Saturday, 26 May 2012

The Reluctant Geek - Superheroes, sidekicks and storytelling… What makes a superhero?

So, if you were thinking of going on some kind of Geek hunt (it’s like an Easter Egg hunt only with less chocolate) around Cheltenham, there would be some obvious locations to begin. Proud Lion itself would have to be number one port of call of course, followed by Cineworld (particularly if it’s showing sci-fi or fantasy). Otherwise, popular stereotypes would have us believe that the rest of Gloucestershire’s geek population would be found in tiny isolated pockets, playing Diablo 3 in darkened basements or painting Games Workshop models in garages.

But, as you know, we’re all about defying stereotypes over here at the Proud Lion blog. Being a geek doesn’t have to mean poor social skills and an aversion to sunlight (I think you’ll find that’s vampires).  So a trip to the Parabola Arts Centre to see an amazing new show about superheroes ticks both the ‘relevant to my interests’ box and the ‘challenging societal expectations’ box. What do you have to lose?

The Adventures of  Wound Man and Shirley is a one man show about Shirley, a teenage boy with a girl’s name, growing up in suburbia and feeling like the weirdest kid in the school. (We’ve all been there right? Although, to be fair, in my case having a girl’s name was less traumatic…)

Nothing makes much sense to Shirley and he’s under the thrall of unrequited love, but life gets infinitely more interesting when a strange new resident moves into a house on Shirley’s street — and he just so happens to have a vacancy for a teenage sidekick...

It’s fair to say that Wound Man is an unconventional kind of superhero; sprung from the pages of a medical textbook from the middle ages, with an alarming assortment of weapons sticking out from every part of his body like some kind of medieval porcupine. Shirley, by contrast, is something of a dreamer — a romantic at heart, whose obsessions are astronomy, comic books, and an array of indie music and uncool pop. Together they embark on a series of wildly unsuccessful heroic interventions, as relayed by the irrepressible and endlessly engaging Chris Goode.

So what does a character based on a medical diagram showing an array of fun and exciting ways to be injured in 16th century battles really know about being a superhero? What makes a superhero in the first place? And these days, should we perhaps be using a more politically correct term?  ‘Freelance Social Interventionists assemble!’ does have a certain ring to it after all…

Linguistic quibbles aside, superhero-dom does require certain key attributes, so does Wound Man fit the bill?

The hook…

– Wound Man. My name’s Wound Man.
Shirley stops himself from saying that’s a funny sort of name because what sort of a name for a boy is Shirley. But Wound Man sees the thought move behind Shirley’s eyes.

– It’s not my, what do you call it, my birth name. It’s my… professional name.

It is said that every superhero needs an identifying feature or hook, and for Wound Man this may literally be the case, since there’s bound to be one sticking out of him somewhere. But on a basic level, a name and a superpower/quirk are essential for the superhero looking to stand out from the crowd.

The superpower…

–  Like, do you have, superpowers?

– Well, I don’t fly, if that’s what you mean. I’m not quite as aerodynamic as I’d like to be. One’s practice is not so spectacular, anyway. It’s rather more… grass roots. The sector’s changed a lot in the last twenty years. We’re more about sustainable engagement now. We’re not just in and out. We try to apply a more dimensionalized perspective to the challenges we’re dealing with. It’s all about empowering other people really.

– Can you see through people’s clothes though? says Shirley.

– No, says Wound Man. That’s a rather more 70s vibe.

– Not even, like, women’s bras and stuff?

– No, says Wound Man.

Ah, X-ray vision. The superpower dreamed of by teenage boys everywhere. Wound Man takes a more post-modern approach, and at any rate, as he says all of those knives and axes sticking out all over the place don’t exactly make for aerodynamic efficiency. Sometimes though, we have to look beyond the literal to see the superpower which is where Wound Man comes in.

The sidekick…

– But do you need a sidekick? Possibly? You’ve probably got one already. I just thought with the move and everything…

Wound Man looks up from the sponsorship form. He looks straight at Shirley with a kind of intensity that Shirley could easily believe was a superpower anyway. For a second or two Shirley feels more naked than if Wound Man could see through his clothes to his skin and through his skin to the goo on the inside.

Wound Man blinks once, twice. It makes no sound.

Shirley realizes with a jolt that there are tears in Wound Man’s eyes. He looks away.

Being a Superhero can be a lonely business. And everyone knows that the most interesting superheroes are defined by their ability (or lack thereof) to relate to those around them. Think Batman, Robin and some homoerotic banter. No really, think about it. I know I am… Sorry, drifted off there. Often, sidekicks provide a kind of youthful, less cynical mirror for the superheroes they aid. And maybe Shirley is in some ways Wound Man before all the wounds.

The cause…

The reason that Wound Man hates the Reg Parsleys of the world is that he has to lie to them. Because they can’t hear anything complicated. They don’t understand that it’s not all black and white. So he has to talk white. And they all hear black regardless. Reg surveys the kitchen. The postcard of the boy on the fridge.

– That another one, is it?

– Another one what? says Wound Man.

– I’m sure I shouldn’t like to say, says Reg.

Every weapon in Wound Man’s body feels like it just went in.

– I take it you’ve never had a sidekick, Mr Parsley, says Wound Man. You don’t have the air of a man who’s ever had a sidekick.

Reg just smiles. Wound Man’s seen that smile so many times and every time he understands it a little bit less.

– Well I won’t hold you up any longer, says Reg. Now that we’ve had this little conversation, I’m sure you’ll have a lot that you need to get done in a short space of time.

– Indeed, says Wound Man.

Well there we are. A superhero’s work is never done.

Every superhero needs a cause. Something to rail against. Whether that’s embodied in a super villain or simply the injustice they see around them, superheroes are at odds with the world because they refuse to accept it as it is, in all of its brutal squalor.

Of course, if you’re a comic book aficionado you may well have your own criteria for superheroes which is precisely why you need to go and see Wound Man. Iron Man, The Hulk and Captain America may well have the ‘stopping invaders from space and gods with big horny helmets’ market cornered, but for some superhero action closer to home, the Parabola Arts Centre is the place to be.

Besides, Wound Man has more weapons than any of the Avengers… even if they are largely embedded in his body.

Tickets are £10 or £8 concessions from Parabola Arts Centre box office - 01242 707 338 or

Wound Man and Shirley is on Fri 1st ONLY at 7:30pm. Running time approx 60 minutes.

Kate Townsend is wondering what's happened to the cup of tea she was promised!

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