Monday, July 4, 2011

Retcon The Night Away

Let us celebrate the U.S. Independence Day by talking about my patriot hero Ultimate American. Through a series of odd circumstances, he has been a problematic character of late. I think I am finally on the road to fixing this.

It's important to understand that, while I have been using the term "Owariverse" for my li'l world, Captain Satellite and Shelly Ericson are intended to be the central figures. This has been the case since I settled on that duo as my favorites for weaving tales of adventure. Everyone else is meant to be part of the supporting cast. That includes the other superheroes.

The thing is, I wasn't always sold that there needed to be other superheroes in Cap's world. I wanted to preserve his uniqueness, and adding a bunch of extra heroes seemed to run counter to that notion. I've since come around to the value of having at least a few around, but there was no guarantee that they were ever going to be included in a "definitive" version. In fact, it was probably my strong desire to retain the dynamic with vigilante Urban Nightmare that led me to entertain the notion of contemporary heroes at all.

"Contemporary" heroes? Ah yes. The Invincible Alliance existed as a concept even in the 1990s, but in a slightly different fashion. For a long, long time, I envisioned the IA as a relic of the past in Cap's world - a group that had existed from the 1940s to the 1980s but had broken up. This version lasted long enough that I dreamed up a really great line: "And yet, they keep reuniting like an over-the-hill rock band looking to recapture their faded glory." Shame it doesn't work in context anymore!

At any rate, this particular Invincible Alliance would have included versions of Ultimate American, Blue Behemoth, Drone Man, Firegirl, and...Thunder Man. Wait, Thunder Man? Yep; in fact, he was the centerpiece of that incarnation. There were a few other heroes that wound up not making the cut at all, though none of them have been posted as near as I remember. Cap and the Nightmare were NOT part of this grouping at all, and Elektroid hadn't even been drafted into the Cap mythos by that point.

When I set out to commit myself to certain things in 2007, I decided to abandon the notion of the Invincible Alliance as retro heroes and elected to make them current associates of Captain Satellite. This decision led directly to the origins and backstories for those characters that still serve as the basis for what I'm doing with them today. As it turned out, I got busy doing other stuff as the year went on, and found I didn't have time to devote that sort of treatment to a few characters. Among those was Thunder Man.

When we rolled around to last year, I began to tinker with the profiles already written AND (finally) write those that had never happened. By that time, I had decided I didn't want a hero like Thunder Man wandering around Cap's world on a regular basis with his lengthy history and superhuman powers. But I also didn't want to convert him into a villain. The compromise I reached was that I did make him a Golden Age/Silver Age hero, but assigned him to his own parallel Earth. That meant I had the opportunity the play with those conventions, but in such a way that didn't interfere with the specialness of Captain Satellite.

The Thunder Man brainstorm had some unintended consequences. One, it threw a monkey wrench into the admittedly-thin backstory for my villain Devil Dynamite. It would be almost a year before I resolved that to my satisfaction. The other was much more subtle, and it involved Ultimate American.

I developed for Ultimate American a profile that relied heavily on a line of succession to maintain a long career for the character. I wish I could say I was influenced by the Phantom, so simple and elegant in how the idea is supposed to work in that comic strip. In reality, I drew instead from the convoluted continuities of both Marvel Comics' Captain America and Archie Comics' the Shield in crafting my own involved ideas.

I later took this all one step further, and wrote out the Ultimate American Chronology for the not-quite panting public. I had a lot of fun with that piece, but I don't think it translated in the final product. It sure is serious, isn't it? And yet, I laughed a lot while writing it. Strange how that works sometimes. I lifted some of that stuff for the profiles, where it seemed to work better. And I also included a revised version in Captain Satellite: Number Zero. It just never captured people's imaginations in quite the way it did mine.

In all of this, I think I missed out on something fundamental that was nagging at me. I just couldn't quite put my finger on it. Then one day, it dawned on me what I had done. The Invincible Alliance was now part of the "modern" setting (more on this in a bit). Thunder Man was safely ensconced on his own separate Earth. This meant that Ultimate Americans I and II were now the only superheroes prior to Captain Satellite on their world.

This wasn't exactly what I had in mind. To me, there were two approaches that I liked in dealing with the past. One was that there were no superheroes prior to Cap; the other was that a superhero community had once existed but gone away, leaving Cap as the first of the new generation. The compromise I'd worked into things did neither of these. I worked with it for awhile, but I just wasn't happy with what I had inadvertently done.

Then came the little matter of the backdrop for all this hero business. I have long imagined the Major City stuff as taking place in what I refer to as a "retro future" - a future as postulated in the past. I had even explicitly stated that the time period was "the 1990s - the future" in things I had done for myself. But as the public stuff came out, it became increasingly clear this was not something that would gain a lot of traction. I decided instead to be somewhat ambiguous about dating things, to give myself more leeway. I have done stuff that seems to clearly use elements from the 1960s and 1970s, but I never actually mention anything specific. That gives me plenty of wiggle room as far as when "today" might be.

...Except the Ultimate American torpedoes that. I tried to compensate by making the original exceptionally long-lived, and intentionally murking up portions of his timeline. And yet, there was no escaping the fact that, as it existed, the Ultimate American was very clearly tied to specific events. Again, not happy.

It may or may not be a coincidence that I reached this decision at the time of the much-ballyhooed DC reboot press, but I finally decided I needed a retcon. I had put together the book specifically to avoid this, but I was just too bothered with the status quo to continue it. I loved the related characters, and big heaping portions of the backstory, but the Ultimate American deal was threatening to be a problem if not addressed. I needed there to be just one claimant to the name, and I needed Cap to be the first hero in his world.

I've just recently finished revising the profiles that accomplish these goals. Tex Truman and Joe Truman have been preserved, but they are no longer former superheroes. Honestly, I think I like them better now without the costumes. There is only one Ultimate American, and he came into existence after Captain Satellite. Other issues small and large have been handled, including a solution that involved Thunder Man's world.

I've salvaged a lot from the Chronology, but it is going to be declared apocryphal when this is all said and done. However, I'm not just decreeing this to be so. I plan to write a story that will serve this function and introduce the "new" timeline. Ironically, this is based on the story idea that the Chronology originally replaced. When the story is finished, I plan to publish it here. I'll also put up some of the new profile information to supplement it.

I don't like doing a retcon so large at this stage in the game, but I don't feel like I had any choice for the integrity (such as it is) for my fictional universe. I'm trying to think of it as an opportunity rather than an obstacle, but the fanboy in me will never cotton to such stuff. Hopefully, everyone else will accept it.

Wow, I have pretty much guaranteed few people will get this far in this entry by its sheer size. If you are reading these words, congratulations on finishing a huge essay by an author regarding his self-published fantasy world. Surely, you deserve some kind of medal.

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