galaxy of terror attacks New York, but is placated when it falls in love with the Statue of Liberty. The rudimentary communication the government is able to receive from the creature indicates that he’ll return to his home planet if he can take the statue with him, and New York finds itself divided about whether or not to let the alien have her. Save the city at the cost of one its most enduring landmarks? What side will Jake Jordan take?

- Remember Bill Brazil, who owns an art-house cinema and whose life Jake saves in Manhattan Guardian #2? His theatre shows The Most Controversial Movie Ever Made, which has half of New York trying to burn down his theatre, and the other half literally killing each other for a chance to see what’s got everyone so worked up.

- In the wake of a number of tourist abductions in Manhattan, Jake Jordan goes undercover as an accordion salesman from Green Bay to get to the bottom of it. Will seeing the city from outside eyes help Jordan rekindle his love of the city his job has caused him to sour on, or will the shabby treatment he receives from his fellow New Yorkers cause him to write off NYC once and for all?

- How does The Manhattan Guardian cover sports? When the Giants are down by five in the NFC championship game and their quarterback is injured, Guardian reporter Champ Takamura forgoes any sense of journalistic integrity and joins the team, takes over under center, and wins the game. Only problem is, the team they were playing was the Hub City Knuckles, and they don’t take kindly to losing. Their revenge against the Guardian is to tie Takamura to the goalpost in a boobytrapped stadium and challenge Jake Jordan to rescue him – if he survives One Hundred Yards of Death.

- After eight issues of nonstop rock’em-sock’em action, I will ask the editors and readers very kindly for an issue’s worth of indulgence for Issue #9. In a story that can only be called Waiting For Johnny Moondog, Three-Card Monty convinces Jake on behalf of the newspaper to camp out in front of the former home of a rock ‘n’ roll legend on the anniversary of his assassination in the hopes that they’ll see his ghost. As they wait, Jake and Monty have a long conversation about the artist in question, and Jake will take quite a bit of convincing that this working class hero was anything but a complete hypocrite.

- The Guardian interviews Lois Lane for a position with the newspaper – after all, if any reporter knows about putting herself in harm’s way and making herself a part of the story, it’s Lois, right? – and they get themselves mixed up in Romulus and Remus Parker’s latest scheme. You know that urban legend about con artists selling the Brooklyn Bridge? The Parkers discover that one of those contracts is, in fact, valid and try to hijack the bridge when the city doesn’t recognize their seemingly legal right to it.

- Jake Jordan was once in the NYPD. Jordan’s former superior gets in touch with him and reveals that he and five other ex-cops are going to form a superhero vigilante team, and want Jake to help train them. Now, this story usually ends with the hero telling the vigilantes that laws are important, that they’re all we have, and that we should work within them. But the cops point out that half the Golden Age superheroes have the same motivation and they’re all looked at as heroes, so Jake finds this issue isn’t as black-and-white as the traditional superhero boilerplate.

- The Guardian finally puts The King’s Menaces, a bunch of former Shakespeare in the Park actors who’ve taken to crime after falling on hard times, behind bars. But a poorly planned sentencing puts them in the same prison that Playbill Pete is being kept in, and the Guardian has to prevent a Shakespearean tragedy from occurring at Attica prison.

- Following the story with Lois Lane, the Guardian is sent to Metropolis to do an expose on why Superman hasn’t been able to completely clean up Suicide Slum.

- And finally, as promised, the Reverse-Crazyface from my Bulleteer proposal gets mixed up in a gang war between Two-Face and Doctor No-Face, and Zatanna is drafted in when things threaten to go cosmic as the unfathomable Anti-Face makes its presence known.

So that’s somewhere around fourteen issues, which I think is a good start, and hopefully all that would be required to convince somebody that yes, I could totally sustain this thing. I couldn’t think of anything to do involving taxis; well, that’s not true, I could, but all the most obvious ideas were uncomfortably xenophobic, which you could make work, I just hadn’t found the proper angle at which to attack it.

I think I’ll have one more short post to wrap this up in a day or so, but for know I say only “THE CHALLENGE HAS BEEN MET,” and retire to the mead halls in celebration.


plok said...

Okay, these are PRETTY COOL! I can't believe I doubted you, these could really just be chock-full of NYC flavour -- of course some New Yorkers would want to let the Statue of Liberty go and others would want it to stay! And Jake is some form of a celebrity, isn't he? A new kind of celebrity, really, or at least a new kind of semi-public figure. I always did like that Noo Yawk stuff Stan Lee crammed into Marvel, I know it was all horseshit but I ate that stuff up then, and I'd still eat it up now. High time DC started consciously riffing on Marvel for their own benefit, Marvel's been doing it to them long enough!

Beautiful stuff!

And for the taxi stuff, I think I might suggest kinda-sorta stealing a bit or two from Morrison for it (and why not?) -- maybe with a bit of Terry Pratchett in there too, it occurs to me -- by making all the taxicabs components of a mystical mass-mind, possibly that Monty can communicate with. All those trips and fares, that's the Taxi Overmind's neurons firing...but what's it thinking about?

Kind of a very blatant rip, but whatever...


Josh said...

a lot of these ideas remind of the type of storytelling going on back in the wyatt earp type of disposable one offs. I wish someone would hire you to write books I could read.

Justin said...

Josh: Yeah, it was exercising the same part of my brain that we used to use in plotting Wyatt. I just wrote "Giant Monster falls in love with Statue of Liberty" on a notecard and then thought, "Well, personally I'd probably just let him have it, but that statue's actually kind of meaningful for a lot of people, hm..."

I do actually think that's The Way To Write Comics, using the theoretical cheapness and disposability of the format to just crank out concept concept concpet, and trade on the energy instead of finesse. Not that comics can't also be used to do more meaningful things, of course, (I'm not going to say Alan Moore or David Mazzuchelli should spend less time on these things by any means) but, you know, adventure stuff like superheroes and space cowboys spoils real easily by overthinking. It's much more fun to analyze what all that stuff *means* after the fact rather than before you start writing anyway.

If I wrote Action Comics, I'd just ask if it was cool to come up with a bunch of covers with compelling and bizarre scenarios like those Silver Age issues and figure out a story around that. Convict in prison: "You've gotta help me prove I didn't kill Superman!" Clark Kent: "Not a chance, O'Halloran!"

And yeah, I wish I could get paid for this as well. It's easier than ever now to get stuff OUT THERE with webcomics, but then I need artists and I don't have money to pay you or anybody else, and that lottery ticket I bought today only paid out five bucks. I'm focusing on the prose stuff lately. If I can actually get a novel published and there's still a comics industry around then, maybe they'll listen to a "Namor as The Fugitive" pitch.

Justin said...

Huh, that sounds I'm aspiring to use writing prose purely as a stepping stone into writing comics. And you know, obviously not, because that would be a pretty terrible plan.

Also I was totally psyched to win five bucks on a one-dollar scratchoff.

Justin said...

Plok: I do like the idea of Monty having a vaguely supernatural link to taxis. Like, maybe he's the opposite of that "There's never a cab when you need one" deal because for him there is somehow *always* a cab when he needs one, and he never seems to have to pay, and if you need to get in touch with him and flag down a taxi, he is probably in it already, somehow.

In fact, maybe the *reason* you can never get a cab is because Monty is using that cab RIGHT NOW for something very important.

The "communication" thing is more the department of a bit I forgot to put in because I didn't write it down on my notecard. Monty's info source is Sparrow King, a ratty looking dude with avian telepathy (the same power that Robin Hood would be revealed to have possessed in my Shining Knight pitch). Talks to pigeons, and pigeons are everywhere, so he knows pretty much anything that is going on anywhere at all times.

Also a bit of a rip from Morrison, but what can you do? I'm just unduly in love with the phrase "avian telepathy".

plok said...

Who isn't? I have that "artist" problem too, but it's a hell of a lot more solvable a problem than many, I think. I'm gradually turning all my old screenplay ideas into webcomics scripts, just because "fuck it", you know?

Excited by the idea of that Action should just come up with a whole bunch of those, I'm probably going to spend most of today thinking about how I'd write that. Do a dozen or so! My God, that's the kind of fun blogs were made for!


(And: Namor as the Fugitive?)

Justin said...

Namor as the Fugitive. It was an idea I had a few years ago. I always hated that thing John Byrne did where he revealed that Namor has some kind of oxygen imbalance in his blood that caused his aggressions against humanity, and that once he got it all fixed he turned out to be a stable guy. That's crap, right? That's just totally cutting off the original Bill Everett stuff at the knees, right? Just keep Namor medicated and he's fine?

So I wanted Namor to be a gray-areas kind of guy again, but I didn't want to go full-out Marvel Boy (Morrison/Jones model) with him. So I thought someone frames Namor for a massive terrorist attack against the surface world. I thought it was kind of a nice twist on the Fugitive kind of thing because ... like, he *did* actually used to do that sort of thing, he just didn't do it *this* time. He's like, "You know I don't condone terrorism anymore, I mean I've been an Avenger and everything, but at the same time you guys are still pretty much constantly destroying my natural habitat, so..."

So he's on the run, trying to find out who framed him, everyone thinks this is just "leopards don't change their spots," and his resentment is such that he's tempted to say screw it and do all the stuff he's getting blamed for anyway.

The fun part of it was that SHIELD was going to send Stingray after him (at the time, I didn't know they'd already done that, I naively thought I'd found an unexploited possibility), and so he was going to be the stealth co-protagonist of this book. I've never read a comic with Stingray actually in it, so I have no idea what his established personality's like, but I liked the idea of this guy who's kind of a part-time superhero; puts on a costume when he needs to but he doesn't get caught up in the life. "I don't care if you think I'm a C-lister. I didn't exactly have any ambitions to become the leader of the Avengers or anything. I'm actually quite an accomplished oceanographer, you know."

Josh said...

Justin, inspired by your writing and the webcomics of adam and ethan:

I plan on transitioning back to working on our webcomic. The time I spend each day doing my sketch blog I think will soon be deligated to Earping. I'm thinking I could do a panel a day. Which would put us on schedule for a page a week. Just dial back the detail in the background and lazy it up sometimes with color.

Did you really buy a lottery ticket, or was that just a fun story? Speaking of fun stories Namor as the Fugitive... fuck yes. What the hell are they doing double dippping with Namor in both the Illuminati and (I don't know what its actually called so I'll call it the Dark Illuminati)in current continuity?

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