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B&N Week 14: Superhero Overview

| March 29, 2011 | 6 Comments

 

It’s Tuesday! You’ve been looking forward this, haven’t you? Well, to tell the truth, so have I. It’s a long time from Tuesday to Tuesday, and between you and me, I gotta say, I miss you. You’re my favorite. No, really. You are. Just don’t tell the others, okay?

But, it’s time for some Bolts & Nuts! So, let’s get started.

I’ve been promising to talk about superheroes for a while, I know. It’s just that other things kept getting in the way, and I’d like for this to have some sort of order to it. Today, though, I’m going to keep that promise. Like I said way back in the mists of time, everyone has a superhero universe or three, just waiting to burst out. It’s time to talk about them.

Yes, it’s totally possible that we could be here for a LONG time.

Like it or not, whenever someone says “comic book” in America to what we’ll call the layperson [those not in comics: they don’t read them, they don’t write them, they barely know Spider-Man is Peter Parker], the first thing they thinks about are superheroes. In America, comics equal superheroes, and everyone wants to add to the pantheon in any way they can. You have the House that Stan and Jack built, you have Detective Comics [the true name of DC], and that’s really about it. Yes, there are others, but really, to the layperson, it doesn’t matter that Hellboy [they’ve seen the movies, which is why they know him] isn’t in the same universe as Marvel/DC. It’s just not something they think of, if they think of it in the first place. It’s basically Marvel/DC to them, if they’re able to get that far, and that’s it.

Now, we also know that superheroes are adolescent power fantasies, generally male, but sometimes female. If you want to break it down further, they’re also highly sexual in nature. There aren’t many superheroes/villains that aren’t extremely well endowed, attractive, and wearing outfits that aren’t painted on.

So, we know all of that, and if it’s news to you, then you haven’t been paying attention.

Now, superheroes generally have fantastic abilities, and this is what I want to talk about for a little while first.

The first thing that happens when you get an idea for a superhero is that you really don’t know anything much about them except for some powers. When you were younger and creating superheroes, they were probably Superman with a different costume and name. And I’m talking about the pre-Byrne Superman: a character that was supremely over-powered, because you didn’t want him to be beaten. As you got older, you refined the character, powering him down in order to let him be more than a tank. [Basically, you “Byrned” your character.] That’s all well and good, but you started your character off with powers.

If you read a lot of superhero comics, eventually you’re going to play the “Wouldn’t It Be Cool If…” game. It’s inevitable. You’re not going to care about anything else besides a set of powers and a name. You’re not worried about a costume yet, you’re not worried about a nemesis, you’re not worried about anything besides powers and their uses.

I’m not going to say this is wrong. This is how a lot of us do it. What I want to caution you to do, however, is to create a complete character.

As we’ve gotten older as a society, we’ve [seemingly] grown more sophisticated. This should be present in your characters, as well. Your heroes are rarely good “just because it’s the right thing to do” anymore. They have reasons for doing what they do, and rarely is it for goodwill towards man. Make sure that your reasons have the ring of truth around them, because if you just tack a reason on, you’ll be making a character worth less than the paper it’s printed on.

There are lots of reasons for someone want to be a crimefighter. They may be trying to live up to past guilt [Spider-Man], they may want to punish criminals for taking away something or someone precious to them [Batman], or any of a dozen billion reasons and rationalizations. [Actually, there are very few compelling reasons for true heroics, with most basically being a variation of a theme. Look around and see how many variations of the same thing you can find.]

The reasons for heroics have to be good, but the reasons for villainy have to be better. No matter what anyone tells you, your heroes will be defined by their villains. Your villains have to be stronger or smarter [or both] than the heroes they fight. Villains need a special reason for being—revenge is one of the bigger ones, but you also have things like greed and being power hungry as well. Just like the heroes, your villain need a compelling reason for being. Give that to them, make it memorable, and you’ll have a good villain on your hands.

Powers, though, are the big thing. Characterization is going to be vital, but it takes time to come up with characterization. For the nonce, let’s talk powers.

When I got really deep into creating characters, I used the Marvel Super Heroes Saga system. It was a card based system, with five different suits. It was pretty nifty for what it was, and it covered a decent amount of powers.

Let’s talk about Iceman for a moment, under this system. At his base, he has Ice Control as a power. Everything else that stems from that is listed as a Stunt under that Control power. Covering/turning himself into ice, ice blasts, ice slides, and ice shapes—basic things that Iceman uses, and they’re all listed as stunts under this system. The beauty of the system, to my mind, is that it forces you to truly THINK about the powers you wanted to use, instead of just throwing together a hodge-podge of things.

Let’s talk Green Lantern under this system. (But Steven, it’s for Marvel….) [Don’t start yer whining! Just because it says Marvel doesn’t mean it can’t be used for other universes.] GL himself would have no powers [I’m talking anyone who is not Alan Scott or Jade], but would have Equipment. His Equipment would have the power of Cosmic Energy Control, with a few limitations. Under this system, Cosmic Energy Control is a catch-all power set.

So, like I said, it forces you to think about the base set of powers, and then expand from there. [This system is no longer being published, distributed, or supported. There may be some people still playing it, and have come up with their own unofficial supplements, but I believe they are few and far between nowadays.]

Why go into all of this?

Because I want you to think about the powers you’re giving your superheroes. Generally speaking, names follow the powers, and can also give an indication of whether or not they’re a hero or villain. This can lead you to a reason for being for the character, and quite possibly relationships to other characters you may or may not have already made. Yes, all of that from a set of powers. But I want you to think of the character’s powers at their base, and then move up the ranks to stunts from there.

I also want you to think about how powerful you want to make your hero. Your hero’s power level is EXTREMELY important. Basically, you don’t want to have Superman stopping muggers all the time. Once in a while? Sure. All the time? How exciting is that? (Not very.) Exactly. The power levels of your characters will determine the types of stories you’ll tell. You’ll only go outside that power level on occasion.

Also, realize that writing superheroes, you’re basically dealing with science fiction. If you’re writing them, you are, by necessity, a science fiction writer. [We’ll get into magic and such later.] You’re also a soap opera writer.

Superheroics have certain tropes that have to be used in order to be successful. The hero has to be weaker than the villain, has to overcome really bad odds, and has to have personal problems that his powers won’t help them with—or if they do, the help is more trouble than it’s worth. The hero has to be in trouble, or has to find a way to get out of a really tight spot, and it cannot be something easily seen.

This means you have to be smarter than your readers. Not all of them, just most of them. You’ll never be smarter than all of them, but you’ll have to be smarter than most of them. You have to put your hero in a situation that needs a unique way of getting out of. This, folks, is a LOT harder than it looks.

I don’t suggest trying to start out with an ongoing series, but if you do, you need to have subplots running concurrent to the main story. This means that you have to plot out your stories well in advance. You also have to work out when you’ll be resolving those main plots, advancing the subplots, and creating more.

Superheroics is the main stomping grounds of ongoing series [read: Marvel/DC]. Without careful plotting, you can run into a great deal of trouble pretty easily. Thankfully, there’s help.

In Denny O’Neil’s book, The DC Guide to Writing Comics, he gives an example of what he calls the Levitz Paradigm. In the paradigm, he charts out what the main plot is, per issue, as well as the subplots. It also charts when the main plot will resolve, and when the subplot gets promoted. The chart itself is pretty simple, but can be an invaluable tool when you want to see where you’re at and where you’re going.

Wow. This seemed really fast with a lot of quick hits. Next week, we’re going to talk about character types, still within the superhero set. Let’s consider this as an overview, and we’ll start going into specifics next week.

See you then!

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Category: Bolts & Nuts

About the Author ()

Steven is an editor/writer with such credits as Fallen Justice, the award nominated The Standard, and Bullet Time under his belt, as well as work published by DC Comics. Between he and his wife, there are 10 kids (!), so there is a lot of creativity all around him. Steven is also the editor in chief and co-creator of ComixTribe, whose mission statement is Creators Helping Creators Make Better Comics. If you're looking for editing, contact him at stevedforbes@gmail.com for rate inquiries.

Comments (6)

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  1. Kristoffer Peterson says:

    Great topic, I’m sure almost all of us have plenty of superhero stories as you said. It’s also very hard to do or say something unique within the genre. It really is like playing the blues in a way.

    • Thanks, Kristoffer.

      There are LOTS of things that can be done within any genre of comics. It really all depends on the story you want to tell, or the themes you want to explore.

      Now, when Spider-Man punched the Lizard, was that really the writer’s take on animal conservation?

      HA!

      Anyway, our own Tyler is doing something interesting with supers later this year. I have a couple of things I want to explore with them, as well. I have to get other stories out of the way, first.

      Sometimes, a book is exactly what it looks like on the cover. Other times, you have to look a little deeper.

  2. Hello Steven, just want to thank you for this interesting read!

    Being one of the very, very few German creators of a superhero webcomic I allways find it very fascinating to read articles like yours. Germany is the total opposite to the USA – we don’t have any superhero comics of our own over here, only the Marvel/DC ones – which makes it much easier for me to produce something a little bit more unique and interesting for the readers over here, because of my “German” approach towards this genre. Most of the time when I start to create a character I either start with the place where he comes from – and which powers he could have because of that -or I start with the actor who will play the character – and what he brings along. Because my Union of Heroes is not only a superhero webcomic – but a photocomic with real actors, too.

    However. Thanks again for your great article. I will now swich to the next one and I hope that it will be as entertaining as this one.

    Heroic regards from Germany!
    Arne / thirtyseven / @ancire

    • Thanks for commenting, Arne!

      Glad you liked what you read. I’m digging your approach to creating webcomics. I’m going to have to dig deeper into your site later this evening.

      Comment as much as you wish, and when you’re ready, step into The Proving Grounds!

  3. Very nicely done. For me I tend to go back to the Marvel Superheroes Role Playing Game by TSR, Inc. when I design characters. Very simple and easy to construct heroes and villains. 🙂

    • Thanks, James.

      I used to play that one, myself. I enjoyed it, but got tired of looking at charts and trying to finagle powers within the set that was given, especially for heroes I created. I really liked the Saga system. It was much easier, to my mind.

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