This will be the first in a series of write ups of the Universe Gun characters, as I pick apart their history and influences.
I’ll kick off here with the first character you meet, and perhaps the closest to a point of view character in Universe Gun – Princess Amtora.
A Princess of Mars
Princess Amtora is my attempt to create a Martian Princess fit for a 21st century audience. Almost 100 years ago, Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote the seminal book A Princess of Mars, introducing cosmic lovers John Carter and Dejah Thoris. It’s free on Kindle, and a fairly slim read – I read it this year and recommend it. There’s been an awesome movie made of this now, one that I hope is destined to become a cult classic despite not being a commercial success. Fantasy artists such as Frank Frazetta and Boris Vallejo have always loved depicting these interplanetary nudists in all their glory. Google “martian princess” for images and you’re pretty much guaranteed an eyeful!
The original idea for Universe Gun was just to give Ms. Amazing her own Legion of Superheroes – a bunch of post-teen kids with names like Star Girl, Mars Girl, Coriolis Boy, Moon Girl and so on who she’d visit on jaunts into the future. It’s changed a lot since then, but its worth noting that Princess Amtora was initially “Mars Girl”.
The term “Princess” works well within a space feudal society. The Legion of Superheroes have Princess Projectra from the magical planet Orando, where people live in castles and ride horses and so on. She’s been portrayed as a haughty regal beauty, and rather awesomely as a clueless spoiled brat in Mark Waid and Barry Kitson’s reboot. The Universe Gun world I was constructing was much more modern and techy sci-fi for a feudal planet to work, so I tried to approach the Princess part from a different angle. I’d used the gold jewellery look for Sarasvati Wow! (pictured above with her cosmic hula hoop!) in one of my game projects – a super Hindu nymph who leads the Amazanauts. Amtora originally looked quite similar, which suggested an Indian origin. At the time, I’d been reading about the growing software industry in India, and started extrapolating to imagine a series of software houses run on family lines that dominated the industry in the 37th C. It made enough sense for an heir to one of these houses to be referred to as Princess.
She was originally called Indira Brahamina Nassisu – a Legion of Superheroes/sci-fi name saying “Indian Brahmin Narcissist”. Brahmins are the highest caste of scholars in the traditional Hindu caste system, who also have the most restrictions on their lifestyle, eg no eating meat, no divorce. This worked for an initally repressed programmer, and the narcissist refers to her self-love. The name Amtora comes from Burrough’s name for Venus. John Carter’s adventures played out on Barsoom/Mars, his lesser known character, Carson Napier, had similar adventures on Amtor/Venus. After I found this nugget of information on Wikipedia one day, she became Nassisu Amtora, with the narcissist angle being the most important and personal part of her character.
The Dating Matrix
The Great Database came into the mix a bit later. You hear stories about Silicon Valley workplaces where its all beanbags and laptops in the workplace, and free sushi in the fridge. Its a lovely idea with rather sinister undercurrents – work is so great you never want to leave! I’ve worked at games companies with free chocolate milk, the very thin end of that wedge. Since creating New Mumbai I’ve heard that Facebook built apartments for its workers at very competitive rates next door to its central offices. I’ve also heard, or perhaps imagined, some rumours about Google actively encouraging affairs amongst its staff. So, imagine that kind of approach taken to work in the 37th C, but to an extreme level. The company hooks you up with a perfect partner who shares your work interests as well as being a romantic partner, and you live a charmed life together. I did an anthropology module at university, and we skimmed over arranged marriages in places like India. They can seem kind of cold and sterile to the west, or exploitative, and in practice they often are. But, its interesting to look at our own culture of getting together via drunken hook-ups, and thinking how that would look to a culture used to arranged unions. The stigma of seeking help in finding the right man or woman is only now dying down in the West, as online dating becomes more popular. These are themes I intend to explore in the strip later.
If you’ve worked in a tech field, or any modern office, you may be familiar with the lonely IT type. The guy who works overtime, who everyone relies on, but who doesn’t adjust well to social occasions and seems a bit isolated. I’ve met more than a few of them. New Mumbai is my little gift to these people – a workplace where the company finds a partner for them.
Mars is a bit of a paradise for all sexual persuasions. The big info-mall shot on Page 3 depicts a couple of guys in the foreground, various girl-girl pairs, and a threesome at the top of the stairs. If the spread on page 3 isn’t clear enough, I then hit you over the head with the “devil’s threesome” of the Pandaras in page 4! Princess Amtora presents a hole in this system since she’s got an unusual sexuality that doesn’t even make sense until she gets the self-replication powers encoded into her DNA activated. The closest real world analogy would perhaps be people who have relationships with love dolls, who are pretty much universally shunned, even by those of us with progressive sexual politics.
From a work point of view on Mars, her self replication and autosexuality represent something quite unusual – a programmer who works best on her own. I have to say, that appeals to me as a writer/artist, and previously a writer/artist/game designer. Like all my characters, I’ve put many bits of myself into her. I’m a games programmer, an identical twin, and my parents used to work at the same polytechnic together. They always used to talk about work at meal times. Sound familiar?
Fashion on the Red Planet
As much as I enjoy drawing jewellery-only clad apsaras, it doesn’t really fit the character as she had evolved. You can see below an early sketch of another incarnation of Amtora wearing Dejah Thoris/apsara jewellery and wielding a power ring of some kind. This is followed by a more recent sketch in my Universe Gun notes for her outfit in chapter 2. Here she’s meant to look like a young woman tourist “doing Earth” in the same way that Australians “do Europe” and travel off to beachy climates in shorts, singlets and sunglasses.
Finally there are some old sketches from my very early days with the tablet PC of Martian couture, showing “Martian silk”. You may notice as I carry on, most Martians wear clothes using the silver and gold colours in my palette with decorative borders. This is how that started, that each software house would have a pattern similar to clan tartans, with the patterns representing mathematical sequences of some kind. If I had the time and inclination, they’d all wear complicated fractals, but I’ve got a story to tell, so I settled for semicircles and blocked squares and so on.
The first colour figure is Princess Amtora, for a strip I wrote but have now shelved for some future edition of Universe Gun. She’s got the jewellery still, but practical shorts, and a kind of sci-fi sari, along with jewellery that looks functional with buttons of some kind. In issue 3, which I’m currently drawing, she’s changed into a sari minidress not a million miles away from this.
One constant with Amtora’s design have been the “Gravity Boots” – big moonboot sandals with open feet. These are designed to help counteract Earth’s heavy gravity, and may actually become a minor plot point sometime. They’ve gained soles since these two drawings.
(The couple on the right have evolved into Joj Horizon and Mantissa, the protagonists of Pazuzu!, a side strip which I’ll be making an announcement about soon.)
Princess Amtora can create physical copies of herself and be in two places at once, but has a single mind steering all the bodies.
I used to play City of Heroes, the superhero online game. I’d opened a second account for my daughter to play with, which my girlfriend later inherited. During a period where she stopped playing, I started playing both accounts at once. I rigged up a set of scripts and modified some open source software (still available on this website) that let me play two characters from one keyboard and mouse fairly effectively.
I started off with O-Man and O-Woman, who were a pair of empaths. Empathy was the oft-ridiculed powerset that comprised of healing and other team support powers that you couldn’t use to benefit yourself, but only on teammates. It was regarded by much of the community as the choice for both clueless newbs wandering in from fantasy games, and weak pacifist female heroes with pink costumes. There were groups who realised its full potential, and that 8 empaths buffing each other’s powers was the most powerful force in the game, specifically one suprgroup called Green Machine. I ran the numbers myself, realised that even two empaths would become quite godly if played in unison, and decided to do just that. This was a great success – I made a married couple inhabited by an energy force that gave them both Silver Surfer type cosmic powers as long as they stayed in physical contact. There was something incredibly satisfying about taking this “weak, lame, girly” powerset and kicking ass with it.
One of my subsequent projects was to create a pair of identical Martian Princesses with some other team support power set that would do amazing things when doubled up. Learning to control two characters was pretty difficult, watching two monitors at once and flicking the mouse between them to operate doors and elevators. Things could fall apart quickly on a team if one went up an elevator and the other didn’t, leaving me struggling to figure out where I was and wasn’t. That made its way into the scene where Amtora first replicates and sees double, a scene that I’m about to reprise in issue three. I do have some direct experience of trying to pilot two bodies with my single mind.
I’d consider it a great success if my teammates thought I was two people, like a personal Turing Test. Did you know that even Batman finds that difficult? Check out this panel from Batman Incorporated Volume 1 #8 by Grant Morrison and Scott Clark. I flipped out a little when I read this line! Oracle, of course, controls multiple avatars no worries!
I discovered this whole multi-boxing thing from scratch, but met others in the game who did it as I played. I have heard of one brave (and presumably rich) soul called “The Bradster” who plays 36 accounts at once in World of Warcraft! Just remember that fact when the next chapter comes out, because there’s a little shout-out to him in there.
A Legion of Superpets
Mars Girl in City of Heroes was a Fire Controller, which meant she had flame powers, but was saddled with a very effective but conceptually-troubling army of six little fire imps running after her. I justified this as her pet cat Agni, named after the Indian fire god, a fluffy white puss-puss who could flame on like the Human Torch and then casually regrow his fur again. She was a Martian Software Princess spolit brat who’d bought very expensive superpower treatment to allow her to replicate, and then had the same procedure carried out on her cat. This was a gag on dog grooming parlours and all the other ways rich people pamper their little darlings.
As I approached Universe Gun as a comic, I pulled a lot of these ideas back. One of my main aims in Universe Gun is to depict superhumans who aren’t just soldiers or policemen like regular superheroes, and show that we won’t evolve just to beat the snot out of each other in more interesting ways. X-fans may remember Doug Ramsey aka Cypher, a young mutant with the power to understand all human and computer languages. In the context of a group who get attacked by giant purple robots every week, this isn’t great compared to say, the ability to fly in a straight line and cause mass property damage, or turn into a very fierce dog, but in the real world it would kick ass. So it’s important that Amtora and some of the other cast are non-combat characters, and hence no flaming cat. Agni could maybe overpower an unarmoured human with mass scratching, but he still has other uses for the team as we shall see.
And he’s also based on one of my cats, Leo, who makes an excellent model when I can get him to stand still for photos.
As I wrote. I ditched the spoilt princess persona, because it seemed too obvious and well-worn. Instead, she’s become a well-meaning but somewhat naive Hermione Granger. Later scenes will see her as the mouthpiece for 37th C values against those of the 21st C, which is a set of conversations that I can’t wait to write. And she gets her own solo arc later on doing.. well.. that would be too much of a spoiler.
See you in seven, self-replicating scripters! Dr Mike 2000, 3 Aug 2014