Aug 11 2010

Captain Freedom: A Writer’s Review

Published by at 11:09 pm under Book Review,Superhero Novel

Synopsis: Captain Freedom was rough around the edges, but it was clever and funny.  The plot was pretty much an incoherent wreck.  If you liked Soon I Will Be Invincible, I highly recommend Captain Freedom, which put more thought into character-development and world-building.

The comedy is rather effective

  • Captain Freedom really comes alive as a bad writer. “…I write, and when I say write [my memoir], I mean that I narrate to the ghostwriter, who then shows me a typed draft of my half hour of excruciating work. I don’t understand how full-time writers do it. It must be all that drinking.”  Haha.
  • “I frequently argue with my ghostwriter, who believes his glorified stenography gives him some say in the creative process. He suggests we write the memoir in the past tense, but I won’t have it. The present tense is the tense of action, the tense of decisiveness. It’s really the tense of the future.”
  • “[My mentor] has no preternatural abilities of his own, but he employs an amazing array of banned weapons to combat evil, including a copy of the Constitution housed within a steel tube. It reminds Villains that the rules of law and brute force are on his side.”  Hehe.
  • “I have no time for this.  I launch into an elaborate Plea.  The Plea is a trick they teach all Superheroes.  If you need a favor, something that’s illegal, outside protocol, or too complicated to explain, you can use the Plea.  It’s a basic form of mind control. You don’t even have to make any sense while you’re doing it, as long as you keep an earnest expression and end with ‘You’re the only one I can trust right now’ or ‘Your country needs you.'”  I’m going to have to use something like that on Agent Orange now.
  • “[The guard]… looks embarrassed that he has to torture me.  ‘Do you have the blue jeans?’ I am perplexed.  ‘The American blue jeans. We love them here.’  ‘Not with me, but I can get them.’  ‘Fine, I let you go.’  We shake hands and I agree to supply his canton with blue jeans. Little does he know I’ll be buying them at Odd Lots.”
  • “‘Do you want us to sign a non-disclosure agreement? We could do that.’  He strokes his poorly groomed jet-black beard.  ‘No. I believe we will kill you.’  Finally, this caper is getting somewhere.”
  • I liked the comic book commentary.  “Before long I receive a summons from the Comics Code Authority, an independent entity whose job is to make sure that all comic book Heroes follow certain standards. They cannot act too violently or be depicted using drugs or having any sort of meaningful relationships. The CCA makes Iraniah mullahs seem as hip as an East Village art rock band.”
  • “I have no time for this.  I launch into an elaborate Plea.  The Plea is a trick they teach all Superheroes.  If you need a favor, something that’s illegal, outside protocol, or too complicated to explain, you can use the Plea.  It’s a basic form of mind control. You don’t even have to make any sense while you’re doing it, as long as you keep an earnest expression and end with ‘You’re the only one I can trust right now’ or ‘Your country needs you.'”  Haha.  I’m going to have to make a TV Tropes page about superhero pleas now.  😉

The writing was occasionally awkward

  • The book capitalized all ~120 uses of Superhero, Superheroes, and Supervillain.   It was highly annoying.
  • The exposition was occasionally clunky.  The first fight spent 75 words discussing the villain’s backstory.  If you spend that much time, at least make it interesting.
  • Some of the comedy would have been stronger if the character couldn’t have walked away.  For example, Captain Freedom took a call from a credit card company during a fight for no reason.  It probably would have been funnier if he had had a reason to stay on the line.  (For example, he gets captured by a supervillain and his phone won’t make outgoing calls from the cell.  THEN a call from the credit card company would have a lot more potential).
  • Most of the story is told as backstory (him reminiscing about his own life).  I think it would make the story more interesting and easier to follow if it were describing the events as they happened.
  • I sometimes had trouble keeping apart characters’ lines.  I think it would have helped if Captain Freedom’s dialogue was as distinct as his exposition.
  • Captain Freedom is sometimes too self-aware about his own stupidity.  “[My mentor] has spent most of his career fighting the Soviets, which I surmise to be a syndicate of Eastern European baddies in parkas.”  I think it’d be more natural to replace “which I surmise to be” with something more conversational like “which sounds like.”

The plot had a LOT of continuity errors and inconsistencies

  • He flies up to his office.  Roughly a page later, an antagonist reveals that the hero was secretly fed soy (his Kryptonite) that morning.  The hero tells us, “I try to use one of my secret powers. But I won’t be able to use any of them for the next seventy-two hours.”  Umm, except for flying to the office?
  • “[Chief Justice]  is the result of a super-secret military experiment determined to make the perfect soldier. The experiment failed when they realized that the perfect soldier is one who wouldn’t fight in the first place, but the Chief retains much of the discipline and skill one would expect. His capture rates are quite high…”  Several pages later: “Among certain Chief Justice fans, there is a betting pool that wagers how long it’ll be before I’m killed off. The Chief’s brand of justice is rough, and the vendettas against him have cost several sidekicks over the years.”  This doesn’t feel consistent.  Is he a reluctant soldier that’s unusually good at capturing people or a brutal guy that wields the Constitution in a metal tube?
  • “People think I’m ferocious, but really I’m just like Ferdinand the Bull.  I don’t love fighting, and I’d rather spend my days smelling pretty flowers than cracking skulls.”  ~150 pages later: “‘If you don’t mind, this is a family affair, and I’d like to resolve it with my own brand of unique and hyperviolent justice.”
  • “[My mentor] has spent most of his career fighting the Soviets, which I surmise to be a syndicate of Eastern European baddies in parkas.”  Considerably later, at Home Depot: “My enemy’s [French] accent is filled with that combination of malice and menace that could only come from the nation that brought us existentialism and the guillotine.”  Haha!  Does this sound like the same guy that didn’t know who the Soviets were, though?
  • “A person you can tell your whole story to and not worry about it being leaked to the press.”  “Like a priest or minister?”   It seems a bit strange that a Jewish character would mention priests and ministers but not rabbis.

Suggested solution: Read through the book and keep track of each trait portrayed for each character.  If you have a character say he’d rather smell pretty flowers than crack skulls, but later refer to his justice as hyperviolent, stop and ask yourself if there is a good reason for the apparent discrepancy.

Character traits came out of nowhere

  • 3,000 words in, Captain Freedom says he regrets not becoming a paleontologist.  It doesn’t seem to fit the character.  Explaining the apparent discrepancy might make this feel more believable.  I think this would have been a better opportunity to mention that he regrets not becoming a fashion designer or something.  (His love of fashion is important later on but pretty much 100% missing from the first half of the book).   The paleontology gets mentioned perhaps three times throughout the book and didn’t contribute much besides random comedy.
  • Captain Freedom becomes a drug addict 51% through the book.  I think the first half only mentioned his drug use twice.
  • I think Captain Freedom first mentions his penchant for fashion 55% through the book.  “It’s been known for some time that I’ve coveted a particular position: the Vice President for Costume Design.  It’s a perfect fit, since I have experience in the field and an acute sense of fashion.”  He doesn’t do much in the first half of the book that makes him sound like he cares about clothes. For example, he doesn’t spend much time talking about what people are wearing.

Suggested solution: Introduce important traits gradually or give a reason they crop up suddenly.

There was no central plot, just random subplots that came and went

  • To the extent the character has a main goal, it’s getting an archrival.  Even though he says it’s important, I don’t think it ever becomes clear why it is important.
  • A romance angle crops up and disappears just as quickly.  Several pages after meeting the woman, they get engaged, call it off and she never shows up again.  Since it doesn’t go anywhere, I would recommend cutting it.
  • There’s a subplot about a sidekick that’s based on Clippy the Microsoft Word Office Assistant.  “My new sidekick is an animated paperclip with legs. His name is Whizbang. ‘But you can call me Whizzy!’ I do not.”  To be fair, the chapter is funny and effectively creates a contrast between the sidekick Freedom didn’t want and the one he did.
  • They make a movie about him.
  • He becomes a fashionista.
  • There’s an attempt at what I think is a parody of the Da Vinci Code.  “By some strange flip of the genetic coin, I have been identified as the lost heir of the Hair Club.  I attend meetings at undisclosed locations: abandoned restaurants, unsightly national parks, the Hockey Hall of Fame.”
  • He becomes governor of California.
  • He releases his father from the Area 51 nightclub/prison.  His dad disappears from the story after about a chapter.  I did like this line, though: “”It was quickly revealed that aliens love to party, and the best way to recoup revenue for the useless space program was running a nightclub.”
  • He joins Homeland Security.

Suggested solution: I’d recommend focusing on 1-2 main goals and tie almost everything else into that quest.  Also, there should not be any question about why the main quest matters.  I don’t feel the quest for an archnemesis held the book together well.

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