August 15, 2012

Me and My Superheroes: a round table with the authors of Corrupts Absolutely?

Welcome to the first of three round table discussions with the authors of Corrupts Absolutely?, a speculative fiction anthology edited by Lincoln Crisler (whom I interviewed yesterday and can read here) that explores the darker side of superpowers. First, let's have a quick look at the contributing authors joining in on the discussions over the next three days:

Kris Ashton ("Threshold") has published more than twenty speculative fiction stories in titles such as Midnight Echo, A Thousand Faces, Spinetingler and AtomJack. A journalist in his native Australia, his life revolves around words.

Ed Erdelac ("Conviction") is the author of Buff Tea and the acclaimed weird western series, Merkabah Rider. In addition to several short stories and novellas from various publishers, he is an independent filmmaker, an award winning screenwriter, and a sometimes Star Wars contributor.

Karina Fabian ("Illusion") often writes comedic fantasy and horror, but sometimes, her stories take a darker turn, as in “Illusion,” which is based on a character in her novel, Mind Over Mind.

Wayne Helge ("Gone Rogue") wrote his first piece of fiction, about a murdering dentist, while in high school, and sometimes wonders if things have been going downhill ever since.

Wayne Ligon ("Pride") is a computer programmer working in public service, and a lifetime resident of Montgomery, AL.

Tim Marquitz ("Retribution") was raised on a diet of Heavy Metal and bad intentions, and has always been interested in writing. Tim’s work includes the Demon Squadseries, the Sepulchral Earth series, and Skulls.

Lee Mather ("Crooked") is a fiction author hailing from Manchester, England. Lee’s published work includes The Green Man.

Cat Rambo ("Acquainted with the Night") lives and writes in the Pacific Northwest, where she lives with two cats, a software developer, and an assortment of small plastic dinosaurs. Her short story collection, Eyes Like Sky And Coal And Moonlight, was a 2010 Endeavour Award finalist.

William Rose ("Mental Man") writes dark, speculative fiction from his home in Parkesburg, WV, and was Named by The Google+ Insider’s Guide as one of their top 32 authors to follow.

Jeff Strand ("The Origin of Slashy") is the gleefully macabre author behind such books as A Bad Day for Voodoo, Banjamin's Parasite, Fangboy, and Wolf Hunt. He lives in Florida with a wife and two cats. Or was it a cat and two wives?--I wasn't reading his bio that closely.

Jason M. Tucker ("Enlightened by Sin") works as a full time writer in San Diego, CA, where the only things rising faster than the cost of living are all the damned zombies and the temperature.

Are superheroes the new mythology or the new cash cow--or both? How do you view the genre?

Jeff Strand: It's hard for me to call them the new cash cow, because when I was a kid, there was no lack of superhero stuff. We had the Superman movies, the Incredible Hulk and Spider-Man TV shows, and plenty of merchandise and cartoons. Yeah, I was always disappointed that the 70's live action Spidey never fought any of his villains from the comics, but I never felt deprived by a lack of quantity.

Tim Marquitz: I wouldn’t say they were the new anything, but I think there’s been a drift from stories about dead people to those who are more than alive. I remember growing up on superhero fiction and loving it, and I can see the readers moving back towards it because the flood of zombie books has created a demand for something different. It’s all cyclical.

I think the superhero genre is underdeveloped. There’s a ton of the mainstays, the Marvels, DCs, et cetera, but there is a lack of solid, original superhero prose outside of a couple of notable authors. There’s tons of room for exploration.

Cat Rambo: I'm a longtime comic book reader, so I'm happy to see the upsurge in superhero books like Minister Faust's From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain, Carrie Vaughn's The Golden Age, or Austin Grossman's excellent Soon I Shall Be Invincible. That surge is driven at least in part by the fact that movie special effects have finally gotten good enough to give us consistently cool superheroes.

Wayne Helge: Do I have to pick one of those two options? I think people read heroes for different reasons at different times of their lives. Kids read them because heroes can do awesome things for the right reasons. When justice prevails, it feels like the world worked the way it was supposed to work. I'm 36 now and I've been reading Batman comics for over 30 years. I still have one of those digest books from the early 80s, with Man-Bat, and Talia, and Dick off at college when the reaper attacks. And I'll never get rid of it because of what it means to me. So why read them now? Batman is a guy trying to juggle a career and this little side-project of his. I'm trying to juggle a career and family and the voices in my head that make me want to put imaginary stories down on paper for strangers to read. Maybe people my age read them to feel connected to someone else who can't possibly get everything done that needs to get done. When I was a kid, my grandfather read the Uncle Scrooge Adventures. Why? Beats me, but I hope I'm still reading them (and can afford to do so) when I'm in my 70s. Maybe it'll be so I remember how much fun I had reading them as a kid. If that's all I get out of them in 40 years, it'll be worth it.

Karina Fabian: A myth is a traditional or legendary story, usually concerning some being or hero or event, with or without a determinable basis of fact or a natural explanation, especially one that is concerned with deities or demigods and explains some practice, rite, or phenomenon of nature. If we use that as our basis, then superhero stories are not myths at all—except perhaps Storm, and then to her own people within Storm’s fictional world. Borrowing mythological characters doesn’t make superhero stories myths, either.

I think superhero stories are escapist, fun, and often used to inspire the reader or explore an issue—in other words, what any good story does. If, in fact they have become a “cash cow,” it’s the result of the success of the fine writers and artists…and alas, their marketing departments.

Jason M. Tucker: I think that superheroes are very much the new mythology. We even have Norse and Greek gods in modern comic books today, like Thor and Hercules, so it’s easy to see the correlation. While some might see superheroes as a cash cow, they are far more important than that to me. I see them as a great storytelling device for starters, and a fun lens through which to view the world.

William Rose: They're a little bit of both, I think. Even in antiquity, you had those who profited from the mythology of the day. Whether it was priests selling animals for sacrifice at temples or traveling poets exchanging tales of adventure for food and shelter, someone with entrepreneurial spirit is never far away. That being said, people can only make money from these stories if there is a need for it. It's the basic law of supply and demand. In a world where we're assaulted nightly by the horrors of the evening news, where our leaders kowtow to special interest groups, and our environment precariously teeters on the edge of catastrophe --in this world we need heroes more than ever. They provide a ray of altruism in an increasingly jaded society. They give us hope. That being said, I love this brand of escapism as much as the next guy, but I'm also a realist. Or some might say a pessimist. In the real world, things aren't as cut and dried as they usually are in comic books. Even those with the best intentions can go astray. Which is exactly why I loved the concept of this book so much: it takes mythology and integrates it into the real world.

Lee Mather: I'm not sure they're the new mythology – they've been around for a while now, but superheroes certainly appear more prominent in popular culture, no doubt due to Hollywood cashing in on the genre. I guess in many a producer's eye it is a safer bet to invest an obscene amount of money in established characters rather than take a chance on something wholly original. For starters, they're guaranteed a lot of internet buzz from the fanboys once a superhero film is announced, which can only aid promotion. Also, I think the characters and plots are a good fit for our times. With recession and war and political unrest, it makes sense that cinema would promote a fair share of uplifting, fantastical escapism. We need a few superheroes in our lives!

Kris Ashton: Well, Hollywood studios certainly viewed the superhero genre as a cash cow, which was why Marvel started producing its own films. I believe superhero stories are mythology, although in modern times these myths are often hip-deep in reality, too.

Wayne Ligon: Well, ‘the genre’ is a pretty big picture so I think it has to be both. Superheroes are looming large in the public consciousness right now; they’ve become an accepted part of the landscape and from this point forward we’ll see the normal peaks and valleys of interest – you get a similar cycle with interest in, say, dinosaurs. I think that now, though, with movies finally able to capture the broadly-drawn world of a superhero comic, that interest in them will not wane very much.

Ed Erdelac: I think they've always been a bit of a cash cow, but the advent of popular superhero movies has totally compounded their ubiquity. When you can't pitch a rock on Halloween without hitting a kid dressed up as Iron Man (whoever thought he'd become so popular?), you know superheroes have arrived.

I think it's even a step above becoming a new mythology though. Superheroes are a new religion. Tell somebody in a Captain America t-shirt you didn't care for The Avengers movie and you'll see what I mean. They become rabid. Actually I would say pop culture is a religion. Comic book fans are like Pentacostals (music nerds are Catholics - pretty laid back until you say you hate the Beatles, then it's like you don't believe in the Virgin Mary). They want everybody to know what comics they read. They plaster it on their vehicles, on their bodies, on their children, and they'll go on forever about the minutae. It's become a monthly scripture to them.

I enjoy the central mythologies of the superhero genre - the constants. Batman is Bruce Wayne, he's got Alfred Pennyworth and Commissioner Gordon, Spiderman was bit by a spider, Captain Marvel is Billy Batson, etc. But I almost never read monthly comics anymore. Too much like TV. Too static, too dilluted. Instead of putting established characters through real change, nowadays ret-conning character's entire histories, making them gay or whatever has become the new vogue. It's lazy writing and it doesn't interest me very much.

But I still love the superhero trade paperbacks. One off interpretations like The Killing Joke, collected stories like initial run of The Ultimates. Superman vs. Muhammad Ali is the last superhero trade I bought. It's excellent.

What was the impetus behind your story, or more accurately your character(s)?

Jeff Strand: I'd wanted to try the "rape revenge" sub-genre and see if I could write a pitch-black comedy that didn't make light of the subject matter. (And maybe I couldn't; the story is probably one of my least humorous.) I needed something to give her the courage to wreak her vengeance--a vengeance that doesn't stop with her attacker--and superhuman healing abilities fit perfectly with the story.

Tim Marquitz: Nuke, the character in "Retribution" was meant to be a character study in grief. He loses his wife and unborn child in circumstances where he can do absolutely nothing to save them. Sickened by the loss and angry beyond restraint, he seeks out an opportunity for revenge and is given so much more than just a gun and a flight to the desert. What would any normal person do in that situation? What would I do? That’s the question that evolved into Retribution.

Cat Rambo: I wanted to write a gritty superhero, one who's been let down by the world, one whose impulse towards heroism has gone astray. I envisioned him patrolling, one of those heroes who are too strict, who'll beat someone up over something as small as a parking ticket, and I wanted to show how he got to that state.

Wayne Helge: "Gone Rogue" is about how much bullshit one kid will take before he turns on his mentor. I can think back to an influential teacher or a job supervisor and be okay saying that this person taught me how to do something a little better. There's always someone who helps us get over some minor hump in our training. But once we can do it ourselves, we want the credit, especially if we move on. Nobody wants to be the person stuck under another person's thumb indefinitely. Sometimes it's good to have protection, but sometimes the supervisor wants the credit without the blame. I suspect there are a number of mentor relationships that have turned into feuds once business got between them. So that's the impetus of my story. Well, that and the delicious Churros at Costco. Because what could possibly be evil about Churros? Apparently, more than we can imagine. I am looking foward, in fact, to writing the next chapter between Rogue Agent and the limitless genius of the evil Churro.

Karina Fabian: I didn’t believe that being a psychic would be the easy, joy-of-discovery, experience so often portrayed in books. It could be a horrifying experience to know everyone’s thoughts, to make things happen at will, to do the impossible—especially if it were out of your control. And truly, who would believe you, even with the evidence? Deryl, my character in “Illusion,” was written originally for Mind Over Mind, and is about his recovery in a mental institution where someone finally not only believes him, but wants to help him rather than study him. I was thrilled in Lincoln put out the call for Corrupts, Absolutely? because I always wanted to explore Deryl’s darker early years more deeply.

Jason M. Tucker: I wanted to explore a few different areas with “Enlightened by Sin”. I wanted to be able to blur that line between good and evil and make the reader question what he or she might do if she had Victor’s power. What would the reader do with the power and with the new toy Victor gets at the end of the story?

I tried to create Victor with great care. I even took forever to come up with his name. St. Ives was the Patron Saint of abandoned children and lawyers, and the Saint is often represented as being generous with those who are unfortunate, as well as being a judge. Victor means “one who conquers”. Together, I thought his first and last name fit the character well. I avoided descriptions of him because I wanted him to be everyman. I plan to revisit Victor soon in a novel called Aberrant Nation, but I still think I’m going to keep descriptions to a minimum.

I wanted to Captain Justice to be the face of corporations and greed, and all that is wrong in the world. Tobias Clay was just an interesting dude.

William Rose: This anthology was the perfect venue for an idea that had been rolling around in my head since six months or so prior to the call for submissions. Life in comics is usually pretty balanced with things coming in pairs: you have your hero and their secret identity, a power offset by a weakness… and, of course, you have your supervillains. In the real world, there’s really no such thing as a supervillain. People rob gas stations, they rape and mug, and some really do see crime as a viable way to make a living. Yet even with organized crime, the mastermind at the top of the food chain is just some guy trying to turn a buck. He doesn’t give a damn about world domination and is content with the power associated with his position.

That is the theme I wanted to explore in my short story, Mental Man. In a lot of ways, media dictates how people live their lives. A celebrity wears a dress from a previously unheard of designer and suddenly that line is all the rage; advertisements tell us what’s "cool", what we can’t possibly live without, and the public responds accordingly. Book, film, and restaurant reviews influence what people read, watch, and even eat. In light of this, I thought, someone would superhuman powers might look for guidance in the only place they really could: comic books. And comic books dictate the world follows Newton’s third law of motion: for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. For every superhero, there is a supervillain.

So what exactly would happen if that variable were removed? If there was no yin to the hero’s yang, so to speak. In our daily lives, many of us already feel as though our talents are being wasted or that we’re not living up to our full potential. To someone with metahuman powers, solving common crimes would be like completing a search-a-word puzzle in Highlights for Children when what was really craved was the New York Time’s crossword puzzle. That concept is how Mental Man was born.

Lee Mather: I was attracted to the anthology by the notion of the corruption of power. My character in "Crooked," Leon, is considered weak due to his physical condition (he has suffered a stroke). In reality he is much stronger. The chance to play with the perception of what strength is, and what a hero is, was too good to pass up on.

Kris Ashton: I thought a pain-driven vigilante would be thematically interesting, but once my protagonist accepted his fate – kill or suffer – the storyline petered out. It took me a long time to come up with the twist, which jolts the character (and, I hope, the reader) out of his complacence about justifiable murder.

Wayne Ligon: Calvin is the good kid who has, finally, had enough. He’s done everything that has ever been asked of him and his reward was utter betrayal. Part of him is a composite of a few people I’ve known, people who had life repeatedly kick them in the teeth just when they’d finally get a little bit ahead but seldom did they give in to despair. Calvin, though, has the power to do something about that. Sure, he becomes the most wanted man on Earth afterwards, but he can handle that as well. Nobody is really sure just what the limits are on a gift of his caliber, though very few people ‘in the know’ would ever admit that they’ve never actually had a handle on things.

Ed Erdelac: A guy I played RPG games with in the 90's suggested to me the idea of a guy who altered reality solely through total belief, so I owe that and the title 'Conviction' to him (thanks, Aaron!). I accidentally rove through the Cabrini Green housing projects in Chicago once on a date, and the girl I was with freaked out and ducked down in the car, so it made me want to learn about the place, and the type of people who lived there. For every hardcore ballistic gangbanging monster, I figured there had to be five or ten innocent people who suffer at their hands and by association simply because of where economic circumstances force them to live. I had watched a couple documentaries on inner city kids, and known a few in my life. There is a sense of directionless in some, hopelessness, or a sense that their choices are limited. I wanted to see what would happen if a kid like that, not a bad kid, but a kid who is just crushed by his surroundings and the people he sees everyday, just suddenly got that kind of limitless power, with no gradation, no training. Sure he'd start with good intentions, but eventually....

Check back tomorrow for our second round table discussion!

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