I’ve been thinking a lot about superheroes lately. No real surprise considering it’s how I’ve made my bread and butter since I was nineteen years old. But more specifically I’ve been thinking about the exponential growth in superheroes getting darker and more brooding and blurring the lines between the good guy and the bad guy to the point where there really is no line. Being assholes, essentially, and I have to admit I’ve had a lot of fun being a part of that.
When I talked Marvel into letting me reinvent The Avengers as The Ultimates I had Captain America leading missions into Iraq to reinforce George W Bush’s somewhat controversial foreign policy of the day. When I got my hands on Superman in Red Son I reimagined him as a communist dictator, forcing the ideals of Marx and Engels on a global electorate who could do nothing to stop him. Given the chance to create a fun superhero for one of my children, I came up with Hit-Girl, a ten-year-old girl who looked like Polly Pocket, but had the arsenal of John Rambo and the social conscience of Ann Coulter. In short, I have blood on my hands as much as anyone, but that’s where this gets interesting.
You see, I love cartoonish ultra-violence as much as the next Glaswegian (see this year’s Kingsman: the Secret Service where Colin Firth takes down 100 fundamentalists in a Southern Baptist church), but at the same time I also feel we need a little balance. In amongst all these very dark, angst-ridden and sometimes very serious superhero movies that have made Hollywood a lot of money over the last fifteen years I’m sensing a need for a little hope too, a little LESS super-cool bad-assery. This really hit me hardest, I think, when I was watching Henry Cavill’s turn as Superman in Zack Snyder’s Man of Steel a couple of years back.
Now let me preface this by saying that I’m an enormous fan of everyone involved in this movie from the director to the writer to Cavill himself, who I think is a terrific and enormously likeable Superman. I’ll also say that I’ve been there in the front row from X-Men’s bleak Auschwitz opening, to Willem Dafoe being crucified against a wall in Spider-Man, to Ang Lee’s introspective Hulk, to Batman officially stopping smiling EVER circa 2004. I’m all for it. After decades of campiness and often journeymen directors I fell to my knees and praised the level of talent we suddenly saw attached to these characters I’d loved my entire life. We had legitimisation! We were finally being taken seriously! But Summer 2013 as I sat there on Father’s Day and saw Superman beating the bad guy by twisting his neck so hard he broke it and murdered him I really wondered if we’d come to the end of that particular road.
Now I got the logic of that scene and it absolutely made sense within the context of the movie as the villain had taken down half of Metropolis and killed hundreds of thousands of people. But even so. This was Superman. This was like seeing Sylvester the Cat finally getting his hands on Speedy Gonzales. Elmer Fudd blowing away Bugs Bunny. I loved Superman as a kid not because of his edginess or his potential for a fatal solution, but because he could do anything he wanted and still chose to be nice. This was always the moral of a superhero comic to me.
Wonder Woman was a peace ambassador who came to the man’s world to bring an end to our endless appetite for war. Batman was a kid who’s parents were murdered who would make sure no other kid out there would ever spend a Christmas without a Mother or Father. Superman was a guy who had lost his entire world and so all forms of life were something to be treasured. Superheroes always had an element of violence by their very nature, but what separated them from Han Solo and Indiana Jones and Captain James T Kirk (who were always simply ‘heroes’ to me) were their peaceful solutions to insurmountable problems. So I sat there in the cinema and wondered... should I try to create something else?
Superheroes in comic-books have been on a journey into darker places since the early 1970s when mainstream cinema went grim and characters like Wolverine and The Punisher caught the cultural zeitgeist of the America who had lost a war. I get their popularity as a reader and as a writer because this increasingly adult tone finally bought us the kudos we’d always been looking for. These grown-up themes and situations opened us up to a whole generation of people who would never have considered buying a comic-book in the past and this new seriousness in superhero cinema, particularly in the past fourteen years, seemed appropriate in a world that had been hammered by terror attacks and financial crises.
But we have to remember that these characters were created in the Great Depression to lift our spirits in the darkest times. When things are tough we maybe need a nice, uncomplicated hero a little more and so, like I said, I’m trying this once just to see what happens. As a reader I’m desperate for it. As a writer, it’s been a sheer joy. But both myself and artist Rafael Albuquerque have created something we haven’t seen in a very long time with our new book and that’s a lovely, sweet, Jimmy Stewart/ Tom Hanks/ Steven Spielberg kinda good guy. It’s out this week and we called this thing HUCK.
I won’t give too much away. If you want a preview there’s one at the top of the page, but the concept for this is very, very simple. Imagine a town with a unique secret, a gas station attendant with special abilities who does one good deed every day. This can be as small as finding a lost necklace or as enormous as rescuing a hostage in Afghanistan, but the world doesn’t know he exists and the locals in the town aim to keep it that way. I gave Huck learning difficulties because I like heroes who have a quiet vulnerability.
Stan Lee did this with all his earliest creations and I think it makes us root for someone when they’re blind like Daredevil or have a heart condition like Tony Stark. It just makes us relate to them in a way we can’t to their incredible superpowers. I also felt Huck’s learning difficulties gave him an innocence that’s missing from everything else now, an earnestness where he’s simply doing good deeds because it’s the right thing to do and sometimes that’s enough. I based him a little on an old man I met in a volunteer centre where I often help on Fridays, a guy who was incredibly withdrawn but enormously warm and told me he’d lived his entire life by the principle of doing one good deed every day. It seemed like such a superhero thing to do and it stayed with me ever since.
I can’t be alone in my need for something a bit more uplifting in my comic books and my superhero cinema. I went to see Guardians of the Galaxy last year and was blown away not just by an incredibly fun and upbeat movie, but by the sheer joy on the faces of the audience. That movie, featuring characters nobody had ever heard of, out-grossed even Spider-Man in 2014 because people, I think, are just needing a good time and a smile again. Something interesting is stirring out there and I was shocked how quickly the rights to the Huck book were snapped up in Hollywood, Studio 8 just taking it off the table before another studio even got a look at it.
We really need something to make us feel good right now, this week perhaps more than any other in recent memory. Our job as writers and film-makers is to entertain as well as naval gaze about the human condition and Huck is my response. I wanted to create a ‘feel-good comic’ like Forrest Gump and ET and The Goonies and It’s a Wonderful Life are ‘feel-good movies’ and I want to see the impossibly-likeable Channing Tatum as Huck and Rihanna as the beautiful girl in town he’s too shy to talk to.
I want to remind everyone that we didn’t get into this game, didn’t dress up as these characters as kids, because they were so miserable and bad-ass and violent and cruel. We loved them because they were KIND and, deep down, I think we’re hungry for that right now just a few months before we see Superman throttle Batman or Captain America beat the Bejesus out of Iron Man while cinema audiences watch, wondering why the good guys went so bad. Huck is the antidote to the antihero and it’s going to be an interesting experiment this week. In the words of every great comic-book, to be continued...