The 2015 – 2016 TV Season In Review

The 2015 – 2016 TV season is done, and the past year felt like such a mixed bag. This was the first season in a while that I felt any excitement about, and in a lot of ways it failed to live up to my expectations. Here are my thoughts about the shows I watched (but don’t expect any deep analysis here. A TV critic I’m not).

BEWARE! HERE THERE BE SPOILERS!

The Flash

My favorite show of the season. Unlike DC’s cinematic properties, The Flash is optimistic, light, and fun, and the drama never reaches the state of quasi-nihilism that has made the DC movie such downers. Grant Gustin is a highly likable protagonist and he has a great support cast, particularly in Carlos Valdez and Jesse L. Martin. My wife and I have vowed to abandon the show if either of their characters are killed off.

The-Flash2The show also knows how to press the geek button in obvious and subtle ways. A geeked out hard when the show recreated the iconic Flash of Two Worlds cover in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene. Pure nerdvana.

Season two also did a better job with Candice Patton’s character, Iris West. The writers gave her more to do than simply be the hero’s love interest, which is great. The character still had a few moments that made me roll my eyes, but the season as a whole gave me hope she’ll continue to improve.

It’s perhaps ironic that The Flash has a tendency to fall apart at the finish line. The season one finale ended on an abrupt, awkward cliffhanger that set the stage for season two, and similarly, the season two cliffhanger on a “Huh?” note that lines up season three. The creative team needs to be better about putting a button at the end of a season arc.

Supergirl

Supergirl had some first season shakiness, but its issues were minor as far as I’m concerned. As with The Flash, Supergirl  benefited from a brighter tone and a more upbeat, positive lead in Kara Zor-El, played with irresistible charm by Melissa Benoist.

How can you not love this face?
How can you not love this face?

However, Calista Flockhart — as Kara’s boss, Kat Grant — almost stole the show every time she appeared on-screen. She started off as a typical boss-from-hell ice queen but quickly developed depth and texture as a character. By the end of the season, she was as lovable (in her own aloof, prickly way) as Kara, and the two made for a great if unlikely team.

I also have to give the writers credit for a great swerve. In the comics, Hank Henshaw (David Harewood) became the Superman villain known simply as the Cyborg Superman (as a result of the overhyped Death of Superman storyline) and I was expecting the TV show to go the same way — and then it blew me away by revealing Henshaw was in fact J’onn J’onzz, the Martian Manhunter.

I’m happy the CW has picked up Supergirl for season two, and I trust it’ll have a good home there alongside the other DC series. Now, if only someone would pick up my other favorite new series from the past season…

The Muppets

Deadly Boy ToyABC canceled The Muppets after a full (if short) season and I hate them so much for it. Like a lot of new shows, it was a bit rocky for a while as it tried to find its tone (early eps were a little too cynical for the Muppets) and a lot of people didn’t like the more adult edge or the mockumentary style of storytelling, but I thought those were minor points. The gags landed far more often than not and were legitimately laugh-out-loud funny. Anytime Uncle Deadly was on screen was pure comedic gold.

It only got better as the season went along, and a change of showrunners mid-season shored up the lingering weak spots. By the end, The Muppets was running on all cylinders. Unfortunately, it seems that the ratings damage was already done. and the show got axed. Bah. BAH, I say!

Galavant

I never expected to love Galavant. When my wife and I checked it out last year, we were expecting a light, fluffy, kid-friendly program, not a sharp, witty, edgy musical-comedy with some surprisingly catchy tunes. Season one ended on a cliffhanger, and I was worried I’d never see a resolution due to the show’s tepid ratings.

The producers knew better for season two and ended things decisively, thought they left an opening or two to continue the story in case season three got the green light — which it didn’t. I can’t complain, though. I feel a show like this could too easily get stale if it went on too long, so I’ll take two solid seasons and a high note conclusion and be happy for it.

Agent Carter

Conversely, I’m unhappy that Agent Carter is also over after two good seasons. In so many ways the series is superior to Agents of SHIELD and has one of the best protagonists on TV in Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell), as well as one of the best partners in her totally platonic buddy/sidekick Edwin Jarvis (James D’Arcy). Their chemistry and crack comedic timing were on full display in the second story arc, which took Peggy to California where she crossed paths with Whitney Frost (Wynn Everett), who is known to comic fans as the super-villain Madame Masque.

Alas, we didn’t get to see Frost in full-on Madame Masque mode, and probably never will thanks to so-so ratings. Fortunately for Atwell and her fans, she’ll be returning to TV next year in a new series, but she should have been coming back for a third go-round as Peggy.

iZombie

While it bears little resemblance to the Vertigo title, iZombie is entertaining nevertheless. It’s basically a procedural, but the gimmick here is that the heroine, a medical examiner, is a zombie who, after consuming someone’s brain, takes on the subject’s personality and has flashes of their memories.

The writing in spots is cheesy, as evidenced right up front with the main character, Olivia Moore (Rose McIver) — aka Liv Moore, ha ha — but the jokes fire off consistently and the characters are likable, and when it comes to procedurals, that’s all I really need. I don’t expect deep drama and compelling plots.

However, the show could be getting more ambitious in that regard next season. The finale was a major game-changer and I’m curious to see where they take it.

Arrow

I plan to stick with Arrow into season four, mostly because I’m jazzed at the prospect of a massive four-show crossover that the producers have been teasing, but season three had some serious frayed edges.

RIP. Until they bring you back to life, which happens a lot in "Arrow."
RIP. Until they bring you back to life, which happens a lot in “Arrow.”

The show’s worst sin was killing off Laurel Lance/Black Canary (Katie Cassidy). One producer said the decision was born of the fact that “It kind of feels like Laurel’s story has come to a very organic… if not ‘conclusion,’ certainly a ‘plateau.'” But apparently finding a new story for her was too much of a hassle.

The season also felt too familiar in spots: Oliver’s grating, self-centered brooding and constant need to push people away; the traditional springtime threat to Star City; the increasingly pointless flashbacks that feel more and more disconnected from the main storyline…

And then there was the finale, which traded a logical story for some cheap feels. One guy shouting “Stop!” atop a car before delivering a poor man’s St. Crispin’s Day speech quells a raging riot within seconds? And Oliver uses magic that he barely learned a few weeks earlier to stop a demi-godlike bad guy? Yeesh.

I hope Arrow takes a few steps back next season and goes for something a little smaller and more personal rather than yet another overblown “villain plots to destroy the city” story.

Agents of SHIELD

Agents of SHIELD has improved considerably since its tepid first season (specifically the first two-thirds of the first season, prior to the events of Captain America – The Winter Soldier) and is entertaining, but it has yet to become truly awesome. The season finale had some good twists and emotional depth, but it felt like too little too late for this particular season.

The show has a great cast, likable characters, maybe the best fight scenes on TV, and has finally found a consistent sense of low-key humor. What it lacks is strong season arcs (the Inhumans storyline is getting old and feels like it’s not going anywhere significant) and a real sense of place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Marvel could decide tomorrow that the events in Agents of SHIELD never happened, retcon the show out of existence, and it would have absolutely no impact on anything that’s happened in the movies.

Marvel could also learn a lesson from DC when it comes to appeasing the geek audience. The DC shows constantly mine the DC Universe’s deep vault of characters, but Marvel barely scratches the surface of its available roster.

DC’s Legends of Tomorrow

The weakest of the DC/CW shows, and the fault for that is all on the creative team. I like the cast and the mix of characters, and there were some damn cool action sequences throughout the season, but the “Hunt for Vandal Savage” storyline felt sloppy and disjointed, and too often the episodes relied on this plot point:

RIP HUNTER: All right, people, don’t go screwing around with the timeline.

TEAM: We won’t!

TEAM then proceeds the screw around with the timeline.

RIP HUNTER: What did I tell you?!

TEAM: Well, what were we supposed to do? I mean, we’re not big picture people here.

Blindspot

I had higher hopes for this show. I love Jaimie Alexander, the concept was intriguing, and it was good, but it somehow never rose to greatness for me. The supporting characters, with the exception of techie Patterson (Ashley Johnson, who you might know as the waitress from the closing scenes of The Avengers), are as boring as a beige room, and as the season progressed the plot relied too much on the trope of characters keeping secrets from one another.

The finale shook things up considerably and is poised to send season two in a whole new direction, buy I don’t think I’ll be sticking around for it. The big plot twists were predictable and so they didn’t excite me enough to make me want to see how things play out. For Alexander’s sake I hope the show has a healthy run, but in the end it just wasn’t my thing.

Castle

This show was never high art, but that’s not a criticism. It was meant to be a fun procedural that featured a likable cast headed up by Nathan Fillion and Stana Katic engaging in lighthearted shenanigans, and for eight seasons that’s what it was. The last season or two were a bit shaky but they were generally satisfying.

The series finale was mostly satisfying. It had action, tension, and it didn’t end as many speculated it would, with Beckett (Katic) dying — but that’s only because the show didn’t get renewed. Take out that clumsy, tacked-on coda and it’s obvious that season eight was supposed to end on a cliffhanger and season nine would have opened with the reveal that Beckett had died. That would have been an insult to the viewers, so at least I’m glad the series ended on an upbeat note.

Sleepy Hollow

Ugh. This show used to be such fun…back in season one. Its Ichabod Crane and Abbie Mills versus the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse storyline was gleefully off-the-wall, but with each season the show veered away from its core concept — ostensibly to make it more accessible by doing away with its heavy focus on the mythology and going a little more threat-of-the-week. It also grossly mishandled its female characters and watered down a diverse cast with bland white people. In this most recent season we watched two flat, dull villains stand around delivering stiff dialog badly episode after episode while Abbie Mills (Nicole Beharie, who deserved so much better) did nothing of consequence until finally sacrificing herself in the season finale.

As of this writing, the show could be renewed, in which case Crane would receive a new partner, but who cares? Like Castle, the dynamic between Sleepy Hollow‘s two principle characters fueled the show through its weakest episodes and made its strongest episodes truly memorable. When you kill one of them off, what’s the point in going on? Did no one learn any lessons from The X-Files?

On that note…

The X-Files

Scully FacepalmI’m an old-school X-Phile. I watched the original series religiously and to this day I have a huge crush on Gillian Anderson. I awaited the revival with cautious optimism but low expectations — which, I’m sad to say, were met.

The series returned to its classic form to a fault. Chris Carter made the show’s already convoluted, ill-planned-out mythology even more confusing in the first episode, which set up a plotline that went ignored until the last episode, which not only failed to resolve the arc, it ended on a cliffhanger. The episodes along the way were hit and miss, and when they missed they missed HARD. The revival was so crushingly bad, if I watch the next season (which is in the works) it’ll be with the same sort of perverse curiosity with which one checks out the aftermath of a car crash.

Fast Five With Mike Leon

Friday, sweet Friday! And here is the next in my series of quickie interviews with my fellow Indie Superhero StoryBundle authors. We head into the weekend with Mike Leon.

SupervillainousIt’s high-concept pitch time. In 20 words or fewer, what is your book about?

It’s the interview with Baron Hammerspace that I did for Trigger magazine a few years ago.

Why did you decide to tackle a superhero story as a prose novel rather than as a traditional comic book/graphic novel?

I actually have no idea. I never wanted to write novels. I was doing screenplays when I wrote Supervillainous, and I thought the idea would work really well for a cinema verite/mockumentary style film. I was doing a blog back then and I knew nobody would ever read a movie script (because nobody reads movie scripts). So I did Supervillainous on my blog in weekly installments. I didn’t expect anybody to read it, so it was pretty half-assed. There are a few loose ends and gaps in the story if you actually pay attention. And the characters don’t have well defined arcs at all. When people point that out, I just insist I reported what I saw.

One of the notable earmarks of our current Indie Superhero StoryBundle is that “indie” part. Are you an independent author by choice? And what are the big pros and cons of life as an indie author?

Yeah, definitely. I haven’t sent a single manuscript to a major publisher. I never even think about it anymore. I write stuff that’s really pretty crazy. Case in point: KILL KILL KILL has been described as “balls-out insane” and it’s about 200,000 words in length. I knew when I was working on it that no major publisher would ever touch it. It’s fucking poison from a marketability standpoint, but I wanted to write it. So I did. And I think that encompasses the pros and cons of what I do. I don’t make much money, but I get to write what I want.

Superheroes are well-established archetypes, and their stories have their own sensibilities and internal logic. How did you play with or subvert the tropes of superhero fiction in your story?

I get complaints about this all the time actually. Supervillainous throws out all of the usual tropes or deconstructs them to the point where they just look ridiculous. A lot of people hate it for that. Those people aren’t  hardcore enough. Yeah, I said it, and I know I sound like a hipster. Here’s the thing: When you eat, sleep and breathe superheroes the way I have for 30 years, you get sick of those tropes. The obvious flaws in them become glaringly apparent. You stop caring if Superman will return, or if Peter Parker will get his body back from Doctor Octopus, or if Wolverine will come back to life (He will). You yawn the fifteenth time somebody breaks ALL of the rogues out of Arkham and Batman has to round them up in a twelve part mini-series, or a psychic manifestation of Magneto and Professor X turns into an all powerful entity that threatens to crush the Marvel universe. You get sick of retcons, retcons, retcons, and retcons. That stuff has been done to death and it’s boring. All that’s left after that is to start tearing it all apart. Now I just want to read a story about what happens if Batman binge watches Orange is the New Black instead of fighting crime, or the Punisher tries to trademark his skull shirt because he’s sick of seeing every angsty teenage white boy wearing his duds. That stuff is fresh. It’s why I liked Garth Ennis’s The Boys so much. That’s a superhero story for people who have already read way too many superhero stories, and I think my book is too.

Beginnings, middles, and ends. What is your favorite/the easiest part of a story to write and which is the hardest/least favorite?

The beginning is easy. I wish I could finish all the beginnings I wrote in the last ten years. I’d be as prolific as Dick or King. The end isn’t too bad. It’s the middle that sucks. In the middle, you don’t always know where it’s going to go, and you also don’t know if the beginning supports what you’re writing in the middle, so you want to go back and change stuff, and that’s a slippery slope. It’s like trying to tune a floating tremolo on an electric guitar. You tune one string and that puts another string out of tune, so you tune that string, and that puts another one out of tune. Pretty soon you’re playing WoW and eating a burrito because you’ll go insane if you think about it anymore, and you decide maybe guitar playing just isn’t for you. That’s why you have to just finish the whole thing and then go from there, changing and correcting things. I’m a big proponent of outlines in theory, but in practice I always end up forgetting about them or throwing them out.

Fast Five With Matt Adams

Happy Friday Jr., everyone! Here we are with the next in a series of quickie interviews with the authors of the Indie Superhero StoryBundle, and today the spotlight shines on Matt Adams. Yoiks! And away!

Crimsonstreak 1) It’s high-concept pitch time. In 20 words or fewer, what is your book about?

Super-speedster escapes prison to find supervillain father in control, enlists help of superhero-to-be and snarky butler to set things right.

2) Why did you decide to tackle a superhero story as a prose novel rather than as a traditional comic book/graphic novel?

When I read comics, I tend to read collected editions because I like to have the full story. In a sense, I, Crimsonstreak is a collected edition in novel form. I’ve always loved comic art and style, but I wanted to dig a little more into a superhero’s mind. A novel, I thought, gave me the best chance to do that.

The book is told entirely in first-person through Crimsonstreak’s perspective. Since he’s a super- speedster, his mind is always going. He can take the time to make an observation and can’t stop relating circumstances to something he saw in a movie or TV show.

You make a tradeoff when you go the prose route for a superhero story: you lose the art and the dynamic visuals. On the other hand, you give readers the opportunity to get a little closer to your heroes and villains, something you don’t always get in the comic book format.

Author Matt Adams.
Author Matt Adams.

3) One of the notable earmarks of our current Indie Superhero StoryBundle is that “indie” part. Are you an independent author by choice? And what are the big pros and cons of life as an indie author?

My book was released from a small press called Candlemark & Gleam. I always saw I, Crimsonstreak as kind of a “starter” novel for me. The main novel is relatively short compared to some of my other books and special appendices in the back flesh out the rest of the story and the world.

I didn’t know if a major publisher would be interested in the novel given that Soon I Will Be Invincible had been released some years before. I considered going “full indie” and self-publishing the book, but I didn’t feel like I was quite ready to go that route.

Crimsonstreak needed some editing and guidance, and I feel like my small publisher really helped me craft it into a better novel.

Obviously, when you go small press, you’re kind of in that “nether realm” between indie and traditional publishing. You do a lot of your own marketing and spend time setting up book signings and that type of thing. You split revenue with your publisher, although print royalties are higher than what you’d get with a larger publisher. Ebook royalties are higher than traditional pub, but lower than self-pub.

You get some of the benefits of going “full indie” in that you help forge the direction of the book design and that sort of thing. You get a little bit of the traditional publisher world in that you don’t pay for cover design or editing.

Small press really is a balance between self-publishing and working with more traditional publishing.

4) Superheroes are well-established archetypes, and their stories have their own sensibilities and internal logic. How did you play with or subvert the tropes of superhero fiction in your story?

Generally speaking, every superhero story owes a debt to Marvel or DC. I mean, you can’t wrap your head around superhero comics without thinking about Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, X-Men, etc. At the same time, the genre is really flexible. You can have a Batman comic that’s more of a detective story. A revenge fantasy with the Punisher. A supernatural tale with Ghost Rider. Allegorical social commentary with the X-Men. Cosmic sci-fi with Green Lantern. Spy thrillers with the Black Widow. It’s not all just POW-BIFF-BANG!

So, yeah, my book has Batman-type character called the Crusading Comet. He’s a rich guy with gadgets and gizmos—the real “professional” crimefighter with ridiculous acronyms on his signature tech and a snarky butler named Mortimer P. Willoughby, who’s a smart-aleck version of Alfred Pennyworth. The hero also pays tribute to The Phantom in that there have been several Crusading Comets, with the mantle passed down from father to son over the years.

I have a lot of fun with the Comet (and Mortimer). They don’t really think much of Crimsonstreak, whose superspeed was genetically inherited and not really “earned” in their estimation. And it’s often Mortimer, the prim and proper butler, who gets the team out of jams most of the time.

We’re used to seeing traditional comic book heroes make all the right decisions and save the day on their own, but Crimsonstreak makes plenty of mistakes. In fact, he often makes things worse and digs himself a deeper and deeper hole. He’s imperfect.

Also, much of the action in the book takes place in the Midwest, an alternate version of Indianapolis, Indiana, to be precise. Most of your big-time superhero stories take place in much larger cities (especially New York, the nexus of 95% of all superhero shenanigans), so placing the action in the Midwest, where we live life at a slower pace, was a way to subvert that.

5) Beginnings, middles, and ends. What is your favorite/the easiest part of a story to write and which is the hardest/least favorite?

Let’s just say The Dreaded Middle and I aren’t on really good terms. I start each novel I write with a “road map” that includes a clearly defined start and end with a few key “beats” and subplots ironed out as well.

Still, I get bogged down in the middle, which becomes a poorly paced, cluttered mess no matter how much I try to outline things. However, we all know first drafts absolutely stink, and I manage to fix this mess during revisions.

I’m much more confident in where I start the story and where I end it. It’s just that gooey middle that traps me. I will say this has gotten better over the years as I’ve written more books, but it’s always in the back of my mind.

The Secret Origin Of Secret Origins

I recently heard a gripe about the upcoming film The Amazing Spider-Man, but it wasn’t the gripe I was expecting.

Me, I’m irked at Hollywood for rebooting the Spider-Man franchise all of a decade after Sam Raimi’s perfectly awesome 2002 film, but I heard someone crab that yet another super-hero movie was adapting a character’s origin story.

I’ve heard this complaint before, usually from film critics who were tired of Hollywood doing origin stories instead of all-new adventures, but from a writing perspective, it’s an extremely logical choice.

My first argument is that not everyone knows a particular character’s backstory and, from a business perspective, studios need to capture a wide audience, not just the fanboys, to make their money. To do that, they need to introduce the character to the masses, and what better way than by telling the story that made the hero a hero?

Sure, you’d be hard-pressed to find an American who doesn’t know that Superman is the sole survivor of the exploding planet Krypton or that Bruce Wayne launched his crime-fighting crusade after his parents were gunned down by a mugger, but I dare you to find anyone outside the comic-reading community who can give you the origin of, say, the Flash or Dr. Strange off the top of his head.

Second, and more importantly, by doing an origin story the movie gets to easily honor one of the most important rules of storytelling: characters should come out of the story different than how they went in.

To use Spider-Man as an easy example, the character of Peter Parker starts his story as a shy, withdrawn nerd with no friends and little going for him beyond a talent for science and a loving family in Uncle Ben and Aunt May. After he gets bitten by a radioactive (or genetically engineered, depending on which interpretation you’re presenting) spider, he gains super-powers that also grant him a new sense of confidence…a sense of confidence that quickly becomes self-centered arrogance, and that ego balloon is popped in a huge way when his selfishness winds up costing him his uncle.

That’s a great character arc, filled with drama, tragedy, and self-discovery, and Peter is definitely a changed man by the end of the story. Why wouldn’t you use it? It’s infinitely more interesting than your standard “good guy fights the bad guy” action plot.

Stand Up, Comics

Ahoy-hoy! Spoilers abound in this post, so proceed at your own risk.

Years ago, during my ill-advised and ultimately unsuccessful time at the Joe Kubert School of Cartoon & Graphic Art — an excellent institution, by the way — one of my instructors compared writing for comics to writing for sitcoms, in that the characters are constantly undergoing false growth.

One of the major tenets of fiction is that the characters should come out of the story differently than how they went in. They should learn from and be changed by their experiences, but sitcoms and comics alike defy this principle constantly. Classic sitcoms would in any given episode present the illusion that a character had grown and changed, when in fact nothing had changed — so much so that when a similar situation rolled along later, characters apparently suffered amnesia…

FONZIE: Yo, Cunningham, I’m sacred I’m losing my cool.

(FONZIE illustrates this by striking the jukebox. Nothing happens.)

FONZIE: See? Nothing! …amundo.

RICHIE: Gee whiz, Fonz, what are you going to do?

(POTSIE enters.)

POTSIE: Hey guys! I won some free tickets to the circus! Who wants to go? They have clowns and tightrope walkers and a cage filled with man-eating lions…

FONZIE: That’s it! Potsie, you’re a genius!

RICHIE: What are you going to do, Fonzie?

FONZIE: I’m going to prove to everyone I’ve still got it by jumping my motorcycle over the lions’ cage!

RICHIE: But Fonz, you kind of did that already.

FONZIE: What are you talkin’ about, Cunningham?

RICHIE: The time we were at the beach and you jumped a shark on water-skis?

POTSIE: Oh, yeah, that was cool! A little silly, but…

RICHIE: And there was the time you jumped a bunch of cars in the parking lot.

FONZIE: When did I do that?

RICHIE: Long time ago, back when Mr. Miyagi owned Arnold’s.

FONZIE: Who?

POTSIE: Hey, whatever happened to Arnold? Or your brother Chuck for that matter?

RICHIE: My what who?

FONZIE: Ayyyyyyy!

(Audience applauds.)

For younger readers: See, there was once a show called Happy Days, and it starred the guy who directed The DaVinci Code the guy who played Barry Zuckerkorn on Arrested Development

Point is, The Fonz was always losing and regaining his cool, Ricky was constantly letting Lucy perform at the club to disastrous results, Homer continues to overlook Lisa…the characters’ core remains constant and never changes. Even when something earth-shaking occurs like a marriage or a pregnancy or a death, the characters do not change. Their behaviors, quirks, flaws, they’re all firmly in place.

Sitcoms have since grown up a little, abandoning compartmentalized and extremely short-term character arcs for series-wide continuity and, yes, character growth. It’s usual incremental and almost invisible, but look closely and you’ll see it.

Comic books have yet to follow suit, which is ironic considering how, during the 1990s, the media was glutted with stories about how comic books have grown up (biff pow zok).

While classic sitcoms effectively hit the reset button with the start of each new episode, comics play the long con: a title will present a storyline that changes everything you know about (insert character here)! and then, after some time, backtracks to re-embrace the status quo.

Superman? Died, reborn; powers became energy based, got old powers back; revealed identity to and married Lois Lane, Clark Kent is single and Lois thinks Superman is a totally different guy.

Batman? Had his back broken by Bane, handled mantle of Batman to Azrael who later lost it to Dick “Nightwing” Grayson, got better and took it all back; got killed by Darkseid, Dick Grayson becomes Batman (again), Bruce Wayne returns from the dead and becomes Batman again.

Spider-Man? Got an alien black suit, went back to classic red-and-blue suit; Green Goblin dies in a fight, turns out he never really died; discovered he was a close, discovered no, he was the real Peter Parker all along; marries Mary Jane, never married Mary Jane.

Captain America, Green Lantern, Iron Man, The Flash, Green Arrow, Aquaman, Iron Fist, Dr. Strange, Martian Manhunter, Hawkman, Phoenix, just to name a scant few, they’ve all died and/or given up their costumed identity to a successor and then returned.

The problem here is multi-leveled. Readers love these institutional characters just as they are and lose their shit whenever a major change is made. Couple that with the fact creative teams on corporate-owned characters — which said corporations want to keep recognizable to the masses and therefore marketable — are always looking to put their own fingerprints on a title, it’s inevitable characters will return to the status quo, no matter what kind of crazy crap happens to them.

The most unfortunate drawback of this is that there is an invisible, unspoken safety net beneath every story, giving readers a subconscious reassurance that in the end, everything and everyone will be okay and, given time, it will all go back to normal. As a lifelong comics fan, I just roll my eyes when I read mainstream news stories announcing that “Marvel Comics will kill off the Human Torch in an upcoming issue of The Fantastic Four” or the industry publications tease “A major change is coming for Superman” because I know damn well that in a year or two, all the changes will be undone.

In mainstream comics there are no stakes, there is no character growth, there is no such thing as a permanent condition. In other words: mainstream comics are dull and predictable.

There are exceptions all around, but they are few and far between in mainstream comics’ major players. Dick Grayson assumed the Nightwing identity in 1984 and never looked back. Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman got married in 1965 and have remained husband and wife. Gwen Stacy? Still dead.

Both Marvel and DC are more willing to muck about with secondary and tertiary characters, but the  closest either of them have come to throwing all the conventional rules out the window is Marvel’s Ultimate Marvel line, where no one is safe. The Ultimate Universe has introduced — and killed off, permanently — its versions of Daredevil, Doctors Doom, Octopus, and Strange, Magneto, Spider-Man, and Wolverine — and even then, a few of these characters have made a return of sorts as others have assumed their identities.

If mainstream comics is going to continue to play it safe, they should at least abandon all pretenses that any given issue will offer readers something so monumental that it “will shake the Marvel/DC Universe to its very foundation,” because it won’t. Any comic reader worth his salt knows that.

Personally, I’d love to see Marvel and DC truly shake things up by throwing all the time-honored cliches out the window. Make death a permanent thing, for the big guns all the way down to the minor supporting characters so that it has meaning again. Let the characters develop and change, organically and realistically. Let their actions have permanent consequences, for themselves and the people and world around them.

I know that none of this will ever come to pass, but the thought that a storyline in The Amazing Spider-Man or Justice League of America could sucker-punch me with as much fearlessness and ferocity as a single issue of The Walking Dead or move me emotionally like the finest issues of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman — that comics could once again be as thrilling as they were when I was a kid — makes me tingle.

Sisyphus As Writer

My first-ever writing pitch was made to DC Comics way back in 1990. I stumbled across an obscure character named Dr. Occult, an early and lesser-known creation of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster (who also created a character you might have heard of by the name of Superman), and thought he had potential.

At the time DC was keen on reviving its C-list characters and taking chances with edgier mature material — this was the era of Grant Morrison‘s brilliant relaunch of Animal Man and Neil Gaiman‘s Sandman — so I developed a proposal that brought Dr. Occult into the modern era, gave him a purpose in the Modern Age DC Universe, fleshed out his supporting cast, etc.

I submitted it to DC Comics and, lo and behold I received my first-ever rejection letter. It was on cool official DC Comics stationery and hand-signed by the editor I sent it to. Even though my idea was rejected, I had this awesome rejection letter. I still have it.

I still have all my rejection letters. Every last one. And when I finally get that letter that tells me yes, we will buy your novel/screenplay, I will buy a nice frame for my DC Comics letter (it’s that cool, people) and burn the rest. There may be naked dancing around the fire. I haven’t decided.

I admit, I am growing impatient for that day to arrive. My pile of fuel is a little too high for my liking, and it’s grown a bit — virtually speaking — over the past weekend.

Satisfied that Action Figures was as complete as it was going to get, I e-mailed it on November 4 to a prospective agent, who took eight days to send me a form rejection e-mail. I spent a day feeling lousy and drowning my sorrows in Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion, then got back on the horse. I sent a query out to another agent, who was far more efficient than my first victim, taking a mere two days to tell me thanks, but no thanks. So, another day of moping, then two more queries out the proverbial door.

This whole process is perhaps the most frustrating for me because of the nature of the beast. Agents and publishers get slammed with submissions, and for that reason many of them ask for just a synopsis and sample pages, sometimes nothing more than a bare-bones initial query letter in which I have three paragraphs to accomplish phase one of my mission: I have to hook the reader on the concept with the first paragraph, sell him on the concept with the second, and sell myself as a writer with the third. If I’m successful, I may be asked for a synopsis, a detailed chapter-by-chapter breakdown, and/or a full manuscript.

I understand the whys and wherefores of this process, but I hate hate hate it nonetheless, because the sum total of my effort is being judged on a small sampling — sometimes literally nothing more than a one-paragraph summary. Worse, with big publishing houses the first reading in carried out by low-level editors who decide whether to bump the query up the ladder. It’s publishing triage, and again it’s a necessary evil, but it means that every given submission could be shown the door because the low man on the totem pole is having a shitty day and taking it out on writers asking nothing more than a fair chance at success.

You might argue that a stellar pitch will overcome all obstacles, but I dare say you have never attempted to reduce a full story to one paragraph. Just for fun, go ahead and pick your favorite movie and then describe it in one tight paragraph. Chances are it will not sound anywhere near as awesome as a lengthy, detailed description. More likely, it’ll sound boring, or ridiculous, or like a story you’ve seen or read a hundred times before.

If you still think it’s not all that hard to make a story sound enticing in one measly paragraph, consider: Stephen King’s Carrie? Rejected 30 times, and one publisher declared it would never sell because it was so “negative.” King actually threw the manuscript in the trash in frustration (his wife Tabitha saved it and, unwittingly, her husband’s nascent career as one of the best-selling authors in history). The Chicken Soup for the Soul series, which currently boasts about 200 titles? Rejected 140 times. The only reason J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s (Sorcerer’s) Stone saw the light of day after receiving dozens of rejections is because one publisher’s eight-year-old daughter read the manuscript and loved it and begged her dad to publish it.

Do a Google search for “rejected authors” and you’ll find several lists bearing some of the greatest names and works in modern literature, and you’ll see that some of these people and their books were sent away, sometimes rudely, dozens upon dozens of times before someone decided to take a chance and give the author a shot.

What’s the take-away from this? To me it’s that talent seems to be, for good or ill, almost a negligible element in the process, because there are some truly awful books out there that someone somewhere thought were good enough to print; rather, the key appears to be persistence to an obsessive degree.

That’s not entirely fair, but I learned long ago fairness doesn’t enter into it. There are too many variables at work and you can’t compensate for them all. All you can do is, as the saying goes, just keep swimming, just keep swimming.