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I'm Cathy Leamy, a Boston cartoonist and medical writer. Check out my comics! They're mainly about health care and autobio stories.

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Thursday, October 26, 2006

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Cliche Clinic: The Stressful Situation

All this talk of Heroes and Cliché Bingo brings up something I've had bubbling in the back of my head for a while. In general, I'd like to be more positive and proactive, critiquing constructively instead of just hurking up gripes and snark. If what we're seeing is crusty overused cliché, what could storytellers substitute to make it more fresh and interesting?

So, Cliché Clinic! I'd like to tackle the "my superpowers in action" scene. You know the one - the stressful situation where Our Heroes put things on the line and save others (or even themselves), maybe by using their powers for the first clumsy time, or maybe by admitting Spider-Man 2-style that they can't deny their own heroism. It often ends up something like this:

When I wrote this list off the top of my head, I didn't intend for most of it to mirror how Heroes has been unfolding, but it turned out that way. If you count their online comics, they've even done "save people from a fire" twice. That's a clichébag and a half.

So what are some alternatives? What different stressful situations could be applied and not feel overused? Help me build this toolbox! Please add your own ideas in the comments section below if you'd like to join in.

Possible non-cliché situations :

7 comments!     click to join in

1 Dean   (8:41am - Oct 28, 2006)

Under clichés, you should add "being assaulted by bullies."

Possible non-cliché situations:

Hero prevents friend from driving home drunk (such a program has the added advantage of being able to be used as an after-school special)

Sinking ship

Waiter drops tray of food

Also, there doesn't need to be someone in danger for a hero to be at that point where he can't deny his superpowers, anymore. I mean, let's face it-- plenty of people would get stressed enough to use their superpowers if they were, say, late for a date.

2 Kitty   (5:40pm - Oct 29, 2006)

Dean - bullies, good one! If I had a nickel for every one of those!

The issue I ran into while I was thinking about this is that there doesn't tend to be much distinction between "stories about people with superpowers" and "stories about superheroes." Most superpowered stories tend to get all "with great power ..." and immediately turn into tales of heroism. So in turn most of the cliché "my powers in action" situations show people saving others, and I think I subconsciously tried to counter that specific need when I wrote my list.

Maybe I should come up with two lists of situations: one for people just putting their powers into action, and one for people jumpstarting their powers in aid of others.

3 Liz   (6:58pm - Oct 30, 2006)

I'm going to critique you and suggest a flop of this one: "A child does not make it onto the subway train car with its parents before the doors close". A more dramatic situation (IMO) is the child ending up on the train with the parents still in the station. A kid left on the platform is likely to stay there; a panic reaction of not moving. A kid on a train doesn't know what to do. Do I get off at the next stop? Stay on the train, ending up at the end of the line? How do I find Mom and Dad again?

A lot of your alternative situations are the kind of things that they would be all about on House. Maybe Hugh Laurie just needs superpowers and all will be right in the world!

4 Kitty   (9:54pm - Oct 30, 2006)

Good point, Liz! I put down that subway example because it actually happened to my parents when my brother and I were small. Your version is much more freaky.

There's gotta be some crazy fanfic somewhere about SuperHouse.

5 Lyle   (6:52pm - Oct 31, 2006)

Right now, I keep having flashbacks to a pre-Crisis Superman comic where Lois was having lunch in a top-floor restaurant and leaned back in her chair too suddenly (because the waiter got to close to her while carrying flaming kababs), breaking the window behind her and send her falling to what would be her death if Superman hadn't saved her. That story left me scared about windows in high-rise buildings as a kid, since it looked like it was so easy to break those windows.

Sorry. Not contributing anything but "That pre-Crisis Lois was clumsier than Heroes' Claire."

Hm, actually, I did just think of a scene from a Superman movie where a kid was playing around Niagra Falls as his mother was distracted, eventually falling. Maybe something like that...

6 Tivol   (5:20pm - Nov 1, 2006)

Cliche: Not only did this explosion give me my superpowers, but it caused a fire or wreckage that might hurt those bystanders.

Non-cliche, but fascinatingly lazy storytelling nonetheless: Those mean cops are using excessive force to break up this peaceful protest I'm in, and I need to protect myself and my hippie friends.

Non-cliche, and possibly workable: That nasty car crash caused such traffic that an ambulance will never get here in time. I'll use my powers to MediVac the victim to the hospital!

At least, I hope I got the "cliche/non-cliche" right. I'm not very well-read.

7 Kitty   (7:54am - Nov 2, 2006)

Good one Tivol! I can easily picture something like "I discovered my super-strength when I was pitching bricks through Starbucks windows during the Seattle WTO riots!"

I'm not sure of the rubric for determining cliché versus original. So far I've just been thinking of it like the Supreme Court did about obscenity - "I know it when I see it." Maybe in this case it's "I know it when I see it again and again."

Like the example of the convenience store robbery - when that scene popped up on Heroes, I immediately thought, I've seen heroes foiling convenience store robberies in Runaways and Alias, and those series are fairly self-referential about the superhero genre so God knows how many other series it's appeared in as just straight material (though I admit the two examples I just referenced didn't involve people just discovering their powers).

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