Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Table Talk - Powers, Life and Death

This week, the Dangerous Duo (plus Mike), dig into character creation and character assassination as Barry Reese, Bobby Nash and Mike Bullock discuss the life and death of their characters.

Question (Mike): I notice some people like larger than life heroes that have no "super powers" while others like things that are off the charts. Looking at the pulp landscape you can see both. When you guys create your heroes, do you lean one way or another and if so, why?

Bobby: Good question, Mike. I guess it depends on what type of story I’m writing. Although, I will say that I haven’t written much lately that involves people with powers, but I do have a project coming up that will. Personally, I like to root for the normal guy. I like my heroes to have some vulnerability as opposed to being all-powerful, but that’s personal taste. Superman, for me, works better when he’s written with more humanity and I tend to think of him as Clark. Batman, on the other hand, has no powers but is quite often written and/or drawn as if he does. When you see Batman leap 20 - 30 feet in the air I wonder just how non-powered he truly is.

One power that I try to be careful of is brainpower. By that I mean that I try to make sure that the character(s) don’t automatically know everything about every situation. Not that they can’t be smart, but if Lance Star is ever attacked by an pterodactyl, I don’t want him to have a sudden encyclopedic knowledge of the creatures. That sort of thing.

Barry: I prefer lower-level heroes. I do integrate “powers” into some of my stories – The Rook’s abilities kept growing until I finally did away with them in volume four because they were becoming too much of a crutch. It was making stories too “easy” for our hero that in term made them too difficult for me to write. I like seeing my characters sweat and really work for their victories. I do believe that any character can be written in a suspenseful manner but my preference is for the lower-end of the power scheme. The real problem comes in a group setting – a character like Catalyst in The Claws of the Rook is so powerful that he really should be able to handle most of their missions by himself, so I have to find reasons why he can’t. That inspires a certain level of creativity but it also inspires a headache along the way.

Mike: Good point on brainpower, Bobby. I hate when I'm watching a movie or reading a book and a character is suddenly some sort of expert on random subjects that conveniently help them solve a problem. What's kind of funny, and a little embarrassing, is I shy away from incredibly intelligent characters because I'm not smart enough to portray their actions accurately [laughs].

As for super powers, I go back and forth, but also feel the conflict needs to suit the level of skill and power. With Death Angel, there are no super powers, but several neat gadgets that give her an edge. In exchange, I've pitted her against overwhelming odds, gunfire, a cult employing black magic and even the Prince of Darkness.

For a character like Janus, who has two supernatural items that give him power, the level of the adversary will be increased dramatically. To that end, in his role as the Guardian of Worlds, Janus combats monsters and villains from other universes that either have supernatural abilities or items that give them access to super natural powers. If/when Death Angel and Janus ever meet, I'm sure it'll be fun finding a suitable conflict level to give them an equal run for their money.

Bobby: One of the things that so often intrigued me was why Superman went up against so many villains in a suit and tie whereas Batman’s rogues have all of these powers and abilities. Except in the JLA stories where the villain was shown to be powerful by taking out Superman right off the bat (so to speak).

Do you guys use the same type of power/no-power rules for your villains as well? I often like to give the villains an edge over the hero in terms of power, ability, or equipment so the hero has an obstacle to overcome.

Barry: I like my villains to have the advantage, whether it be in pure power or in terms of the level of their organization. It’s no fun to have The Rook fighting some bum – he’s got to take on somebody who’s either his physical match or somebody who’s got the resources to torment him before the final battle.

In my very first Rook story, I continually amped up the villains he was facing until he actually battled the Prince of Darkness himself… So I think that shows where I stand on the issue of hero vs. villain power levels. A hero is defined by the villains that he faces.

Mike: I think that's always a struggle for me. I always want my heroes to be larger than life and far superior to the villains, which often plays out in stories where the villain is going on the offensive to innocent bystanders until the hero comes in and saves the day. But, on the flipside, I love having some seriously wicked villains, like Manuel Ortega, who not only mirror the capabilities of the hero, but also mirror some darker aspects of the hero's persona that creates an "unstoppable force v. immovable object" scenario.

On the flipside, I've never been a fan of characters like Superman, who are obviously so vastly superior to most of the threats out there. I like the underdog, but all too often catch myself making the hero the advocate for the downtrodden and not necessarily the one getting beaten down. The hero takes the "cavalry" role and not the victim role.

Bobby: Superman is a tough nut to crack. Do we really need a Justice League when Superman should be able to deal with almost any threat they face? I loved the after Crisis Superman reboot where they depowered him somewhat and made him more human. That was easier for me to get into. The Superman in this new reboot is a mystery to me. He doesn’t seem like a very likeable character at all. Of course, that’s just my opinion.

Barry: The newest Superman is very much a return to the tough-and-tumble guy he was in his earliest appearances. I find it interesting but I’m not sold on it yet.

Mike, I have to say that I found your comment about your heroes being the cavalry and not the victim to be interesting – I definitely saw that in your Phantom work but with Death Angel, isn’t her whole origin and purpose steeped in the victimization of her childhood?

Mike: Well, her character sprung forth from victimization, yes, but it's a shroud that will hang over her for a long time and not necessarily a tangible adversary. And, it propels her to be the cavalry for other victims, particularly women and children.

Barry: I see the difference but I do think that sometimes our heroes should suffer – be it physically or emotionally. It makes their ultimate victory that much more impressive. When Spider-Man was trapped under that huge weight back in the Lee/Kirby days or all those times that Will Eisner’s Spirit was brutally overwhelmed and captured… I think it makes their eventual triumph have more meaning than if the heroes are always the untouchable ones who save the day for others.

Mike: I totally agree with that, but for some reason, just find myself defaulting to the cavalry mode all too often.

Bobby: We’ve been discussing the powers and abilities of the characters, but when it comes to storytelling the writer generally puts the characters through hell so they can overcome obstacles and prevail. Are there some lines you won’t cross when it comes to what you will or will not do to a character?

Barry: Well, I think the killing of the hero’s family and loved ones is overdone in fiction – and is generally a sign of lazy writing, in my opinion. Stuck on how to make a story “meaningful?” Kill the hero’s wife or girlfriend or off his children… Lazy. I’m not saying you shouldn’t EVER do that – but it occurs with such frequency that I don’t think I’ll be engaging in that any time soon. Now, I’d certainly have those same supporting cast members threatened – but I won’t be killing off The Rook’s wife, for example.

With my female heroes, I also won’t have them raped, turned into sex slaves, etc. I think the way Mike handled the sex abuse of Death Angel is the way to go if you’re going to incorporate that into a character – make it part of their past, something that they’ve overcome.

Mike: I try to avoid things that are nothing but cheap shock value. But what lines I will and won't cross are really dictated by what character and what story I'm telling. With Phantom, there were lines I wasn't allowed to cross due to mandates from the licensor. With Death Angel, I don't think I've come up to a line like that yet. With my all-ages stuff, there's definitely lines I won't cross due to the target audience, but with the pulp and "mature" comic stuff, it's a case by case basis for me.

Barry: Oh, yeah, the target audience is important, too. Things I did in Rabbit Heart, I would never have done in The Rook series!

Bobby: Agreed. You have to remain aware of the audience. Sometimes I even put that in the script when something extreme happens as a way of keeping on track. I started doing that after an artist drew a naked woman in an all-ages comic book we were working on. It was beautifully drawn, but didn’t work for that audience. The artist was not happy when it had to be changed.

As far as crossing the line, I don’t think I have yet. I don’t have qualms with killing characters, but I don’t do it unless it’s important to the story. In the Yin Yang graphic novel I created one character for the express purpose of killing him off. A second character was killed because the story demanded it.

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