After the release of Cobalt City: RESISTANCE and a few conversations with regular readers of the Cobalt books, I got thinking about common themes in the series.
My relationship with themes is kind of complicated. I don’t know how other authors work, but for the most part the themes in my books are things that show up as a result of me writing the stories I want to tell from my particular world view. Very rarely are they conscious choices.
Now, there are exceptions, of course. Ink Calls to Ink explored the theme of destiny and identity. Are we only what others expect of us? Are our fates pre-ordained, or can we exercise control over our own narratives? Of Rooks & Ravens focused on themes of reinvention and mentors as well as the morality of war. My in-progress novel A Winter Lullaby is largely concerned with themes of aging, identity, and regret and asks questions about what (or who) are we willing to sacrifice to achieve our dreams.
But for a larger collection of work like the Cobalt City books, it was interesting to see the over-arcing themes that developed between Cobalt City Blues (2004) and Cobalt City: RESISTANCE (2018).
Interestingly, the seed for many of the books started in that first book, exemplified by Simon Floyd’s quest to regain something of his previous life. Cursed to an accidental afterlife, all the undead jazz pianist wants is to be human again. While I don’t specifically touch on the thread of what it means to be human in the other books, there remains a focus on humanity throughout. This is something that keeps coming up when talking with people about the Cobalt City books. Yeah, they’re superhero stories. But they’re not just stories about people in costumes fighting other people in costumes. At the heart, all of the characters are guided by their humanity. What makes Stardust fascinating isn’t his superpowers–it’s that he’s a good-hearted family man with a sometimes childlike enthusiasm and a tendency to act without overthinking it. What makes Bantam interesting isn’t that she’s a street-level martial artist vigilante–it’s the conflicted intersection of trying to redeem her father’s legacy while stuck making many of the same mistakes. Huntsman isn’t just a guy with a bow and arrows–he’s a guy born into an over-200-yr old legacy of heroics, and he’s not sure if he fits him.
That leads us directly into one of the major themes of the Cobalt City books. Legacy.
There are several legacy heroes in Cobalt City, and they take a variety of shapes. Huntsman bears a mantle that has been handed down by the men in his family since the Revolutionary War. Tatterdemalion bears not only the mantle of five-centuries of those who came before, but also their collective memories and skills. Atlas McVittie didn’t want to have powers, but when her father, the “rockstar who fell to Earth” died, his power and his mantle passed on to her. Sometimes those legacies are not direct. Rachel Czerny took the name of Libertine, borne by two other heroes (one in the 1880’s, and the second in the years 1918-1934), simply because her powers were similar and no one was using the name. Meanwhile Kensei had superheroes in her family, but forged her own superhero identity independent of that. Manuel de la Vega was inspired by a heroic wrestler in his youth, and in turn is acting as a mentor to Felix Joseph who may bear certain influences of Gato Loco but is reinventing himself as Caterwaul instead. Perhaps the most complicated examination of legacy is that started by Kimbal Wilde, the original Wrecker of Engines. Not only did his tales of adventure inspire his great niece Katherine Wilde to seek out superpowers and become Wild Kat, he also has a grandson who has taken the mantle of Wrecker of Engines for himself, interpreting the mantle for a new era.
In exploring legacy, I get to confront questions of where do we come from? What do we owe to those who came before us? Are we the sum of those who came before us, or can we shed those expectations if they no longer fit us? (To see a current favorite extrapolation of this, there is an ongoing series of stories on my Patreon involving Marcus Castile who can no longer act openly as Huntsman and is reinventing himself and the legacy.)
Sometimes, that connection with the past is sought after, nurtured. But often, it’s a weight of expectation, an inheritance that they’re born into, and as such it’s not always welcomed. Atlas “Madjack” McVittie is the best example of this. She already had a small portion of her father’s emphatic powers by virtue of blood, and it set her apart, making her otherwise privileged life more difficult to navigate. But when her father dies and she inherits his full suite of powers, it comes at a decidedly inconvenient time, a time when she’s finally getting a chance to go out and forge her own path free of her father’s shadow. Now that’s impossible, and she finding it difficult to balance her new powers with her professional obligations and the people who depend upon her. It’s a treacherous path for someone who is arguably one of the most powerful heroes in Cobalt City.
This is likely all a distillation on a greater theme of being our true selves. Legacy is, at it’s core, a shared history and the list of expectations that come with them. Who are we? Are we who others expect us to be, or can we grow beyond that? Is our path one of decisions already made for us: go to college, get a job, get married, buy a house, have kids–or in the Cobalt City sense, get the powers, get the costume, live up to those ideals whether they fit you or not.
Ultimately, I feel that my exploration into the matter is a personal one. It’s sprung from something I’ve struggled with in some capacity for most of my life. Both my parents followed that expected path–college, job, marriage, home, kids. They had their struggles, but they did it. Does that make them a success? Does it make me a failure if don’t do the same?
If we measure our journey by other people’s yardstick, try to fit into the shape other people want us to occupy, it’s far too easy to feel like you’ve failed. Some of my worst failures were not because I was reaching for the stars and missed. They were because I was trying to follow someone else’s road map to happiness. The best decision I ever made was being honest with what I wanted out of life–what I valued. I’ve written about it before on here, but it bears repeating. Live your most authentic life. I cannot overstate the joy you’ll find in being true to yourself.