Fwap! Superhero-ing with Geoff Hart

Super­heroes! Who doesn’t like them? Who amongst you dares not like them? Who? Give me their names! I shall paint the streets with their blood!

Boy, that went south in a hur­ry.

In coop­er­a­tion with EDGE Pub­lish­ing, I here­by present for your enjoy­ment The Super­hero Uni­verse Inter­views, a series of ter­ri­bly super­fi­cial inter­views with many of the super­pow­ered con­trib­u­tors to Super­hero Uni­verse, the nine­teenth (Almost twen­ty-one! Soon it’ll be able to drink in the States!) iter­a­tion of EDGE’s vast­ly acclaimed, fan­tas­tic Cana­di­an fic­tion anthol­o­gy series Tesser­acts.

Today’s sound effect. Click to embiggen.

Please note that I am hard­ly a dis­in­ter­est­ed third par­ty here. “What’s that?” I hear you gasp. “Biased jour­nal­ism on a per­son­al blog? The world is indeed a hor­ri­ble place.” Well, who asked you?

Any­hoo­tles, my super­pow­ered dit­ty to med­ical mishaps, “SÜPER,” some­how slipped past the edi­to­r­i­al com­mit­tee. HA! Anoth­er nefar­i­ous deed, per­fect­ly exe­cut­ed by Yor Strulie, Inter­na­tion­al Supervil­lain and Snap­py Dress­er!

Click here for copi­ous amounts of vital infor­ma­tion on how to pur­chase your very own copy of Super­hero Uni­verse.

And click here for an exceed­ing­ly brief and intel­lec­tu­al­ly stim­u­lat­ing pdf sam­ple of all the sto­ries.

Today’s author: Geoff Hart

Geoff Hart

Geoff Hart, a Fel­low of the Soci­ety for Tech­ni­cal Com­mu­ni­ca­tion (STC), has near­ly 30 years of expe­ri­ence as a writer, edi­tor, infor­ma­tion design­er, and French trans­la­tor. He’s pub­lished more than 400 arti­cles (avail­able via his web­site), as well as the books Effec­tive Onscreen Edit­ing and Writ­ing for Sci­ence Jour­nals. As a fic­tion­eer, he’s pub­lished three nov­els and a col­lec­tion of short sto­ries. He cur­rent­ly works as a free­lance trans­la­tor and sci­en­tif­ic edi­tor, spe­cial­iz­ing in authors for whom Eng­lish is a sec­ond lan­guage.

Tell us about your sto­ry, “Blunt Instru­ments.”

Blunt Instru­ments” undoubt­ed­ly emerged from my sub­con­scious in response to Marvel’s Civ­il War series of sto­ries, which focused on reg­is­tra­tion of super­heroes so the gov­ern­ment could keep an eye on them. To me, the obvi­ous ques­tion was what would hap­pen if the gov­ern­ment took the obvi­ous next step and weaponized them. The orig­i­nal goal may have been good, but know­ing how gov­ern­ments work and how they tend to abuse pow­er …

How did the idea come about?

Sch­enec­tady. (Read­er, if you don’t get the ref­er­ence, Google the name but add “Elli­son.” It’s a whole thing, but it was a long time ago.) More seri­ous­ly, it was prob­a­bly moti­vat­ed by a near­ly for­got­ten quote by a long-ago Cana­di­an politi­cian (a for­mer prime min­is­ter, as it hap­pens): “Pol­i­tics is the skilled use of blunt objects.”—Lester B. Pear­son. Cross that with “civ­il war” and the results seem inevitable.

Were there any super­hero-relat­ed pitfalls/clichés that you strug­gled with?

This kind of ques­tion always comes down to a sub­jec­tive response: one person’s arche­type is anoth­er person’s cliché. The answer always depends on whether you like the sto­ry, not whether what you’ve done is objec­tive­ly cliché or arche­type. There’s not much objec­tive about how you respond to fic­tion, if you’re being hon­est with your­self. But in my sto­ry, I took a few clichés and tried to own them by cre­at­ing a sym­pa­thet­ic nar­ra­tor who had no choice oth­er than to deal with them while keep­ing his san­i­ty.

This will be the only image of Don­ald Drumpf I will ever pub­lish.

What do you think of the resur­gence in super­hero movies and tele­vi­sion shows?

Soci­ety tends to val­orize the sto­ry­tellers who evoke and then soothe their fears; wit­ness the cur­rent Trumpzil­la craze. (Seri­ous­ly! You’d nev­er get away with telling that kind of sto­ry in fic­tion. Any­thing that stu­pid and illog­i­cal has to be truth, not fic­tion.) I don’t think it’s much of a stretch to say that the same under­ly­ing forces (fear of the way our world is head­ing and the heart­felt desire for a sav­iour who won’t require us to think or make any sac­ri­fices) are at work behind the pop­u­lar­i­ty of both super­heroes and Trump.

But just to be clear: though I’m sure some super­hero fans are also Trump sup­port­ers, in no way am I tar­ring the whole group of fans with that same odi­ous brush. After all, I’m one of that group. My point is that the same exis­ten­tial fear express­es itself in dif­fer­ent ways.

Which super­hero could you see your­self being best pals with?

I could see myself befriend­ing any of the good guys. I’ve always had a Gala­had (or some­times Gawain) com­plex, you see. Which one would I most like to befriend? Prob­a­bly Hank McCoy (The Beast). He’s got seri­ous geek cred, yet also one of the sweet­est per­son­al­i­ties imag­in­able when he’s allowed to be him­self.

As a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter, [Super­man is] just too pow­er­ful. You have to twist your­self into con­vo­lu­tions to come up with some­thing that will chal­lenge him. Then it becomes a game of con­tin­u­ous­ly try­ing to out-super him.
What makes a good hero/villain?

Heroes have to evoke some­thing in us that hungers to be bet­ter than we are, to rise above our lim­i­ta­tions and be loved despite them. To accom­plish some­thing. To make a dif­fer­ence.

Vil­lains have to cre­ate fear that goes beyond cheap visu­al effects (splat­ter­punk). They have to real­ly reach into us and under­mine some­thing fun­da­men­tal about what we believe to be nor­mal, such as the sta­bil­i­ty of our world. (That’s what makes Love­craft—and Charles Stross’ take on Love­craft—work.) One of the best and creepi­est exam­ples was Neil Gaiman’s Sand­man sto­ry about a ser­i­al killer’s con­ven­tion, where one of the killers com­ments about how he can’t under­stand why peo­ple rhap­sodize about their lover’s eyes. After all, if you put them all in a big bowl, I defy you to rec­og­nize which ones belong to your lover. <shud­der>

Guy Gavriel Kaye, in The Fion­avar Tapes­try, also did a great job of cre­at­ing a Big Bad who was real­ly, real­ly scary. There, it was the com­plete lack of empa­thy for any­thing human that got me.

Best/worst super­hero?

I’ve got a weak­ness for Spi­der­man; Peter Park­er does the “smart out­sider who’s real­ly a men­sch when it comes right down to it” bet­ter than any­one.

On the oth­er hand, I’m not fond of Super­man. I’m sure he’d be a great neigh­bour, but as a lit­er­ary char­ac­ter, he’s just too pow­er­ful. His lim­i­ta­tions are so lim­it­ed that you have to twist your­self into con­vo­lu­tions to come up with some­thing that will chal­lenge him. And then it becomes a game of con­tin­u­ous­ly try­ing to out-super him with new vil­lains that up the ante to unbe­liev­able lev­els. (This is the pre-reboot Super­man; I lost inter­est before John Byrne and oth­ers began try­ing to make the char­ac­ter less super, more man. I’ve heard good things, but haven’t fol­lowed up.)

Best/worst supervil­lain? 

The best supervil­lains are com­pre­hen­si­ble: any­one who makes you go “actu­al­ly, that makes a lot of sense … no, wait!” Any of the ulti­mate­ly pow­er­ful ones are pret­ty lame and fall on the “worst” side—take your pick. If they’re that pow­er­ful, why are they wast­ing their time with us?

Gui­do Carosella/ Strong Guy

Most under­rat­ed super­hero?

I have a fond­ness for the “big dumb lug” char­ac­ters, who are usu­al­ly under­es­ti­mat­ed because nobody sees that there are depths. Hence my choice of a char­ac­ter in “Blunt Instru­ments.” He’s my hom­mage to Ben Grimm/The Thing, with a lit­tle of Gui­do Carosella/Strong Guy thrown in for good mea­sure.

Most/least valu­able super­pow­er? 

Squir­rel Girl

I’d like to say the most valu­able pow­er is empa­thy, since the abil­i­ty to real­ly “get” some­one else gives you enor­mous pow­er to bridge the dis­tance. But turn­ing every com­ic book into a rap ses­sion about “feel­ings” would get bor­ing awful­ly fast. So in terms of bang for the buck, brain­pow­er is what gets you through each new cri­sis. You could turn me into Super­man, and I’d still get my ass kicked—I just don’t think fast enough on my feet.

Least valu­able? No pow­er is inher­ent­ly use­less (e.g., Squir­rel Girl). It’s all in how you use it.

What super­hero cliché do you hate above all oth­ers?

Can’t think of one, off­hand. They’re all clichés because they speak to some­thing we all want to hear more about—repeatedly. That tells me there’s some­thing pow­er­ful under­ly­ing them that bears clos­er exam­i­na­tion, and when you real­ly get what’s at the root of the cliché, you can turn it into some­thing pow­er­ful. On the oth­er hand, I dear­ly love the whole cliché about the vil­lain telling the hero about the mas­ter plan while there’s still time to stop it. Alan Moore’s bit with Ozy­man­dias sub­vert­ing this cliché in Watch­men is one of the finest moments in com­ic fic­tion, bar none. (Speak­ing of which, I have to give a shout-out to the Evil Over­lord site in case read­ers haven’t seen it before: http://eviloverlord.com)

Reed Richards, braini­ac extra­or­di­naire. Also quite stretchy.

If you could have the pow­ers of one par­tic­u­lar super­hero for a week, whose pow­ers would you choose and what would you do?

I’ve always fan­ta­sized about being a healer—the kind of char­ac­ter who lays on hands, takes on the wounds of anoth­er, and heals them. But after a week, your life would be over: nobody in the world would believe your pow­ers were gone, and you’d be end­less­ly harassed by peo­ple you could nev­er help, and say­ing no would be excru­ci­at­ing. More prac­ti­cal­ly, I’d want a week of super-brains: enough mind­pow­er to be able to think through the real­ly dif­fi­cult prob­lems and solve them. To be some­one like Reed Richards or Tony Stark who could solve glob­al warm­ing, the ener­gy cri­sis, clean water, virus­es, psy­chopa­thy … and on and on. Ide­al­ly, earn enough mon­ey from doing so to found some­thing par­al­lel to the Gates Foun­da­tion that would enable those good works to con­tin­ue in the long-term by bring­ing togeth­er the finest minds to work on these prob­lems.

Favourite/least favourite par­tic­u­lar super­hero media? 

No opin­ion: If it’s done well, the medi­um is irrel­e­vant to me (except inso­much as the medi­um shapes the mes­sage, so some mes­sages may be impos­si­ble with­out appro­pri­ate sup­port from a spe­cif­ic medi­um). I haven’t seen any live-action the­atri­cal super­hero fic­tion, but there’s some­thing about in-per­son per­for­mances that can be mag­i­cal in a way that TV and movies can’t be. I’d love to see some­one do that well. The Spi­der­man musi­cal, only done on a much small­er and more human scale with more hero­ism and less spe­cial effects and stunts.

Which do you pre­fer, “realistic/gritty” sto­ries, or those of a fan­tas­ti­cal bent?

Dif­fer­ent sto­ries at dif­fer­ent times, but def­i­nite­ly more on the real­is­tic and grit­ty end of the spec­trum. The prob­lem I have with the fan­tas­tic end of the spec­trum is that it’s too open-end­ed, and tends to make things too easy for the hero. I pre­fer heroes who have to work hard, using only what they’ve got, to win. If they can mag­i­cal­ly come up with any solu­tion nec­es­sary to solve a prob­lem, that’s much less inter­est­ing to me than some­one who has to stretch lim­it­ed resources (men­tal or oth­er­wise) to solve their prob­lem.

Where do you hope future super­hero sto­ries will take us?

There’s still so much to explore: issues of race, pover­ty, all the -isms that are destroy­ing the world or mak­ing us fight over prob­lems we should be coop­er­at­ing to solve. Heroes, super or oth­er­wise, inspire us to grap­ple with the prob­lems and find solu­tions.

Quis cus­todi­et ipsos cus­todes? (Loose­ly trans­lat­ed: Who watch­es the Watch­men?)

Alan Moore, who is bril­liant, points out that this is per­haps the cen­tral ques­tion about any great pow­er. In the end, we have to self-police, and when we can’t, things can get ugly fast.

Super­hero Uni­verse: Tesser­acts Nine­teen

Pur­chase your own copy of Super­hero Uni­verse (you know you want one) at: