The Big Idea: Alex Flynn
Posted on October 22, 2014 Posted by John Scalzi 23 Comments
Superheroes are fun to think about, but superheroes are often sort of one-dimensional, cardboard characters. In the real world superheroes would be more complex — and like real human beings possibly not perfect. For the novel Misshapes, Alex Flynn uses literary x-ray vision to go behind the “super” and look at a world these folks might really live in.
What if superheroes weren’t so super?
I grew up on comic books and movie superheroes who were bastion of justice and goodness. The past decade has seen some darker heroes but they were pretty light in my youth (my Batman did, after all, have nipples on his batsuit and brooded much less). At the same time a lot of my real life heroes when I was younger rarely lived up to these ideals. I was a big Mets fan as a kid and idolized the 86 World Series winning Mets. I still have a Daryl Strawberry signed ball in my childhood bedroom. But after a number of drug busts, assault charges and bleach filled water guns I learned that these weren’t quite the best role models. I feel like a lot of kids who were fans of the NFL after the recent scandals may be experiencing something similar.
When we started the book the great recession had just hit, and the failure of banks and other institutions brought the idea that many of the people in the business community who we once thought of as almost supernatural in their abilities, were not only fallible, but in some cases criminally negligent in their desire to manipulate the system to their own ends. The strains of an increasing class stratified society were starting to show and it was not a pretty sight. People were losing their homes while those responsible got million dollar severance packages and sailed off into their private world of yachts and oceans with no culpability.
When we started writing the book it was just about a girl dealing with rejection from a super school. Like if Harry Potter got kicked out of Hogwarts. We love Harry Potter and other hero stories, but we wanted to hear the tale of the kid that didn’t get in and still made good. But as we built the world, instead of a fantastical utopia with mustache twirling villains, we ended up reconstructing our own world but with people with powers but might not necessarily be super. Based on the way money, power, institutions, business, private schools, celebrity and politics can all interact and corrupt in our world, we started to see how, superheroes wouldn’t necessarily fix these problems, but would likely just get woven into the mix.
We didn’t want to construct a world with rare powers and secret identities, but wanted to build a universe where powers come in degrees, there utility is not based on some standard measure but on how society see their value, and that most of being a “hero” involved the same image management, press, and advertising as being a sports star. In the Misshapes, the town Heroes live in an upscale community above the town and are often involved in less than heroic activities. Also, in a world were real people can fly, instead of action movies, documentaries are really important, although they are more staged—like The Hills or the Kardashians—than true to life.
Also, and the central thrust of the book, there are people who have powers who are not Heroes, because they don’t get into hero academies and society thinks their powers have no value, called Misshapes. This group faces discrimination from society, in part out of resentment of those who have powers, and in part, out of an almost ingrained animosity that resembles racism. We intentionally left the definitions vague because being a Misshape is, like race, gender or class, a socially constructed concept
In our world, and not a clear thing like you often find in fictional works about superheroes. Most villains, usually after they do something wrong, are labeled Misshapes.
Everyone remembers the line from Uncle Ben in Spiderman, oft quoted in freshman philosophy courses “With great power comes great responsibility.” The maxim pre-dates Uncle Ben, and even has biblical antecedents, but we all know if from Ben. The reality is that while the statement is morally accurate, it is not factually accurate. There’s another saying, not often found in comic books, from Lord Acton* “Power corrupts.” This, in turn, is factually true. In the world we find people with power acting with impunity and immorally, even though they should be acting in a more moral fashion.
However, we still hold them up for praise and are shocked when they fall. In part because we want to believe Uncle Ben and want to ignore Lord Acton, instead of learning that we ourselves must be responsible and hold those who wield power accountable. Applying these lessons about the world to a fictional one with superheroes is the big idea of our book.
However, the idea is just the background. On top of that is the great story of one girl learning how powerful she is and how the world she once believed in is not as it appears. Also, there are some pretty damn cool melees with lasers.
*Acton was likely, like Uncle Ben, quoting another source but his succinctly quote is worthy of the attribution. “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men.”
Misshapes: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s
Read an excerpt. Visit the Website, and the Facebook page.
Interestingly, Uncle Ben didn’t actually originally say that phrase in Amazing Fantasy #15: it was actually the narration. Ben only got two lines in the comic. Later revisions to the story have Ben uttering it (or a variation of it) to Peter in various alternate versions, rewrites and flashbacks.
Someone was sleepy while writing. This needs a proofreading. :)
Thanks for paying it forward, John.
“When we started the book” and many other uses of “we” here – is there an uncredited ghostwriter on this or do you have a mouse in your pocket?
I don’t like to say anything negative in these BI posts and I think this sounds like an interesting idea and good read. But when promotional material seems poorly proofed and uses odd language it really makes me question spending money on a book.
The twitter comment alongside this post suggests Alex Flynn is a pen name for two people working together
A superhero book about flawed people, who fall due to the presence of power? And not in some metaphysical way (ala Heartbreaker), but because they are human and power makes us worse people?
Sigh me up.
“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely…”
Where does that leave god?
Hi, Stu here. I’m 1/2 of Alex Flynn. i just wanted to clarify that the “we” is my wife/writing partner Elisabeth and myself. It’s sometimes difficult to talk about the book when we share a pen name. It can get confusing. Also, interesting question @Shelley. Acton, as a politician, was a big advocate of religious freedom and limitations on government power. I think in his view the power of man in the form of government needed to be limited because of its ability to corrupt, but that divine power is the source to man’s moral code. I’m butchering his eloquent words though. You may be interested in this speech – http://www.mondopolitico.com/library/lordacton/freedominantiquity/freedominantiquity.htm
Kind of reminds me of “Mystery Men”. Captain Amazing had corporate sponsors and the main characters certainly didn’t get into their version of “hogwarts”.
(trying to avoid an embedded image with the link there. hope it works)
I think that “With great power comes great responsibility” *is* factually accurate – the responsibility is there, it’s just that those in power don’t live up to it. Otherwise, we wouldn’t experience it as a disappointment.
The concept behind this book sounds similar to Sanderson’s “Steelheart” and a little like the “Ex-Heroes” series by Peter Clines, both of which I enjoyed. I’ll put Misshapes on my ToBeRead list. :-)
EVERY superhero I’ve ever heard of was conflicted and imperfect and sometimes over-complex. As for idealizing business people, really? And Spiderman’s Uncle Ben meant the powerful SHOULD be more responsible, not that they automatically ARE more responsible.
Shelley’s question is a good one, particularly given Acton was a prominent nineteenth century English Catholic, criticizing the power of the Pope.
Anyway I’m now inspired to write a story about a literally one-dimensional hero. FLATMAN! He really IS made of cardboard. He’s powerful but every match or rain shower threatens his very existence. Coming soon to a theater near you! In 2D! Oh, wait. That’s one dimension too many…
John Shea: EVERY superhero I’ve ever heard of was conflicted and imperfect
Meh. Did superman engage in blatant systemic racism? Did Batman have a pattern of murdering unarmed civilians because they challenged his au-thor-i-tee? Superman was conflicted about things like “gosh, Lois is cute, should I ask her out?” Batman was conflicted about… eh, he wasn’t conflicted so much as he is just… well… emo. Batman is emo and should probably get therapy about his parents being murdered. Well, that, and girls. Like Superman, Batman is conflicted about girls. Not women, because the usual conflict Batman has about people of the female gender is, like Superman, on par with a male teenager’s angst about asking some girl out, and whether or not he should show her his “bat cave”, and the inevitable regret he has about doing so. Good lord.
How many superheroes can you point to whose behavior is atrocious enough that the general populous rightly demands they wear lapel cameras?
Not the poor, misunderstood mutants who don’t do anything wrong, yet the big mean bureaucratic government wants to register them or “cure” them or kill them simply for being different. No, I’m looking for superheroes who have the power of life and death over people, have so much power that they are essentially insulated from any repurcussions of their actions, and start killing people who were innocent in noticable quantities.
The only ones who come to mind are all in the same comic book: The Watchmen. The Comedian is an brutish shit who, depending on which storyline you believe, assassinates JFK, and likes beating up people for no reason. Ozymandias is (spoiler alert) actively evil posing as a good guy and has the really annoying habit of monologuing everything. And Doctor Manhattan, apparently, is all-knowing, omniscient, and all powerful, and lets shit happen like the assassination of JFK, agrees post-hoc with Ozymandias’s attacks that kill innocents, and kills Rorschach to keep it secret. Now that is some conflicted imperfect shit-storm going on over there.
The only superheroes in Watchmen with any sort of moral compass pointing north are Nite Owl who is impotent in more ways than one, Rorschach who is incapable of seeing shades of grey in anything (reflected nicely in his black/white mask), and Silk Spectre who is given the role of little more than eye candy for the reader and love interests of the superheroes.
The big superheroes of DC and Marvel are not imperfect the way The Comedian, Ozymandias, and the Doc are imperfect. not by a long shot.
Sounds interesting but I gave up half-way through due to the uneven writing. Did the rough draft get uploaded by mistake?
Greg, the Punisher comes to mind. Cyclops is almost a terrorist now. Tony Stark drove the superheroes to civil war (the arc was even called that) and Captain America revolted against the government and became an outlaw as result. As far as super powered individuals who get truly, flat out evil with their behavior- we call them super villains, and sometimes they’re three dimensional too, depending on whose writing them this week.
Greg, it sounds like you haven’t really kept up with comics that closely? Your characterizations of Superman and Batman sound very Silver Age, to be honest. Batman has no flaws or issues? That wasn’t true in comics 40 years ago, let alone more recently. Batman in particularly has a long, long history of flaws and issues. And that’s true for many such characters. Iron Man’s battle with alcoholism is not exactly a new thing, for example, that dates to 1979. Captain America’s conflicts between serving his country and serving it’s ideals has been core to the character since the early 1970s (you know, when he caught Nixon as part of a secret Cabal controlling America and quit the job). Claremont’s work on the X-Men alone (such as ‘God Loves, Man Kills’, the Dark Phoenix saga and more) features some stuff that altered the genre forever and features, sadly, still some of the best female characters in comics, decades later.
Hell, superhero registration acts, forced government oversight and similar plots have been in comics since the 1960s in some form and seriously since the 1970s. And if you think they’re too light-hearted or resist the implications of their suggested material, you just need to look a little harder: Mark Gruenwald’s ‘Squadron Supreme’, which predates the Watchmen one might note, features an interesting take where the heroes decide they DO know best, take over the world and…well, you can guess. LIkewise Ellis’ ‘The Authority’ deconstructs the fact that superhuman beings are TERRIFYING. For a vision of Superman that is decidely different, seek ‘Red Son’ by Mark Millar and see a soviet version of Clark Kent. Similarly, Kurt Busiek’s brilliant ‘Astro City’ series shows what its’ like to live in the Silver Age and NOT be a superhuman…and what a weird life it is for those who are.
Comics are light entertanment most of the time, but they also can be rich experiences. They run a wide gamut…and the core heroes you mention, with some 70+ years of stories? They cover a pretty wide base.
Sounds a lot like Seanan Mcguire’s “Velveteen vs. ___” series – Superheros are people with their own problems.
I think the difference is that “story” inevitably requires the character have some legitimate however-tenuous grievance for why they’re doing what to everyone else appears to be evil. There’s a school of thought in writing that everyone is the hero in their own story, which then tends to lead to every character having some legitimate reason to point to for doing what they’re doing. Even supervillians have reasons.
Magneto? put in a concentration camp by the Nazis. So when the government decides to round up the mutants, like the nazis rounded up the jews, Magneto has a valid experience to point to and there is often at least some legitimacy to his claim that the new round up of mutants is no less bigotted than the old round up of jews.
The big issues of recent history? They’re mostly done by people who think they’re the hero in their own story, but there is absolutely zero legitimacy to their stories they use to back it up. Cops shooting unarmed blacks? They think they’re going after criminals, but any sort of systemic analysis shows there’s nothing to their claims and its simply racism. WMD’s in Iraq? Nope. All lies.
There’s a couple of big problems with trying to put this into a story, though. The first problem is story is omniscient, whereas life is first-person invariably with an unreliable narrator to some extent.
Batman witnessed his parents murdered and Gotham is always overridden with crime, to the point that the police need his extrajudicial help or the cops are crooked too. That’s “what’s so” in Batmans world. But what if that was really only Batman’s world view and the world wasn’t like that at all? It becomes hard to tell that as a story because the reader is generally told the omniscient truth and then its very hard for them to cheer Batman on.
The only way I’ve seen it work in story is when it’s a twist ending. We can watch Sixth Sense with Bruce Willis’s world view that he is a living person. We can want what he wants, we can cheer him on to the goals he’s pursuing. But then at the end, we find out all his worldview is wholly wrong, and his goal of mending the relationship with his wife was a non-starter from the beginning.
The twist ending occurred in Watchmen. We are told Ozymandias is a good guy and the story is told from an extremely limited poitn of view. Rorschach doesn’t know who the bad guy is. It’s a murder mystery story, a whodunnit. So it gets to bring us into a worldview, get us to identify with that worldview, root for that worldview, only to have the wool pulled back from our eyes at the end, and discover that much of what we think we know is wrong.
It’s very difficult to do this in an ongoing story with a character like Batman or Superman who have been around for decades. Because once it is revealed that Batman’s worldview is wrong and all those “bad guys” he beat up were innocent and he framed them for crimes they didn’t commit, most of the audience will be repulsed by the character.
By the end of Watchmen, Ozymandias is a mass murderer. Could you read a follow-on story about him as the “hero” with that in his background? A lot of people would have a hard time caring about him or empathizing with whatever he’s up to. Because they know the omniscient truth, making it practically impossible to accept Ozymandias’s highly inaccurate personal worldview.
How many CSI-type TV shows have the main characters convict and execute someone who is later revealed to be innocent? It’s very rare in TV shows. It happens in real life that innocent people are executed. But its very difficult to make that part of a storyline of characters you want the audience to still care for after the omniscient truth is revealed and their personal worldview is shown to be wrong. Usually when someone is wrongfully convicted on TV or some continuing story, its done by some non-main character and the main characters fix the problem. Or if its done by the main characters, its later revealed that evidence was planted by a criminal mastermind to frame the innocent person. Very rare is the story that the main character convicted an innocent person based on their own personal and highly flawed worldview.
“LIkewise Ellis’ ‘The Authority’ deconstructs the fact that superhuman beings are TERRIFYING.”
And it does what this book does – acknowledges that a world with super people is a very different world from our own. By the time Millar takes over the book it’s not recognizable as our own. Not that the Wildstorm universe was as slavish about that, from what I understood of it (I only read the Ellis books) but Authority questioned the old saw about why does Superman save one kid from an out-of-control taxi but ignore the entire country of Ethiopia? Or economic inequality at home. Or, or, or.
Watchmen wasn’t so much groundbreaking for the character being flawed in ways the mainstream characters weren’t (they were, after all, just slight spins on the Charleton characters DC acquired), it was that it looked more at what those flaws likely meant in the way of a rounded person would be, and what the impact would be on the world.
It looks like Flynn’s book does the same thing – imagine what a changed structure you’d have if there were plentiful super-people, and their super-ness varied the way people really tend to. Rather than everyone being able to punch down a brick wall.
Hmmm – Greg I think you’ve touched on something that’s pretty interesting. It appears that you believe that a true version of reality exists, or a right point of view of society, and that people who are in the right have opinions that are informed by facts. Forgive me if I’m wrong here, or misinterpreted/misstated your post.
Even if it’s not your point of view, it is a common one that there is a TRUE REALITY and some people see it and some don’t. I don’t believe that’s how people work. People are the sum of their experiences, and stats may make them think, but if it’s contrary to perception numbers often don’t have the same weight of experience. For example, what we can statistically determine are the racist actions of some police officers are often not believed or trusted.
Bringing it back to comics, I think the point of certain characters, i.e. Magneto, is that his view of reality is not necessarily wrong, but COULD be different. Because truly, in the comics his perception of the MRA (hah! Mutant Registration Act here) was not incorrect, but his reaction to it could bring worse in the view of our heroes the x-men. So they try to stop him and succeed. The X-men also start from the point of view that not all people are evil and want to co-exist, while Magneto has seen evil and doesn’t believe there’s enough good to offset the bad. Hence his mutant superiority standpoint (I think he still has that? Haven’t read the comics in a LONG time). Neither one’s view of their society is actually wrong here; the conflict is in ideology.
In short, I don’t think giving a villain a “legitimate” reason excuses their villainy; a sympathetic reason makes a villain more interesting and relatable, but their villainy lies in the methods, not motivation. The executive who makes the call on the cost-benefit analysis of lawsuits vs. a recall for, say, a car part, has the valid reason of maximising shareholder profits, but their method for doing so is evil. There may be interesting reasons why the choice was made or justified, and the discussion of HOW the justification happens can make for an excellent story.
This is a bit rambling, but I find it very interesting what people think the nature of evil is :)
Karina: you believe that a true version of reality exists… people who are in the right have opinions that are informed by facts.
Well, I think there’s a true version of reality, how much of that we will ever know is a different matter. Our current understanding of the universe suggests its about 14 billion years old. I don’t know if a scientist would say that number is “in the right” if that means “infallible”, but they would say it is “informed by facts”.
The difference is that this is how one looks at “reality”, but how we look at “story” is almost entirely different.
In short, I don’t think giving a villain a “legitimate” reason excuses their villainy; a sympathetic reason makes a villain more interesting and relatable, but their villainy lies in the methods, not motivation.
But that’s just it: story isn’t about excusing villiany, its about keeping the characters sympathetic, more interesting, more relatable. But invariably, that requires the character who does bad things to have at least some modicum of “legitimate” reasoning for their actions.
You can argue all you want about whether there is a “true” version of reality or not. But the thing I’m pointing to here is that no one ever questions whether Magneto was ever really in the Nazi concentration camp. That is the “true version of reality”. And that reality gives the audience some way to at least sympathize with Magneto.
Seriously. What would happen to X Men if it came out after all these decades that Magneto was never in a Nazi concentration camp? What would happen to the audience’s sympathies for Magneto, everything he’s ever done, and anyone who has ever worked with him? What if that were the “true version of reality” and the reality we’ve seen so far was all Magneto’s unreliable narration?
This is where story and reality fork. In story, if it came out that Magneto had never been in a Nazi concentration camp, if it came out that he had instead been a Nazi collaborator, and eveyrthing we heard up to this point was Magneto rewriting history to keep the nazi hunters at bay, the reaction from the audience would be swift and sympathy for magneto would drop like a rock.
In story, when a characters’s worldview is overturned by omniscient narrative facts, the audience goes with the facts.
In the real world, when fact collides with world-view, world-view inevitably wins. As of 2012, about 60+% of republicans say Iraq had WMD’s when the US invaded in 2003. The facts are that that is complete bullshit. And if this had been story, the audience would have immediately turned on the liars, rejected their worldview as unreliable, and accepted fact. But in reality, that’s not what happens. In the real world, worldview wins out over fact-based-reality.
And I think it ultimately comes down to the idea that in the real world, everyone thinks they’re the hero in their own story, so whatever maintains the illusion of being a hero is what is held onto as true. When you’re reading a story about someone else who screws up, who has a messed up world view, you the reader have no investment in that worldview being correct, so when facts are presented to prove it wrong, you drop it and accept the facts.
This is where comics fail. This is where story telling fails in general. But in comics its usually more pronounced because, there’s always that underlying motif of “hero” of “doing the right thing” of “with great power comes great responsibility”, and as a practical matter, its impossible to embrace that to any degree and have an unreliable narrator doing what he thinks is right based on an entirely bogus worldview, and have that character continue with any sort of fan base or following.
And this is the other distinction between real world and comics. In comics, the big bad is always the other guy. Even if the hero is complicated and conflicted and operating in shades of grey, their actions seldom create more evil than the big bad is doing right now. Oh sure, you have Batman throw the Joker in a vat of chemicals and a new bad guy is created. But then the mayhem created by the Joker isn’t Batman’s fault, really.
In reality, one could look at the middle east and point to 50 years of American interventionism, American policies overthrowing governmetns and installing brutal puppet dictators, American drone strikes killing more innocents than terrorists, and get the sinking suspicion that we’re only making things worse by our continued, comic-book approach, of thinking we just need to find the right bad guy and beat him up sufficiently,and it will all be better. The reality is we’re making terrorists faster than we can kill them. The current US war against ISIL? American pilots are flying in and blowing up terrorists driving american made humvees, because we gave humvees to Iraq so they could enforce the peace. And now we’re arguing about which rebel syrian army to arm to fight ISIL?
How often does a mainstream comic book hero directly contribute to the worsening of a situation like that? In comic books, the biggest problem is the big bad.
In reality, some of the ibggest problems we’re facing are of our own creation. How many continuing-story characters are revealed to be doing something catastrophically bad like that?
Greg, I don`t think we`re in disagreement here. Sure, if someone`s motivations are a lie, particularly if told to manipulate, then all sympathy is lost.
Truthfully, I haven`t read enough comics lately – last time I read various Marvel titles regularly was close to 20 years ago now – to say whether you`re right or wrong on your perception of story in comic books. However, I vaguely remember some heroes confronted with the damage they cause when “saving” cities – i.e. Stom’s lecture to Bishop when he first joins the X-Men and goes into a fight guns blazing… Magneto scene with Rogue at the submarine he sunk way in the beginning of the original X-men comic book run.
If you`re commenting generally on literature… I think it`s pretty rare to have a true omniscient POV. At times in a novel there may be one for certain sections (usually info dumps) but it makes storytelling much more sluggish. What`s interesting when everybody knows everything? What I`ve observed mostly is the reader being clued into what could pass as omniscience by getting to see many POVs. Doesn’t mean everything is known, just more than each POV character. To me, that’s why we get more subjective reality – i.e. what would change the character’s mind is what’s important, what would be discounted isn’t even mentioned because, well, the character doesn`t care or notice.
PS – I do agree that it’s rare to find a hero written as worsening the situation (or not cleaning it up if they do) – it’s a tough thing to write your hero contributing to evil as the endpoint. Few people can pull it off so what you get usually is some moralizing about the cost of making a morally grey choice to achieve a noble goal, rather than having taken action with the best of intentions and having it completely backfire or having catastrophic consequences. That action would usually be a midpoint to the story, followed by a realization of their mistake, then correction. Real life, as you say, not so much.
Karina, if Superman wanted to make the world a better place, he wouldn’t be going after muggers and bank robbers. He’d be doing this. The problem is it makes for a boring comic book. As for Batman, others have addressed the issue.
I commend Stu’s Lord Acton speech link to everybody. Though spoken about 150 years ago, Acton’s comments about politics and its limitations remain strikingly relevant.
All I’ll add Greg is that there are a LOT of comics out there and many, many creators have tackled these questions and issues from many different angles. As for there being a single, objective truth? Well, this is comics, there is no such thing. The term ‘retcon’ comes from comics, after all, where we get revelations like ‘He didn’t actually die’, ‘it was an illusion’, ‘he was actually a double-agent all along’ and a host of others.
Magneto COULD be wrong or lying about being in the camps (and it’s worth noting that aspect of his history didn’t exist until the early 1980s).