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It’s hard working, having a baby, seeing family and friends, and trying to write. I have to work it in more, I know, but blurbs of 140 characters or less is often the best I can do.

This blog will get more attention soon, but in the meantime, follow me on Twitter @NeoMyers for just a taste.

EAB

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Sequels, Reboots, and Shared Universes – Oh My!

Jaws 19

This time it’s really personal.

I know I said I would stop apologizing about not writing enough, but I feel bad that I’m not more up to date. It’s this annoying fatherhood… I mean, like “Change your own diaper!”

Fortunately, I’m feeling the itch to write these days thanks to some contributions I’m making at Obnoxious and Anonymous on video podcasts about a variety of subjects.

I’ve been aching to take on the persistent, knee-jerk cynicism about sequels, reboots, and the relatively new phenomenon of shared movie universes.

On the surface, I get it.

As the writer of my own original independent work (works), I would like room to break in and show people something new as opposed to a 3rd Spider-Man reboot within 15 years of the original film – to say nothing of the fact that the character has been in production for about fifty years of comics and cartoons (let’s not speak of the live action 70s show…). New characters and new stories are necessary. We can’t keep rehashing the same things over and over.

And, more to the point, I think what I, as a fan, sometimes hate about sequels or reboots is how bad they can be, which can spoil the memories and connections I’ve made to the original work. Two examples that illustrate this perfectly for me are the original Sam Raimi Spider-Man films and The X-Men films. Both series started out with decent first films and then debuted stronger, more complex—more awesome—sequels. Then each series turned out bad second sequels that were not only pretty bad films, but they soured the stories and my memories of the first two films. I would point out, too, that it was largely studio interference or behind the scenes problems that tanked these movies. Not that it makes it better, but it’s not like the ideas were flawed from the start.

But the geek in me—the passionate fan—wants more content about the things I love. More good content. I want these films—or TV shows—to succeed. Sometimes I think I come off as a contrarian when it comes to these things because there seems to be so much vitriol online against sequels that I feel the need to balance the scales and defend them.

It’s not just that, though. The truth is: we don’t hate sequels. Some of our favorite films are sequels. There are the obvious ones: Godfather 2, Aliens, Terminator 2… these movies are not only good by their own rights, but they grew the worlds of the original films and gave us extra dimensions of the characters and situations that only improve the original movies in context.

I would add Beverly Hills Cop 2 and Lethal Weapon 2 to that list as well, by the way.

I have less patience for so-called reboots, but even there I think there is something interesting in taking an established property and playing with our expectation of it. It may seem like an odd example, but the Friday the 13th reboot is one of the best. The writers clearly had a love for the original material and the film is like a spiritual remix of the first four movies in the “original” series. They even took the opportunity to make sense of the original series disjointed mythology related to Jason’s original drowning and return. More than anything, they got the character of Jason right. He’s not necessarily a complex character, but Jason Goes To Hell is an example of how wrong you can portray Jason Voorhees (including misspelling his last name like JGTH does).

On the other hand, I have a seething hatred for Rob Zombie’s Halloween reboot. That’s an example of how not to reboot something. Zombie fundamentally does not understand the characters of the original Halloween least of all Michael Myers and Dr. Loomis, who are pretty important to get right. Zombie said once that Dr. Loomis must have been the worst psychiatrist in the world, which to me is one of the most brain dead things I have ever heard. The point in Carpenter’s Halloween was that Michael Myers was pure evil. No amount of psychiatric treatment would have helped him because he’s not a person. He’s a force. But I digress… I could devote a whole blog to my hatred of that film.

Meanwhile, Chris Nolan’s Batman Begins is another example of how to properly reboot a property. In that case, it almost seems easy in retrospect. After Batman and Robin, there was no way it could be worse. But Nolan didn’t settle for average—Nolan and screenwriter David Goyer crafted a story that explored the character of Bruce Wayne and Batman, which, oddly enough, wasn’t really done in the previous four Batman films; the previous directors put the focus on Batman’s rogues as opposed to the Dark Knight. Bruce Wayne, in costume as Batman, doesn’t even show up until around the 40 minute mark of Batman Begins. It’s a strong film and, by the way, followed by the amazing sequel The Dark Knight.

Finally, while sequels and reboots aren’t exactly new, the concept of a “shared movie universe” is less than 10 years old. Birthed by our good friends at Marvel, for those of you living under a rock since 2008, this is when more than one movie franchise exists in the same “universe.” Basically, Tony Stark (Iron Man) can go have coffee with Bruce Banner (The Hulk). What happens in one film happens for all the films in that shared universe.

It makes the most sense with comic book properties because that’s how comic books work. As Spider-Man web-slings around the city he might pass Iron Man or Johnny Storm (Human Torch) flying in the other direction. Crossovers are plentiful. But the standard of believability and reality in a feature film (or TV show) is different from a comic book. Marvel’s shared universe gambit was so bold because of the logistics involved with meshing, say, Thor with Iron Man. Iron Man wears a high-tech suit that flies. While it’s fantastical, it’s grounded in a kind of realism that makes it believable. Meanwhile, Thor is a musclebound god who flies and hits people with a magic hammer that only he* can lift. In retrospect, we shouldn’t have been worried, but you can see how there was cause for concern.

But criticisms of the shared universe concept go beyond movie logic. Marketing, particularly by Marvel, has been problematic. Last summer Marvel announced every movie slated for release through 2019. While it was interesting to see the new properties that would debut, like Dr. Strange, Black Panther, and Captain Marvel, new entries in existing character franchises were announced as well—not to mention the next two Avengers entries. It’s been argued that this robbed Avengers: Age of Ultron of some drama because if we know that Captain America is coming out next year, then we know he survives the film and is OK. Same with Thor, who also had a new entry announced.

This criticism is fair. But my response is simple. Who actually thinks Marvel would kill off a marquee character like Thor or Captain America when the actors still have films left on their contracts? Besides, death with comic book characters is about as permanent as the Hulk’s shirt.

I love the idea. But I have two gripes. One, studios are tried to do shared movie universes with everything whether it makes sense or not. Universal is working on a classic monster shared universe with Dracula, the Mummy, the Wolfman, etc. Paramount is working on a Transformers universe with spinoff films centered on different characters like Bumblebee. Meanwhile, one shared universe I’m excited about is a Stephen King universe and this is mostly because there is a shared King book universe connected by The Dark Tower series.

My second gripe is aimed at Marvel and DC. Marvel built up to 2012’s The Avengers where all of our established heroes, Iron Man, Captain America, Thor, Hulk, Black Widow, and Hawkeye teamed up with S.H.I.E.L.D. to fight aliens. Awesome! Then Iron Man 3 threw it all out the window. After establishing all of these characters and the connectivity in the greater world, Iron Man effectively faces off against Al Qaeda by another name and he does so alone. One might wonder why S.H.I.E.L.D., the overarching intelligence apparatus that seems to know everything, didn’t appear. I did! The movie never addresses this issue. After S.H.I.E.L.D. was up Tony Stark’s butt for two independent films and then a team-up film why would it suddenly disappear when terrorists fly up to Iron Man’s house and blow it up? Why weren’t they involved in combatting the terrorists up to that point? The movie could have had one line that fixed this and I would have stayed mum: “Oh man, S.H.I.E.L.D. is so busy cleaning up New York they’re undermanned…” or whatever. Problem solved. But the movie doesn’t bother to address it.

Similarly, in Captain America: The Winter Soldier when Steve Rogers and Black Widow are on the run, they go to Falcon’s house and say everyone they know is trying to kill them. What about Tony Stark? They were even in New Jersey at one point, which brought them close to NYC where Tony and THE HULK were chilling in their Science Bros lab. Again, not really addressed. I would have been happy with a line that explained S.H.I.E.L.D. was monitoring Tony’s phones or Tony wouldn’t respond. Something. Anything! The movie clearly knew that Iron Man exists because “Anthony Stark” is targeted by “Project Insight” at the movie’s climax. I get that each character needs their own films and stories, but if you’re going to go to the trouble of building a shared universe you have to maintain it and acknowledge what you’ve built.

I’ve made my feelings about DC clear in other pieces so I won’t belabor them here. I will only note that the inner-connectivity between Arrow and The Flash is a perfect example of how to do it right. My complaints about DC are more about how they won’t unify all of their TV properties and have separated their films from TV.

Basically, my position is simple. Sequels, reboots, shared universes – make them! But make them well. And if you’re going to develop a shared universe, you need to respect the audience’s intelligence – don’t ignore the fact these characters exist in each other’s’ lives. Otherwise, why are you doing it?

Life Finds a Way

First off, I can’t apologize anymore for letting the blog go without updates for some time. It’s going to happen. I need to write and when I don’t do it, I feel bad, but it is what it is. I was writing – I was finishing my latest book and seeing it through to publishing – so it’s all about priorities. I’ll try to do better.

Something else also popped up, which kept me away from the blog…

I was never a huge fan of having kids. My wife wanted kids. She wanted them hard. But I never felt comfortable around kids and having them seemed like a huge hassle. I didn’t get to travel when I was young or do a lot of fun and exciting things because my parents poured everything they had into my education and my sister’s care. I love them for it, but it wasn’t a sacrifice I was in a huge rush to make. I’ve seen people around me have kids and it changes their whole lives. They’re happy about the change, but instead I wanted to do the things I never got to do growing up.

Well, let me tell you about my last few weeks.

On June 5th, I took my wife to the emergency room just before midnight. She was in agony, screaming. For a little more than a month prior, she had been suffering bad abdominal pain near the top of her stomach, below her chest. She also had sharp back pain. Her feet swelled sporadically.

My wife has an autoimmune disease that affects her thyroid as well as Celiac’s Disease, which makes it painful to eat gluten (yes, she has the actual disease and is not joining the fad diet). Before that month of pain and discomfort, we dismissed her fluctuating weight and health as problems with her medications’ dosages. This may be TMI, but my wife hasn’t had a menstrual cycle in years as a result of taking birth control and her thyroid issue.

In any case, she had finally gone to the doctor at my not-so-gentle-urging and he found troubling issues with her kidneys. He referred her to a nephrologist for further study. I was trying to keep a cool head, but began to worry that maybe she had a significant problem like cancer or one of many horrible sounding kidney diseases. Her appointment was for June 8th. We didn’t make it there.

On June 5th, we had settled into bed and were watching The X-Files on Netflix before sleep. My wife couldn’t settle. She was very uncomfortable. Finally, she began to feel real pain. It wasn’t long before she was screaming. Radiating pain settled into her mid-abdomen and wouldn’t go away. She could barely stand. My wife is a bit of a baby when it comes to pain, but I realized this was something else. I took her to the ER.

In my panic, I actually drove past a perfectly good hospital to go to another one. It ultimately didn’t matter, but it was late and I wasn’t thinking clearly with the moaning, occasionally yelping lady beside me. The ER wasn’t too busy, but somehow it still took 2 hours before my wife got help for her pain. The other waiting room attendees didn’t really seem to be there for “emergencies.” No one was doubled over in pain like my wife was anyway.

After waiting for the longest two hours ever (longer for my wife, I’m sure) the nurses finally took some blood and the doctor evaluated her. We sat in an ER patient room with the lights off when around 2:30 AM the doctor came back with a silver bullet diagnosis (almost Housein because it explained everything): my wife was pregnant.

I’m pretty sure when he said that I felt blood well up in my face. I felt hot and disconnected. My reaction was exactly the reaction I got for the next 48 hours as I told more people: “WHAT??” My wife had been on birth control the whole time, too.

My wife’s reaction was muted. She had just been given Dilaudid, so she was pretty cool with it. She was cool with everything. The doctor sent us to get an ultrasound, but he was pretty sure that the pregnancy was far along. Basically, my wife had a condition called preeclampsia, which is high blood pressure for pregnant women. Unfortunately, she had the worst form of it and it was impacting her liver and kidney functions. And, just for laughs, the extreme pain she had felt was the result of gallstones that were inflamed by her screwed up liver functions (the gall bladder and liver are right next to each other, apparently), but it wasn’t really a result of the pregnancy although that can exacerbate gallstone development.

An ultrasound technician took us down lonely, dark hallways to her rig. She took a lot of pictures of my wife’s abdomen, on the inside of course. The first batch were of things like her liver and gall bladder and kidneys. Then she moved onto the uterus. That’s when I saw my daughter for the first time.

I didn’t know exactly what I was seeing at first. I knew it was the baby, but when the technician took a freeze frame and labeled “eyes,” “nose,” and “lips” on the monitor I realized she was fairly old. But it didn’t matter how old she was because I realized that I wanted her. I felt guilty that we didn’t know she was in there and I wanted to hold her. It wasn’t guilt that made me want her though. Honestly, I can’t say it was anything rational. I just saw her in there and realized I was her dad.

But wait, there’s more fun. My wife’s preeclampsia was so severe they said she would need to deliver soon. What’s soon, you ask? How about an emergency C-section that same night? So, yeah, I got to hold the baby sooner than I thought. Turns out the baby was approximately seven and a half months old (28 weeks, 5 days).

At about five in the morning, I finally had all of the information I needed to make cogent calls to our parents. I was quick to point out that everyone was OK, but explained the pregnancy and my wife’s stable, but dangerous medical condition. All of the parents arrived soon after and everyone was in good spirits, generally happy about the surprising news. Some held it together better than others around the patient with the high blood pressure, but everything turned out OK.

I can only describe the experience as “whiplash.” We went from a late night visit to the ER, to learning my wife was pregnant, to learning she had a severe condition, to learning how old the baby was, to transferring hospitals, and then to sitting beside my wife a little more than twelve hours later during her C-section as they took the baby out. Our lives changed so dramatically in such a short amount of time that I’m still reeling almost 3 weeks later. My wife is doing great, much improved. The baby is in the NICU and will be for a while longer.

We had to cancel a trip to Seattle and Snoqualmie, WA (Twin Peaks!). I was/am pretty bummed about that since the new show will film there in the fall and I secretly hoped I would run into David Lynch or his crew scouting locations ahead of time. Maybe they’d ask me to be part of the show… I dunno.

A lot of our plans and thoughts about the future are up in the air. My wife was adamant about making sure I keep writing and focusing on my books. I haven’t written much as of late, but it’s been crazy, as I’m sure you can imagine. This is actually my first long form attempt since the baby.

I still want to travel. I still want to do the things I didn’t get to do when I was younger. Maybe I’ll take everyone up to Snoqualmie when the baby can travel or maybe when she’s a little bit older. But I feel comfortable around my little girl. I’m glad when I see her kick and move and even when she cries, since she’s a willful, firecracker – even trapped in her little islet. I think she’s going to be a redhead, from what we can tell with what little hair she has, and you know how temperamental they are.

Everyone is better.

Everyone is better.

An “Afterword” for TITAN

New edition features an “Afterword” not included in the first edition.

The great thing about self-publishing your work is it’s in your control. You make the editorial decisions. You help design the art and make final decisions on its direction. And you go at your own pace (although laziness can intrude from time to time).

The not-so-great part about self-publishing is, at least at the outset, not knowing what the hell you are doing. I use Amazon publishing, which is a great service. But you can lose some important details. For instance, as those of you who bought the first edition of TITAN know, the book just starts. There are no title or copyright pages. I assumed that information would get layered into my book by Amazon’s service. I was wrong.

That said, I love my book and I’m proud of it. I’m more interested in the story anyway. However, in addition to missing some “niceties” that other books have, it’s a thick brick tome. I’m pretty sure you could knock someone out with that book with a good hit to the dome (that is not an endorsement of doing so, mind you…). Therefore, I reformatted the story down from 499 pages to 308 pages, including a new “afterword,” and added a new matte cover that looks and feels great.

But because I’m not a George Lucasinian shill, I will not make you buy a new edition of the same book just to see the new bells and whistles and read my new afterword. Nope, you can read it right here for free. Suffice it to say, if you haven’t read TITAN, I wouldn’t recommend reading the afterword until you do as there are some spoilers.

Here you go:

Let me tell you a secret.

Writers have egos.

There. Now you know. Mull that for a moment. And since writers have egos they also have agendas. The work has to mean something, even if it’s a novel about a superhero. Hell, especially if it’s about a superhero—how else could you relate to someone with super strength and metal in his bones that fights monsters?

Connecting the hero’s story with her personal journey is why Buffy the Vampire Slayer was so good. Joss Whedon wanted to deconstruct the stereotypical blonde female victim, so he made her the thing that monsters would fear instead. Moreover, the threats and villains she faced were usually representative of the personal turmoil that she was having in any given episode.

I have a few agendas with Titan, but one stands above the others. Eric Steele’s sister, Sarah, is based upon my real sister. Sarah was very real. She was handicapped, just like the Sarah in the story. The real Sarah also passed away. She left a mark on all of us. But when I think about my sister, as a person, I dwell on her unfulfilled promise. I think about the life she might have led if things had gone differently. It was a waste of a beautiful person.

In the world I created, I needed to give Sarah a purpose and meaning the real one didn’t get to have. She was supposed to be a superhero. Sarah became the motivation driving Eric Steele like Batman’s murdered parents or Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben. Beyond that, the suffering she endured wasn’t without meaning; she fought to survive so she could give her brother the ancient power that she couldn’t use. Sarah is the critical link throughout the story. By the end, Eric realizes that he must commit to Titan because Sarah can’t.

We all have particular family dynamics, but I don’t think I’m the only person whose older sibling loomed large. I inherited a chip on my shoulder to succeed and do all of the things Sarah could not. When I was a younger man, I resented that. But it was short-sighted. If it had not been for the real Sarah I might not be a writer.

Sarah’s condition was such that we were often homebound, so I learned to play by myself and developed a big imagination. I invented worlds and characters in my mind and acted out detailed scenarios. I used to build the bridge of the Enterprise, from Star Trek, in my bedroom out of dining room chairs and TV trays. Broken tree branches and sticks became exotic alien weaponry or guns. The interior of my house was a giant spacecraft (think: Death Star) from which the Millennium Falcon needed to destroy and escape. Sarah was sometimes an alien life form the Enterprise needed to research (and usually blow up).

So often, superheroes are driven by the death of a parent or parental figure, but I thought there was more value in showing how a family copes with the loss of a child and a sister. Eric Steele’s parents’ roles in this are just as valid as his. Similar to my own experiences, Sarah’s death reverberated through each family member. The circumstances around her death and what disabled her for life forced everyone in the family to make certain decisions that continue to affect them in the present like the mystery around how Tim Steele lost his powers. Some of this was revealed and there’s more to come.

My other agendas are petty by comparison. As much as I had a great idea for a superhero with a badass name with liquid metal in his bones that can forge armor, weapons, and objects through sheer will, what I really wanted to do was name his mild-mannered alter ego “Eric.” And he’s a superhero so he either needed alliteration in his name, à la Peter Parker or Clark Kent, or he needed one of those names that was *wink* *wink* some statement about his hero identity. I went with the latter because alliteration is harder with “e” and because “Eric Steele” just sounds cool.

I’m telling you this because my name is also “Eric.” Of course, the decision to name my main character with the same first name invites criticism. But I gladly accept it because my reasons for doing so go beyond ego. Nomenclature of fictional characters is due for a shake-up. For one, I like my name. I don’t meet enough Erics. It’s a good, solid name. Two, and most important, I’m tired of “John Hero.” How many people are named “John” anyway? Going just off of action movies, everyone’s name is John.

I want to be clear about this because I don’t want people confusing my fictional character’s thoughts, feelings, family and friends, or events in his life as though they are my own. Like any writer, my characters are all drawn out of my characteristics and a combination of various people I know. Writers really do write what they know. And sure, I think it would be cool to have the kind of superpowers that Eric Steele has, but I certainly wouldn’t want to get them the same way or go through what he does. Really, though, Erics draw the short straw in fiction. They’re either villains, bullies, jerks, or weirdoes, wimps, or just some peripheral character with no lines. Eric Cartman, from South Park, while hilarious, is pure evil; Eric Foreman, from That 70s Show, is a wimp; and Erik Lehnsherr or Magneto, as he is more commonly known in X-Men, is a villain often trying to murder the human race. Those are just three examples. There are a couple of exceptions to this: Prince Eric from The Little Mermaid and Coach Eric Taylor from Friday Night Lights. Now there’s another: Eric Steele.

On another track, Eric Steele and Titan are also shorter than average at 5 feet, 5 inches. So am I. In fact, I gave Titan an extra inch on me—I’m only 5’4. As much as I wanted to fight the good fight on behalf of Erics, I also wanted to stand up for the little guy (pardon the pun). Why can’t a superhero be “short?” In fact, the Wolverine of the comics is only 5’3, but he’s portrayed in the X-Men films (to date) by Hugh Jackman who is 6’2. Why couldn’t, say, Charlie Day (of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia fame) be Wolverine? He’s still taller at 5’7, but it would be closer. Well, in my story Titan is 5’5 and that’s OK; he still has an iron-fisted punch.

Another peccadillo of mine in the superhero genre has to do with the learning curve that its heroes endure (or don’t). I enjoy jumping into superhero fights and romance and intrigue as much as the next person, but it would seem to me that if someone all of a sudden possessed the powers of a spider, for example, it would take more than a 2 minute montage to become proficient in their use. I aspired to show how Titan’s character and powers grew iteratively. By the end of the book, Titan has accepted who he is, but he has not mastered Titan’s power. Committing to his superhero persona and conquering his first challenge were the first steps. Now he must learn what being Titan really means, where he fits in the world, and how to hone his abilities to be an effective hero.

A good artist should let his work stand on its own without explanation (…he said after explaining several things). He should write for himself above all else. But I felt that I should justify some of my creative decisions—not apologize for them, mind you—and clarify important influences on the work. Most importantly, I want my readers to know that Titan is like an iceberg; the book is just the tip above the water, but there is an extensive mass beneath the surface supporting the story.

…and the stories to come…

I hope you enjoyed it.

Web: http://www.TheTitanSaga.com
Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/NeoMyers
Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/TITANSuperhero
Email: eabauthor@gmail.com

Interest in Reviews?

Now, keep in mind Mike can’t control when movies begin or end…

Someone asked me last week if I’d be reviewing Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I didn’t want to see the movie much less review it. But if you guys would be interested in reading them, I’ll take that bullet.

I’ll try to work more in should you want them. I’ve actually been toying with reviewing Hannibal from the beginning to gin up interest in the show before Season 3 starts in February. I may eventually review Twin Peaks episode by episode, too, but again those projects were meant to be on my own time, at my own pace.

Let me know in the comments (or on Facebook) if anyone would be interested in more reviews, both movies and TV, on here.

 

Guardians of the Galaxy: Another Marvel Win

“Real” heroes.

I won’t bury the lede: Guardians of the Galaxy was everything I wanted it to be and more; it’s a solid, good, enjoyable movie. It’s a contender for the best Marvel Studios movie yet — and yes, I realize that pits it against Iron Man, The Avengers, and Captain America: The Winter Soldier. It doesn’t matter because Guardians can take the heat.

Guardians of the Galaxy grabs you right at the start, with a surprisingly emotional scene, and is pure joy for every moment afterward. In fact, was this Marvel’s first “cold open?” I don’t think any of the movies before Guardians started before the Marvel Studios logo. Feel free to gut check me on that.

The story is very simple — a decidedly good approach — and I’ll save major spoilers for a later post, perhaps. Peter Quill, aka: Star Lord (his self applied nickname), played by Chris Pratt, is a “ravager,” essentially someone who hunts down and finds (or steals…) valuable items for payment via the network of ravagers that abducted him from Earth as a boy. He’s after an orb on a beaten down, faraway planet. Think: sci-fi Indiana Jones, but without the moral compass. Bad guys are after the orb, too (because it’s part of a significant piece of Marvel canon), and they try to take it back from him. He escapes with the orb and the rest of the film is, architecturally, a “chase after the MacGuffin” story leading to a final confrontation. But really, it’s just a vehicle for Writer Nicole Perlman and Director James Gunn (who also wrote a script draft) to spend time with our main characters, Star Lord, Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), Groot (Vin Diesel, collecting an easy paycheck), and Drax (Dave Bautista).

The script does a fantastic job of giving every character numerous chances to shine. Quill is undeniably the film’s lead, but the ensemble runs the show. And how often can you say you watched a movie where a walking, talking Raccoon and a tree are a movie’s emotional center?

There is so much to like. The pace is perfect. The movie is laugh-out-loud funny consistently throughout. This is certainly Marvel’s most comedic movie yet, but that doesn’t downplay the action, adventure, or the threat behind the villains and their motivations. The character, gadget, and set designs are all superb — they give this world a vibrant, lived-in feel very much like Star Wars though I’m not the first to make that comparison.

The heart of the Ghostbusters.

I was surprised by how much I responded to Rocket and Groot. Rocket is a lot like a more aggressive, violent raccoon George Costanza with a heart (so, maybe not like George Costanza). Groot can only say “I am Groot,” but he gets a lot of mileage out of it and he’s an endearing character for a tree voiced by Vin Diesel. The movie invests a lot of time with them and their relation to the rest of the team and it all works. I don’t know how James Gunn did it, quite frankly — having Rocket and Groot be weird and schlocky was the more likely outcome. Bradley Cooper deserves a fair share of the credit because his performance imbues the animated creature with real personality and emotion.

All of the characters are out for themselves, Rocket most of all, and the movie does a great job of putting everyone together and working together in an organic way. In fact, the story makes getting all of the characters together look easy. The MacGuffin is what everyone wants and the story wastes no time putting everyone after it and mixed in with the others.

From a writer’s perspective, I’m impressed with how stories unfold. In my own writing, I’m always concerned with showing all of the setup to events. It’s just how my mind connects. This movie makes it look easy. The characters’ actions and motivations all come from real, natural places and yet the pace never lets up. Plus, since this story takes place in the same Marvel Universe that all of our other heroes inhabit, there might have been a concern with establishing alien world and situations, but no — Guardians dives right in. Aliens exist. There are other worlds and spaceships and crazy gadgets and powerful enemies; this is the world our heroes inhabit and that’s how it is — accept it. And we do! The Thor films and The Avengers only hinted at the larger universe that exists elsewhere and Guardians makes it real, lived in, and matter-of-fact. Given how Tony Stark had a nervous breakdown over the Chitari and the Tesseract portal in The Avengers, I wonder how he’ll react to what’s really out there?

I’m dressed in black and I have a deep, terrible voice. I’m the bad guy.

I had to look hard to come up with a criticism. It’s actually a familiar Marvel complaint — the chief villain, Ronan, is not very compelling. He’s got reasonable motivation, I guess. He’s pretty tough and menacing and gives our heroes a good fight. In fact, given how capable they made him, I genuinely wondered how the Guardians would actually defeat him (not that I ever thought his defeat was in doubt, of course). Other than Loki, Marvel films have had a recurring problem creating good villains that aren’t just seething, stomping, fonts of evil, and unfortunately, as good as Guardians is, it didn’t clear this hurdle either.

I can’t wait to see Guardians of the Galaxy again. I’m excited about what I hope it means for the Marvel Cinematic Universe and by that I mean I hope the films only get bolder, brighter, and more daring. This film is unabashedly open about what it is — and that’s a comic book superhero movie which is also a comedy, an adventure, and a science fiction saga.

I’m not sure what problem Edgar Wright had with Marvel Studios regarding Ant-Man because Guardians of the Galaxy is unlike any Marvel movie you’ve seen before and is full of James Gunn’s spirit — and is the better for it! I wish Wright luck, but I think he made a bad miscalculation in dropping out of Ant-Man because he and us missed out on a unique experience. I’m always suspicious of creative people who won’t compromise (see George Lucas) because out of process and feedback ideas only get better.

In any case, go see Guardians of the Galaxy and have a really good time. It’s fun, entertaining, and inspires me to create something great just like it.

Let the “Bad Guys” Win

Turtle Power

TV is really good now. Let me begin with that central point. Yes, there are still terrible things on TV like the “Kardashians” and “Survivor,” but we’ve also gotten really amazing TV like The Wire, Breaking Bad, Lost, Game of Thrones, Arrested Development, House of Cards, and the list goes on. The reasons for this ascendance into TV’s golden age are varied and detailed by people far more in the know than me, so I won’t go into all of that here.

But I will note one thing that was really cool when I was a kid, which has become almost commonplace today: the bad guys sometimes won.

If you know me at all, or have read any of my other pieces, you know that I am something of a TV aficionado. Self-proclaimed, if nothing else. Without giving you my whole life story I watched a lot of TV and movies as a kid and spent a fair amount of time by myself.

Don’t get me wrong. I wasn’t crouching in a basement, friendless, and writing a manifesto. I had a sick family member that took up a lot of my parents’ attention, so I learned to play by myself and immerse myself in other worlds. It actually helped me develop my fantastic imagination.

In any case, like many kids my age I watched Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles almost daily. Back in the 80’s, the show (and kids cartoons, generally) followed a pretty basic formula: the Turtles and/or April O’Neil are living large, eating pizza, loving life, Shredder and Krang (or one of a handful of other sub-villains like Rat-King) come up with a scheme, the Turtles find out about the scheme, there is a fight, bad guys sort of hold them off or beat the turtles back, turtles rally and win the day. Exciting stuff (and no, that’s not sarcasm).

But there were a couple of episodes where things didn’t quite work out that way and my interest level piqued when the bad guys won. It’s not that I wanted the turtles to lose exactly, it was just really interesting when the villain succeeded in their plan. Think about how all of these stories rolled out: “We can’t let Shredder get the MacGuffin or he’ll destroy New York City!” Because the turtles always won, we hardly ever saw what happened when Shredder actually got the MacGuffin or him get ready to destroy New York City.” On the few occasions when that finally happened, it was exciting.

It was also annoying how Shredder’s minions, BeBop and Rocksteady, always shot at the turtles with laser weapons and couldn’t hit them. I can’t remember the name of the episode and I have looked (believe me), but one time Bebop and Rocksteady lured the turtles into a trap and shot them!

That’s right. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles got shot! Of course, it was with lasers and the turtles were only slightly burnt and smoking, but they were hit and down for the count. They later came back and won, but it was still a cool moment.

There was also an episode where Shredder and Krang’s massive, super-tank fortress, the Technodrome, finally got enough power or something and made its way to the planet’s surface and started tearing up New York City. In fact, I believe that was a 2-parter wherein the turtles technically lost in the first part because they couldn’t stop Shredder from powering up the Technodrome in the first place.

The most famous example of this is probably when Optimus Prime died in the original Transformers cartoon movie (featuring the voices of Leonard Nimoy and Orson Welles, BTW…). As a kid, we were used to our heroes always winning out in the end. If there was a fight and they were injured, they’d get better or something would heal them. Not this time. No, after Prime’s all-out attack on the Decepticons and Megatron, he was mortally wounded and he died for real.* He passed on his “Matrix of Leadership” or whatever to Hot Rod, but the being Optimus Prime was dead as in “he wasn’t in the movie anymore.” As kids, we weren’t used to seeing that.

Lil’ Power Rangers

Hell, Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers ended with them losing! The kid phenomena, Power Rangers, which sold a gazillion toys and sparked a live show, then a movie, actually ended with a big loss for the rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita (who had gotten married by this point (WTF)) figured out a way to reverse the rotation of the Earth, which (as we all know) reverses time. The rangers tried to stop it, but were held off (for probably the only time ever) by Goldar and whatever goons they were using. When time reversed, the rangers became kids again and, apparently, they could not morph when they were kids. Lord Zedd and Rita grow big and start trashing Angel Grove. THE END. It was all subterfuge for the next series, which would necessitate another ranger team coming to help them with different powers and zords (read: toys) but the rangers were beaten. Let’s call it what it is.

As a slight addendum to that, the Rangers also “lost” at the end of the series that followed MMPR, Mighty Morphin’ Alien Rangers. Lord Zedd and Rita found a way to smuggle a bomb into the rangers’ Command Center and blew it up. Power Rangers Zeo rather cheaply retconned its way out of it, but still rather shocking.

Of course, there is probably the greatest downbeat ending of all time: The Empire Strikes Back. Our intrepid hero, Luke Skywalker, was handed his ass by the Dark Lord (of the Sith) Vader, Han Solo was frozen in carbonite, and the rebels were in flight across the galaxy having been driven from their base. Things were pretty dire and it wasn’t very uplifting. Audiences loved it and, to this day, it’s the gold standard in Star Wars storytelling.

Utter defeat

What this is all leading to, is the storytellers and creators of TV and movie content realized that having everything work out and be wrapped up neatly isn’t very dramatic. We like to see our heroes win, but it’s truly only satisfying if there are actual stakes–and actual threat that they might lose. But more and more shows have connected around the “anti-hero” or the just plain bad guy (see: Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey). That’s why fans are so mad about Han Solo not shooting Greedo first — it’s not about Han being a cold-blooded killer as George Lucas vainly asserts — it’s a character trait that shows Han is a man of action who will not be walked into a corner

It used to be that the audience had to identify with the main character. He had to be moral and make good decisions. He may not always win, but he always did his best. Both Tony and Vic showed us that our main character doesn’t need to be good — in fact, he can be downright loathsome as long as he is interesting to watch. Walter White is a great example of this; he started in a place where people could identify with him and understand his choices (to an extent), but as Breaking Bad went on, Walt started to go off the rails. He really went from “Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface” as creator Vince Gilligan envisioned.

It’s not exactly a new or foreign concept. The Godfather depicted protagonists as bad guys doing bad things, but we generally rooted for them. Or at least we were fascinated to watch. The slasher film craze of the 80s works into this, too. The movies started out as being innocence against violence and evil, but gradually characters like Jason, Freddy Kruger, and Michael Myers became the stars. Audiences turned out to see Jason get those immoral kids doing drugs, having sex, or just generally being mean. They were taking authoritative action — not action we would take necessarily, but these are movies; we want our characters doing interesting things.

Consider Hannibal Lecter. Really think about who he is and what he does. He kills people and he eats them. In some cases, he tortures them before he kills them. He made one guy cut off his face and feed it to dogs. But we like him. He’s a gentleman, he’s got a great accent, he’s smart, he’s witty, and, generally, he goes after people that we don’t really like. At the heart of it, though, are Hannibal Lecter’s contradictions. We’re mesmerized by this character who does such terrible things, but on the surface is really quite interesting. He’s affable (to some), he tells great stories, and he seems to know more about you than you do.

Contradiction is dramatic. It creates story where the script doesn’t explicitly depict it. “Clarice Starling is bright, young, and innocent. Hannibal Lecter is incisive, brilliant, and dangerous.” What happens when these two forces meet? As they talk and interface, that story plays out in the actors’ performances while the overt plot comes through in their dialogue and revelations. Plus, try to remember that when Silence of the Lambs came out, other than book readers and the 13 people that saw Manhunter, no one really knew what Hannibal Lecter was. Other characters told us he was dangerous and Clarice, herself, says it to his face when she notes that he “ate” his victims instead of keeping parts of them as trophies. Of course, it didn’t hurt that the amazingly charismatic and charming Anthony Hopkins played Lecter. Until the 3rd act, when Lecter escapes in traumatic and explosively violent fashion we didn’t really know what he was capable of doing. There’s probably even a few people that silently cheered his escape because Lecter’s captor, Dr. Chilton, is so slimy and loathsome.

Anyway, to bring this long-winded piece back to something resembling a point, in Silence of the Lambs, the bad guy wins after a fashion. The primary antagonist, Jame Gumb, is killed by our fledgling hero, Clarice Starling, but Hannibal Lecter escapes. AND as we now now, Lecter is certainly more dangerous than Gumb. Frankly, Lecter emboldens guys like Jame Gumb and makes them worse. The audience is really the winner in this scenario. It’s just watched a taut, well-executed story where the bad guy wins. It can’t wait to see more.

Similarly, rather than be angry or downcast because the Ninja Turtles or Power Rangers lost, I was jazzed up. The story was excited. What would my heroes do now? As exciting as heroes are when they’re winning, they’re more interesting when they’re losing. How will they react? Can they turn things back in their favor?

Think about Captain America: The Winter Soldier. The most common criticism of Captain America is that he, like Superman, is too perfect. He’s bland. He’s a boy scout. Those things are true. But what does the bland, boy scout do when the ground fall out from underneath him? What does he do when everything he believes is called into question? He’s named “Captain America” for goodness sake. What does he do when the United States he’s fighting for tries to kill him and is responsible for some really heinous stuff? TWS was a great movie and while (spoiler alert) the good guys prevail in the end, it was a Pyrrhic Victory. Many are dead and one of the bedrock foundations (so we thought…) of the Marvel Cinematic Universe is shattered to pieces. The bad guys sort of won and that movie was the better for it (so is Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.).

I’m sorry for the somewhat meandering piece. I used to get these thoughts out with my friends at my old job and since I don’t have easy access to those fine minds anymore, this is the medium I must use. And, I ask you, if random thoughts about TV shows and movies don’t belong on the Internet, where do they belong, huh?

Oh yeah, and watch Hannibal (1st Season up on Amazon Prime and 2nd season on Amazon or iTunes or whatever digital medium you prefer). It’s really good.

Enjoy

Influences

Avengers' Height Chart

I’ve explored inspiration for particular stories, characters, and situations. Titan was inspired by a nugget of an idea born from the character/technology of “T-1000” from Terminator 2: Judgment Day. It expanded from there. But that’s an idea.

There is a broader effect that acts on us as we create.

Influences.

Everything we have experienced throughout our lives is rattling around in our brains. It makes us cautious when we sense familiar danger. We perk up when we smell a favored food no matter who’s making it. And we enjoy new stories similar to tales we enjoyed long ago.

If it isn’t immediately evident, I am influenced by the superhero myth. I have my favorites (*ahem* Batman *ahem*). But I’m strongly influenced by the notion of the superhero, which is that one person receives great power and uses it to combat evil. I always use Spider-Man as the best example of this.

Meek, kind, and intelligent Peter Parker is bullied, maligned, and ignored — a boy without power. His good-hearted, responsible Uncle Ben raised Peter and treated him like his own son. Ben instilled in Peter the principle that power is a responsibility. When Peter is bitten by the spider, which gives him super abilities the power goes to his head. Uncle Ben is killed as a result of Peter’s inaction. From that day forward, Peter Parker uses his power to help people who have none and confront individuals that abuse theirs.

In the real world, I think we’re used to people actively seeking power for their own selfish purposes. They keep it despite the costs personally and at large. Furthermore, we’re accustomed to people of privilege having power or individuals with physical prowess be it attractiveness, athletic, ability, or both. It’s a rare thing when you find someone who has power and it’s used selflessly or, even rarer, freely gives it up.

I think often about the first American President George Washington with regards to power. He knew why we fought the War of Independence and knew the King’s arbitrary rule well. When Washington’s second term was over, he did not seek reelection. Washington could have been reelected until he died, but he was making a point—this new republic could only work if individuals elected to power freely gave it up when their time was over. Think about the politicians we have now. I can’t see very many of them giving up their power.

I am drawn to superheroes because they use power selflessly (for the most part). They’re also pretty cool. But it’s the use of power that influences me. I’m comparatively short and not especially physical, so the idea of the powerless gaining power is attractive.

Most superheroes are tall, broad chested, and heavily muscled or, in the case of women tall, long-legged, large breasted, and thin. In Titan, the hero is 5’5. I’m not looking to deconstruct the superhero myth, but I wanted to expand it to include people who don’t fit the type.

And, of course, my own physical dimensions bias me. I know how my height is a punch line. I know that I am overlooked (…pun) and underestimated purely because of it. Spider-Man is considered a short superhero, but he’s still 5’10. And yes, I know that Wolverine is short (he’s 5’3 – Titan is taller!), but Hugh Jackman, who portrays him in movies (see X-Men: Days of Future’s Past this summer!), is 6’2 so I’m going to go ahead and not count him.

On another track, I am also disillusioned by “regular” people getting superpowers and being expert with them five minutes later. I like big superhero fights and romance and all that, too, but I think it means more when it’s earned. I prefer what I call the Breaking Bad method of story telling. Walter White became a drug kingpin over the course of 5 seasons; it didn’t happen over night or through a fun, quick montage set to “You’re the Best Around.” We watched every painstaking detail and decision, which led him along the way. That’s called “story,” and if it’s done right it’s better than a superhero fight any day…

…well, most fights. The end battle in The Avengers was pretty amazing.

Although, Robert Downey Jr. calling out the guy playing Galaga was pretty good, too.

Tribulations of a New Author

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I’ve been writing since I was 8 years old. My original stories were detective stories. If I remember correctly, I had a robot partner; he got destroyed in every story…

But I have always loved writing. It came easy. I can write. I know how. I get better everyday.

I do not know how to run a business.

When I published TITAN last year I could figure that out. I used Amazon’s intuitive services to publish in both hard copy and electronic Kindle version. It was nerve-wracking to put my work out there for all to see where I couldn’t tweak or fix anymore. But that’s what it’s all about.

Yet, as I work to grow awareness of my book and get it in more people’s hands, I have to double my efforts and step out of my comfort zone. I am attending Awesome Con DC this year (April 18-20 at the Washington Convention Center). I love my book and talking to people about it, but I am anxious about hocking my wares. I’m a writer, not a salesman. But if I want to write full-time and get my stories to a wider audience I need to learn.

A great example of this is very practical. I will have books with me at the convention. I’m also developing some new creative materials to market TITAN as a book and a brand. I’ll have cash with me at the convention for change, but if I want to increase sales I need a credit card option. PayPal offers a credit card reader called “PayPal Here” that plugs into iOS and Android devices. PayPal takes 2.7% per transaction, so it’s a pretty good option.

Anyway, to sign up you need to fill out your business address. Well, I don’t think of myself as a business, but it’s required. But PayPal tells you this address will be put on your receipts. I like you people, but I don’t need to share that much with you. So, I needed to get a P.O. box. But we’re moving in a couple of months so we needed to search Post Office locations near my wife’s school since that’s a fixed point. We paid, we filled out a form, and brought our IDs to get the P.O. box. Now I can sign up for the PayPal service I need.

It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it just goes to show how I’m learning the ropes as I go. And sometimes things aren’t as simple as they seem. I’m definitely learning some life lessons.

Can’t I just go back to writing?

Inspire the Hero

It’s a pretty popular trope for heroes, human and super alike, to inspire the people they protect.

In my humble opinion, this was done best (and most visibly) in Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy. Literally, Batman’s mission statement was to strike fear into Gotham’s criminals and show the people that anyone could be a hero. He wanted to spur the people to action to save their city. In The Dark Knight Rises, it comes full circle and literally Gotham’s people have to fight alongside Batman against Bane’s army. While TDKR isn’t the film that The Dark Knight is, it’s a powerful closing sequence.

I always get a rush when Batman flies the bomb over the building and that kid shouts: “It’s Batman!”

Fuckin’ Batman. What a world, right?

But I started wondering about the reverse; what does Batman get from the people of Gotham? He tells Lt. Gordon not to thank him (Batman Begins and The Dark Knight). And it’s clear that he takes on the mantle as a duty, a commitment. He does it for the people of Gotham. He needs them to thrive.

Set Batman aside for a moment and consider the question more broadly. What does a hero get from the people he protects?

I think we’re accustomed to the notion that our heroes are selfless and do what they do out of duty or innate goodness. In Peter Parker’s case, it’s both, right? Peter was a good kid and his Uncle Ben instilled in him the duty to use his power for just purpose (With great power comes great responsibility).

The X-Men are especially selfless. Not only do they sacrifice their lives in service of others, but they also suffer terrible prejudice over their mutant abilities. All they get from people is hate and mistrust.

Quick aside, though: Why are the X-Men persecuted and the Fantastic Four lauded? They exist in the same universe, but for some reason the F4 are like rock stars and well-respected while poor Professor Xavier and Co. are suffering through mutant registrations and military attacks… Anyway…

I’m driving at a point, I promise. I’m working on a follow-up to my first book, Titan, and I’m playing with the question of “What does the hero derive from the people he protects?” No spoilers, but for my character it’s two-fold: 1. He draws confidence and resolve from knowing the people are behind him, and 2. There may be practical benefits from the support of “the people.”

I feel like all fiction and story on heroes revolves around the idea of people gaining strength from the hero, but not vice versa. If I’m wrong, please tell me, I’d like to read some examples. But I wanted to explore this in the development of my character, Eric Steele/Titan, and his path to becoming a superhero. The first book is an origin story and explores the themes of responsibility, secrets, and choice in the development of good and evil.  I’ve always thought about Titan as the Breaking Bad of superhero stories because, much like the evolution of Walter White from Mr. Blue Chips to Scarface, I didn’t want Eric Steele to just be Titan after a convenient montage of superheroic hi jinks. I wanted to show how a person, with dreams and aspirations and fears and issues already, reacts to obtaining superhuman abilities and inheriting crushing responsibility. In my mind, that’s not just a finger snap. That would take a while.

But now that I’ve told the origin story and my character has his powers, I want to explore this theme of how the hero draws upon the people he saves as much as the people he saves draw upon him. Eric Steele is still not a veteran superhero–not even close–but I think his evolution needs to touch upon this concept. Frankly, I think the only way he can ever become a fully fledged superhero is to learn what his role is in the world and how he needs the people around him, friends, family, and the unwitting public alike.

Stay tuned for the next chapter of TitanCatch up with the first one if you haven’t read it yet.