Friday, June 11, 2021

THE STORIES THAT NEVER WERE

Every writer's career, no matter how successful, is filled with "might have beens":  stories that were assigned, but died along the way.  Stories that were repeatedly pitched but never sold.  Pitches that were enthusiastically received and then inexplicably abandoned.  Stories that were purchased but never saw the light of day.  

I started thinking about my "might have been" files this morning when I came across a proposal I did in 2013 for the classic Archie Comics superhero, The Shield.  My Life and Times of Savior 28 collaborator, the brilliant Mike Cavallaro, and I had done a Shield back up strip as part of Dean Haspiel and Mark Waid's revival of The Fox (I actually wrote the final issue of that series) and editor Paul Kaminski—who was a genuine pleasure to work with—asked us to spin the Shield off into his own mini-series, with Terry Austin lined up to ink Mike's work.  I came up with what I thought was a strong concept and, after some discussions with Paul, put together a proposal/outline.  As sometimes happens, I kept getting notes that required shifting the story to the left here, to the right there, and, at one point, I completely reworked the concept from the ground up.  (Many of these notes didn't come from Paul—who enthusiastically supported our work from day one—but from elsewhere on the Archie staff.)  

For reasons I was never clear on, the series was abandoned.

You can read my original outline—and view a fantastic piece of promo art Mike put together—below.  I think it would have made for a very powerful story and, perhaps, somewhere, in some parallel universe, our Shield series made its way out into the world.

I may dig into the files and find more "stories that never were" but, for now, enjoy "American Nightmare."


                                  THE SHIELD:  AMERICAN NIGHTMARE


American Nightmare #1—

Begin with the Black Tom explosion that killed Tom Higgins, then jump to big action sequence of the Shield in action at the tail end of War Two—also establishing the Eraser as a soldier-for-hire, willing to work for Nazis, or anyone else, for the right price...then: 

It’s VJ Day.  The war is over.  Joe Higgins marries Andrea Horowitz:  they grew up in the same neighborhood, he’s loved her for years.  Joe still plans on being the Shield but he naively believes that the end of the war is the beginning of a new American dream.  In the next year he finds a happy balance between his identities.  Andrea—like the spouse of a policeman—always worries—but still counts herself blessed.  Soon, they have a son, William.  Joe and Andrea have never been happier.  Two years go by.  Then...


1948:  ...there’s a devastating attack on the Higgins house.  (Masterminded by the Eraser.  This will be a major action beat.)  When the smoke clears...


...Andrea is dead and Joe has just managed to save his boy.  (The Eraser escapes,)  Joe’s utterly devastated, heartbroken.  Convinced now that he can never have a normal life, that his son will never be safe with him around, Joe—with the FBI’s help—hands the boy over to another family to raise anonymously.  He buries his life as Joe Higgins and fully embraces life as the Shield.  The dream of a happy family, prospering in post-war America—being lived out by returned soldiers all across the country—can never be his.


But someone is going to pay for what’s been done. Joe Higgins may be dead, but the Shield is going to find the Eraser and make the bastard pay.


American Nightmare #2: 
The Shield—half mad with grief—goes out to hunt for the man who killed his wife; becoming wild, reckless, out of control...his handlers at the FBI worried about him.  (Perhaps instituting a plan to terminate him if he gets out of control?)  Joe manages to break the Eraser’s international organization, but, for all his efforts, Shield can’t find the Eraser himself.  The Bureau tells him it’s time to let go and move on and, to their relief, Shield agrees; but, in his heart, he knows he’ll never give up.


Time passes:  Shield encounters the Eraser several more times down through the years—from the fifties into the early sixties (each encounter playing up some pivotal moment in our history—Korea, the space race, the Cuban Missile Crisis, etc.) but can never stop him.  The Shield, by now, has erased any trace of his civilian ID.  Doesn’t even like people calling him Joe.  He’s a mask and a costume, a human weapon, not a man.


Throughout this, we intercut with young William, who grows up in a loving family—but always misses parents he doesn’t know but still remembers; especially the father who, he believes, is alive out there.  But time is cruel and memory dims more each year.  (I’d also like to contrast Shield’s involvement with these pivotal world events with William’s:  the “civilian” POV vs. the superhero POV.)  Then it’s...


1963:  The Kennedy assassination.  (And perhaps the Shield is in Dallas?)  The world in chaos. Nuclear devastation always a heartbeat away.  The public is questioning authority in a way it never has before—and people are even questioning the need for a being like the Shield:  Is he a dangerous weapon in the hands of government fanatics?  A super powerful lunatic who’ll turn against them?  There are some conspiracy theorists who even claim the Shield was involved with the assassination itself. 


The Shield, too, is questioning his own role.  What good can he really do in a world spiraling out of control?  Did he, Joe wonders, make the right choice all those years before when he left his son and lost himself inside the costume?  In the winter of ‘64, he decides to contact William—to be a man again, not a mask—and reach out to his son.  That’s when...


...the Eraser—who will not allow Joe to reconcile with his son, the very thought maddens him—springs a TBD trap:  Joe is caught. 


American Nightmare #3:

We open with a huge, and brutal, action beat as the captured Shield breaks free.  He and the Eraser go at it, Shield desperate to make this animal pay for killing Andrea; but Joe’s own rage makes him sloppy and we end with the Shield plunged into suspended animation:  body frozen, mind awake.  Tormented and tortured by the Eraser who—despite many opportunities—refuses to kill the Shield.  (We’ll learn later that, for all the hate in his heart, Tom Higgins still loves his son, in his own warped way.) 


Out in the world, everyone assumes the Shield is dead (the Eraser actually staged Joe’s death, even planted a convincing corpse, thus “erasing” the Shield from existence).  William is recruited by the FBI.  The Shield Formula, we learn, only works with a genetic match and the world needs a new Shield.  William agrees...


Intercut between William taking on the mantle of the Shield through the turbulent 60’s and 70’s (again, playing his beats out against the political lunacy of the day) and Joe’s nightmare at the hands of the Shield.  As William rises, taking, with astonishing grace, to the life of a hero, Joe falls into madness.  (Instead of physical torture, I like the idea of the Eraser using a machine that allows him to enter into Joe’s consciousness, literally becoming the enemy within.)


Joe, unable to bear the pain, has a complete psychological break and retreats into fantasy:  a life where his wife never died, where he raised his son, where they lived happily ever after—but, even there, in fantasy, the Eraser appears, repeatedly, to destroy the dream.  Joe experiences his loss and pain again and again and again.  (This will, again, play off life in post-war America, where so many returned soldiers moved to the suburbs to live their “ideal” lives—that, under the surface, weren’t always all-that ideal.)   


We end, in the early 1980’s, the Reagan years—with William finding the TBD clue that tips him to the fact that his father is still alive and out there...somewhere.


American Nightmare #4:
The search for Joe, leading to his rescue by William.  But Joe has been driven batshit crazy by his ordeal and there’s a battle between the two—during which the Eraser once again escapes—before the son subdues the father and, with FBI aid, gets Joe much-needed psychological help.  It takes two full years in a top-secret government facility for Joe to take the first tentative steps back to sanity...and life. 

William is intimately involved in Joe’s long recovery, but, even when he’s “cured,” Joe—paralleling many Viet Nam vets, who dealt with similar issues in the 80’s—has got a massive case of PTSD.  He doesn’t want to put that damn costume on again, doesn’t want to go back out there into that insane, and dangerous, nation.  “You did a good job, son.  You’re a better Shield than I ever was.”  William, though, is done.  He’s proved his point and, more important, he has his father back.  “You have to do it,” William tells his father.  “You’re the Shield.  All I ever did was emulate you.  Became the man I always knew you were.”  Joe resists, but, before a decision can be made...


...there’s an assault on the complex where Joe has been recuperating. Another huge action beat.  It’s the Eraser and a horde of TBD Red Circle bad guys at his command.  Like it or not, the Shield has to come back now.  Father and son suit up and, side by side, go into battle.


American Nightmare #5:
Joe and William, two generations of Shields, take down the assault team...and go after the Eraser...

...leading to the revelation that Eraser is Joe’s father, William’s grandfather, Tom Higgins.  We learn how Tom survived the Black Tom explosion in a demented state (but transformed by his formula into something more-than human):  angry at the country that branded him a traitor, at the son who “stole” his work and glory.  Joe nearly goes mad again, overwhelmed by the knowledge that his own father, the man he worshipped, is responsible for killing Andrea.  


In a blind rage, Joe nearly murders the Eraser—and it’s William who stops his father from crossing that line—doing something unworthy, not just of the Shield, but of the man behind the mask.  The father collapses, weeping, in the son’s arms.  Eraser is taken off to prison.  (And, I’m not sure how, but it would be very cool if his own memories are erased during the battle, leaving him lost in the fragmented corridors of his own mind.)


In the end, Joe reluctantly takes up the mantle of the Shield again.  William goes off to forge his own path (or perhaps, in some way, joins his father in the fight...?).  But, far more important than that is the fact that these two wounded souls have healed their rift.  They’re family again, after so many long and painful years.  


We end on the Eraser, locked away, lost (as Joe was, in his suspended animation) in a state of absolute madness.  Or perhaps he, too, is living in a fantasy where the Black Tom explosion never happened, and he’s with his wife and young son, living the American Dream...


The Shield ©copyright 2021 Archie Comic Publications

Original story concepts ©copyright 2021 J.M. DeMatteis

Art ©copyright 2021 Mike Cavallaro

13 comments:

  1. Very good. Its a shame it never saw the light of day. Now, with Cap getting all this atention at Disney+, would be an ideal time.

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  2. The reason it was cancelled was... if I had to guess... low sales on the superhero books overall.

    I was actually read the Fox, and those last issues were impossible to find. A lot of stores just stopped carrying them due to sales.

    Perhaps more to the point, Afterlife With Archie came out in 2013, the same year, and was considered the comic that saved Archie Comics.

    Just my thoughts and observations.

    Also, it is Refugee Awareness Week. Take some time this week to think about them there struggles, and contributions to America.

    After all, your industry's biggest name was a refugee. To get you in the mood, here is a piece an associate of mine wrote...
    https://www.thehubdetroit.com/samaritas-gives-refugees-the-superpower-of-a-bright-future/


    Jack

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    1. I don't think that's why they pulled the plug because, not long after, they announced a new Shield series with a different main character (I think Shield was female) and creative team. My sense was new management came in and, for whatever reason, didn't want to pursue the series. C'est la vie!

      Nice article. Thanks for sharing!

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    2. Well, then I don't know what the issue was. Maybe the higher ups heard you were the guy who killed Vibe and were absolutely livid.

      Glad you enjoyed the article, but don't forget, it is Refugee AWARENESS Week. So...be aware, and make others aware. Even if it is just reminding a friend or family member that this is going on, and that they are real people not statistics. Or casually bringing up what some refugee have done for America... the world. \

      Superman, Einstein, Freddy Mercury, most of the cast of Casablanca (why do you think the accents were so good?), Christ himself... refugees all.

      Or don;t, your choice, you are an adult... unlike the kids who come with nothing but their name escaping certain death. Now that is how you guilt someone, thanks Mom.

      Jack

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    3. Clearly the Vibe thing. Why didn't I realize that?

      And, as someone whose grandparents were immigrant (from Italy and Russia), I totally get what you're saying.

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  3. Wonderful stuff, I would have bought it.
    Thank you for sharing this.

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  4. IN fairness to the people holding a grudge for killing Vibe, The Justice League Detroit era is a great case study for some realities abut comics, and some very real issues in the country.

    ALso, not anywhere near as bad as people want to pretend it was.


    Jack

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    1. Considering how famous some of those characters have become thanks to the CW/DC TV shows, Gerry Conway has certainly had the last laugh.

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    2. I can't speak to any of the TV shows you mention, but I do know there are some interesting cross sections that happen connected to this run:

      1. Where the hate is. Few people ever mention WHAT they hate other than that it was not eh "real" league and... fair enough. If you don't like something you don't like it. However, despite any real complaint outside "not the right people," it mutated into a larger contempt of it being bad... and you are bad if you like it. A type of sentiment that became far more common common in the decades since.

      2.Backlash of characters FOR being new - I was having a conversation with someone about turning more established straight characters gay, and why. My thought process is that they know new characters don;t sell. The only exception I can think of in the past 20 ears is Mile Morales... who is a Spider-man. That backlash for being not being known already is on parade here.

      3. Preventing changes in the future by focusing on one element - IN issue #246 they move to NYC, and for 15 issues remain there, compared to the 13 beforehand. This might seem to me an odd thing, but NYC is a far more traditional area, and it did block out the more interactive with the world outside of superheroing and being an actual part of the community.

      4. Indignity in death - The JLD members who died didn't have to die, that previously mentioned interaction with the community was a hallmark of the early days, Vibe and Steel could have just decided to go more one on one,. But, if I had to guess, I would say it was handed down from above to raise the stakes for the LEGENDS event. That sucks, but hey... such is comics. However, they both die in kind of pathetic ways. Then Steel was brought back in the next volume... just to die again. They are then brought up only to be "The League that failed to death," robbing them of any character they had. Post-mortum hate has become a ay of life in comics. If a writer did not like a character it is pretty common to make them look back and criticize... instead of not using them. A good example of Ben Reilly, who was criticized for two decades, then was brought back as a villain who when he tried to get back into heroing stole a costume and seemed to hate everyone. Why? Because who could like the guy? Again, even if it is resurrecting them.

      continued...

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    3. 5. The Batman connection - they threw Batman in for a time to make it work... that has pretty much been DC's plan for DC for a decade.

      6. The real world connection - There seems to be a lot of talk about confronting unconscious biases, which is great. Less great is that it stops short. Race, gender, and sexuality are great, but what about regional? The ignorant southerner. The naive Midwesterner. All exist, and in part perpetuate because of a societal movement to discount any part of the country that is not NYC or California. Which is a pretty dangerous when you look at how many not-great politicians rode the frustration to success. What does that have to do with the comic? Well... remember that I enjoyed the series... there are a lot of weird thing in the book. IN one issue they say the team enters through Lake Michigan, which is on the complete other side of the state. The only character FROM Detroit is a gang member. When Elongated Man enters he says he wanted to vomit. Vibe was created in part to add a Latino character, which is great, but Puerto Rican is an odd choice. There has been a neighborhood in Detroit called Mexican Town since the 1920s. Which is part of why there are so many people may dad's age who are like... half Mexican and half Polish, or Half Mexican and Irish, or Mexican and Italian, or German. Mexican ton is also one of the most vibrant parts of the city, and considered a model for the Renaissance. Could have been an interesting take in medium that seems to struggle with escaping tropes. I want to make this clear, I KNOW Conway meant nothing by any of this to be anything negative. However, it is called an UNCONSCIOUS bias for reason. The idea that like... you get the gist of a place. Can't be that much too it in the details. Which even in comics... at Marvel all the characters are unique, but everywhere else they are somehow tied to their geography, as if there is uniqueness too them. Look at the Texas Rangers, which has three people dressed like cowboys (including the one who controls wind), and Indian in an animal headdress, and giant armadillo.

      Just an interesting case study in how things come together, and how one book was a harbinger for things that would come. Also worth noting many of the elements were like post-CRISIS comics in how they did things... but not quite. Good example of DC transforming.

      Jack

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    4. I suspect if they put they same characters together now they'd have a hit. I'm sure there were plenty of kids (who didn't write letters and didn't complain) reading comics back then who loved the book and would be happy to see it revived.

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