New MU: Dimensions

Jan-10-12

“War is brewing, as Hank Pym must calm the ruffled feathers of the Kosmosians, while trying to convince them he is not the same as the only other humanoid they know, the blue faced man of which their legends speak.  But while he’s away, who protects the citizens of Phoenix from a new evil in their midst?  And is the fiery woman flying overhead friend or foe?”

I know that we teased a Defenders title in our last post, but that was only one of many titles we suggested would be on the way.  Title number nine out of thirty-nine is devoted to Dr. Hank Pym, often the punching bag and punch line of the old Marvel Universe.  However, the new MU doesn’t have that baggage, and I’d like to show that Hank Pym can be a neat character.  There are a few things we have to do.  First, we strip away all of the continuity that’s been holding him down.  We already removed Ultron from his history, by revealing that the Thinker and Reed Richards built the evil robot, over in our Fantastic Four recap.  We’re also going to remove the Wasp from his life.  While I very much enjoy the character, I think that Pym and the Wasp are, at this point in time, too interconnected to be good for each other, and even with a continuity restart, I’d prefer to keep them separate.  Third, we’re going to remove his apparent psychological need to change superhero code names every few years by taking away all superhero code names from him.

Ok, let’s start at the beginning.  Hank Pym is born and raised in Phoenix Arizona.  A brilliant student, he becomes a master scientist and after graduating with a doctorate, he moves back to his home city to begin doing some research.  He gets a job with Roxxon Oil, but becomes tired of the corporate life and with not being able to pursue the science he really enjoys.  He soon quits, applies for some government grants, and goes to work for himself.  He needs help, so he tracks down his old college roommate Buck Mitty to join him.  The two of them begin working on all kinds of crazy projects, from ways to transport cargo more effectively to ways to communicate with other life on Earth, such as insects and reptiles.  One night, while working late in the lab, Pym stumbles upon an amazing discovery…particles that enable him to change his own size, and the size of those things around him.  He dubs them Pym particles, or at least he will.  At the moment he’s too busy dealing with the fact that high concentrations of Pym particles apparently open a doorway into another dimension, one ruled by a highly advanced race of insectoids.

When this portal opens, Pym can’t help but go inside for a short look, and is promptly captured by some of the insectoids and taken to meet their ruler, Jekuakket.  Pym is quickly sentenced to die, as the Kosmosians have a legend about a blue faced man who will one day destroy them all.  Pym uses his new particles to effect an escape, and flees back to our dimension, shutting the doorway behind him.  However, he now realizes that he could put these Pym particles to good use and help people at the same time.  Thus, a new hero is born!

So, with that description we have everything in place.  Pym believes that he can help people, and he protects Phoenix and the surrounding area.  However, he wouldn’t call himself a hero…he’s rather too practical to be wasting time conjuring up a costume and a silly name.  He’s simply Hank Pym.  This is a Hank Pym with full control of his powers….he can either shrink or grow in height, and he can also shrink and grow other objects or people.  However, this is not an innate ability.  He has no powers.  He does this through use of the Pym particles, and so he has to administer them to himself or to other objects.  He carries several capsules of them, which release the particles when broken.  Some capsules release shrinking particles while some release growing particles, and how much something or someone shrinks or grows depends on the amount of particles used.

Pym was operating under government grants when he got his powers, and it doesn’t even occur to him to get a secret identity and hide what he’s discovered from the government.  He informs them of what happened, and they quickly begin working closely with him.  They may occasionally ask him to perform specific missions for them, and he will often be working on new projects for them.  His liaison with the government is a young and ambitious agent named Maria Hill, and the two often disagree.

As far as supporting cast goes, we start with his fellow scientist, Buck Mitty.  Mitty is quickly informed of what Pym can do, and when Pym shows how small he can shrink, Mitty, who is an amateur entomologist, suggests that it might be helpful if Pym could talk with insects when he is at that height.  Mitty helps Pym design a helmet for just such a purpose that Pym can use.  Mitty also begins to wonder if he could help Pym and become a hero himself.  He soon designs himself devices which give him powers based on insect abilities.  Being much more dramatic than his partner, Mitty devises a costumes and the name Humbug, and becomes Pym’s sometime partner.  Humbug enjoys the spotlight much more than Pym does, and will often stay behind after missions to pose for pictures and give interviews while Pym returns to his home or the lab.

There is also a new hero that has been seen flying through the skies of Phoenix.  Her name is Firebird, and she and Pym meet on one of his missions, as they both try to save civilians after a deadly bus crash.  They meet more and more often on cases, and a budding romance develops.  I like putting Firebird and Pym together.  She’s a devout Roman Catholic, while he is a pragmatic athiest.  I don’t want to shy away from religion in this comic, and I want to see how well these two philosophies can coexist.

I think that gives you something to chew on before I delve into villains.  What do you see that you like, what do you think needs changed, and can this concept work?

Okay, I see where you’re going here. I like the idea of stripping Pym down to just a guy who discovered something special. Size-changing heroes are a classic archetype and I think we definitely need that in our NewMU, but I also like how you’ve incorporated bits of his West Coast Avengers persona in there too…the ability to shrink and/or grow inanimate objects as needed. Nice to see Roxxon Oil being established as an entity in the NewMU. I also don’t mind Firebird as a love interest and exploring the dichotomy between their respective “religions.” And I enjoy the inclusion of Humbug and the potential for some wacky hijinks involving insectoids from another dimension. Could be fun to see Pym try to hide all of this from the Feds in a comedy of errors.

Here’s my problem: what the hell other plausible villains are you going to pull out of a hat that would want to make their stomping grounds Phoenix, Arizona? Have you ever been there? It’s just a sprawling sauna in shades of brown. Aside from Armadillo trying to rob a bank, I can’t see any catalyst that would cause nefarious activity. I see you’re doing some Kang foreshadowing (you know how I feel about Kang). Maybe you could expand on that?

Does Pym warrant his own title, removed from the rest of the superhero community? Is it going to have enough going on to keep readers’ attention? I’m just asking.

Good questions all.  Let me tackle the Kang question first.  Kang is a character that I don’t want to see in this book very often, at least not for a few years, or not in anything more than shadow.  As we begin our series, we don’t even have a name for Kang, only vague references to a blue faced man who comes to destroy Kosmos.  The Kosmosians fear him (he’s like their bogeyman) but Pym has no idea who he is.  For the first few years of the title, we would only see Kang in shadow, manipulating events on Kosmos to his own ends.  No one would ever see him, but we might hear his voice and see his silhouette from time to time.  One of the first things Kang would do is begin to steal technology from the Kosmosians, starting with a new weapon they’ve built…an android which grows bigger as it absorbs kinetic energy, which they call The Growing Man.  Kang steals and reprograms this machine to serve him.  I also believe that Kang would be able to convince some of the Kosmosians to aid his plans, promising them riches and glory if they throw their lot in with him.  One of these traitors, named Pilai, gains super powers from Kang’s genetic engineering, making him super strong, hard to hurt, and able to project an aura of fear.  It should be some time before Kang actually appears in the series, and we should spend the time wondering exactly who he is, and more importantly, what he wants from this world.

I should also point out that Kosmos will be playing into the stories on a regular basis.  Once Pym accidentally opens up the portal between the dimensions, he alerts the Kosmosians to Earth’s existence.  For a species that has never seen a humanoid before, except in ancient writings as the destroyer of their world, to find an entire dimension of these creatures is cause for some concern.  It’s going to be tricky for Pym to try to prevent a war between Kosmos and Earth, and as you say, he doesn’t want the governments of Earth to know about Kosmos, because he’s afraid they’d react to the Kosmosian’s concerns with a first strike.  Even though he doesn’t have a secret identity, Pym will be dealing with a lot of the same problems as he can’t explain to the government why he keeps disappearing whenever he has to go to Kosmos.

So, we’ve got Kang and his agents, as well as the Kosmosians themselves, to keep things interesting.  But what’s happening back on Earth?  Is there anything going on in Phoenix?  Well, you wouldn’t think so, but ever since Pym’s discovery and his heroics became public knowledge, a new group has been sniffing around:  AIM.  Yes, Advanced Idea Mechanics is a group that believes the smartest people deserve to rule the planet.  They’re fascinated by Pym’s discovery and think he may make a good addition to their ranks.  He refuses, so they decide that perhaps they’ll simply capture him and force his secrets from him.  They also want to watch him, in case he makes any other discoveries they feel could be useful.  Pym is constantly going to be hassled by them.  Pym also works for the government, and has his own SHIELD liaison.  They have no problem calling on him if they feel he can be useful to them.  They can send him anywhere in the country, and sometimes out of the country, on all sorts of different missions. 

Might that be enough to hold the interest of readers?

Fair enough, as long as MODOK shows up at least once. I’m imagining horrible things could happen if AIM finds out about Kosmos, huh?

Okay, I’m sold.

Just one more thought.  I hadn’t brought up MODOK, because I know you love him and didn’t want to snag him for this book if you had plans for him, but since you brought him up, I did have an idea about him.  Pym is something of your generic scientist that superhero universes love, but when they do give him a specialty, it’s bio-engineering.  I think it could be a great plot if he’s kidnapped by AIM and they force him to help create MODOK.  To an extent, MODOK could replace Ultron for him in this universe, but without the odd Oedipus complex thrown in.  Just a thought, but I’m glad you think the book can work!

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How to make your lame villain scary

Oct-30-08

Both Marvel and DC have something in common; their superhero universes contain a lot of lame villains. Oodles. Marvel tried to correct the problem in the 80s when they introduced Scourge, a character who seemed to exist only to clear out some of the deadwood in the Marvel criminal community. However, not only did Scourge miss a ton of losers, but many of the ones he killed have seen their gimmicks and names passed to new thugs, so their legacies (such as they are) live on. Perhaps seeing that this attempt at eliminating pathetic evil-doers didn’t stick, both Marvel and DC seem to have settled on revamping many of their villains and making them, as the kids say, bad asses. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. Herewith are our recommendations for turning the Ringer into next year’s villain du jour.

1. Less blood, more threat: The most popular way to make a villain seem scary is to have them go out and rack up a body count that borders on genocide. Popular thinking seems to believe that, if your victims don’t number in the triple digits, you’re small time and might as well go back to fighting Captain Ultra. Alternately, you don’t have to kill a lot of people, if you kill just a few, but really gruesomely. Now, gruesome can have its place, but often times today’s comic writers seem to simply be trying to outdo the last gruesome death that saw print, and consequently, the deaths themselves mean little.

Let’s be clear: a huge body count is absurd, and it’s one of the things that’s pushed the Joker from menacing to maddening (for the readers). You don’t need to murder a stadium of sports fans to make a point, and how many villains are interested in doing that anyway? It makes your villains seem like crazy comic book villains if they’re going after huge masses of people. Most readers can’t relate to that sort of crime; none of us really expect to get blown up with lots of other people in a mass venue. That’s where people feel safe. Instead, keep your villains relatable; if they’re killing people, have them break into the house in the middle of the night, or catch someone walking home from the movies (perhaps after seeing a Zorro flick). Then you’re hitting your reader somewhere they’re more familiar and you’re more likely to dredge up some scares in them. Of course, this will work even better if you follow tip #2:

2. Let your reader get to know your victim: The better the reader knows the victim, the more impact it will have when your villain offs them. Of course, you don’t want to have Terra Man kill Lois Lane just to make him scarier, but you can introduce other characters for Terra Man to kill or threaten. The reader doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with the character; it can be a simple page or two, as long as you use that space to effectively convey enough of a piece of the victim’s personality so that the victim can be seen as a person, and not just as a piece of meat to be ground up by your villain.

3. Strip your villain back to basics: Often times what makes a villain even lamer is when writers try to give them more gimmicks and more toys in an attempt to make the villain more threatening. Unfortunately, this often backfires, and the villain comes off looking worse than ever. Let’s use the Ringer for example. For those who don’t know, the Ringer is a Marvel villain who’s gimmick was…well, rings. He had all kinds of different rings which did different things, and every time he appeared, it seemed he had a new set of rings that could do even more useless tricks. I would get rid of all of them and stick with one of his original gimmicks: constricting rings. Instead of having the Ringer tossing exploding rings across Times Square, have him sneaking through the dark alleys. He finds a victim, slips out of the shadows, and quickly slides a constricting ring around the victims throat. Then he watches as the poor person suffocates at his feet. Or perhaps he wants the victim for some future purpose. One ring around the body, which constricts enough to prevent the person from taking a deep breath (driving most of the fight from them) and then another around the wrists to bind the victim and make it easy for Ringer to capture them. That’s much more threatening than anything the character has ever done in the past.

4. No more primary colors: We’ve discussed a lot about art the last few days, but I need to mention it again. If you want a scary comic, you need art that provokes an atmosphere. It’s not just about the pencilling and inking, but you also need a strong colorist, who can keep the colors muted and provide a spooky setting, without making the book a bloody, dark and impossible to read mess.

5. Allow them occasional victories: Many villains are considered lame because they never win. Of course, when we’re reading this sort of story, we know the villains will lose in the end (unless you’re reading current DC) and that’s part of the tacit agreement we, the readers, make with the creators. However, it’s important to note that, unless you want your villain to be a laughing stock, you need to give them a win every now and again. It doesn’t have to be a big one, but if they never manage to bring any plans to fruition, they’re certainly not going to be scary. Perhaps some of their early plans succeed because the hero doesn’t know about them, or perhaps they even beat the hero a few times, when the hero isn’t expecting them or their abilities. In the end, it’s just important that they sometimes succeed, so the reader doesn’t know if they’re actually going to pull off the plan that will spell the end for a threatened supporting character. If the villain sometimes wins, they become credible, and then they can start to become scary.

There’re some ideas. Agree? Disagree? Have some of your own?

Yeah, I have a suggestion. Don’t ever again write a post that mentions both Terra Man and Ringer. That was the most frightening thing I ever read!

The one point you make that I feel the strongest about is #5. If the villain isn’t a credible threat, they’re never going to be taken seriously. Look at someone like Green Goblin. On paper, he’s ridiculous. But what was the first big thing he did as a villain? He offed Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Instant archenemy.

And I think #4 is an important rule. I mean, really, who’s scared of Shocker in his yellow quilted shirt? Or a giant orange Armadillo? Or Wizard in his fancy purple and red ensemble with the giant helmet (or, for that matter, the Leader and his giant cranium tucked into an orange and yellow turtleneck)?

If we’re talking about turning villains more towards the scary side of things in terms of tone and method, then I think there are three other points that need to be made:

6. Intimidation works. A strong baddie is an imposing baddie. And I don’t mean that he has to be huge or have some sort of magnificent power that cancels out the sun. Perfect example: Galactus is NOT scary (especially his movie version…ooooh, a cloud!). No, I’m talking about their mere presence sending a chill up someone’s spine. The foe could be old and frail, like Cassandra Nova or have a really bizarre look, like Emplate, and they would be more effective than Turner D. Century in his spiffy suit. This criteria is one of the reasons why Doctor Doom, Ultron and Red Skull have remained on the scene for so long. Plus, it helps to keep the main threat hidden for as long as possible in order to build up the suspense. Show a creepy hand or part of a horrific visage every now and then, but keep the big reveal until absolutely necessary. Evolution is a viable course to follow too. Take Annihilus for example. When he was first introduced, he just looked like a dude in a giant metal bug costume. However, his latest incarnation shows him in a more insect-like form and, I have to admit, he’s a bit skin-crawly now.

7. Go off the deep end on occasion. There’s something to be said about being organized and rational. Perfection involves a certain type of horror. However, that perfection can be elegantly offset with the occasional psychopathic outburst. Tear apart a puppy with your bare hands. Push a stranger off a bridge. Randomly erupt and beat the beejesus out of one of your henchmen with a nearby computer keyboard, cackling wildly as letters and numbers careen off his scalp. Divine madness goes a long way towards building a scary reputation. That’s one of the few things I’ve respected in good portrayals of the Joker.

8. Have a grand scheme. Anymore these days, villains are just out on personal vendettas which, while they have their place in history, do not build up a broad depth to your villainy. None of the bad guys seem to have any plans beyond eliminating so-and-so. What then? Now, I’m not saying we should go back to the days of simple bank robbing or awkward planning to poison water supplies with special fish, but there has to be a rational beginning and end to the rampage, aside from ending up in jail. To be effective, you have to follow through. An exception to this rule is taunting. A great villain needs to be able to taunt without remorse…kidnapping loved ones, stalking alter egos, harassing coworkers and implying even worse plans. That stuff always works. Not to say it couldn’t be augmented with some unrelated evil plotting.

Scary is in the eye of the beholder. And I feel that there are very few villains in today’s comics that fit the bill. Most of them are just glorified punching bags. The most recent example of a good revamp that I can think of is Dr. Light. DC definitely made him a creepy dude. Of course, a swift kick to the nuts remedied that. Taking a previous example, I’m not sure we could ever morph Turner D. Century into a formidable foe, but I think the rules we’ve set out are a clear checklist for avoiding the pitfalls that created Mr. Century in the first place.