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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: The Making of a Superhero (Part 2)

Continuing my look at the creation of the Vanguard Prime team, I thought it was best to present the other junior member – Machina.


I knew it was important to include more than one teenage member of the team, and I also knew it was important to make that other member a girl. Machina arrived in my head almost fully formed. I knew I needed a “tech-head” for the group, and an armoured one would make a contrast to all the other members. The name popped out at me almost immediately, which I took as a sign that it should be a placeholder until I came up with something “better”, but ‘Machina’ quickly grew on me and so the name stuck.


I’ve been asked more than once how it’s pronounced. Technically, it should be “mack-in-a”, but I have to admit I pronounce it “ma-sheen-a”. The disparity exists because the name comes from “deus ex machina”, a term which translates from Latin as “god from the machine”. To quote Wikipedia (always an intelligent-sounding thing to say) it’s “a plot device whereby a seemingly unsolvable problem is suddenly and abruptly solved with the contrived and unexpected intervention of some new event, character, ability, or object”.


I half-named the character after this term because her power could become an easy “Get Out of Jail Free” card and I wanted a reminder to not let that happen – at least not too much. The mispronunciation comes into play because I just think it sounds better. A writer’s heart is a fickle thing.


As far as her character itself is concerned, I drew on all the slightly older teen girls I remembered from when I was young who all seemed so much more sophisticated than I was and were all highly terrifying. Admittedly, there’s also a dash of Hermione Granger in there, as well as a large helping of Asuka Langley Soryu from Neon Genesis Evangelion, though I wasn’t conscious of either of those influences at the time. It’s only in retrospect that I realise how much those characters factored into Machina’s inception.


Design-wise, I envisioned Machina in a white V-suit that matched my original idea for Sam’s, with her outfit made-up of purple circuit-patterns where Sam’s was gold. Picturing actors in the role of my characters always helps me in creating them. I imagined Machina as a cross between Brie Larson, Alison Lohman and Stephanie Bendixsen, only British, and sketched out a rough idea of what she might look like to get a handle on describing her.

One of the first Machina sketches, where I was working out how the circuit pattern might work.

A later sketch, where the circuit patterns are starting to get out of hand.

My final, streamlined design, where the circuit patterns manage to form ‘M’s and ‘V’s at the same time.

All of these designs suffer from the obvious problem that I can’t really draw but they helped me to envision the character, which in turn informed my description of her.


Eventually, my final sketch was passed onto the book’s design team. Just as with Sam, it was thought a white suit wouldn’t strike the right image, so the colours of Machina’s outfit were swapped to black and purple. Her character is very much retained, however. Interesting note: while I drew on the actresses I’ve listed for my mental image of the character, the book’s designer used Michelle Williams as a starting point. I remember being really impressed with the designer’s insight when she told me that.

The final Machina design, where she demonstrates her armour-forming power.

Of course, all this gives an insight into the visual of Machina, but not her character. For that, I’d like to point to a couple of moments from the book.


One of those moments is where she’s talking about how she came to be a member of the team, and how that relates back to the relationship she has with her family. Machina doesn’t come from the same kind of background as Sam does. Though she by no means had a “bad” upbringing, I imagined her parents to be very distant people who’d had a daughter almost as an afterthought. The fact that she prefers to go by her superhero alias rather than her civilian name goes to show just how alienated she is from her family.


The other moment – and it’s a tiny one- is where Sam is listing the objects he sees when looking around Machina’s room and he notes all the stacks of CDs. It’s not commented on, and nobody has mentioned it to me as yet, but it seems odd in this day and age that a teenager would have need of physical albums, especially a teenager as tech-savvy as Machina.


I imagined these CDs to have been handed down to her from her older brother – the artifacts he passed on to help her cope when he left home and she was still stuck with their parents. It’s why she’s so knowledgeable and snobby about music, but it’s also why she’s standoff-ish with Sam when he joins the team; she’s created a new family for herself with Vanguard Prime, a family where she has a distinct role and purpose, and suddenly a new baby brother has come along to potentially usurp that.


She keeps those CDs as a tangible connection to her brother, using them as a security blanket in a way. I never actually address that in the book and I don’t know if I ever will during the course of the series, but it’s touches like those that writers create for themselves – if no one else – as they imagine the interior life of all their characters.


Since the book’s come out, I’ve been a lot asked about the relationship between Machina and Sam. I think the best answer I can give is that the dynamic between them is a complicated one, and that it will only grow more complicated in time to come, especially as Book 2 will throw a spanner in the works that nobody’s really counting on at the moment.


What is that spanner? You’ll have to wait until March 2013 to find out. But if you want to learn a little more about Machina, make sure to check out her bio here.