Vaughan & Chiang's "Paper Girls" Builds a Familiar Yet Disconcerting World
Sometimes things get lodged in your brain and you can’t really get them out.
Anybody in the arts has this problem. You’re working on one thing, but this other idea keeps creeping in at the edges, the thing you’d really rather be working on. Sooner or later you end up just giving in and doing the project you can’t stop thinking about.
The trouble comes in when the daydream that’s distracting you from the thing you should be working on is a project that you can’t possibly ever do. Fan-fiction things, basically.
I know that there is a thriving community of fanfic writers out there and I certainly don’t begrudge any of them…. in fact, when I was starting to write stories myself some twenty-five years ago fanfic was what I warmed up with (that story is recounted here.) Not too long after that, though, I started to crack magazine markets and I figured it was time to put the fan fiction behind me and concentrate on the stuff I was getting paid for.
But that doesn’t mean you actually turn off the fanfic-idea generator that lives in your head. It keeps spitting out story premises and plots and springboards. Wouldn’t it be cool if this happened? Hey, those two characters were both fighting that at the same time — what if they met? And so on. You know you shouldn’t be wasting time daydreaming about it, you’ve got a real editor bugging you about a real deadline… but the idea doesn’t go away.
Peter David coined the term for this and I’m happy to give credit where it’s due — he called them Useless Stories. (You can find a couple of his in the first collection of his But I Digress columns… “Quantum Beast,” his story of how Sam Beckett leaps into the body of the man-beast Vincent to save the unborn child of Catherine Chandler, remains a favorite of mine.)
So today I thought I’d put up a couple of the premises that keep bouncing around in my head, just for fun. Maybe then my subconscious will file them under ‘finished’ and I can stop thinking about them.
Strange Shadows: The original Dark Shadows television show was pretty nuts, but that was nothing compared to the Dark Shadows comics. They were much more about interdimensional travel and apocalyptic demon battles than the gothic soap opera horror you saw on the TV version, and the comics were successful enough for Gold Key that they continued to be published long after the show itself was canceled.
In particular, there’s a scene from the comic that’s stuck with me for decades — and it’s killing me that I can’t track down the issue, because I really wanted to show you the page. I’m pretty sure that it must have been from #34, but my original copy is long gone, and I haven’t been able to replace it.
I can’t remember much of the actual comic, I couldn’t tell you the plot to save my life — but the scene, the moment, I’ve never forgotten.
At one point, Barnabas Collins, or Quentin, or somebody, I forget who — but the character is trying to get back to our world from a magical dimension, and he achieves an exit through a mystic artifact held “by a sorcerer living in Greenwich Village.” In the panel where this is shown, you see a young woman looking shocked at the spectacle of Barnabas — or whoever — emerging from a crystal ball and she reacts by yelling “Stephen!”
Obviously this was a little Easter egg for those of us who were Dr. Strange fans, and since John Warner, who was writing the book at the time, also worked at Marvel it’s not surprising that he’d amuse himself with a little aside like that.
But the idea lodged in my teenaged geek brain and it’s still bouncing around in there, thirty-five years later. Barnabas Collins in the Sanctum. Dr. Strange in Collinwood.
Barnabas Collins, after all, wasn’t just a vampire. He often dabbled in sorcery and spellcasting, and certainly after the incident in Doc’s sanctum Barnabas would have found a way to turn this newfound knowledge to his advantage somehow. He’d obsess over the idea that there was a house in Greenwich Village full of powerful mystic artifacts… that maybe he could use one of them to remove his vampiric curse once and for all.
In particular, Barnabas might have tried to employ some magical implement of Doc’s to travel back in time and maybe murder the witch Angelique before she could place the vampire curse on him in the first place.
(Time travel was something you saw a lot on the original Dark Shadows.)
Perhaps something goes awry. Perhaps Barnabas succeeds in his plan but in so doing, creates a time paradox. Perhaps, despite her evil, Angelique is somehow necessary– perhaps she is even her era’s Sorcerer Supreme, charged with protecting this plane from all manner of other-dimensional nasties, and her tormenting of Barnabas was just a hobby. Whatever. The point is, Barnabas’ plan goes wrong somehow and it’s something that only Dr. Strange (and Clea, because I’m old-school) can put right… which, of course, would put Stephen and Barnabas in deadly conflict, and doubtless Angelique would be playing both sides against the middle.
Wizards, vampires, time travel, hot babes in Victorian dress. Gothic horror tinged with Ditko cosmic weirdness. Come on, wouldn’t Gene Colan and Tom Palmer just draw the hell out of that? (If you’re going to daydream, dream big.)
Various and Sundry Leagues: The one guy in comics that genuinely succeeded in making his fan-fiction daydreams pay off is Alan Moore…. both in Lost Girls and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
The premise of the League, in particular– teaming up different characters from various literary classics against a common foe– caught the imagination of fan fiction writers everywhere, especially the idea that there have been various incarnations of the League throughout history.
The premise I see that keeps cropping up is the 1960s-70s incarnation of the League, peopled with the different super-spy characters so popular at the time. I admit that I have played with ideas for that group myself… it’s an irresistible notion if you grew up in that era.
The trick is to come up with a plausible roster without too much duplication of personalities — after all, there’s not really that much difference between James Bond, Napoleon Solo, and John Steed as characters. They’re all suave super-spies who are highly intelligent and athletic. There’s not enough variety in their demeanor or their approach to defeating supervillains. If you’re doing some version of the League you want to keep it an interesting mix of people and also make sure that each one would have a discrete skill set that complements the talents of the others
Bearing that in mind, my lineup for the League of Swinging London would be Illya Kuryakin from UNCLE, Derek Flint, Barney Collier from the IMF, Gary Seven and Isis from “Assignment: Earth,” and of course, the group would be led by Emma Peel.
(Because if you’re really doing Alan Moore’s League you need a woman for the leader.) Their target? A reborn SPECTRE, masterminded by a vengeful Irma Bunt after the death of Ernst Stavro Blofeld.
But that’s just shooting the breeze, kibitzing the other swinging-spy-era versions of the League I’ve seen offered up on the net. I don’t really have a story idea for that.
No, the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 1970s riff that I actually have plotted out, often conceive of further refinements for, and generally can’t stop thinking about is the Kenneth Johnson version.
Kenneth Johnson, for those of you that weren’t SF nerds coming of age in the late 1970s and early 80s, is a screenwriter and producer who worked on The Six Million Dollar Man and went on to create The Bionic Woman, V, and the television incarnations of The Incredible Hulk and Alien Nation. He even did Marvel-style superhero crossover events for television… the menace of Dr. Franklin’s fembots and the android Sasquatch from outer space were both such huge stories that they bounced from The Six Million Dollar Man to The Bionic Woman and back again.
So anyway, my point is that Kenneth Johnson’s action heroes are not strangers to the idea of a crossover, and they really lend themselves to the League of Extraordinary Gentlemen premise.
All right? Preceding was preamble. Now we get to the heart of it. This is the League idea that won’t leave me alone:
In the original miniseries V, the alien Visitors come to Earth for allegedly benevolent purposes, but they’re really evil reptilian fascists in human guise. But what brought Earth to the attention of the Visitors in the first place?
How about this — the Visitors actually came to our world to retrieve their lost slave ship. The one full of Tenctonese refugees from Alien Nation.
But once they arrived in-system, their scans of Earth revealed a planet so incredibly rich in natural resources compared to their homeworld that they immediately sent word to their masters that here was a world ripe for assimilation into the V’s empire. Whereupon they worked out the scheme to approach Earth not as conquerors, but rather as friendly visitors in human suits. Not only would this aid in their infiltration, but it would also prevent them from being recognized by any of their former captives from Tencton.
So then you have the events of the original V mini-series, the rise of the human resistance under the leadership of Juliet Parrish and Mike Donovan. You may recall that the Resistance learns of another alien race that’s fighting the Visitors and the last scene is Juliet and her rebels planting a beacon in hopes of summoning those other aliens to Earth to help in the battle.
Now, after that, let’s suppose that Jaime Sommers, relatively isolated up in Ojai, manages to escape the Vistors’ initial takeover sweep through the government. But she’s on the run, a wanted fugitive after the Visitors commandeer the OSI’s offices and laboratory in Washington D.C. and murder both Oscar Goldman and Jaime’s husband, Colonel Steve Austin. Dr. Rudy Wells is gone too… after all, the Vs were very emphatic about the need to round up all scientists and put them in camps to be executed.
But the one thing Oscar and Rudy did manage to do before they were killed was destroy all records of OSI’s involvement in bionics. For the moment, Jaime’s under the radar, just trying to stay alive — but she has sworn that she will get payback eventually.
As fate would have it her flight takes her through the Los Angeles area where Juliet and the Resistance have set up their beacon. With her enhanced bionic hearing, Jaime can not only hear the message, but she recognizes the frequency. It’s the same one she heard at the alien enclave in the Sierras, the hidden explorer’s outpost with Shalon’s people and their android Bigfoot. Those people are the race the Visitors are having their space war with.
Galvanized by this realization, Jaime makes her way to the Resistance and persuades Juliet Parrish that it’s worth trying to get a team through the Visitor blockade to Shalon’s hidden outpost.
Shalon and her people have abandoned it but there’s got to be some communications equipment left, maybe weapons. And possibly even a big-ass robot Sasquatch. This could be the technological breakthrough the human race needs to reclaim their planet!
It’s worth a try. Juliet tells Jaime that she can’t go alone. She assigns a team — former mercenary Ham Tyler, who knows the underground routes up and down the west coast better than anyone; angry young Tenctonese rebel Buck Francisco, whose facility with alien languages will come in handy; and a new guy, a nervous and taciturn medic named David Blake. Although Blake doesn’t talk much about his background, his remarkable expertise in both biochemistry and radiation has proven to be invaluable to the Resistance. “Clearly Blake is hiding something, but I think he’s a good man,” Juliet tells Jaime. “You can trust him.”
The alert reader will of course have realized that David Blake is in reality David Banner, long presumed dead after the accident that turned him into the incredible Hulk.
As always, Banner is torn between his need to lie low and his desire to help others. The mission is dangerous and possibly the stress could bring out the Creature he continually struggles to suppress. But, he reasons, there might be something in the alien outpost that could help him… Jaime’s spoken of a cure-all Shalon’s people called Neotraxin. Maybe this is a way out of not just the global nightmare of alien fascism, but out of his own personal hell, as well.
Meanwhile, despite the social upheaval brought by the arrival of the Visitors, life goes on as before for many people. One of those people is reporter Jack McGee, who’s been tracking the Hulk for years now. He’s followed the man who becomes the Creature, the man he knows only as “John Doe,” to Los Angeles. McGee knows that John Doe has become active in the underground Resistance and so he joins up himself, in the hope that eventually he will run across his quarry. He just misses the departure of Jaime and her team, but he does manage to learn their mission.
McGee doesn’t care about the Visitors or their objectives or anything other than his own hunt. The quest to capture the Hulk has consumed him, it’s become his entire life. He decides to go to Diana and strike a bargain with the Visitors. “I can find these people for you. I know where they’re going and what they’re after. I just want one thing out of the deal.”
“And what might that be?”
McGee’s grin is, in its own way, even scarier than Diana’s. “When you take them — John Doe is mine.”
Meanwhile, Jaime’s informed her team that there’s going to be a slight detour on the way to the Sierras. Their expedition is short one member. “If that outpost is there — if that technology is going to help us — then we’ll need an expert in cybernetics. Since Rudy Wells is dead, that means there’s only one man left in North America who has a hope in hell of getting that place up and running. His name is Dr. Carl Franklin.”
“Where is he?” Tyler is not pleased. “How long is this going to take?”
“Welllll….” Jaime grimaces, then shrugs. “That’s the catch. We’ll have to break him out of prison….”
–I could go on and on. Really, I’m just getting started. But it’s a completely Useless Story. There’s so many different rights issues to untangle that even if by some miracle a publisher was interested in it there’d be no way to actually make it happen.
Still, though, it’s an entertaining daydream. At least for me.
Of course, the master of this sort of fan-fiction continuity improv was the late Philip José Farmer, who gave us the Wold Newton Universe — or, as my friend Bret once termed it, “The Unified Field Theory of pulp fiction.” Farmer wrote a whole series of books based on the idea that there is a genealogical link between all of the great heroes of the pulps and other adventure fiction, and over the years many more authors and fans have added to the literature of the subject. You can spend hours browsing the web site, here.
As it happens, that Wold Newton site is maintained and updated by writer and friend of the blog Win Eckert. And he has recently compiled two handsome volumes just full of continuity freak goodness. If you’ve enjoyed the above goofing off, I guarantee you, you’ll love these books.
And with that, I think I’ll call it a day. Happy holidays to everyone out there, no matter what particular ritual you observe this time of year.
Me, I got so wound up writing all that up there I think I might have to drag out my DVDs of V and the Hulk… and maybe daydream a little.
See you next week.
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