Friday, May 22, 2009

Raw Deal: The Copperhead

I may not enjoy blogging very much - I'd rather be doing actual writing. In the past, when I've told myself, "Hey, if you're writing you're writing, so maybe it will help get you in the groove," it's never worked. Then again for a guy who says he hates to blog I think I wrote almost ten thousand words today just to kick things off.

That having been said, I enjoy reading blogs - they're great during downtime at the Real Job - and one of those is Chad Carter's "Pulp Hero" blog, which you can find in the blogroll over on the left there. I especially enjoy his "Characters I Want to Write!" posts, where he takes a character that is either obscure or poorly written or both and outlines his plan for making him a household name with a three-movie deal and a thirty-dollar action figure. His post on Aquaman was particularly inspiring.

Now I don't know if there's a protocol on this but whenever I read one of those posts I'm always left thinking who I'd want to write for if I were "lucky" enough to write for comic books, something I've always wanted to do. The problem, of course, is that I don't know all these damn obscure comics characters and the ones that aren't, he's already snagged the best of or I wouldn't want to write them anyway.

So by way of my first attempt at this, I couldn't think of any good characters I wanted to write for that have so far gotten a Raw Deal in comics. So I figured I'd do a post on The Copperhead.

The hero of the Republic Serial "Mysterious Doctor Satan", in the story he's your basic everyman hero and there's not much to him. He's just a fit guy in well-fitting pants with a fricking pile of chainmail on his head for a mask. All anyone remembers after watching it is the eponymous Dr. Satan and his water-heater robot that he robs a bank with (OMG SPOILERS! YOU CAD!).

But I've always had a soft spot for heroes like this - guys like The Question, The Spirit, Green Hornet, even Mr. Terrific or Batman. They don't have superpowers or anything like that. I always thought having mysterious powers was something of a cheat for a character. They don't have to be quick-witted or brave in the face of certain death, they don't have to have grace under pressure so much. Now to be sure the best-written comic stories try to strip the character down and get at those heroic qualities. But always in the back of my mind is that these guys couldn't really do what they do if they hadn't taken the SuperMonkey Serum or been Gamma Irradiated or crazy shit like that.

Maybe it's just me. I wouldn't be so scared of taking on MS-13 if I could shoot lasers out of my hands. They have guns, I have LASERS. They point a gun at me, I go "LASER TO DA FACE!" I think this is why so many superhero books are now just giant "War of the Gods" storylines where a bunch of people who have superpowers fight a bunch of other people who have superpowers. Which is why so many of them aren't that interesting.

Even Batman or Mr. Terrific are kind of "cheap" characters in that Batman has more vehicles than Jay Leno and Mr. Terrific is an expert at everything. Characters like this, and there are tons more (COUGH DOC SAVAGE COUGH) sort of piss me off in that they keep selling you "he's just a guy" and then Mr. Terrific's T-Sphere will teleport him out of trouble or some shit (I hate those things) or Batman whips out the alligator repellent and I'm just annoyed because awesome technology IS a superpower (viz., I dunno, IRON MAN?).

So this is why I like Everyman Hero characters. They're just a guy with a sort of manly background, the kind you don't see much anymore (which I guess is why this sort of hero strikes the modern reader as more impossible than a guy who can lift a house). But wait. The truth is that men who have these kind of backgrounds that could lend them, with intelligence, to pursue a career of sorts as a vigilante hero ARE out there, you just don't hear about them anymore or know about them. I meet guys like that every week at the cigar store.


So, to the Copperhead. He has a fairly interesting background - Heir to the Legacy and all that since his granpappy was pulling these stunts back in the Old West. His mask name is obviously a reference to the "Copperhead" movement during the Civil War (which probably explains why Pappy was in Texas). Other than that and his foundling childhood we don't know much about Bob Wayne, the man. What has he done with his life up to this point? What gives him the drive to take on Dr. Satan other than the obvious plot points that push the character into the story?

First, the whole history of the Copperhead could bring a lot of interesting stuff for the character to deal with. In the current age of Political Correctness we have to deal with the fact that Bob's Pap was on the Wrong Side. Not too much, but it should come up when he discovers this part of his history. Sort of like finding out your family owned slaves or something.

The mask, of course, should just be a mask. I don't think it should give him superpowers or anything, though maybe he starts out thinking it does. Bob Wayne I see as a guy who's been a bit of a knock-around guy, not really getting where he fits in. He worked on an oil rig in the Gulf for a while, learned something of the science and art of drilling and oil and geology and all that. He served honorably in the military, maybe fighting in a war, maybe just posted overseas someplace quiet, with an interesting MOS like being a diesel mechanic or something like that. I like the idea of his adopted father being in politics, but a sitting governor seems to me too big, like Bob would have had too cushy a background.

I like to write about normal guys in bizarre situations so the Copperhead is right up my alley. He's ambitious, and fearless. All this stuff with giant robots and radio-lasers and all that just strikes him as crazy. He figures everyone's just being bluffed by this "Doctor Satan" guy, and he means to call that bluff and wreck the whole stupid machine. The Copperhead is not, like too many are, an "outsider hero". Sure, that's great when it's done well, but thanks to deconstructionism and other college-level film courses we're not seeing enough of what you might call "insider heroes", the way heroes used to be. Superman doesn't defend "the American Way" just because it sounds awesome.

Villains like Dr. Satan or whoever are NOT ALLOWED in a civil society, they threaten the culture, they are the Bad Guys and not just because they want to blow up the Statue of Liberty. This kind of Hero stands on the borders of our world, pushing back against the darkness. If you're Lovecraft you think they eventually fail and that's one kind of story that's often very good, but that doesn't mean it isn't ultimately about the same things. Whittaker Chambers thought Communism or whatever other form of collectivism would win eventually - that doesn't mean Witness is about how Communism is awesome.

The Copperhead as a comic series I think would see Bob wanting to put the mask up all the time and get back to a normal life. But he can't resist it, sometimes because circumstances are thrust upon him, sometimes because he sees a situation where everyone's running around panicking, or sitting on their hands afraid to act in the face of a crisis. Bob Wayne is the guy who stands up when he thinks no one else will (whether or not that's true). He's a carouser who's seen the world but thinks he likes Texas just fine, thanks. His diverse experiences lead him to be able to overcome situations, and in his carousing he's run into guys all over the world who could turn up at interesting times or help him out of a jam.

He can ride a horse, shoot a pistol and a rifle, hold his drink, play poker, build a fire and a lean-to ... in short, he's man's man without the excuse of being a specialist in one or many disciplines. He puts to the lie to our current culture's "Myth of the Specialist", that no one would be able to, say, crack a cipher or disable a robot without a college degree or military training. That doesn't mean he's a Doc Savage, the best there is at everything, though. So sometimes he'll get outdrawn, or when Dr. Satan challenges him to a game of Seven-Card Stud with the life of the girl he's trying to rescue on the line, he could lose. But he's the hero, so he'll figure out a way.

The villains he encounters, like his nemesis Dr. Satan, and others, constantly underestimate him. They buy the idea that "He's Just One Man", and that their vast education and erudition make their plans airtight. The risk in this is that they'll seem cartoony and foolish, sort of Clousseauian, or like the villains in the "Scooby-Doo Mysteries". The trick is to write the Copperhead at a level somewhere above 50s camp but below Watchmen's Nietzchean existentialism.

You know - the way comics, and pulp fiction, used to be.

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