The Scorpion in the Sky

This is an old story. A brash hunter. An infuriated deity. And a monster.
What the crime was and which deity was infuriated, depends on who’s telling the story.

The hunter, Orion, stays the same, though. As does the monster–Scorpius.

Supposedly, their final battle was so destructive that the gods feared putting them both in the Underworld, where they might keep fighting. Instead, they were placed in the sky, as constellations, on opposite sides of the heavenly sphere. You will never see Orion and Scorpio in the sky at the same time. That was deliberate, so they cannot fight anymore.
Watching Scorpius’s heart flicker as he rises in the evenings, I wonder about him. Was he created just to kill Orion? Did he start out as one of the many monsters wandering about Greek myths? How did Artemis (or Apollo, or Gaea) get him to cooperate? Did he have some specific grudge against Orion to begin with?

This is an old story. It’s been told and retold thousands of times, the details altered or faded or lost to living memory. If Scorpius was ever anything other than the weapon that killed Orion, we have no way of knowing. He got the short end of the narrative–no characterization, no motivations, just a capacity for violence and a target. Like the Winter Soldier, sans tragic backstory.

Writing protip: figure out what drives your villains. You don’t have to reference it specifically, you don’t have to make it a sympathetic drive, but figuring out why a bad guy acts as they do is the first step towards believable characterization.

Scorpius doesn’t have that, right now. But, myths don’t have a copyright. We can fill in the details ourselves, if we think to.

Say the deity was Artemis, and that Orion’s crime was more than boasting. Say she turned to an old friend for aid-perhaps she had slain a greater monster than Scorpius, saving his life. He would have gladly hunted Orion, to right a wrong and repay a debt.

Or say it was Apollo, envious of Orion’s rising star (pun completely intended) and his friendship with Artemis, who turned up in his lair and took Scorpius’s mate or hatchlings hostage. He would have fought fiercely then, if it was in hopes of saving a loved one.

Or Gaea, Earth Mother, seeking to protect her creatures from the mighty hunter, went to Scorpius for help. As one of her creatures, he gave it.

Or say Scorpius was a monster, and did what monsters do, and it was only because someone whispered a suggestion to him, or claimed Orion had insulted him, that he became so focused on the hunter.

All or none of these backgrounds may be applied to the myths, with varying degrees of effectiveness.

This is an old story. We can’t know what its original tellers intended for it, or for Scorpius, to mean. We can only know what it means for us, now.

Strength and weakness

During Stan Lee’s time writing the Avengers comics, Thor shared a body with a Doctor Donald Blake. Nothing out of the ordinary, in a universe that featured super soldiers, radioactive superpowers, a creepy-eyed guy who showed up to watch big events, and of course magical space Vikings, but looking back over those comics that detail catches my eye. See, without Mjolnir, Thor would revert back to Donald Blake, and so whenever something separated him from his hammer during a fight he panicked. He didn’t want his teammates to find out that, when he wasn’t being Thor, he was a small man who used a cane and looked utterly un-godlike.

Angst like that was common in the Avengers at the time–Iron Man didn’t want the team to find out about his heart condition, for instance. But the characters evolved, and Thor and Donald Blake parted ways, so it wouldn’t be relevant if the hammer and title of Thor were not currently being carried by Jane Foster–as of the last time I caught up with the series, anyway. It’s been a few months.

When Jane holds Mjolnir, as far as anyone cares, she’s Thor. Maybe not the same Thor as the other superheroes have worked with in years past, and definitely not the Thor that Odin wants, but she has the same powers and does the same work to protect people, so there isn’t much to be concerned with. The biggest difference seems to be that Iron Man tried to flirt with her. She’s physically imposing, wears almost practical armor, and looks really really cool, like every good superhero-deity should.

Separate her from the hammer, though, and not only is dear Jane a small, frail, human, she is also dying of cancer. And the transformation between Thor and her own body is just making her more sick.

I have mixed feelings about the incorporation of cancer into Jane’s story. On the one hand, cancer is real and it’s not going away soon, and reflecting that in the stories we tell is only reasonable. Stories may contain fantastic, unbelievable elements, especially superhero stories, but they also have aspects of the things their storytellers see in real life.

On the other hand, cancer is real and it keeps interfering in far too many of the lives of people I care about, and I’d like it to stay out of my fiction if possible. Along with tarantula hawks, most forms of paperwork, and broken guitar strings. But if this were a dissertation on the representation of cancer in fiction, I wouldn’t be starting with the Thor comics.

Despite my misgivings, showing the dual nature of Jane’s strengths and weaknesses in such an overt way in these comics is effective in raising the questions it’s meant to, I think. What are your strengths? It asks readers. How do your strengths make the impact of your weaknesses more dangerous, in a twist of cruel irony? In the case of Jane Foster, the questions refer to literal strength, but it can also be applied to other types of strength–strength of courage or or endurance or integrity or character as a whole, and weakness of the same.

Tony Stark’s strength and weakness stem from the same place: he is highly intelligent, and unfortunately, he knows it. Percy Jackson’s strength is his loyalty to his loved ones, but it also puts him in danger all the time. Luke Skywalker’s strength is in his love, but his love for and faith in his father nearly gets him killed. Actually, I think he inherited that strength-weakness from Anakin to begin with.

But the weaknesses can come from a place completely different from the strengths. Kaladin Stormblessed’s strength is in his magic and his protective nature, but the betrayals and failures of his past threaten to take away both. Frodo’s strength is his endurance, which is tested and broken by the One Ring.

Of course, most characters and all people have more than one strength or weakness. Reading stories like these Thor comics encourage me to try to identify all, which is looking to be a lifetime’s work. Hopefully, it will be worthwhile.

Icarus

Icarus  flew

too close to the sun, and

fell,

A stream of

melted wax

breaking wings

a father’s love.

Did someone,

one of Poseidon’s people,

anyone,

find him?

Did they wonder

at all the things

around him?

The story doesn’t say.

Icarus

was a boy.

They turned him

to a lesson.

They forget–

Icarus flew.

Icarus flew.

It’s more

than most can claim.

Announcing Dreamwatchers

I’ve mentioned projects I’ve been working on the past few months, and today I’d like to announce  one of them coming soon to an Internet near you: a new webcomic called Dreamwatchers.

It’s taking longer to put together than I’d planned, because life does that, but it’s finally at a place where I feel like I can tell you all about it, though it won’t be ready to hit the web till late October or thereabouts.

In Dreamwatchers, dreams are places that minds build and spirits visit, but they are also places where people live. Using a somewhat loose definition of ‘people’ and ‘live,’ that is. They’re the superheroes and imaginary friends born from childrens’ dreamscapes, monsters from nightmares, and mythical figures who all, for one reason or another, lasted longer than one night’s dreaming before fading away.

The character in the above picture is one of the oldest of those people, head of the Council of Deaths. Currently, she goes by the name Morgue. She used to be the Morrigu. She and her council play an important role in keeping the darker side of the balance of dreams. They butt heads with the Dreamwatchers, who keep the lighter side of the balance, quite frequently.

Morgue is technically an antagonist, but she’s one of my favorite characters anyway, and not just because I want her t-shirt. She knows exactly how scary and unpopular she is, and  doesn’t let it get to her or stop her from doing her job. Someone has to do it, after all. When she’s off the clock, she’s actually pretty nice. Not that she’ll admit it.

Dreamwatchers is something I’ve been thinking about and developing for a long time. I’m excited to share it with you all.

Quit Poppin’ Mah Balloons!

I’ve never understood the need to tell people that a thing which is giving them joy isn’t as awesome as they think it is.  We’ve seen it most recently with Pokemon Go, but it happens all the time, with phone brands, foods, movies, everything.  The only time it doesn’t seem to end in words like “childish” and other argument starters is when it’s a type of food.  It’s a good thing when other people like different candies than you.  Then they won’t try to steal yours.

Now that’s a bit childish.

That behavior of judging people for liking something different actually impeded my relationship to comic books for years.

As a middle schooler, I could read at a college level, so I was always getting encouraged to read more and more advanced things.  I got a lecture from my teacher for rereading the last Harry Potter book one too many times (which confused me.  My mom read it seven times before I was allowed to touch it.).  The teacher ended up chasing me into the library, where I found the Lord of the Rings and all sorts of other wonderful stories, but neither she nor anyone else nudged me towards comics.  At some point I picked up on the stereotype that smart kids didn’t read comics.  Which didn’t match my love of superhero movies at all, but I didn’t notice the dissonance.

The first graphic novel I’d ever read, aged ten, was called Abadazad.  I didn’t even realize it was a comic until I started flipping through it again as an adult.  In my memory, my imagination and the pictures on the page blended together seamlessly.

The first graphic novel I read when I actually knew what it was was the second volume of The Ultimates.  I snuck into the high school library’s graphic novel section and grabbed the first thing with Captain America on the cover before any of my schoolmates could notice.  I half expected the librarian to question my reading choices when I checked it out.  She didn’t.

Now there’s a small but proud pile of comic books on the table in my family’s living room.  I keep meaning to pack them up for going back to uni but I also keep wanting to reread them.  The other day I really confused the other adults at the library when I laughed out loud at a manga I was reading.

And I understand it when people dislike comics even less than I did when I could barely ken what a comic was, because they’ve been good for me.  Given me a common interest with people so I could socialize better.  Helped me smile more when mental illness kept stepping on my tail.

Stories in general are powerful things.  They teach the values of a society.  They help people see life from another’s eyes.  They give hope.  They help outcasts realize they aren’t alone.  But there’s something about stories told through comics that I find extra special.  Part of that is simply because I’m a visual thinker, but not all.

Comics put writing and art together to tell a single story.  You wouldn’t think that would work so well, since the part of your brain that makes you understand what you’re reading and the part of your brain that figures out what pictures are saying don’t always work together very well.  Somehow, though, comics make it work.  Pictures are worth at least a thousand words, after all, and they’re saying things that people want and need to hear.

Take Bucky Barnes of Marvel.  I’ve always empathized with him because of the way circumstances in his life turned him into something he never wanted to be, but he kept going.  I could write entire essays about him–his regrets, the way he doesn’t think of himself as a good man even though he’s always trying to do good, the way he’s made the title of the Winter Soldier his own despite his never choosing it–but it would be simpler for you to read the last page of the recent Thunderbolts, issue 3.  That captures the best things about this character pretty quickly.

Or there’s the comic they finished last year, Loki: Agent of Asgard, which I keep rereading.  Concept:  Most of the universe, including his future self, is shoving Loki into a big black box marked “villain.”  Loki doesn’t want to go into the box.

That’s a story about redemption, and choices, and finding a path other than the one fate writes for you, and it’s incredibly relevant to anyone who is trying to “grow up” without knowing exactly how to do so.  There’s a conversation between Odin and Loki, in the space that is not a space, that gives me chills.

“Did I not say?  I know you.  I know everything you are.  And I love you still.”

It’s things like that that keep sending me back to the comic book store, and keep me working on making comics of my own.  So, please, world, and my subconcious, quit popping my balloons, and let me enjoy my superhero comics in peace.  Better yet, join me in speculating on whether Ms. Marvel and Spider-Gwen will ever get to team up.

Redemptive Traits

I’ve talked before about causing readers to experience hatred for villains, and I probably will again, but today I’ll look at the other side of the coin:  loving villains.

It’s easy enough to hate a bad guy.  There are some outstanding examples where the opposite is the case in recent pop culture, but usually audiences want the bad guys to come to a bad end.

However, villains are people–well, characters–as much as heroes are.  People are complicated, especially the ones who do terrible things.  Reflecting that truth in a villainous character can make them incredibly interesting, and when I want to write such a villain, that starts with the aspects of the character that wouldn’t go on their bad guy resume.

The wholly evil villains aren’t terribly realistic, after all, any more than wholly virtuous heroes are.

Take Star Wars, for instance.  Emperor Palpatine is a backstabbing, scheming tyrant who really likes power and doesn’t much care about who he walks over to get it.  We never see a single redemptive act during Palpatine’s screentime.  Darth Vader, on the other hand, loves his son and misses his wife.  That doesn’t make up for the slaughter of the Jedi younglings or the destruction of Alderaan, but it gives us a look at him as something other than a scary black mask.

Star Wars would not be Star Wars without Emperor Palpatine, but Darth Vader is the face of the dark side.  In some ways, his redemptive qualities make his terrible acts even worse–how can you love that deeply, and kill that easily, at the same time?

It’s similar with the Lord of the Rings.  Sure, Sauron and the Ringwraiths are terrifying, but Gollum is the bad guy we remember, and Boromir the hero whose fall from grace speaks loudest.

It’s easy enough to look at popular villains and say what it is that makes them so interesting.  It’s harder to write similarly interesting baddies without accidentally slapping a new name on an old character.

However, there are some common themes which the most memorable villains tend to share.  Love.  Revenge.  Fear.  Hunger, in some cases.

Loving someone, as Darth Vader does, is the simplest way of giving a villain extra depth.  Real love, valuing someone else at least as much as oneself, is universally considered good.  Or so I assume.  If it isn’t universally good, then there are dark corners of the universe that I do not wish to visit.

Because of that belief in the goodness of love, baddies who love someone are fascinating.  Those who slip to the dark side as a result of their efforts to protect a loved one are doubly interesting.  Artemis Fowl loves his father enough to do practically anything to find him–and Artemis is definitely a villain in the beginning–and so we understand him.

Revenge is another common theme in the genesis of a villain, and it usually begins with love.  (Blank)’s need for vengeance against (blank) because of the death of (blank) in Captain America:  Civil War makes him far more interesting than the run-of-the-mill “I will destroy the Universe!” villain.  His destructive tendencies have a purpose and a motivation, even if they’re misguided.

Yes, the censoring was necessary.

That said, vengeance because of some slight against oneself can be as interesting as vengeance because of love.  It can establish the villain’s selfish nature, as well.  Loki joined the dark side initially because of his father’s rejection and finding out he’d been lied to his whole life.  We’ve all felt rejection, and we’ve all had some aspect of our worldview prove to be false–even if it was just Santa Claus.  The rest of us don’t normally try to destroy planets afterwards.

Well, I thought about it.  Briefly.

Giving our villains those redemptive traits so both we and our audience can better relate to them can be complicated.  Everything worthwhile is.  I keep at it anyways.  The characters that result are often at least as interesting as the flawed heroes.

Scaring Your Audience

Why are some stories more memorably scary than others?

Yeah, I know–that’s probably not what most 20-ish folks wake up thinking about.  I’m not a telepath, so I can’t say so for certain.

Really, though.  Why?

I’ve been looking through some of my favorite (or least favorite) fictitious monsters for answers, and one isn’t more memorable than the other because it promises a more painful death.  Most of the monsters (that scare me, anyway) might not kill you at all, or do so relatively painlessly.

Take the Weeping Angels of Doctor Who.  Those beasties are terrifying, and all they do is send you back in time.  Away from everything you know.  Why do we remember them?

They’re pretty.  They look like something that would belong in a corner of a cathedral or a graveyard–sad, yes, but beautiful.  Until you turn around and they aren’t where you saw them last.  Doctor Who has a strange obsession with things moving that shouldn’t.

We remember the Weeping Angels because they don’t seem to be things worth being afraid of.  They seem like any other statue, and that adds even more uncertainty. How many statues do we need to watch out for anyway?

Terrifying.

Then there are the Dementors of Harry Potter.  Monsters that will literally eat happiness.  They lack the Angels’ subtlety, messing with your mind with their power rather than by being as mysterious as possible, but they are still the scariest things Harry Potter encounters (Except maybe Umbridge.  I think.  The fact that they’re also a metaphor for depression may have me a little biased.).

Who wants their soul eaten?  Anyone?

Another scary thing about the Dementors is the way the wizard government accepts and works with them, even if they don’t like them.  None of us wants to admit that it’s within humanity’s capacity to cooperate with evil like that.

The traditional concept of a werewolf is just as bad.  Anyone can become a werewolf if they get the bite.  Anyone an become the kind of monster that would slaughter its own family–and the fact that it’s only one night a month, and the rest of the time the werewolf has to live with that knowledge, just makes it worse.

That’s part of why I love werewolf stories that explore what that would be like.  Also, Wolves Are Really Cool.

Just from those three monsters (I haven’t even started on Tim Burton or Neil Gaiman creatures), I can get a pretty long list of traits to attempt adding to my own monsters.  The scary, memorable creatures are mysterious.  They’re beautiful.  They hide in plain sight.  They take your best memories away.  They make you question your own capacity for evil.  They twist the natural order of things.  They threaten to turn you into one of them.

Compared to all that, just dying at their hands seems rather tame.

I’ve been developing some monsters for my current project, and while I don’t want to turn it into a horror story I do want the scary bits to actually be scary.  Thinking about what makes my own fears tick has been helping with that.

How do you make your story scary?  Am I a heartless monster for wanting to?  Let me know.