Vaal’s Top 20 Moments in Descendants Vols 1-5 (Part 4)
Number 5: ‘It’s Defense of the Heart!’ (Metal X)
I am one of those absolute chumps that loves love. I’m not even going to use the term ‘romantic’ as a noun here because to me that term is too nice for people like me. But luckily, the internet has a name for everything and 99% of them sound vaguely derogatory. The word is ‘shipper’. (shipper [noun][slang] – a person who roots for and actively follows romantic relationships in works of popular culture)
And there’s a whole universe of shippers out there, ranging on the scale of hardcore (OMG, I wish that bitch would just DIE so Bill would get with Amy!), to moderate (I really appreciate the chemistry these two have and am excited to see where it will lead.) to… psychotic (The only REAL relationship that matters is this one that involves characters separated by the fact that they are incompatible ages, personalities, orientations, physical make-ups, geographic location or sapience. The fact that they’ve never met and can’t possibly meet is irrelevant.)
I like to think I’m somewhere in that sane middle area and I’m certainly not the kind that will eat up any romance put in front of them because ‘wuv’. In fact, I’ll probably do a whole blog post some time in the future about terrible romances and how to fix them (examples here would include Underworld’s incredibly useless but oh-so-special hybrid boyfriend, the Ross/Rachel inoperable plot tumor from Friends, and the train wreck of terrible people in terrible relationships that comprise a certain vampire romance and its ascended fanfic.). The point though is that I like romantic subplots when they’re done right.
So it should come as no surprise that I put a lot of work into the romances in Descendants, even when they don’t go where I first expected.
If you’re a regular reader, you know that Warrick and Tink were not meant to stay together. Originally, they really would love each other, but Tink wouldn’t be able to hang with the inherent danger of being in his life once she gets a firsthand look at it, leaving Warrick to end up with Cyn.
This soon turned out to be hugely out of character for her and their relationship was offbeat and awkward to the point that I didn’t want to end it. Thus, the very issue where they were going to break up became the one that cemented their relationship.
Another aspect here is that when I wanted to add authenticity to Tink’s reaction, I went to my female friends and family and asked them what they would do in Tink’s situation as it appeared in the reveal scene of Metal X. What I discovered surprised me, but it really shouldn’t have.
See, I was following in the footsteps of classic comic book stories, where secret identities are approached as issues of trust and elements of betrayal. Keeping even this big a secret tends to be a relationship mortal sin that has to be overcome or explained in these stories. It doesn’t matter that Clark Kent is Superman and has saved Lois thousands of times, he still lied to her, and it’s only okay for Peter Parker to hide that he’s Spider-man because Mary Jane knew for years already.
The thing I was missing is that in superhero universes, this sort of thing isn’t in popular culture. No one there grew up knowing dozens of characters with dual identities and the reasoning behind it, nor had they all been subjected to the dire consequences of not hiding it. They lived in a world where the necessary lie was never taught.
The women in my life (admittedly skewing demographically to the geeky and the fiercely independent), however were raised with our pop culture, much like Tink was, and so they understood. And because they understood, the reveal meant something fundamentally different to them. They wouldn’t feel betrayed, they would feel elevated to Secret Keeper, and that new level of trust in and of itself meant something romantic. Combine with adrenaline and we get that big kiss that ended up in the issue.
Realizing this, I started thinking about other themes that keep showing up in these stories, particularly the idea of bad guys targeting the love interest and decided to push against it. First, Tink comes back to help, significantly harming Metal X’s powers to the point that her injury is less a damsel moment and more of a heroic sacrifice.
And then Warrick lights up the lithium sword and makes his ‘defense of the heart’ speech. I’m never sure what people take from these things, but the intent here was that not only was Warrick using a metal Metal X couldn’t effect, but he’s using an attack he’s only used once before to defeat dragon golems on a human target. He’s threatening lethal force in response to an attack on a loved one and he is not bluffing. That’s the line in the sand, making it clear that there is absolutely nothing to gain and everything to lose in harming a hero’s loved ones—a lesson I never understood why comic book bad guys never learned.
Number 4: The Bros Three (Beer Money)
There is a blog called Comics Should Be Good, and I agree. But I also say that comics should be fun. One of the many reasons that the Dark Age and the remnants of it that still cling to the Modern Age annoy me is the sheer amount of fun they suck out of things.
Somewhere along the way, someone decided that 22 page books of glossy color featuring costumed circus folk punching each other needed to be serious. Dead Serious. Very Bad Things had to happen to every one of them at least once every six months and every year, they had to suffer together through some external threat. Some of them stopped using their fantastic powers altogether so they could shoot guns full time and no one got to just a Good anymore, they had to at least be morally ambiguous.
All the silliness of the Silver Age was herded into camps and shot in the back of the skull. Then they came for the lighthearted slice of life moments, the moments that were rooted in realism, but incorporated the weirdness of the setting. For example: Mutant Ball.
Above: Proof that joy exists.
See, back in the day, the X-men had a tradition wherein they would try and play a sport (usually baseball) with a ‘no powers’ rule, only to have that rule fall to anarchy as indestructible southerners flew through the air to catch pop flies, adorable jewish girls phased through attempts to tag them out, and someone always made the ball explode.
The last time I remember seeing mutant ball was the basketball game in New Mutants vol. 2. The X-men are too busy whining about their population being screwed up and how they either think Cyclops is a dick-bordering-on-villain or that they are far too stupid not to notice that he’s clearly a dick-bordering-on-villain.
It’s gotten better in recent years with Wolverine and the X-men and anything written by the amazing Christos Gage, but for a long time, comic readers who actually liked fun had to suffer through Slapstick nearly killing a man for badmouthing his friends or the atrocity that was Speedball becoming Penance.
Trying to recapture that fun was one of my biggest goals when I created this series; to have all the action and drama but without all of the darker and edgier bullshit. But you’ve heard that rant before. The interesting thing is that sometimes I find myself getting too serious myself and it becomes my job to keep my own writing from getting its head stuck up its own ass.
Beer Money was born of one of those points. Originally, the three ‘villains’ really were straight up bad guys trying to use a literal version of the Power of Friendship to take over this little beach-side mob town. I had this idea that the groups’ beach house experience would be shattered by this criminal power struggle and…
At that point I smacked myself and remembered that the whole point of the beach house arc was to be fun. Plus, these guys were originally going to be frat boys drunk on power and, to be totally honest, I couldn’t take them seriously with all the bro-talk and general jock-ness. High school bullies might be a serious social problem, but they aren’t supervillain level threats. Guys like that are only villains by virtue of the fact that it’s somehow illegal to put your foot in their asses.
Instead, I went the other way, making them less frat-bros and more like the kind of ‘dude’ dudes you’ll find on any college campus. They’re invariably laid back, good-natured guys—who happen to make terrible decisions. I knew these guys in college. They make peanut butter sandwiches for the whole dorm, held contests amongst themselves over who could eat the most Taco Bell hot sauce packets or drink the most milk without ‘booting’, and tried jousting on bikes with brooms. In short, they weren’t the guys I hung out with, but they were awesome.
And on another level, I think that as weird as it sounds, this is one of the most ‘real’ stories in the series. People don’t always do great things with great power. Free-runners can do this:
This video is how I came up with Sneak Thief
Look at that. That man right there does things Batman can’t. What’s he doing with it? Making YouTube videos and maybe competing in competitions. He hasn’t gone on one rooftop patrol for crime or leap through a single person’s window to steal their valuables.
Usain Bolt is the real fastest man alive. He runs in competitions and probably makes fun of cheetahs in his non-training time. Never has he run down a purse snatcher.
What makes us think that a person with eye lasers would necessarily turn to either a life of crime or fighting said crime? (The answer is ‘because the world is cooler that way). People usually lack the will to do something as taxing and risky as that and will probably just use their powers to make their lives easier.
And dumbasses would use their powers for stupid things. Like, for example, stealing booze to throw a kickass party.
I think my absolute favorite thing about these guys is that their plan is ultimately not even that selfish. They plan to invite all the people that steal booze from to the party. Kind of noble if you can ignore the profound stupidity, really.
Number 3: Kareem vs the Inugami (All Saints and Sinners)
Based on what fans have said, Kareem is the ensemble darkhorse of the series, a character who doesn’t get a ton of face time, but nonetheless has become a favorite. What most people don’t know if exactly why he doesn’t (or rather didn’t. I’m trying to do more with him these days) get as much attention as the others. And I can almost guarantee it’s not what you think.
From the start, I had a very high concept view of Kareem. His arc from being bedridden to astral projecting to being physically in the action was in the cards and happened exactly as I intended. Its the stuff in between that went off the rails.
Basically, I bit off more than I, as a writer with the skill I had in 2007, could chew. Writing the Astral Plane is hard. In creating it, I’d pulled together bits and pieces from mythology, comics and Dungeons and Dragons to make this weird-ass rose colored world where mentalists were reality warpers, the ‘natural’ fixtures followed Hindu and Buddhist and Shinto imaginary, and human emotions shaped the landscape. It was the glorious acid trip that comprised the setting of any comic that wanted to visit a magical world without going to fantasy land. And it was hard as hell to write and have it make sense back when I was much less capable than I am now.
Originally, Kareem was going to be able to project others into the astral with him and there would be bad guys and such who existed primarily on the astral. There’s even a file on my computer right now called ‘astral-side plots’ that hasn’t been touched. The problem was that I didn’t have the confidence to do the concept justice and Kareem ended up sidelined as the smart guy of the younger group and Melissa’s foil.
But I did manage to give the guy on moment to shine brilliantly in Volume 1 and it’s one of my favorite action scenes: Kareem fighting the inugami on the astral plane.
First, a little background on the inugami. Yes, the legend Warrick tells the others regarding what they are is a real Japanese folk tale, and the creature’s appearance on the astral reflects that. I got the idea from an obscure manga called Her Majesty’s Dog, where ironically, the titular dog is not an inugami, but he does fight one in the first volume. I’m not even a dog person and I find the whole concept horrifically cruel.
Actually, that’s where the inugami come from as a concept—me not being a dog person, not the starving then killing an innocent animal. See, I was bitten as a child and I was scared of them for a good, long time. When it comes to sheer terror, I still can’t think of anything worse than a lethally motivated dog with the power to break down most barriers. They are literally my nightmares as created by Tome.
Indicatively, the base breed for the inugami is the Kuvasz, and the various breeds have powers because their lineage was subjected to duplicate experiments as those that created descendants by Tome.
It was a very conscious decision on my part to have Kareem be the one to directly kill one of my nightmares and to be the only one to get an ‘honest’ win, rather than having the creature self-destructed. To make it happen, I delved into some Iranian history and both armed and dressed Kareem like his templar-defeating ancestors (Kareem often falls back to this in combat on the Astral, purely for the symbolism).
The finishing move, where the Tome techs note that all bioelectric functions ceased came purely from a pet peeve of mine: in fiction, we accept that dying in a dream makes you die in real life. In more ridiculous shows, you gain the same injuries you got in the dream (I’m looking at you, Charmed), and in others, you die of a heart attack or stroke. My problem comes when this same logic applies to psychic battles where it’s heavily implied that you’re fighting with your mind and/or soul. To me, that stuff is electrical, not physical strain, and so if you die in a dream or psychic realm in the DU, it snuffs your bio-electricity, effectively flipping your ‘off’ switch.
Number 2: Cyn vs Sneak Thief (Love You Madly)
Let’s all just take a minute here and watch some more free-running/parkour:
Like I said, the Sneak Thief was created based on watching videos like that. Actually, from watching the only scene from Casino Royale worth watching (I’m going to be down on the new Bond films a lot in this one, so strap in). Behold the exact last moment of awesome fun in the James Bond franchise as of this writing:
After this, it’s all dull talking, jitter cam and James Bond being hit in the crotch.
In what may be an excellent example of meta-foreshadowing, this guy makes Bond look like a boring chump for most of the chase. What makes that more awesome is that in all previous movies (even the ones that were terrible in their own right), James Bond is pretty much a goddamn superhero with the power of ‘being James Bond’.
That clip is like Spider-man vs Rhino with that guy just going crazy leaping off things and running up walls while Bond just barges through in a most un-Bond manner like a bull in a shop that sells nothing but crystal matadors. It’s glorious in a way, if only it weren’t a dramatic action film with James Bond awkwardly pasted in.
But you know who else fights like a blind, panicky Rhino and gets away with it because she has the powers to back it up? Cyn, that’s who. And unlike Bond, she can afford to be treated like the butt of the joke once in a while. That’s literally all it took to make me come up with Sneak Thief.
ST is just a guy with a few toys, ala Batman, but nefarious. And just like the big, bad bat, he schools people who by all right are far and away out of his weight class by being just that much more clever than them. The whole points of their fights at the start was that Cyn should have won except for the fact that she’s just not that clever with her power usage. She’s lazy and she pays for it.
At least that’s how it started. And here is where we get to me telling more than I probably should: I got the feeling as I wrote the first story that ST kind of likes Cyn. As much as he enrages her, most of the fight seems like he’s going out of his way to pull her pigtails. I’ve got a pretty good idea what I’d like to do with that, but time will tell…
Number 1: ‘This is My Mother’ (Rustbuckets)
Straight talk: this is probably #1 because it’s so recent, but even if it wasn’t, it would be on this list.
I’ve already talked your ear off about my feelings about family themes and how families form regardless of blood ties. Cyn’s character arc is made of this through and through.
From the very moment I created her, I knew she had a bad family life and hinted at as much in the first issue. It wasn’t until the next volume that we learned just how awful Sean was to her.
And in case people think Cyn’s story is exaggerated, I’ve worked with abused kids as a teen volunteer and you can’t imagine how close this is to real life. Physical abuse is just the tip of the iceburg; there are people out there who really do find the things their child is most afraid of, what hurts them the most specifically, then use it as a form of recreation, often inviting the rest of the family to join in the abuse, just like Sean and his sons.
I’m ashamed to say that I wans’t made of stern enough stuff to stay with the program and continue to make a difference for those kids after my required hours were up; the helplessness of not being able to protect those kids, or give them justice, or just make the pain go away was soul-rending to the point that I just didn’t have the resolve.
Part of Cyn’s story is, by proxy, allowing one of those kids to confront and rise above what was done to them while getting a better, more loving family. It’s escapism, and seeing as Cyn manages to skip counseling thanks to Laurel being there, it’s not all that realistic, but I think with raw, emotional things like this, the power is more important than the realism.
All in all, I’m proud of how her whole arc came out: Cyn starts down at path that could make her an abuser herself. In Objectivity she engages in emotional manipulation, she gets possessive and stalks her best friend, and when she gets to confront Sean for Round 1, she immediately resorts to lashing out with violence.
And afterward, she starts to bond with Laurel and gets to see first hand how stable families like the Kaines work (I have to write about that first Christmas she spends with them sometime), and starts to come to terms with how people are supposed to treat each other. She spends more than a year becoming a better person and replacing the broken parts of her with new.
Then we get to this moment, Round 2 in Rustbuckets. If anything, Sean is more cruel to her here than ever before in their history and it’s hard to argue that Cyn wouldn’t have been justified in killing him in self defense if not for vengeance.
Except now, she’s not alone with him, or disguised to keep him from knowing who she is. All her friends, the people who really care about her are there and she knows that with them there, Sean can never really hurt her again on any level. So instead of killing him, she and the others strip him of his power over her in a literal sense. They tear away his weapons and armor piece by piece until he’s reduced to wild threats.
And all the while, Cyn completely disowns him because now she knows what really matters and the blood isn’t the same as love.
Then Kareem steps in an breaks his own code for her, because she’s his sister and her life and well-being is that important, to completely remove Sean and any possibility of his return, from her life.
Now, it’s likely you’ve read all four installments of this countdown and all 60+ issues of this series, and it’s safe to say I don’t really do Very Serious Stories. I doubt there’s a single issue that doesn’t have a joke or an action set piece in there, and Rustbuckets isn’t an exception—Cyn herself riffs on Wolverine from the 90’s X-men series at one point, after all.
The reason why is part of my philosophy. A lot of people will tell you that real life is brown and gray; dirt and ambiguity. They’ll say that it’s the Serous things that matter and that everything else is kids’ stuff. That there are no real heroes, only various shades of villain and anti-hero. And that drama is the grail and comedy and action and joy are red plastic cups, useful only for beer pong.
Real life is everything. It’s the worst day of your life and the best, and the days where both good things happen and bad. It’s not an inexorable weight crushing us into the dust, it’s just things that happen and how we react. Sometimes people can be terrible, and sometimes they can be amazing. We live in a world where there are hate groups, but also in a world where there’s such a thing as the Make-a-Wish Foundation and, appropros of the subject, Prevent Child Abuse America (Apologies for the Amerocentrism, but this charity is one I know something about)
Real life is a series of moments and what they mean to you. Sure, there’s brown and gray, black and white…
But isn’t there still room for Four Colors now and then too?
Thanks for reading.
Next Week: Bad Romance: Terrible Love Stories and How I Would Fix Them.
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