What’s Your Fantasy
Tips for GMs and Writers
Copyright © 2001 by Christine Morgan
Superheroes: Modern Myths
It’s almost Halloween as I write this, and though I’d been planning to write about superheroes as modern myths since August, the events of September 11th couldn’t help but have an impact. We’ve been shown who the real heroes are. Children’s costume sales reflect that - firefighters and police officers, according to the newspapers, are far and away outnumbering the comic-book characters.
We need our heroes. Too often, we rely on them without thinking about it, and they get little reward and less recognition. Our culture tends to focus more on our idols, and on the actions and antics of the fictional characters that make up our mythology, while taking the true heroes for granted.
In this column, I’m going to attempt to define what each of the following means to me - hero, idol, myth, and superhero - and why I think we need them all. But the main focus of the column will be on superheroes, their place in our collective consciousness, and what my personal experience with the genre has been. I’ll be looking at games, comics, movies, and fiction. I’ll also be reviewing Cyber Age Adventures, a role-playing system and series of novels by Frank Fradella.
The true heroes are the unsung ones. These are the people who do what they must do, whether it’s their job, their duty, or their innate sense of what’s right, in order to save lives and help others. They are the police officers, the soldiers, the firefighters, the rescue workers, risking their own safety for the sake of others. They are the doctors and nurses, putting in grueling hours while life and death hang in the balance. They are the teachers and caregivers, in whose hands rests the education and well-being of our children, our elderly, our chronically impaired. They are the clergy and the counselors, bringing comfort and understanding to those needing a guide.
These are our heroes. Often underpaid, underappreciated, overworked. Yet they don’t give it up, they don’t quit, they don’t walk away. The satisfaction they gain from knowing that they are making a difference must outweigh everything else.
Moments of heroism can occur in all of our lives. These moments can be active (performing CPR) or passive (donating blood), brief (stopping to help at the scene of an accident) or long-term (doing volunteer or charity work). We all have the potential for these good deeds. We all have the potential to influence or impact a life for the better.
Heroes are distinguished by what they do. But it doesn’t always have to be something drastic and dramatic to make someone a hero. Some of the greatest heroes of all are the parents who manage to raise happy, healthy children in a world so overloaded with dangers and distractions.
In that light, if I had to name some of my personal heroes, I’d include my mother on that list, and the physics professor I had in college.
If a hero is defined by what he or she does, an idol is often best defined by who he or she is. These are the famous ones, the celebrities. Actors, sports stars, musicians, politicians … the ones who affect our lives in a broader fashion, through entertainment or activities that shape the culture in which we live.
We idolize them. We make it possible for them to be paid amazing amounts of money, and get special privileges that the average person can only dream of. And yet, in our attempt to elevate them above the rest of us, we somehow expect them to be better than us, to behave better. To be immortal. To look perfect.
There’s often a tremendous feeling of disappointment, even betrayal, when an idol is shown to have those feet of clay. When we’re reminded that they’re human after all. If a Hollywood marriage breaks up in a firestorm of accusations, or a pop star is busted for a drug habit, or a politician is caught in an affair, we’re still shocked (we should really know better by now, and yet the wish-to-believe goes on).
Some occupations are automatically given idol-status, because those occupations are high-risk and high-profile and generally considered a cut above the everyday job. Interestingly, most of the ones that fit this category are the more macho professions. They’re cool, they’re studly, they’re sexy. These people can be idols without necessarily being heroes. Astronauts, fighter pilots, extreme athletes, stuntmen … active, exciting, energizing professions. This is not to say that there’s no room in these fields for women; it’s just more rare, and a shabby state of affairs indeed when the more female-dominated professions that fit this category are “model” and … and … sheesh, I can’t think of an ‘and.’
My main idols are authors, which makes me a bit weird. I can flip through People Magazine’s 50 most droolworthy celebs and I’ll only recognize (let alone think is cute) one in ten. Authors aren’t high-profile. It’s not a sexy gig. They don’t perform, or have clips to show, so they rarely are seen on the talk shows.
But I idolize Stephen King, Dean Koontz. I admire them all the more because each managed to go from a difficult childhood of poverty and troubled families into being wealthy, famous, and happily married with stable home lives.
In our modern-day world, our myths have devolved into a collection of urban legends. Young kids might still believe in Santa and the Easter Bunny, but grown-ups believe in illicit kidney-harvesters, the Red Velvet cake recipe, and the one about the woman who sells her ex-boyfriend’s Corvette for fifty bucks.
While I’m a proponent of science over superstition, I do occasionally feel a sense of sorrow when one by one our last lingering myths are stripped away. They’re disproving Atlantis, picking apart Loch Ness, ruthlessly analyzing the Bigfoot films. They’re debunking ghosts and mediums right and left. It seems like there’s more Nostradamus-hoaxes now circulating than there ever were Nostradamus predictions in the first place. More people believe that the government would cover up UFO evidence than actually believe in UFOs.
Not that I believe in all of these things, mind you … but I think we do lose something when we put everything under the cold hard light of science. If we know everything, if we have all the answers, then what do we have left to wonder about?
What I still wonder about: past lives, psychic abilities, life on other worlds (not whether it’s been visiting us).
Now we get into the strictly fictional. There are no superheroes in real life. The concept implies someone with, as they say, powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal man.
We’re all familiar with fluttering capes, utility belts, invisible jets, retractable adamantium claws … the trappings of the genre. Colorful costumes. Lengthy fights in which massive amounts of property gets reduced to rubble, cars are hurled, lampposts are bent into pretzels, bullets bounce off manly chests or golden bracers, and yet, at the end of the battle, nobody’s dead, nobody’s bleeding, and everyone who went down just got stunned or knocked out.
There are plenty of fictional characters who, without being comic book and Saturday morning cartoon fodder, still arguably qualify as superheroes. James Bond, the ultimate spy, has gadgets that even Batman might covet and skills that no real person could ever attain (both under cover and under the covers, as it were). The deductive and intuitive leaps of Sherlock Holmes set him far above any normal detective.
But for the sake of simplicity, I’ll stick with the traditional use of the term. Superhero. The way I see it, these characters filled a gap in our cultural mythology. We’d lost the gods and legends of ancient times - no one told stories about Hercules anymore, for instance. In America, there was a period in which storytellers tried to make up for this with tall tales, stories of incredible feats and unbelievable abilities, truly, especially in the case of Paul Bunyan, bigger-than-life characters.
The tall tales faded out, though, in place of a new mythology. The superhero. Adventure tales in magazines gave way to comic books, and a new pantheon of gods was introduced.
Ask almost any kid, and he or she will know who the big names are. Superman. Batman. Wonder Woman. They’re the classics, but as far as I was concerned when I was younger, they were no fun. They were too perfect, too far-removed. I’ve always preferred characters that I can feel some empathy for, find some common ground, some reason to be interested in them and their fates. I didn’t find that in the Holy Trinity of superdom.
One was an alien so much better than us that the comic writers had to make up a weakness; invulnerability gets boring after a while. Why should we care if Supes was in danger, when we knew nothing could hurt him. Another was a mega-rich guy with a mansion, a spiffy car, and all the gizmos you could ever want. Okay, he had angst before angst was popular, but what on earth was there about Batman for anyone to identify with? Ditto for Wonder Woman. She had to be some goddess-powered Amazon princess in order to be special. Three cheers to her for being a strong female role model and all that, but the way she still had to play second fiddle to the men in her secret identity (let alone the whole glittery dominatrix business with the rope) didn’t appeal to me.
What I wanted in a superhero was a more or less regular person who gained special abilities and didn’t have to be from another planet, a mystical island, or a background of fabulous wealth. Ordinary folks in extraordinary circumstances. Take Spiderman, for instance. All the problems of real life, like keeping a job, taking care of family, and trying to juggle his recreational time to include crime fighting and dating. His situation seemed a lot more real than sticking on a pair of eyeglasses so nobody at work would recognize you. He seemed like a ‘real guy,’ with all the flaws, goals, and quirks thereof.
Except in Spidey’s case, and that of the Hulk and the Fantastic Four and others, I found I never liked the whole “origin of the super power” thing. It always felt so contrived. Were they all blamed on radiation, one way or another? I think so. Solar, gamma, whatever. Same stuff that turned a bunch of innocent insects into building-leveling monsters in all those fifties horror movies.
The Uncanny X-Men:
What I needed, I found when I was a teen. Ordinary people who didn’t have to be bitten by / exposed to radioactive anything. They weren’t aliens, they weren’t gods, they weren’t billionaires with powered armor or wizards from another dimension. Heck, some of them were kids! I had discovered the X-Men. With a beautifully simple mechanism. There are mutants. They have powers. A wide range of powers. Deal with it.
As far as I was concerned, that was a winning formula. It worked for me. I followed the comics until the art started getting ugly (in my unlearned opinion; I’ve been told that I have sucky taste in art and animation). That was sometime after the introduction of the New Mutants, the Phoenix saga, and so on. My knowledge stopped there, so it was with great comfort and nostalgia that I greeted the cartoon.
It was with quite a bit of apprehension, though, that I greeted X-Men: 90210 … uh, Evolution. Even if it does have Nightcrawler in it, who’s always been my favorite. Just one more in a long line of animated, inhuman-looking crushes … he’d be in the subcategory of “fuzzy swashbuckling hunks” along with Disney’s Robin Hood and Justin, the rat of NIMH. I believe I may have mentioned being weird.
Anyway. X-Men. Ordinary folks who had, through no fault of their own, a mutant gene that gave them these widely-varied abilities. Could happen to anyone with no warning. That was the aspect that appealed to me. I would certainly not call myself an expert on them, or a purist (I liked the movie, including how they handled Rogue, and Wolverine was enough of a hottie to take most of the letdown out of the fact that they excluded mein liebchen the blue elf; the only thing I didn’t much care for was their version of Mystique).
What happened next was a welcome surprise. There had traditionally been a dearth of superhero fiction. Comics aplenty, cartoons, movies … I can remember getting up early when I was a kid to watch The Batman/Superman/Aquaman Hour (and if that doesn’t date me, I’ll have to mention Electra-Woman and Dyna-Girl). But the only books were novelizations of the above.
The Wild Cards novels:
Along came George R.R. Martin, and I was in heaven. The Wild Cards novels were everything I’d ever hoped for in superhero fiction. The characters were ordinary people who got hit with a virus that gave them powers. Even better, to my way of thinking, it gave them powers that went along with some aspect of their personalities. And it wasn’t just one or two superheroes, we had dozens. Hundreds. With a built-in class structure, and a deadly consequence.
For those readers not familiar with Wild Cards (shame on you! shame! get out right now and buy the books! buy the GURPS role-playing supplements!), the premise was thus: a race of aliens genetically identical to humanity but possessed of great psionics decided to test their virus on Earth before using it on their own people.
Out of each one hundred exposed to this ‘wild card’ virus, ninety would ‘draw the Black Queen’ and die a gruesome death. Nine would draw a ‘joker,’ and be transformed, sometimes subtly or even attractively, more often grotesquely, occasionally with a super power as a sort of consolation prize. And one, one in a hundred, would draw an ‘ace’ and gain some sort of super power while remaining physically unchanged.
The Wild Cards universe is an alternate history, a shared universe, a series of anthologies and collaborative novels … all the ambitious kinds of stuff that I’m hesitant to try in my own writing. The characters, from the sole alien, Dr. Tachyon, who maroons himself on Earth to try and help the victims of the virus, to the aces and the jokers and the ‘nats’ (naturals, or virus-free normal folks) are vivid and fun and all-around wonderful.
But what appealed to me most about the Wild Cards series was how it brought superheroism into the real world. Aces as celebrities. Jokers as the lowest minority. The series fearlessly tackled issues old and new - the McCarthyism of the 1950’s, the AIDS epidemic, prejudice, sex. It wasn’t for the kiddies. It was supers for grownups, and since I was one by then, I loved it all the more for that very reason.
Alas, the Wild Cards saga ended years ago (and I have all the books but one; if anyone out there has a copy of #15, Black Trump, the final in the series, that they’re willing to sell, please e-mail me!). That meant, except for the occasional movie, my only superhero outlet came from gaming.
In college, I was still flirting with other systems before settling down to my monogamous long-term relationship with GURPS. Had a brief fling with Champions, and ran my own Villains and Vigilantes game for a while. I remember those sessions fondly. Jason, the Champions gamemaster, growing increasingly annoyed with us all as we tried to puzzle out some clues from the ransom note sent by the bad guys - finally, he snatched it back and yelled at us, pointing out that the ‘brick,’ having been allowed to write the note, put the return address on the envelope. Rolling piles and piles of dice to sort out the damage. The “Legion of Losers” V&V game, with Ice Cream Man and Arson Boy and Goldfish Girl …
My supers gaming ended with college and a move to Seattle. Tim, my hubby and at the time my sole gaming partner, never cared for the genre (he puts up with my many foibles, so I suppose I must put up with his). He does, though, have quite the fondness for Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman … but I think that has more to do with skintight black vinyl than with her super powers.
Even when GURPS Supers came out, I could only look. I thought I’d have to forget my superhero fix, or eke by with the X-Men cartoons and movies, and re-reading Wild Cards. And watching the Powerpuff Girls with my daughter, a show I recommend highly. Speaking as the parent of a young girl and also as a supers fan.
So it was until this past August, when I attended DragonCon in Atlanta. Not only did I get to play in a GURPS X-Men game (the first time I’d played in a con game in years), and got to play my beloved Nightcrawler to boot (either the German accent, or the shameless flirting with the female PCs tickled the gamemaster and disconcerted my fellow players), but I discovered a new game system and a new source for superhero fiction.
I met Frank Fradella at DragonCon in August. As is usually the case when I meet an author and find him or her to be a likeable sort with an intriguing-sounding project, I gave it a try. Come to think of it, as is usually the case, I then mention them in Sabledrake … my reviews of Josh Ortega’s ((FREQUENCIES)) and Don deBrandt’s Timberjak happened in a similar fashion. (include links)
After hearing Frank talk about Cyber Age Adventures in a panel, I sought out his booth in the dealer’s room. The Cyber Age line consists of a series of novels as well as a limited-edition role-playing game (I nabbed copy 18 out of 50, signed, too!). I bought the game and the first novel, and perused both on the flight home. In addition to the anthologies and the game, their website features an e-zine (sadly, to be ending with the year 2001) and other features from chat to postcards and more.
The novel, a trade paperback, introduces the world and the characters in the form of narrative fiction interspersed with newspaper articles and interviews, most followed by an afterword detailing how the particular entry came about. As an author myself, I’m always fascinated with the process of writing and enjoy any opportunity to see how other people do it. The physical book itself has a few problems in the form of some spelling and grammar errors, including my old nitpick nemesis, “it’s/its”, but the stories themselves are just the sort of thing I enjoy. Real people and how they deal with these powers.
There’s no set blanket origin in the Cyber Age universe, no wild card virus or handy mutant gene. Not all of the superheroes even have superpowers - The Swan defines himself as a crimefighter - while some are aliens, and one is apparently some sort of god (shamed to admit I skimmed over the Jade Tiger stories; I’m past-neutral-headed-toward-bleah when it comes to that particular style and subject). The book hints at history that makes me want to read the rest - they’re on my holiday wish list, should anyone be looking for a hint. ; )
As for the game, I’m not really expert enough to give a comprehensive review despite my twenty years in the hobby. When it comes to game mechanics and balance, I’m lost. I’m one of those ‘roll and shout’ GMs who is quite happy winging it through a combat, or indeed a whole adventure.
What I do know is that the character creation process in Cyber Age Adventures was simple enough that even I could get through it after only a couple of false starts (and having to find a couple of d10s; it’s been a decade since I’ve ‘rolled up’ a character). Yet it’s detailed enough to allow for a wide variety of possibilities. I still haven’t tried to actually play, since my schedule only barely allows time for my ongoing GURPS fantasy campaign. Maybe one of these days, I can wheedle my group into giving it a go or try it out as a con game.
The Cyber Age system allows for basically any sort of character one could desire. From ordinary humans augmented by gadgets on up to planet-devouring gods, it’s all there. Everything is handled by percentile dice, and one of the neatest features in my opinion was the way a character could gain or lose experience by reactions from the media. Negative coverage (such as obituaries of those who died as a result of the character’s actions or inactions) can affect advancement, while interviews and features and front-page headlines for saving the day can lead to increases in abilities.
A character’s statistics are divided into two primary areas, physical and mental. Under physical, the specific stats are Combat, Agility, Accuracy, Strength, Stamina, and Style. Mental ones include Perception, Awareness, Willpower, Presence, Intelligence, and Cunning. All of these are fairly self-explanatory and are assigned a number on a ranking system in increments of 5. So H1 would have a ranking score of 5, H2 would be 10, and so on up to G4, 100.
A secondary set of numbers, which are obtained by averaging some of the above stats, are Damage (how much you do), Resilience (how much damage you can avoid), Aura (spiritual and mental strength), and Toughness (how much punishment you can withstand).
Characters will also have Powers, in any of ten categories (examples: Mastery of Self, Mastery of Others, Mastery of Energy, Mastery of Movement). Proficiencies are additional skills covering everything from combat maneuvers to hobbies. Magical and psychic abilities are also covered.
Each score will range from Human through Enhanced Human, Superhuman, Cosmic, and Godlike, further broken down into four divisions: H1 is equivalent to a frail or feeble human, H2 is the average, H3 would include most athletes and professors, H4 the top of the normal human capabilities.
My first two attempts at randomly rolling up characters under the Cyber Age system produced the following examples. Please bear in mind that I may be doing this all wrong; if so, perhaps someone with more expertise will correct me.
1. First try.
Physical Realm of Power (on a roll of 80 on percentile dice)
Cosmic Mental Realm of Power - Godlike (on a roll of 62)
Now it was time for powers and proficiencies, and after rolling to see how many of each I got, I decided to pick them rather than take them randomly. Here’s what I came up with:
Powers: 2 (on a roll of 18 on percentile dice)
Proficiencies: 8 (on a roll of 83 on percentile dice)
After looking over all of this, I began to get a decent picture of this character in my mind. An awesomely strong, impressive and imposing warrior. Not too bright, fairly canny, but lacking initiative. I decided to make him a genetically engineered bodyguard from an alien world. He stands seven feet tall, built like a block of granite, basically humanoid. Jutting jaw, yellow eyes, dusky maroon complexion. A shock of bushy white hair that grows in a mane down his back and along the backs of his arms. He wears the torn remains of his uniform, a black metallic-mesh tunic with the gold insignia of his employers on the chest.
He was the only survivor of a ship crash. Having failed to save his masters, though it was through no fault of his own, he wandered off looking for someone else to serve (moments before the Air Force arrived to investigate). He fell in with a bunch of street kids, who nicknamed him Brute Force. With a massive alien killing machine on their side, the group has become a gang to be feared.
2. Second try.
Physical Realm of Power - Human (on a roll of 24 on percentile dice)
Mental Realm of Power - Enhanced Human (on a roll of 30)
Once again, when it came to powers and proficiencies, I rolled to see how many, then chose the individual ones for each category.
Powers: 8 (on a roll of 77 on percentile dice) )
Proficiencies: 10 (roll of 93)
The picture that emerged with this character was the typical Lovecraftian protagonist who blunders into Things Man Was Not Meant to Know. I named him Nigel Black. A thin, pale young man with piercing grey eyes and dark hair. He spends too much time in libraries but is nonetheless stronger and tougher than he looks. Very smart, very tricky, perhaps too confident in himself and very likely to get in serious trouble going up against some force too great for him to handle.
His studies into the occult have enabled him to enhance his mental powers, and he is particularly adept at lucid dreaming as well as projecting himself into the dreams of others. Nigel is somewhat morality-challenged and has no problems using what he learns from his telepathy and ESP for his own gain. He is a graduate student who supports himself by working as a medium and ghost-hunter, specializing in photographing auras and spirits.
Having familiarized myself with the Cyber Age system (I hope; as I said, I may have gotten it all wrong), I was ready to tackle trying to design a specific character. For that, I thought back to one I’d played in college, a patriotic young lady who went by the alias Banner.
Here is Banner in character-sheet form, followed by a short story from her point of view. Eerily, I did all this a week before the events of September 11, when patriotism took an upswing and all of a sudden Banner’s attitude toward flag and country became more commonplace.
Physical ROP - Enhanced Human
Mental ROP -- Human
Banner, a.k.a. Cynthia Carstairs, is seventeen years old, blond and blue-eyed, pretty, with perfect teeth in a dazzling smile. She wears a form-fitting red and blue bodysuit with white trim and a star on the chest, with white boots and gloves. She lives with her parents (Major Jack Carstairs and Senator Jeanette Deighton) and her kid brother Billy. When not fighting crime and injustice, she attends private school. Her identity is not secret, and she does tend to lord it over her classmates.
Used to being the center of attention, Banner is always out to look her best and make a good impression. This sometimes works against her; she’s been known to miss out on an entire conflict waiting for “the right moment” to make her appearance. She rarely dates, having very high standards.
Oh, Say Can You See …
Banner’s Story, Copyright © 2001 by Christine Morgan
“Where in the Merry Christmas do you think you’re going?”
“Out to fight crime, where else?”
“Not dressed like that, you’re not. You march yourself right back up those stairs and put on some proper clothes.”
“But, Daddy! These are proper clothes.”
“For a pop star in a soda commercial, maybe. Not for my little girl.”
“I’m fifteen. I’m not a baby.”
“As long as you live under my roof, missy, you’ll do as I say. Jeanette, tell her.”
“Mind your father, Cynthia, dear. He’s right, you know. You look like a tart. While you’re at it, wash that stuff off your face before you break out.”
Two years ago, that argument. I still remember every word. Boy, I’d never seen my father so mad. His face was the color of an old brick, and I swear I could see the veins beating in his temples. All over an outfit that I thought was just the cutest thing! Okay, looking back, I agree it was a little trashy. But sexy-trashy.
The jeans were low-riding hipsters snug as a hug. I had a fine plastic chain threaded through the belt loops; the links of it were red, white, and blue. Over that, a nice expanse of taut, tanned midriff - it’s not like I had a navel ring or anything! Plus a skimpy white sports bra, and a spangly red crop-top vest.
The “stuff” on my face that my mom had objected to was facepaint. I’d done a really cool, fancy stylized flag that started by my eye and went down over my cheek. I mean, I wasn’t trying to be disrespectful or anything. No way! I’d never. But Mom was right. It did make me break out, and that put my first outing as an actual, professional superhero on hold for a few days until my skin cleared up.
The delay gave me time to shop for a suitable costume. The funny thing is, when you think about it, a skintight bodysuit with a built-in uplift bra is just as revealing. But both Mom and Dad gave it the seal of approval.
I stayed with the patriotic colors. Why not? I love my country. Sometimes I think I’m the only one in school who means it when we say the Pledge of Allegiance every morning, and I know I’m the only one who gets choked up when the flag unfurls, all those stars and stripes rippling in the breeze …
It was only natural to call myself Banner. I think it made Dad pretty proud, too. After all, this whole business is his fault when you come right down to it. If he hadn’t been in those top-secret military experiments all those years ago, I wouldn’t be what I am today. At the time, it was a big disappointment for them. Twenty-four soldiers were part of that enhancement project, and they didn’t get a single super out of the lot. Dad and the others were given a nice bonus all the same and sent on their merry way. He rose through the ranks (he’s still Major Carstairs even though he’s been retired eight years now), and married my mom back when she was still mayor, her terms as Senator still ahead of her.
Up until two years ago, none of us had any idea that our family was anything but normal. Even Billy. He’s a boogersnot, has been since he was a baby, but all my friends with little brothers assure me that there’s nothing weird about that.
Yeah, until my powers showed up, we were just your totally average rich, socially-connected, politically-active family. Mom would take us on the campaign trail with her, and we looked really good on camera. I’m quite photogenic if I do say so myself, now that those awful braces are gone. I used to be afraid I’d have that rigid metal grin forever.
One problem, though, with being so influential and in the public eye is that sometimes it earns you enemies. Radical protesters, or just plain wackos, would get a bee in their bonnet about something Mom said or did. Once, our limo got doused with fake blood. While we were riding in it. Can you say gross, or what?
The kidnappers … that was the worst. But it was also the best. That was when it all started for me.
Mom had been involved with some bill that mandated gun registration and control. This was right after there was a shooting at one of the schools in the district. Not mine, no way, this was a grubby public school where the kids major in smoking, graffiti, and being pregnant by sixteen. Mom wanted to get guns out of the hands of the bad guys. What’s wrong with that, I ask you?
Well, this bunch objected. They burst in on us while we were staying at a hotel in the state capitol. Held me, and Daddy, and Billy at gunpoint while they tried to bully Mom into changing her stance, undoing what she’d done before the bill passed. She wasn’t going for it. I’ve always admired that about my mother. She never loses her cool. And is she gorgeous? I hope I look half that good when I’m that old, but given the start I’ve got, I’m sure I don’t have to worry.
I was worried then, though. We all were. Mom, too, but she was doing her best not to show it. Spine of steel. Cold as ice. Until they decided to show her they were serious, and shot Dad.
It wasn’t bad, a round to the shoulder. But there was a lot of blood, and the noise was terribly loud. The next thing I knew, Dad was rolling on the floor, trying not to cry out, trying to be brave. Billy was screaming. And one of them, a hairy guy with breath like a jackal, grabbed me by the hair and pushed the barrel of that gun right up against my temple.
Something strange started happening to me then. A tingling, way down deep in my bones. I was shaking, I was scared, but I was also mad. Then there was a sparkle of light all around me and I felt fast, strong, invincible.
I pushed the hairy guy and he went a lot farther than either of us expected. He flew halfway across the room and tumbled over the coffee table and hit the wall.
Everybody fell silent for the longest second I’ve ever experienced, and then everybody was talking at once. Shouting. The kidnappers, five of them, spun toward me with these incredulous expressions. I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror over the dresser, and saw that I hadn’t imagined the sparkly glow. It wrapped me like a clear net full of stars. I went to take a step forward, not sure what exactly I’d do next, and all of a sudden I was floating.
That was when they opened fire on me. Above the din and thunder of the guns, I heard Mom shriek like her heart was getting ripped out, because her little girl was about to be the late Cynthia Carstairs.
I didn’t feel anything more than a rapid series of dull, muted thumps. The bullets hit this glowing thing around me and didn’t get through. I had a rotten moment when I imagined them ricocheting off like you see when someone shoots a superhero in the comic books, whizzing in all directions and perforating everyone else in the room.
But they didn’t. They hit, and it was like the force field - I know what it is now, but at the time I was too stunned to think about it - absorbed their energy. They dropped to the floor, inert lead pellets with all their menace used up. At the same time, I felt this incredible surge of strength.
I picked up the coffee table the one guy had tripped over, and I hurled it at the others as hard as I could. It was a heavy mahogany thing, but it might as well have been made of wicker. Until it landed on them, that is, and then it was heavy mahogany again. They went down like bowling pins.
The shooting, screaming, and commotion hadn’t gone unnoticed. People were banging on the door. Still floating, I decided to see if I could move, and sped through the air. It wasn’t graceful, that first attempt at flight, and it wasn’t pretty. I flew like I’d been shot out of a catapult, waving my arms and kicking my legs and yelping in surprise.
I went fast, too. Ran smack into the door and through it, leaving a gaping, splintery hole. It didn’t hurt a bit, thanks to that force field, but there I was, hovering in the hallway above a bunch of the people who’d been knocking and calling out.
The police came barreling in, cuffed the kidnappers and took them away. Paramedics showed up to take care of Dad. Dozens of people were milling around, and all of them were asking me, with awe and envy, what had happened and what I’d done.
That was my first taste of both superpowers and herodom, and I liked both. I’ve heard since every argument you can imagine for having a secret identity. It was kind of too late for me right from the start, but the more I think about it, the more I’d probably be public anyway. It’s not like I have to hide the truth from my parents. They’re totally behind me. Maybe things would be different if I didn’t have this handy force field.
As for my friends at school, I couldn’t stand it if everyone was talking about this cool new superheroine whose picture is in all the papers, wishing they knew her. I’d blab. I’d have to. What good would it be to be the one on the front page, if nobody knows it’s you?
The best argument for the secret identity, I suppose, is so that nobody tries to get at your family. Hold them hostage or something. But my dad can take care of himself, my mom’s got powerful friends in high places, and Billy …
Okay, they can hold Billy hostage. Let me tell you, it was bad before I became Banner. It used to be “How come Cindy gets to stay up until eleven?” (he knows I hate being called Cindy, which is why he does it, the booger) and “How come Cindy gets her own phone line?” and so on and so on. And threading through it all, his mantra, his trademark, a loud whiny “It’s not fair!” I try to tell him that when I was eleven, I didn’t get to do any of those things either, but it’s like talking to a wall.
Now, it’s downright intolerable. “How come Cindy can fly?” and “How come Cindy got to break up the downtown riots?” and “It’s not fair!” until I’d be ready to pay a supervillain to tie him to the railroad tracks. I can’t imagine the fit he’ll pitch if he doesn’t get powers of his own someday. I hope he doesn’t. It would serve the little snot right. From now until he turns fifteen, the age at which I got mine, we’re not going to hear the end of it.
I console myself with the knowledge that one more year will see me going away to college. Then I’ll only have to put up with it on visits and vacations. I’m looking forward to it, even if college is going to mean a lot more studying and a lot less time to put on my blue and red bodysuit, my white gloves, and the matching boots and fly around looking for wrongs to right and good deeds to do. Hopefully, the professors will be understanding.
Before I need to worry about that, I’ve still got my senior year to get through. It would be nice if I could meet a boy interesting enough to go to the prom with, but everybody at my school is so depressingly average.
If only more superheroes were my age! Mom won’t let me date older men.
I think we need our heroes. We need our idols. We even need our superheroes. Maybe we especially need our superheroes, and the chance to occasionally escape into a world where crime can be fought directly, where problems can be solved with a well-placed energy bolt or psychic blast. There’s something decisive, clean, and efficient about vigilantism. About doing what’s right and not worrying about your every move being scrutinized by lawyers and review boards.
Each of us probably has an idea of just what super powers we’d like to have. Who wouldn’t want to be able to fly? (well, me … but that’s because I’m too aware of how silly I’d look; like Hiram Worchester in Wild Cards, I’m not exactly svelte). Who wouldn’t want to be invulnerable, or shoot jets of flame, or turn into an animal? What would you choose?
Me, I’d want telepathic powers. I’d want to be able to read and control minds, manipulate emotions, alter perceptions with mental illusions. And, knowing me, I’d probably wind up using my powers for evil just because I’ve always liked the villains best. I hope not, I hope that in such a situation I’d be out there doing good deeds - fighting depression, anxiety, stress, prejudice, hatred … making the world a better place. But I fear I know myself too well!
In closing, I’d like to take a minute to say thanks to some of the people who’ve helped keep my love of superheroes alive: Stan Lee and the folks at Marvel, George R.R. Martin and everyone involved with the Wild Cards universe, Steve Jackson Games, Greg Weisman and the Gargoyles team (“gothic action,” it may be, but there are elements in it that appeal to the superhero-fan in all of us), Frank Fradella and Cyber Age Adventures, the movie-makers and animators who’ve brought these modern legends to screens big and small, and to all the gaming groups over the years.
I'd like to make a comment about this article.
This page has been visited times.