John Ostrander: Not Your Father’s Superman

 Batman-2nd-Amendment

by John Ostrander

My friend Paul Guinan put an interesting post up on his Facebook page recently. It sparked an equally interesting discussion, and, evidently, you can have discussions on Facebook that are not all salvos of rants.

Paul wrote: “I grew up with Superman being a character of pure good. Every once in a while something like Red Kryptonite would cause him to do some bad things – nothing too bad – and he would be forgiven and once again beloved. He wasn’t a morose, frowning, reluctant hero, he enjoyed his life and mission.

“Batman was a victim of gun violence. Bob Kane flirted with the idea of Batman carrying twin pistols for a very brief moment (a holdover from Batman’s inspiration, The Shadow), but seminal writers like Bill Finger solidified the code of Batman not carrying firearms. It made great thematic sense. Batman would sock a villain on the jaw, or throw his Batarang at a them – not beat them to a pulp and wind up with bloodied gloves. Batman is a scientist, detective, and martial arts expert. Such training develops character that’s in contradiction to being a rageaholic.

“Wonder Woman is the Princess of Peace, an ambassador for justice. Yes, she’s descended from Amazon warriors – but who had come to live a life of peace and tranquility on a secluded island. The Wonder Woman I grew up with wouldn’t carry a sword or shield, as that would be a sign of using men’s instruments of war to resolve conflicts. Her weapon? A Lasso of Truth! The villain would be socked on the jaw, tied up with the magic lasso, and be calmed.

“If the evolution over generations of an iconic character reflects society, then such indicators reveal we are becoming way too cynical and mean. Shouldn’t that be an opportunity to provide role models who inspire us to be greater, rather than reinforce our negative natures?

“I write this after seeing the second trailer for Batman v Superman, in which the DC trio is constantly angry –  even Clark Kent! The trailer climaxes in a shot of the DC trio. Superman is wearing a suit more dark and sinister than the outfit worn by “evil” Christopher Reeve in Superman III. Wonder Woman is dressed in a dark monochrome knockoff of the outfit worn by Xena, brandishing a sword. Batman looks as he should be is carrying a rifle. WTF? Sigh.”

I’m a founding member of the dark “grim ‘n’ gritty” hero (or anti-hero) club. GrimJack, Amanda Waller, my remaking of some established heroes – if I can find some tarnish to put on a hero’s armor, I’m known to apply it. However, I’m also not without sympathy for Paul’s point of view. The notion appears to be that if it’s darker, the story is more “realistic,” it’s more relatable to the reader/audience. That notion pervades not only comics but the movie and television adaptations of them.

And yet, what is my favorite superhero adaptation right now on TV? It’s not Gotham, it’s not Arrow – it’s The Flash. The main reason is that Barry Allen is presented as a hero, that he wants to be a hero, and that people respond to him as a hero. The show doesn‘t pretend it’s easy but that it is worthwhile. The show also really honors its roots and is often very funny. It’s well written and acted. It’s also very much in the tradition of the character as published by DC for the past few decades.

One of the issues raised is that many of the movies (Man of Steel was cited and, potentially, Suicide Squad might be another) are not meant to be for all ages. The attitude of some appears to be that superhero movies should be, at best, all ages or even kid centric, that superheroes are essentially a child’s fantasy, but this flies in the face of what movies are about commercially: studios want to put as many butts in the seats and eyes on the screens that they can. The movies that have been made so far have reaped tons of money and that tells the studios this is what the audiences want. If a little of this is good, more is better. Don’t fool yourself; plenty of kids went to see them as well and bought lots of the paraphernalia connected with it (and that’s where the real money is made).

Kids are not all that sheltered, either. Take a look at some of the video games that are popular. Kids know more than when I was a kid; take a look at the world around us. ISIL, climate change, the very real possibility the seas are dying (and with it all of life) – when I was growing up, we only had the specter of World War III to cope with. If movies are darker it’s because the world that the kids must cope with is also getting darker.

However, it’s not simply the dark and the grim that makes money. Guardians Of The Galaxy and Ant-Man were very successful at the box office and they were for a more general audience. They were brighter and more fun and more hopeful. Meaning what? That, as usual, it’s not all one thing or the other.

I believe that all characters and concepts cannot stay stuck in one time or era. To remain viable, they must be re-interpreted for the time in which they are in. They have to be part of the world that the reader/audience inhabits. That world, our world, has grown darker in the past few decades. The comics and the movies did not cause that; they reflect it.

That said, there also has to be hope. There desperately needs to be hope today. That also should be reflected in our movies and our superheroes.

If that sounds like I’m conflicted, I am. I see both sides’ views and sympathize with all of them. I’m looking forward to the Suicide Squad movie; the trailer suggests to me that they got what I was doing and it will be part of the movie. That said, I’d also like Superman to be a bit brighter than they seem to be making him, to represent the best in us. That was my Superman.

Oh, and he should wear red trunks. Definitely they should bring back the red trunks.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.

John Ostrander revisits NERO WOLFE

Nero-Wolfe

by John Ostrander

My mother once told me that an odd pleasure she had in growing older was that she could go back to favorite books, particularly mysteries, and enjoy them all over again because she didn’t remember the ending. She knew she liked it but she could discover it anew.

That’s happening a bit to me these days. I’ve recently started re-reading Rex Stout’s mysteries featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin (not to be confused with the late, great comics writer and editor with the same name, although that would have been an interesting pairing as well). I read quite a few of them a few decades back but not all of them; that would be a monumental task since Stout wrote 33 novels and about 40 novellas about Wolfe and Goodwin.

Rex Stout (December 1, 1886 – October 27, 1975) was born of Quaker parents in Indiana and was raised in Kansas. He served as a yeoman on Theodore Roosevelt’s presidential yacht. In 1916, he created a school banking system that paid him royalties and made quite a bit of money. He described himself in 1942 as a “pro-Labor, pro-New Deal, pro-Roosevelt left liberal”. A man after my own heart. He was denounced as a Communist during the McCarthy Era but denied it. He told House Committee on Un-American Activities chairman Martin Dies, “I hate Communists as much as you do, Martin, but there’s one difference between us. I know what a Communist is, and you don’t.” J. Edgar Hoover was not a fan and Stout wasn’t a fan of his or of the FBI and that figures prominently in Stout’s very famous Nero Wolfe mystery. The Doorbell Rang.

The Nero Wolfe stories are an ingenious pairing of a cerebral detective (Wolfe) and hard-boiled detective (Archie). I love narrative alloys like this; myGrimJack stories are a combination of hard-boiled detective and sword-and-sorcery. Suicide Squad melds The Dirty Dozen,  Mission: Impossible, and The Secret Society of Super-Villains.

Wolfe is fat. He is more than stout, he is obese. He’s been described as weighing a seventh of a ton, fluctuating between 310 and 390 lbs. He lives in a beautiful brownstone on West 35th Street in New York City that he owns; Archie lives there as well, having his own room. Wolfe takes on detective work only as a source of income to indulge his passions, which includes orchids, fine food, and beer. He keeps to a very strict daily schedule and does not even allow the investigations to meddle with it. He is brilliant, fastidious, idiosyncratic, arrogant, demanding, and filled with wonderful character tics.

Archie is Wolfe’s “legman”. He does the physical stuff, tracking down things and witnesses, bringing suspects to the office for Wolfe to question, acting as secretary as needed. He’s also a wise-guy, quick with a quip and good with his fists. One of his jobs is to needle Wolfe, keep him on the job, make him relatively human, and just be a pain in Wolfe’s sizable ass. He’s also the narrator of the stories; we know what we know through Archie and Wolfe sometimes deliberately doesn’t tell him everything, often just to annoy him.

The stories also have a stable of supporting characters, each with their own well defined personality tics and traits. One of the real pleasures of the series is the interaction between Wolfe and Archie; Stout tells a good story and can plot with the best of them but it’s the interplay between the two leads that drives the series. Like any serial fiction, including comics, it’s how you play the expected tropes that keeps the series fresh. Stout does endless and inventive variations of the expected notes; it feels a little like jazz to me. That’s a lesson I need to keep learning; how to take what is expected and make it surprising, fresh, and entertaining.

I don’t know if I’ll go through all of the Nero Wolfe cannon this time; I doubt it. There’s just too many other things to read. However, what’s nice is that I know I will enjoy what I’m reading. I did the last time even if I don’t exactly remember why. Such are the blessings of aging.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.

John Ostrander: A Good Penny (Dreadful)

penny-dreadful

by John Ostrander

I usually don’t watch horror films or TV shows, and that might surprise some people. After all, I’m known to have written some horror stories, such as DC’s Wasteland. My standard response is that I would rather give nightmares than get them. A bit flip perhaps, but largely true. I have an active imagination (from which I make my living) and the concepts and images from a horror story can stick in my head long after I’ve seen the show.

For example, I went to see The Exorcist when it first hit the movie theaters and, oh my, it played heavily on the atavistic fears of my Roman Catholic altar boy choir boy upbringing. I slept that night with the lights on despite being of college age. Actually, I was in bed but I didn’t sleep that much. Part of me was convinced that the ol’ debbil was gonna git me.

This is an explanation of why I didn’t watch Penny Dreadful when it first showed on Showtime. Recently, however, I got a chance to get caught up with the first two seasons. I didn’t binge watch them; the most I could take was two episodes at a sitting. I found them too unsettling.

The show is set in Victorian London and deals with a number of supernatural threats. A team of sorts is drawn together including an African explorer (Sir Malcolm Murray), his mysterious African servant (Sembene), a witch (Vanessa Ives), an American gunslinger (Ethan Chandler), Dorian Gray (of The Picture offame) and Doctor Victor Frankenstein and his Creature(s).

If that sounds reminiscent of League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, well, it is… in concept. It is also extraordinarily well done. The show’s creator is John Logan and, I believe, he has also written all the episodes. You may know Mr. Logan from his work on other movies such as Skyfall and the upcoming Spectre, as well as Hugo, Rango (such an odd and interesting film!), and Gladiator among many others. A very talented writer and that talent is in full display here.

The production values are first rate – the sets, the costumes, all the details. Think Downton Abbey with vampires. The cast is also primo – and you have an odd James Bond connection with Timothy Dalton (Bond at one time) playing Sir Malcolm and Eva Green (who was Vesper Lynn in Casino Royale) joining John Logan. Harry Treadway, who plays Dr. Frankenstein, was also in the TV mini-series about Bond’s creator, Fleming.

Josh Hartnet portrays Ethan Chandler, the American gunslinger with a dark and secret past. Despite that past, the character is one of the most decent persons in the show. Sembene is portrayed by Danny Sapani who shares a Doctor Who connection with Billie Piper (Brona, Lily) who, of course, was Rose Tyler on Doctor Who. (Yes, I’m nerding out.) You see quite a bit more of Ms. Piper here. Quite a bit more.

I don’t know Reeve Carney who appears as Dorian Gray, but he’s very effective in a very unsettling role.

My favorite character, however, is Frankenstein’s Creature, played by Rory Kinnear (another Bond connection – he’s been Tanner in the last few Bond films). He is a monster, yes – he can be brutal and murderous and full of rage. He is also the most heart-breaking character in the show. He knows what he is and, by his very appearance, knows that he has no place where he fits in. He suffers most from ordinary humans (who can be the biggest monsters in the show). His longing, his despair, his rage all make him, as one character says of him late in the second series, the most human of them all.

The reason I like the show so much is the characterization. All the characters have multiple levels and all are flawed. My own theory is that you can’t really experience horror unless, on some level, you sympathize with the characters. If you don’t feel something for them, you won’t feel anything for what happens to them. You can be shocked, yes, but you don’t really feel anything. What is the point if you don’t feel? Horror is something that happens to people that we know. There can be sensation, sure, but if you don’t identify with those going through the horror, it means nothing. It’s just incident.

I should probably also mention that there is violence and sex and nudity (both male and female, although mostly female); this is pay-cable TV, after all. If any of that might bother you, give the show a wide berth. None of it ever seems gratuitous to me. I should also mention that the second season is even more unnerving than the first. A third season is projected for next year and I approach it with both anticipation and dread.

I realize that I’m late coming to the Penny Dreadful party but I think the show can be streamed and certainly it’s available on DVD and Blu-Ray so I feel justified in recommending it which I do most heartily. If I was writing horror for TV, this is the type of story I would like to tell.


John Ostrander is one of LB’s favorite writers in any medium. This post originally appeared in his blog at ComicMix.