Sunday, November 04, 2007

Send in the Clowns

As I was writing about the Union Dues stories, I was wondering when we would get the next one. Turns out, the next one came out three days before I wrote that article!

EP128: Union Dues - Send in the Clowns is written by Jeffrey R. DeRego and read by Dani Cutler. It is the fifth in the Union Dues podcast stories. In this fifth story, Send in the Clowns shows how hard it can be to be a super-hero and obey the Union's rules at the same time. As a super hero, you have to deal with the people on the ground, but the Union sets rules to do with image management that make it hard to work out what action is right sometimes. Even the Union's hypnotically embedded training cannot provide all the answers. The characterisations are relatively personal, and you care about Megaton and Chrome as super-heroes who care more about doing the job, but Chrome gets caught up in the rules. Dani Cutler's reading is good - but has she got a blocked nose or something? Her voice was very nasally, which was somewhat distracting.

This series is strong because it portrays super heroes in a very different light. It eschews the comic book mandate of super heroes battling super villains, showing off super powers and (literally) paper thin plots. Instead, this series focuses on the moral dilemmas that might arise in a world where super-heroes get organised into a union. A union that looks after the interests of super heroes as individuals (training, supplies, marketing) and groups (marketing, legal frameworks, deployment of super heroes where needed).

Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw reveals some of the dichotomy involved in trying to live as a super human among normal humans, and the notion of "super-hero as a job". Off White Lies gives a little hint about where the bad guys might be really coming from. The Baby and the Bathwater explores even further the dichotomy of being a super human among normal humans by showing one reason why the Union is needed and hated at the same time. Cleanup in Aisle Five explores how hard it is to manage the image of super heroes in a prejudiced, greedy and short sighted world.

In this fifth story, Send in the Clowns, which focuses again on image management, this time showing how the machinations of "the greater good" can affect the individual - and how important it is to still try and be yourself.

I notice two common themes in these stories which are worthy of note.

Big Brother. In order to look after the greater good, you need someone to make hard decisions, someone to take in all the ambiguity of real life and decide what "greater good" really means. Inevitably, this leads to decisions that will chew up and spit out, as easily (but hopefully less often) as adopt and nurture. Big Brother means more than that though - it also means ulterior motives, which comes down to whose definition of the "greater good" is really driving the show. This gives the series a touch of X-Files: you have plenty of super (natural/human) and just a few Cancer Man plot devices to keep you wondering.

Dichotomy. This is what I like most about the series so far. Being a super hero is hard. You have to leave behind your family and your community, because they become liabilities. You can't always protect them from yourself when you have powers that might kill as easily as save. You can't protect them from all the baddies that know who it is you love (thought the Union Dues stories have yet to explore this aspect). And you can't protect yourself from the fear many of them will have, fear of you. Being super means being different, it means having awe and jealousy inspiring powers. It also means being held up to a whole new set of double standards: you are not normal like us, but you still can't prevent every crime or catch every villain.

In my opinion the strongest of the series is still the first - Iron Bars and the Glass Jaw - because it gave me my first glance into this new vision of super hero-dom, of a society trying desperately to integrate supers and normals in a world where most of us identify ourselves with our job.

In further super-hero fiction news, another player has just hit the presses! Mur Lafferty is releasing her new superhero podcast novel, Playing for Keeps - look for it at and Podio Books. I have sampled the first chapter thanks to Escape Pod, and I am dying for more.

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