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The Cold Servings Notebook/FAQ

At the moment these aren't really "FAQs." After all, no one's got any reason to actually ask any questions.  This is more of an introduction to Cold Servings in a FAQ format.

Questions about the series

Q: What is (or will be) Cold Servings?

A: Cold Servings is a superhero webcomic set in a very close match to the "real world." Actually "masked vigilante" may be a better term than "superhero" since there are no "super powers." Physics and technology are either doable with present technology or at least plausibly within sight. Another way to look at it is diamond hard science fiction set in an extremely near future but with a "superhero" theme.

Q: Why this comic?

A:  When I was growing up the Superhero comic book was a significant part of my reading.  I wanted to be a superhero, not for fame so much as to be able to do things that really made a difference in the world.  Well, I grew up, got responsible, learned about things like Newton's Laws of Motion and the laws of Thermodynamics (which, between them, eliminate much of what goes on in comic books), got a job, family, and demands on my time and energy.  No superheroing for me.  But there remains, buried inside me, that little kid who never outgrew the desire.  Conventional wisdom is that it can't work, not in the real world.  Even more, conventional wisdom is that even if one were able to become a "successful" superhero, it would be a bad idea.  The negatives far outweigh any possible positives from someone going into freelance accident/disaster rescue and law enforcement.

I'm not so certain.  There is a lot to be said for the conventional view, but rarely either complete or totally accurate.  The world tends to offer too much wiggle room for most absolutes.  It's this wiggle room that I'd like to explore in fiction.

Q: Why a comic?  Why not prose like your previous fiction?

The short answer, is I wanted to write/draw comics for some time and this is more opportunity than need.  However that's not the only consideration.  Superhero stories have generally been told in the medium of comics so there's the element of tradition.

The following questions refer to problems/challenges in creating the comic Cold Servings.  This is kind of a ramble.

Q: What kind of abilities can the hero have?

A: The first rule is "no superpowers." That means my main character can't do anything "ordinary" people can't do.  No leaping 15 feet in the air, lifting cars straight overhead, inventing super-technological gadgets overnight, dodging bullets, or any of that.  Nor can he be a world class athlete in multiple fields and the knowledge of multiple science and engineering degrees.  I can make him reasonably strong (say, lift 2-300 lbs overhead), a reasonably fast runner (5 minute miles, held over 3-5 miles), and just overall in good shape.  

Q: How about Martial Arts training?

A: Absolutely.  However, it's not like you see in the movies, where the trained martial artist wades through hordes of untrained criminals.  In real life, the bad guys have guns, knives, and other weapons that work a lot better against the "good guys" than would appear from the movies.  In addition those nice weapon disarms taught in martial arts classes are a lot less effective in reality than the classroom situation would lead one to believe. (Try a "gun disarm" against somebody with a paintball pistol and see if you can really avoid getting shot or try a "knife disarm" against somebody armed with a piece of sidewalk chalk and look for the marks where you got "cut.")

I think the key here is going to be weapons.  More on that later.

Q: If guns are so effective, why not use them, like Bronson in Death Wish?

 A: My goal here is a "comic book superhero" not an "action movie vigilante." And so, one of the nods I'm making to the superhero genre is the hero's "I don't kill" attitude.  There are practical reasons for this.  One is that my hero wants to differentiate himself from the people he goes after.  This is one major way.  Another is that if he went around killing those he considered the "bad guys" catching him would suddenly become a lot higher priority with the police.  He's going to have enough trouble without adding "wanted for murder" to it.  Of course, he'll still be vilified by both police and media anyway.  Look at how people are often characterized after acting in legitimate self defense.

All of that is why I've been leaning toward Filipino Martial Arts with its systems of stick fighting.  That, plus some "inventive" gadgetry will do for the offense.  On the defensive side, body armor will definitely be part of his equipment.

Q: So what about these gadgets?

A: This is an area that it can be really tempting to "cheat" on.  But those laws of motion and thermodynamics still apply.  Imagine, for instance, a gadget that shoots a line up to the roof of a building then reels in the line to lift the hero up.  If the character and his equipment weighs about 250 lbs (113 kg), it will take on the close order of 5 hp to lift the character one story (call it 10 feet or 3 meters) per second.  That's a lot of power to pack into a portable item.  Getting both the power source (such as batteries) and the drive motors for the unit into a compact enough unit to carry easily is not easy.  5 hp electric motors are not, in general, small.  Then there's the amount of volume the line itself would take (get a couple hundred feet of rope strong enough to safely support a person's weight to see).  Yet the idea is so cool, and seems to tantalizingly plausible, that it's easy to justify giving it to the hero anyway.  That's exactly the kind of cheat I want to avoid.  So, until I can figure out some way to do it well enough that someone could actually build the gadget and make it work, my character doesn't have it.

The gadgets he'll have will be more along the lines of things like night vision goggles, shotgun microphones and other listening equipment, rather ordinary (and nondescript, by design) vehicles, radio scanners and so forth.  A few other things will be items pressed into alternate uses.  One example would be combining a couple of high intensity photoflash units into a "blinder" for night time use.  Pop off that bright flash in a dark situation--the hero's eyes are shielded during the instant the light's going off--and for a few seconds the hero's the only one who can see.  Maybe build an electric "stun gun" into the outfit so that the electrodes are in the finger tips. Tag, you're zapped.

Q: It seems pretty clear that the hero will have to have a secret identity.

A:  Yup.  And that's another challenge.  Most "secret identities" in comics wouldn't stay secret very long against any determined investigation in the real world.  As just one example, consider any hero with an aircraft.  Unless you have complete invisibility, silence, undetectability by radar, etc., it won't be long before people know the general area where the airplane takes off and lands.  Another example, there's no way that any superhero detained, questioned, or arrested by the police would not be unmasked, fingerprinted and any other identifying characteristics labeled and traced.  Likewise, try on some superhero costume masks sometime and see how well they hide your identity from people who know you.

For the secret identity to work, there are certain things that have to be different from what are common in comic books.  First off, the "civilian identity" has to be, essentially, a "nobody" no wealthy socialites or news anchors whose faces are known by large numbers of people.  Can't have a fixed base for vehicles.  Disguise should, in some way, alter body shape (pad out certain areas, snug in others, maybe something like lifts in the shoes to make the person taller) and should completely cover head and face.  Should also include some kind of voice altering unit.

Some other serious secret identity issues.

Q: What are come common superhero tropes that just won't work in this series?

A:  A lot of stuff from the comics won't work in reality (and, therefore, in this series):

Leaping over attacks
Look, when you jump, from the moment your feet leave the ground to the time they touch it again, you have no control over your trajectory.  Your motion is entirely predictable.  While a good jumper might be able to get the height (requiring lifting the center of gravity about 1 meter), the "hang time" would be just under a second.  That's a long time in a fight, a long time where the jumper would be extremely vulnerable.

Leaping from rooftop to rooftop
Unless the buildings are extremely close together and all of the same height, this just isn't going to happen.  Even if you make the jump horizontally, a one story drop (target building is one floor lower than start building) is enough to break bones if you don't land right.  For a given vertical drop, falling straight down is the least damaging way to fall.  Any horizontal motion before hitting simply adds to the total energy and momentum that must be absorbed.  Even if the rooftops are the same height, try this experiment.  On the ground next to a building, run parallel to its wall toward a corner.  Just before you reach the corner of the building, leap as hard and as far as you can.  Note where you touch down to the ground:  is it before or after you pass the corner of the next building.  If it's before, you just died.  Now do it again and again and again.  How long before your legs turn to warm molasses?

Swinging on a rope as a practical means of travel.
Look above for the bit about the bulk of a rope that can safely support a person's weight.  Then there's the problem of having something to attach the rope to, getting it attached while in motion, getting it released at the appropriate time in the swing, and finding the next attachment point, all on the fly.  Miss once and you die.  Then just consider the sheer physical effort involved.  Go out sometime and just hang from a rope with your hands.  See how long you can hold on.  Remember that any actual swinging will increase the amount of force involved.  Now since, in the comics, characters often hold onto the line with one hand while doing something with the other try the same exercise one-handed.  I won't even get into the part where the thing they're doing with the other hand is carrying another person.  Nope, no rope swinging here.

Q: I've gone my entire life without ever even witnessing a crime.  Yet those guys in comics are always running into them?  How does our hero find crimes to intervene in?

A:  That's actually one of the more challenging issues.  The odds of any one individual "running into" a crime at any given time are pretty slim.  I'd like to find out how often police, who are out looking for crimes, actually come across crimes in progress.  However, I do have an approach for how the hero here will go about searching for crime.

The story is set in Indianapolis.  That's where I live and am most familiar with.  There's also a Police Incident Report Viewer available online.  In it, criminal activity is divided into three categories:  "offenses against persons," "property offenses" and "other incidents."

Since Our Hero is most interested in violent crime, I went through and collected all the offenses against persons for a typical month (I chose September 2004 as my representative month).  The more serious offenses (aggravated assault, rape, homicide, kidnapping, etc.) were then plotted on a mat to find the "hot spots" in town where the most crime of that nature happened in the smallest areas.

Next, I chose one of the "hot spots" and began accumulating all the crime for that hotspot over the course of a year into a master spreadsheet.  I filtered out crimes where Our Hero really couldn't do anything even if he were there--missing persons, arrests on warrants, etc.--and then did a "pivot table" with the number of incidents plotted against time of day and day of the week.  So now he knows where crime happens the most and when.

The next step will be to determine how much time he spends "patrolling" (I'll need to figure out what his weekly schedule is for that) and given the size of the area, the frequency of crimes within the area, and how much time he's there, I should be able to figure out how frequently he can expect to be in the vicinity when a crime happens.

(Jan 29, 04) And we've got the results from this.  Using very close to the best case, Our Hero can only expect, on average, to be in the vicinity of a crime, of a type that he can intervene in, as it's happening, once in three months.  Hardly enough to make for an exciting comic book.  He's going to have to find some way of being able to "cover" a wider area at any given time.  The rooftop idea gains appeal from this angle because of the ability to see more at any one time.  Likewise with some kind of flying vehicle.  However each of these have their own problems as discussed above.  Looks like some storylines will have to deal with this.

Q:  What about vehicles?

A. This is another bone I have to pick with traditional comic books.  The Batmobile may be fast and powerful, but radio and roadblocks would soon bring it to heel.  It's also quite distinctive and easy to pick out of traffic.  Also, while Batman may have an arrangment with the Gotham police (or with the commissioner, at least), that arrangment would not likely keep the FAA from taking a dim view on the various flying vehicles.  And high-performance jet aircraft?  I think the Air Force would probably take a hand here.

A more practical approach would be for Our Hero to have several cheap "econobox" cars.  Very undistinctive and looking just like thousands of other cars on the road.  Leave them untitled, unlicensed, and unregistered and pay cash for their purchase in a private transaction and there's no way to trace them back to their current owner.  That means forging or stealing license plates, which automatically makes Our Hero a minor criminal.  It's not Our Hero's place to chase after criminals.  The car is simply a method of getting around, maybe storing equipment without having to carry it on his person.  Stealth is paramount--invisibility by being so ordinary that nobody thinks twice about it.  It's just one more hatchback or minivan.

The other thing to consider is that even with all that "stealth" the car might still be identified.  Our Hero has to be able to abandon it at any time.  And since he's not a "millionaire playboy" that means it has to be cheap.

So what have we got:  several nondescript cars parked at various places around town.  By switching vehicles, and switching parking locations, he avoids patterns that can be traced back to him.  

More to come

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