The Way of the Word

26. July 2011

Rory Williams is Badass

Within a short time, Doctor Who companion Rory Williams (otherwise known as Mr. Amy Pond) has shown himself to be the most badass character of the 21st century. Or any other century. I’m sure even the Doctor is at least a little bit afraid of him.

21. July 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

Does anyone remember Marvel’s Epic imprint? Not the one from the 1980s/1990s, but the one from 2003?
If not, a short reminder: Under Jemas and Quesada, Marvel had resurrected the Epic Imprint as kind of a new talent search. It didn’t last very long, they folded it rather quickly. But at least they tried.
Of course I submitted. My idea was very outrageous, and I didn’t think they’d go for it:
I submitted a pitch for a Red Skull series.
Yes, that Red Skull.
A German writer, submitting a pitch for a series starring one of the most evil characters in comics (if not the most evil), a Nazi even, taking over a country in Africa as his new springboard towards world domination.
If you can’t see at least 15 things wrong with that, I don’t want to know you.
I scripted the first issue, wrote rough outlines of the following five issues of the initial miniseries, and charted a course for a potential ongoing. Then I submitted it.
To my surprise, Marvel was interested. But they didn’t like the first issue, because I recapped the origin. They asked me to revise and resubmit.
Epic’s end was announced two weeks or so after that, before I got around to doing the revisions. The Captain America movie reminded me of this old thing.
So here, for your pleasure, is the pitch (but not the first issue script) for my proposed Red Skull ongoing. The characters and everything are TM and (c) Marvel Comics Group, the story is (c) me.
* * *
The first issue would have been a recap of the Red Skull’s origin. He discovers that one of his African “trade partners” has problems delivering Coltan (a rare ore needed for most modern consumer electronics). So he goes off to take care of the matter himself, and gets his butt kicked. That gives him the idea to take over that country, become a world leader, and use it as the cornerstone for his eventual world domination. If enough people should ask, I can post the script some other time. Here, for your entertainment, the almost accepted pitch. It’s perfectly okay to read it without the #1 script, since I had thought, when Marvel asked for revisions, to just toss out the first issue and start from #2, just altering the pacing to stretch that (and parts of #1) into six issues.
* * *
ISSUE #2
· Red Skull’s forces invade the presidential palace. He murders the president of Jumalia. His army arrests all the other members of the country’s government. “I don’t know why I didn’t think of this sooner. After all, having their own countries works for Doom, Magneto, the Black Panther…”
· The next day, when he publicly executes Jumalia’s government, he declares himself the new president of Jumalia. Red Skull sets up a new government. He appoints N’Dolo to serve as his vice president.
· While Red Skull has his final argument about race and opportunity with Hitler’s portrait, and then disposes of it…
· …his troops go to every village in Jumalia and draft every unmarried man between 18 and 25 years of age into the army. Because these people are all poor, they eagerly sign up when they discover that the army pays better than anything else: US-$ 20.– a month.
· Red Skull buys some nuclear weapons. He decides that he has a better use for them than to resell them.
· Some factions among the previous president’s army mutineer, but Red Skull strikes them down.
· He organizes his new army along the same lines that Shaka did 200 years before. N’Dolo, who is becoming something of the Red Skull’s sounding board for his ideas on reforming Jumalia in the image of a new Reich, ably assists him.

ISSUE #3
· Red Skull hires several super-villains: Avalance, Constrictor, Chemistro, Cobra, Crossbones and Mandrill. He appoints them to be Jumalia’s team of super-heroes. One of their incentives is full diplomatic immunity, and a nice, regular paycheck. He also hires Taskmaster to train these villains so they can work as a team. He calls this team The Cadre.
· He calls the local representatives of several international corporations to his new office. All these businesses, which had been exploiting Jumalia’s resources, are told that their contracts are now null and void, and may be renegotiated. Two of the representatives, secure in the power of their corporations, dare to challenge the Skull’s decision. At first, it seems that they get away with it.
· The next night, they are abducted from their homes and punished for their insolence. Naturally, they do not survive their punishment.
· The corporations refuse to be treated in this way, and run to their governments to complain.
· The US administration take action. They call Red Skull and warn him: play nice, or else. Red Skull defies them.
· In Jumalia, Red Skull has the tribal elders brought to him. He tells them that they are now the nation’s council. N’Dolo is shocked: President Red Skull shares power?! No, Red Skull explains. He only gives the elders the illusion of power, because that will pacify the villages, leaving him free to do what he must do to forge this collection of tribes into an empire.
· Jumali’s underground press finds out about this and publishes both the news about the elders, and the problems with the US. Skull finds out, and doesn’t like it at all. He orders the head of his newly-installed secret police to find and bring him the publishers of this underground newspaper.
· Red Skull discovers that there are plenty of companies out there that want to negotiate for a piece of his resources. Among them are A.I.M., Hydra, Halliburton, Nokia, Microsoft…

ISSUE #4
· Poachers invade Jumalia’s forests. Red Skull’s elite troops, a mix of the new native army and his original strike forces, engage them and wipe them out. Red Skull leads them personally. He sends one survivor back to let everyone know how poachers will be received in Jumalia.
· This is very much a PR tactic, however. When the poachers attacked, Red Skull is entertaining various international dignitaries, and he makes a point of how he cares for the environment. They buy his line.
· With corporations, he discusses his plans for exploitation of Jumalia’s resources. These resources include diamonds, coltan and oil. After his earlier presentation, he stresses that the exploitation models should respect conservation of the environment. He also insists that the corporation hire local workers, and compensate them fairly. Since this is Red Skull making these demands, nobody dares to suggest otherwise.
· Red Skull also makes a deal with A.I.M. to set up a research facility in Jumalia.
· When the news about Jumalia’s deal with A.I.M. reaches the US, they openly threaten Red Skull: cut your ties with the terrorists, turn in any weapons of mass destruction that you might possess, or face the consequences. Red Skull’s reply: “Yes, dolt, I have weapons of mass destruction. If even one of your soldiers sets foot within range of my borders, I will use them to reduce your cities to piles of radioactive rubble.”
· The US government decides to send in their newest government-sponsored superteam: The All-Americans, who consist of US Agent, Battlestar, American Eagle, Crusader and Timeshadow.

ISSUE #5
· Red Skull’s spies in the DoD warn him of the impending attack of the All-Americans. He prepares for it.
· Red Skull sends out invitations to a press conference. He also sends out invitations to international charities, such as Greenpeace, the WWF, UNICEF, to set up offices in his capital and help work towards the improvement of his new adopted country.
· N’Dolo has a clandestine meeting with Jumalia’s resistance movement. They had originally gathered to remove the previous president from power. Now that Red Skull has taken over, they aren’t sure what to think. After all, he’s white. N’Dolo argues in Red Skull’s favor. So far, everything Red Skull has done has benefited the people of Jumalia in some way. He argues to give Red Skull a chance. Since he is part of Red Skull’s inner circle, he hopes he can influence Red Skull to work in the resistance’s interests.
· The secret police arrest the publisher of the Jumalia True Story. They bring him to Red Skull. Influenced by N’Dolo, Red Skull is persuaded to make a deal: the publisher is allowed to live… if his newspaper will adopt a more patriotic slant.

ISSUE #6
· Red Skull has invited members of the international press to explain his vision of Jumalia’s future. He explains how he plans to unite the warring factions within the country, how he plans to improve the standard of living, literacy, the infrastructure. Initially, he gets hostility from the press, but he wins them over: “Aren’t you an international super-villain?” “So are Dr. Doom, Namor and Magneto. That doesn’t keep them from caring for the people in the countries that they rule.” “How can you be satisfied with ruling a country in Africa? You’re white…” “No. I am not white. I am beyond skin color. I am Red.” “But you’re a feared Nazi racist…” “I have renounced Nazism and racism. I have come to see how wrong both basic concepts are.” “But you’re still a fascist.” “I still believe in a strong government, yes.” N’Dolo and the tribal elders speak in glowing terms of what Red Skull is doing.
· Stupidly, the All-Americans choose this time, the press conference, to attack.
· The Cadre, trained by Taskmaster, leap to the Red Skull’s defense. They fight the All-Americans. The US-team is out-powered and outnumbered, and Taskmaster’s training has really taken hold. They defeat the All-Americans. Red Skull places them under arrest.
· Returning to the press conference, Red Skull spins the attack to his own geopolitical advantage.
· After the press conference, he visits the imprisoned All-Americans in jail. He tells them that he will not kill them. Instead, he will send them back to the US, thoroughly humiliated.
· Which he does, a couple of days later, on the same flight that the international press take.
· When the news reports come in, they are quite in his favor. Red Skull discusses it with N’Dolo. They discuss the next important steps for the country.
· After his day’s work is done, Red Skull enters the command center he is secretly building under the presidential palace. Here, he continues his scheming and plotting to destabilize the world’s governments, in order to facilitate his takeover of the planet…

THE PITCH

And so it begins… the new life of the Red Skull. A life that places him on the same level as Doctor Doom, Prince Namor the Sub-Mariner and Magneto: a truly untouchable menace who acts under diplomatic immunity. Red Skull has a new mission, a new, bigger vision. And he has found a new way to attain his goals. Gone are the days of the racist Nazi who wanted to conquer the world without too much effort, while rubbing Captain America’s nose in it. No, the Red Skull has learned from the mistakes of the past. Rejecting his past obsessions, he recreates himself and becomes more dangerous than ever.

His new mission is based on a slightly non-traditional perspective of the Red Skull. “History is written by the winners.” The Red Skull, to us, is a major villain. However, had the Nazis won WW2, we would now be reading about the adventures of the heroic Red Skull and his arch nemesis, the evil villain Captain America. From a Nazi point of view, Red Skull was Nazi-Germany’s first superhero. The Nazis were evil. Red Skull is evil. There is no doubt about that. However, from the Skull’s perspective, he was created to be the Reich’s hero. The new approach to the character is based on this shift of perspective. To Red Skull’s view of himself.

RED SKULL: HOSTILE TAKEOVER is intended as a 6-issue mini-series. It changes the character’s status quo and also provides a set-up to continue it as an open-ended series, sales permitting.

The continuing story of the Red Skull would not only relate his problems with running a country (which would turn out to be more difficult than he had expected), it would also deal with the fall-out of his decision to become a highly visible world leader. Some problems that Red Skull might have to face could include:

· The return of his daughter, Mother Superior. When she arrives in Jumalia, does she want to support her father, or replace him as Jumalia’s head of government?
· The Cadre, Jumalia’s super-heroes, are known to be quite uncontrollable. When one or two members of the group, overconfident with the diplomatic immunity their new status gives them, go on a rampage through the US. It’s now up to Red Skull and the still loyal members of the Cadre to stop them before the public relations damage they do becomes too great.
· Wakanda will not be very pleased that someone like Red Skull has conquered his own country right on their doorstep. What will they do about it?
· Now, Red Skull also has the time and leisure to finally do something about the impostor who sullied his “good name” so many years ago: Malik, the man who posed as the Red Skull while the real one was in suspended animation.
· Baron Strucker and Hydra will not be particularly happy that A.I.M. has been allowed sanctuary in Jumalia. When they decide to do something about it, the Red Skull has to choose sides. Then again, this may be a welcome opportunity to finally get back at Strucker for betraying him so many years before.
· And, of course, Captain America will also want to have a word with the Red Skull regarding this new situation.

These ideas for potential stories don’t even consider the potential for conflict that would arise naturally from the fact that our central character is president of a country in the heart of what may be the world’s poorest and most exploited continent:
· How will the Red Skull, for example, deal with the situation when, upon seeing how much the standard of living in Jumalia improves, economic fugitives enter his countries from all the neighboring countries? How will he deal with the fugitives? How will the leaders of those neighboring countries react?
· Is it possible to reconcile the Red Skull’s plans to exploit Jumalia’s resources without damaging the country’s environment too much?
· How will the world deal with the fact that Jumalia’s leader is one of the most feared men in the world? Especially when Red Skull arrives in New York to join the UN?
· Since transitional periods in totalitarian states such as Jumalia are difficult times, Red Skull will not only have to deal with internal strife, but also with those neighboring countries whose leaders would consider this an opportunity to do a bit of conquering.
· Can Red Skull really get away with running a terrorist organization, while being such a public figure?
· And all of this doesn’t even take into account yet that Red Skull’s vice president, the one man he is taking into his confidence, is secretly one of the leaders of Jumalia’s resistance movement.

Changing the Red Skull’s status quo does not limit the character. Rather, it opens the doors to a number of new, interesting developments.

20. July 2011

Review: Captain America, the First Avenger

USA 2011. Directed by Joe Johnston. Starring Chris Evans, Hugo Weaving, Sebastian Stan, Hayley Atwell, Dominic Cooper. Runtime: 125 minutes

In the first days of America’s involvement in WW2, frail Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) desperately tries and fails to join the army. He is simply not fit enough. At one attempt, he is noticed by Dr. Abraham Erskine (Stanley Tucci), who is working on a super-soldier program for the US government. Erskine considers Steve the perfect candidate and recruits him. The experiment is a success and turns the skinny little dude into a perfect specimen. Unfortunately, he will remain the only one, because Erskine is killed by a Hydra assassin.

As the only possible result of this experiment, Steve is considered too valuable to be sent to the front. Instead, he tours the country in order to drum up support for the war effort. But when Steve tours the front and discovers that his best friend Bucky’s (Sebastian Stan) unit has been captured by the evil Johann Schmidt (Hugo Weaving), he goes off by himself and frees them. His success earns him a series of field assignments that cover the entire war.

During this time, Schmidt, whose nickname is Red Skull because of a deformity he got as a result of his participation in Erskine’s prototype experiment, has built Hydra into a fighting force, mostly because he managed to get his hands on a superweapon called The Tesseract. In the final days of the war, the Red Skull decides to eradicate the US. As his plane takes off, only Captain America can get on board to stop the Red Skull’s plan.

Captain America is a dramatic, movie, it’s an adventurous movie, Americans might even consider it a patriotic movie.  But at the heart of it, it is not an American movie. As in, you don’t need to be American to like the movie or the characters. Yes, Captain America dresses like the US flag, but the values he represents go beyond the US, and therefore the character can resonate with audiences all over the world. There is no patriotic flag-waving in this movie. And yes, that is a plus. Instead, it’s mostly a movie about people.

It is, of course, the story of Steve Rogers, who is willing to selflessly lay his life on the line for what he thinks is right and important. Be that standing up against bullies of all kinds and sizes, or just risking everything to save his friend. All the while remaining clueless about some other things, such as Agent Carter (Hayley Atwell). Chris Evans rises to the occasion, presenting a more nuanced and mature performace than I thought him capable of. It is as if here, for the first time, he was actually challenged to play against type, and he is up to the task.

It is, surprisingly, the story of Abraham Erskine, a German scientist in US exile, who also wants to do the right thing. Stanley Tucci puts in an Oscar-worthy performance. In the short time he has, he infuses Erskine with so much humanity and makes the character so very likable that you are honestly sad when he is assassinated.

It is, to a lesser extent, the story of the Red Skull, whose job is to be two-dimensionally evil and give Captain America something to fight. Hugo Weaving is a very good actor, but he is overqualified for this role, which doesn’t require much more than chewing scenery.

And on the fringes, it is the story of the Howling Commandos, an elite fighting unit; of Bucky Barnes; and of Tommy Lee Jones as Nick Fury in everything but name (since the character of that name is played by Sam Jackson). Dominic Cooper puts in a very fun performance as Howard Stark, so much so that I’d want him to take over as Tony Stark when Robert Downey’s contract expires.

The story itself is very simple, almost simplistic, but it makes up for that in adventure, fun and excitement. It works even better for comic fans, because they are likely to catch most (if not all) of the Easter Eggs, such as the cameo of the original Human Torch, and Matt Salinger’s blink-and-you’ll-miss-it uncredited cameo. (In the observation booth during Steve Rogers’s transformation.)

The special effects work fabulously. The most amazing one being skinny Steve Rogers, who is played by Chris Evans with the help of invisible (= not noticeable) CGI. The film is in 3D of course, but except for one moment (when Cap throws his shield at the audience), the 3D is (as usual) rather superfluous.

The downside: not enough Nazis. While the Red Skull starts out as a Nazi scientist, he disowns the Third Reich during his third appearance, after which it is all about Hydra. Apparently, Nazis aren’t evil enough anymore for a WW2 movie. While the logic behind this is obvious (Nazis might adversely affect merchandising sales, which must be avoided at all cost), it leaves a very sour taste.

All in all, however, Captain America is a very entertaining (although not very deep) movie. Joe Johnston is a hit-or-miss director, having delivered gems like Rocketeer and bombs like Jurassic Park III. Here, he is in Rocketeer mode.

Verdict: very recommended.

10. April 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

I originally had this idea sometime in the 1980s/early 1990s. I don’t remember exactly when. At the time, the idea would have worked. By now, that is no longer the case, the timeline makes it impossible.

Something that was established in the Roger Stern/John Byrne run of Captain America was that the US government had messed with Cap’s memories. I took that ball and ran with it.

One of the things that Cap had been made to forget was that he had been married, sometime after receiving the Super Soldier treatment. Therefore, he had no idea that he had a son, Steven Junior. The boy’s father had been told that her husband was missing, presumed dead – like so many others in wars all over the world throughout time. So she raised her son accordingly.

Steven Junior (from here on SJ, for convenience) fell in with the wrong people. With the extreme right. He had seen how his mother had worked herself to death, literally, in order to give her son a future, and that didn’t sit too well with him. His father had died for their country, and the country had abandoned them. The country owed him! The attitude didn’t change when SJ married and had a child, Brian. SJ managed to rise in the ranks of his right-wing group.

But the reader wouldn’t know all that when we start out.  The reader would encounter SJ when Captain America does, pretty much by accident. Cap notices just how much SJ resembles him, and the man’s name is Steven Rogers, so he has Nick Fury check the guy out and is stunned to discover that SJ is the son he never knew he had. And that he has a grandson, who is in college! Cap tries to connect with his son. For SJ, discovering that his father is Captain America is an opportunity. He stays at Cap’s side for a while, and when he has Cap’s trust — he traps him. He doesn’t kill him, he wants payback for being abandoned. So SJ becomes Captain America. And he wants his father to know what he does in his name.

Remember that I said that Cap married after becoming a super soldier? The treatment affected his genes, and the results carried over to SJ. SJ, now Captain America, turns against the US and establishes himself as a Neo-Nazi.

Enter Brian, who I’m sure you’ve already forgotten. Brian is shocked at what is going on. Especially once he discovers the true connection between his father and Captain America. So Brian Rogers does what every self-respecting grandchild of a superhero would do: he pretends to be his own granddad and takes on SJ. SJ flees the scene. Now, he decides, is the time to kill the real Captain America. Brian, who had expected something like this, follows his father. He prevents the murder of Captain America and frees Cap from the cage he’s locked into. Together, Cap and Brian defeat SJ. After which they take on SJ’s extremist group and kick their asses.

Afterwards, Captain America suggests that he could train Brian to be the next Bucky, so that he can eventually take over the shield himself. Brian refuses. He believes that he can accomplish more by finishing his education and putting that to use within the system, instead of as a masked adventurer. But he does stay on as an irregular supporting character.

5. April 2011

Awesome Ideas That Will Never Be

I actually pitched this one to Marvel, many years ago. It was shot down because of their sliding timescale — “JJJ isn’t that old.” Actually, he is; I had the idea after seeing Daily Bugle publisher J. Jonah Jameson in the 1939 scenes of Kurt Busiek’s and Alex Ross’s Marvels.

Back in the early 1940s, Steve Rogers was not the only candidate for the Super Soldier program. There was another one. A newspaper journalist: J. Jonah Jameson. He passed the physical as easily as Rogers did, and truth be told the army preferred him. He wasn’t as wimpy as Rogers. True, Erskine had assured them that it didn’t matter, the end result would be the same. But the army liked Jameson’s more combative attitude.

In the end, they put both candidates into separate rooms for the final interviews. But something went wrong.

Nazi agents stormed the place. They Sieg Heiled through the top secret installation and, the element of surprise on their side, managed to kill Erskine and fight their way through to the two candidates. They stormed into the room where Jameson was. When they pointed their Schmeisser machine guns at him, Jameson slunk back into a corner and whimpered. They didn’t bother to kill him. He wasn’t worth their time.

Another group charged the room where small, skinny Steve Rogers was. They were met with a chair thrown at them. When they pointed their Schmeisser machine guns at Rogers, he stared at them defiantly.

“You can kill me now,” he said, “but you will never defeat the power of a free nation!”

That was when the general aborted the test. Rogers had passed, he had proven that he had the strength of character to become the first super-soldier.

Jameson was sent home in disgrace. Inside, he seethed. And every time he saw Captain America in action, or any other costumed hero, he knew that it could have been him, should have been him — if he had been man enough.

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