Criminals, powers optional

Because I’m writing villain protagonists, I’ve put some re-reading and extra thought into the few we’ve got already. The similarities and differences are important to me. Here I’ll focus on some primary points of contrast between what I’m doing and one of the best.

I’m generally a customer for comics written by Ed Brubaker, ever since his Scene of the Crime (A Little Piece of Goodnight) (1999), which seems to me the single best Ross MacDonald style comic I know. For those who aren’t familiar with him, he’s specialized in grit, as I used the term in Grit, meet grot, whether in relatively familiar settings for it like 1940s Hollywood or modern urban crime, or bringing it into superhero material with more weight than it usually has. The word most typically invoked is “noir,” but that’s one of those terms which has come to mean anything and nothing in pop culture, like “punk.” He often works with the artist Sean Phillips, whose range and depth relative to Brubaker’s themes are master class; all the pieces I’ve used in this post are by him.

This isn’t a review or pundit piece, so I must not gas about anything and everything I’ve read by him. I will briefly mention Fatale and The Fade Out (both published by Image), as well as a bit of visuals from the latter, because they’re both narrated by broken and ineffective characters, who are not protagonists so much as a vocal sector of the more active characters’ collateral damage. This is relevant to my upcoming point so hang onto that.

Also relevant is the ongoing Criminal series (Marvel: Icon imprint), built on the classic model of grim and broken lives intertwined through family histories and a location. basics. Although it lacks the fanciful and deliberately iconic content of Sin City, it’s similar in one way that exists only in movies: “crime” is treated like its own relatively hermetic society, and “criminals” are the inhabitants thereof – all of whom are so broken that even the occasional grope for escape or a failing grasp at a shred of integrity is doomed, by bad luck, bad decisions, and personal self-destructiveness, in ascending order of importance. Don’t get me wrong, I’m a dedicated reader of this title, I own all the collections, and I’ll be buying the next one. It’s master work in the simply excellent plotting and the stunning art which uses no flash at all.

I’m taking way, way too long to get to the point because I fell into squeeing. Damn it. OK! I’m supposed to be writing about two of his titles, Sleeper (DC: Wildstorm imprint, 2003-2005) and Incognito (Marvel: Icon imprint, 2008-2009). Each features a supervillain protagonist, each started as a 12-issue mini-series and gained a sequel of similar length, and each is drawn by Brubaker. Each also connects directly to what I said about the above titles, so hang onto them.

It all ties into the main characters being sad sacks, thoroughly defined by their alienation, and not in the glamorous French sense either. They’re deep in situations bereft of even the tiniest bit of human trust and fundamentally unable to run their lives. Holden Carver (rarely called by his supername, the Conductor), is a deep cover agent in a supervillain crime syndicate who is not only cut off from his “real” agency and rapidly going native, he is literally numbed to the point of moping catatonia. Preserving any chance of being successfully extracted turns out to be just as impossible as succeeding in his new life. Zack Overkill not only grew up in a people jar, the only life he ever knew was doing mayhem for an ultravillain with his twin brother, and now that the brother’s dead, he’s in Witness Protection and finds himself randomly committing crimes and doing the street-justice vigilante thing just so he won’t go mad with boredom. He’s swiftly pilloried and then hunted by both old supervillain acquaintances and superheroic hard-liners.

Each begins his story as morally conflicted even past the point of relying on an authority to tell them what to do, and almost completely stuck both psychologically and in terms of everyone else’s lack of trust closing in on him fast. Which is great drama … except that, as confirmed by events throughout, they were written so far into a corner at the start that there is no possible ending. Even their attempts to take charge of their lives reveal nothing but more context for being in that corner. If I had to reduce both titles thematically to a single word, it would be powerless.

I urge you to think about that. These are characters with superpowers, and in the context of their stories, not minor ones either – in the respective settings, both are feared as among the top echelon of mayhem delivery. But as in all good supers stories, what matters is the person with the powers, and in each case, we’re looking at a person whose deficiencies both make him a criminal and ultimately disqualify him from genuine moral agency.

In both cases, the writing manages to alleviate this core issue with a few techniques. The simpler one is for all the establishment, law- or good-guy characters to be unrelentingly shitbag authoritarians: the worst of the cops, security chiefs, and spy handlers drawn straight from the respective genres. This at least puts the characters “in the good” in terms of the reader experience, as there’s clearly no option to just do the right thing meaning go straight, be a hero, kiss babies, and smite the wicked. The main one is to bring in and somewhat to emphasize other characters who are gaudier, more psychopathic, more broken in a more sympathetic way, and much more proactive. In Sleeper, there’s Genocide and especially Miss Misery, and in Incognito, there’s the delightfully horrid Ava Destruction. The only reason they’re not the heroes is because they lack that one bit of alienation which leads both Holden and Zack to want some kind of honorable or livable framework for even existing.

My point here is that those techniques are both merely compensations, because for the main characters, that one bit turns out to be not enough. It paralyzes rather than fuels them.

In superhero stories, the role of coincidence, realization, and improvisation¬† are such that the hero can get out of rat-traps, both physical and moral. I’ll be first on the block to say these story components are way too strong and way over-used in comics, and generally it’s to a writer’s credit to diminish them, but also that in this case, they are so absent that what’s communicated is that the main character, and specifically how his tiny spark of desiring moral autonomy is continually stamped upon, is hardly more than a lump of pathos. I submit that in each title, the first mini-series does this very well, for “jeez, sucks to be that guy,” but the second, in repeating the effect and especially in devaluing the decision at the climax of the first story, potentially reduces the character to contempt: “what a loser.”

Criminal = loser. The Comics Code Authority loved it. Shows like COPS showcase it as their top priority. It’s neat as a pin. Only losers “decide” to be or “become” a criminal in the first place, and once you’re a criminal, all that you can look forward to, or apparently even conceive of, is losing some more. I don’t think either Sleeper or Incognito are genuinely establishment-celebrating texts – if anything, they reflect the raw “this society all sucks” content in 1930s crime-drama film, 1950s detective fiction, 1960s-70s spy fiction, and a whole lot of 1970s cinema – but the basic equation, or rather, tautology, is quite straightforward as far as this particular set of people are concerned.

Brubaker’s approach in these titles definitely influences what I’m doing with Xaos Comics and I don’t mind anyone seeing it and saying so. There’s a fair piece of stylistic difference – for example, I deliberately do not do “caption thought balloon” narration even a little, and I’m aiming at a more colorful visual experience rather than his preferred artists’ tendency toward monochrome. But here I’m highlighting the important difference, the “one thing” which I’d want a reader to understand right from the text, without explanation.

Which is: I’m not equating “criminal” with “loser” in a causal way. My protagonists are egregious lawbreakers and blatant violators of important values, who trade hard on their powers and their iconic (i.e. costumed) presentation, who also manage to succeed as their default. They’re smart enough to evade¬† efforts to find them, or vile enough to throw in with the most powerful “legit” people in the world and thus gain protection, or simply bad-ass enough to make it impossible to bring them in. They also have to walk lines of identity, what they will and won’t do, and personal needs/relationships in exactly the way you’re familiar with from the better superhero characters.

I’m looking for the most interesting possible characters, so although stuff my guys do might threaten or cross someone’s moral event horizon, I’m not focusing on the ones who are so rotten as to cross anyone’s. I’m also interested in revealing, developing, and providing adversity to their motivations, without cheap explanations like “I miss my mommy” or “I got dosed with a chemical and am now nuts” or “gee heehee I’m evil” … and similarly, without showing that “well they’re OK after all when no one’s looking” or “all they need is a hug.” The proscribed circle of low-character and tragic-consequence isn’t this. I’m writing about people who can do what they want, and do it, and how that goes.

Next: Actions have consequences (grand finale for the vigilante series!)

About Ron Edwards

Game author, publisher, consultant, teacher

Posted on May 26, 2016, in Lesser is still great and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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