Blog Archives

The Ideas Shoppe: The Making of a Superhero (Part 3)

The wait is over! Vanguard Prime: Wild Card will be released tomorrow, 27th February, and to celebrate I thought I’d return to a series of posts that haven’t been featured here in a while; the Making of a Superhero. And given that Vanguard Prime: Wild Card heavily features the Knight of Wands, what better time than now to take a look at the team’s resident man of mystery?

So mysterious you may not know that's him on the left...

So mysterious you may not know that’s him on the left…

Previously, I’ve discussed the process behind creating the two junior members of the team – Goldrush and Machina – but I knew that the senior members would be a challenge unto themselves.

I wanted to create characters that felt interesting and dynamic enough that they could very easily be the protagonist of their own book. The examples I had in mind of these stemmed from comic books, of course, where the Justice League and the Avengers were traditionally populated by characters that were already established in their own series.

This was in opposition to teams like the X-Men and the Fantastic Four, where the characters were created to be part of a team, and as interesting as they may be in their own right, they still work better as part of that team structure.

I wanted the “Big Three” of Vanguard Prime to be much like the Big Three of the Avengers and the Justice League. Just as Captain America, Thor & Iron Man and Superman, Batman & Wonder Woman all have their own supporting characters, antagonists and personal lives, I wanted to come up with characters that felt as established as that…without the benefit of 70 or so years of continuous publishing behind it.

I started in the place I was most comfortable with, drawing on the ‘Self-Made Man’/’Mortal Amongst Gods’ elements that Iron Man and Batman share, while also focusing on the ‘Dark Avenger’ archetype originated by characters like Zorro and the Shadow, their legacies continued to this day by the aforementioned Dark Knight Detective.

It wasn’t the first time I’d used the ‘Dark Avenger’ template to create a character; when I was 10, I came up with a spoof superhero called Penguin Man, who eventually mutated into “Nighthawk” when I was 12.

But with my new story, I didn’t want a Batman rip-off. I didn’t want to just transplant Nighthawk from my childhood into the present day (not least because there’s already more than one comic book character that’s taken that name).

So I looked back at the characters that intrigued me when I was younger; not the characters I loved, like Batman or Spider-Man, but the characters that seemed slightly goofy or “off”, but still stuck in the brain. Characters like Steve Ditko’s Blue Beetle and the Question, or Jack Kirby’s Mr Miracle. Strange, colourful characters that immediately capture your interest with how quirky they are.

I’ve spoken before of the need for a memorable superhero to have a strong thematic element; something that elevates them from the mundane to the iconographic. As an example; Batman and Spider-Man draw on the animal kingdom, with those two animals informing many of the elements that make those characters unique, such as Spider-Man’s web-slinging or Batman’s Batcave.

It’s hard these days, after so many thousands of superheroes have been introduced to the world, to come up with a unique theme for a new character. What I ended up drawing from was the memories I had of my mother practicing divination with her tarot card deck. I never put much stock in the fortune-telling side of it, but I always found the names and the illustrations of the cards themselves fascinating.

So bearing in mind the off-beat features of the Ditko and Kirby characters, I was immediately drawn to the “Knight of Wands” card, combining as it did aspects of the warrior and the magician under one, evocative name.

Storytelling is the art of posing questions and then answering them. The first question I posed to myself about a character called “the Knight of Wands” is why would he take that name? Especially when you consider that there are two decks in the tarot; the major arcana and the minor arcana, with the Knight of Wands belonging to the minor arcana. Out of all the cards in the deck, why would someone pick that one?

And that’s when it occurred to me; he’s named himself after a character from the minor arcana because there’s a villainous organisation called the Major Arcana that he’s working to bring down.

That’s where the next question comes into play; why? Why is he fighting this organisation? And it’s from there that I developed the Knight of Wands’ back story, fleshing out the Major Arcana as an organisation of superhumans that the Knight’s father founded but that has been overtaken and corrupted by his older brother.

This idea had a certain Shakespearean flavour to it that really appealed to me at the time; it’s only in retrospect that I also see the influences of films like Infernal Affairs and anime series like Cowboy Bebop as also having a fair amount of influence.

Using the tarot deck also provided me with ideas for the Knight of Wands’ paraphernalia, including his method of transport; his “Batmobile” wouldn’t be a car, it’d be a supersonic scramjet stolen from the Major Arcana, named after “the Chariot” card.

Originally, I had the Knight carrying a flaming sword, but that felt off given that he was meant to be a knight of wands. An off-hand comment someone made about Doctor Who’s sonic screwdriver being the Doctor’s “magic wand” gave me the idea of giving the Knight a similar high-tech wand, albeit as a collapsible quarterstaff, which is where his “laser-lance” comes from (though I called it a “photon rod” at first).

His real name – Ethan Knightley – came from two separate sources; Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt from the Mission: Impossible franchise (not that I’m a major fan, but it was always a name I thought was cool) and Mr Knightley from Jane Austen’s Emma. I imagined the Knight to have been a Scottish aristocrat, born and bred to continue on his family’s legacy, only to end up a beggar knight errant.

This would be a Batman with no fortune, forced to do things on a budget, and just as the Knight of Wands card represents improvisation, he’d work from his gut and off-the-cuff rather from than any grand plan or comprehensive system of preparation.

Unlike the other characters I created for Vanguard Prime, the Knight’s creation came quickly. By the time I was done, I had a character that I was very fond of and just as interested in exploring, which is why I decided to make Book 2 his spotlight story after keeping him in the background of Book 1.

That affection has also led this post to being much longer than I intended it to be, but I wanted to give you a sense of everything that goes into creating a superhero character…especially as it seems to be one of the things that people Google that brings them to my website!

And if all this rambling has somehow intrigued you about the Knight of Wands, this is where I remind you that you can read all about him and the Major Arcana in Wild Card, Book 2 in the Vanguard Prime series. You’ll recognise it on the shelf; it’ll be the only one where a hooded figure is wielding a flaming laser-lance…

Note: Do not attempt this at home.

Note: Do not attempt this at home.

‘Til next time.


The Ideas Shoppe: Genealogy of a Book

For ages now, I’ve been meaning to do two things. 1) Write up a list of books that were influential on Vanguard Prime: Goldrush (out now, of course!). 2) Write the first in a regular series of posts entitled ‘The Ideas Shoppe’, in which I discuss the process of writing, focusing primarily on where inspiration comes from.

And then I thought – why not make them the same post?

Before I plunge into it, I think I should take a moment to explain the title. Even before I got published, I was aware that one of the questions that anyone in the creative field gets asked the most is “Where do you get your ideas from?”. It’s a question that can be phrased in many different ways, and it’s a question that can be easily dismissed with the knee jerk response “Oh, I go down and buy them at the Ideas Shop”.

Of course, it’s a sarcastic answer, but I have to admit that I find the idea of the Ideas Shop an enticing one. I love the image of a glowing, golden boutique at the end of a cobblestone lane where you can buy inspiration by the jar. But in lieu of that, I’ll offer what insight into the creative process that I can – but only after adding a ‘ppe’ to ‘shop’ to give it the proper old world aesthetic!

So without further ado, please find ten books that helped me in the creation of Vanguard Prime: Goldrush

(Please note: Not every book in this list is appropriate for young readers. In fact, there are quite a few that are very specifically meant for adults. I like to think that people find books as they’re ready for them, so if something feels like it may not be right for you, give it some time and try it again in a few years. Also, if the formatting is a little off in this post, please bear with it!)

  1. Tomorrow, When the War Began by John Marsden

My dad bought this book for me when I was 11, and I was totally hooked. The best thing about John Marsden’s writing  is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He deals with themes of race, sexuality and violence in a mature, level-headed manner, never talking down to his readership. It gave me a lot of confidence to not shy away from some of the darker places I wanted to go to in Vanguard Prime – though not necessarily as dark as the places Marsden goes in this series.


2. JLA by Grant Morrison, et al.

This was my first exposure to the genius that is Grant Morrison, the Scottish writer that many a fanboy refers to as ‘the God of Comics’. His work has gotten increasingly polarizing over the years, with quite a few readers as ready to dismiss it as praise it – but I am firmly in the ‘fan’ camp. And though his modern work can be arguably esoteric and cerebral, his run on JLA (short for Justice League of America) is as accessible as it is epic.

Published in the ‘90s, it can appear a little dated now (especially when the blue-skinned electric Superman suddenly pops up) but it remains a high-point in the history of comics publishing.

 3. Artemis Fowl by Eoin Colfer

This was the book I bought when I decided I was going to write a YA book and I wanted to get a sense of what else was out there. I’d been meaning to read it for years and finally got the chance as part of my research. What’s bold about this book is the anti-hero that Colfer presents us with as his protagonist.

Moral complexity is something that’s not always afforded in books for younger readers. Eoin Colfer is fearless in showcasing a character that many adults may not necessarily approve of, but that kids will no doubt relate to when they read his troubled backstory.


4. The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger

I had never experimented with voice very much in my writing, sticking almost entirely to Third Person Past Tense. This was the book that convinced me to attempt First Person Present Tense, something that I’d been a bit snobby about in the past.

It helps that Niffenegger’s story is as complex as it is emotionally engaging, with a pair of characters that have a great sense of reality to them, despite the outlandish premise.


5. On Writing by Stephen King

I’d always been a bit dismissive of Stephen King’s work. I remembered reading It when I was too young to be reading it, and even then being underwhelmed by the decision to include a drawing of the moment someone writes “It” in blood on a bathroom wall, which amounted on the page to someone scribbling in felt pen on a piece of grid paper. As I got older, I smirked at the way almost all his main characters were middle-class white men who were either from Maine, or writers, or both.

But somewhere along the line that started to change. It had a lot to do with the number of writers who would cite his On Writing as having had a great impact on their work (including Neil Gaiman, a personal hero). Curiosity getting the better of me, I borrowed On Writing from the local library and found myself pleasantly surprised by it.

Part autobiography, part mission statement, On Writing is a book I would heartily recommend to anyone who has ambitions of becoming a writer. Even those who have previously failed to connect with King’s work will find something to relate to and learn from in these pages.

 6. Third Transmission by Jack Heath

Another book that showed me the places you can take the YA genre, with Jack Heath demonstrating a canny knack at action-based storytelling, incorporating cool sci-fi ideas and a teenage protagonist.




7. Neuromancer by William Gibson

I’m so envious of Gibson’s prose. He describes everything with crystal clear clarity that still manages to be poetic, and he makes it look so easy. This is such an influential book (this is where the term “cyberspace” was first coined) and yet people generally remain somewhat oblivious to it. The movie that’s meant to be in the works may change that, but only if the filmmakers manage to nail the complex plot that’s coupled with an incredible sense of atmosphere.



8. Shade’s Children by Garth Nix

Like Artemis Fowl, I read this shortly before starting work on Vanguard Prime in order to get a handle on the YA genre, and what I found was an uncompromising, dystopian tale of kids doing whatever they need to in order to survive. In that sense, it has a lot in common with Tomorrow, When the War Began, but with much more of a sci-fi bent.



9. Watchmen by Alan Moore, Dave Gibbons, et al.

I first read this about ten years ago, before the movie came out but long after it had left an indelible mark on the comics industry. Despite being a product of Cold War paranoia, it remains a fantastic example of world-building, taking standard superhero archetypes and fleshing them out so that they read like real people, thwarted dreams and all.



10. The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay by Michael Chabon

There are many things to marvel at in this Pulitzer-prize-winning novel, not the least of which is the thoroughly authentic comic book character that Chabon has his two main characters create. The Escapist is such an interesting character and so perfectly captures the excitement of the Golden Age of comics that it’s actually disappointing that he wasn’t a genuine product of the era and that there aren’t more adventures of his to thrill to. I wanted the characters in Vanguard Prime to feel as well-realised and genuine as the Escapist is in this book. I can only hope that I managed that.

 So that’s it!

Of course, this list doesn’t count the film and TV works that also bore some influence (including The West Wing, Neon Genesis Evangelion, Justice League Unlimited, The Spectacular Spider-Man, Doctor Who, and everything Joss Whedon’s ever done) and the music I’d play to fuel my imagination.

I guess we’ll just have to save all that for the next visit to the Ideas Shoppe.