Thoughts on Irredeemable

Boom! Studios has become one of my favorite comic publishers. The Traveler, Extermination, and the Hypernaturals are all excellent titles. But the one that I want to talk about today is the one that Boom! launched with – Irredeemable.

Irredeemable asks the question “What would happen if the world’s greatest hero became the world’s greatest villain?” The initial reviews of this that I saw likened it to what would happen if Superman went bad.

I was skeptical at first. Back in the 90’s there were several storylines where Supes went bad. They all revolved around one central story element. LOIS DIES. No matter what else Superman endures, what horrors he stops, what terrible things he encounters, the one thing that snaps his psyche like a twig is the death of Lois Lane. These books all followed a pattern: Lois dies. Supes snaps and decides that he’s going to run everything on planet Earth from thereon in, and woe to anyone who stands in his way. He usually kills off most of the other superheroes (off camera), except for Batman, who despite having no superpowers of his own, somehow manages to stay off Supes’ radar. Batman ultimately leads a team of non-powered heroes against the Man of Steel, several of them die, but Bats whips out a chunk of kryptonite at the last possible second and kills Superman, who repents with his dying breath.

That’s kinda what I figured I’d find in Irredeemable.

Was I wrong.

Warning – Spoilers Ahead

Irredeemable tells the story of the Plutonian, Earth’s most powerful hero, and his tragic and terrible fall from grace. The series opens just moments after the Plutonian’s gone bad, and he begins his reign of terror by killing Hornet, this world’s equivalent to Batman. Hornet never stands a chance. In fact, he makes it two steps into his Hornet-Cave (Hornet Nest? They never did name Hornet’s hideout) before the Plutonian breaks his legs and then vaporizes him with his heat vision. We’re led to believe that Hornet had stuff in his cave that could have stopped the Plutonian, but after killing Hornet (and his family) Plutonian destroys the cave, too.

We move back and forth between the present and the past, seeing the events that led up to the Plutonian’s fall. We see how as a child, the Plutonian bounced from foster home to foster home, because the families didn’t know how to deal with a toddler who could lift a couch or shoot lasers from his eyes. We see how he led a Clark Kent-ish double life, crushing on a co-worker as Dan Hartigan, while wooing her as the Plutonian. When he finally reveals his identity to her, she freaks out on him, claiming that he’s made a fool of her. We see how his super-hearing let him hear all the nice things people said about him, while also enabling him to hear every crack and jibe about how he wore tights.

It goes on and on. And eventually, all these things erode the Plutonian down and he breaks. A handful of the remaining heroes eventually do manage to subdue him, but not until millions of people and most of the heroes on the planet are dead.

The thing that really disturbed me about this series was how identifiable the Plutonian was as a character. This guy who turns bad and lays waste to the planet and his former friends shouldn’t be someone a reader can sympathize with. I’ve heard people say that Superman is hard to identify with, because the guy’s damn near perfect. He’s strong, fast, smart and stable. He has a big heart and he’s generous and forgiving. The Plutonian was like that, but after working hard to be good and always doing the right thing, he starts to feel taken advantage of. Eventually, he resents the people he’s worked so hard to protect. “You bring wonder to their lives,” he says in one issue, “and it’s never enough.”

Who hasn’t felt unappreciated at one point or another? Who hasn’t felt taken advantage of at one time in their life? Who hasn’t thought about just saying “fuck it all” when the bullshit gets too high? Those feelings are what make the Plutonian a relatable character, and Mark Waid is an absolute genius for pulling it off so beautifully. There are moments in the series where you think maybe, just maybe he’s not irredeemable after all, that he might turn it around, and then something happens to push him back. By the end, he’s turned completely evil and it’s obvious there’s no going back.

Long story short, if you like comics and you like a good story, you owe it to yourself to pick up Irredeemable.

 

Green Lantern: Power and Detachment

Some superheroes loan themselves to what I’ll call “armchair hero-ing.” You know the feeling. You sit there and go, “Oh come on, why doesn’t Superman just fly around the world again, rewind time and stop all the crimes before they happen?” You’ll notice no one does this with Batman. No one second guesses Batman.

However, I find myself doing this a lot with Green Lantern. GL is one of my favorite heroes, and the amount of power his ring gives him loans itself to these kind of thoughts. And then I read Green Lantern #2 (part of the New 52 line) and had an epiphany. A really super-powered character is most effective when they’re detached from the situation they’re in.

Let me give some context around this issue to illustrate. The upshot is Hal Jordan (GL) is now under the tutelage of his former enemy, Sinestro. The pair come upon a collapsing bridge, complete with a car about to go over the edge and a hot girl already falling. Hal has an emotional reaction. These people are in trouble and he needs to save them. That’s Hal’s motivation – save the people. Hal jumps into action, flies down, grabs the hot girl and wills a giant magnet into being to pull the car to safety.

Sinestro intervenes then, undoing what Hal’s done. Suddenly, the car and the girl are falling again and Sinestro tells Hal to watch and learn. Sinestro exerts his will and the bridge repairs itself,  and the car and the hot girl are teleported back onto the bridge. Injuries, property damage and everything else has been undone. Simultaneously.

So what’s the difference? Simple. Sinestro doesn’t care about the people on the bridge. All he wants to do is restore order to a chaotic situation. There’s no compassion for life in his actions, just cold calculation.

Compare these actions to a fight scene later on in the same issue, where a Yellow Lantern attacks Sinestro. Given Sinestro’s sprezzatura earlier, you think he’ll use his ring to explode the Yellow Lantern’s heart in his chest, or teleport him into the center of the sun, or a million other nasty finishing moves worth of Mortal Kombat. But that doesn’t happen. Why?

Cuz in this scene, Sinestro’s pissed off.

Gone is the cold, calculating tactician. Instead, Sinestro conjures a giant green broadsword and drives it through his enemy’s chest. This fight was personal, and Sinestro handled it in the same way Hal was going to handle the situation on the bridge – emotionally.

I think that’s part of what makes it possible to relate to GL. Without that visceral approach to hero-ing, there’d never be any tension to his stories, no nail-biting moments, nothing. In short, he’d be boring.  No one would want to read about a character like that. And while it may make us sit back and say, “well why doesn’t he just…” we love him just the same.

 

Hero/Villain Relationships

When you’re a kid, conflict between two people can usually be boiled down into a world of  black & white. You have Good Guys and you have Bad Guys. And despite the odds being stacked against them, the Good Guys trounce the Bad Guys, who are led away saying pithy things like “Curses, foiled again.”

As we grow though, those one-dimensional relationships aren’t as satisfying. So to spice things up, here’s a list of possible ways to introduce some gray into that black & white world.

Hero vs. Villain Who Thinks He’s in the Right

Some of the best conflicts are the ones where the villain really believes what he/she is doing is the right thing. Think Batman/Poison Ivy for this. Ivy is an eco-terrorist who believes that people and corporations who pollute the environment should be killed, usually via poison or turning them into trees. In Ivy’s mind, she’s doing the right thing, protecting the planet, and Batman is an obstacle in her way.

Hero vs Villain Who Thinks He’s a Hero

You can have a lot of fun when you go beyond a villain who thinks he’s right, and transcends to where the villain actually believes he’s the hero. Think Superman vs. Bizarro here. Bizarro is a backward copy of Superman, and on Bizarro world, the best way to help someone is contrary to what we’d think of as common sense. Case in point, when Bizarro encounters a kitten stuck in a tree, he believes the cat is harming the tree and chases the cat away. Supes always had his hands full trying to get Bizarro out of Metropolis and back to his home world. In this scenario, Bizarro genuinely believes that Superman is the villain, because Supes is trying to stop Bizarro from “doing good.”

Hero/Villain Love Interest

There’s something to be said for good folks being attracted to bad folks. Batman and Catwoman are the most famous good/bad couple out there. Bats usually recovers what Catwoman steals, but for some reason, she rarely winds up in Arkham with the rest of Gotham’s criminals. Why is that, you think?

Hero/Villain Friendship

Marvel Comics was big on having two characters who were enemies in costume, but friends out of costume. So Peter Parker and Harry Osbourne were friends, but Spider-Man and the Green Goblin were bitter enemies. When Spidey realized who was under the Goblin mask, he had to deal with the emotions of fighting and ultimately imprisoning his friend.

Hero vs Villain of Duplicitous Nature

This one’s fun because the Villain has a secret identity that he is either unaware of or can’t control. The Lizard from Spider-Man is a great example of this. Curt Connors develops a process to regenerate his lost arm using reptile DNA. But the process goes awry and turns Connors into a monster. Spidey has to subdue the Lizard without harming him so he can restore Connors to his normal self. This is different from the Villain Friendship entry, because Curt Connors has absolutely no control over what his alter ego does.

Any hero/villain combinations I missed? Which one of these do you enjoy reading about most? Sound off in the comments.

Captain America vs. Green Lantern

I missed both Green Lantern and Captain America in the movie theaters this past summer. I was able to rectify that thanks to the magic that is my PS3. I loved both these characters when I was a kid and was excited to see them brought to life.

I watched GL first and while it was fun it wasn’t as great as I’d hoped. Then I watched Captain America and was blown away. That movie was brilliantly done and I loved every minute of it. Once the credits were over and I’d seen the Avengers trailer, I started thinking what made Cap so much better than GL. The special effects were good in both films and I liked the casting.

That left the writing.

So here are three things I learned about writing from watching these films.

Characters Need Goals
In Captain America, Steve Rogers starts out as a 90 lb. weakling who wants to join the army. He tries a bunch of things to enlist and finally succeeds. Then he struggles to gain respect as a soldier, is injected with the Super Soldier serum and becomes Captain America. When he learns his friends have been kidnapped by Nazis, he goes off to help them. And ultimately, he has his final showdown with the Red Skull.

See the pattern there? Event. Boom. Event. Boom. Cap is always marching to complete another mission.

Compare that to Green Lantern. Hal Jordan starts out in a botched test flight. After getting reamed out by his employer, he finds Abin Sur, who gives him the power ring. He gets taken to Oa where he’s told about being a Green Lantern and the responsibilities that brings. He turns his back on it, goes back to Earth and sort of drifts through the movie until the final
confrontation in the end.

So the lesson here is drifting is not satisfying for your audience. A character needs to be moving toward a goal or desire.

Characters Need Good Antagonists
In Captain America, you’ve got the Red Skull. He’s a super-Nazi with incredible strength and a cunning intellect. He masterminds an organization called Hydra and in all ways he’s basically the anti-Captain America. His motives (global domination) stay true the entire film and he, just like Cap, is always moving toward a goal. That keeps up the tension because when you watch the villain attain his goals, you know things are going to go bad for the hero.

In Green Lantern, we start out with Hector Hammond, a nerdy high school teacher who gets psychic powers after being exposed to a fragment of a powerful evil being called Paralax. Hammond uses his powers to get revenge on his overbearing father and he kidnaps Hal’s girlfriend, but beyond that his “evil” is pretty tame. At the end of the film, Paralax shows up and starts destroying GL’s city. Paralax here is just a giant yellow cloud with a face. We don’t get insight into its motives or its wants, so while the destruction it wreaks is impressive, it’s not satisfying. Even with Hector Hammond, I found myself feeling bad for the guy rather than hating him as a villain.

Lesson – Villains need goals to march toward just like the heroes, we need to understand what makes them tick, and while it’s okay to have a sympathetic villain, he/she needs to come across as a villain.

Characters Should Behave Consistently
In Captain America, Steve Rogers doesn’t back down from a fight even when he’s hopelessly
outclassed. He stands up for what he believes in and is willing to sacrifice himself for that.
That holds true when he’s 90 lbs, when he’s saving his friends from prison, and when he has the final battle with the Red Skull.

In Green Lantern, Hal vacillates from being cocky and arrogant to being insecure and borderline whiny. There were times when I just wanted to shake him and yell “Damn it man, you’ve got the most powerful weapon in the universe on your finger. Grow some balls!”

Lesson – Characters’ actions and attitudes should be consistent. Of course, they should grow and evolve, but having a character be cocky in one scene and then timid in another is jarring to the audience.

Any other writing tips you’ve picked up from movies? Sound off in the comments.

Rebooting Heroes

I’m thinking of a superhero. See if you can guess who it is.

  • He’s super strong
  • He’s nearly invulnerable
  • He has telepathic powers
  • He’s a king who renounced his throne

Did you guess yet? I mean, someone like that sounds pretty cool, and I guarantee you’ve heard of him.

Give up?

Aquaman.

Yeah, that’s right. Aquaman. Everyone knows Aquaman as the “guy who talks to fish.” Sure he can breathe  under water and that’s kind of cool, but what sort of a superpower is talking to fish? Lame. And when I was a kid, he couldn’t be out of water for more than an hour or he’d weaken. That later got amended so as long as he got a glass of water or was near a humidifier, he’d be ok. That was lame too. It seemed that Aquaman would always be the laughing stock of the Justice League.

And then I read the rebooted Aquaman #1 that DC recently put out and everything changed.

I never thought I’d say this, but Aquaman is pretty kickass. This issue highlights all his strengths; Aquaman’s super strong and durable, which makes complete sense if you think about it. In order for someone to withstand the pressure at the bottom of the ocean floor, you’d have to be tough. Within the first couple of pages, Aquaman has lifted an armored car, withstood a hail of bullets and leaped to the tops of buildings from street level.

The other thing that this issue did well was directly confronting all the Aquaman hate out there. Someone asks him about talking to fish, and he responds with the following. “Fish don’t talk. Their brains are too primitive to carry on a conversation. I reach into their midbrains and telepathically push them to help me out.”

Wow. That’s a much more scientific explanation than I would’ve expected from Aquaman, which means he’s also a lot smarter than people give him credit for. When someone else asks him what it’s like “to be no one’s favorite super-hero,” Aquaman gives a very menacing glare, brandishes his trident and then walks away. The guy who was giving Aquaman crap genuinely looks rattled.

So Aquaman’s really not someone you should mess with. I never considered him like that, but I certainly do now, and I’ve added this to my list of titles that I’ll pick up each month. Maybe my kids will grow up with a lot more respect for Aquaman. I can safely say that anyone who grew up with Batman: The Animated Series has a much different take on the Dark Knight than the people who grew up with Adam West’s portrayal of Batman. (Bat-Shark Repellent? Come on, people).

Have you checked out the new Aquaman or any of DC’s other New 52? Let me know in the comments.