Epicosity and Consequences.


I love the look on GL’s face.

Seeing the launch of this new Green Lantern arc has got me thinking of epic scale–what I like to call “epicosity”–and consequences in superhero worlds. Because, let’s face it, if we’re talking about flocks of ringbearers and not one but two worlds ruled by Clark’s Law (Apokolypse and New Genesis), we are talking about world-shattering epicosity.

Epicosity is a must for superhero comics. After all, if you give someone superhuman powers then you need to confront him with problems commensurate with his new ability to “handle it.” Green Lanterns, people given Ultimate Tool/Weapons that make a single ringbearer an obstacle to any invading alien fleet, can’t be expected to fight street crime. Well, they could, but it would be boring.

But here’s the problem and the reason I don’t avidly collect every superhero comic title any more, even for the heroes I really like–and especially the reason I don’t pay much attention to Big Event crossovers (unless they look really interesting). For true epicosity to matter, events must have consequences and even for the winners. The bigger the events, the bigger the consequences. To use a real-world example, let’s look at World War Two.

World War Two literally Changed The World for Everybody, in ways that range from huge to trivial. Looking at the winners, war-exhaustion accelerated the decline of the British Empire, catapulted the US into global superpower status, and gave Russia hegemony over Eastern Europe. In the US social changes wrought by the war included the groundwork for advances in equal rights (and the virtual burial of institutionalized antisemitism), and the end of eugenics as social policy. And then there are the big technological changes: nuclear bombs/nuclear power, computers, rockets, etc.

Looking at the losers, Japan and Germany went determinedly pacifist, transforming in ways that nobody looking at them before WWII would have imagined. All this is what happens in Real Life (TM). But on a true societal scale–or even a personal scale–this cannot happen in comics. Never. Well, almost never.

The problem is simply this; unlike great universes of fantasy or science fiction where the stories take place Elsewhere, distant from us in time or space, superhero fiction takes place in the Here and Now (mostly). As such, it is a cousin to the urban fantasy genre with its own set of memes/tropes/themes. One of the unstated themes of superhero fiction, outside of storylines (and possibly whole comics) dedicated to Breaking the World, is Minimal Impact. Alien invasions on a scale of War of The Worlds may take place, and afterwards the world goes back to normal.

On that note, the Tom Cruise WOTW movie made me seriously yearn for a sequel showing What Happened Next as the movie’s characters survive in a country as shell-shocked as the fought-over territories of Europe after WWII. Part Two would have been the immediate aftermath (martial law, shortages and food-riots, rebuilding), Part Three a new economy and society beginning to incorporate alien tech while ramping up military development, Part Four the UN military expedition to Mars as back home trans-human technology really begins to take hold…you get the idea.

Essentially, before things can change too much there is a Big Reset. Or worse, the epic event simply gets ignored in later comics. Either way, things return to normal.

There are two reasons for this, one genre-related, the other an artifact of the publishing environment. On the genre side, the superhero genre is by definition modern fantasy; with some notable exceptions most superheroes live in something closely approximating the Real Word (if not Real New York). It’s a world of cars and cellphones, mortgages and media. It’s Reality Plus Superheroes, no matter what the strangeness of their personal origins; if you let the strangeness created by capes themselves have a real impact, let alone the strangeness brought in by the frequent world-shaking threats, you very quickly have a brave new world which isn’t our own.

This Minimum Impact Rule isn’t a bad thing; it preserves the default normality of the superhero setting and thus helps us to project ourselves into it. But after a while the lack of change from all the alien and extradimensional invasions is hard to ignore.

The second reason, the publisher’s reason, is that popular superheroes are moneymakers. Readers love them as they are, and if you change them too much then you lose your market. And forget about the biggest change: death. Arthur Conan Doyle got so tired of Sherlock Holmes that he killed him off, fans revolted, and publishers threw money at him until he brought the Great Detective back. Nobody ever believed that Superman would stay dead.

Is Superman with Wonder Woman now? Don’t worry, they won’t last and eventually Clark and Lois will be together as is Meant To Be. Is Bruce Wayne actually happy? Wait a few issues and someone close to him will die.

This is not cynicism; this is simple recognition that, no matter how much you might love some characters and want to see them get Happy Endings, that’s just not going to happen. There is no near parallel in other fiction for comic’s eternal reset. It would be like imagining the Lord of The Rings being published episodically over the space of ten years, then reset and reimagined to be told again. It could be fun, especially if you like the style and cleverness of the retelling, but you won’t morn for Borimer; he’ll be back.

So, what does all this mean for the Wearing the Cape series?

Well, nothing yet. Astra is still growing, both as a character, and in her impact on the Post-Event World. I made a commitment to myself when I started writing the stories that Hope Corrigan would grow and her world would change around her (and not just because of her). So far I think I’ve stayed true to that commitment, but as the series progresses I’m going to have to make choices. Will Hope develop a new and stable love-interest? How fast will she mature? How much impact will her adventures have on her world? After all, I implied in the very first book that she becomes rather pivotal.

All these choices will mean changes to the series’ formula, and may mean a change in the demographics of its fan-base; after all, readers who love Astra love her for who she is, but who she is will change over time. This may make her “more,” or “less,” but it will definitely make her different. Certainly I dread eventually seeing reader comments like “I liked her better before ‘X’,” but I cannot and do not wish to freeze her in a series of episodic adventures which end with her pretty much the same as she started.

It will be an interesting adventure.

17 thoughts on “Epicosity and Consequences.

  1. I agree that mainstream superhero comics are tied into a sort of stasis, and when they do try to make any sort of fundamental changes (Crisis, Death of Superman, etc.) the howls of protest guarantee that at some point the changes are going to be watered down or overthrown in favor of reestablishing something like the former status quo.

    In your case, though, I’m glad to hear that you intend to let the characters and setting of WTC change and grow with the story. I think you have an advantage there, in that your universe has not been existing unchanges for decades or even generations, so there is less… intertia to overcome when you want to make things change. I’ll be looking forward to seeing where Hope, the others and their world goes as your series progresses.

  2. one aspect of this changelessness is that the weird inventions of heroes and villains are almost never duplicated or mass produced. consider the classic flash rogues. captain cold’s cold gun, heat wave’s hot rod, and mirror master’s many mirrors would be immensely useful. if they mass produced and sold those devices they could quickly become some of the richest people in the world. this doesn’t even consider the nobel prizes and other awards they would surely receive. they could do this legally and be respected citizens. instead, they use them to commit relatively petty robberies even though they are repeatedly foiled and humiliated by flash and other superheroes. for that matter, the first time they were captured, their devices would surely be confiscated and reverse engineered by some three letter agency. the crooks could hardly file patents. you get around this by making verne tech an idiosyncratic superpower. it perplexes me that dc and marvel don’t do something similar.

    1. I love how the Wearing the Cape addressed the “Reed Richards is useless” problem. Supers can create hyper-tech, but with the way the supers in the setting all have their personal, unique physics, their devices can’t be replicated by others. That way you can have tech heroes, but you don’t have to worry about the world changing into something completely different due to each super-gadget.

      1. The idea isn’t original: they deal with “superscience” very similarly in the Wild Cards books, and I’ll admit that since breakthrough powers are so dependent on subjective psychological factors to start with it was an easy idea to adopt and fit well with the Post-Event setting.

  3. I’m really glad you’re considering all this. The lack of lasting impact is maybe the worst thing about superhero comics from DC and Marvel narratively.
    Superhero fiction with a more science fictional approach, asking “how would these people affect the world?”, is much more interesting to me. It’s also a ton of work for the author!

  4. George,

    You are very much on point when it comes to characters and growing. I am starting to discover that with my current realistic YA series (Blanchette High). I just completed novel #2 (Rurals Rule: Molly’s Revenge) and I had some tough decisions to make concerning my main character (Molly Warner). She’s a very mature 16-year-old and captain of her school cheer squad. Her mother is a state representative (assemblyman in some states) who has lost touch with her daughter and with her district. Molly falls in love, again. But at 16/17 who falls in love with someone who is 21, it’s a huge question to whether or not she becomes sexually active. Molly is very wholesome and daring (she’s known to gross people out at certain times). But she also has to show leadership since she is a captain of her cheer squad (there’s a scene where her squad breaches security at the state capitol). But one of my beta readers said, “if you have Molly lose her virginity, I’ll never speak to you again.” But she had a point, since there is a bit of an age difference. They will be together, but they make a pact that they will do everything as girlfriend and boyfriend, but the sex will wait. Molly’s reasoning to stay “virgin” was all of the horror stories she heard from her camp-mates at cheer camp concerning abortions and teen pregnancy.

    One of my friends, Marion Dane Bauer, who writes for a younger audience compared to mine, said that a character needs to change throughout the story and the conflict. I see that with your character Hope and I am very interested in seeing how it comes out. I like your character and she has a lot of wholesome quality in her. I appreciate her standing on Christian values, especially in her Catholic background. I appreciate her continued growth and her team trusts her.

    Now I follow more the Marvel Universe and my favorite character there is Firestar/Angelica Jones. The one thing I really appreciated her doing was to dump Justice/Vance Astrovik because he got way too immature and Firestar is much more mature (as well as powerful) as her long-time steady through two teams. What I have not appreciated with Firestar is how she is treated at Jean Gray’s School and her membership in the X-Men. I would just love to see her now as a teacher, be one-up on some of the established X-Men who serve as teachers (maybe she can be like my character Molly and gross a few of them out—maybe not a good idea, considering that she has been known to burn and blow up stuff).

    I am halfway through Young Sentinels and I am looking forward to reading Small Town Heroes simply because part of it is set in Southern Illinois and that is practically my backyard (since I live in greater St. Louis). I saw the cover and I’m rather concerned about Astra’s costume. I don’t mind the top and the cape. But the pants to me are rather loose and I admit that I am not a fan of gray. I would have thought that she would be better in tighter clothes, especially if she needs to be speedy as well as strong. The boots are fine. But I wouldn’t mind Astra being in “all blue.” Even her “dress” costume could be the “skating dress” or what looks like to me, a cheerleader outfit.

    Please keep up the excellent work and I look forward to reading further.

    Louis Launer
    St. Peters, MO

  5. This was exactly the problem that Spiderman ended up in. The writers saw that a married Spiderman, did not appeal to the same demographic anymore. So they went and id the whole One More Day / Brand New day, lets erase his wedding story line to reset the character. But doing this has its own dangers, and I recall reading that the people at Marvel responsible for this decision received death threats as a result. Its rather scary to think that anyone could react like that to the life of a fictional character.

    However for many heroes its actually worse than that they don’t get major life changes, Many of them don’t age at all. They remain perpetually in their mid twenties or their mid thirties, or what have you. The fact that we know how old Hope is, makes her different.

    1. It is a problem: growth means change, but if a character changes too much then he or she may no longer appeal to the original readership. But while in comics you can get away with glacial change–or none at all for years–in book series you must have change or it begins to feel too unrealistic. Readers cannot identify with a static character.

      1. But you have to factor in that your readership changes as well. The twelve year olds who started reading Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone in 1997, where 22 when The Deathly Hollows came out.

  6. Great post. I’m glad to hear that there isn’t a threat of reboot or stasis for Astra. I thought the way you dealt with her current emotional status was very thoughtful in Small Town Heroes, though I actually would like some change on that front. 🙂

  7. DC intentionally changed their demographic with the latest Flashpoint reset. I stopped collecting comics at that point. Comics are companies selling brands in what probably is the longest running soap opera ever.

    In real life, times and people change. Right now the audience seems to be ready for that. On the big scale, the success of Winter Soldier is an example. Astra fills that spot too.

    I am hoping that WtC addresses the fundamental changes supers bring to the world more. It would be refeshing. (I also hope for more frequent releases, hint, hint.)

    Small Town heroes was great and answered a few world building questions, thank you.

  8. I love what you’re talking about with epicosity and the consequences, and that is what really, REALLY makes me wish for a WTC prequel!! I think an example of when you need to realize that not all the characters can have a happy ending would be Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling, and alternatively, the end of Breaking Dawn by Stephanie Meyer. Rowling knew that not all of her characters would make it through the final battle, and made the tough decision to kill a lot of favorite characters. This, in my humble opinion, made the story richer and fuller as the other characters had to deal with the deaths of beloved friends. But Stephanie Meyer decided that she didn’t want to kill off characters, and altered the plot line in order to avoid an epic last battle. The end result was both flat and anti-climatic. I also agree that characters in stories need to change and grow. A great example of this in STH is (SPOILER) Astra’s changing relationship with her childhood friends, the Bees. However, that often leads to what I humbly consider a great cop-out in the comic book world: the multi-verse set up. A comic alters the character, grows them, and changes them. Then the comic basically writes itself into a corner- either a happy ending, or just a lack of new ideas. So the comic book hits a “Reset” button, and creates a new world where they can start the characters all over again. How do you feel about the multi-verse (alternate reality) parts of comic strips? P.S.-Please, please, please NEVER do that to Astra and the Sentinels! It would break my heart!!!

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