Archive for November, 2007

Nov 30 2007

Quote of the Day: Nov. 30

I provide advice about how to write novels, comic books and graphic novels. Most of my content applies to fiction-writing in general, but I also provide articles specifically about superhero stories.

ATTN: SOCIAL JUSTICE LEAGUE

It has come to our attention that you have continued to violate our intellectual property rights. Continuing to infringe on copyrighted terms and concepts, including but not limited to the following, will force us to pursue alternate methods of defending our legal rights.

  1. superhero
  2. “superpowers”
  3. The concept of superpowered individuals concealing their identities with masks and capes.
  4. Accusations of lurid conspiracies by government personnel against the public interest

We eagerly anticipate your cooperation in this matter.

–Wonder Comics

ATTN: WONDER COMICS

It has come to our attention that you are attempting to restrict our linguistic rights for your selfish profit. Please refer your legal staff to the following concepts in US-American jurisprudence.

  1. Common usage
  2. Lawyers/media vs. police/military. Who do you think we have on staff?
  3. Billionaire playboys: you’ve either got them or you don’t.

We eagerly anticipate your lawsuit.

–The Social Justice League

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Nov 29 2007

An Indepth Forum for R.B.’s Work!

Published by under Review Forums

About the Author: Hola, I’m Ragged Boy, college student and aspiring writer here at Superhero Nation. I enjoy comic books, exercise, procrastination, and bouts of whimsy. I’m interested in the visual and performing arts as well as spirituality, the occult, and philosophy. I think I’m generally amiable so I’m always eager to review your work, give creative input, and take your criticism of my work. I look forward to working and improving with you all.

“Showtime” Series Synopsis (Currently on Hold): San Libre is home to movie stars, gangs, and most recently, aliens intent on enslaving all life. With the help of a batty alien chemist, an offbeat teen actor has to put away his Hollywood fantasies and get real to save humanity.

My target audience: 16-25 comic book readers. I wouldn’t mind appealing to more African-Americans as well. I’d like for their to be more black superheroe which is why a majority of my character’s are African-American. I’m kind of interested in writing LGBT characters as well. Fortunately, I do believe LGBT persons represent a considerable amount of comic book readers.

How thick is my skin?: I want to get published at all costs. Spare nothing. Offer creative advice without egotistical fluff.

Comparable works: I just realized that the newer Blue Beetle is heavily comparable with my work. Both star a young, impoverished protagonist who is affected by the doings of aliens. Also, Aqualad/Garth and Showtime share similar water manipulation capabilities. And, to an extent, Green Lantern is also comparable. Spiderman and Static Shock come to mind when I think of my character’s relationships with their surroundings.

What I want in a critique: I want your unabridged, uncensored opinion. Like I said before I’m ready for anything you can throw at me. If your going to bash my work I’d prefer you actually put something I can improve into it as opposed to a blatant “You and your work sucks!” I’d also love your creative input as to how I cam improve. When volatile artistic minds combine they explode into a burning star of ingenuity.


 

 

479 responses so far

Nov 29 2007

Quote of the Day: Nov. 29

Quotes from USMC Drill Instructor Oliver Ryan.

Dammit, maggot, if I wanted your opinion I’d give it to you!

Movies are big on “be yourself.” That’s a bunch of crap! When you’re ready to be more than just yourself, you too might make the Marines.

Goddamn… you’re drinking like someone in a Stanley Kubrick film.

I am not a “drill sergeant”, maggot!

I’m Drill Instructor Ryan. Today might be the longest day of your life… but it’ll probably be the shortest.

You can’t spell party without P-T! [author’s note: PT = physical training]

Exclamation marks make life more interesting!

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Nov 28 2007

The truth about “superheroes”

The International Society of Supervillains has the dirt on “superheroes” that are really tools. Reed Richards, Namor and Superman take the cake.

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Nov 28 2007

Quote of the Day: Nov. 28

Agent Orange: I just had a dream that the villain was the sentient White House.

Captain Carnage: You weren’t dreaming.

Agent Orange …

Agent Orange: I’m going back to sleep.

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Nov 27 2007

Black Superheroes and Writing Fiction About Racism

ABC did a story called Why Black Superheroes Succeed– and Fail. That’s interesting for whites writing black characters (or vice versa) or those wondering why some characters are popular and others aren’t.

I think black superheroes tend to fail because they get typecast as persecuted heroes. Even the article confuses two very separate ideas.

  1. The article’s first sentence: “Would Spider-Man be the box-office juggernaut he is today if he had been created as an African-American character?” All other things being equal, would a successful hero become unsuccessful if he is made black?
  2. The article’s second sentence: “What if Peter Parker had had to deal with the problems of being black in America in addition to adjusting to his powers when he was first introduced in 1962?” Would a successful hero become unsuccessful if white-on-black persecution were inserted into his plotline?

These two questions are very different! The second implicitly assumes that a black hero must face white-on-black persecution, which probably makes less sense now than it did in 1962. And, regardless of whether it is plausible that every black is persecuted by whites, persecution stories are usually depressing (particularly when the persecution is based on real-life events, rather than hating mutants or Muggles). Making the hero the victim of persecution changes the tone of the plot far more than just making him black.

Do black heroes have to be persecuted? I don’t think so. Most young people, especially, haven’t lived with the intense and highly visible racism of the 1960s, but the comics industry doesn’t seem to have caught on to that. Plot elements that were commonplace (or at least plausible) fifty years ago, like racial violence and particularly caustic racist remarks, often seem outlandishly cynical now.

If you do focus on racism, I recommend using elements of racism that are likelier to resonate with your readers circa now. People might step away in hallways and elevators or sit at different tables in cafeterias—I think that most readers would agree that’s how racism manifests right now more than, say, burning crosses and even racial slurs. More provocatively, someone might suggest that a minority has gotten where he is because of affirmative action or that affirmative action hires as a whole are less qualified than other employees. Bank guards might get antsy. Etc. (For some more manifestations of modern racism, please see the footnotes).

The point is that modern racism has become subconscious—I suspect that most racists genuinely believe that they aren’t— and that portraying racism as in-your-face, 1960s slurs will likely feel out of touch and preachy to your readers.

When I watched Crash, I laughed so hard when a car crash caused people to immediately start screaming slurs. Wouldn’t you, uhh, want to get their insurance information first? NO CUZ KKKALIFORNIA IZ RACIST. Crash wants to Make A Point and comes off as totally cartoonish.

Freedom Writers portrays a racially balkanized community much more plausibly.

If you feel the need to include intense racism in your work—something that will significantly affect the tone and marketability of your piece—Freedom Writers offers a pretty good model. It treats racism more seriously.

  1. FW is set in a school district with some really poor areas. Meeting basic, everyday needs is a struggle.
  2. Gangs and ghettos form as an attempt to form communities to meet those needs.
  3. Intense, Hobbesian struggles and racism arise as the communities clash.

FW suggests that racism arises from economics*. That offers FW’s world a sort of grim, perverse logic. FW’s world is deep—you see where the racism came from and why it is so damn hard to overcome. Readers understand economic motives and how much money matters, especially if you have very little. Readers won’t sympathize with race-based gangs, but they will appreciate that tolerance is a harder choice than they thought. That raises the stakes and makes the heroes larger-than-life.

In Crash, racism just sprouted from nowhere and persists despite economic concerns. Insulting someone rather than getting their insurance information is irrational. Furthermore, the story offers no explanation why the characters would think it’s rational. Why are characters intolerant? Because they’re emotional, maybe. That seems flimsy and unsatisfying. It also gives the story an arbitrary feel– the characters couldn’t overcome racism at the story’s start, so how are they able to at the end? It would feel much more logical if we knew why racism was a problem at the start.

Footnotes

*Although some sociologists do agree with Freedom Writers that racism is primarily rooted in economics, they’re in the minority. But that doesn’t matter– Freedom Writers feels coherent and plausible anyway.  99% of your audience has no idea what most sociologists think, so it’s the feeling that matters.

More modern racism

For the purposes of helping you write, I’ll broadly define racism as anything that might create discomfort or division along racial lines.

1) Affirmative action. I actually already mentioned this before, but I think it’s particularly useful because blacks and whites often strongly disagree not only about AA but about which statements/opinions about AA are socially acceptable. For example, in one class a white student discussing AA made the (not extremely controversial?) assertion that race influences faculty hiring decisions. This offended the black professor, who may have thought that the white was insinuating he was less qualified. The professor asked, “do you think I was hired because I’m black?” The white was taken aback by that point-black, personal question about what he probably perceived to be an impersonal, general statement. He said that he thinks that the professor’s being black was a factor.

As the author, you could paint this a few ways. Maybe the student is wrong to treat the issue impersonally, maybe the professor was being oversensitive, or that there’s just a gap in understanding between the white and the black that doesn’t suggest anything negative about either.

2) Whites saying “sup” to black peers. In terms of awkward hilarity, this is one of my favorites. Whites often feel pressured to act differently with blacks. You might chalk this up to insensitivity and/or oversensitivity. Saying “sup” probably isn’t sinister, but it may create tension because the black knows that the white is acting differently because he’s talking to a black. In a related example (one I can hopefully offer without making a political point), Hillary Clinton once adopted a painfully bad drawl when speaking before a black audience.

3) Subways, trains and buses. I’ve noticed that people (including nonwhites) strongly prefer to sit by people of the same race. Visual media, like comic books, have some fantastic opportunities for some grim humor by showing a black (or white?) sitting alone in a crowded bus like he has leprosy or something. However, I’ve never seen anyone change seats to specifically move away from someone of a different race.

4) The assumption that whites and blacks have substantially different skills, traits or tastes.

12 responses so far

Nov 27 2007

Quote of the Day: Tuesday, Nov. 27

Journalist: Is it true that the government has systematically tried to conceal the truth so that the American people don’t know how threatened they are?

Mike, the head of the Office of Special Investigation’s RETCON unit:  We usually get accused of playing up the terrorist threat. At least you didn’t throw out the psychic amnesia theory.

Journalist: You didn’t answer my…

Journalist: …

Journalist: What was I saying?

Mike: Damned if I remember.

No responses yet

Nov 25 2007

Worst Government Slogans and Taglines Ever

And you thought “Army of One” was bad…

“We’re not really black-ops assassins or conspiracy bagmen, but encryption and information assurance are sexy too!”– NSA

“Our acronym doesn’t really stand for ‘Systematically Eliminating Troublesome Information.’ Not officially, anyway.” — SETI

Strictly speaking, our mission generally entails tasks like garbage collection/inspection, bomb sweeps and surveillance, but there’s no reason we couldn’t have battle royales in the Oval Office. — Secret Service

“Package delivery anywhere in the world, any time. Special service to China available. What can Blue do for you?” — US Air Force

Striving to keep New York free of supercriminals, starting with the prisons. — NY Department of Corrections

  • I thought of a related quote that I didn’t want to list separately. Agent Black: “The only place in NYC that’s free of supercriminals is Rikers.”

“Taking unconventional warfare to the next level.” — USAF-STRATCOM

Have you ever killed anyone? Do you want to?— CIA

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Nov 25 2007

Header Art: Marketing Comic Book Novels

I’ll recap some of my past observations about cover art.

  1. Readers are extraordinarily sensitive to the quality of header art. In my four months running this site, nothing has been as important as my header art in determining how many people bounce from the site. The quality/quantity of my writing only began to influence readers after I added strong cover art.
  2. Readers respond better to characters that look like they could be related to. This is somewhat different than the conventional wisdom that “readers respond better to characters that look like them.” Readers reacted reasonably poorly to a draft of the cover art that had Agent Orange, Jacob Mallow and Catastrophe (respectively the dragon, the bleached-out super villain and the Mewtwo parody). Most readers I’ve asked have responded warmly to the addition of Lash and Oliver Ryan. If readers wanted characters that looked like them, presumably white readers wouldn’t respond well to a black character and women wouldn’t respond well to male characters (no on both counts).
  3. Nonhuman characters are not received particularly well, though it’s probably worked out better for Superhero Nation than might have been the case. For example, look at the British cover art for Soon I Will Be Invincible below. It focuses on Elphin (the fairy) and Feral (the conspicuously muscular tiger-man thing) at the expense of more relatable heroes, like Corefire and Fatale. I suspect my art makes Agent Orange look somewhat more relatable. His sunglasses, trenchcoat and badge suggest how the reader should interpret him. The only way to be more blatant was to give him an M-16 and a flag. Catastrophe has a labcoat (albeit one cut off by the logo). I don’t think he came off as well, but making a parody of a well-known cartoon character look relatable is damn hard.

SIWBI Coverart in Britain

Future experimentation on reader reaction to the header art

I can’t access my art materials right now, but I will remove Catastrophe from the header for a month or so.

Here are a few reasons I suspect that will be productive.

  1. Nonhuman overload. Reader longevity improved drastically after I added Lash and Ryan to the header art. Removing Catastrophe, at least until I’ve actually written him in, will probably help.
  2. Instinctive ripoff concerns. Readers that stay with the story will obviously pick up that he’s a parody of Mewtwo, but at first glance it might look like a poorly done ripoff or, worse, Pokemon fan fiction. *shudder*
  3. Header claustrophia. It feels cramped. Removing Catastrophe should make it easier to enjoy.
  4. Maybe having five characters feels overwhelming to new readers?
  5. Showing Catastrophe in the header before he’s actually in the story seems like cruel teasing.
  6. Character confusion. When my caption mentioned that one of the characters is a scientist-turned-hegemon, some readers assumed I meant Jacob Mallow (the only scientist introduced so far). I meant a different scientist, actually. Whoops! The picture heightens the confusion by placing Catastrophe immediately right of Mallow– Westerners naturally associate left-to-right with before-and-after.

After a month, I think I’ll be able to draw some assessments about how Catastrophe contributed to the header art.

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Nov 24 2007

Quote of the Day: Saturday

Captain Carnage: That’s dumb as asking a hog to hootenanny.

Lash: One, we know you aren’t really Texan. Two, no one has a clue what the hell you’re saying.

Captain Carnage, translating: “That’s as dumb as getting advice on napalm from Joann Fabric.”

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Nov 24 2007

Presenting Hegemonopoly

Published by under Uncategorized

I think what America clearly needs is another board game. This is where Hegemonopoly comes in.

Some aspects of the game.

In place of Park Place, we’d have National Missile Defense.  In place of Boardwalk, we’d have Strategic First Strike.  The “Go to Boardwalk” card would be “Accidental nuclear launch on your enemies.  Uhh, whoops.  Go to Strategic First Strike.”

Since the three reds are the most popular squares in the game, they will be perennial victims Manchuria (Kentucky), Poland (Indiana) and the Caucasus (Illinois).  The “Go to Illinois” card would be replaced by Caucasian Invasion.

The two utilities will be replaced by Russia and North Korea.  It seems like all they do is supply (nuclear) power and (heavy) water, anyway.  And they have about as much impact on the game.

Since the three oranges are conspicuously correlated with total annihilation, I’ll go with such tried and true methods of statecraft as Carpet Bombing, Untargeted Assassinations, and Death by Slaughter.  (Yes, you can get there with Go Back 3 Spaces).

St. James, States and Virginia will be Sri Lanka, Pakistan and India. The “Go to St. James” card will be replaced with “You always knew it’d be the little one, didn’t you? Go to Sri Lanka.”

The four railroads would be replaced with the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf of Guinea, Siberia and the Arabian Peninsula.  The more oil someone acquires, the more dangerous they get.

The School Tax card would be replaced by Second-Rate Brinksmanship: choose a player.  Unless the two of you immediately conduct a land deal, you both lose $150.

In place of Baltic Avenue, we’d have Exploding Sheep.  In place of Mediterranean, we’d have France. (Worth $60? Questionable).

Income Tax would be Contractor Surcharge, but I’d have to make it take more than 10% of your money to maintain plausibility.

Jail would be replaced by UN Conference.  (Somewhere you want to be when the game gets hot, but otherwise a death sentence to the aspiring hegemon).

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Nov 24 2007

Getting into Notre Dame

 

This article builds on “Why Notre Dame? What’s it like?

 

This article will cover some ways for you to distinguish yourself (on the application and otherwise). It also features a way to make your college visit a substantial boost to your application by networking with faculty.

 

Getting into ND

 

In the personal statement and essays, it’s usually pretty obvious who wants to go to this university and who just selected it because it was in US News and World Report. That’s probably true to some extent for all universities, so I’d really recommend visiting at least a few of the schools at the top of your list so that you get a better feel for the campuses and cultures.

 

At Notre Dame, students often try to show that they know the campus by writing an essay that refers to the sense of community and football fever that permeate the campus. These essays frequently refer to Rudy, the quintessential Notre Dame football story. It’s really, really hard to write a Rudy essay that sticks out from all the rest.

 

I don’t know what your academic interests and future plans are. I certainly wouldn’t want you to write a dishonest essay/statement! But, if your plans might conceivably involve going to a Ph. D. program and eventually becoming a professor, then Notre Dame wants you bad. One of the ways universities compare themselves is how many of their students go on to get Ph. Ds and Notre Dame scores a woeful five percent. Even Northwestern, my most reviled adversary, trounces us.

 

A good essay usually features you and Notre Dame. You might write an essay saying that you want to become a professor someday (because of whyever that would make sense for you), so you want to go to Notre Dame because it’s the best place to make that happen.

 

Notre Dame is pushing hard to give students chances to explore their intellectual horizons. These are some of the opportunities available to ND students that you might find it useful to reference in an admissions essay to demonstrate that you’ve actually considered why ND makes sense for you.

Research/creative opportunities

  1. The Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program; it awards grants to undergrad students interested in working with a faculty member to conduct research or a creative endeavor together.

    1. For example, I got a UROP grant to write half of Superhero Nation with an English professor that helped me storyboard and edit. And I’m not an English major!

    2. Notre Dame has done a nice job of tailoring these to student interests rather than academic department politics.

  2. A political science undergrad co-authored one of my professor’s papers.

  3. A horde of political science students have banded together to create their own political research journal, Beyond Politics, to introduce political science research to a much broader campus community. (Good luck, guys!)

  4. Grad courses

    1. I’ve heard that it’s generally easy for undergrad upperclassmen to take grad courses in their major. I’m a political science major and I’ve found that it’s really easy to take PS grad courses.

    2. Grad courses are really effing hard.

    3. If you’re interested in grad school, I’d recommend taking at least one, so that you know what the workload will be like. They’re also hugely useful for your applications to grad school. The recommendation letters could also prove extremely useful.
  5. Notre Dame lets undergrads take directed readings with professors. That’s an interesting way to pursue a particular interest in a specific field with a professor/advisor.

So that all is one broad strategy—showing that you satisfy what the university wants (students that will go on to get Ph. Ds).

More Application Strategies

By the point in the application cycle you’re probably reading this, a lot of your application is essentially locked into place. You probably already have 4-6 semesters of high school grades and your SAT/ACT scores will probably not rise more than 50-100 points if you take it repeatedly. Your extracurricular achievements will probably not drastically improve—adding a lot of activities junior year usually looks flaky and it is virtually impossible to do anything in a year that would impress college admissions staffers.

 

So what can you do at this point to make your application stronger, besides rewriting your essays over and over?

 

Your single best option is a campus visit. It takes you 2-3 school days (or a weekend, but that won’t work as well) and the benefits can be enormous. (I know that many students can’t afford to invest a plane ticket in a prospective school, so I’ll offer some suggestions along the way about how you might be able to replicate many of the benefits of the campus visit with electronic legwork).

 

The conventional (less effective) approach to a campus visit

    1. Do the tour

    2. Visit the most prominent places on campus

    3. Visit the admissions office

    4. Speak with students

 

That isn’t bad, per se. It’s certainly better than staying at home. But doing the tour and knowing what the stadium looks like probably won’t improve your application much. (If you speak with admissions staffers, they will note that in your file. That suggests commitment, so it certainly won’t hurt).

 

But I’d feel pretty comfortable predicting that the following approach is likely to substantially increase a marginal student’s competitiveness in the applicant pool at Notre Dame.

 

Campus visits done right

Prepwork

  1. Two weeks in advance, get a course catalog or look online to see which courses will be open during the days you’ll be on campus. (This is one reason that weekend visits are not very productive).

  2. Email the professors of all the courses you’re interested in looking at. Something like “Dear Professor X, I’m a prospective Notre Dame student and I’ll be on campus on the 28th and I was wondering if it would be possible to sit in on your International Security course.”

    1. Some of the professors—probably at least half—will email you back and say that’s OK. Promptly email them back: thank them and ask if there are any recent, small assignments that the class has done. Say that you really, really want to get a feel for what the class is like.

    2. At least one professor will suggest something small like a 1-4 page paper. Look online for what office hours that professor (or professors) has. You will want to meet with him (them) personally during your visit, after attending their class. If they do not have office hours that work for you, try to schedule appointments.

    3. Do the paper(s). Don’t be pretentious and/or reach for a thesaurus. Treat the paper(s) like a high school assignment that is unusually important to your grade. Talking with an English mentor and someone who’s knowledgeable in the course content might be appropriate.

The Visit

  1. Forget the tour. Go to as many classes as you can. If there’s any way you feel you can contribute to class, like answering a general question from the teacher, do so. Understandably, you’re at a huge disadvantage because it’s your first time in the class.

  2. Turn in your paper(s).

  3. Speak with the paper professor(s) after class. Emphasize how much you enjoyed their class (try to mention at least one detail that reinforce how enthusiastic you are) and arrange to meet with them personally by the end of the visit during office hours.

  4. See them again in office hours or whenever you scheduled your appointment. Make The Pitch.

 

The Pitch

  1. Ask the professor(s) to write you a super-short letter of recommendation based on your participation in the class and the assignment you’ve written.

    1. “Hi, I’m Brady McKinerney. I’m an applicant to Notre Dame. I really enjoyed your History of Democracy course and I’d love to actually take one of your courses next year. I was wondering if you could write a short letter of recommendation for me.”

  2. PROFESSORIAL OBJECTION ONE: “I don’t really know you all that well.”

    1. “I understand completely. I know you’ve only had me in class for a day and only have one assignment from me. But I’d really appreciate if you’d be willing to offer even a qualified assessment of my academic ability—I think that would boost my chances of admissions a lot. I’d be really grateful.”

  3. PROFESSORIAL OBJECTION TWO: “I’m not sure I can fit it into my schedule.”

    1. “I certainly wouldn’t want to impose on you. The dedication for applications is in three weeks [or whatever], and I don’t anticipate that it would take more than half an hour of your time.”

    2. Remember to send him a hand-written thank-you card for agreeing to do the recommendation. That will also serve as a subtle reminder in case he had forgotten.

  4. PROFESSORIAL OBJECTION THREE: “I’ve never written this kind of recommendation before.”

    1. This is probably more of a matter of comfort than reluctance. He just isn’t used to this kind of recommendation. They’re very rare.

    2. Suggest that his recommendation mention how you two met and how you participated in his class, both by participating and with your paper. Even a mild statement like “his paper was pretty good” will mean a lot because it came from a professor who obviously knows what is expected of Notre Dame students.

    3. Normally, a high school teacher or advisor writes a letter of recommendation that’s about a page long—and you’ve known the teacher for at least a semester. If a ND professor is willing to write even five sentences about how eager you were to participate and how obviously passionate you are, that could be enormously effective. If you are academically competitive, at your best you can outperform the average Notre Dame student in a class he doesn’t care much about.

 

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Nov 23 2007

Quote of the Day: Friday– Don’t drink the gatorade!

A note posted on the Office of Special Investigations’ office refrigerator.

At some point in the past six hours, a Gatorade bottle disappeared from this refrigerator. It had blue contents and a label reading “Agent Orange’s: do not take under penalty of death. I MEAN IT.”

I must consult with the unauthorized drinker immediately to discuss his/her/its future with the agency and any appropriate HR paperwork (benefits, next-of-kin notification/estate planning and last rites arrangements).

Possible symptoms include:

  • Hemoglobular disassociation (“blood feud”)
  • Sore throat and coughing
  • Writhing
  • Loss of appetite
  • Headache, disorientation and/or brain strangulation
  • Spontaneous combustion

Thanks!

–OJ

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Nov 22 2007

Quote of the Day: Thursday

Published by under Uncategorized

Agent Orange: You find time for congressional hearings, field missions, heading Operations and a dual life as a psychiatrist that somehow isn’t compromised by a high degree of celebrity.

Captain Carnage: Yeah.

Agent Orange: … how is that possible?

Captain Carnage: You’re missing the point. I’m Captain Carnage. Of course it’s possible.

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Nov 21 2007

Quote of the Day: Wednesday

Bartender: New Hegemon movie’s coming out.

Catastrophe: I heard.

Bartender: …

Bartender: How much do they pay you to wear that?

Catastrophe: Not enough.

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Nov 21 2007

Where are the happy superheroes?

I recently wrote a scene where Agents Orange and Black discussed how the government might profile the alternate identities of superheroes. Black focused on relationship troubles and Orange goes for characteristics like being close to people that have been kidnapped more than once.

I think I missed two important characteristics: cheerfulness (specifically the lack of it) and extraordinary and seemingly inexplicable job performance.

Job Performance

No matter how “ordinary” superheroes pretend to be, they always end up having spectacularly successful alternate identities. They won’t just be a mild-mannered journalist, they’ll be a Pulitzer-quality mild-mannered journalist. Even freelance photographers, the homeless bums of the media world, will be so eminent that they publically tell their boss they want twice the money. Industrialists will invariably build world-shaping conglomerates. Let’s not even talk about super-scientists. (Well, actually, I will talk about them, in the chapters with Jacob Mallow and Dr. Berkeley).

If I were in charge of the OSI, I’d *definitely* have a watchlist of the 500-1000 most productive and influential members of American society, with a focus on top performers in the scientific, media, academic and business communities. We can rule out the political/governmental/judicial sphere, but definitely not pro bono civil rights attorneys looking to make the world a better place. That’s obviously too many people to run surveillance on, but it should seem highly suspicious if any of these individuals is involved in anything supercrime-related. Who misses one board meeting too many? Who has cranked out one Nobel-worthy advancement after another? Of course, that works for government-friendly scientists as well.. .

The OSI’s WWII-era predecessor did a comically bad job attempting to cover up the species of Dr. Joe “Slizard,” who showed that an atomic bomb was theoretically possible. Of course, in WWII keeping the identities (and species) of your scientists was critical because roughly a third of the nation’s lab assistants were fanatically hardened Nazi assassins. The real Slizard was saved on several occasions because a Nazi threw himself at a paid actor that played Slizard at public functions.

Cheerfulness, a lack of

Ever since the end of the Silver Age of comic books, most superheroes seem to have been pathologically unhappy. This unhappiness often stems from personal tragedy, government/social persecution, or the realization that you’re a tool who only get published to make shots at Vietnam veterans.

On the whole, superheroes often demonstrate a marked inability to cope with loss and trauma without becoming 1) totally withdrawn/asocial 2) pathologically violent 3) internally conflicted. It’s probably a good thing that American servicemen have proven much more resilient than Captain America; beating the Nazis and subsequent foes would have been quite tricky if everyone went to pieces as soon a friend died. NOOOOOO, BUCKY!

Speaking of post-traumatic stress disorder, Andrew Sullivan and Blackfive, the Paratrooper of Love, go at it over how best to help the traumatized deal with PSTD.

In terms of OSI target identification, I think that I’d place a special emphasis on people that are…

  1. Cynical– though many heroes try to hide it with quips, pretty much every superhero is cynical and/or grim
  2. Unable to find happiness in everyday affairs; perpetually depressed
  3. Noticeably asocial– have you seen the latest Batman movie?
  4. Short on intimate, deep relationships.

Spiderman is the crucial exception to most of these, but even he can get emo when Venom is involved. This rubs against Rule 27 of Comic Books: He who is the most well-adjusted is the most ass-kickarific, with the corollary “with great power comes great instability.”

But, generally, I think that a psychiatrist would have some success identifying potential targets of concern. Just another reason that the hero-in-hiding should stay away from the counseling services of the Bedlam Clinic.

Superhero Nation specifically

I don’t think that many of my characters are deeply unhappy except perhaps Jacob Mallow. I’m inclined to think that angst and superheroicness are mutually exclusive. And angsty supervillains are damn unsatisfying and lack the charisma to really move the audience and plotline. So even Paingod is pretty optimistic, in a villainously libertarian kind of way.

8 responses so far

Nov 20 2007

Quote of the Day

Published by under Uncategorized

Agent Orange:  It’s been said that truth is the first casualty of war.  But usually RETCON gets involved after there’s a bodycount.

No responses yet

Nov 20 2007

A few guidelines for our commenters

1.  We usually respond to comments within a day.  If you think that we’ve forgotten about your comment, you can post another comment as a reminder, but please do not remind us more than once per day.

2.  No drama, please.  Also, please criticize ideas rather than people.  Something like “your dialogue was weak” is far more helpful and civil than “you suck.”

3.  We will delete useless comments, like “first!”  No one cares that you posted the first comment.   Congratulations?

What can we do for you?

Our main goal is to provide a venue for comments that are civil, intelligent and useful.

If you’d like to compile your comments into an easily readable document, please let us know.  We can do that very easily.

No responses yet

Nov 19 2007

Quote of the Day: Monday

r. Berkeley: Something’s wrong with the sunscreen vat. I was wondering if you could explain a few things to me.

Jacob Mallow: Could I discuss this in the lab with you after-hours?

Berkeley: Sure…

That evening…

Berkeley: I’ve been doing some tests on the toxicity of the sunscreen…

Jacob: Those weren’t in your operational area.

Berkeley: The sunscreen would burn clean through flesh!

Jacob: I don’t think you understand how seriously we take our security procedures here, Dr. Berkeley. I see no alternative to summary termination.

Berkeley: You’re firing me?

Jacob pulls out a tranquilizer gun and shoots Berkeley twice, then pushing Berkeley into the vat.

Jacob: Something like that.

END

No responses yet

Nov 18 2007

Quote of the Day: Nov. 18

Agent Orange: Can you hotwire that car?

Lash: No, jackass. I’m a Harvard MBA. And there is no way you would ask a white…

Agent Orange: Just because you attended Harvard doesn’t necessarily mean you’re devoid of useful knowledge. Excuse me for giving you the benefit of the doubt.

2 responses so far

Nov 18 2007

Quote of the Day

Jacob Mallow: I’ve finally perfected the concoction. It will–

Paingod: No.

Jacob Mallow: What?

Paingod: I don’t want to know what it does, how it does it, or your vast and no doubt eminently disruptable deployment strategy. Telling me can only guarantee that your plan does not come to fruition.

Jacob: What? How would that matter?

Paingod: …

Paingod: You’re new here, aren’t you?

2 responses so far

Nov 18 2007

Don’t mess with the Marines on this one

A Marine typist vs. the Chicago Manual of Style:

MARINE:  About two spaces after a period.  As a U.S. Marine, i know that what’s right is right and you are wrong.  I declare it once and for all aesthetically more appealing to have two spaces after a period.

CHICAGO MANUAL:  As a U.S. Marine, you’re probably an expert at something, but I’m afraid it’s not this. [sic]Status quo. [sic]

I think XHTML turns properly formatted periods (with two spaces after) into single-spaced periods.  That looks HIDEOUS, which is especially problematic for writers that upload large blocks of text, like novel chapters and lengthy reviews.  Whenever I edit a Word Press post, I have to go back and make sure that I’ve replaced the double-spaces so that it’s readable.

I think it’s pretty funny that we don’t put any spaces after periods in abbreviations.  Something like “he’s a U.  S.  M.  C.  drill instructor” would be painful.

No responses yet

Nov 17 2007

Quote of the Day (Nov. 17)

European defense consultant: “You don’t think our marketing campaign will work?”

Captain Carnage: “You sure as Houston heat can’t be American. I reckon you got a shot at truth in advertising.”

Consultant: “What would you recommend?”

Captain Carnage: “If y’all can’t make something of France naming its toughest fighter a Mirage, y’all’re not tryin’ hard enough.”

No responses yet

Nov 16 2007

New Sidebar Category: Writing Case Studies

Hello. In addition to my normal articles on writing, I now have Writing Case Studies.  Each entry will review a book and then describe what writers should take away from what worked and what didn’t from the book.

This makes it a bit easier to describe problems/successes in characterization and plotting that might otherwise be abstract.

So far I have:

I’d really appreciate if you’d like to suggest any novels, particularly ones with superheroes or high fantasy generally.  I focus on those kinds of novels because they often have the same challenges and audience expectations as Superhero Nation.

  • Creating a world more or less by scratch
  • Making a fantastic world serious enough that people won’t hear your premise and groan
  • Combining action and non-action components into a workable whole.

One response so far

Nov 16 2007

Other Art Stuff

Published by under Art,Guns,National service

Proving that, when you have 10,000 Marines in one place and nothing to kill, strange things happen.

Marines Posing As Marine Logo

No responses yet

Nov 16 2007

Agent Orange Quotes

Published by under Agent Orange

I fiddled with Photoshop for an hour before picking a filter that made the flag look like a set of hard pencil strokes. Click on the picture and you can see the whole thing.

Orange quotes revised

Some background knowledge that might help you understand his quotes:

  • Captain America’s SHIELD agency had flying cars until late in the 20th century, when the comic book writers apparently thought that helicarriers were cooler and more exotic. The Avengers have always had a lavish NYC mansion, complete with a butler.
  • Squids and devil dogs are slang terms for servicemen in the Navy and Marine Corps, respectively.
  • According to Ronald Reagan, the scariest nine words in English are “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”
  • 18 USC II § 3592 is the portion of US law that sets out some parameters for when the death penalty can be applied.

One response so far

Nov 15 2007

Quote of the Day: Thursday (Nov. 15)

Published by under Comedy,Quote of the Day

Gigas: The government admits it maintains a set of “breeder reactors,” reactors that make Chernobyl look like a Swiss clock. The government purposely exposes countless people to radiation to breed supersoldiers.”

Grim Trigger: I don’t think that’s what we meant by “breeder reactor.”

No responses yet

Nov 15 2007

A Writer’s Review of Soon I Will Be Invincible

SIWBI is a first novel about a cyborg and her superhero team trying to stop a supervillain from taking over the world. Although it has redeeming qualities and the author is clearly very talented, I would recommend it only for writers.

Other reviews have been mixed. Here are some Amazon excerpts.

  • “This book reads more like a first draft than a published work.”
  • “This excellent novel reminds me more than anything of The Unforgiven in its deconstruction and reconstruction of its genre.”
  • “Most dismayingly, the two narrators sound remarkably similar, except that Fatale’s utterly flat sections lack the occasional moments of inspiration that sparingly pepper Dr. Impossible’s narrative.”
  • “Absolutely delightful.”
  • “The heroes don’t even take part in the fight that beats Impossible, yet the book wants you to feel like they’ve proved themselves at the end.”

SIWBI is not awful. It was, however, poorly executed and suffers from many flaws common to first novels.

Characterization

Within the first thirty pages we were introduced to nineteen named characters and three super-groups. Most of the characters parrot a popular comic book character but without any kind of new angle, sort of like fan-fiction but with new names. These characters are so thinly-developed that you can only differentiate them by remembering who’s a ripoff of Superman and who’s Batman. For example, let me run down the eight (!) main characters.

1) Fatale. She’s the main protagonist and one of the two narrators. She’s a female cyborg and former NSA assassin, very much like Black Widow. That wouldn’t have been a problem, if the author had provided any personal spin or commentary or improvement on BW. Without those, the best she could have been was BW fan-fiction. She didn’t even get that far. Instead, she does remarkably little throughout the story. Instead of affecting the plot and making things happen, she does a lot of watching and ruminating, but neither her perspective nor her voice are interesting.

2) Dr. Impossible. He’s the villain and the other narrator. He comes closer to parodying Dr. Doom, which is a plus. Early on, his voice was engaging. Nonetheless, he still wasn’t nearly developed enough to drive a story.

3) Blackwolf, one of Fatale’s teammates. He’s a millionaire (or billionaire?*) martial-artist without any superpowers. He’s a clumsy homage to Batman, but a Batman with a curious penchant for waiting around as things happen. Even Batman fan-fiction wouldn’t inflict that on us. Shouldn’t he be, umm… Solving crimes? Running down leads? Figuring out Lily’s secret identity? Epic fight scenes? Emotionally scarring Robin?
*Pages 20 and 61 disagree.

4) Corefire (Superman/Reed Richards). Corefire is dead at the book’s start and still affects the plot more than any of the other heroes. His death makes more things happen than most of the characters do while alive. No, really.

5) Damsel (Wonderwoman). I can’t remember her doing anything but throwing up. I don’t know why they have this character.

6) Feral is Beast, minus the intelligence. He sounds like every other character, bizarrely like a high school student. (“This is all geek stuff”). If anyone needed a distinct voice, I’d say it’d be the mutant lab experiment.

7-9) Mr. Mystic (any magical hero), Elphin (a female Sir Justin), and Rainbow Triumph (Dazzler).

Fatale’s group has eight characters, hardly any of whom do anything. You might wonder what does happen. We learn a lot about another supergroup that has literally no bearing on Dr. Impossible’s villainous plot. Dr. Impossible gets beat up by another supervillain, who just lets him go and then never shows up again.

Inexplicably, we learn the origin story of one of the other supergroup’s heroes. Incidentally, it’s an enjoyable and funny play on the Chronicles of Narnia. But the only reason the author could have possibly wanted to spend a chapter on that character is to set up a sequel. I think it was a significant misuse of space. There were eight main protagonists. Surely one of them deserved that space more than a character whose only purpose was to set up a sequel. One excellent way to set up a sequel—perhaps the best way—is to develop characters that are interesting enough that we want to see more. DC/Marvel fan-fiction? Not so much.

Lack of Originality and Flavor

SIWBI looked so promising. The title and cover are outlandishly fun. The first few chapters felt fresh. But the last 80% of the book is painfully bland.

The plot went like this.

  1. The villain starts his evil plot.
  2. The heroes try to stop him but fail.
  3. The villain raises the stakes.
  4. The heroes stop the villain in the final climax.

Isn’t there supposed to be something more? For example, the Incredibles and Spiderman had interesting themes about specialness and responsibility. The Matrix and X-Men 2 had great action. SIWBI had boring action scenes (even for a novel) and, if there were any notable themes, I missed them completely.

Perhaps most notably, the villain’s grand plan is just absolutely lame. At one point, Impossible teases us by musing about his past attempts to seize world power with armies of mushrooms and termites and stuff. Termite armies would have been epic compared to this.

It wasn’t just the villain’s plot and the action. Pretty much everything about this story’s world was forgettable. Generic. Me-too. If I could use an example, I think there are 4 ways for a superhero story to show (or not show) how its superheroes interact with the government.

Model 1: The government’s missing. The hero ties up criminals and presumably the cops come along later, but we never see them. Or maybe the story mentions that the government has deputized the heroes, which is a generic way to make the characters feel more sympathetic than vigilantes without getting bogged down in politics.

Model 2: The government is a mild antagonist, like the cops that get in Spiderman’s way. This gives the heroes an obstacle to overcome.

Model 3: The government is a villain, like in X-Men. This gives stories a more ideological edge, but can be interesting because it takes more finesse to handle a hostile government than a hostile villain. (You can’t just randomly stab cops, unless you’re Wolverine).

Model 4: Very rarely, the government is a protagonist. The Hood uses two minor FBI agents and The Taxman Must Die rocks out with an IRS agent transferred to a super-crime unit.

SIWBI goes for option 1, mentioning that the government’s okay with the heroes doing their thing. That’s fine, if generic. Maybe no one else cares about the government!  But it feels like every aspect of SIWBI is the equivalent of option 1 writing, an easy and conventional way to build a comic book world. You can’t develop every aspect of your world, but no aspect of this world is notable.

Narration and Voice
Each chapter was narrated by either Fatale or Dr. Impossible. They monologue a lot. Sometimes SIWBI’s monologues parody comic books, but usually they felt like weak storytelling. More importantly, Fatale is a poor choice for a narrator.

  1. Her back-story is cliché. She’s an injury victim-turned-cyborg, concerned about remaining human despite having mechanical parts. Boohoohoo.
  2. She’s new and doesn’t know what’s going on. That wouldn’t be a problem if introducing her to the world immersed us at the same time. It worked much better for Harry Potter and Frodo.
  3. She has no unique impact on the plot. Except for her inexperience, she brings literally nothing to the plot that other characters couldn’t replace.
  4. Even though she’s a cyborg superheroine, her voice was frequently hard to distinguish from a male megalomaniac supervillain. These characters should not have sounded at all alike.

There were a few chapters where I read through a page or two and found that I had actually mistaken the identity of the narrator. In one case, it took five pages.

Your readers should know quickly and without any doubt who is narrating each chapter. My rule of thumb would be that it shouldn’t take more than two paragraphs.

For example, here are a few ways to help readers keep the narrators apart.

  1. Write the narrator’s name right below the chapter title. This is 100% effective, though unsubtle.
  2. Use demographic cues. If the narrator mentions how her arm reminds her of a 1950s radiator, we can guess she’s a cyborg rather than a supervillain. If his tail swishes, we know he’s not human. Readers might miss these cues, but they draw the reader into the story more.
  3. Give them distinct voices! Making your characters sound different is definitely doable. It’s difficult, but it gets past the symptoms of voice confusion and addresses the problem, that your characterization and voice need work.

SIWBI attempted to identify the narrator by putting a graphic about the size of a gumball at each chapter’s start, a laser pistol for Impossible and an eye for Fatale. These graphics were too small to notice and I’m not sure why I would associate a laser pistol with a supervillain instead of a cyborg, or an eye with a cyborg instead of a villain.

All of the characters tended to sound alike. Here’s a multiple choice test: Who delivers these quotes from Soon I Will Be Invincible? Your choices are A) a mutant cat created in a lab accident, B) a genius millionaire gymnast-turned-businessman, and C) a whiny teen idol. (This should be easy, right?)

  • “Maybe you should be at work, then. Spend some time on the streets.”
  • “He always looks fine. I know you two kept in touch.”
  • “Darkness? Crime, you mean.”
  • “This is all geek stuff.”
  • “You honestly think there’s something behind this.”
  • “We haven’t seen a serious threat for almost a year. I’m almost bored.”

The first four are A and the last two are B. If you’re wondering why a mutated cat would use phrases like “geek stuff,” you’re not the only one. Notice that none of these lines actually came from the whiny teen idol, but pretty much all of them could have come from her.

Bloated Cast

I would recommend bringing in only as many characters as necessary. Each extra character is a liability.

  1. Each new character makes it harder for readers to keep track of the other characters.
  2. You have less time and space to develop each character.
  3. Adding characters leads quickly to superficial and underdeveloped relationships.
  4. Bloated casts ruin fight scenes. A book’s fight scenes are hard enough to visualize with two fighters, let alone SIWBI’s 7. (If you want to write epic fight scenes with many extras, could I suggest screenwriting?)

To paraphrase, redundant characters are reader kryptonite and should be removed. But how do we identify those characters? Generally, any character whose function/role in the plot can be performed by other characters can be axed.

SIWBI hit readers with eight characters whose only purpose was to represent a superhero archetype. For example, Mystic is the magical superhero and Feral is the mutated animal superhero. That’s not enough reason to add characters! Even if these characters were used well for parody/commentary– and they certainly were not– extra characters dilute every other character. If you absolutely needed characters like Feral or Elphin or Mr. Mystic to parody their respective archetypes, then it would make more sense to mention them as bit characters once or twice, rather than as Fatale’s teammates. That would have saved space for the few characters that did affect the plot.

I think SIWBI would have been much smoother and more coherent with only 3-4 characters on the superhero team.

  1. Fatale (or your favorite narrator; I prefer Lily).
  2. Someone to represent life before Fatale showed up (probably Damsel)
  3. Someone that can develop the narrator, usually by playing the foil or providing comic relief.

That leaves us with a core of three protagonists: the main character, status quo, and the foil. That’s elegant and flexible. You can go Harry-Hermione-Ron or Laurence-British society-Temeraire, for example. Three is easy, but a “core” of eight protagonists is completely unworkable. Depending on how you define “character” (such as minimum number of lines), I don’t know if His Majesty’s Dragon even has eight characters.

54 responses so far

Nov 15 2007

A moment that will live in comic book infamy

Pass me down the shark repellent, Robin!”

No responses yet

Nov 15 2007

A new semester of courses: 75 minutes to a bizarre skill-set!

Published by under Comedy

Which classes are best for you?

For applicants who want to BS future interviewers: Igneous and Metamorphic Petrology, Computational Biophysics and Systems Biology

For applicants that don’t care what their interviewers will think: Hong Kong Action Cinema, Sport and Spectacle in the Ancient World, Introduction to Excel

For applicants to counterterrorist think tanks that wouldn’t object to cutting out a clause to, uhh, “save space” on their resumes: Cultures of Fear: Analyzing Horror Films

For students that are either unusually uncreative or terrible at geography: The West of Ireland: An Imagined Space

For prospective OSI Human Resources agents: Human Resources in High Performing Organizations, Business Intelligence, or Mammology.

For students not too concerned about job-applicable learning: Directed Readings in Physical Education

For students that probably need to study less and get out more: Sociology of Sexual Behavior

For students that hopefully won’t design any structure that I ever set foot in: Archaeology of Gender

For either open-minded non-Catholics or (more likely) students that need to attend mass more regularly: What Catholics Believe

For students that are unoptimistic about management-employee relations: Slavery, Captivity, and the Company Store in American History

For morbidly depressed students: Nuclear Warfare or Abnormal Psychology.

For students that want to be morbidly depressed: Reading “Ulysses”

For prospective entertainers: Game Theory. (Wait…)

********************************************************

I’m now reading through the course catalog for the third time, trying to find classes that will fit into gaps in my schedule.

I was sitting there, disappointed by our security offerings, when I caught a glimpse of Homeland Security: Surveillance, Terror… and I got excited.

Then I look through its catalog entry.

ENGLISH 40728 – Homeland Security: Surveillance, Terror and Citizenship in America

Close readings of various 20th-century African-American literatures, with foci on how “black subjectivity” is created; the relationship between literature, history, and cultural mythology; the dialectic of freedom and slavery in American rhetoric; the American obsession with race; and the sexual ideology and competing representations of domesticity.

I’ll admit that when I think of Homeland Security surveillance and American citizenship, sexual ideology/domesticity, black subjectivity and the dialectic of slavery are not the first things that come to mind. I find it hilarious that it mentions the “American obsession with race” when the professor has turned a class about homeland security into a discussion of slavery and black subjectivity.

I recommend, as a more honestly marketed alternative, the African Studies Department’s Slavery, Captivity and the Company Store in American History. I still have no idea what the Company Store allusion means, but that’s why you should take the course, obviously. J

No responses yet

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