REVIEW: Russell's Reviews Volume One # 1
milos_parker at yahoo.com
Sat Jan 5 06:57:32 PST 2008
It's Saturday, which means it's time for...
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SUPERFREAKS SEASON 3 # 11 (JAN 1, 2007), Phipps
One of the problems I tend to have with SUPERFREAKS
is a very basic structural one. There are often many
different storylines and investigations running
more-or-less concurrently in the span of two or three
Now, this is a deliberate decision on Martin's
part, and it does engender a certain degree of
verisimilitude: real police officers, prosecutors, lab
techs, et cetera, do work several cases at once. And
insomuch as this is a deliberate decision on his part,
one that he's committed to artistically and unlikely
to change, and insomuch as the reader is generally
never confused as to which case is which, I can't
really fault him for the decision itself.
At the same time, this decision does pose a
structural problem, in that a single installment is
unlikely to be as satisfying. The human mind craves
order, and likes things to be neat, tidy, and easily
digestible, usually in three acts designated as a
beginning, middle, and end.
Now, I'm not saying that all stories should
necessarily satisfy that need for order. It's very
nice to be surprised, and an arbitrary sense of
closure is far worse than no closure at all. Not
every loose end needs to be securely tied up, and,
indeed, when working in serial fiction, tying up every
little thing can be disastrous.
Nor am I implying that the Monoform (inciting
incident, rising action, climax, dénouement), as Peter
Watkins calls it, is the only structure that counts.
Not all stories should be structured the same way.
It's perfectly wonderful for the human need for
orderliness to be subverted or frustrated.
At the same time, the Monoform does appeal to the
human mind for a reason, and that reason is that it
works. When an author decides to use a different
structure-- such as, in the case of most of
SUPERFREAKS, several stories running at once-- he runs
the risk of it not working. And, for me personally,
this structure isn't executed in a way that works.
(Your mileage may vary.)
Okay, so why doesn't it work?
First of all, because I operate from the premise
that while a serial work can be considered as a whole,
it also can and must be considered piecemeal. Each
"number" should stand on its own two feet while also
forming part of the larger structure. I give more
leeway here when it's the final issue of a storyline,
but generally a new reader should be able to pick up
any one issue and gain some kind of satisfaction from
This satisfaction doesn't have to come from a
three-act structure, but it could come from a thematic
aspect of a piece or in the understanding of some
aspect of a character. For example:
(1) The fourth chapter of a six-issue saga in which
different points of view are illustrated on the notion
of moral absolutism, or the nature of love.
Generally, the issue would conclude in a way that,
while not necessarily "answering" the questions
raised, does put them into a new focus or context.
Note that this works particularly well with an
(2) A rookie or student earns the respect of his
mentor, a weak man proves himself strong or
vice-versa, or a game of one-upmanship between a hero
and a villain in which one (or the other) at last
proves himself to be more resourceful. The danger
here is to fall into the "petty epiphanies" trap that
Omega alum Marc "Not the Beastmaster" Singer describes
Again, I'm not advocating that these kind of
approaches necessarily be the focal point of a given
issue, but rather a unifying thread that runs through
all or most of the various plots running through it.
This would give a feeling of cohesion, and provide
satisfaction for the span of one installment, while an
overall sense of satisfaction is allowed to build
culminatively from the interweaving of plots and their
The second reason why Martin's structure doesn't
work for me is that it doesn't interweave _enough_.
Season 3 # 11 is actually a pretty good example of
this, in that it starts three stories, which will
probably be concluded in the next issue or the one
following. And, generally, this is the way things
unfold in SUPERFREAKS: two or more cases start in one
issue, to be concluded one or two issues down the
road. It's very seldom for one case to start in the
midst of another, and another in the middle of that
one. So that doesn't really give me a strong feeling
of verisimilitude, or of plots interweaving.
(Now, I should say that all these assertions are
made based on my memory. I haven't actually gone
through every issue of SUPERFREAKS to see the
frequency of cases overlapping and average case
lengths or start times or any of that. This is just
the way it feels to me, and I must say that I do
recall a number of issues of Superfreaks where one
story was generally resolved within that issue and one
was continued. And I'm happy to report that in those
cases, I was generally more satisfied than others,
though there are some other recurring problems that
I've mentioned before and won't get into too much
detail about now.)
You see, if there was more interweaving-- multiple
points of interest being developed over a period of
time, some resolved and some unresolved, some coming
back later, more downtime between arrest and trial--
it would provide a sense of cohesion of its own: the
sense of time passing. Now, I still think some work
would need to be done to make each individual
installment more satisfying, but the series would be
more likely to provide satisfaction as a whole if each
"season" felt like one big story within the larger
structure of the series.
The third problem I have with this structure is
tied pretty directly to Martin's style: very bare
bones, heavy on dialogue, with no striving for
emphasis. About mid-way through this issue, Professor
Stomper observes a suspect and realizes that he is "a
natural magi. Untrained. He's not even aware of his
power." The suspect has killed at least two people
without ever realizing it.
Stomper uses a voodoo doll (or, ahem, action
figure) to suppress the suspect's magical abilities,
preventing him from doing further harm. Stomper says
that the police can now let him go. "Good," says a
very relieved Phelps. "I don't think we would have
been able to hold him much longer."
And that's the last we hear of it in this issue.
Now, my question is this: is that story over, or will
it be continued along with the other two? Martin does
not say anything that gives it a true sense of
closure, nor does he give it anything that implies it
will be continued.
Now, generally, I would say that if a man has
accidentally killed at least two people, chances are
he's not going to simply be released as Stomper seems
to be suggesting. So that would mean that the story
will be continued.
At the same time, it is implied that he is
released. Which might imply that the story is over.
Martin's tendency towards ellipsis makes his
structural decision very frustrating at times. A
successful interweaving requires that we have some
sense of where we are in a given story. Now, that
story can certainly take a twist and now it's much
longer than we figured, or it's much shorter, but when
you have no real indication as to whether the story is
over or to be continued, it cannot really provide
And I think it's this structural tendency, which
gives the series the weaknesses of the interweaving,
multiple plotline approach without much utilizing its
strengths, that makes the series unsatisfactory for
me. Sometimes, Martin's imagination is so strong and
his dialogue is so clever that it makes this problem
more-or-less irrelevant. Other times, the reliance on
transparent analogues and lack of real
plotting/mystery elements-- these two being deliberate
choices of Martin's-- makes enjoyment difficult. In
this particular case, I didn't find anything that
really gave me much pleasure.
ENFORCERS # 3 [JAN 2, 2008], Frumpy
I like superheroes.
I don't think I've ever disguised that fact, no
matter what derision it might afford me. And,
furthermore, I like superhero stories, stories about
exemplary if flawed people who strive to do what is
right and more times than not succeed. I think my
disdain for the anti-superhero story ("superheroes are
just as bad as the villains", "superheroes are
fascists", "superheroes are perverts", "in the real
world, power and fame would corrupt him", "there are
no such things as heroes") is by this point a matter
The superhero genre is, to my mind, inherently
optimistic. Even a dark and brooding superhero story
is still optimistic: Gotham City might be overrun with
crime, and the Batman's battle might be never-ending,
but the fact that Batman is fighting that battle, that
he believes that one man can make a difference, the
fact that he is committed to making that difference
is, in and of itself, a supreme act of optimism.
This is a very fine point, and it's one that often
escapes those who equate cynicism with maturity.
Seeing the worst in everyone and everything is not a
mark of maturity, but rather a knee-jerk reaction, the
easiest and most obvious one, requiring the least of
A lot of people dismiss superhero stories en toto,
exalting stories in just about any other genre,
including the anti-superhero genre. Superhero stories
are looked down upon generally because of their
optimism, which many readers confuse with simplicity,
just as they confuse cynicism, which reduces
everything and everyone to the basest of possible
impulses, with complexity.
Now, I'm not saying that an actual superhero story,
as I've defined it, is automatically "great", or that
optimism makes something "good". What I'm saying is
cynicism does not make something "good" either.
The aesthetics of what makes for good art or
writing and for bad art and writing is a whole nother
bag of apples for a whole nother time. But, generally
speaking, one could say that one mark of good fiction
is the presence of imagination. Of compelling and
unusual characters, heady themes given a new twist,
intricate plotting, strong detail work. And one
reason why I'm such a proponent of the genre is that
it offers so many opportunities for the imagination to
flourish. There are so many possibilities inherent in
the genre, and that, too, is optimistic.
(One could make the argument, of course, that the
anti-superhero story also gives the writer several
avenues for the imagination, though I think the
possibilities in that genre are narrowed somewhat by
the need for every living being to a Psychopath,
Pervert, Depressive, or Anarchist.)
And all this brings us to THE ENFORCERS # 3. It's
not that I was trying to talk around the subject, but
rather that I feel it's necessary to explain that a
"straightforward" superhero story, in which one or
more heroes finds themselves in combat or approaching
combat with one or more villains, is not, contrary to
popular belief, necessarily a bad one. That this
story structure can and does produce imaginative,
wondrous, inspiring, complex, deep, and
thought-provoking works of art.
But the genre and this basic structure can only
work these wonders if an author works wonders with
them. The bare-bones structure, deprived of colour,
wit, and imagination cannot sustain interest.
And the problem I have with THE ENFORCERS # 3 is
that it's pretty much just the bare-bones structure
and genre tropes, with nothing that really brings it
truly alive for me.
I don't really care for the characters, neither in
the more pedestrian "root-for-them" sense and not in
the much more rewarding "interested-in-them" sense.
And more's the pity, because the focus this time is on
I don't really have a handle on any of them;
nothing really makes Magic King any different, say,
than Waterboy. And since this is an ensemble piece,
being a team book, making the characters stand out
from each other is doubly important.
About the only character with any colour to her is
Worm Woman, who is unfortunately saddled with the
"jealous angry female" character trait-- hardly the
most imaginative thing possible:
"How did you meet her?," Worm Woman asked. "You
don't want to tell me, do you? Well, I could always
go back in there to ask her."
Magic King sighed.
"If you must know, I'll tell you," Magic King said.
"One night while I was between relationships, I was
feeling an overwhelming loneliness. I went out to a
bar, and I met Lucinda there."
"She meets men in bars, and then she takes some of
their blood," determined Worm Woman. "The men who go
home with her think she's a prostitute, don't they?
She makes them think they fooled around with her
before they leave when she's really just getting her
blood from them."
"That's about the size of it," admitted Magic King.
"Does she actually take their money, too?,"
Magic King nodded. They just stared at each other
for a few seconds. Worm Woman slapped Magic King
across the face.
Okay: why is Worm Woman angry? Because the man
she's involved with currently, before they were dating
or even met, picked up a woman he thought was a
prostitute in a bar while single and extremely lonely?
Does that make any sense at all?
No, it doesn't; and there's nothing wrong with that
in and of itself. Worm Woman, being a human being
(albeit a fictional one), is allowed to be as
irrational as the rest of us. Not everything she does
can be or should be accounted for by objective logic.
But this self-righteous anger, especially if it's
going to be expressed in such overt ways, should be
_explored_. If you're going to have someone act in a
way that defies conventional logic, you should either
show the reader the inner logic behind the character's
actions, or at the very least raise questions that
point to the fact that the character is acting
irrationally. Otherwise, it just calls attention to
itself as bad plotting.
(And, granted, sometimes an author thinks he has
done an adequate job expressing a character's inner
logic or the psychological pressures driving certain
seemingly irrational decisions, and a reader
disagrees: think back, for example, on some of the
friction between Martin Phipps and myself over the
characterization of Martin Rock in JOLT CITY.)
Worm Woman's anger exists not because Frumpy has
something that he wants to say about anger, or
something he wants to explore about the character, but
rather and solely to create friction between Worm
Woman and Magic King. Rather than create real
relationship friction, resulting from clashes of
personality or a power imbalance or insecurities, the
friction arises from an exterior source that leaves
Magic King relatively blameless.
Worm Woman gets angry, like most female love
interests in comics, because Magic King didn't have
sex once with a woman he knew before they were an item
and aren't all women crazy anyway? It's barely a
step-up from the bizarrely inane "you're always saving
the world, you never make enough time for me" line of
thinking that superhero-and-doctor's wives are stuck
with. It's cliché masquerading as character, and it's
the only real bit of characterization in the piece.
Now, I'm not trying to be a Negative Nancy here.
Frumpy's not a bad writer. I did enjoy the first
issue of MR. TRANSPARENT. And, even in this very same
story, he creates the very memorable
projectile-vomiting villain Upchuck.
The fact is, I still remember a time when my output
on this very newsgroup was nigh-incomprehensible. And
that did engender quite a bit of negative feedback,
though much of that was also attributable to my
terrible behaviour. During one of these discussions,
our very own Russ Allbery said something very kind:
"I think what Tom's writing is great. Maybe not in
terms of really wanting to read it, but it's great
that *Tom is writing it*. Furthermore, like anything
else someone writes, it's part of the author's
development as a writer. Everything you write is.
Nothing written is wasted. You always learn
*something* from it. And it's a simple fact of life
that as one changes as a writer one goes through
phases where one is writing things that are popular
and one goes through phases where one's writing is not
generally popular. It happens. And I'd like to see
it all posted here, since even if something isn't to
the taste of most people, there *are* people out there
who enjoy it. Guaranteed."
I printed that out, way back in 1997. We had a dot
matrix printer, and by now the text is very gray and
hard to read. It doesn't matter, because those words
have stuck with me anyway: "I think what Tom's writing
is great. Maybe not in terms of really wanting to read
it, but it's great that *Tom is writing it*."
So, I want to say this: while I might not have
enjoyed THE ENFORCERS so far, I can say that I'm
enjoying the fact that Frumpy is writing it and that
he's part of this group. I don't want him to take
this review negatively. He has a lot of potential,
and I think that in time he's going to knock our socks
I do think he needs to spend some more time on his
characterization in THE ENFORCERS. There's no real
shortcut I've found to creating real, living,
breathing, believable human beings. You can't just
reach into a hat filled with different character
traits and pull some out. Neither can you force any
old characters into any old plot, unless that contrast
is the intended effect-- for example, the character
Hamlet hardly belongs in a creaky old revenge story
like "Hamlet", and the play Hamlet gets much of its
mileage from contrasting the more fanciful and
melancholy prince with the blood-and-thunder role
destiny has laid out for him.
But, generally speaking, the old Henry James
chiastic axiom rings true:
"What is character but the determination of
incident? What is incident but the illustration of
Plot is a function of character. In fact, you can
get away with a certain amount of loopy plotting if it
seems to arise naturally from the characterization.
Consider the crowded holding cell scene in Richard
Wright's NATIVE SON, which is unbelievable in
realistic terms-- there's no way all those people
would be crammed in that cell-- but is so
psychological potent and so reflective of Bigger
Thomas's state of mind that it works.
In serial fiction, it's much harder to come up with
plots that illustrate characterization freshly, which
is why having an ensemble book actually works to one's
advantage; you're able to switch between characters.
An ensemble book also allows you to compare and
contrast the characters, letting the personalities
bounce off of each other. (A team book where everyone
has the same opinions and gets along with everyone
else gets stale quick, but those opinions and
conflicts should also make sense and arise from the
characters rather than being imposed upon them for the
sake of token conflict.)
There is a quote from Gene Hackman about acting
that I think applies to writing as well. He once said
that whenever he was preparing for a part, he asked
himself two questions: "How is this person similar to
me? How is he different?"
And, really, those two questions can help a writer
latch on one or two things that might bring a
character to life, even if only in broad strokes.
There's nothing wrong with "flat" characterization,
just with flat personalities. The work of Dickens and
other Victorian novelists is full of one-note
characters who are intensely memorable and much-loved
the world around. There's absolutely nothing wrong
with working with character types, provided you have
different types of characters that create an
interesting contrast. If you get the broad strokes
right, the subtleties will evolve with time.
One question I often ask myself when I have trouble
with a story is, "Why am I writing this story?"
Notice that I'm not asking "Why am I writing?", for
I'm writing because I enjoy doing it. The question
is, why am I writing this particular story and not
that one? What makes this story compelling for me?
Does this story "count"?
Or, to put it more elegantly, let us recall the
meeting of Sam Phillips and Johnny Cash dramatized in
the excellent biopic WALK THE LINE. Phillips
challenges Cash when he and his band plod out an old
tired gospel tune for their Sun Records audition:
"If you was hit by a truck and you was lying out there
in that gutter dying, and you had one time to sing one
song. One song that people would remember before
you're dirt. One song that would let God know how you
felt about your time here on Earth. One song that
would sum you up. You telling me that's the song you'd
sing? That same Jimmy Davis tune we hear on the radio
all day, about your peace within, and how it's real,
and how you're gonna shout it? Or... would you sing
somethin' different. Somethin' real. Somethin' _you_
felt. Cause I'm telling you right now, that's the kind
of song that truly saves people."
Now, I'm certainly not saying that every story has
to sum you up. But I am saying that every story
should count for something. And that something can be
as simple as "I had a great idea for a villain" or
"what if I set a fight scene in a pet store"-- that
something can be anything that makes your story
When I was first writing for RACC-- I'm talking
about the Teencraptor years here-- I wrote a lot of
stories that didn't really matter. That didn't matter
to me, that I wrote just to write. I didn't care
about those stories the way I care about my stories
now. They were throwaway, and disposable.
And while it's true that by the very act of
writing, one can get a lot better, and that feedback
helps to point out weak points that need work, I think
a bigger part of why I got better is that I started
caring about it more. I stopped writing things just
to write it, and started writing things that I had a
burning need to write. Themes and characters I wanted
to explore, stories that I not only wanted to tell but
had to tell. Stories that lit a fire under my ass and
wouldn't let go of me.
And Frumpy, I'm not saying that THE ENFORCERS
doesn't matter to you. It could be that it matters to
you very deeply. All I'm saying is that, from this
reader's standpoint, it doesn't feel personal. It
needs more of you-- your personality, your style, your
thoughts-- those things that you and you alone, those
things that no one else in the world can bring to the
table. It's those things that take the bare-bones
structure and genre trappings and make them
incredible, no matter what genre you're working in.
It's those things that both make a story worth reading
and worth telling.
I'm looking forward to your next one.
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