For the month of December, I’ll be world-building. This means taking a look at the people, places, and institutions that I have created over the last six months and trying to figure out more about them. This will involve a look at the stories in which they’ve appeared, and then some speculation, stream-of-consciousness writing, and with any luck a few revelations. In addition, I may come back and add new material as the Elves in my unconscious ship out new ideas, so I’ll be sure to link them up.
Your feedback as readers is, of course, more than welcome. There are probably questions that I’m forgetting to ask and holes that I need to fill.
Wish me luck!
Tonight’s random pick is one of those characters that got mentioned in a sort of off-the-cuff manner in one story, and quickly grew into someone of real depth and humanity. Damn, but that’s fun.
Let us look at Dr. Julian Harcrow, doctor to the super-heroes:
- Professor Harcrow works at the Corsair City University
- He’s won three Nobel Prizes.
- He worked with the Heroes United team.
- He’s looking for a cure to the Gene Bomb set off by Tobias Rhyne.
- He has advanced degrees in biochemistry, quantum electrodynamics, and abnormal psychology.
- He’s won three Nobel Prizes.
- He grew up in the poor section of Corsair City.
- He grew up in a single-parent household (his mother) with many brothers and sisters.
- He was rescued from a tenement fire by Captain Cosmos.
- He’s a Person of Color.
- He went to university when he was fifteen.
- He designed his own metahuman studies program.
- He is at least 55 years old now.
- He helped metahumans understand their powers and find ways to use them better.
- He’s trying to undo the effects of Tobias Rhyne’s gene bomb.
A lot about Harcrow is right there in the interview, and I’m honestly surprised at how much I came up with. As I think I mentioned before, figuring out some characters is like torture for everyone involved. I want the character to reveal something of herself to me, and she’s saying, “Hell no. You’re the writer, you figure it out.” But occasionally one of them not only cooperates, but offers to do a lot of the hard work.
When I saw Harcrow, a picture popped into my head. He’s an alder black man, with the gray hair of a man who hasn’t stopped working since he was a teenager. He’s exhausted now, demoralized from seeing the gods fall from the sky. It’s hard to imagine what that must be like, but I try to think of it as a fundamental re-adjusting of your world view. Like when you realize that you don’t believe in God, or when you can’t find it in you to care about who’s running for President because they’ll just be the same guy with a different face. The things that kept you going are gone, but somehow you have to keep going.
What’s keeping Harcrow going, of course, is the hope of discovering a cure for the gene bomb, and he’s beginning to suspect what I already know: there is no cure. The heroes who have been nullified will never get their powers back. Ever.
There are two things he’ll see before he dies, though. The first is that there are plenty of non-meta heroes out there who will rise to fill the gaps. “Martial artists, robotocists, time-trapped heroes with amazing future tech…” The physics of his world still allows for all kinds of superheroics, and there will be plenty of people to step in and take over.
The second thing is that the gene bomb only re-configured people with currently active metahuman genes. But the meta-gene is necessarily recessive – otherwise the world would be overrun – so sooner or later (perhaps even right now) kids will be born with meta-genes that are just waiting to be activated. A whole new generation of mutants and accident-prone kids will mark the new age of heroism, and I think Harcrow deserves to see that before he dies.
Anyway, Harcrow is essentially a man in mourning, which isn’t something I’m all that familiar with writing. I haven’t lost something or someone that important, that literally defined my world for me. I know I will someday – that’s pretty much a certainty – and I hope that I am able to handle it with a certain amount of quiet dignity and grace. But for right now, I can explore that feeling through Harcrow.
Let’s see, what else? I’m going to have to figure out what he won his Nobel Prizes in at some point. Quick research suggests that no individual has ever won three prizes – and only a handful have won two. So that’ll take a bit of justification right there, but since he’s at the forefront of metahuman science, I think there are a lot of openings for him to grab a prize or three.
I can look at his rise to fame, and how being raised poor affects that. Our past shapes our actions in a thousand different ways, and that needs to be looked into. Harcrow was poor and black, which is not a childhood that often lends itself to becoming a triple-Nobel winner. How did he rise above the ghetto? How much of those formative years does he still keep around? How does he help the kids who are there now, the ones who maybe aren’t as smart or as lucky as he was?
I’m reminded, actually, of Neil DeGrasse Tyson, who tells a story about being a young astrophysics student. He was told by an upperclassman he admired that he was wasting good talent on astrophysics and should have been using it to help “his people,” i.e. working in more political or social issues and helping to make life better in the black community. He says that he struggled with this – he knew that he should be making an effort to help other black kids, to help build the black community, but he also knew that he loved science and astrophysics.
Long story short, he found a way to do both when he was called to appear on TV as a science expert and talk about the sun. After the interview, he realized that not once had they asked him anything as a black man – they had asked him questions as a scientists. And that was his contribution right there. Just being a public black intellectual would challenge white stereotypes and at the same time give black youth someone they could look up to.
I’m probably oversimplifying the story terribly, and if Mr. Tyson would like to correct me, I will be more than happy to fix it. After I stop sqee-ing.
In any case, that’s kind of the model I’m using for Harcrow’s intersection between his racial community and his chosen profession. This is how he contributes and how he makes a difference, by being a person who makes the world a better place by being the brightest man in the room. Of course, writing about race has its pitfalls, certainly. We all remember RaceFail ’09, and the lessons it imparted. But when I do approach it, I’ll do my best, and if I screw anything up big-time, I will gladly seek feedback from people who know more than I do about being a Person of Color.
Eventually, by the way, I’m going to have to work on Tobias Rhyne, too. If anyone can be said to be Harcrow’s nemesis, it’ll be Rhyne, even though the two never met in person. How would Harcrow react to meeting the man who stole everything he loved from the world? Would he be able to hold up to the ethical models of his heroes, or will he just snap and try to pummel the man to death with a lead pipe? I know what he wants to do, but will he let himself do it? That right there is the big story that needs to be told.
There’s also some entertaining back-stories to tell as well. Helping heroes work out their powers, being the scientific point-man for Heroes United, things like that. It could be comedy, a little mystery – who knows? I get the feeling that he’s lived a long and full life, and there are many places where I can drop in and take a look.
Part of writing is getting to know your characters. The way that I’ve been working so far, there’s not been a lot of time to do that. I write a story, and move on – maybe coming back another time to revisit the people I have created, but usually not. So just for fun, I’m going to do some character interviews this week and see what I can find out about the folks who emerged from between the folds in my brain. To do so, I’ve got my list of characters and the fine folks over at random.org, and together I’ll be randomly choosing my subjects. If you have a request for a character interview, let me know in the comments and I can see to it that he or she jumps to the head of the queue.
For our first interview, we will be talking to Dr. Julian Harcrow, a character mentioned but not met in the story for Day 36 - Interviews. What a nice coincidence. Let’s see what he has to say about himself.
Good evening, Dr. Harcrow. Thank you for sitting down with us.
Will this take long? I have some experiments in the lab, you see, and they’re vital to my work.
What a great place to start! Can you tell us about your work, Dr. Harcrow?
I, um. Yes. Yes, fine. Where shall I begin? Um… I have advanced degrees in biochemistry, quantum electrodynamics, abnormal psychology, and I have won no fewer than three Nobel prizes in the lifelong pursuit of the understanding of metahumans.
I’m sorry – metahumans?
Yes. You’d think of them as “super-heroes” perhaps, but not all of them run off and put on tights. Most of them would really rather just be able to live their lives like everyone else. What makes them special is that they are able to do things that they really shouldn’t be able to do – bend steel in their bare hands, fly under their own power, duplicate themselves, that sort of thing. The sheer variety of powers has afforded me a lifetime of study, if not more.
How did you get started in this line of science?
Well, let me see. I remember as a child growing up on the poor side of Corsair City. My family was in pretty bad shape – single mother, far too many children to deal with. And I was smart, even when I was little. Smart enough to know that crawling out of there would be nearly impossible. I had seen others try and fail, and come back to numb themselves with alcohol and drugs.
But then, one day, I saw Captain Cosmos for the first time. You know who he was?
I do remember hearing about him from my parents.
Yes. Well. The first time I saw him was during a tenement fire. Someone in our neighborhood had left something on the stove or fallen asleep with a cigarette – it didn’t matter. Within minutes, the whole place was ablaze, and people were running around like rats caught in a trap. My mother was almost instantly overcome by smoke, my older brothers ran for their lives, and I was the only one who was actually trying to help people get out. But there was no way out. You ever been in a tenement fire, son?
Well, no. No I haven’t.
Count yourself lucky. That place was falling to pieces before the fire started. When the burning began, well… I figured there was no escape. I would die in that slum after all. And then… Then the wall in front of me just – vanished. And there was a man there, this huge man was just… floating there, like it was the most normal thing in the world. He was dressed all in white and gold, and he was shining like the angels my mother had taught me about, except that his skin was dark – even darker than mine! Heh…
I don’t know how many times he had to call me before I realized that I wasn’t dead yet. He saved us all that day. Each and every one of us.
How old were you?
I was twelve years old. About halfway through high school at the time, and when I met Captain Cosmos, it was like I saw my whole future laid out before me. Here was this man – no, “man” isn’t even the right word. This “being,” who had the powers ordinarily reserved for the gods. He could do things that human beings weren’t supposed to do, and yet here he was – walking among us, shaking our hands, kissing our babies. Saving our lives. He was pretending to be one of us. It really made no sense to me, and there was only one way I knew of to deal with things that made no sense.
And that was what got me out. I studied, I applied for every scholarship and loan available, and I worked my fingers down to the nubs to see to it that I’d be able to go to school and get out. Captain Cosmos was my guide.
I wish… I wish I’d had the chance to tell him.
So you started studying metahumans in university?
If you can call it that, yes. Mind you, there were no metahuman studies classes or departments at the time, not to mention that I was a fifteen year-old kid from the inner city. The place was full of walls that I kept having to knock down and traps that I had to disarm, and do it all with a smile. When I finally got to the university at Corsair City, I had to fight tooth and nail to design my own program based on what little information I had about metahumans at the time. My dream, of course, was to get Captain Cosmos into my lab, to talk to him and perhaps really give him a good examination. But it… It just… Well. You know what happened.
Doctor Charkus’ attempt to destroy New York City, correct?
Yes. Captain Cosmos gave his life to stop that madman. He saved the lives of millions of people – billions, if you really think about it. I was devastated. It was like watching God fall from heaven and lie battered and broken in an alley somewhere. I didn’t think I could even imagine anything worse than that, not for a long time.
But Cosmos’ sacrifice led to the new renaissance of heroism, did it not?
It did indeed. When he died, it seemed like the heroes came up out of the ground, like the dragon teeth of Cadmus. They saw that the world needed them, needed true heroes, and they answered that call. They flew, they ran, they swam and teleported into action, and it stunned me to realize just how many different powers it was possible to have. The world would clearly be in good hands with this new generation. But as many friends as I have made in the last forty years of studying metahumans, I would honestly love nothing more than to see Captain Cosmos one more time.
How did you become active in the metahuman community?
Well, like I said, I was eager to study them, so I just started introducing myself. There’s quite a concentration of heroism around Corsair, so all I really needed was a police scanner and a good bicycle. I was young and reckless and just rode off to whatever disaster or major crime the heroes were solving. And when it was all done, I’d walk right up to them, hand them a business card and say, “I’m Doctor Julian Harcrow, metahuman expert. At your service.” And then I’d just turn around and leave. (laughs) I still can’t believe I got away with being such a pompous ass. The things you’ll do when you’re young…
But you got their attention.
Indeed I did. One day, a young woman who called herself Prizm showed up at my lab in a flash of light. She said that she wanted to know more about her powers – how they worked, how she could use them better. And I kept up my facade of being a “metahuman expert” and schooled her in basic physics. Her powers were light-based, so we learned about the electromagnetic spectrum and what it could do, and it just went from there. I designed some training activities out of whatever I had laying around in the physics lab, and a few weeks later she’s calling herself Photonika and doing some really amazing things.
I… uh… I didn’t have any say in the name, though.
How long was it before you were the go-to scientist for the metahuman community?
Not long. It’s a smaller group than you think, and word travels fast. Pretty soon I’m being counseled on missions, and even asked to actually do medical tests on heroes, which was what I’d wanted to do in the first place, and I made some amazing discoveries. I unlocked a lot of what it means to have superpowers and what they do to the human body. I spent years working with these people and helping them understand themselves. There was probably no greater body of data on the planet than mine on the biology and physics of metahumans.
Well. Perhaps one. But we know how that turned out.
You’re referring to Tobias Rhyne’s gene bomb?
You have to understand. The men and women who died that day? They were my friends, most of them. And even the ones who weren’t, I knew their names. I knew who they were. And I had to watch them fall out of the sky. Burst into flames. Drown. Slam into walls. And that day, everyone came to see me. I had tried to keep my job as the Doctor to the Super-Heroes quiet when I could, but there was none of that anymore. My office was filled with people, panicking. Panicking! These were men and women who could shrug off bullets, who slapped around giant frog-monsters or wrestled continents, and they were sitting in my office just… broken. Crying, some of them. Begging. All of them.
I tried to help them, I really did. When I told them that they weren’t metahumans anymore – that they were just human, it was like trying to explain death to a five year-old. They just didn’t understand. Some got angry. Some got really quiet. Some of them thanked me politely, went home and killed themselves. Every time I thought I had had enough, every time I had to lock my door and just weep and swear it was for the last time, there would be another knock at my door. There would be someone desperate for help, who thought I could save them. Who thought I would be the one to rescue them from hopelessness.
I’m sorry. Just… just give me a moment.
Later, a group of non-meta heroes got together to try and capture Rhyne. Martial artists, robotocists, time-trapped heroes with amazing future tech. They assaulted his underwater lair, but it was too late. He was gone, his labs were destroyed. They brought me what data they could find, but it wasn’t anything I didn’t already know. Whatever allowed him to commit this… atrocity, he took it with him.
Have you made any progress towards restoring powers to anyone?
No, not yet. But that certainly won’t stop me from trying. Someone will track down Rhyne, or I’ll figure it out for myself. One way or another, there will be a new renaissance of super-heroes before my day is done. Mark my words.
Now if you’ll excuse me, I still have those experiments to deal with.
Of course. Thank you for your time, Dr. Harcrow.
“All right, Mister Vails, it says here on your resume that you used to be… Umm…” The unemployment counselor looked up from the resume to the tall, muscular man who was sitting uncomfortably across the desk from her.
“Photon.” He cracked a knuckle with his thumb. “The Magnificent,” he said. His voice was flat, almost a whisper, and his wide shoulders slumped.
She made a note on the resume. “I see. And this was before the gene-bomb?”
The man nodded, and didn’t look her in the eye. The gene bomb had gone off two years ago, detonated by Tobias Rhyne, an inventor and technologist-turned-supervillain. Rhyne had developed a method by which metahumans could be stripped of their powers, and thanks to years of defeat at their hands, he had finally gone and done it. When the bomb went off, there were 5,313 metahumans working around the planet. Some of them were in mid-action when it happened, and plummeted from the sky like a horrible four-color rain. Others were suddenly subject to the laws of physics that they had previously ignored, and the results were grisly at best.
Those who survived had to do so without the powers they had come to rely on, and as yet no one had managed to find a way to reverse the effects. Professor Harcrow, of the Corsair City University – a three-time Nobel Prize winner and frequent ally of the international peacekeeping squad Heroes United – was said to be working on a cure. To date, though, no metahuman had recovered his or her powers. Some tried on their own, hunting down lightning storms or trying to re-create the cosmic vortexes that had blessed them in the first place. They were, to a man, unsuccessful.
It became necessary, then, for them to try and re-integrate into regular human society. Even those who had maintained secret identities were having trouble coming to grips with their situation. For them, being a super-hero was the real job. Newspaper reporting, working in an auto garage, being a police officer was just a way to pay the bills. Now it was their real life, and much like soldiers returning from war, they were having problems assimilating.
Constance Wixted had just started processing these claims, and they were starting to get to her. She had seen Photon the Magnificent before, of course – everyone had. The silver and blue costume he wore was unmistakable, and after he saved the Golden Gate Bridge from being turned into a harmonic earthquake generator by Lord Temblor, his fame rose as high as he did.
Now he was sitting in her cramped and dingy public assistance office, hoping to find some kind of work that was as fulfilling as world-saving. “Okay,” she said, trying to pitch her voice somewhere cheerful and optimistic. “What skills do you have that might be valuable to employers?”
He looked up at her, and she remembered for a moment the cosmic blasts that he used to be able to shoot from them. There was a video on YouTube of Photon holding back a rampaging battle tank with those eyes. Now they were flat. “I can type,” he said. “And I’m very organized.”
“Those are good,” she said. “Anything else?”
He sat there, and exhaled. “I’m good with people.”
Constance fought the urge to rub her eyes. “Mister Vails, I understand you’re in a difficult situation….”
“Do you?” he asked. He looked at her again, and for a moment there was strength in his face. “Have you ever seen the sky in the infrared? Have you ever felt the earth move under your feet and known that you moved it? Have you ever had an entire city thank you for returning it from a shadow dimension?”
She shook her head. “No, I – I haven’t.”
“Then you don’t understand anything,” he said. He stood up and took his coat from the back of the chair. “Thank you for trying, Miss Wixted,” he said. “This isn’t working for me.”
She stood with him. “Wait, Mister Vails!” He turned and looked over his shoulder. “Maybe… maybe you could do some work with an NGO, or a charity – I have a few here that-“
He shook his head. “No,” he said. “It’s just… It’s just not the same.” He put his coat on, and she watched him as he walked through the waiting room and out the door.
Constance dropped back in her seat. She made a note in Vails’ file – “Pending” – and dropped it into a tray on her desk. “Next,” she said. A tall woman with green hair and a willowy figure stood up, smoothed her dress, and came into the office, closing the door behind her.
“Miss Pierce?” The woman nodded. “Sorry to see you here again so soon. The arboretum job didn’t work out, then?” The green-haired woman shook her head and, quietly, began to cry. Constance stood up and brought over the box of tissues she made sure was always within arm’s reach.
“Don’t worry, Miss Pierce,” she said. “We’ll find something for you.”