Let’s face it – gas prices are through the roof, the economy’s in recession, and we’re still in the middle of a war. Where’s a new superhero when you need one?
Authors John McNally and Owen King have set out to answer this question with their new Free Press anthology: Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their (Short) Stories. The anthology features 22 new superheroes (and a few villains) from 22 different writers, all illustrated by artist Chris Burnham…and all equipped to take on the challenges of the modern world. King and McNally chatted with us about what readers can expect, their own favorite comics, and how this was all inspired by meerkats.
Newsarama: Guys, what is the premise of the anthology, and what are its rules?
Owen King: We thought it would be fun - and fascinating - to see what a group of literary writers would do with the superhero concept. One of the great things about modern comics is that the meaning of "superhero" has never been less homogenous. It was our hope that the writers we queried would instinctively understand that, and react accordingly, by creating superheroes that were original, complex, and reflective of their personal fictional milieus.
What kind of a superhero would Jennifer Weiner, a comedic Philadelphia writer, come up with? What about Graham Joyce, a writer of dark fantasy? Or how about Scott Snyder, a short story writer with a historical bent?
There were only two ground rules:
1. The superhero had to be completely original. No writing about Dr. Strange, no matter how much you want to.
2. It had to be awesome.
NRAMA: Who are some of the authors and the characters the authors have created?
John McNally: There are so many great superheroes and villains in this book, it’s difficult to pick which ones to tell you about, so here are just a few.
George Singleton, who publishes darkly comic short stories with a Southern bent, created Manna Man, who can manipulate televangelists to say what he wants them to say while standing in front of a bank of TV sets. Will Clarke’s story is about The Redbird, a handsome superhero (a superstud, really) who knocks up a number of women in Shreveport and then takes off, leaving it to the townfolk to deal with his offspring – a flock of flying kids who circle the town like buzzards.
Kelly Braffet brings Bad Karma Girl to life; David Haynes introduces us to Ghetto Man; Sam Weller provides the origin story for the Quick Stop Five ®, a team of superheroes who come to life after a biofuel spill in the mini-mart parking lot. There are 22 stories in all and, in our opinion, a pretty diverse group in terms of tone, approach, and subject matter. Owen and I were thrilled when the stories began coming in.
NRAMA: How did you come up with the idea for this anthology? What, to you, is most interesting about the stories written for it?
OK: The original idea was something I pitched to John in a cafe in Winston-Salem. The genesis of that was fairly straightforward: I wanted to write a superhero story, but I couldn't think of who would publish it.
One day as I was running/shambling on the treadmill at my local NY Sportsclub, I found myself wondering about the sorts of things that one wonders about when trying not to think about the ineffable truth of treadmills (i.e. that you're not actually getting any damn place) - Could lint somehow be recycled into new shirts? In that annoying song, is "London Bridge" a euphemism for the taint, and if it is, does that make it less annoying? What's the most fey superhero I can imagine? Who thought it was a -
Whoa! Wait a minute!
The concept of a supremely fey superhero immediately caught my imagination, and dovetailed with my favorite new television show: Meerkat Manor.
OK: For those of you who are unfamiliar with it, this is the nature program about a family of adorable meerkat and their many travails in the Kalahari Desert. What if there was a superhero who had all the powers of a meerkat? How much shit would that poor guy take? Even though he'd have these amazing abilities - meerkats can dig like crazy, they're fast, they've got vicious little claws - everyone would make this cute and cuddly association, and assume he was basically a push-over.
The self-esteem issues this would create seemed evident, funny, and well worth exploring. Then, to up the ante, I imagined making him the champion of a city with some self-esteem issues of its own - Cleveland, home of the Browns, the Indians, and the flammable Cuyahoga River.
Just thinking about it made me happy and I hadn't even written a word. Which brings me back to the pitch I made to John McNally: Wouldn't it be cool if we got a bunch of writers together and challenged them to come up with brand new superheroes? John liked the idea, we started writing down a list of our favorite writers on a napkin, and that was pretty much that.
(By the way, John's own contribution, "The Remains of the Night," is a brilliant and hilarious piece of work, an overdue expose of the bitter lives of superhero butlers. You're going to love it.)
NRAMA: Something that’s come up more and more in literature is the combination of mythological and sociological context found in superhero comics. For example, you have Superman as a crusader for social justice in the Golden Age, and Marvel’s heroes of the Silver Age as a reflection of atomic paranoia and post-war uncertainty.
With that in mind, did you see any common themes in the heroes created for your anthology, and if so, how do you think they reflect the world we live in?
JMcN: I can’t say that we saw a thread that was consistent enough to say, Ah ha, so that’s where the genre is heading!
But I do think that there are some recurring themes or ideas in these stories that seem contemporary, such as the prominence of the anti-hero as hero, or even, as in Elizabeth Crane’s, David Haynes’s, and Jim Shepard’s stories (to name just a few), the amorphous and shifting nature of what exactly a superhero is.
In other words, there’s probably more ambiguity in these stories, which isn’t surprising given the ambiguous times we’re living in, where “friend” and “enemy” are not as clear as we may have once thought they were.
NRAMA: Do you have plans to do this anthology as a series?
OK: If the public demands a sequel, I don't think we could refuse. I certainly believe that there are many, many more writers who could contribute something special to the genre.
NRAMA: Now, what were some of your favorite comic books, both growing up and as adults? Would you want to write any comics yourself?
JMcN: I grew up watching superheroes on TV in the form of the old campy Batman TV show (in fact, my first word as a baby was “Batman”) and the Spider-Man cartoons, and then, later, the TV shows Shazam! and The Incredible Hulk.
Oh, and reruns of George Reeves’ Adventures of Superman. Loved those! When I did buy comic books, I tended to save up for those oversized Limited Collectors’ Editions of Superman and Captain Marvel that included things like 3-D cut-out dioramas and lessons on “How to Draw the Man of Steel.”
I was also always intrigued by – and slightly grossed out by – The Thing. It wasn’t until I was in college that a buddy of mine turned me on to Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns series, which tapped into my own darker sensibilities.
OK: As a kid I was a regular reader and dedicated collector of several of the standards: X-Men, Daredevil and Spider-Man. Anything written by Peter David was (and remains) a safe bet. As I got older, I gravitated toward Sandman, and the incomparable Alan Moore. I still read them, too, but the big difference is that instead of going every week to get the issues, these days I only read the graphic novels.
And I would love to write one sometime, especially if I could do it with Chris Burnham, the marvelous young artist who illustrated Who Can Save Us Now?, if only to torment him!
"Okay, Chris: Full page spread: The alien legions swell across the mesa. They are of many different races and armed with distinct alien weapons. The sky is clouded with their various vessels - at least a few dozen. Also, please take care with the geological strata of the mesa wall, as well as its pits, crevices, and outcroppings. Thanks, Owen."
NRAMA: Something I've discussed with other authors in the past is that there's a lot of crossover between the comics and literary world – both with novelists doing comics, and prose novels that feature either superheroes or comic-book elements. Why do you feel that comics hold such appeal for prose writers?
JMcN: That’s a great question, and I’m not entirely sure that I know the answer, but I suspect that part of it has to do with the sheer amount that pop culture has played in our lives as kids, much more so than in my father’s life (he’s 75), coupled with the fact that there’s been, especially in the last twenty years (and increasingly so in the last ten years), a breaking down of that wall that used to separate pop culture from Literature (note the capital “L”).
I, for one, am happy to see that snobbery dissolve (hey, I still annually watch a video called Evel Knievel’s Greatest Hits and keep on display in my house my Planet of the Apes Dr. Zaius bank). Comic books, of course, are that bridge between visual narrative and language narrative, and so it’s little surprise that many contemporary novelists spent a lot of time as kids reading them. In fact, Sherman Alexie has an essay about how Superman comic-books taught him to read.
I wouldn’t be at all surprised if we started seeing a lot more cross-pollination between the two genres over the next few years.
NRAMA: Do you remember your first comic book, and why it made an impression on you?
OK: I don't know if I can remember my first comic book, but the first time I recall one making a deep impression on me was during the famous Claremont/Byrne X-Men run. I was particularly struck by the arc where the X-Men do battle with the Hellfire Club, who were these sort of debauched faux-Victorian supervillains.
I think that what amazed me was the way that it threw the whole superhero thing into a little bit of different context - the supervillains were dressed in frock coats and breeches, and one dude had those Rutherford B. Hayes muttonchops. In order to infiltrate their secret society, Wolverine had to get into costume, too. It wasn't the same old spandex stuff. It was more complex, and way more peculiar.
NRAMA: Any final thoughts, or any last things you’d like to say to our readers?
JMcN: It’s clobberin’ time!
OK: Nuff said.
Who Can Save Us Now?: Brand-New Superheroes and Their (Short) Stories hit stores this week.