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B&N Week 17 (UPDATED!):Heroes & Villains

| April 19, 2011 | 8 Comments


It’s Tuesday, and I feel like singing. I’ve got Frank Sinatra and Billy Joel dueling in my head: New York, New York and New York State of Mind. Yep, a little homesick, but that’s okay. It’s Tuesday, and I get to spend some quality time with you. There really isn’t much more that can be better.

Anyway, we’re still talking about superheroes. Let’s talk about the good and bad points of both heroes and villains.

I’m old enough to remember a time when you could get into a fistfight, win or lose it, and then walk away with the knowledge of that outcome. I’ve lived through the changing of that tide, to where people [men] no longer fistfight; they’d just as soon gun you down as look at you. Scuff someone’s shoes in the 80s in my neighborhood, and you’re dead. No, really. And I lived in the suburbs.

When it comes to comics, while I enjoy the Silver Age, I don’t enjoy the notion that it was somehow “better” than the comics being produced today. Villains would do things that would definitely kill bystanders, and no one would raise an eyebrow. If you try that now, you’d probably be labeled “mature.”

Even though superheroes are adolescent power fantasies, there is nothing adolescent about them. Not at their heart. We’re talking violence in every issue, or the lead-in to violence. We’re talking about fighting, using powers that should kill.

And in modern comics [the Big Two], that’s a no-no. [Well, that stance is softening somewhat. Infinite Crisis killed a LOT of characters seemingly at random, but when you get right down to it, killing still isn’t something that is glorified by the Big Two. It takes something special for death to run rampant.]

Let’s talk about Captain America for a little bit. The super-SOLDIER. (How about using your indoor voice, Steven?) Nope. I want to make a point. Soldiers kill. He’s been through WWII. He’s fought against the Axis powers. He’s killed combatants. He’s a super soldier. As a super soldier, he’s super killed them. So why is none of that ever really brought up in modern comics?  Why is it that, as a soldier, he’s looking for ways to defeat the enemy in a non-lethal way?  As a soldier, he should be looking to defeat his foe by any means necessary.

(But, Steven, he’s better than just about anyone. He doesn’t HAVE to kill because he can find a different way.) And that’s why he was captured and put on ice for a couple of years, right?  Because he’s better than everyone else.

Superheroes, while being adolescent power fantasies, are also trying to appeal to our more noble, higher selves. That’s not something I can really disagree with, not in essence, but I don’t have to like it. The heroes are saying that it’s okay to beat up on people, just as long as you don’t kill them. Villains kill, and you don’t want to be a damned dirty villain, do you?

I don’t have any European comics. I know, I know, shame on me. I’ll fix it later. Actually, I’ll be getting comics from other countries to study their superheroes. I’m talking their old superheroes. Yes, superheroes [besides myth, which is another discussion altogether] are considered to be an American invention [blame two Jewish boys for a little known hero called Superman for that], but even so, different countries have different sensibilities, and thus, do things differently. Just about everyone knows that in Asia, cartoons and comics aren’t treated as kiddie fare like they are here. The art form is respected everywhere but here. (Figures.) What I want to do is compare and contrast superheroes from around the world. It’s something I’ll eventually be getting to.

Anyway, in America, “heroes” don’t kill. They will beat and bludgeon, but they don’t kill. And even then, they will only kill when forced to, or only after much deliberation. Iron Man led a force to kill the Supreme Intelligence during Operation: Galactic Storm; Captain America killed Baron Blood…so, killing does happen, even in our sanitized kiddie fare. Hell, Bambi’s mother was killed, and that was Disney. [I was going to make a joke about spoiler warnings, but decided against it.]

Does this limit what you can do with your own heroes?  Not in the least, and of course.

During the ‘grim & gritty’ era of storytelling, heroes gained a tarnish that’s been hard to shake for some characters. Everyone got uber-serious, and a lot of fun went out of the funnybooks. You can go down this early 90s path if you wish. Just don’t be surprised if your hero doesn’t catch on. In America, superheroes are symbols of hope, for all of their violence. During the grim & gritty time, there was little hope to be had. That will affect your creation.

If you decide to go the Superman route [your character being damned near impossibly good-natured—and it’s only for stark comparisons, people. No lynching. I’ll tell mommy!], you still have an uphill battle for your hero to catch on, but it shouldn’t be as bad.

Here’s the thing about superheroes that most new writers forget, though: the hero needs to symbolize something. There are too many characters and stories that are being told that aren’t about anything. They’re just excuses for fights, and that’s just lazy. Either lazy, or naïve. I want you to reexamine your heroes, so they have a better chance for a longer shelf life.

The heroes you make need to have more than one intrinsic flaw. This is the Marvel method of character creation. Statues of bronze with feet of clay. This keeps them relatable to your audience, and relatable to your audience is what you want. But you want them to symbolize something at the same time. If your hero symbolizes something, has a flaw or two, and is written well [read: not boring], then you stand a chance of having a character that your readers will take to.

Top Cow has run contests for new series and characters, and the ones that win have something special going for them. Not just an interesting premise, but also characters that can be memorable in themselves. Something you think to yourself as a writer and say “Why didn’t I think of that?!” because it was simple. Super Human Resources is a great example of a head-slapping moment for me. So obvious, yet something I didn’t think of.

I suggest your heroes be heroic. Anti-heroes [the Punisher] aren’t that interesting to me, but that’s a personal bias. They’re too easy to get disastrously wrong, and often end up being one-dimensional. Having a hero be truly heroic takes hard work on your part as a writer. There aren’t many true heroes about.

We have these glamorous, glorified ideas of what a hero should be. Stand-up, self-sacrificing, selfless, brave, indomitable, gallant, and all the rest. A hero, by our thoughts and standards, are better than us, and that sense of betterment that we put upon them gives us something to idolize. Superheroes should be ‘heroes’ taken to that next level. Most of the heroes we follow are nowhere near that.

Now, don’t get me wrong. The reason most of them are nowhere near that is in an effort to be relatable to the readers. How many of us really relate to Superman?  He’s often described as the ultimate Boy Scout. And he’s an alien. Most of us know this, but don’t really realize it, because he looks just like us [human]. But a lot of readers of Superman comics will say that the character inspired them to be better. Personally, I think that comics can only handle one of these totally selfless heroes. More than that will throw things out of balance.

Villains, on the other hand, are another ball of wax altogether. Like heroes and their levels, there are three basic types of villain: your basic thug, your evil genius, and those that are evil for its own sake.

To my mind, villains are harder than heroes. Heroes are simply doing the right thing. Why do villains do what they do? Sure, there’s the money problems that forces a lot of characters to steal, but what about the evil genius? You also have the characters that don’t believe they’re doing anything bad, just what needs to be done. Those should be the bulk of your villains: thugs with money problems, and those thinking they’re not in the wrong. Those that do evil for its own sake should be few and far between.

A few words about your villains: there should be a LOT more of them than the heroes you create. I suggest five villains for every single hero you create. And your most powerful heroes?  Turn ‘em into villains. (Crazy talk!)  No, really. Turn them into villains. Your villains, as a rule, need to be more powerful than your heroes. They need to have more advantages than your hero in order to make for interesting fights and drama. I mean, look at Magneto. Supremely powerful, and it takes a team of heroes to beat him. Best of all?  He’s not really a villain. He just believes he’s doing what’s necessary, and has the power and intellect to back him up.

Villains are harder to make interesting. Their entire reason for being is to be put in the way of the hero. What’s interesting about that? Not much, let me tell you. What you have to do, then, is make your villains really villainous. This is much easier said than done.

In comics, villains have to walk a pretty fine line, if not staying on the side of being tame. Why? Because comics are escapism, and people don’t want the real world to intrude too much on their fantasies. Go pick up a paper. Scan the headlines. You’ve got crime and horrible things going on all over. There’s hardly any good news in the newspapers or on the televised news. But that true villainy? That’s where it’s at.

I was reading that South Carolina has a serial killer. Various people have been found shot to death, with only a fifteen year old girl as the only survivor at the time I read it. She was shot, too. The article didn’t say where.

That’s true villainy. A fifteen year old girl was shot, but she lived. It doesn’t get more disgusting than hurting children. But put that in a comic? Have a character rape another?   Do something memorably evil? Do something that reflects real life? You do that, then you’re just doing it for the sake of being shocking and disgusting. Rape and hurting children have no intrinsic value to storytelling. Murder? Sure! Go out and pillage and kill and destroy all day long! Don’t hurt kids while doing it, though. If you do that, you’re a hack, because there are ‘better ways.’ [This is the viewpoint that many comic readers have. Look at Identity Crisis. Something terrible happens to Jean Loring, and all of a sudden, she’s a long-beloved character. And Brad Melzer? He’s a hack writer for doing that too poor, beloved Jean.]

Understand, the reason you ‘can’t’ do this in American comics is because of how comics are perceived here. You can tear a story right out of the news, but if it involves a kid or rape [or raping a kid], your story more than likely won’t be published unless you do it yourself. Societal mores are then hamstringing you as a creator, because you can’t tell the stories you want. You can’t let your villains be true to themselves.

Think of how vile Doctor Doom truly could be if he were allowed to be a true villain instead of just a pompous ass. Think of how powerful your villains could be if they were allowed to reach their true potential. Think of how many readers you would be able to effect viscerally because of the power of your villains, and the actual villainy they’re capable of. And I’m not talking of just looking more aggressive. If you watch the Nightmare on Elm Street series, you’ll notice that in New Nightmare, they made Freddy more aggressive looking, they talked about him being more evil, but in the end, it was all camouflage. He wasn’t allowed to be truly vile.

Let’s talk Dr. Light and Identity Crisis. He rapes Jean Loring, and longtime readers got up in arms about it. Captain Cold can go on a rampage in the 60s, instantly freezing innocent bystanders, and we understand they’ve been killed by tacit agreement. But rape?   (Heh! You said “butt rape!”)  Let that happen, then charges of misogyny get leveled at characters at the very least, and that writers have lost creativity and companies have become morally bankrupt at most. That’s before the threats of 30 year readers never picking up a comic by that writer or company again.

Difficult, ain’t it? You want to have true villains, you want to do true horror, but you can’t. We’ve been so conditioned by our self-enforced Comics Code that we don’t even realize the things we ‘can’t’ do. It’s done the job of sanitizing comics so that we no longer even think about our chains, or our reactions when something gets printed that flies in the face of what we’re used to.

So, what are you supposed to do? Superheroes have to have supervillains to fight, and in an effort to not be generic, they have to have a compelling reason for being—but that reason has to stand out from the rest of the reasons other villains have.

No one ever said writing comics was easy, and with the proliferation of superhero universes, readers have a general sense of ennui because they feel they’ve seen it all already, and that just makes your job all the harder. You have to come up with something different and shocking, but not really shocking and different, because then you’ll lose the very readers you’re trying to gain. It’s a tightrope, and walking it is no fun.

And that’s all for this week. Homework: work on your reasons for your heroes and villains, and start converting your more powerful heroes into villains. They’ll probably fit that role better, anyway.




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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 for rate inquiries.

Comments (8)

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  1. John Lees says:

    Isn’t this Week 15’s content reposted?

  2. John Lees says:

    Don’t worry, folks. It was all an elaborate test by Steve, to make sure we were paying attention to his lessons. Congratulations, we passed!

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