Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
The thing I was writing started as just a generic Batman story. My idea had been to hit all the marks I thought a good Batman story should have… sort of Batman: The Movie, let’s say, the one I hoped Tim Burton and Michael Keaton were actually doing. So I tried to think of a plot that would incorporate everything I thought was cool about that character…. all the things I had been trying to explain to Marianne that afternoon at the rehab center. My version of a Batman demo piece.
So first of all, it should have one of the big villains. I thought instantly of the Joker, but discarded that idea quickly. The Joker was too big, he’d been done to death. I couldn’t think of a Joker idea that hadn’t already been done by people with more talent than me.
Who else was there? Penguin was a marquee name but not much of a threat, I had no sense of how to make him scary. With Catwoman I had much the same problem, plus there was the romance angle, which didn’t seem like something that would lend itself to the summer-blockbuster kind of plot I wanted to do. One blunder I was determined not to make was having a villain that was too small to warrant Batman’s attention. When Gordon lights the Bat-Signal — and I knew I wanted a Bat-Signal moment in there somewhere — well, it has to be because the police are outclassed, not just because they’re lazy. If Batman was to be involved it had to be because the bad guy was too impossibly, brilliantly evil for normal police to cope with. (Honestly, this has always been my problem with guys like the Penguin or the Riddler; don’t even get me started on Signalman or Killer Moth.)
So that narrowed the field very quickly. When you are confining your possibilities to the big guns among the Bat-villains, which is to say, summer-blockbuster-car-chases-and-explosions big… there’s just the Joker, Ra’s Al Ghul, and Two-Face.
The Joker I didn’t want to mess with. Ra’s Al Ghul… well, I’m old-school. I tend to think of Ra’s as the property of Denny O’Neil; it would have felt vaguely blasphemous trying to put words in his mouth.
That left Two-Face.
It takes a long time to write all this out but really it took less than a minute to decide that Two-Face was my guy. And in 1989 he hadn’t been nearly as strip-mined for plots as, say, the Joker.
I’ve written before in this space about how much I adored O’Neil and Adams’ “Half An Evil” when it came out. However, I was also very fond of the original Two-Face trilogy from Bill Finger and Jerry Robinson, back in the 40’s.
DC had reprinted all three chapters in one of its 100-page monsters in the early 1970’s and I had really enjoyed it.
(It holds up well to this day, especially for something done in the relatively unsophisticated Golden-Age era.)
But… what should my story be about? I still needed some kind of a plot hook, something to hang it on. An instigating event. I thought it should somehow call back to the Two-Face origin story, some kind of riff on that. Something about the mob and Gotham and Boss Maroni and… whatever had happened to Gilda Dent, anyway? Was she still around? Nobody ever talked about her. Was she still in Gotham?
(Nowadays, of course, we’ve had “Year One” and “Long Halloween” and years of flashback stories and specials and God knows what-all else, so this probably sounds very stale to a modern reader. But I swear to you, in 1989 it was all fresh material. No one had addressed the matter of Harvey Dent’s wife or the final fate of Boss Maroni or any of that stuff up to that point.)
So I decided I would do it myself. At that thought, a plot appeared in my head almost magically, and the thing was on rails.
I did the first 5000 words of the Batman story on my crappy old Royal typewriter and it sat for a couple of days. I made a copy of it and mailed it to Mari at the hospital. She was very annoyed with me that it was just a fragment, and exhorted me to finish it. I told her I’d have the rest of it for her when she got done with her thirty days inside.
So now I was committed.
Even so, working on the old typewriter was so annoying and frustrating that I might have given up anyway, but a friend offered me the use of her computer. We cut a deal where I would design her business cards and stationery and she would let me come by her home office in the evenings and write. “I have WordStar, it’s really easy to use,” she said, and it was. I blew out a 60,000 word novelette in six evenings and one long weekend while she was out of town. Once you are writing on a PC, you never go back, baby. It spoiled me for typewriters forever.
The project started as my generic Bat story of sorts, and that was the engine that kept me going on it: “The Batman movie I always wanted to see.” But looking back, and reading it again after all these years, I have to own up.
First of all, it absolutely was amateur work; there are places where the prose actually makes me wince. But nevertheless I think the core of the story works and I think it’s because I wasn’t writing it for me, but for my friend Marianne. I don’t think it was coincidence that I ended up doing the story about the Batman villain that’s all about ravaged nobility and bad choices and paths not taken. Two-Face has a special resonance for any of us who are damaged goods, people with demons like alcoholism or drug addiction. Really, writing it for Mari who had been plagued for years by her own dark side, there was no other villain to use.
The story ended up being about the contrast between Harvey Dent, who’d given up on hope and on himself, and the Batman, whose single most heroic quality was his refusal to give up. Not on his city, not on his dream of justice, not even on his deadly enemy Two-Face.
Plus, of course, there were fisticuffs and explosions and deathtraps and surmounting impossible odds and all of that stuff. In my head, I was still doing the demo. I was thinking about things like finding moments for Alfred and Commissioner Gordon, choreographing some seriously bad-assed kung fu fighting, and chase scenes with the Batmobile. A mystery with clues, some sort of scene where Batman scares the shit out of a bad guy — I wanted to hit as many of the classic marks as I could fit in there.
All the hope and redemption stuff was largely unconscious, it only jumps out at me now as I reread it nineteen years later. And honestly? I think that’s probably why it worked. If I’d been consciously trying to do it I daresay I’d have muffed it, it would have come out very self-conscious and preachy. As it was it was simply one more way to beg Marianne not to give up.
When I finished it, I didn’t really know what to do next. I gave a copy to Marianne and another copy to Mari’s mother, my former English teacher. A couple of other people asked for copies so I made some for them. (My rule was that I would never press it on people, I didn’t want to be that guy, but I would accommodate anyone who asked for one.) Folks seemed to like it, even people like Mari’s mother who had no feeling for pop culture and were only vaguely aware of Batman as a canceled TV show from the 60’s. I have to admit I was deeply gratified by the good word-of-mouth.
All in all I think there are about twenty of those bound manuscripts out there floating around somewhere. I’d sent one to the DC offices, not really expecting anything, but I didn’t know what else to do with it. (I couldn’t very well offer it to a different publisher.) Later in the following year Warner Books announced they were doing a series of original Batman novels and I promptly revised the front half and sent it in with a proposal. They kicked it back to me with a note saying the books were being done by invitation only and that was that.
But I’d found out I could still write sober, and more, I’d determined that I still wanted to do it. It was too much fun to stop. I decided it was time to really try this writing thing and stop kidding around.
So I started writing other stuff, pieces I owned myself that I might actually get published. Eventually I started to crack magazine markets. It took a while, almost another two years… but I did it.
It’s not my primary source of income — I found out I liked teaching even more — but I do get to call myself a professional, an actual working writer. I get paid for my words. And it all started because I promised a girl in rehab that I would write her a story.
If not for Mari, it’s possible that some other event might still have pulled the trigger. (But I kind of doubt it — I’d pretty much given up by then.) Anyway, that was what it started with, a piece of Batman fan fiction.
A lot of people sneer at fanfic and God knows there’s certainly a lot to sneer at there.
But it’s also a place to try out. To audition in front of an audience. There are a lot of writers that claim to only write to please themselves, and they may even believe it — but I think it’s bullshit. Somewhere down deep in every writer is that same performer’s urge that drives artists and actors and musicians — the need to put work in front of a crowd in the hope that they will like it.
Fan fiction is a way to practice doing that, to try it with training wheels. It gives you a head start.
This is why I’ve always had a soft spot for fanfic and ‘zines and that whole world of people making ludicrous sacrifices to put their work out there. Even the most horrible Mary Sue story, some fool thing where Doctor Who meets Mulder and Scully… it’s still got a certain joyous energy to it that I can’t bring myself to beat up on. Snark is easy. Auditioning is not.
In fact, that’s why I have the cartooning students do their ‘zines, so they get that full tryout experience. It’s not a real audition without an audience.
Of course, that’s not to say I think you should immerse yourself too far into the fanfic scene, something that’s insidiously easy to do; especially now, with the advent of the internet. Sooner or later you have to take the training wheels off and find your own thing.
And I did. I don’t really aspire to write Batman any more. I got it out of my system.
There was one funny side effect of doing it, though; for years afterward, I found myself thinking of Two-Face as mine. I felt a ridiculous sense of ownership about him, and any time he showed up in something, there was a brief flash of territoriality, one little moment where I thought, You better not screw my guy up.
I knew it was silly, but I couldn’t help it. As you may imagine, I found Batman Forever to be particularly galling.
That was just… not my guy. I was bitterly disappointed since I was a big fan of Tommy Lee Jones. But he just didn’t get it.
I can sense a certain restlessness out there… yeah, fine, Hatcher, Batman and Two-Face, we get it, move it along. What about the girl?
Well, it would be nice to be able to say that the gift of the Batman manuscript provided Marianne with the inspiration she needed to get it together, but it didn’t quite work out like that. We had a ways to go yet.
Mari’s mother eventually went on to help found a treatment center for single mothers to deal with alcoholism and drug addiction. It was revolutionary in the field, in that the course of treatment does not separate the mothers from their children, but rather treats the family as a unit. In addition to drug and alcohol counseling the women are given vocational training, help with job placement, and parenting classes. Mari’s mother is widely regarded as a heroic figure in Northwest recovery circles, but very few people know of the chain of events that caused her to take up this cause in the first place.
Mari’s son graduated in June from a highly-regarded private college and he is starting graduate work at an eastern Ivy League university in the fall. He’s a bright, well-adjusted kid and thankfully most of his parents’ dysfunctional madness seems to have skipped him.
Mari herself had a rockier road. It took her two more stints in rehab and another bad marriage before she was able to put any sober time together. She eventually pulled it out enough to get both her nursing license and custody of her son back, and she moved to southern California. We fell out of touch, though I remained close to her mother. Eventually Mari moved up here again and married a third time, to a professor at a local university.
I thought that was the happy ending.
But about a year and half ago, Mari fell off the wagon again. Hard. She went on a cross-country tear that cost her everything. Her husband had no real idea of what he was dealing with and things went from bad to worse very quickly.
Today Mari is in her third month of an eight-year felony sentence for dealing drugs and solicitation, at a state penitentiary in a southern state not known for its tolerance of such behavior. Even if she gets parole in a couple of years, she will never work in her chosen profession again; in fact, she’ll never work at any job that requires her to be licensed or bonded. She won’t see her son graduate or marry. She is thousands of miles away from her family. Her mother and sisters have offered to visit but Mari said don’t bother. “It’s not worth it, to fly thousands of miles so you can see me for half an hour through a pane of glass, that’s all I get.” We are not allowed to send books or gifts.
What she is allowed, though…
…well, when Julie and I drove up to see her mother a couple of weeks ago, she took us into the kitchen and pointed at the refrigerator. It was covered with beautifully-rendered cartoons, hand-drawn in crayon and marker. Garfield, Sylvester and Tweety, frogs and horses. All boisterously colorful and vibrant.
“Marianne sends us those, from Kentucky,” Mari’s mother told us bleakly. It’s hard for her to say prison in connection with her daughter. “She’s taken up drawing again, after all these years. I thought you’d appreciate them.”
I thought, She’s lost everything else, but she still has fan art. And an audience.
This all came crashing in on me a couple of weeks ago when we saw Dark Knight, about three days after seeing Mari’s mother and the drawings on the refrigerator.
I can’t even pretend to be objective about it. I never can think about Two-Face without thinking of Mari, anyway, and the last third of that movie really got to me. I mean, we loved the movie, but seeing the tragedy of Harvey Dent on the big screen like that just three days after finding out about the tragedy of Mari throwing it all away again… it was a little too close to home.
I’ve been thinking about it, off and on, ever since. Thinking of Mari doing her fan art with crayons and felt pens there in her prison cell, and hoping that maybe that will be the key for her, the way writing was for me. That maybe this will be the thing that she can use to find the way out of the labyrinth of self-hatred and addiction psychosis she’s built for herself.
I hope so.
Because sometimes hope is all you have. Here, or in Gotham City.
See you next week.
Just a quick housekeeping note — somehow, WordPress lost the first version of this, so those of you that commented and lost those comments, I apologize. I especially appreciate John Trumbull letting me know that it’s Loston Wallace that did the cool Two-Face portrait up above. Check out his gallery.
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