Video killed the radio star; streaming killed the video store.
So it is with Hastings Entertainment. The company has thrown in the towel and is in the throes of its final liquidation sales. Once upon a time, it was a source for books (at that time printed on paper) and music (at that time recorded in the grooves of vinyl platters). Video (at that time magnetically recorded on half-inch tape) and video games (at that time recorded on various types of electronic media) came later.
I found my first Hastings in the late ’70s, early ’80s in Amarillo, Texas. Rock music blared from speakers, the record section was huge, the book section was enticing, the posters on the wall bright with color. Some of the stores were found in those temples of consumerism, the indoor mall, but others could be found in the old-style strip shopping centers or stand-alone buildings.
When I went back to New Mexico, I found Hastings already had invaded, including a couple of stores in Santa Fe. Once the legality of home viewing of Hollywood movies on rental tapes was confirmed, Friday nights became busy places as individuals, couples and whole families came in looking for a weekend’s entertainment possibilities. Sometimes all copies of the movie they wanted were all gone, setting tempers on edge. A waiting game was sometimes played as employees brought in the returns from the drive-up drop-off bin. That paid off only occasionally, but for some customers, always worth the chance.
I worked one summer at one of the SF Hastings stores. I was assigned the Books section (naturally), and found that the chain practiced what I call the “shallow inventory.” This meant only those books that moved fairly quickly were stocked and if they didn’t, they were out. Even so, the sheer number of books was amazing. Once, the entire staff stayed all night doing a “purge” — the managers called it “inventory” — where we pointed a hand-held electronic device at the UPC code (the store pasted its own code over the publisher’s before the book went on the shelf) and if it beeped, the book was pulled. By daybreak, the aisles were jammed with the new rejects, which soon disappeared from the store, probably as fodder for the pulp mills. Or to return as bargain books to be placed on the special shelves. You could get some pretty good books for little money but of course the authors don’t get a cut of sales. Cheap for you, total loss for them.
Stocking the shelves was the Task That Would Not Die. The guys in receiving would cram wheeled carts with the night’s arrivals and they’d be waiting when I reported for work. Morning, noon or night, those damn carts never seemed to empty. Help a customer find a book, go back to shelving the new ones. Clean up the children’s section — another constant task; kids, you know? — go back to shelving books. Make the four thermoses of coffee in the morning, go back to shelving books. Put away the magazines and books left on the chairs where the customers had been reading and drinking coffee like the place was Starbucks (also just getting going), go back to shelving books. It lasted until it was time to play janitor and vacuum around the Books desk, the last task if you were the closer. During the night, some strange magic would be performed and the stocking carts would appear the next day loaded to the point of collapse again.
The only respite came when I was assigned to a cashier slot. I hated that, I’d rather shelve books than cashier. I’m not a people person, so being pleasant to a long line of customers was a real trial. Most of the customers were video renters, and if late charges showed up their accounts, they could get nasty. Gift certificates — not cards then, paper, another sign of antiquity — took special processing. And the soda companies thought it’d be fun to stick coupons for free drinks on the caps of the plastic bottles, creating another pain for cashiers.
Vinyl records were still the main option for music when I started. There was something zen about standing flipping through the eye-catching art on the sleeves. But, technology changes, as it always does, and new gadgets started rolling in. First it was cassette tapes (eight-track tape cartridges had pretty much withered away), then CDs slowly started to proliferate. (Digital audio tapes, DATs, came and went practically unnoticed.) Vinyl is having its last laugh, though, rising from the dead on wings of audiophile preferences.
On the video side, VHS won the war against Betamax, but soon they were succumbing to DVDs. Tech advances add new capabilities, but the disks seem to be the end of physical media. Streaming is the new paradigm for now, as it is for music and video games. Books still cling to printed life against e-books, but Hastings evidently missed the import of all this streaming and electronic downloading and such. So it has to pay the piper, as it were.
One time my friend and I were waiting our turn to get a Saturday night movie when a woman in the next line freaked because she didn’t want her name entered in the store’s computer. That’s Santa Fe, N.M., folks, and that’s not unusual. She asked if there was a video store that didn’t use computers, and, that again being Santa Fe, of course there was.
(That store was called Video Library, and Hastings reportedly opened a second store in SF with the express purpose of running them out of business. Didn’t work; they’re still renting VHS tapes and DVDs and still keeping track of them on file cards filled out with pencil. The locally owned bookstore, Collected Works, also has out-lasted Hastings. The record store, alas, didn’t.)
When Santa Fe raised the minimum wage, Hastings retaliated by closing one store (the one I had worked at, but I’d long since left). That left the one in the DeVargas Mall Center, which needed a viable store badly at the time as malls themselves were being rattled by changes in shopping habits. It wasn’t the only video store in town, but the Friday and Saturday crowds made it seem so.
In their heyday, the stores became nodes for pop culture. Comic books became a staple, and the stores stocked theme merchandise, everything from bobble-head dolls to clothing to posters to kids toys. Some electronics, too; headphones, portable players, that sort of thing. The last time I saw a Hasting store, the shelves were jammed, the music loud, the lights flashing. What they looked like the day before the bankruptcy was announced I don’t know.
The other cultural phenomenon Hasting rode for a while was the rise of the “speculation genres” — science fiction, fantasy, horror — into the mainstream of popular culture. The revolution in special effects in movies made possible by computers helped spark this boom. It was necessary. Harry Potter had jolted popular culture with a huge blast of storytelling magic. Seeing the movie version with the old special effect methods would have made them laughingstocks. Suddenly stories that had been around for years — Lord of the Rings, Chronicles of Narnia, Beowulf — became fodder for the new tech in the new movies. Along with that was the realization that books for children and young adults held some great source material for Hollywood producers eager to get a share of the disposable income the new generations of entertainment-savvy youngsters had rattling in their pockets.
I asked George R.R. Martin during a signing in the DeVargas store why he, having spent time in Hollywood working on TV shows, thought the old, venerable tales like Lord of the Rings had to be made into movies. He gestured around at the store with its mass of merchandise and said something like “it’s kind of obvious, isn’t it?” Uh, yeah, I said, but beyond money, isn’t just reading books good enough any more? We did agree that visual storytelling pulled in more people to the material than just books could, and perhaps some of them then would turn to the original sources, which was a good thing. Thus was Hasting’s mission defined: To be a conduit for fans to get access to their favorite stories be it videos, CDs, books, video games or music.
(This conversation likely took place around the time of the publication of A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series. Yes, it was possible to have a conversation with George at a signing because not many people showed up that day. Not like now, when such an event would cause eager fans to form a line that would go out the door, up the highway and into the next county. Plus, at that time, he had no desire to make a movie or TV series out of his tale. Ha, ha, ha, how quickly things change, right?.)
I don’t mean to suggest that Hastings was a haven for all that was cool and hip. It was a corporate operation that looked upon all that merchandise with a cold eye for profits, not cultural milestones. The stores looked pretty much the same inside wherever they were. The music playing on the sound system generally was top-forty, with only an occasional foray into something cutting-edge. (And when that happened, it was quite noticeable.) The trailers playing on the monitors above the cashier stations were for that week’s new movies, but if you wanted something more esoteric — small independent, foreign, cult, obscure — your best bet was to hit one of the local video stores. Same with the books. Same with the games. Same with the music.
The shutdown of the chain signifies the end of another American cultural touchstone, like the passing of the malt shops of the ’50s or the malls of the ’70s, and ’80s. And while Gen-Xers and Millennials might look upon this as just another Baby Boomer lamenting the passing of his childhood, it could be worse — this could be about head shops with their psychedelic posters, background sitar music, albums (vinyl, of course) with bands like Jefferson Airplane, Moby Grape, Canned Heat, Jimi Hendrix and such filling the racks, all in a haze of incense (and perhaps something, shall we say, more pungent). So count your lucky stars.
So long, Hastings, you were a bright and noisy source for home entertainment and the occasional community hang-out for a while. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to buy some stuff from Amazon.com.
I spent one day this past weekend at ConQuest 46, the Kansas City science fiction convention.
One. Lousy. Day.
Why only one day is an explanation for some other time (having to do with bad choices, stupid actions and unreal expectations, but let’s not get into that now. Or maybe never. Some things are just too depressing for public discourse).
No, the con was not what was lousy. What was lousy was that I only got to spend one day out of a two-and-a-half-day event. The con itself was a pleasant as a con can be, with fans coming to see writers and partake in discussion panels, check out offerings by fantasy-based artists, see what the merchants were offering — books, T–shirts, medallions, swords, the usual things except for the life-sized R2-D2 units; don’t know if any were for sale, but it was a kick to be sitting in the foyer and seeing an R2 unit diddly-beeping along . You could get your picture taken sitting in the throne of swords from Game of Thrones. You could play games, electronic and board. You could write a story based on what you pulled out of a bag, or you could have had one of your stories critiqued by people willing to give up a holiday weekend (and a couple of weeks before) to do that. And, of course, dress up in costumes (called “masquerades” in the standard SF con vernacular; perhaps the term is now being co-opted by “cosplay”).
And writers, of course. Brandon Sanderson was the writer guest of honor, and if you know him as only the guy who finished the Robert Jordan Wheel of Times series, you are missing a lot. This man is a writing machine. George R.R. Martin was editor guest of honor . Yes, editor. Wild Card series, anyone? Dangerous Women, Rogues, Old Mars, Old Venus — just a few of the many anthologies he’s edited or co-edited. Of course, he can’t get away completely from his writer status. At one point, Sanderson was at a table in the second-floor foyer signing books and Martin was in one of the ballrooms. Sanderson’s line of fans went along one wall and Martin’s down the middle of the foyer, down a hallway and — who knows? — perhaps out the door and down the sidewalk all the way to the Missouri River. Who says people aren’t reading books any more?
(There were other guests of honor, but alas, I didn’t have enough time to see them: artist Nene Thomas, fan Mark Oshiro and toastmaster Selina Rosen. My apologies, folks.)
This all took place in the Downtown Kansas City Marriott Hotel, which will be the main hotel for next year’s worldcon, MidAmeriCon II. It was nice as modern hotels go, but it has its quirks. See, it’s not enough any more just to push a button to summon an elevator. No, now you have to tap a keypad on a screen, then watch a graphic that tells you which elevator to expect. All nice and 21st-century-ish, but while high-tech hits the call button, the elevator itself is still subject to gravity and other forces in moving up and down the shaft. So, if you plan to stay at this hotel for the worldcon, be prepared for the usual pile-ups of people waiting for the elevator. (Experienced con-goers are already pretty familiar with that phenomenon, I’m thinking.)
Comic-book cons perhaps have taken the spotlight from SF cons, but if you like science fiction and fantasy — and horror, or anything in the related genres — you really should consider one. There are regional cons all over the country. The two I know best are this one and Bubonicon, New Mexico’s version held in Albuquerque. It’s a chance to meet other fans, plus you get an idea of that’s going on not only in publishing but on the Internet, blogs, sites and podcasts. And the people who run them are friendly and welcoming. I mean, come on, how many conventions honor the people who come to the conventions? Just ask Mr. Oshiro, cited above.
For me, it was a chance to shove aside current frustrations and relax among people with similar interests (and senses of humor, which helps.) I got to see a New Mexico friend, John Jos. Miller, a Wild Cards writer from the beginning and 1950s SF movie freak. (Check out his Cheese Magnet site for deep, academic [heh-heh] discussions of the classic and less-classic films.)
ConQuest is sponsored by the KC Science Fiction and Fantasy Society, Inc., or KaCSFFS (they say it’s pronounced “kax-fuss.”) . The next ConQuest will still take place next May. (The worldcon doesn’t happen until August. While KaCSFFS is involved with MidAmeriCon II planning, the group isn’t the only one. Worldcon is just too damn big for that.)
I plan to attend both. This is a goal. Whether either or both happens, we’ll see.
Once again, the
silly superhero season is upon us.
As the Avengers prepare to battle that Ultron thing (at least in the U.S.; in some markets overseas the battle has already been joined), more superheroes will be coming out of the screens in the movie complexes and the toy stores and the fast-food joints and whatever other merchandising the companies have in store. There will be more this summer, this fall, this winter, next spring and on and on and on until the third for fourth decade of the 21st century probably. Back in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s of the last millennium, we had been waiting for flying cars; instead we got flying Spandex-clad superheroes.
Superheroes or superhero-related shows haven’t all been relegated to the summer, television has had a bunch of such shows going on for a while to mixed success. But it’s summer, and that mean big, bombastic movies, and so we’re getting ’em, like ’em or not.
I suppose the big one is Avengers, Age of Ultron. I gather the plot is about Tony Stark screwing up and instead of making a robot mind to aid people instead makes one that decides to just replace them all. Leave it to the movies to tap into our collective angst: Big Important Thinkers such as Stephen Hawking and Elon Musk have been warning us that Artificial Intelligence might be a dangerous thing to be messing with. Yeah, when’s that ever stopped us?
As I’ve said before, I’m not all that charged up by superheroes. The stories just repeat themselves ’cause it’s easier to recycle an old villain that come up with a new one. I will to admit enjoying — and also being a bit surprised — by one or two or three. Captain America: The Winter Soldier mostly; to a lesser extent the first Avengers movie and The Guardians of the Galaxy. The latter two, though, were less interesting because they dealt with some amorphous threat from outer space while Winter Soldier stayed on Earth and dealt with real, imminent threats to privacy and government overreach. That made it more immediate and more topical, a rare thing in superhero movies.
As a tiny counterpoint to the big Marvel release this week, DC has been dropping trailers for its next big film, Batman v. Superman, which has nearly a year to go before we see the whole thing. No, it doesn’t look promising, but at least it does seem to be addressing a big issue from the end of Man of Steel, the wanton destruction of the city and the deaths of thousands. We’ll have to wait to see if it’s just a trailer-tease or if the issue is really addressed, but I like to think that the makers have been pressured to respond by the criticism about that ending. (Evidently the Avengers do sort of mention the destruction that occurred at the end of their first movie, but they’ve also evidently moved their battles overseas. Less of a problem if it’s some foreigner’s city that gets flattened.)
The Batman trailer also illustrates a pet peeve of mine (outside of being, dark, colorless, hopeless and dreary), and that’s how superheroes get a pass on the laws of physics. When Superman started in the comics, he was just a powerful man. He didn’t fly, he just leaped pretty far. Gradually, he gained the ability to fly (along with X-ray vision, super breath, super hearing, etc., etc., etc.) Now he not only flies, he hovers. How the hell does he do that? If science fiction writers tried to do that with their protagonist, they’d be laughed out of the convention unless they had a sound, plausibly scientific explanation. Even fantasy writers have to keep their magic consistent, so if they give the hero hovering ability, it better have a solid root in the general magic realm. So superheroes are neither SF nor fantasy, but a class of genre fiction all their own. Akin to myths, legends and gods — yea, verily I say unto you, superheroes are the new gods for the allegedly rational 21st century.
Despite what Warner Brothers, DC, Marvel and Disney would have you believe, those superheroes aren’t the only ones around. Other comics, other novels, even a couple of movies have explored more rational attempts at explaining superheroes and how they work. However, I’m going to focus on one, a series worth reading because it explores how having super powers can be a curse and how so-called heroes can have feet of clay. That’s the Wild Card series edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. There are several books out and the latest, Lowball, has just been published.
I also lied because I’m going to plug another different take on superheroes, and, yes, it’s my own book, Tyranny of Heroes. (This is my blog and I’ll shill my books if I want to.) My superheroes don’t mess around, they take over the word, they kill their enemies and they make sure everyone on the planet behaves themselves. And, of course, they change history, which is explored by an underground what we would call blogger, except the Internet is closely controlled by the Supers, so our underground writer has to resort to more prosaic methods. (Remember mimeograph machines?)
Information on getting the e-book is available at the right where you see the cover. (And, OK, I’ll admit it, I’m looking for some sales here. I think it’s a good book, and if you agree, please tell your friends. But please give it a try.)
George R.R. Martin, author of — in case you live under a rock or something — The Song of Ice and Fire series, a.k.a. Game of Thrones, is raising money for the Wild Spirit Wolf Sanctuary in northern New Mexico ( the wolf part) and The Food Depot of Santa Fe (the hungry people part).
A $25 donation will get you into the drawing for the grand prize, where the winner will be flown to New Mexico, meet with George, then fly to the sanctuary together (in a chopper most likely, not on the back of a dragon, more’s the pity). There are pretty cool goodies available for other donation levels, but some have already been snapped up. There are 59 days left (as of 6 June) in the campaign, and they’re a tad over half-way there. I don’t think there’s any doubt they’re going to reach their goal (George R.R. Martin! Wolves! Helping hungry people! What’s not to like?). And, mayhap, you’ll even get to see a movie at George’s theater in Santa Fe.
All the information is available at the Prizeo.com site, including how to donate.
Congratulations to George R.R. Martin and Jon R. Bowman on the reopening of the Jean Cocteau Cinema in Santa Fe, NM, this weekend (Aug. 9).
A labor of love, as the saying goes, an effort by Mr. Martin to bring back the one-screen, intimate theater showing interesting movies without too much worry about whether said film will top the weekend box-office charts, along with a recognition older movies still have something to say to us. Such theaters are an endangered species as the multi-theater multiplex continues to squeeze them out.
Usually, you find such efforts in larger cities because there’s a better chance pf success. Santa Fe is not a big city, but it has an eclectic population that does like alternatives in books, movies, restaurants and lifestyle. So, while its a risk, it’s not a pie-in-the-sky dream.
It takes more than just a love of film to open such a theater. It takes budgetary planning, a knowledge of finances, a knowledge of how film distribution works along with a knowledge about the films themselves, which ones are likely to draw an audience, what kind of an audience that will be and how many days they might be willing to come for a particular movie. That usually falls to a manager the owner — who might be a film lover but a bit weak on the mechanics of showing them — chooses to run his heater.
And Mr. Martin couldn’t have picked a better managerthan Mr. Bowman. He knows film, he’s studied them formally since college (and probably informally since he was a kid) and he reviewed them for many years for the local newspaper. As director of the Santa Fe Film Festival, he learned about the distribution of new movies and movies making the film-festival circuit. which film creators might be available to attend and making sure they’re treated right, and how to entice an audience to come and take a chance on these movies. All while trying to keep things on budget. While Mr. Bowman’s personal tastes in films are sometimes, shall we say, a bit skewed, he does know the value of bringing films with wider interest, especially when trying to make a go of a small theater.
And it won’t be easy. The bigger chain theaters will have first crack at the big movies (something the Bowman-Martin team likely wouldn’t be interested in anyway), but they’ll also be in the position to get the smaller ones, too. And in a few months, a new multi-plex might rear its ugly head a few doors down in the Railyard retail complex. Might open — there’s been talk for years about opening a theater in that spot, but all have failed in one way or another. This one looks the most promising, but the Martin project has a big advantage: It’s open now, it’s real, it’s showing movies, it’s not just talk, it’s not just a dream.
Well, it was once, a dream born of Mr. Martin’s desire to regain the pleasure he once had of watching movies in small venues where the crowds were small, the movies intimate, the popcorn tasty. (That last isn’t just a wish — when the Jean Cocteau was showing movies in its earlier incarnation, it’s was renown for having the best popcorn anywhere. Martin-Bowman are under the gun to repeat that.) Santa Fe is lucky Mr. Martin is in a position to make his wish a reality. And while one would would expect that because of Mr. Martin’s affinity for science fiction and fantasy, that’s all that will show there, but one would be wrong. Both Mr. Martin and Mr. Bowman know that to make a success of the operation, they have to attract as many movie-lovers as possible. This means a wide range of films, and you can bet that’s what we’ll get. OK, so maybe the opening films for the free-admission opening week — Forbidden Planet (1956), one of the classiest SF films ever made; Orpheus (1950) directed by the theater’s namesake; and Dark Star (1974), John Carpenter’s darkly funny look at space exploration — may be biased toward SF/fantasy, but let them have their new-toy fun, eh? Dark Star is the midnight movie, so they have your fun in mind, too, see?
So, raise your bag of popcorn in a toast to the rejuvenated Jean Cocteau Cinema, may it shine a light in the dark — so we can see at least the film.
More information and photos are on the theater’s website.
Superheroes are everywhere. You’d think they were gods or something.
Humanity always has had a yen for something greater than itself, someone or some thing that will fight for the oppressed and right the wrongs in society.
Because it’s so hard to do it oneself, right?
Super-strong and/or super-smart creatures of myth go back as far as golems and Herculeses and messiahs and archangels, but for our purposes, superhero history starts in April, 1938 with the publication of Action Comics No. 1. The cover sported a man in red-and-blue tights smashing a car into a boulder as (presumably) the crooks flee in terror. The man in tights was Superman, as if any American born after 1938 couldn’t tell.
Superman was a big hit almost immediately and still is going strong, fueling a billion-dollar business today with video games, movies, comic books, graphic novels (thicker comic books, some with hard covers, to make them at least look sophisticated) and all the assorted merchandising therefrom. Superman’s got more staying power than any battery-operated bunny and he’s known worldwide. Children whose great-grandparents picked up Action No. 1 have a broad choice on which Superman story to follow. If you’re interested in Superman’s personal history and all the permutations to this point, and about the men who created him, Larry Tye’s Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero (Random House) is a fine account.
Tye did an excellent job for me in tying together the many threads that are Superman. As each generation changes to the next, publishers feel a need to update their superheroes lest they be become obsolete or even worse, unhip. This has led to the many variations of Superman and his ilk: Batman, Green Lantern, Spider-Man, the Hulk, The Fantastic Four, Wonder Woman, Captain America, Captain Marvel (and Junior, Mary and Uncle), Ant Man, Aqua-man, The Human Torch, Plastic Man, Wonder Man, The Shield, Sky Wizard, Magno the Magnetic Man, Red Raven, The Green Lama, Iron Man, The Flash and so on and so on to just about infinity. Some of those are oldies and long gone, some are oldies but still around and even more have yet to be discovered. It’s a wide, wide world in the realm of the superhero.
My first experience with Superman was in the ’50s when he seemed … boring. Either he was in a romantic tiff with Lois Lane or Lana Lang or some other “LL” girl or he was being warped out of shape by the various colors of Kryptonite, or he was – temporarily, always temporarily – about to be eliminated by Brainiac, that ‘LL of a guy, Lex Luthor, or that guy with the all-consonant name. Bizarro was the interesting character; his warped being and that warped world he lived in much more interesting than the latest lecture on how superbeings must always do good. And I couldn’t stand Jimmy Olsen.
The arrival of the Marvel superheroes didn’t do much for me, either. Yeah, I know Marvel saved or reinvented superheroes (depending on your point of view), but they were all too whiny and too inward-looking. They were superheroes, for goodness sake, couldn’t they come to some conclusion and then get on with saving the world? And yes, the art was great, but the characters … meh. Mostly. Occasionally one stood out. The Thing, the Hulk, Captain America, Fin Fang Foom. (Wait – that last isn’t a superhero, is it? He’s one of those weird Jack Kirby monsters who were often more interesting than the superheroes.)
And the Marvel villains – talk about going off the scale! Planet-devouring gods. Mystic bald-headed advisers. A man with metallic arms attached to his side. A shiny surfer (in a ploy to show the surfer crowd that superheroes can be cool, too).
DC couldn’t just stand by in the face of all this, so their supervillains started getting bigger and badder. Until one came along who could kill Superman. For a while, at least.
This points out one of the basic problems of superheroes: they need enemies that can fight at their level. If you’re a superhero, just arresting bank robbers, thieves, corrupt politicians and greedy CEOs will get boring after a while. So, eventually the Lex Luthors, the Brainiacs, the Dr. Dooms, the Jokers, the Galactuses, the Doomsdays, the Doctor Octopuses start appearing. And with each iteration, they get meaner, more destructive, and more personal in their vendettas. Only on rare occasion is a villain destroyed; but usually they just slink away, only to come back later. Or escape the insane asylum
This constant recycling of bad guys became a problem for me. In the superhero realm, this has to do with prohibitions against killing. In the real world, it has to do with the writers unable to come up with a new villain. Look, shoot ’em, punch ’em, break ’em , zap ’em, pulverize ’em– just get rid of them. Granted, it’ll be hard to replace the Joker, but it’ll be a good challenge for the imagination.
Batman is a special case, of course. He’s not a superhero in the strict sense; he has no power that enables him to fly or move mountains or drop tanks on bad guys. He’s been carrying the trauma of his parent’s death for 70 years now, and he’s gotten darker and darker, until he’s just this paranoid, angry vigilante hiding in the shadows. But that’s part of his charm – if you can call it that.
There’s talk the new move will make Superman darker, too. Tye makes a good point in that Superman cannot really become this because he’s too embedded in the American mythos. In the 74 years of his existence, Superman has become the symbol of what’s good about America. Naive, maybe, but with the optimism and a belief in himself. Just like the country he represents. A dark Superman will suggest that the optimism is misguided at best and worthless at worst. Perhaps that’s a reflection of the country, but as so goes Superman, so goes the nations’ future.
It’s all tied into these generational changes. Each superhero must be reborn, his (or hers) backstory altered to fit the mindset of the hip young, the ones with money and a driving thirst for entertainment. This has led to that tangle of threads mentioned earlier that threatens to engulf all of the superheroes. This is also a failure of storytelling.
Tales of a different set of superheroes (and superlosers) has worked around that problem. The Wild Cards series doesn’t come out in comic-book form but as novels and anthologies (thus perhaps too daunting for some people). Edited by George R.R. Martin (yes, that George R.R. Martin; he does do other things besides Game of Thrones, you know) and Melinda Snodgrass, the series has been going since 1987 and is up to 21 books, soon 22. The series came out of a role-playing game and started with a core group of writers sharing the Wild Card universe. New writers have been picked up along the way, helping solve the staying-relevant problem. The generations not only pass in the real world, they pass in the series, too. The original superheroes have aged, some have died, others have just disappeared; and still others have been born (or mutated) since the series began so there’s always a new crop of heroes. And villains, who come out of the same source as the heroes.
That source was an alien virus deliberately spread into Earth’s atmosphere. Its effects on humans varies; you can become an Ace with nifty superpowers, or you can become a Joker with terrible physical consequences. All this certainly stretches credibility, but it’s better than bites from radioactive spiders, mystical magic, lanterns from space and vats of acid.
The stories are about humans dealing with the cards they are dealt, and it’s not always for the better. Power has different effects on people; not every man endowed with superpowers is going to fight crime and battle for truth, justice and the American way. And other people – heads of corporations, dictators of nations – are going to want to exploit those powers for nefarious reasons. Even reality TV enters into the Wild Card universe. How hip is that?
(A Wild Cards movie is in the works, but if you want to familiarize yourself before then, you can always start at the beginning with the original Wild Cards anthology called, um, Wild Cards. Tor books has released a revised edition with a new story added. Or you can start with the latest, Fort Freak, for a good introduction; Lowball, the 22nd book, is due this year).
As mentioned, the Wild Card heroes at least have ready-made villains instead of having to wit for someone to arrive out of the mist. This idea of superheroes having no one to fight is one of the premises of my own superhero novel, The Tyranny of Heroes. (You didn’t think I was talking about superheroes just for the heck of it, did you?) The heroes – 54 of them, just to make things interesting – descend upon Earth at about the same time Superman did in his universe, during the Great Depression. They start out like Superman did, catching crooks, smacking down nasty landlords, dealing with greedy capitalists etc., etc. They help with big government projects like Hoover Dam while taking care of the Mafia-connected gangs that terrorized the population. Unfortunately for my superheroes, though, there isn’t anyone who can challenge them. So what do they do? Well, they do what I’ve always thought people with superpowers would do – they take over the world.
At first, they are reluctant to accrue too much authority. But World War II persuades them that humanity needs guidance and they’re the only ones who can provide it. Good intentions begin to go awry, as they often do. In trying to fix this problem or stop that injustice, they slowly usurp the powers of the government. Not just the USA government, but all governments. Soon the superheroes are not just in charge, they are dictators. A benevolent dictatorship to be sure, but in securing the world’s safety they have to take draconian actions, meaning dissidents go to jail, certain ideas are crushed, censorship is the norm and all nations must follow the American ideal.
Is that so bad? There are no wars big or small; civil rights are guaranteed for all; electric cars dominate the roads; mag-lev trains crisscross continents; nuclear weapons are banned; every country is economically secure; air, land and water are unpolluted; and national borders are open with passports a thing of the past.
The downside? Humans haven’t gone into space. You want to study Moon rocks? The Supers will bring you all the samples you want. You want to know what Saturn looks like up close? The Super will take videos for you. You want to live in space? Well – it’s dangerous out there and not inviting at all. Humans haven’t explored their own planet much, either. It’s cheaper to send a Super to the bottom of the ocean than it is to build an expensive machine to protect frail humans. The world might have mag-lev trains in 2014, but personal computers are just barely appearing in the marketplace. The Internet isn’t even a dream and cable TV has yet to be strung. Cell phones? Never heard of them.
Scientific and technological advances are under Supers control. While research has eliminated diseases such as smallpox, polio and malaria, everyone in the field must adhere to the Supers rules – or be bounced out (sometimes literally). And often politics plays a part – look at the debacle the Supers made of the AIDS epidemic. (I know what some people are going to say about the politics of all of this, but they will be wrong. This is a fable, not a manifesto.)
Of course, most people are quite satisfied with the way things are. Life is good, why rock the boat? But there is that minority that sees the status quo as a dead end for humanity. They struggle to point out the loss of national sovereignty, the denial of due process, that civil rights don’t exist if dissidents face imprisonment in Alcatraz – or worse. Arrest, trial and execution cane be swift then the overlords have powers way beyond mere humanity.
Still, the Supers have secrets of their own, secrets that could undermine their authority. This is why they keep their origins a secret; this is why research into Super DNA is banned. But they can’t stop human curiosity. One man who feels his family is threatened by the Supers suddenly is becoming a real irritant under their superskins.
Then the Supers suddenly face a threat that does have the power to destroy them, but from a direction they never expected.
The Tyranny of Heroes is an e-book. Clicking on the picture at right will take you to Amazon.com. For now, you’ll have to go to Barnes & Noble through your browser.
Ray Bradbury in my mind was one of the top-tier science fiction writers of trailblazers and inspirations. And now they’re all gone — Isaac Asimov. Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Bradbury.
These were the ones I thought of when I thought “science fiction,” especially in my youth. Clarke was the one I remember reading first and it might have been the cover that caught my eye. I got to the others eventually, each pressing itself into my brain (though I have to admit Heinlein not as much as others, but I really can’t say why).
And thinking of Bradbury as an SF writer doesn’t really do him justice. He did write SF, but it had its own style. The popular way to judge SF is if it’s “hard” or “soft.” To say Bradbury was soft is a misnomer. “Lyrical” is a better term.
And Bradbury could be lyrical about pretty much anything. A sea creature falling in love with a lighthouse (when you see an illustration of a sea creature knocking down a lighthouse, “love” isn’t the thing that comes to mind). A virtual-reality playroom (long before anyone could explain the room with the term “virtual reality”). A circus-carnival train. Mars. Burning books.
OK, I said “lyrical,” not happy. That playroom might have been a marvel of technology, but the kids used it for deadly purposes. Who picks up one generation’s new technology faster? That generation’s offspring, leaving the adults befuddled — and vulnerable. Bradbury saw that. Circuses and carnivals are exciting and wondrous things for young boys, but the glitter and and the noise can cover up some nasty surprises. And government-sponsored book-burning isn’t always as far-fetched as we’d like to think. Bradbury may have been lyrical in his writing, but never obscured the point he was trying to make about ourselves, our technology and our futures. (Although I have to say that lyricism did get in my way. Sometimes I had trouble getting around all those similes and metaphors and the words dropped in to make a sentence more rhythmical. Just me, I guess.)
One thing I never will take away from Bradbury, though, is imagination. That’s what drives successful storytelling and he had it in spades. In this age where the creative impulse is little more than taking someone else’s work and prequelizing and sequelizing it or dumping vampires or zombies into it or gussing it up with awesome CGI makes sometimes Bradbury seem quaint. While imagination does manage to show up occasionally in contemporary culture — see Pixar as example: Wall-E, Up, Toy Stories I-III — it’s definitely taken a back seat. Jerry Schuster, imaginer of Superman, once boasted he could write a story about a Coca-Cola bottle.* Bradbury could, too, if he wanted. And it would be a story you would want to read.
Imaginative writers still write in the SF and fantasy fields following the paths Asimov, Bradbury, Clarke and Heinlein blazed. And they’re not just copying and pasting; they’re original, entertaining and just plain good. Check out the writers listed on this page if you want a place to start.
Bradbury is gone, but his legacy is secure.
*Where did I get this? From Larry Tye’s new book, Superman: The High-Flying History of America’s Most Enduring Hero. I haven’t finished it yet, but so far, it’s a good read.