Thursday, September 8, 2016

A Peter David Moment

Here’s how a writer’s mind works. My current WIP involves a comic book writer/artist who needs to come up with a new superhero concept. Which means I had to come up with a new superhero concept. Name, background, origin story, superpowers, secret identity. Lucky for me this is prose, so I don’t have to design a costume too.

Which got me thinking about what superpowers are out there already, the good as well as the bad. Top of the heap, of course, is Superman, who has all the biggies—flight, super-strength, super-speed—as well as an impressive array of secondary powers, like super-hearing, heat vision and X-ray vision. I’m not that sure about icy breath, but I suppose that would come in handy if he’s cooking you dinner and it catches on fire. I don’t think “culinary skill” counts as a superpower.

And a cape. Nothing says superhero as impressively as a cape. Capes look so cool when you’re flying. Or if you’re trying to scare the shit out of criminals, if you’re Batman.

Then there are powers that aren’t as flashy but can be just as impressive if the hero knows how to fully utilize them, like agility, stretching (Mr. Fantastic, Plastic Man), elemental powers (flame, water, wind), psychic powers (telepathy, telekinesis), magic, shapeshifting, and the like. And brains, probably the most important superpower out there. Ask Batman, the world’s foremost powerless superhero. Spider-Man isn’t as strong as Superman, but he could probably use his scientific knowledge to whip up a batch of kryptonite webbing. Let’s see you break out of that, Supes.

As you move down the list, the awesome factor starts to fade. Poison Ivy controls plants. She shouldn’t be as deadly as she is—a little weed killer should put her out of action—but her knowledge of her subject and how she applies it are what make her a threat. The Invisible Girl (now Invisible Woman) used to be a waste of space until societal attitudes towards women’s abilities matured. She leads teams now. She probably only keeps her nerd scientist hubby Mr. Fantastic around because of the advantages of his stretching powers (heh heh). (Side note to DC: you want to make a popular R-rated superhero comedy on a par with Deadpool? Go with Plastic Man, and consider all the ramifications of a hero who can stretch, harden and enlarge any and all of his body parts. I guarantee you’ll have a winner on your hands.)

At the bottom of the barrel we have the Legion of Super-Heroes, which at one point included members like Bouncing Boy and Matter-Eater Lad. Or Bwana Beast. The less said, the better.

Which for some reason led my brain to Aquaman.

Okay, he’s got some spiffy powers. He’s the King of the Seven Seas. He can breathe underwater. He’s incredibly strong—he’d have to be, to survive the pressures at the bottom of the ocean. He can telepathically control sea creatures. Piss him off and he’ll throw a shark at you. He’s had a few different incarnations over the years. Previews for the upcoming Justice League movie look like they’re going with the surly badass version.

I’m not sure how well he’s going to work out. Take him out of the water, where his powers mean something, and … then what? What would happen if the King of the Seven Seas found himself stranded in landlocked Kansas? Does he have control over fresh-water fish? What exactly could he do with an army of striped bass, or sunfish? How deadly are minnows en masse?

Alligators or snapping turtles, there you might have something. Or water snakes. Or some of the larger wading birds with those big scoopy bills. Now you’ve got yourself an army.

As all this was running through my head, I realized I was having a Peter David moment.

Peter David was/is (not sure what he’s been up to lately; I’ll have to check) one of my favorite comic-book writers, mostly because of his sense of humor, and because his mind would go off into these odd what-if tangents. Mr. David wrote some of my favorite Star Trek tie-in novels, including the epic meeting between Lwaxana Troi, the ultimate meddling mom, and Q, the ultimate meddler. While writing Spider-Man, Peter had Spidey take a trip to the suburbs. In the city, Spidey swings on his web from Point A to Point B. No tall buildings in the ‘burbs. Peter had Spidey rushing to a crime scene on top of a car. What else was Spidey going to do? Run? It’s like the Flash foiling a scheme at the DMV, but first the Fastest Man Alive has to wait in line while Patty and Selma take their smoke break. Those were the kind of plots Mr. David came up with.

He also, in one story, devised a logical way for Amazons to reproduce without men, kidnapping, or recruitment drives. No idea how he slipped that one by his editor. For all I know, Peter David may have written a story similar to my Aquaman idea above. I was never a big follower of Aquaman.

The point is not to always go for the obvious. Figure out who your character is, what his/her greatest strengths are. Then put that person into a situation where their biggest assets are useless and see what they do. Comic books aren’t always about the powers. At their best, they’re about the people in the capes, and how they respond to a situation where all their powers can’t help them. That’s the true measure of a character.

Let’s get back to Superman. Thanks to all the movies, YouTube has a fine selection of fan-made video mashups between Marvel and DC characters. They always pit Supes against Thor or the Hulk. You ask me, they’re going in the wrong direction. Superman has two major weaknesses: kryptonite and magic. Supes needs to battle Dr. Strange. What would he do against an opponent who can banish him to the Ditko Dimension with a flick of his wrist? To a world where his formidable powers don’t work and the laws of magic apply? My guess is, Superman would learn to use magic, or at least enough to get himself home, while fighting magic-based enemies coming at him from all sides. I’ll bet that’s the story Peter David would write.

I hope some YouTube fan is reading this. With a Dr. Strange movie coming out, we might get to see a Superman/Strange matchup after all.

And if mondo mashups are your thing, some fan did a series of shorts matching DC, Marvel and Star Wars. Imagine this if you will: Batman. With a lightsaber. Fighting Darth Vader. I know who my money’s on.

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