Writer Johnny McKnight loves superheroes, and in his new play he looks into how the genre’s traditions would actually work in the real world, writes Mark Fisher
WHERE do you stand on the superhero timescale? Are you one of the youngsters lapping up Hollywood’s non-stop diet of comic-based blockbusters, such as Avengers Assemble, The Dark Knight Rises and the Amazing Spider-Man? Or are you one of the comic-book-as-art crowd, lining up for the latest adventures by the generation of writers and illustrators inspired by Glasgow’s Mark Millar and Grant Morrison?
Or, perhaps, like playwright Johnny McKnight, your idea of a superhero owes everything to the television series of the 1970s.
“My superheroes were on the gayer side,” he says. “Batman was my favourite, especially when I used to see it in the TV programme and the Batgirl bicycle used to drive past. That was what made it go from good to unmissable. If there was a bit of Eartha Kitt in there as Catwoman, that was me obsessed. I also loved Wonder Woman and her invisible plane. And I still think Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the best modern-based superhero there’s ever been.”
The reason this is on his mind right now is the Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam, his latest play for Random Accomplice. It’s a bittersweet comedy about a boy whose superpower is to turn invisible at will, an ability that appears to be deserting him as the implications of his parents’ fatal car crash sink in. Set closer to Lenzie than LA, the play has fun with superhero clichés without losing sight of the genre’s essential appeal.
“Growing up, I loved the idea of the geek becoming the hero,” he says. “When you’re feeling awkward and you don’t feel you quite fit in, you have a wee fantasy going, ‘But when I become a superhero, it’s all going to be fine.’”
The appeal of superheroes was less to do with his sexuality than a general sense of alienation.
“I didn’t realise I was gay growing up – everybody else did, but I was like, ‘No, I would know, surely.’ I don’t know how I missed the signs, running around with my Kylie Minogue sweatbands on. I wasn’t badly bullied at school, but when you’re a bit of an outsider, the superhero appeals to you. They’re always the outsider and they always triumph against evil forces.”
Like most children, he was greedy for superpowers. He believed he was destined to inherit the ability to fly, teleport, read minds and make the world freeze.
His only disappointment with Batman was realising there were no special powers involved. “He’s just a rich person who can buy himself out of trouble. Technically, he’s not really a hero. He’s just a playboy millionaire who can stoat about, buying his way into kidding on he is.”
All of this has a certain nostalgic appeal, but McKnight thinks there’s something more going on to explain the Hollywood superhero boom.
It’s not just about a generation of immature kidults living out their fantasies. On the contrary, he thinks it’s the superheroes themselves who refuse to grow up, not their audiences.
“I like the mythology of Superman, the way he starts in a small town and then graduates to becoming a grown-up with a real grown-up job. But he’s got total arrested development.
“He never manages to resolve any of the problems he has at high school when he becomes an adult.
“He’s a thirtysomething man, working in a newspaper office and he’s still got the same problem he had when he was a teenager. I would like to think when you see these films as an adult, you’re going, ‘Oh come on, Superman, sort your life out.’ You’re thinking, ‘He may be a superhero, but by God, his love life is worse than mine.’ Superheroes are all people who never get everything they want in life and that’s part of the appeal.”
Putting comic-book heroes on the big screen is one thing, transferring them to the stage is quite another. There’s only so much disbelief a theatre audience can suspend before a stage superhero just looks silly. Even if you’re prepared to invest the kind of money that went into Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, the most expensive show yet to open on Broadway, you still risk facing derision.
McKnight is only too aware of the pitfalls and, even though the Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam comes complete with animation by visual artist Jamie Macdonald – and something in excess of 180 video cues and 260 sound cues – McKnight made sure the script would work even without such adornment.
“My pet hate is when you see a show and the video becomes bigger than the story it’s telling,” he says. “The balancing act for us is saying the video needs to tell the story but can’t upstage the actors. It’s real storytelling, straight to the audience and it would totally work without the video, but I would hope all the components come together to tell the story well.”
For similar reasons, McKnight is less of an enthusiast for the CGI generation of superhero films than what he sees as the classic era of his own childhood. It’s an attitude that has fed into the design for the play.
“We liked the idea of it being comic-book style and in 2D,” he says. “Then I went back to a retro, 1970s TV kind of look, mainly because the new films (maybe except for Christopher Nolan’s stuff for Batman) aren’t as good as the old-school stuff. There still hasn’t been a Superman as good as Christopher Reeve or a film as good as the first couple of Superman films. The technology doesn’t necessarily make the film any better.”
In the end, what makes his show a piece of theatre in its own right, rather than an ersatz movie, is its deeper coming-of-age theme. James Young’s Sam McTannan may be a 15-year-old boy fending off adversaries such as love-rival Chunk and arch-nemesis Evil Uncle Herbie, but McKnight says he has a serious purpose behind the surface comedy.
“There’s a thing about the superhero back story that gets glossed over: you forget that Spider-Man is an orphan and they never deal with what happened to his mum and dad. That’s why this play is not just for a teenage audience, because it’s about dealing with death and what happens when you don’t have your parents.”
• The Incredible Adventures of See Thru Sam is at the Tron, Glasgow, today until 29 September, then tours Scotland until 20 October. randomaccomplice.com
Search for a job
Search for a car
Search for a house
Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 25 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 3 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 20 mph
Wind direction: North east