"If they let me write..." Part 2
Last week I posted what I had intended to be a series of posts based on a game I play sometimes with a few of my writer friends--essentially "If they'd ever let me write" such and such a character, here's what I'd do. Last week I took one of my favorite classic characters, Martian Manhunter, and proposed an ongoing series for him. I had every intention of posting Part 2 sooner, but oddly enough, I got some news that required my more immediate attention:
We've announced that the second book involving the Indestructibles is in the works, and we're hoping for a late Fall launch. So basically I've spent this past week at the computer hammering out the first quarter of the the book. It's been fun seeing what these young heroes get up to after their first adventure. More to follow on this in the weeks to come.
But since I can't reveal much about the story of the Indestructibles Book 2 (No Spoilers!) I'll go ahead an post episode two of "If they let me write..." This week's subject is: Aquaman. That's right. A fan favorite who is often a laughing stock, Aquaman deserves his turn in the sun, and here is how I'd do it.
If they let me write Aquaman for TV
Atlanteans are eco-terrorists.
Humanity is destroying their kingdom. Their planet. They are preparing to go to war, an alien and unstoppable culture which has been the slumbering giant of earth's superpowers for thousands of years. Like something out of a Lovecraft story, strange men are rising up out of the sea, sinking warships, murdering fishing vessels.
An aircraft carrier is torn wholesale beneath the waves on a Wednesday morning. Not a single human being aboard the craft is ever seen again. And all of its ordinance has been taken.
The next day, three nuclear submarines disappear without a trace.
Oil rigs are attacked in the night. The contents of their drilling gone. Their workers nailed to walls with coral-like knives. Written on the side of one massive oil tank: "The sea is ours."
Manning a lighthouse for his dying father, Arthur Curry does not yet know he is the only who can stop this from happening.
At night, Arthur dreams of the sea. He sees through the eyes of dolphins as they ride the wakes of ships. He feels the cold waters of deep trenches where sharks stalk prey.
When he hears whalesongs, he understands the words.
Arthur thinks he's losing his mind. He tells no one of these dreams.
One night, a dream wakes him. He had been seeing through the eyes of a sea lion, dancing in the currents. A vast maw of teeth rose into his vision. He felt a thousand stings as those teeth tore into his body. He felt the sea lion dying. It wakes Arthur from his sleep. He walks down to the water, careful not to awaken his father. He sits in the sand, staring out at the sea.
And he wonders if he is still dreaming when a woman rises from the waves, her skin pearly white, her face so similar to his own. She knows his name.
"Arthur, my son. You are unique in this world, and we need you. We need you before it's too late for all of us."
Basic premise: war is coming between the Atlanteans and the surface dwellers. The Altanteans plan to use our own weapons against us. Between oil spills, nuclear accidents, overfishing, and global warming, we have all but destroyed their world and they see extermination as the only option.
Arthur Curry (we never call him Aquaman) is the only living half-breed between man and Atlantean, an ill-planned love affair between a sailor and a princess of Atlantis who fell in love with the sky. He can breath air and water; is incredibly strong; is nearly bulletproof and heals at a remarkable rate. He will live hundreds of years if the world doesn't kill him first. He doesn't control sea life in the classic sense but he can jump into their bodies (like wargs from Game of Thrones, really), taking temporary control of any beast in the ocean.
It will be his job to bring both worlds together before there's nothing left for either of them. Opposing him are the hardliners on both sides, and by his side is a young Atlantean named Mera and a lunatic who calls himself King Shark, who is both friend and enemy...
Season 1: focuses on Arthur's dual nature and the fact that neither culture wants him. He was raised on the surface and feels some loyalty to protect them. Through his heroism, he earns the begrudging respect of the Atlanteans and is able to broker a temporary peace...
Season 2: Shattered by Ocean Lord, who ascends the Throne of Atlantis and targets the surface for war once again. In a medieval challenge for control, Arthur must battle his birthright and become King of Atlantis. He does this, defeating his half-brother, just in time to...
Season 3: See himself betrayed by the surface. A cabal of corporations and government agencies work to remove the Atlanteans from the equation entirely. Arthur sees all of his work torn apart by greed and ignorance. He heads his Atlanteans against these surface dwelling threats, but when they are defeated...
Season 4: He finds himself disappointed with both sides of his nature. With a small group of companions, Arthur heads deeper into the ocean to find himself and perhaps a way to unite both sides of the conflict, or to never return and let the two sides destroy each other.
Throughout the series costumed enemies will be rare. Threats will be larger in scale, as he has to work against the mundane but dangerous surface dwellers and the brutal yet elegant intrigue of Atlantis. In the end Arthur is a simple man who is thrust into the role of king and savior, a role he never wears well.
So what do you think--does Aquaman deserve a shot? Or better yet... is there room in the Indestructibles world for its own Atlantean adventures?
A couple of my writer friends and I have this game we play. Every once in a while we get obsessed about our not-quite-mainstream favorite comic book characters and go on these hours-long email chain tears about what we'd do if we were ever given the reins of the character for a comic, television show, or film.
It makes me think of the brilliantly perfect column Warren Ellis wrote years ago called "Why they'll never let me write Superman." Ellis, a writer I have a lot of respect for, wrote a treatment on the Superman myth that really was a beautifully stripped down version of what the character meant to American mythology.
On a boring Thursday afternoon, this topic came up again, and somehow I latched onto the idea of what I would do if anyone would ever let me write a TV series for the Martian Manhunter. I've decided (since it is highly unlikely anyone WILL let me write the Martian Manhunter some day) that it might be fun to post the bulk of the brainstorming session and make this a regular series. (The conversation moved on to Aquaman as well, whom I'll cover some time next week, because it was so much fun to envision an Aquaman for this new millennium.)
Part of me thinks I should work some of these ideas into an Indestructibles story. We have an alien, after all, though he is not a Martian, nor a shapeshifter, and he's definitely not green. But perhaps elements of this treatment might become the groundwork for a future hero set in the same universe.
If they'd let me write a Martian Manhunter for TV
Premise: The Martian Manhunter is an entirely different take on the Superman Mythos. If Superman/Clark is the adopted foreigner, raised looking and acting like his adoptive family only to discover he is different, J'onn is the adult immigrant, who finds himself in a new country not aware of the culture or language, overqualified for any job he might apply for but unable to fit in because of his differences. The Martian Manhunter is an immigration story.
He's very much like Superman in a lot of ways: an alien among humans who could be a force of destruction or dominance but instead decides to show them by example how to be better than what they are. He's a god who takes on the face of a man and solves little crimes, changes one life at a time.
The series should play into his telepathy. He is alone in the universe, the last of his kind, but is tied in through telepathy to the human condition, a million little thoughts, good and evil and everything in between, at his fingertips whenever he wants it.
Story arc: Let's look at the first four seasons. It's an ambitious arc but each season could represent a theme in his journey as accidental immigrant to Earth.
Season 1: What does it mean to be human. How does he mask his differences. How does he use them to his advantage. How do they create a barrier to his understanding the human condition and all its beauty and darkness. J'onn explores this through taking on a private detective's life. He will need a guide, a connection to humanity to help him translate his experiences.
Season 2: Embracing humanity, he becomes an inspirational force. He shares more of himself. He becomes both Martian and Earthling, like an expatriate in another country taking on their culture and becoming part of their fabric. J'onn's heritage contributes to the fabric of the Earth the way every new culture becomes a piece of America's always-changing face.
Season 3: Humanity disappoints him. He is betrayed, by friends, by the government. Terrible decisions are made he cannot stop. War, death, crime. He starts to feel his connection to mankind slipping away. Spends more time in his Martian form, alienating himself from those who know him. Stops being a detective, starts being a superhero. Fixes bigger problems. Interfering, not fixing.
Season 4: Humanity rejects him. We do not want this green man trying to tell us how to be better. J'onn returns to the stars. Retires to Mars, alone with the ghosts of his dead kin. We feel his absence; only when his adoptive family really needs him does he return home to take on the role of both brother and protector. J'onn is called home, where he is needed. To make his adoptive home a better place.
Themes: J'onn is inherently well equipped to learn about Earth. He can read minds, he can change shapes. Martian Manhunter should be the anti-Orphan Black--where Tatiana Maslany's chameleon-like ability to shapeshift into entirely new people with the same face, J'onn's face should change episode to episode--different actors playing him with different faces, so that the Martian can experience different races, genders, creeds, colors. He will see first hand how we treat those who are different from us--not just green-skinned, but a different hue of humanity. The Martian Manhunter can be a one-character ensemble cast. Clearly there must be a central actor to be his true face, and he will have recurring personas, but it will also be an experimental role--what would an alien being with an expansive ability for empathy be like? He wouldn't pick just one face. He would choose to be all of us.
The biggest barrier to entry is his name. Neither Martian Manhunter nor J'onn J'onzz is particularly sellable. He arrives on Earth, lost and confused, and he takes the identify of a dead man, his first stolen face. John Jones. Private detective, deceased, mourned by no one. And the Martian Manhunter's first case is to find out why and how someone could die so very alone.
What do you think? This is all for fun, but I'd love to hear what readers would want to see in their OWN version of Martian Manhunter. Are you a fan of the big green shapeshifter?
Tune in next week when we tackle Arthur Curry, the DC hero who just can't get any respect.
I had the opportunity to contribute a blog post on YA writing to Jungle Red Writers, a wonderful community of writers and readers. The post went live earlier today, and this happened. I never realized my life's goal was to have "I Need a Hero" referenced in relation to The Indestructibles. My life is complete. This is amazing.
According to a recent Slate page-click grabber, we should all be ashamed for reading YA books if we exceed the proverbial height requirement. Having joined the ranks of YA writers recently myself, the comment bothered me—after all, I’m proud when adults tell me they’ve read my YA novel.
I don’t know that The Indestructibles is purely YA, but it’s about reluctant teenaged superheroes (which might mean I must be twice-damned, writing YA and superheroes in the same place). What I do know is that if I’d written a story only one age group could enjoy, I would consider myself a failure as a writer. Or as C.S. Lewis once said, “A children's story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children's story in the slightest.” I think this applies to all stories. If told well, they can be universal.
In a way, I’m thankful the writer of the piece kicked this particular hornet’s nest. The prevalence of adults reading YA fiction is a really timely question, and her assessment was one that I might have agreed with ten years ago as I found myself judging grown-ups reading Harry Potter on the train. (I then of course read Harry Potter myself and realized I was, well, being judgmental).
Before I go on, I’ll say my one really negative point about the original piece: the choice of the word “ashamed” is in fairly poor taste. Shaming in current parlance has a really powerful overtone. We’ve had a lot of very ugly kinds of behavior-based, hyphenated-shaming in American cultural discussions in recent years. I suppose we’ve now added “book-shaming” to the list, and that’s, ah, a shame in and of itself. It's an ugly word and concept. Save shaming for behaviors that are truly deplorable.
But telling adults they should be ashamed to read YA fiction isn’t really a matter of how the reader should feel about him- or herself. It’s a fundamentally flawed statement from the start. It doesn’t take into account that YA is a relatively new and fairly arbitrary designation for books. It’s a marketing technique and perhaps a convenience for retailers to help categorize their stock, but YA is not a scientific diagnosis for a book, in truth. Stories like Catcher in the Rye, Little Women, Romeo and Juliet or Anne of Green Gables would have easily ended up in YA sections if they were to publish now. A local writer I respect immensely wrote a book intended for adults that eventually found its core readership with the YA crowd. The term is less about the definition and more about shelving and search engine optimization.
As a YA writer, I want to know why adults are so drawn to YA fiction right now. I feel like there has to be a sociological or cultural reason behind it. It’s too big a sea change in book consumption to not mean something significant. I have a theory, completely without factual evidence: we live in hard times.
I mean times are always hard. There are always hard things. But in the past fifteen years we have seen two endless wars. Economic desperation. Natural disaster after natural disaster. Raging unemployment. A mass shooting every few weeks.
(As I write this, Stephanie yells from the living room: “Oh God.” I respond: “The four people shot in Seattle?” Her response: “In what other country is this dinner conversation?” Here, in this country, at this time. She turned off the news and turned on the Big Bang Theory.)
I think adults are reading YA fiction as a pressure valve against the building weight of the real world.
I dated this girl in college. She watched a lot of the Cooking Channel. She didn’t cook, herself, but she’d watch hours of cooking shows, even repeats. I asked her why once.
“I have enough [expletive] conflict in my life,” she said. “If I’m going to sit down and relax, I want to watch something where I know everything is going to turn out okay.”
While it’s debatable whether you’d agree Rachael Ray’s cooking always turns out okay, she had a great point. There are times when you want challenging entertainment, stories that make you work, which require you to muscle your way toward the conclusion, and there are times when what you really need is comfort food.
All this being said, I find it interesting in an intellectual way that the original article casually and happily puts a premium on the writer’s opinion about what other consenting adults can and should do with their leisure time. Let me admit something to you: I once shamed myself out of reading comic books.
Like a lot of nerdy boys growing up, I lived and breathed comics, but when I got to the age where I had a car to keep on the road and wanted to find girls who would go to the movies with me, I gave them up. Not because they no longer brought me joy, but because I thought I’d be judged for it, that regardless of how much I wanted to enjoy them I should be ashamed to read them. So I quit comics. Sure, I’d relapse every five years or so, go on a spending spree, but the minute someone new came into my life those books went into a dark dungeon of storage in the basement. God forbid a new girlfriend see that collection of X-Men comics anywhere. How shameful.
These days I know grown men and women, well-adjusted adults with families and houses and love lives and good jobs who read comics or make their own cosplay outfits. Who read YA fiction and line up on Friday nights to watch the latest superhero movies. Who are healthy, happy, and unashamed.
Silly me, thinking I had something to hide all those years. And here I am at age 37 with my first novel out there for the world to see, starring superheroes roughly the age I was when I gave them up. I had a lot of growing up to do to reach the point where I could enjoy my childhood obsession without shame. It might have been a lot harder if I had witty magazine articles telling me I was right to feel bad about myself.
Matthew Phillion is the writer of "The Indestructibles," part-time actor, occasional filmmaker. Currently on the lam in Salem with his trusty dog, Watson.