BP: Mail Order Super-Heroes #1

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Mon Nov 27 22:54:11 PST 2006

Tim Munn is back!

And as the President of the Unofficial Tim Munn Fan Club (Dearborn
Chapter), I must say that this is glorious news-- a cause for
celebration!  It's been a sad long year for the UTMFC (DC), a year in
which we've had only a poem and a few discussion posts to sustain us.
But now, we've got a brand new shiny number-one to drool over.  And so
I'm very happy.

Why is a new Tim Munn story such a big deal?  I mean, I'm also
President of the Unofficial Martin Phipps Appreciation Society &
Gardening Association.  But I don't wax quite so poetically when it's
time to review a new Martin Phipps story.

Part of that might have to do with the fact that Martin's posted twenty
stories in the last three months.  (Martin stares at HAIKU GORILLA and
clears his throat.)

But I think a larger part of it has to do with Tim Munn, and one of the
ways in which he differs from the inexhaustable Mr. Phipps: I
*identify* with Tim Munn.

Tim and I have several things in common.  For starters, we're both
Michiganders, and we're both fans of Tom Russell. ;-)

Seriously, though-- Tim reminds me a lot of me when I was younger.
Only, y'know, better.  (Much better.)

Tim's stories are short like mine used to be.  This is one of the
charms, one of the attractive things about his work: I can print up a
Possible Man (or, in this case, Mail Order Super-Heroes) and enjoy it
over a bowl of cereal.  Or, I can sit at my computer screen and just
scroll down through the text: it won't hurt my eyes too much, because
it won't take me that long to read it.

If that sounds like a backhanded compliment, it's not: I of all people
know how difficult it can be to say something concisely.  I have a
great deal of admiration for Tim, Mitchell, Martin, and all the other
RACC masters of the short form.  To make me laugh and think and to stir
my emotions in the space of two or three pages is quite an
accomplishment.  Especially that last one.

In POSSIBLE MAN # 4, Possible Man visits his ailing grandfather at an
Old Folks Home.  His grandfather passes away.  It's strange how deeply
the story moves me, even a year later.

I mean, I knew the character was going to die from about the moment he
was introduced.  Grandpa's last words are unabashedly sentimental.  The
story lacks polish.  There is no poetry to the words, no truth about
life and death unearthed.  And yet-- and yet...

There's *something* there.  Something that does more than tug on my
heart-strings.  And then I realize it, it's right there-- it's the
relationship between Possible Man and his grandfather.  It's not a
particularly unusual relationship.  But it's real.  It sings.  It's an
idea and it's more than that, it's an emotion.

And it makes me tremble to think: if Tim Munn can effect me this way,
if his work can move me to such naked emotions now, just think what
he's going to do to me when he arms his sentences with swords-- sharp
and elegant and ready to cut you and make you bleed.

And this, above all else, is why Tim Munn is a writer to keep your eye
on.  Because there's something there, there's some talent.

And I'm not saying that this talent exists without skill or style.
What I'm saying is, Tim is still evolving.

Well, yes, of course, we're all evolving-- but what I'm saying is

Tim's just getting started, he's in his formative years.  He hasn't
found the Tim Munn Style yet, he hasn't made his sentences *his*.  But
when he does-- hoo-boy!!!

The good news is, Tim is well on his way.  He's getting better by leaps
and bounds, which is more than I could ever say for the early Tom

What are some of the areas that Tim needs to work on?  Well, first and
foremost is clarity.  Strong prose, whether it's the short sharp shocks
of Hemmingway or the elegant verbal gymnastics of Proust, communicates
clearly, effectively, and concretely.

Too often, Tim is a bit vague or, worse, subtle.  Now, there's nothing
wrong with being subtle-- if you know how to do it.  I, for one, have
no idea how to be subtle, and so I telegraph all my points in big bold
letters.  Stan Lee and Jack Kirby had the same problem-- not bad
company, that.

Subtlety is especially dangerous when you're writing comedy.

Now, some joker's going to start talking about the subtle, elegant
humour of Renoir or the bemused, sly observations of Luis Bunuel.  But
I'm not talking about that wishy-washy continental stuff.  I'm talking
about Comedy-- about Adam Sandler and Jerry Lewis, about Mark Twain and
the Smothers Bros.-- comedy with jokes and punchlines and pratfalls,
comedy that makes you laugh-- as American as an apple pie, though a
cream pie in the kisser is twice as funny.

Let's take a look at a short excerpt from Mail Order Super-Heroes # 1
to illustrate the difference.

> 	"Hello, miss...?"  He asked, helping her into her own seat from
> beneath his large cape.
> 	"Stop-Drop-and-Roll Lass," she replied, returning a smile.
> "Thank you."
> 	"It was a pleasure," he smiled rather oddly.  "You can call me
> Challenger.  *I live for the challenge!*  That's my catchphrase."

Now that is a perfectly respectably bit of character comedy.  " *I live
for the challenge!*  That's my catchphrase."  It's big, it's bold, it's
comedy-- it gets a laugh, and endears the character to us.

That's excellent craftmanship, Tim: everything we need to understand
the joke is right there.

> 	She smiled and nodded.  "I like a challenging crossword, myself,"
> she said, turning her attention to the commander.  "Sir, I'm very
> sorry.  I had a bleeder-"
> 	He looked to her with a crooked eye.  "I didn't know, Erin.
> I'll call up someone else to take the mission, if you'd like?"
> 	It took a moment, but realized his mistake.  "Oh no-no-no!!  Not
> that sort!  At the hospital where I work, Cityland Memorial.  I had a
> bleeder _there_.

Here, on the other hand-- I mean, c'mon, Tim, you've got a menstraution
joke, for chrissakes.  And in this case, you kinda botched it.

I mean, sure, the joke's there-- I _did_ figure out that's what he
thinks she means by "bleeder"-- but it's too subtle, too coy.  And,
really, when it comes to bodily functions, there's _never_ any reason
to be subtle. :-)

The joke's there, but it's inbetween the lines.  The most important
thing about a good joke is that all the parts be visibly in evidence.
Here's three ways you could spruce up that joke to make absolutely sure
that everyone gets with the "flow":

(1) Invoke an obvious symbol of that time, such as a tampon or sanitary
napkin.  Perhaps a secretary can be on hand?  Hmm... A little laboured
and forced.

(2) You could have a bear in the office.  Upon hearing about the
bleeder, Roger Rampage can say something like, "Run!  Run for your
life!  The bear will smell it on you!  It can't be around women during
that... that time!"  But if you were going to do that, I would make
sure that's not the _only_ reason the bear is there.  I'd bring him
back at the end of the story/installment to give him another
punchline-- that way it "pays off" the bear.

(3) If you don't want to come out and say menstraution, trying being
subtle in a different way.  Instead of "He looked to her with a crooked
eye", why not try "His face went whitish-green, perspiration lactating
from his brow in hideous, twisted fear"-- though, really, you'd want to
play up either the fear or the state of being physically ill-- one or
the other, not both.

Though, technically, in this joke's structure, the misunderstanding
isn't the punchline.

> A construction worker over at the BarCo building
> knicked himself with a nail gun.  Fortunately it didn't hit any major
> arteries or blood vessels."
> 	He nodded.  "We'll send him our best wishes Erin.

And that's a nice capper, right there-- very business-like, very funny.
 I think if the injury was humorous and improbable that it would have
added a little something-- but, y'know, so would a bear or a
perspiration-lactating brow. :-)

Of course, you could make the misunderstanding the punchline by
restructuring the joke.  Show us Erin and the construction worker first
in a scene beforehand, maybe have him explain how he got his injury--
kick it up a few notches, make it funny in and of itself-- and then
have her go to see Rampage.

The reader knows what she means by bleeder-- but Rampage doesn't.  You
could pay this off quickly by having her explain the misunderstanding,
or you could milk the gag for all it's worth.

But what would be the point of having a scene at the hospital?  If it's
just there for the joke, it's not really pulling its own weight.

But what you could do is take your first bit of
introspection/exposition-- apropos Roger's frequent need for Master
Lawyer-- and move it into the hospital scene.  This would allow the
Roger/Challenger/Erin scene to move on unhindered, instead slowing down
your intro for Erin in this story-- the only place where things have a
right to be slow.

But this chunk of text does bring up another point:

> Heroes Alliance Chain of Command.  Well, maybe with the exception of
> Possible Man... and maybe her father, Master Lawyer.  Oh, that was the
> best reason for her nerves right now.  Those two-dozen (and she thought
> at least a few more) times her father had defended Roger in lawsuit
> after lawsuit; bringing home file after file, treading back and forth
> between desk and liquor cabinet, file in one hand, drink in another;
> calling Roger every name in the book and a few other choice expletives
> that her mother had made her swear never to repeat.

*Why* does Roger so frequently need Master Lawyer to defend him?  *Why*
does he incur so many lawsuits?  I assume with a last name like
Rampage, he might have a bit of a temper problem.  But if you were to
state this explicitly, it would have a better chance of taking hold in
the reader's mind, it would tell us something about him.

And if you were to make it specific-- if you were to provide a concrete
example (preferably a funny one) of a lawsuit incurred, then chances
are, it would stick in the reader's mind, and provide another laugh.

Always, always, always be specific.  It's not that you need a lot of
details, or that you need to, as Martin says, describe furniture-- it's
just that you need the _right_ detail, the different detail, the one
that sings.

Now, you did account for the interruption in the flow of the story by
having Roger Rampage call her on it, in this bit of text that brings up
another point:

> 	"Erin," it was Roger, not Waldron, but Rampage looking at her with
> great concern.  "You spaced out on us there for a minute," he said,
> much softer than when he first spoke.  "Are you sure you're all
> right after the bleeder?" Roger asked, kneeling beside her, his
> concern much more prominent in his blue eyes.

 Unless someone's read Possible Man # 4, they would have no idea that
that hero's real name is Roger Waldron.  They could infer it from the
later juxtaposition of

> sent in a few bruisers, Possible Man and a couple of other men.  They
> gave him the once over, to show that we mean business."  He eyed Erin
> carefully after this, gauging her reaction.  He knew from certain
> sources that Erin Lawson and Roger Waldron were an item, and he knew
> full well what Roger could do to a young heart.

--but, if people don't make this connection, it's just confusing.  You
should establish earlier that Roger Waldron is Possible Man, state it
outright, so that there's no confusion.

There were a couple passages, though, that were remarkably clear and,
to my mind, also clearly remarkable.  The first part of the
introspection that later segues into Roger Rampage's legal troubles--

> 	Erin grew nervous, for several reasons.  First, she was concerned over
> what type of mission; what evil-doers would they encounter?; would they
> have henchmen and/or traps?; would she have to use her abilities?,
> which she herself was incredibly vulnerable to.

-- is an *excellent* use of semicolons and mid-sentence question marks,
probably the best use I've seen in a long, long time.  The question
marks keep those questions nice and sharp-- without them, they would
lose their inquisitive ring.  And the semicolons do what semicolons are
supposed to, linking the questions into one larger question, one larger
idea-- an idea that communicates her anxiety and her novice status.
Though the last line seems out of place-- a word seems to be missing.
But it's still a wonderful passage, Tim.

Here's an even better one.

> 	Erin started behind Challenger, but was stopped by Roger.  "You
> leave only after he has left the building.  He's only wearing
> underpants and you're just a little girl!"  Like all slips of the
> tongue, he caught his too late.
> 	She didn't wince, wasn't surprised.  It's what she got ever
> since she'd taken her first Heroes Alliance Placement Test when she
> was fourteen.  It's what she got when she had parents like Master
> Lawyer and Atomic Lady; their rubbing elbows with some of the legends
> of the Heroes Alliance through Law & Science, and the up-and-coming
> kids like Possible Man.  She was in on the action, too; one parent was
> always at some conference or another, and, wouldn't you know it!,
> there'd be no babysitter to sit for little Erin or her siblings.
> Great opportunities in Super-Hero-ing come through meetings like this,
> both parents and crotchety legends would say.  All it got her was Roger
> Rampage (and countless others before, and most certainly after) calling
> her a little girl.  She was an adult, but to them, she'd always be
> Matthew and Alexandra's Little Girl.

This is god-damn perfect, Tim-- incisive, clear, and real.  What it
lacks in concrete details it more than makes up for with sincerity,
texture, and smooth grace: a pulse, a style.  It _moves_ and has

And I really love how you bring that phrase, Little Girl, back in the

> "Erin, when you talk to your father tonight, tell him I'm going to
> need his services.  This could be the nastiest yet," Roger said, a
> smile forming at the edges of his mouth.  He turned to view Cityland
> below, and caught the reflection of a small fire burning in his
> wastebasket.  If only she weren't Matt's Little Girl...

It's a damn good structural instinct, Tim-- you bring a phrase or joke
or image back, and it ties it all together, it gives it some oomph! and
a push forward-- forward and into the next issue, presumably.

And if I seem a bit heavy on criticism this time around, it's only
because I'm President of the UTMFC (DC)-- because I think by this time
next year, Tim'll be knocking my socks off with dynamite prose and
gut-busting joke construction.

All of you, keep your eyes on this one-- because he's got something
special, and he's getting better all the time.  This one piece of
fiction-- only the start of a story, really-- is deeper and more
resonant than BORING MAN SAVES CANADA--- and, for the most part, more
comprehensible, too.  His word choices and sentences are getting
better, his structure has improved, the gags more thoughtful and the
ideas bigger.

You mark my words: Tim Munn is one to watch.


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