Weekly Update – May 31, 2016

Another slow week due to the Robin Hood Springtime Festival, but it’s been a good run so far and I’m having lots of fun.

WRITING PROJECTS

The Adventures of Strongarm & Lightfoot – Assassins Brawl: Draft two is under review with test-readers. I’m curious to see how many people make notes on bits and pieces I’ve already tweaked in my third draft.

Action Figures – Issue Six: Power Play: Pre-editing revisions are done, in the queue for editing.

Action Figures – Live Free or Die: Pre-editing revisions are done, in the queue for editing.

Action Figures – Issue Seven: The Black End War: I wrote a few pages last week but I need to go back and read everything I’ve written so far to re-familiarize myself with it.

APPEARANCES and EVENTS

This week I put in my application to sell books at Arisia 2017, and I expect J.M. Aucoin and I will be back next year, a little older and wiser in the ways of pitching ourselves to prospective readers. With luck, the convention organizers will set up a proper authors’ area that isn’t in a hallway — which wasn’t a bad location, really, but it wasn’t astounding either.

MISC.

So, what, is Mjolnir also a Hydra agent?
So, what, is Mjolnir also a Hydra agent?

I just want to throw out a few quick thoughts on the latest kerfuffle in the comic book world, the controversial twist in issue one of Steve Rogers: Captain America that reveals Cap is and always has been a deep cover Hydra agent — which ranks right up there with the idiotic Spider-Clone Saga in terms of ill-conceived character shake-ups.

  1. It is an incredibly stupid plot twist that requires readers to ignore 75 years’ worth of stories in order to make it work logically. The Mjolnir issue alone pretty much renders it unworkable.
  2. Fans have every right to be pissed off about the story and express their ire verbally and by refusing to buy the comic. Threatening anyone at Marvel, including the story’s writer, is going WAY too far. Grow the hell up.
  3. On that note: no, this story did not ruin your childhood. You’re just being a huge drama queen.
  4. This will not last, and anyone who thinks otherwise hasn’t read a comic in decades. Comics always revert to the status quo. Remember when Cap died and Bucky took over, and how permanent that was supposed to be? My guess is that this twist will be explained away as false memories and psychic tampering by the Red Skull, who currently has Charles Xavier’s powers (don’t ask). I originally gave it two or three years before everything went back to normal, but considering how vicious the fan backlash has been, I’d be surprised if this arc lasted through the end of the year.

 

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The First No(el)

DC StationeryWhile scrolling through Tumblr the other day, I came across the image at right on Brian Michael Bendis’s account.

This is artwork by the late, great Dick Giordano, and it appeared on official DC Comics stationery. Take a close look and you’ll notice that the characters’ insignia are backwards. That’s because the image was printed on the back of the paper, so when you read the front, the characters would show through and would appear to be holding the DC logo in the letterhead.

I know this for a fact because my first ever rejection letter was printed on DC Comics stationery (the art on the back at the time was, I believe, by Jose Luis Garcia Lopez, another DC legend).

The backstory: I was at the time a student at the Joe Kubert School. I enrolled with the intent of becoming a comic book artist, but as I realized I was very limited as an artist and didn’t have a future there, I started transitioning to the writing end of things. Many of my other classmates were already submitting their artwork to DC and Marvel, as well as coming up with creator-owned projects to pitch to the smaller publishers.

I followed suit in my own way. DC’s then brand-new Vertigo line was gaining momentum, and I found an old and mostly forgotten character in Dr. Occult that felt ripe for a rebirth under the Vertigo banner. I wrote a spec script, put together a submission package, and sent it all to editors Karen Berger and Jonathan Peterson. They passed it on to Tom Peyer, who rejected it, which he absolutely should have; I don’t remember the specifics of my proposal, but I’m certain that it was terrible.

I wasn’t surprised by the rejection, nor was I disappointed. I was actually quite thrilled that I had been acknowledged by DC Comics, one of the “Big Two,” and bonus, I had a really cool piece of official DC stationery to show off to everyone — and here it is:

Snapshot_20151215

As you can see, I still have that rejection letter, along with every other rejection letter I’ve received since then, primarily to serve as motivation to keep going and succeed at my craft. I wanted to one day be able to take all those rejection letters — all seventy of them — and symbolically laugh at everyone who turned me down before trashing them, thus putting that phase of my writing career behind me for good.

Seventy rejection letters spanning more than two decades — and this doesn’t count the e-mails or those publishers and agents who never bothered to respond at all.
Beatrix helps me take out the trash.
Beatrix helps me take out the trash.

Well, it’s time to do just that.

Bye-bye, failure phase. We had a good run, but I’m sure not going to miss you.

Spoiler Theater: The 2014 – 2015 TV Season

I haven’t done any kind of review in a while, and I have a little bit of time before I have to head off to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire (cheap plug), so I thought I’d jibber-jabber a little about the current TV season, which is more or less at an end until the fall. As the header of this entry suggests, I may be dropping a few spoilers, so read on at your own risk.

I only had about a half-dozen series I watched steadily, but that’s more TV than I’ve watched over the previous few years. There’s some good stuff out there — and some stuff that started off good and petered out hard. I’m going to work my way down the list, starting with my favorite show of the season…

The Flash

I didn’t expect to love this show as much as I do, but this was just so much fun to watch. It’s a super-hero show, flat out, and doesn’t pretend to be anything more — and that’s fine, because it’s nice to have a lighter series to counter shows like The Flash‘s darker counterpart, Arrow.

The Flash

For me, the relationships between the characters are perhaps the high point of the show — especially the relationship between Barry (the affable Grant Gustin) and his surrogate father Joe (Jesse L. Martin), and between Cisco (Carlos Valdez) and anyone. Cisco is a treasure of a character and I will personally lead a riot if he’s ever killed off.

The show’s two flaws: its occasional habit of having characters make conveniently stupid decisions in order to keep the story moving, and its constant mishandling of Iris (Candice Patton, who deserves better). She’s regularly pushed around by the male characters, and her will-she-or-won’t-she relationship with Barry renders her rather unsympathetic. I hope the writers treat her better in season two.

Agents of SHIELDAgents of SHIELD

This show deserves a ton of praise simply for fixing its many, many season one flaws. The show didn’t come alive until it starting dealing with the repercussions of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Grant Ward (Brett Dalton) turned bad, and it kept the momentum up in season two. Plus, it had some of the best fight scenes I’ve ever seen in a TV show.

My biggest gripe is that it still isn’t delving into the Marvel Universe as deeply as The Flash and Arrow dig into the DC Universe. It had a few great moments (I geeked out over the Absorbing Man), but Marvel has such a deep catalog of characters I’m baffled as to why it’s not taking advantage of it more. And, as a friend pointed out, the show could be retconned out of existence and it doesn’t impact the movies at all; Agents of SHIELD simply has no real relevance to the films. I’d love to see a more deeply connected universe, which might yet happen given that the Inhumans — due to have their own movie in 2019 — figure so heavily in season two.

Arrow

I’ve heard a lot of people bemoan season three as the weakest so far, but I don’t think it was bad. The Ra’s al Ghul storyline was interesting and had some nice twists, plus we got a whole season of John Barrowman as a complex antagonist, and who can complain about a steady John Barrowman fix?

JB Gif

John was part of a solid cast of supporting characters, and the tragedy here is that Oliver Queen himself (Stephen Amell) is the least likable one of the bunch. His constant cycle of pushing his crew away in the most dickish manner possible, only to later admit he needs them, is tiresome, but the season finale’s happy ending suggests that maybe he won’t be quite the brooding pseudo-loner in season four.

Sleepy Hollow

This is my wife’s favorite show, and we both agree that we should have never liked it at all. The premise sounds so stupid: Ichabod Crane awakens in the present to continue his battle against the Headless Horseman, who is in fact one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. It turned out to be a rather fun adventure series, anchored by what may be my favorite TV partnership since Mulder and Scully: Crane (Tom Mison) and Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie). They have a great on-screen relationship (with no hints of sexual tension, thank god) and a lot of the fun derives from how they play off each other.

I also credit the writers for taking the “man out of time” trope in a different direction. Mison’s Crane is never perplexed by modern society or technology, but is instead alternately fascinated, frustrated, annoyed, and occasionally enthralled by new discoveries.

SH Gif

The show gets bonus points for having a woman of color as one of the main protagonists, and never treating her like the sidekick. Abbie gets to save the day as much as Crane, and has on more than one occasion pulled Crane’s ass out of the fire.

Season two wasn’t as strong as the first season, in part because it often felt like the writers had no idea what to do with Crane’s wife Katrina (Katia Winter) or what role she played in the story once she was free from Purgatory. Also, the second half of the season felt klunky; the Apocalypse storyline was mostly wrapped up by mid-season, and it became more episodic / threat-of-the-week — a move intended to make the show more accessible to new viewers, but without a driving storyline, the show as a whole felt like it lost steam.

The Big Bang Theory

I’m putting this show on my list of favorites, but it is barely holding on at this point. The humor hasn’t been as strong as in past seasons, and I’m frankly getting tired of the show trying to wring laughs out of the dysfunctional relationships all the characters are stuck in. None of the characters seems truly happy with their significant other, and with the exception of Howard and Bernadette (Simon Helberg and Melissa Rauch), everyone’s relationship was in trouble as of the season finale.

I’m in the process of re-watching Parks and Recreation from the start, and it’s really driving home how sitcoms take the easy way out and try to generate humor from bickering couples. The P&R relationships are all positive and healthy, and don’t try to make the sight of two people busting each other’s balls a source of entertainment.

I’m going to lump the rest into one chunk, since now we’re getting into the series that tried and failed to keep me entertained, and I’m going to start with the biggest disappointment, Gotham. I wanted this show to be good, but it never lived up to its potential, in my opinion. It had a great cast and some good ideas, but suffered from seriously hit-or-miss writing; when the show was good, it was great, but more often it was mediocre at best and painful at worst. Its early bad habit of heavy-handedly establishing who the characters were (Look! Selina Kyle goes by the nickname “Cat” and is playing with a dangling object! Get it?) didn’t last long, thankfully, but it continued to waste characters, often supporting female characters, and relied on characters behaving stupidly in order to keep the plots moving. Don’t even get me started on the brief plotline that stuck Jim Gordon (Ben McKenzie) in Arkham as a security guard.

I gave Gotham a chance to get good, but I ultimately decided to cut it loose, along with The Walking Dead and, sadly, Game of Thrones. The Walking Dead has become too repetitive in its plots, most of the characters are uninteresting and in a few cases (Rick Grimes) utterly unsympathetic, and the series feels like it no longer has an overarching point to it. It’s sad, because season one was amazing, but after cutting Frank Darabont loose as executive producer, the series crashed and burned and never fully recovered.

Then there is Game of Thrones, which lost me as a viewer with the highly controversial Sansa Stark rape scene. I have heard all the arguments, both those that condemned the scene and those that defended it, and I simply cannot abide by the creative team’s decision to go there.

As a writer, I never want to deprive myself of a storytelling tool, but when it comes to rape scenes, I feel strongly that there is always a better way to achieve whatever end such a scene is meant to achieve. A female character (or a male character, for that matter) can hit a low point from which to climb up in countless ways, none of which involve a sexual assault, and if you believe you need rape to show the audience what a monster your male character is, you’re being incredibly lazy. Same goes for using the rape of a female character as a means of motivating a male character. Find another way. Find a better way.

I’ll end on a positive note in the form of Marvel’s Daredevil, which I have yet to finish but am enjoying immensely. This is such a departure for the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and it’s working beautifully because it’s everything the movies and Agents of SHIELD isn’t: more realistic, gritty, edgy, and mature.

Daredevil

The high point of the series is Vincent D’Onofrio, who is knocking it out of the park as Wilson Fisk. D’onofrio’s Kingpin is sometimes terrifying, sometimes sympathetic, and sometimes pitiable. He’s taken a character I never found interesting in the comics and turned him into a complex, living, breathing person who owns every scene he’s in. I can’t wait to finish season one!

But I’m going to have to, because I have my own stuff to write — tomorrow, as a matter of fact.

The Action Figures Diversity Report 2015

Last year, I took a look at the cast of my books to see how well I was doing in representing women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community. I did this because I’d been reading a lot of articles and essays about how the entertainment media, in particular TV and movies, have been falling down on the job in giving audiences something other than stories featuring straight white male protagonists. If you Google “representation in media” or “diversity in media” you’ll find a treasure trove of data confirming that visual entertainment needs to seriously step up its game when it comes to giving audiences diverse characters.

The issue has been on my mind again recently, but for a different and even more distasteful reason: reactions from what I’ll call “audiences of privilege” to efforts by some media companies to increase diversity. Specifically, some of the reactions to recent pushes by DC and Marvel to attract what can be rightfully called “non-traditional readers” — meaning women, people of color, and the LGBTQ community.

This should be cause for celebration. Attracting new readers, people who might not have shown much interest before in comics because they found none of the current titles appealing, strengthens the industry with an infusion of new blood (and, not at all coincidentally, cash).

Yet there’s been no small amount of push-back from the old boy community. They’re accused DC and Marvel of “pandering” to diverse audiences…because when you give, say, women more female characters and update their costumes to be less sexualized, that’s pandering to women, but keeping her in the same skintight leotard is, somehow, not pandering to men.

Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.
Top: not pandering to men. Bottom: pandering to women. Art by Kris Anka and Frank Cho, respectively, images courtesy Marvel Comics.

(FYI, “pandering” means “to do or provide what someone wants or demands even though it is not proper, good, or reasonable.” If someone wants to step up and explain to me why it’s unreasonable to give non-straight white male readers characters they can identify with, go right ahead. I’ll enjoy watching you dig your own grave with great amusement.)

I received a little bit of push-back myself on Action Figures – Issue Four: Cruel Summer, which explicitly establishes certain characters as openly homo- or bisexual. A reviewer on Amazon said I was getting “too politically correct.” Hardly a scathing rebuke, but what does it say about any reader when adding diverse characters is succumbing to political correctness rather than endeavoring not to be mindful of the fact not everyone in the world is straight, white, and/or male?

I admit, it took me a while to adjust my own thinking on this issue. I began the series open to creating diverse characters, but did so with the attitude that their diversity had to mean something. It had to matter to the character and the story. I didn’t want to simply throw in a bunch of diverse characters for the sake of it.

Then I read a few things on Tumblr (which, for once, provided me with civil, sane discussion points rather than a profanity-laden, anger-driven rant) that opened my eyes. I can’t find the original post to quote it verbatim, but the argument was, essentially: why do diverse characters have to have a deeper reason to exist? Real people are different for no reason other than that’s how they are. Do you walk up to an African-American and demand they explain why they’re African-American, and challenge their right to exist if they can’t provide a satisfactory argument?

The other post that made me rethink the way I approach storytelling stated that sometimes, simply seeing a diverse character in a story is enough. Giving the character depth and meaning is great, making their diversity meaningful is a lofty goal, but for some audience members, it is very gratifying and encouraging to see a character who is fleshed out, fully realized, isn’t a lazy stereotype, and matters to the story, and just happens to be someone of color, or just happens to be gay.

I understand some of you might be rolling your eyes at all this because it none of this matters to you. Well, guess what? As William Shatner said, you’re not the only one living on this planet. It might not matter to you, but to someone else, it matters a lot, and frankly, I’d rather piss off someone who complains about diversity than someone who complains about the lack of it — because those in that latter category are right.

I’d like to think I took some positive steps toward a more diverse cast with book four, and I’ll give you a head’s up now that the following updated cast list contains a few SPOILERS (capitalized to grab your attention!), so if you haven’t read book four yet, you might want to stop reading now.

  • Carrie Hauser/Lightstorm: straight white female
  • Matt Steiger/Captain Trenchcoat: straight white male
  • Sara Danvers/Psyche: lesbian white female
  • Stuart Lumley: male, one-quarter African-American
  • Missy Hamill/Kunoichi: half-Japanese female
  • Edison Bose/Concorde: straight male
  • Bart Connors/Mindforce: gay white male
  • Natalie Guerrero/Nina Nitro: straight Hispanic female
  • Astrid Enigma/Dr. Enigma: bisexual white female
  • Dr. Gwendolyn Quentin/Doc Quantum: straight white female
  • Joe Quentin/Rockjaw Quantum: straight white male
  • Megan Quentin/Megawatt Quantum: lesbian white female
  • Kilroy Quentin/Kilowatt Quantum: straight white male
  • Farley Quentin/Final Boss: white male (sexuality TBD because he’s only six. Give him time)
  • Tisha Greene/TranzSister: African-American transgender female (heterosexual by virtue of her current gender)

I dare say I have the LGBTQ spectrum well covered, and I readily admit I am more comfortable presenting these kinds of characters because it’s what I’m familiar with. I know a lot of gay, lesbian, and bisexual people, at least one asexual individual, and one transgender person (that I am aware of, at least) through the renaissance faire community, and I encounter these people frequently at the pop culture conventions I work with my wife.

Obviously, my failing continues to be in presenting people of color in prominent roles. There are many minor supporting characters of color, but few in any major spotlight role. Let’s see if I can correct that as I move forward with the series.

Great Minds

Nothing of consequence today, but I was amused to see the variant cover for the upcoming Ms. Marvel (which you should really check out), by Annie Wu (who you should also check out, because I dig her stuff). The concept: the star of the series, at school, subtly displaying her power in front of her locker, which contains her costume. Sound familiar? It should…

Action Figures #1 at left, by Tricia Lupien; Ms. Marvel #3, at right, by Annie Wu.
Action Figures #1 at left, by Tricia Lupien; Ms. Marvel #3, at right, by Annie Wu.

Creative simpatico is its finest!

Action Figures – Issue Two – Progress Report

I’ve reached one of the “hurry up and wait” points in the process, when I can’t get much work done on the manuscript because my test-readers are busy doing their jobs.

I did receive some initial feedback over the weekend, from my friends Kate and Julie (who informed me she bought a couple copies as gifts, which made my weekend in a huge way), so I was able to do a little work on draft three –and by “a little,” I mean I relocated an entire scene, so readers will get to meet one of the bad guys a little earlier, and patched up some weak spots. I won’t call them plot holes; they were more like plot cracks.

Those cracks were due in part to my particular writing process. I’m what you might call an “organic writer”: I plan out the story in advance, but not meticulously; I like to write blind to a degree, and let certain elements develop on their own. This leads to some great moments between characters, and often generates story elements that give the story depth and character, but also means I spent the revision process hunting down and fixing plot inconsistencies.

The other challenge came from the addition of magic to the Action Figures world. Magic can be a fun story element, but it’s easy to misuse. I have yet to figure out exactly what the rules of magic are in the Marvel Comics universe; Dr. Strange can do pretty much anything he needs to do to advance the plot, except when he can’t, again for plot reasons. Even his method of casting spells is inconsistent; classic Dr. Strange invoked the names of arcane entities (“By the hoary hosts of Hoggoth!”) in his spellcasting, while modern Dr. Strange does not, for the most part.

As a reader and a writer, I hate magic as a story element when it has no clear rules. I didn’t want that for Action Figures, so I made sure to nail down the “laws of magic” for Dr. Enigma, the book’s sorceress character. Of course, I have to make sure those rules are communicated to the reader — and I’ve only been partially successful in that, according to my test readers.

In addition to the clean-up work in draft three, I managed to finish off the Action Figures short, which I plan to post here after book two is released. I’m hoping I have somewhere in me another short, something to bridge book one and two, that I could post immediately, both to keep current readers engaged, and to maybe capture a few new readers. We’ll see.

Sign, Sign, Everywhere A Sign…

Last weekend was my farewell to the Connecticut Renaissance Faire for the season.

King Henry VIII treats the peasants to a dramatic reading.
King Henry VIII (Christian Galpin) treats the peasants to a dramatic reading of Action Figures at the Connecticut Renaissance Faire. Yes, it was as weird as it sounds.

My wife’s assistant Kate is back for the final weekend (after taking a few days away to go to New York, get engaged, and meet Captain Marvel writer Kelly Sue DeConnick while dressed as Captain Marvel…and yes, you read all that correctly), which means I get to stay home and work on draft one of book two of Action Figures.

That’s right, I am already working on the sequel, and I have been getting the “Write faster!” treatment from people who have already blown through book one, and want to be on the test-reader list for book two. Flattering, that.

As flattering as all the requests I received over the weekend to sign copies of my book. I think I signed eight copies, and one thing I learned: it’s tough coming up with unique and witty inscriptions. But it’s a good problem to have.

I also received a few inquiries about the e-book version, and so far things are on-track there. I’m expecting the Kindle version to be ready to go next week, and sorry, Nook owners, it’ll be a lot longer before you see a version. I’m taking advantage of the Kindle Direct Publishing perks, which means I’m locked into a Kindle-exclusive deal for 90 days from the e-book’s release, so non-Kindle owners will have to wait a few months more (or download one of the many free Kindle aps for your computer, tablet, or phone).