Thursday, February 7, 2013

Hammerhead and the Giant Six-Million-Dollar Man: The Birth of Madness

Above: Frank Fradella
The other guy: Sean Taylor
I never played with my Star Wars figures correctly.

It’s the truth. While other people helped Luke and Han rescue Leia and crush the might of Darth Vader, I took the more creative route. I removed the cloak from the Jawa and slipped it over Leia or Hammerhead, and instantly they became superheroes, whose identities must be kept hidden by the cloak. Throw in a giant—courtesy of the 12-inch-tall Six Million Dollar Man—and they had a super-powered villain to save the world from.

All the fantasies I dreamed at the magazine rack reading comics while my mom shopped for weekly staples like Kool Aid and cereal with colored marshmallows, came to life the moment I hit my bedroom and emptied out the plastic case of action figures onto my bed. I knew then and there I wanted to create worlds in which people in bright costumes could do heroic deeds and trounce the bad guys.

But I grew up. I got jaded. I got cynical.

The happy world of the Avengers and the Legion of Super-Heroes faded into the bleak landscapes of Kurt Vonnegut Jr., Raymond Carver, Ernest Hemmingway, and Flannery O’Conner. Their characters smacked of realness to me. I knew people like them. I didn’t like them, but I did know them. They lived in my neighborhood and frankly got on my last nerve as regularly as taking a breath.

I’d found a new mission. I wanted to give up the fantasies and “tell it like it is”—or what we called in my creative writing classes “showing the cool, hard, dirty truth of the real world.”

So I started writing. I created a few stories about people who had to learn how good life is only through first suffering great loss and pain. I wrote about ordinary people who endured horrible things only to learn to that life is like that, they just had to deal with it. I even won a few awards for those stories and was lucky enough to see some of them in print.

But somewhere inside me was that child who got tired of all the bleakness and pain and reality and wanted to see the bright colors streak across the sky again. At times, I’d have given anything for the freedom to be a kid again and empty my action figures onto the bed. Enter Todd Wagoner, a friend who worked in a comics shop. Thanks to Todd (or “sadly because of Todd” my wife might say—she still doesn’t “get” my love of comics), who had a ready stash of comics available for me to get engrossed in again, I rediscovered superheroes. The stage was set. Something new was forming as the wide-eyed child and the jaded adult got to know each other. They made the effort to learn something from one another, to try on each other’s shoes, so to speak. And my eyes were opened. All the sudden the glass was both half-full and half-empty.

Thanks to the modern wonder of the Internet and discussion lists, I eventually met Frank Fradella and discovered Cyber Age Adventures. I saw in Cyber Age an opportunity to do something a little different, something that excited both the boy who longed for heroes and the man who knew they were fallible.

So I turned in a story about a woman who left her husband and kids when she developed super powers because she couldn’t face what those powers had made her. More stories followed, stories about heroes who had the one “flaw” we all have—they were human. For all their powers and drive and heroic tendencies, they were merely mortals in the guise of gods. And they often learned that the hard way.

Why is all this important?

Because I want you to be aware of one fact from the beginning.

And it is this: This book is not a comic book. In spite of the brightly costumed people and the fantastic situations in it, it is not a comic book. Nor is it merely a collection of comic book stories without pictures and panels and word balloons. Here at Cyber Age, we like to think that our stories do what traditional comics don’t or can’t, that they bridge the gap between “funny books” and literary pieces. Sure, a picture is worth a thousand words (as the saying goes), but sometimes a thousand great words can say more than any sequence of pictures. Like it or not, the visual medium just doesn’t always open itself to capturing the intricacies of human emotions or drives or foibles. It can capture the icon of the emotion or the instance of the emotion, but it often fails to get into the layers that have led to that instance.

Neither is the world you hold in your hands a comic book world. It’s a grown up world—like the one we live in now—a world that rides the fine line between being fulfilling and empty, where people marry, have children, get divorced, find jobs, lose jobs, contract fatal diseases, find hope, find no hope, feast, starve, and take each other for granted more often than not. It’s a world filled with people so real you’ll be surprised to find they aren’t quite the same as you and me. That’s right. They’re super-heroes, crime fighters, costumed villains. They can fly, throw tanks around, and change the temperature with just a thought. But that’s only on the outside. On the inside they’re as screwed up and emotionally twisted as the rest of us. And that’s what makes their stories important.

Cyber Age Adventures has been my guilty pleasure ever since the first story I read there, my way of indulging the kid who loves heroes and satisfying the adult who needs something substantial to read. And if the emails we receive each month are any indication, I’m not alone. So to all who have been following the growth of Cyber Age Adventures from Webzine to publishing house, this anthology is for you.

The history of superheroes is archived in ages, from the Golden Age of the 1930s to the Modern Age of the ‘70s and ‘80s and beyond. We’ve got news for you. The Modern Age is over. Welcome to something new.

Welcome to the Cyber Age.


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