Owen King and John McNally have just released a collection of short superhero fictions which they co-edited and to which both contributed. Brimming over with some of the freshest narrative talent seen, at least by this reviewer, in many years, the book Who Can Save Us Now prods the archetypes of superheroism to both deconstruct and retool the genre in the light of our modern situation.
King sits down with PopMatters to discuss the state of superhero fiction, its relation to the societies that produce it and the consumers who absorb it, and what he gleaned from his experience in collecting these stories.
Who Can Save Us Now?
Owen King, John McNally
Brand-New Superheroes and Their Amazing (Short) Stories
What do think makes the new issues that face modern man more complex or, rather, more difficult to remedy with the escapist concepts of good and evil traditionally presented by superheroes?
Well, it’s one of the ways that Michael Chabon’s The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay is so great. The comic book in the novel, The Escapist, starts out with the hero kicking Hitler’s ass all the time; it’s his whole modus operandi. But, then, the characters in the book, while they don’t exactly outgrow the comic book, their lives end up going in different places. It seemed to me that the comic book was no longer doing the things that it needed to do for them. Partially, because things had stopped being so simple.
That is partially what we were driving at in the introduction: that sense that the superhero like any archetype has to be constantly reinvented or else it becomes cliché. I think that will be true 20 years from now, 40 years from now. People will always have to be thinking up new ways to deal with this idea that is still exciting but has a lot of history I do feel like good writers are always reinventing archetypes and that has been the case with superheroes all along.
Although there are some very original components to what our book does, we are not the first writers to try to get people to take brand new approaches to it. You look at The Dark Knight Returns, the Watchmen. You look at brand new stuff that is happening right now and the whole superhero idea is constantly being turned over and given a new shape. That is something that is going to continuously keep happening even if in the next few years our world becomes radically simpler…which, of course, it’s not going to.
So you would think that this change is more a response to forces in the genre rather than some essential remaking of the world which the superheroes are in communication with.
I think that there are always going to be classic black and white superhero types. You think of the Fantastic Four movies and the stories in those movies could be something written in 1945. There is always going to be a purely escapist approach. There is nothing wrong with that, although I have to concede that it doesn’t interest me that much. There is something terrifically entertaining about reinventing the ideas. That’s what we were going for in the book.
Now, the question of appearance—John McNally writes in the beginning of The Silverfish, that “[The Silverfish] looks more like the villain than the bad guy.” Later McNally notes that the Silverfish’s costume artist is responsible for the superhero. How much weight do you put on appearance and its ability to determine value?
Well, it’s a big deal in the superhero comic. It’s not like you see a lot of unattractive superheroes. I guess the quintessentially unattractive superhero is The Thing because he’s made out of stone. And there’s the Swamp Thing. In fact, there’re a few different Things in the superhero genre but there’s not a whole lot.
Usually the superheroines are busting out of their corsets and the guys are all totally ripped. That is a huge cliché and one that, even today, you don’t see overturned that much. Maybe that’s the last cliché of superhero comic books. I can’t think of a lot of comic books about fat superheroes. It’s just something you don’t see. In Kelly Braffet’s Bad Karma Girl, John’s story about The Silverfish, and even J. Robert Lennon’s story about The Rememberer, you are confronted with a superhero that doesn’t look the way they are supposed to look. That is a really simple idea but it’s a good one. There’s lots of room to do more with that.
What do you think the benefits are of plainclothes superheroes? Do you think anything is lost? Is there a mythical element wrapped up in that costume?
There is something lost in the sense that it doesn’t fulfill the fantasy. Then again, we don’t want to fulfill the fantasy, we want to turn it over. The more plain-looking the superhero is, the more they stop seeming like a superhero.
If you looked at it the right way, Sherlock Holmes is a superhero, he’s got super intelligence but you don’t think of him like one because he doesn’t really have a costume, or at least not the way we think of one. If you pull back appearances too far it’s not a superhero story, it’s just a story about someone who is very strange and unlikely. That’s one of the things that was so interesting about this project. The idea of the superhero means really different things to different people.
For instance, The Silverfish. The way that John approached the Silverfish you start to wonder if these people even have superpowers? What the hell are these people? They are really these weird, skuzzy, strangle people living out these really strange lives. They think they are superheroes, but do we? One of the things the premise allowed for is to allow the writers to explore what they thought a superhero was and what it meant to them. I think that was my favorite aspect of the book
To further prod the idea of ordinary heroes: In your 2005 novelette We’re All in this Together you repeatedly refer to the figure of the “Real Dad” as a superhero. Someone who sweeps in to rescue his unhappy child whom he had to leave to save the world. Many of the stories in Who Can Save Us Now similarly relate the power of familial unity to superpower, namely When the Heroes Came to Town. Is family life that broken in modern times that you actually believe one must be super to save it? Could you elaborate on this dimension further?
I don’t think I qualify to speak to the American family on that level. I do think, though, that is an interesting idea: that with some of the stories the family is what needs to be rescued. It’s a classic superhero idea that a superhero can save the world but then he has to go home and there are all these problems. Peter Parker is always losing the wedding ring or he’s about to get evicted. He’s got all these problems at home but at the same time he’s saving that city.
What would you say that the world finds so interesting about these “jaundiced paranormals” as you call them in your story”, these superheroes that just aren’t quite right?
Stories about people with amazing powers took on a new currency when they started to seem like they could be like us. For me that started with The Watchmen.
You read The Watchmen and the Night Owl is kinda pudgy and Doctor Manhattan cannot understand how his girl feels. That it is a big attraction to the superhero genre. There are these characters that can do these amazing things but they do seem familiar. There is another type of superhero story, like the Fantastic Four movies, which is just about seeing the day get saved and that has its attraction too, although it’s a little bit like fast food. But there’s a place for that too. The way a superhero can take on gigantic problems is very attractive but it’s even more interesting if they have some gigantic problems of their own.
To briefly switch gears, I am very much interested in the depths of meaning which is created in the intersections of these short stories written by authors who were not aware of each other’s work: repeated themes, disagreements between content, etc. Was there any specific trend or discontinuity between the works that seemed especially interesting to you as you were compiling this volume?
I have to admit, I expected there to be a lot more things that were alike. I thought the variance was pretty great. I was a little bit surprised, and in the most pleasant way, about how malevolent some of the superheroes were. This probably says something about the writers we were attracted to, but most were pretty deeply suspicious of their superheroes.
You look at a story like When the Heroes Came to Town and it’s like, “What do these guys even want?” Whatever they were up to they just made everyone feel bad. You look at a story like Jim Sheppards, McNally’s, Will Clarke’s—the superheroes’ intentions, especially in private, don’t seem all that golden.
One such intertextual theme that emerged for me was that of problematized sexuality. In The Meerkat, the eponymous hero often suffers from a degree of impotency and is responsible for the quasi-castration of the Nutcracker, Spiderhole man in The Silverfish needs to use Viagra, Darren from The Somewhat Super, has a member which becomes microscopic whenever he is aroused. How do you account for the overwhelming trend of emasculated supermen?
I can only say that it’s probably one of those things that everybody thinks about when they read Superman. When you read a superhero comic book, it’s like what’s the deal with Superman’s…ya know? How powerful really is Superman? I guess that its one of those questions that adults instantly gravitate to when they think about superheroes.
I don’t think it’s an especially prurient display on the part of our writers, it’s one of those questions that invariably goes unanswered in superhero comic books. The anthology just gave people an opportunity to explore that.
So you would say that a lot of these works allowed authors to explore questions they had about Superheroes?
Absolutely! Scott’s story is a great example of that. The guy has these incredible powers, he has essentially become an atomic man because of this accident that he has witnessed and it raised questions I have never thought about. There are so many superhero origins that have to do with scientific accidents or some catastrophe happens to the character and that’s how they get their powers, but they usually emerge from that mentally pretty stable.
But in real life it wouldn’t be like that. In real life, you would think that Peter Parker would have this terrible fear of insects after being bitten by this bug and whatever happened to Bruce Banner you would think would give him nightmares and really cause him some troubles. This is another way that bringing some fresh eyes to the genre produced some unexpectedly intelligent treatments of some old ideas.
What are your thoughts on the place of women both in the superhero universe and in the fan base of superhero fiction?
I do think that [the sexual composition of the superhero universe and its fans] is changing a little bit. We did this Comic-Con event and afterwards I was walking around and it just struck me that it was a male and female audience. As a kid, I would go to a comic book convention and it would just be guys. It would be young guys and really middle aged guys selling back issues and it was a very male-oriented thing.
I was just tremendously enthused by seeing with my own eyes that comic books have crossed over and are appealing to women, as well. As for the female characters in the book, there are some really interesting ones. I love Bad Karma Girl. Girl Reporter isn’t a superhero and yet, in some sense, she’s a superhero without the powers. There are some really interesting female characters and it’s an aspect of genre that is growing. I am not sure why the appeal is growing for women, but I think there are more women reading superhero comic books and hopefully our stories.
Just generally, where do you see the genre of superhero fiction heading after this book?
As long as there are writers attracted to the premise, there will always be new things happening. Writing about superheroes without pictures is getting to be more of a thing and that’s really interesting.
Thinking about Sherlock Holmes, I’m not sure that there haven’t been writers who were exploring superhero ideas all along but weren’t quite so open about it. You look at the Austin Grossman novel [Soon I Will Be Invincible] and at a few other novels about superheroes and that is something that authors are more open to taking on. It’s not so unthinkable without the picture, not that there won’t always be a much larger place for superhero stories with pictures.
If you write a story or a novel about a superhero and there are no illustrations, there is still a different kind of depth that you get.
It mostly has to do with being able to do a little more with the perspective of the different characters. I think about The Watchmen, now The Watchmen doesn’t have any thought bubbles. The really good comic books tend to eschew the thought bubble. A lot of really good comic book writers have sensed that it’s kind of weird. But that’s something you can get away with a little more smoothly in a novel or a story.
As superhero texts are becoming more mainstream (see: The Dark Knight), how do you think that superhero fiction will respond?
The people who love those genres are getting tougher and tougher to please. If something is cheesy, they will call it out. They are coming to expect more and more. The technical expertise, the cinematic expertise you will see in the new Batman, it’s going to raise the bar all over the place.
The same way if someone reads our book and then reads another superhero story they are going to want the writing to be more zesty or more elastic, be a little bit more exciting. Once you see something done really well in a way, it’s never as much fun to go back and do it in the lame way again. It’s totally obvious but there’s some truth in it. It’s like looking at an old baseball game, it doesn’t look as cool. It has some appeal but it’s not what thrills you.
Heroes Hiro Nakamura (Masi Oka)
As a final question, what is the villain that superhero fiction can give a face to and fight today like it did World War II or the Cold War?
I don’t think there is any one thing. Seeing the different story lines that ended up in the book, I feel that there is this dispersal. There are just so many problems that our country faces and that the individual faces. There is no one thing for superheroes to lock horns with.
There is more and more interior study, taking the superhero archetype but have the character ask himself to face personal dilemmas. That is part of the superhero story that is getting bigger. I’m not sure why, maybe we are just all more neurotic.