My first officially sanctioned pitch to a fully functioning Marvel editor…and I blew it.
Now, I’m quite young, having just turned twenty-two last week, and I haven’t been at this whole “breaking in” ordeal for longer than four years, and I’m completely aware that there exists creative visionaries that have been lying in wait for nearly twice as long…but I can’t pretend that falling short of the finish line wasn’t met with considerable disappointment. So close people…SO CLOSE. So close, yet eight little pages away.
I began amassing the stereotypical stack of rejection letters a couple years ago, but this rejection was a little more personalized in nature. However, with the form letters of rejection came greater understanding, and this situation is no different. Every missive, every concern, ensures that the next pitch will read just a little better than the last one. Until the wall breaks, and one steps forward with uncertain steps as the page turns revealing a new chapter. The only thing that stops a creator dead is fear of failure.
The mind of any creator does the hard work for them. It’s set off by a phrase, a news broadcast, a dream, or a strange sound. It melds characters and voices, mannerisms and personalized quirks. The trick involves slowing things down just long enough to make accurate sense of what your mind is trying to convey to you. And then relating this vision to someone who has no idea where this all started.
The task was to conjure a Captain America eight-pager for an upcoming anthology and this is what appeared on paper after the characters’ incessant conversations were postponed for a brief period of time, and I trapped myself in a room ignoring distractions and flinging fear out the window. Following the pitch is a brutal dissection of purpose and motivation that displays an aspect of being a writer that I find slightly neurotic…yet strangely therapeutic.
(8 page short)
For Steve Rogers, becoming the living, breathing embodiment of a country’s ideals was a matter of duty. The world needed a hero to combat the most insidious of evils, one that preached intolerance and sanctioned murder as a means to an end. While the war that spawned him is long over…the fight continues to this day.
Sadly, the face of the enemy has changed and the stakes have never been higher. Cackling villains, garish costumes, and their plans for world domination threaten to literally consume a sentinel of liberty, thereby preventing him from halting the true evil slowly tearing his country apart. Legendary documents have prescribed the formula which could result in the strongest and most equitable of nations, and with the nightly news peppered with tales of world hunger, child abuse, and drug trafficking…it’s obvious we’re falling far short.
Captain America is going to change this…or die trying.
An indomitable will propels him from conflict to conflict, solidifying his grand ambition that the world will become a better place. Nothing else matters to him, not the difficult path that awaits nor the odds of his success. When people are in danger, the world’s greatest soldier sets out to make things right, hopefully inspiring the masses into behaving properly.
But sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.
Icons are only as effective as a person’s belief in them and without the shadow of war looming over his shield…to some Captain America is an expensive action figure. An expensive action figure that’s blinded to the true face of America and misled about who he’s fighting for. An expensive action figure that merely exists as a product of the establishment, ensuring the status quo. But don’t take my word for it…just watch what happens when Cap comes face-to-face with a militia willing to take hostages to prove their radical point of view.
Police sniper Mark Ettner takes another deep breath before looking through his scope for the twenty-third time, while his captain’s voice, panicked and uneasy, garbled by a radio connection, asks him for the fifth time, “Do you have a shot?” Ettner responds with a disappointed sigh and a terse, “No.” On the ground two detectives, Wray and Elliott, exchange a friendly yet tense banter over the only man capable of ending this stand-off…and how time is running out. Suddenly, something is spotted overhead…
…signaling the arrival of Captain America, plummeting from a hovering Quinjet. After a flashy display of acrobatics, Cap, costume slightly singed and weathered from a recent battle, politely asks for a situation report. He learns that men brandishing guns and homemade explosives have taken hostages, and have demanded an audience with the famous Avenger. Then he learns that the lives in danger are those of innocent children.
Kicking down the door of the small compound marks the beginning of the hero’s scene assessment, marked as everything slows to a crawl, heightening the situation’s level of tension as Cap views the explosives riddled around the room, trips an unseen sensor, and spots two bound children. The man that approaches him from behind pointing a .357 Magnum and commanding, “That’s far enough,” believes his approach went unseen.
Captain America complies with his mystery opponent that introduces himself as Jared Jones and sarcastically comments that the living legend almost arrived after the group’s deadline. Cap calmly informs him that he and the Avengers were defusing a situation in Asia that demanded their attention and apologizes for his tardiness. Then he makes his play for the release of Jones’ child hostages, which is quickly complicated when Jones’ co-conspirators make their presence known by pointing high-caliber weapons at the crying children.
The hero quickly withdraws his request and tries to strike a conversation with Jones to facilitate his trust, hopefully providing him with an opening that will see this situation coming to an agreeable conclusion. Jones quickly identifies the transparent nature of Cap’s facade and demands a sizable deposit from his hometown’s city council, which prevented a group of his constituents from holding a rally on the steps of city hall. He feels his right to free speech was violated and wants vindication, and for Cap to settle an important wager for him. A very dangerous wager that involves deciding which of the two children, one Caucasian, and the other an Arab-American, gets to die.
Naturally, Rogers refuses and expresses disappointment that Jones would even entertain the idea that Cap would make such a choice along lines so irrelevant as color. Jones laughs and asks Cap if he found it ironic that he was created to fight a menace that wished to pave the way for a quote, unquote master race encompassed by blond-haired, blue-eyed minions. Rogers is growing more anxious as he finds it increasingly difficult to divert his eyes from the captive children. Then Jared asks him one last time to make the call…or he’ll thumb a detonator that completes one half of the binary trigger Cap’s entrance tripped and take out half the block.
Cap strips off his mask and asks Jared, man-to-man, if he wants to be responsible for the deaths of dozens of people. He comments that if his grievance is legitimate, he can lodge a case via the U.S. justice system, to which Jared and his men enjoy a sizable laugh. Jones dismisses Cap as a tool of the government and believes that only blood stirs the apathy present in the American public eye, and he’s ready to give it to them. Cap sighs heavily and then says, “Then you leave me no choice.”
The shield cuts through the stale air with blinding speed and incapacitates Jared’s two henchmen with little effort. Jared instantly attempts to detonate his explosives, but is met with a hollow click. Cap explains a device on his belt that he coincidentally acquired on his mission with the Avengers an hour ago…a small device that effectively scrambles radio signals, turning Jared’s weapons of mass destruction into crippled party favors, incapable of doing much more than providing a light show. The children are freed and Cap orders them outside, saying that they’re too young to view what comes next…which is left to the imagination of the reader. Of course Cap wouldn’t seriously injure Jared before leaving him in the hands of the police, but threatening the lives of children is a great way to rile the sentinel of liberty, and Mr. Jones is leaving his compound the hard way.
I don’t dislike the entire thing. Just large sections of it. The title no longer strikes me as clever and I’m disappointed that I didn’t choose another phrasing that may have proved more effective. The overly pretentious page of introduction wasn’t nearly as necessary as I originally thought, as the editor no doubt understood all of the information I regurgitated back at him.
Then there’s the story itself that was the result of my personal lack of affinity for the character I was attempting to write. Instead of identifying a trait of the sentinel of liberty that I did identify with, I turned my negative feelings about the icon into a character manifestation named Jared. A novice mistake, especially considering my belief that a skilled writer can deliver an effective story about a protagonist that they aren’t particularly fond of. All it takes is a willingness to attend to some human connection between yourself and the character you’re writing. Every hero has something about them to hate, and every villain has something to admire. Chuck Dixon told me so in a panel discussion a couple years ago, but in my zeal at dragging Cap’s shield through the mud, I neglected to focus on anything about Steve Rogers that I wouldn’t toss out a window.
So for every bold visual I had planned: an upshot of Cap free-falling from an overhead Quintjet, Cap landing on the scene with a costume stained by recent battle, a magnum appearing from thin air aimed at the back of our hero, close-ups of Cap’s eyes as the child hostages whimper under the cover of assault rifles, and the mischievous smile that settles onto Rogers’ face as he prepares to bring down the hammer on Mr. Jones is balanced by this…
…Cap walking into an amateurish boobytrap, and being dismissed as a fake, ineffective, government tool that doesn’t even know who he’s fighting for. And then the ending is hollow and simple, making one wonder why the hell Cap didn’t just toss his shield around the room in the first place.
Ah, well…it seemed like a good idea at the time.
Couple this with the revelation that this anthology was meant to be of a celebratory nature, and it’s a wonder Marvel Editor C didn’t laugh at my poor attempt of a pitch. However, I learned several things from this failed effort, focus on a character’s good side and don’t try to deconstruct them in eight pages, drop more dialogue into the pitch if possible, don’t waste time posturing…just tell the story, and always make very sure you understand exactly what you’re pitching for. With this in hand, all that’s left is to await the next time…
…and there will be a next time.