Welcome to Open Mike Mondays. This week’s guest is Jared Axelrod.
Jared could be described as a renaissance man but for the fact that if he’d been alive back then we'[d all be flying to work in personal gliders. He’s one of the most relentlessly creative polymaths I know. An author, an illustrator, a graphic designer, a sculptor, a costume designer, a podcaster and a wearer of magnificent ties, Jared’s latest project is The Cockroach Strikes! a story about perseverance, resilience, Communist super humans and a tremendous amount of punching. It’s my honor to have him on the blog, and without further ado, here is.
The constant motion of superhero comics brings with it a certain creative desperation. New plots must be found on a monthly basis. New threats must be created. Heroes are unlikely to change, so what keeps them interesting is their antagonists. How will our hero defeat this new, colorful rogue? Surely, the methods he used dispatching the dozen or so bad guys in comics past will not work against this oddball!
And so, for 6, for 10, for 24 pages, a creature as disposable as he is bizarre gets the spotlight. He flexes his muscles, shows off his powers, his costume, his sound and fury. His novelty is unpredictable; we wonder what he’ll do next. And then he’s shunted off-stage to make room for the next one.
Oh, he might be back. His costume will be slightly redesigned, his motivations will be slightly altered. He’ll have a slightly new trick up his slightly new sleeve. But he just as likely might be forgotten.
For every Batroc the Leaper—who answers the question “What if Salvador Dali tossed the paints, overdid it at the gym and jumped around a lot?” in a way that is so entertaining he has become strangely ubiquitous—there’s a Black Talon, who decided that the best way to torment mystical hero Brother Voodoo was to dress as chicken. Batroc gets to be played by UFC Champion Georges St-Pierre in the upcoming CAPTAIN AMERICA sequel. Black Talon will never be in a major motion picture. His black-feathered cape and cockscomb cowl remain the stuff of art that was destined for dustbin a month after purchase.
I can’t help but love him, though. Black Talon and all his ilk, the poorly thought-out women and men who existed to fill some pages and make a cool cover. They stand there, posed in their purple, green and orange costumes, symbols of superhero comics’ inherent ridiculousness. You can’t take a man dressed like chicken seriously, after all.
But what if you could? What if these characters were more fleshed out? What if they had real personalities, hopes and dreams they could articulate. What if you knew what truly drove these weirdoes forward, what collection of life experiences brought them to the point where the decision to put on that crazy costume was the only choice that made sense.
What if these characters weren’t disposable?
A while back, I created Comrade Cockroach, a supervillain in this momentary mold. He was a Russian with a heavy accent, like the so many badguys in my 80’s childhood comics were. He had powers that vaguely related to his namesake. His costume was purple. I was never planning to do much with him.
But he stuck around in my head, refusing to be thrown away. Why was he so driven, despite what was no-doubt a string of lost battles. Supervillains don’t get to win, after all. So what kept a man going back to try, despite a history of failure? Batman may not have any super powers, but he’s got nearly 75 years of victories behind him. Why wouldn’t he head out every night to win again? Comrade Cockroach, however, has only defeat. And yet he puts that costume on, again and again, and tries in vain to bring down the hero.
You can’t leave a character like that alone. I gave him a webcomic, and when that didn’t seem to be enough, I wrote a short story about him. I’ve got a Kickstarter going for an ebook of that short story, and I promised I’d write a second short story if we doubled the goal. Even that probably won’t be enough, though. For someone made to emulate a one-issue guest star, I’m finding an awful lot to write about.
For down in the gutter, refusing to let the past define his future, Comrade Cockroach comes closer to touching the sublime than any hero could possibly hope for.
Underneath that skin-tight purple suit with a stylized insect on the chest, beats a heart we not only recognize, but sympathize with. How many other of those weird, wonderful, instantly disposable characters could have had the same, if only we spent more than a handful of pages with them?
You might say that I’m looking too deeply into drawings of women and men dressed like they’re going to do yoga on a Mardi Gras parade float. But I don’t think so. These villains are, after all, designed to stick in our heads. Their whole reason for existence it to make us so curious about what they are going to do next, we purchase the comic. Some of these characters do a better job than their creators intended, staying with us long after their adventure has been bagged and boarded.
“What will they do next?” we wonder. But the story has already moved on.