Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Dieselpunk, Retro-Futurism and the Superhero!

Happy New Year!

Okay that's out of the way.

Thinking about it, I suppose I should have adjusted the title to include "Part 1", but like the movies, I'll just add Roman Numerals as the sequels pour out.

So what am I on about now?

Well the comic publishing plans of Zenith Comics (a division of my Earth Alpha Studio) have been derailed by unforeseen circumstance.  So much so that I will be publishing the Heroic Issue 1 script for free and for all to read when they would like.

"Why?" I hear you ask.  "Why give it away before it is done?"

Well the simple answer is that it might get "done" somewhere in the future, but I have, like many a writer with many a manuscript over the years, left it behind and moved on.  It was becoming an albatross to my creativity and my writing.  It just refused to take form and when you beat your head against a wall like that the only thing that gets damaged is your head.

So does this mean Zenith Comics is done?  Gasp!  Shudder!

No.  Perish the thought actually.  Zenith Comics is my baby and my project and she will never be done so long as I am alive.  Instead I have allowed my creativity to move into something that haunts my dreams.

If you have ever read The Gernsback Continuum by William Gibson, then you have a bit of an idea of what I will be talking about.  If you haven't read it, run don't walk to your local friendly bookstore (or Amazon) and grab a copy of Burning Chrome and read it!  You won't regret it, trust me.

Funny, now that I think of it, that was the only story that stuck with me over the years from that anthology.  Heh... I guess the seeds were planted early.

Anyway, what I am talking about is that the Cyberpunk master brought me to Dieselpunk, which in turn brought me to Retro-Futurism.

Now those who have know me for a long time have known that I have always had a soft spot for the 30's and 40's.  The aesthetic, the music, the fashion and the whole drama of that time.  Nazis make the best bad guys and superheroes were born in this time.

That's another part of it, those who know me also know that Earth-Two, the JSA, the All-Star Squadron, the Invaders and the Golden Age (the Elseworlds story, not specifically the period) are my favourite comics ever!  I can't explain it.  I mean Spider-Man and Silver Age Superman were probably the first heroes I ever was exposed to, but once I discovered the aforementioned ones, I was hooked.

So too am I fan of what could be termed Dieselpunk films; Streets of Fire, Blade Runner, Dark City, Sky Captain, the Rocketeer and many many others, all play on elements or aspects of that aesthetic for me.  I could go on (did I mention the Hudsucker Proxy?) but the point is there is something about that time, that style and that world that just resonates in me.

So I sat down to design the Zenith Universe for consumption, for much like the Transformers or G.I. Joe, it had to be cobbled together from many different campaigns and ideas that had been kicking around since 1985 (hell earlier if you count the stuff me and my friends used to play and create back in middle-school).  There was no singular clear narrative path, it was all building upon previous ideas, with new angles and thoughts.

Then came the problem of presenting a superhero universe that progressed from the 1930's to the modern day without it being a massive info-dump on a potential reader?  Sure you can do that as a game handout for 5 or 6 players are your table, but as a marketable concept?  Seemed like rather poor business sense to me.

So that lead to me thinking, start at the modern day, and like Astro City, tell the story in flashbacks, one shots and what have you.  Filling in the back story on the go as it were.  That didn't suit me or my writing style at all to be perfectly honest.

Then I thought, start at the beginning and start telling the story from day 1.  I don't think I need to tell you what a lead Zeppelin Golden Age stories are in comic book sales.  Even when there is a tremendous writer at the helm, it really does limit your potential audience, and aside from writing for writing's sake, this is a commercial venture.

So I decided to scrap all those years of history and just start telling a new tale.  The first draft of the script I mentioned above.  Then I did 6 more rewrites, eventually bringing back a lot of the history, in the prologue and the as yet (and probably never to be) written epilogue.  You can judge that one for yourself when I release it, but it wasn't making me happy.  I had toyed around with doing it as Dieselpunk at one point, but abandoned it as the setting was over shadowing the story.

So with a pretty straightforward superhero story I was on my way to riches and fame.  Then the first artist dropped out.  Then the second artist took sick and was in and out of hospital for more than a month.  Deadlines zoomed past.  Failure was in the cards.

This, it would now seem, was all a blessing.

In the past month those Gernsback Continuum day dreams have been hunting me.  I see it everywhere.  All around me.  This lead me to read 3 of the most Dieselpunk comic series I could find; Terminal City (volumes 1 and 2), Electropolis (I have yet to read Dean Motter's other Dieselpunk/Retro-Futurism comic Mister X) and Ignition City (by Warren Ellis).

Interesting stuff and certainly a fun read all around.

I started looking at how to do a Dieselpunk superhero setting, with lots of Nazis and Tesla Tech and of course lots of super heroes.  The thing is though, I wanted this to be an alt-history, not a strict adherence to the actual real-world timeline of that period.  That's hard to do.  World War II is such a huge event and within it are so many other huge events (the Holocaust for one) and it ends with perhaps the biggest event of the 20th Century, the beginning of the Atomic Age.  Where do you draw lines?  How do you create that world without making a HUGE mess out of things?

That's where two ideas came into play.  The afore mention Retro-Futurism and the Found Footage genre of the film industry.  Instead of trying to tell the story of a different WW2 from 2012's perspective, why not instead create a future (I decided on 1950) as created by the viewpoint of a writer in 1938?

Now my brain was on fire.  Much like the Freedom City book pretended to be based on actual comic books created by a fictional publisher (I loved how they even had a black and white photo of him in the first edition), I would create a fictional writer who wrote a single issue of a comic called "Zenith Comics" in 1938 after seeing Action Comics No. 1 and being swept away.

As I wrote notes about him and his background, a very interesting character began to emerge, one who reminded me not a little of H.P. Lovecraft (I even worked in a minor correspondence with Nikola Tesla in his youth, echoing Lovecraft's own with Robert E. Howard).  Shortly the imaginary writer took on a life of his own, with a mother, a father, an aunt and a life unlived; but what also took on a quick life was his supposed creation, Captain Lightning (more on him in a later post perhaps).

As all this was mulling around in my head, I watched Trek Nation, a fantastic documentary about Gene Roddenberry made by his estranged son Eugene Rodenberry and I had an epiphany.  This was brought on by all the comments and speeches by Gene and others about how Star Trek was his way of talking about the social ills of his time without standing on a soap box and shouting at people.

That was something I could relate to.  Someone once asked me what my story was about, and I gave some answer about it being a story of "discovery", evasively full of all my Joseph Campbell pretensions.  That was obviously a dodge, since I didn't know.

Now I know.

Of late I have lamented the coming Superman film and this generation's complete inability to like a hero if they aren't grim-dark.  It is as if being a good and noble person is a weakness in our society.  Every TV show the people around me watch are about anti-heroes, who sometimes have a heart of gold, but most times don't.

THAT is what I want to write about!

I want to write about a dark-retro-futurist-dieselpunk-1950 that needs a noble hero to show them how to be noble.  I need to exercise my demons.  I need to discuss the woes of our modern society, of greed, of corporate fascism, or media abuse, etc...  I need to vent and that is how the wonderful world of science fiction (which I consider superheroes to be part of) works best.  It becomes the soap box you get to shout from, often with folks not realising that you are shouting at all.

Well that turned out to be longer than I expected (with a hell of a lot of links) and I realize I haven't even gotten into "why superheroes" or a bunch of other things.  So looks like there will be a part 2 after all.

In the meantime, please feel free to leave feedback below and also "follow" this blog.  I would love more followers.  Makes me feel like I matter.



  1. Hey Andrew,

    It sounds like you have had some time to think about this and really put much thought into it. I too have been looking back at my past work and thinking of how dark it was...at one time my comic-book setting suffered a plague that wiped out 1/3 of the population in a horrible way...so I can understand where your coming from.

    I wish you nothing but luck with this project. If you are able to work your thoughts about the real-world into it without becoming preachy and such you should have a winner on your hands.


  2. Thanks Chris,

    It is funny, but my superhero games have never been dark, I tried one time and killed it after 2 sessions (though the players loved the grim-gritty stuff). I have always been a Bronze Age kinda guy, which is why my Golden Age always had that Bronze Age perspective/lens.

    Yeah, preachy is the thing to watch out for, no doubt.

    Please follow along as this develops and let me know if I seem to be getting there ;)


  3. Sounds great, it hits many of my interests so I will be watching to see where this goes.

  4. Y'know, now that I think about it only one of my players from 'back in the day' ever managed to play a true good-guy. Pretty sad state of things. I guess the fact that I am still a Iron Age and current age fan has really flavored my views on things...

    And follow along I shall.


  5. I love what you are doing with this. It can only get better the more brain power you put into it. I am very interested to see where this goes and can't wait for the mayhem that is to follow.

  6. Yes! Bring us back the real good guys. And also, Tesla coils. There are never enough of those.
    Vent away. I will always be there to listen and go squee a lot.

  7. I have been thinking about something similar to what you are doing. Not really the style of your setting, but more the idea of a GOOD setting based nowadays.

    If you read my two posts on my blog about my current world you know its pretty durn dark and full of foreboding and death. My question is, how do you keep things lighter and well GOOD, and still allow for stories based at least nominally on Real Life.

    The problem that I have always had is that I insist that my players play the good-guys but they always go as borderline evil as possible. I think the current state of comics/movies/tv is what has led to the dark nature of players in general nowadays.

    So basically, now that I have rambled, what are your intentions on keeping the world brighter than the average setting that is so prevalent now?


    1. My plans shall unfold, but trust me, the world will be dark at the start, only through actions will the hero be HEROIC and bring a positive light to the world. Should be an interesting test. :)

  8. I like that idea of starting from scratch. Did you ever read any of http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apparat_Singles_Group ?

  9. Thanks for the heads-up old trout, I will be sure to check them out. Though given it is Warren Ellis, I fully expected to be disappointed with the endings ;)