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Why Superheroes? (Part 1)

I once watched a Q&A session with Jim Butcher on YouTube. He spoke about how he got angry with a teacher of his and thought, “I’ll show her!” He went out and wrote a novel that followed all the rules. He hit all the “beats” for his genre. He developed characters to a template before writing the story. He did all the things she told him to do, just to spite her and show that this doesn’t work.

That novel turned out to be Storm Front.

One of the things you learn if you want to make a living as an author, is you have to write for an audience, not yourself. You have to study the market, learn what sells and what doesn’t. Then you learn how the successful authors in that genre tell their stories, and tell yours in the same way.

When i started out two years ago, I didn’t know the above rules, and I think I’ve broken them all. It has definitely cost me. I’d have made a lot more money writing about sparkly vampires who fall in love with teenaged girls.

The idea for the Conway Report series came at a weird time in my life. I was out of work, just diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis and couldn’t work in my field anymore. I was at loose ends. So, one day, I was watching an episode of Justice League with my son. Superman was brawling in the sky with some superpowered goon, I don’t even remember who, and the bad guy knocked him through several skyscrapers. Watching that, I started to wonder, “How the hell do insurance companies stay in business in Metropolis?”

That got me to thinking about what it must be like to be a normal guy in a world where gods battled in the streets. How do you live your life when, at any moment, these living weapons could start tearing up your local supermarket. How do you get home after a long day of work when some cackling madman has stolen the bridge?

This is all terrain that’s been covered before. Take a look at the excellent MarvelsPowers, or even the somewhat less critically acclaimed Powerless. But, I couldn’t find anything in novel form that dealt with these issues.

So, I set out to write the book I wanted but couldn’t find.

Originally, it was going to be a detective story. Reuben Conway was a normal guy, eking out a living as a gumshoe in a version of Los Angeles that had superheroes. I like mysteries, especially ones where the hero is a PI. Think Spillane, Marlowe, Hammet. But that’s a saturated market. I wanted to do something different.

So, I thought about the bit players in the comic book world. The folks who don’t have powers but deal with the supers on a regular basis. Police commissioners, street cops, first responders. None of those really clicked with me. They all have authority or power that most of us don’t have. They don’t run screaming away from a brawl between the Hulk and the Abomination. They have a duty to stick it out. Naw, I wanted someone who was really at the mercy of this strange world.

That’s when I hit on making Reuben a journalist. They don’t have any authority. They best they can achieve is credibility. They don’t carry guns or have anything spectacular about them. If they stick around when the big guys start throwing cars at each other, it’s because they’re being brave. Hanging tough to get the story so the people fleeing in terror can read about it tomorrow.

So, that’s where I ended up. Reuben was a reporter. He works the Hero Desk for a newspaper. He knows a lot of the supers, and gets the inside stories.

But that wasn’t enough. I knew I wanted to make Reuben’s world just like ours. That’s one of the reasons I was a Marvel kid growing up. Stan Lee set all his stories in Manhattan, the “real” world. That made the stories hit with me much more than those set in Metropolis, Gotham or Central City ever did. That’s what I wanted for my story.

But, in a world that freaks out everytime an unpopular president sends out a tweet, what would make Reuben special? Wouldn’t every paper have a bunch of reporters covering supers? If so, I’d almost have to give Reuben some unique ability to make him stand out, and then I’d be back at square one.

To solve that problem, I decided to start the “age of heroes” in the twenties. The pulp era. Think of guys like The Shadow, Doc Savage and the like. Move forward to the present and now the world is jaded. We’ve had these people flying around for almost a century. It’s not new anymore. In fact, we’re getting kind of fed-up with the whole thing. Instead of “Oh my God! Spiderman’s fighting the Rhino in Times Square!” we’re more likely to say, “Seriously? I’m stuck in traffic because of this crap! Can’t these guys just give it a rest?”

That’s what makes Reuben different. He still thinks this stuff is cool in a world that just finds it inconvenient.

Ok, that’s enough for now. I still have some stuff to say on the subject, but I’ll save that for another post. See ya tomorrow!

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