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I've Tasted A Life Wasted

Once, a while back, I had this neat idea for a comic book. It would be centered on this elite CIA black ops squad, operating off the books, whose job it was to keep tabs on potentially dangerous superhumans -- heroes and villains alike -- and, when it looked as if they might be too great a threat to public safety or government control, to eliminate them. It would be a small outfit, consisting of various lowlifes (mercenaries, gangbangers, ex-spooks and other morally shady characters) and led by a mysterious figure whose motivations were far from pure. Because of their extremely covert nature, they would be housed in shabby offices and without any access to sophisticated technology, depending entirely on hard work and planning to accomplish their goals; we would come to feel for some of these characters, despite constantly having qualms about the moral probity of their activities. In tone, I hoped to achieve a nice balance between the moral bleakness of classic '40s noir and the labyrinthine complexity of '70s Cold War spy drama.

I always thought it was a good idea, and recently, since I've been vowing to finish a lot of long-term writing projects I've been working on for ages, I actually got around to tinkering with the script a bit. I had high hopes for it.

Then I found out someone's already done it. Worse still, the someone in question is Garth Ennis. The book is "The Boys", and it's just terrible. Worse yet, it's incredibly popular, which means it's now unthinkable that anyone would ever publish mine -- there's simply no way it wouldn't seem like a total rip-off. The plot elements are just way too similar. Every writer has had the experience of coming up with an idea, only to find someone more famous do something similar and get it published first; but I've never encountered something so doggedly similar as this.

Of course, there are some differences. For instance:

- I decided to rarely show the superhumans. I thought keeping them distant and mysterious would create better drama, as well as making it difficult for the reader to make a clean moral decision about whether or not they deserved to die.

- I also didn't want to give my CIA operatives superhuman powers themselves. I thought it undercut the dramatic conflict, turning it into just another superhero punch-up. Also, I wanted to emphasize how difficult it would be for normal humans to fight a superhuman, so that the reader would understand why the team sometimes used extremely questionable tactics in going after their targets. If they could just walk up to them on the street and start whaling on them, where's the conflict? Also, wouldn't that undercut the whole premise of the story, by making the operatives just another set of superhumans the government would have to worry about?

- And naturally, since I am not a brilliant cutting-edge comic book legend like Garth Ennis, I neglected to include a lot of plot elements that have made "The Boys" such a success. For instance, my story doesn't have any rape jokes. There's not a bunch of gratuitous, smirky, ha-ha-only-kidding gay-bashing. My only African-American character isn't a Magical Negro, and my female characters aren't all psychopaths or jizz-jars. I don't constantly portray America as the source of all the evil on Earth, and I don't portray all Americans as dimwitted morons or grotesque monsters from the id. And since my idea of a postmodernist take on the superhero comic doesn't involve hating the whole idea of superheroes, I didn't make pretty much every one of my superhero characters a cartoonishly evil, rampaging nightmare of abuse and depravity just to illustrate how above it all I am.

Other than that, though? Same book. Good work, Garth, thanks for saving me a lot of time.


Oct. 12th, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)
Not that I'm bitter or anything.
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:30 pm (UTC)
i can hear the huhh-huhh and mouth breathing
ah the boys. i didn't get offended because i didn't take it seriously-- it seemed like a comic for 14 year olds. you could write the comic for actual adults and it might just be popular. then again, people love to have someone express the part of their worldview that they're too "timid" to say, the part that thinks "if i were a superhero i'd fuck whores until they bled" or "if i were superman chicks would totally have to blow me to get into the justice league (or whatever affiliation he has these days)."
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
Re: i can hear the huhh-huhh and mouth breathing
Gah, man. I mean, it was just so flagrantly written for the lowest-common-denominator would-be 'shocking' jagbags. I've spent a lot of my adult life arguing that people should tell stories about superheroes that are adult and sophisticated, and then someone does, and it sells like crazy, and it's a total heap of shit with that noxious blowjob scene and dogfucking and a female character called THE FEMALE, for Chrissakes.
Oct. 12th, 2007 02:21 pm (UTC)
I guess I should have SeeBelowed this. Ah well.
Oct. 12th, 2007 07:42 pm (UTC)
Ah, it's not too late.
Oct. 12th, 2007 02:30 pm (UTC)
Awwww, that blows.

Although I will say that when I first started reading this I saw "CTA black ops squad" and pictured your heroes living in subway tunnels and fighting dangerous superhumans who jumped the turnstiles. Or something.

Maybe you could do that instead.
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:47 pm (UTC)
Shit, from what I've seen in the headlines lately, Chicago already has its own black ops squad...
Oct. 12th, 2007 02:35 pm (UTC)
Garth Ennis' brand of "humor" stinks.
Oct. 12th, 2007 03:51 pm (UTC)
Seriously, I've liked some of the guy's stuff before, but his kneejerk anti-Americanism even offends me, and I'm a total America-hating liberal. The Boys reads like someone went through Preacher and replaced all the stuff that DID work with twice as many pages of all the stuff that DIDN'T.

Also, I'd be hard pressed to think of a guy who has a bigger problem writing women than Garth Ennis. Shit, Dave Sim thinks women are one evolutionary rung above leeches, and he writes female characters a thousand times more complex and interesting than Ennis'.
Oct. 12th, 2007 04:09 pm (UTC)
Ennis is one of those writers who has a quality of scripting real - occasional - effective shock. Early in The Boys, in the first issue as a matter of fact, main character Hughie and his girlfriend confess their love for one another for the first time ever - just before she's splattered into a bloody smear during a superhero battle.

Lurid, gaudy, grotesque - sure, but it also lent Hughie the gravitas of instant pathos. AND THAT WAS THE END OF THAT, and the book became "cunt cunt, arse arse, fag fag," and exploding hookers and kid sidekicks giving each other handjobs. ENNIS CAN WRITE, I know he can, Preacher hit many highs and Hitman was generally strong, it's just apparently that the fewer restraints and restrictions there are on the boy, the worse he does at his job ...

So, in brief: Yes, the Boys is ghastly fuckin' awful, but on the other hand I see NO reason you couldn't do the same general plotline, minus Ennis' trademark "Aquaman's into shit play" nonsense ...
Oct. 12th, 2007 05:41 pm (UTC)
See, I know he can write -- there were parts of Preacher I thought were swell. He's not just a pure hack like Mark Millar. It's just that he's been so rewarded for his bad tendencies (let's not kid ourselves that the reason The Boys sold so well isn't specifically because of the dog-humping and the rape jokes and Superman forcing people to suck his dick) that he doesn't really have any incentive to work on his good ones. That scene you're referring to, the intro of Wee Hughie? Sure, that worked really well, even if it wasn't original (it was a straight cop of a scene early on in Moore's Miracleman). But what was that, three pages of real human emotion after it turned into non-stop look-how-iconoclastic-I-am, blowjob whore whore blowjob assfuck. I don't know if it's so much that he does worse with less restraints as it is that he gets bigger sales when he rolls around in the muck. I know how stodgy that sounds, but, well, here we are.

I guess I could still salvage the thing, but man, it's so similar, in so many ways, in overall concept, I can't see how it would ever not invite direct comparison. I mean, right down to details like the new team members complaining about the shitty office. Anyway, I supposed he's made my job of pitching it easier; instead of some convoluted explanation of the idea, I can just say "It's like The Boys, only not completely horrible."
Oct. 12th, 2007 05:56 pm (UTC)
You know what was pretty good (Not great, but good)? Ennis' recent JLA/Hitman. He put a stamp on a thread he started in a really surprising crossover back in the Hitman days, and then added in a vulgar and touching punchline to the whole thing.

He's also one of those guys who writes a Superman I can finally stand, where he's not so much a retarded boy scout but someone who's supernaturally earnest and empathetic. It still blows my mind that some of the best Superman characterizations of the last few years have come from Garth Ennis, Chuck Austen and Judd Winick ...
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:19 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I dunno what my reaction would be if the best Batman stories of the last few years were by Geoff Johns, Mark Millar and, I dunno, I guess I gotta go back to Chuck Austen as well.

Chuck Austen: shorthand for "comics hack" since 1986.
Oct. 12th, 2007 04:12 pm (UTC)
hangs head
Oct. 12th, 2007 05:42 pm (UTC)
Oct. 12th, 2007 04:25 pm (UTC)
I'm thinking you should meme this. I mean, probably most if not all of your friends have had similar experiences. I know I have. And reading your post makes me want to pour my freaking heart out over it. In my (most recent) case, it's been two years and the wounds are still tender.

Oh, and let me also just mention the sweet, talented kid I took a writers workshop with many years ago, who was working on a thoughtful, intelligent, character-driven screenplay about a fascinating historical event of which, at that time, none of us in the group had ever heard: The NYC Newsboy Strike of 1899.

I was actually in the room with him when someone broke it to him about Disney's big plan for “Newsies.”
Oct. 12th, 2007 05:45 pm (UTC)
You know, and not to be all my-pain-is-worse-than-your-pain or anything, but that guy might have been better off in a certain sense; it's really quite common for Hollywood to unintentionally or otherwise release a bunch of movies about the same thing around the same time. Originality of concept isn't exactly prized in that biz, so you occasionally get these clusters of thematic releases: a bunch of movies about teens switching bodies with old people here, a trio of Truman Capote biopics there, a spate of peril-in-the-open-water thrillers the other. But comics is such a small, insular business, if there's a couple of stories that are that thematically similar pitched around the same time, there's no way they're both gonna get made. Shit, Alan Moore is one of the biggest writers in the business, and his "Twilight of the Superheroes" idea got shitcanned largely because it was to similar to something else the same company had in the works.
Oct. 12th, 2007 09:42 pm (UTC)
I don't mind if you're all "your pain is worse than his." Just so long as you don't get all "your pain is worse than MINE."

God, we'd be here all night.
Oct. 12th, 2007 05:34 pm (UTC)
Leonard, there is nothing but your own self doubt that is keeping you from doing this.

Oct. 12th, 2007 05:51 pm (UTC)
No, really, man, it's not just that. If anything, it's the fact that I'm so goddamn busy. I have no qualms about pitching something that'll get rejected; I do it all the time. Every day. I don't even have qualms about pitching a comic that'll get rejected; I've done it before and I'll do it again. I just don't want it to get rejected because it's clearly (if unintentionally) derivative of a really popular book that was just released. Even if I think my work is better -- and I'm never one to toot my own horn, but there's no way my idea wouldn't be better than The Boys</i> -- the fact is, it's just amazingly similar, and I feel like any editor is just gonna go "Isn't this the exact same idea as The Boys?", and with good reason. I wanna fail for some reason other than unoriginality.

And, you know, it's not like I don't have any other ideas. Like I said, this happens all the time -- writers come up with an idea, and someone else beats 'em to it. Hell, I'd be happy if The Boys had been good. It's only the fact that it sucks that rankles me, because I kinda liked the idea and I'm sorry to see it done so shabbily.
Oct. 12th, 2007 06:05 pm (UTC)
Ah, Ennis...he's probably the most schizophrenic writer in comics. I know he's capable of writing some genuinely effective, if not outright powerful, scenes, like this one and a few scenes from his "Midnighter" run indicate he's not homophobic, at least not in the same outspoken, political way as, say, Chuck Dixon or Orson Scott Card. But then there's stuff like "The Boys" that really just keeps me from following him the same way I do Grant Morrison and Gail Simone.

Anyway, I'm tempted to share my thoughts on "comics writers who hate superheroes", but to avoid dumping 230 pages on your comments section I'll give you the Cliff Notes version. I can understand indie writers or people trying to break into the industry resenting the dominance of the sub-genre. There's probably more genre diversity in comics now than there was through the 1990s, but it's still a small, incestuous industry and if you want to make a name for yourself, besides coming in after being successful in another, more respected medium or happening to have been involved with the Next Big Indie Comic, it has to be through DC or Marvel, which would most likely involve a few writing or art assignments involving superheroes.

When it comes to folks like Garth Ennis or Warren Ellis, though, I just don't get it. They have a large following of readers, connections in the industry, and publishers outside the Big Two willing to build entire lines around their names. If they really think that the superhero sub-genre is suffocating the industry and new talents, then they're in a strong position to do something about it (and, really, they already have, through the success of series like "Transmetropolitan" or "Preacher" alone). What is the point in writing stories bashing the concept of superheroes and, by extension, fans of the sub-genre? It only looks painfully ridiculous, especially when they continue to take writing assignments involving big-name superhero properties.

Oct. 12th, 2007 06:22 pm (UTC)
Yeah, I was wondering that myself. I mean, there are a lot of opportunities nowadays, especially for someone on the level of a Garth Ennis, to make decent money without writing superhero stories, so why bother? I mean, I don't like romance novels, but I ain't gonna get a job writing them just so I can fuck them up.
Oct. 12th, 2007 07:58 pm (UTC)
Er, because Garth Ennis is a comics writer, and superhero comics pays the bills. I love .303 and War Stories and Pride and Joy, but let's not kid ourselves: The Punisher is what's paying Ennis's bills. (And rightly, because at this point I think Ennis's MAX version of Punisher is probably the definitive run on the character.) If Ennis wants more sweet sweet money, he has to write superhero comics, and since he's already writing the Punisher, that means comedy antics for the most part, since he pretty much loathes all superheroes not named Superman.
Oct. 12th, 2007 08:02 pm (UTC)
Yeah, but if the only way to make money in your chosen profession is by writing about something you hate, maybe you should choose another profession.

And I wouldn't exactly call the kind of shit he pulls in The Boys "comedy antics".
Oct. 12th, 2007 09:01 pm (UTC)
Hey, if you enjoy writing stories where superheroes sodomize each other - and I would argue that Ennis probably does - and you can make a living off it, then more power to you, I say.

I honestly find The Boys amusing, if at times a bit kneejerk-Ennis. (Anyway, Ennis working at thirty percent is like Millar or Johns working at one hundred fifty percent.)

And it's actually gotten a lot better after the first story arc. The Tek-Knight storyline was both funny and well-written. But that's me.
Oct. 12th, 2007 11:11 pm (UTC)
Not that I'm adding much, but I was so disappointed in The Boys. There was so much potential for awesome with that premise, and Ennis pointedly ignored it.
Oct. 14th, 2007 04:16 pm (UTC)
I know your pain
About five or six years ago, I had this idea for a book about a serial killer who tracks other serial killers and kills them. I wrote about 80 pages of it, then got bogged down in other projects. Now there are three books with this general concept, and a cable series that some people seem to like called Dexter.

There was a big difference between my idea and that idea: my guy wasn't killing other killers because they'd escaped justice, he was doing it so he could claim their body counts as his own and become the most famous, prolific serial killer in American history - a straight-up fame junkie. (In the book, he had dreams of being interviewed by Stone Phillips.) But there's no way I could finish it and sell it now; the core concept has been used already.

- Phil Freeman
Oct. 19th, 2007 03:57 pm (UTC)
I also didn't want to give my CIA operatives superhuman powers themselves. I thought it undercut the dramatic conflict, turning it into just another superhero punch-up. Also, I wanted to emphasize how difficult it would be for normal humans to fight a superhuman, so that the reader would understand why the team sometimes used extremely questionable tactics in going after their targets.

In White Wolf's postmodern-superhero Storytelling game Aberrant, there's a multinational black-ops agency called "The Directive" who consider it their job to worry about the impact of "novas" (the in-game term for superhumans) on the world, and which is mostly staffed by "baseline" humans. The game designers made them that way for much the same reason you did: to emphasize the challenge a non-powered Directive agent faces when going up against someone who can throw fire, or turn into a spiky metal monster.