Cool Things: Wearing the Cape

Superheroes are a uniquely American thing, one of the few cultural phenomenon that definitely started here. It should come as no surprise to us that they’ve slowly leaked out of comic books and into TV and movies, and the national consciousness. And now they’re starting to stake a claim in the realm of written fiction.

While few superhero novels can claim the august status of literary works they do offer the superhero archetypes an opportunity to be explored with more time and depth than any other medium. Austin Grossman took an early stab at this when he wrote Soon I Will Be Invincible and others have since followed in his footsteps.

Marion G. Harmon’s Wearing the Cape is an interesting addition to this small but growing genre of fiction.

It focuses on Hope Corrigan, who becomes the superhero Astra after nearly getting crushed by a falling bridge. Like all origin stories, Wearing the Cape shares a few of the problems Astra has with her identity, secrecy and changed living arrangements. But for the most part the story is focused on Hope’s sense of responsibility, her problematic relationship with her new powers and identity as Astra and her odd relationship with a person who calls himself the Teatime Anarchist and can somehow travel through time.

It’s that last bit that makes things really interesting, if you were wondering.

Wearing the Cape does more than just tackle the basic issues of identity and responsibility that most superhero stories focus on. It also pokes a little into the structure of superheroes and society and how people might react to having superpowered individuals around for over a decade. Also interesting is Harmon’s decision to give all superheroes the same basic source for their abilities – a strange, unexplained occurrence a decade ago that left the world without power for a few seconds and the latent potential for superpowers in its wake. Since “The Event” people exposed to life threatening situations have a chance of awakening superpowers.

Life in the world of the Cape is interesting. Capes (which is to say, superheroes) have to deal with supervillain gangs, drunk and disorderly supers, legal woes and more. One of the most interesting ideas are origin chasers, people who willingly undergo life threatening circumstances such as stepping off a building or in front of a truck in order to awaken superpowers. This does not always end well.

But at the core of Wearing the Cape is a story about actions and consequences. As soon as Hope puts on Astra’s cape she’s in a different world, and how she deals with the heroes and villains she meets is as important as what powers she uses in dealing with them. Harmon does an excellent job weaving Hope’s actions and their consequences into a story that is fun and exciting.

While superhero stories are not everyone’s cup of tea, Wearing the Cape is definitely an accessible and enjoyable one. I recommend it, particularly if you’re interested in writing in the genre yourself.

Heat Wave: Afterwords

Early comic books have been described as assimilationist fantasies. That’s really not a bad summation of the era that brought us the catch phrase “truth, justice and the American Way.”

Many of the early comic book artists and writers were Jews, struggling to make ends meet and find acceptance in a country and in an era that were not particularly hospitable to outsiders. So it’s not surprising that the idea of being different permeates the early and middle era of superheroes. Superman and Wonder Woman were the ultimate outsiders, coming from totally alien cultures. Later, Marvel’s X-Men would take the idea of outsiders and move it to a slightly more human level. Of course, this tradition before the Second World War and the civil rights movement came along and changed many people’s perspectives on ethnicity and culture.

Now, everything is better, right?

Well, not exactly. You see, one of the things that was emphasized, and became overemphasized, in these assimilationist morality tales was that we are all the same. That’s a great sentiment, and on one level it’s certainly true. What makes us human or not human is not a matter of skin tone, culture or social standing. The problem is, while we’re quite confident about what doesn’t define humanity, we’re a lot sketchier on what does. Most people don’t give the whole issue a lot of thought and a lot of very smart people argue about it but it sometimes seems like today’s culture has chosen sameness as our defining characteristic. We’re all human after all, right?

So there’s a lot of hand wringing over making people “equal” where equal equates to us all having the same experiences. We want everyone to go to the same kinds of schools with the same ethnic mixes, get the same higher education and have all the same opportunities. The problem is, that kind of lifestyle is not very… shall we say, ergonomic?

From the moment kids arrive at school they’re presented with a number of boxes. Square classroom, square desk, square meals. Pile it all up for twelve years and you can move up to square cubicles in square buildings belonging to square corporations. And this might even be a great thing if people were invertebrates that could readily conform themselves to whatever environment they were put in. They could have total security and contentment for their entire lives. The problem is, people are individuals with very significant differences of circumstance and personality. Perhaps most importantly, they want to be different. It’s even possible that they were meant to be different, so that they could grow by understanding each other.

Some people will fit nicely into the square lifestyle our culture offers them. Some will be a tad cramped, but they’ll learn to adapt. However, there’s evidence of an ever-growing body of people who just can’t or don’t want to adapt to what culture offers them. They can’t keep up with it, or aren’t motivated by it and want to find meaning outside the existing structure. Once upon a time, that was fine. Many different kinds of societies flourished in America, from the Quakers and Shakers to various communes and the Moravians, all different kinds of social structures used to exist in America with little comment. Sure, they were ethnically similar and based primarily on European culture, but they lived and thought in very different ways.

In contrast, modern education places an emphasis not on giving people ideas to think about, but rather teaching them how to think. People from outside the cultural status quo, who don’t accept the ways they’re told to think, receive a kind of polite condescension, assuming they’re not view as outright freaks. (As a homeschooler I know of which I speak – people always seem so surprised to find I’m not a total social misfit or some kind of raving lunatic who’s trying to restore feudalism. “Homeschooled? But you seem so normal!” At first it was funny. Then it got annoying. I’m starting to worry that it’s a sign of serious cultural closed-mindedness.)

If you can’t hack it in school, you must need medication or new parents. If you don’t care to work for the corporations or the unions, if you want to work for yourself, then obviously you’re an antisocial isolationist. Herbal medicine instead of pharmaceuticals? How unscientific! And on and on it goes.

There could be, are being and have been many books on the subjects of education, business and culture, how the pendulum has swung so far away from individual thought and so far towards mandating a single culture of uniformity. Heat Wave is not one of those books.

Rather, Heat Wave is a dissimilationist fantasy – it creates a world where people are different in a culture much like our own. When they try to use their differences, they run smack into a world that doesn’t want them there. Some will try to change it slowly. Some will try to ruin it. And some will try to change it unilaterally, regardless of the consequences.

But all of them struggle with the same idea. The world they live in wants them to be the same. It needs them to be different; as much as they themselves need to be different. Of course, being different isn’t always a good thing, sometimes those different people will cause harm to themselves and others.

So there are people who are different. The society we have created doesn’t suit them, and sooner or later their incompatibility with it is going to cause problems. What do we do about it?

Well that, my friend, is a whole different story altogether…

Cool Things: Irredeemable and Incorruptible

In keeping with what I started last week, I think I’ll mention another cool thing that helped lead to the creation of Project Sumter and all its attending strangeness. So this week’s cool thing is actually two things that are, in some ways, inseparable. They are Mark Waid’s comic book powerhouses, Irredeemable and Incorruptible.

If you ever want to sit down and read something that will totally redefine your perceptions of comic books I cannot recommend these two series too highly. Waid does everything right that the “Big Two” publishers so often do wrong. There are no implausible resurrections of dead characters, no apologies for unpopular plot twists and, perhaps most important, no attempts made to stretch the story out longer simply to milk the success of the franchise. In fact, both Irredeemable and Incorruptible have ended their publishing runs.

Thematically, the two series are incredibly dark. Irredeemable asks the question what would happen if the greatest hero in the world suddenly became its greatest villain. It’s protagonist, The Plutonian (Tony to his friends) was as powerful and as benevolent as Superman. He led a team of do-gooders known as the Paradigm who held back the tides of crazy, evil-doing superpowered wackos and let the public live in peace. In fact, as Waid’s characters point out several times, the public almost worshiped him as a god.

But like all pagan gods, Tony is little more than a bundle of human frailties writ large and, when the breaking point is finally reached, the people who had come to take their safety for granted receive a rude shock. In the devastation that follows, as Tony slips farther and farther out of touch with humanity and his friends in the Paradigm struggle to understand what went wrong with the man who had led them for three years, Irredeemable asks us the question: Is a person ever really irredeemable?

Meanwhile, in the wake of the Plutonian’s descent into wrath and genocide, the FBI’s former most-wanted, a superhuman known as Max Damage, comes out of hiding and does something most people find inexplicable. He destroys his arsenal of illegal weapons, his car and all his illegally obtained cash and reforms. With no obvious hesitation or remorse he abandons everything that made him one of the world’s most dangerous supervillains and turns his incredible powers to restoring peace and order to his home town of Coalville. He seeks to become Incorruptible. Why he does it is almost as much of a riddle as if he will succeed.

Unlike the Plutonian, with his almost mind boggling slew of abilities, Max has only one thing going for him: the longer he stays awake, the stronger and more indestructible he becomes. This enhanced strength costs him his sense of taste, touch and smell but, on the bright side, it also helps him avoid the physical side effects of sleep deprivation. After a long time awake he still gets a little loopy, though. And when he sleeps, he returns to normal and awakens a regular mortal once again.

Max’s struggles are much different than those of the Plutonian and those who seek to oppose him. Unlike the purpose driven characters of Irredeemable, Max has a much more open-ended and daunting task. He feels he must somehow restore hope and peace to a world where those things have been almost systematically eradicated. And every time he wakes up, his senses fade to two, and he shoulders the powers that sometimes seem as much burden as blessing, he faces a choice: Do I still want to try to do this? In spite of all the bad things in my past, in spite of all the nay sayers and all the people who have given up, in spite of the renegade who we thought was the gold standard of right behavior and who betrayed us in the end? Can a person ever be incorruptible?

In the end, both Tony and Max find their answers, though maybe not the ones they were looking for. And in that, by giving his characters an ending (yes, a real ending!) that fits who they are and what they need, not what they want, Mark Waid makes Irredeemable and Incorruptible more than just about anything else you’ll find in comics these days.

That alone would make it pretty cool. But there’s a lot of other things in there, too. Grim humor, great artwork and neat ideas abound as well. Check it out and I’m willing to bet you won’t be disappointed.