First Appeared: Buffalo Almanack, Issue 2
Published: December 15, 2013
Byline: Paul Hamilton
Edited by: Maxine Vande Vaarst
Permanent Link: buffaloalmanack.com
Content: Rated R: Harsh Language, Mild Terror, Thematic Elements
Behind The Story
This story came out of one of those moments of unforced inspiration, where a couple of distinct observations somehow clicked in that weird brain alchemy that governs ideas. In this case I was reading some of the debate that was raging on Twitter shortly after the film Man Of Steel came out. In it, a lot of people who were or are incredibly thoughtful about Superman, including some writers who had worked on Superman comics and graphic novels, were dissecting the choices made by the characters in another creative person’s interpretation of the tale. But instead of framing it as if they were Zack Snyder’s choices, the conversation proceeded as if it were the actual character who was behaving in ways they felt were inconsistent.
One of the people I was following (I want to say it was Mark Waid, but I’m not positive now) found the conversation getting a bit heated and took a break, returning with a blog or Tumblr post meant to sort of summarize his feelings on the topic. Later, I would return to this template of a contentious online discussion when framing the story.
Around the same time, the George Zimmerman trial was in the news. Somehow the way people discussed the speculation-heavy sequence of events that occurred between Trayvon Martin and George Zimmerman clicked with the earlier observance of the Superman. Obviously the tragedy of the Zimmerman thing has little to do with this silly story, but I saw how everyone who had any kind of firearm training, security experience, paramedic background–basically anything that an opinionated person could use to tether even a whiff of legitimacy to their position–used that to establish a sense of authority.
And then I asked the question that got the ball rolling: what if this superhero was real, and had to listen to and try to respond to all these people picking apart every choice he made, well after the fact?
I’ve had the concept for the character of Exceptional-Man for years, probably going back to my late teens. I always wanted to do something with a superhero who had a host of abilities but could only use one of them at any given time. For a long time I envisioned this as a comedic device, and thought I’d end up using the character in a sort of comic tropes send-up gag strip or even a narrative comic with humorous overtones. When an idea rolls around that long, eventually I feel like I just start looking for an excuse to use it. In the end, I think this was the right venue for Exceptional-Man to appear. There are funny elements to the story, even though the overall tone is perhaps a bit cynical and dark. To me, that kind of embodies what Exceptional-Man always felt like in my head, so I’m pretty glad of that.
What I like about the final piece is that I think it does a decent job of establishing an entire, original canon that plays off the well-known Marvel and DC universes without having to get into the sticky realm of intellectual properties. I hadn’t established peripheral characters like Inventress or Hammer Hands prior to the first draft of the story so most of the references are on-the-fly creations, but the nice thing about this being semi-satirical is that they can be over-the-top and not detract from the story at hand.
The biggest challenge I had in editing was creating something that felt like a one-draft stream-of-consciousness online rant but which, of course, was not a one-draft hack job. This manifested primarily in me struggling with the tone of the thing. I had two very early drafts in which I tried to get the level of vitriol and the voice of Ex-Man right: one was peppered throughout with egregious profanity and the other was a much more family-friendly PG-at-most rated variant. The problem with the latter was that it didn’t have that realistic ‘net sensibility. The problem with the former was the same problem I have with actual humans who can’t string three words together without some kind of invective: it’s distracting and it makes the speaker sound inarticulate. I needed Exceptional-Man to be bright but at the end of his rope. I’m still not sure I nailed the precise balance on that front, but its certainly better than either of the two extreme versions sounded.
Beyond just the language usage, there was another issue I had with the tone based on the structure. One beta reader suggested the piece felt like it needed a bookend, going back to the journal-style narrative of the opening. I actually added this bit on in a draft that I regrettably submitted to a magazine. The problem, as pointed out by the editor there, was that the tone shifted from wounded but defiant to petty and vindictive in that final coda. After that rejection, I tried re-working the coda several ways and could never find a form of it that didn’t make it feel forced or tacked-on. By the time I submitted to Buffalo Almanack, I had scrapped the afterword completely.
I’ve gotten a few comments on the rather non-standard form used in this piece. It is, after all, more or less a rant in the guise of an open letter (which is a numbered list) preceded by a journal entry for the establishment of scene. All the action and drama is created by referencing events it is presumed the readers (the fictional denizens of Green Grove) are already familiar with, forcing the actual reading audience to pick up all the plot and conflict points via context and inference. Even the title is a bit odd since the real title of the post is “An Open Letter To My Haters” which in this case appears as part of the text. The interesting thing is, the whole format just came out of a desire to mimic that half-contextualized sense of stumbling across an ongoing flamewar online. I didn’t think too much about how peculiar it was to do what I was trying to do until I went to edit it, and even more so when I went to submit it. My thought as I went through several rejections was, “No one is going to publish this; it’s way too bizarre.”
As an aside on the text message inserts, I originally concocted those screenshots using my personal and work phones, just as a little experiment when I sent a very early draft to a friend for alpha reading. I guess it’s fortunate those two snippets of text remained consistent through all the revisions because I was able to use those same images for the final publication. I had also sort of hoped to have a chance to create a real website for exmanstats.com to link to, but I never found the time to make that happen. For a while when the story was getting rejected I considered self-publishing the piece on a Tumblr and perhaps expanding it into a series which would further develop the town of Green Grove and the bevy of heroes and villains alluded to in the short. Had I ever gotten to that point I may have gone ahead with the exmanstats.com thing, but Maxine Vande Vaarst saved me from myself by mercifully agreeing to publish the piece and allowing me to move on to other writing projects instead.