“Inspirations and Influences” is a series of articles in which we invite authors to write guest posts talking about their Inspirations and Influences. In this feature, we invite writers to talk about their new books, older titles, and their writing overall.
Tomorrow, we publish the second story in the new season of short stories – Superhero Season! – with Kid Dark Against the Machine by Tansy Rayner Roberts. Today, Tansy tells us a little bit about the Inspirations & Influences behind the story.
Please give it up for Tansy!
When I teach writing, I talk about the Cultural Stash that everyone has built up of our favourite pop culture, art and history interests – along with real life experiences, these are the things that make our fiction uniquely ours.
Since I was a teenager, superhero comics have taken up an unreasonably large corner of my own personal Cultural Stash. I’ve only written about them occasionally, though – mostly in my fantasy novel Ink Black Magic about a boy whose angsty teen superhero comics come to life and take over the world.
But then I was asked to write a story for the Twelfth Planet Press anthology Kaleidoscope, which was Kickstarted on the premise that every story would feature a teenage protagonist of the type often regarded as ‘other’ or ‘supporting character’ in fiction – whether that be for their race, sexuality, or for living with a disability. Since I was overwhelmed with other deadlines at the time I knew the only way I’d get the story written was if I picked a topic I knew inside out and loved to bits – so I went with superheroes.
There’s often been an uncomfortable aspect to stories that feature superheroes and disability – the most notable examples, like Daredevil, employ the Disability Superpower which can be empowering to a point, but not when it’s the only example you see, because it evades the question of how real people deal with that same disability every day. A better example is probably Oracle, formerly Batgirl, who suffered a spinal injury and came back to the superhero world as a wheelchair user with mad computer skills, but controversially, her injury was “fixed” in the New 52 relaunch of DC Comics a few years back, so she could be Batgirl again.
After reading the book Ugly by my friend Robert Hoge (which is an amazing memoir and everyone should read it), I had been thinking a lot about the subject of prosthetic limbs, and the assumption by able-bodied people that anyone with a missing limb would of course want a prosthetic all the time, regardless of any extra hassle, pain, stress or awkwardness that the artificial limb might create, in order to simulate ‘normality.’
My favourite thing about superhero narratives is how they reject the idea that ‘normality’ is an ideal state.
So “Cookie Cutter Superhero” became a story about a teenage girl who had adjusted well to having one hand, only to be selected to go through a superhero transformation which might (as well as imbuing her with super strength or other cosmic powers) replace her limb. How would it feel, having lived without a prosthetic for so long, to be presented with a near-magical solution to a “problem” that you had come to terms with years earlier?
The story was about her thought process when facing that question, but it also allowed me to pour a lot of my superhero bugbears into it, such as the old fashioned idea that superhero teams should only have one girl at a time in them (something that hasn’t been true in comics for decades, thought the recent wave of movies has brought the trope back with a vengeance). I was also thinking a lot about the use of legacy superhero identities in comics – my favourite comics eras have often been about the heroes following in the footsteps of more famous icons. I love the Teen Titans, Wally West as the Flash, Young Justice, Young Avengers, and Kamala Khan as Ms Marvel.
Plus, you know, there’s that whole thing where Batgirl and Supergirl have to have ‘girl’ in their titles forever, even as adult women…
So that was “Cookie Cutter Superhero,” which is to date my most beloved and popular short story, based on reader response. I still get emails and tweets from people asking about whether I plan to write a novel based on Joey and the superhero system I devised.
Maybe one day! But I knew I wanted to write more superhero stories set in that world, where every country has a rotating super team, looking at the effect of people chosen to be superheroes but also the effect (hinted at in Cookie Cutter) of people after they are removed from the program.
So we come to my new story “Kid Dark Against the Machine,” which is also about legacy superhero identities, and the disturbing tradition of kid sidekicks or pals of established heroes, with some clear parallels to Batman and his Robins (especially Dick Grayson), Captain America and Bucky (in the comics, not the movies where they are contemporaries), Wonder Woman & Wonder Girl (Donna Troy and Cassie Sandsmark), Jimmy Olson, Snapper Carr, Rick Jones, and so on.
“Cookie Cutter” explored some of the damaging superhero ideas about girls, so for my nest story I wanted to write about the equally damaging superhero tropes about boys and masculinity. I have two daughters who adore superheroes in toys, games, cartoons, movies and comics – and they have been raised alongside one of my closest friend’s three sons (my godson Felix and his two older brothers) who are equally crazy about superheroes. All five children are smart, switched-on, and highly knowledgeable about both popular superhero universes – and all of them appreciate the female characters as equals to the men. Watching them and sharing this interest with them as they have grown up (they currently range in age between 6 and 12) has been fascinating, and led me to become evangelical on topics to do with the products and stories marketed to children, and the upsetting and unnecessary gender assumptions made by large companies about what boys and girls should be interested in.
Since Felix was very small, his favourite superhero has been Wonder Woman. (Okay, most days it’s an equal match between Captain America and Wonder Woman, we try not to question too closely why an Australian kid loves the heroes in the stars and stripes flag costumes quite so much.) At eight years old, he’s still as confident and secure in Wonder Woman being his favourite as he was when he was three.
And that makes me furious, because the assumption of most companies that produce superhero toys/shirts/books/tat for kids is that boys are not going to be interested in female characters at all – that boys will never look to women to be their heroes and role models, and that they (and their parents) would rather not be reminded that such characters exist at all. So the merchandisers leave Black Widow off the Avengers lunch boxes, and print Justice League shirts without a single female face on them – despite the fact that the Justice League comics and cartoons have always featured multiple cool female heroes. A few years ago, the cartoon Young Justice (which my girls and the three boys all enjoyed) was cancelled not because it was unpopular with boys, but because it had a high female audience, and they were seen as less likely to buy action figures.
Try buying a Scarlet Witch or Batgirl action figure and you’ll soon see why many girls don’t assume that kind of merchandise is going to be of interest.
Neither Felix’s mother (herself a very passionate comics fan with Many Superhero Opinions) or me or anyone has pushed him towards Wonder Woman as a favourite for political reasons. We simply never tried to squash the idea out of him. (Cough, and possibly made sure that he had as much Wonder Woman loot as was possible to acquire) Because he’s so stubborn, he hasn’t let the treatment of female superheroes by product companies, or any ‘girls are stupid’ playground nonsense squash it out of him either.
“Kid Dark Against the Machine” is a story about superhero traditions and the idea of legacy – as well as the really disturbing concept of allowing children to fight crime as vigilantes, honestly, Batman, what were you thinking? But it’s also very much a story about boys and men finding strong female role models to be their heroes – and other boys and men recognising the value of that.
I have to believe that boys who understand the value of Wonder Woman or Black Canary or Ms Marvel or Black Widow are also going to be the kind of men who take for granted that women can be smart, powerful and capable in real life, and that is the best possible future for the kids that I care about.
How to Get the Book
Kid Dark Against The Machine will be published officially on June 14, 2016, when it will be available for free in full on this here blog. You can preorder the ebook (EPUB & MOBI) from all major retailers online, or you can buy it directly from us right now. The ebook contains the short story, as well as a Q&A and essay with the author.
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