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B&N Week 18: Superhero Levels

| April 26, 2011 | 0 Comments


Welcome back to another Tuesday, and yet another installment of Bolts & Nuts.

Let’s get right on into it.

Last week, we talked about making superheroes. This week, we’re going to talk about the different levels of superhero you can make.

Superheroes come in a few basic flavors: street-level, world-class, and cosmic. It’s the rare character that can move between all three, and they never do so comfortably. It’s much easier, however, for a world-class character to go cosmic, and vice versa.

There are reasons why universes such as Marvel/DC are so broad in spectrum: they’re trying to appeal to everyone, while also giving the appearance of being complete within themselves. Not a fan of Spidey as a character in his own book? Try him in New Avengers. Want to read a great run on a world-class/cosmic scale? Go read Grant Morrison’s JLA. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

When you think about superheroes, specifically, about writing them, I want you to think about what you’re reading first. What you’re reading, what you’re enjoying, will give you insight as to what you’d probably end up writing.

Let’s break it down a little bit.

Superhero books come in two flavors: lone hero and team. Doesn’t get easier than that, does it?

Lone hero books are just that, but not really. The focus will be on the hero, but the hero also has a supporting cast that needs to be created, also. No, I’m not going to talk about villains just now, in this context. The villain has to be there, of course, and there has to be a lot of them, so for our purposes, they have a basic slot to fill. As long as there is a hero, there will be a villain.

So, the supporting cast. This cast doesn’t have to be pretty large, but it has to be there. And honestly, the larger the supporting cast is, the more chances you have for drama to unfold. The supporting cast can be other heroes [just be careful of turning it into a team book—see Invincible for a nice way to turn another hero into a supporting cast member and not into a team book], or it can be friends and family of the main hero, if not both.

There are also the cast members that are there to be what I think of as “little villains.”  Let’s go with Flash Thompson, Peter Parker’s friend. Well, they’re friends now [or ARE they?], but when he first appeared, and for years afterwards, Eugene “Flash” Thompson was there simply to be a thorn in Peter’s side, with the added bonus of being one of Spidey’s biggest fans. (Eugene?)  [Eugene. Yes, I’m a nerd. Thought you knew that already?]  You also have people like J. Jonah Jameson that fill the role of the little villain. They’re there to prick and sting the lone hero without actually doing too much harm.

Now, I’m a VERY big proponent of having the supporting cast be their own people, and not play the “damsel in distress” role. I don’t believe in having them be there only to need to be saved by the hero. That lessens their importance to the series, as well as cheapens you as a writer. You don’t want to be cheap. Not when you’re first starting out. I suggest letting the trials and tribulations of the supporting cast impact the hero from an angle. It will be more fun that way.

Team books are a different creature altogether. Team books are actually ensemble books, because each character has to have a decent amount of face time. I think it would be best, especially just starting out, if each member of the team had a subplot of their own. That’s just my suggestion, and modern comics bears this out for me.

I do NOT suggest having a team so big that it’s unwieldy. If you’re creating a team, have as many as you can comfortably handle. Personally, I would suggest no more than six—and that’s pushing it. Four or five is a nice number to start with, but if you really want to stretch it, go six. [Don’t be surprised if you find a lot of characters standing around doing nothing. If they’re standing around for too long doing nothing, then you really have no use for them, and I suggest cutting them from the team.]

When you have a team book, you don’t need a large supporting cast. The teammates play the dual role of having a lot of face time, as well as being part of the supporting cast. Use them wisely.

When we’re talking about the levels of your characters, be careful not to switch too often from one level to another. Let’s talk Spider-Man. (You like him a lot, don’t you?  You use him as an example a lot.)  [There’s a reason for that. Spidey’s popular, and most people read him. That makes him accessible to use as an example without a lot of explanation. How many of you still read Spawn?  My point exactly.]  Spider-Man is a street-level hero, through and through. When he’s part of the Avengers, he goes to being a world-class hero. Because they’re the Avengers, they can become cosmic heroes [but I’ve never really been comfortable with them in that role]. This means Spidey can move from the street to space, but space really isn’t where he belongs. He’s much better on the streets, and being a world-class hero.

However, it takes something extraordinary to move Spidey from the street to a cosmic level when he’s by himself. There was the two-issues where he went toe to toe with Firelord and won, and there was the time when he had the Uni-Power and was Captain Universe for a little bit in order to beat the Tri-Sentinel that Loki set up. And then there are times when he’s had brushes with the Silver Surfer and –coughcoughMephistocough-, but these things aren’t run of the mill for him. Neither should they be for your street-level character.

Your world-class heroes are your globetrotters. These are the heroes that can be anywhere in the world and kick all kinds of ass. Captain America, Iron Man, and the like. These are the characters that aren’t rooted to one place. They can be anywhere in the world for an adventure, and they won’t be out of their element. When you create these heroes, I’m going to urge you to get them away from anything familiar as “stomping grounds” as soon as possible. Sure, the Avengers have Avengers Tower [or wherever they’re housed now], but the very first adventure that the New Avengers had took them to the Savage Land. So, having a base of operations is fine, but get them out and about as soon as you can. The sooner, the better.

Your cosmic heroes, of course, are most comfortable out in space. Heroes such as Nova, Quasar, the Silver Surfer—these are your very powerful, cosmic heroes that roam space and take care of extraterrestrial threats. (Nice of them.)  [I know, right?]  They take on the really big threats, usually by themselves, because they have the power to do it. These heroes aren’t that good anyplace else, and they tend to band together a lot. [Which is kind of funny, since space is pretty vast.]

When dealing with cosmic characters, you’re also generally dealing with creating aliens. Right off the bat, when creating aliens, I want you to get away from making them humanoid. Your imagination is much more vast than that. There are more than enough humanoid aliens around. The aliens are either insectoid or some sort of humanoid: two arms, two legs, just different colors. Maybe made of rock or something. [A small aside: “hard” sci-fi writers will say that in order to use tools, thumbs are needed to grasp. This may or may not be true, especially when it comes to things such as telekinesis. Don’t let your man-centric prejudice and all of the movies, shows, and sci-fi books you’ve devoured shape your thoughts to what an alien “should” be. Stretch your imagination. Just make sure it looks like it will make sense when drawn.]

I’ve said before that when you’re writing superheroes, generally, you’re writing science fiction. This means you have to be semi-intelligent. (Steven!)  No, really. You have to be. Not only do you have to be semi-intelligent, but you also have to know something about fighting. Let’s take them one at a time.

Let’s say you want to write Iron Man. This is a technologically based character, of course. This means you should have some affinity for technology [especially for today’s stories], because the readers are going to be expecting you to know something of what you’re talking about. You can’t do Iron Man without having some sort of tech-talk. Not if you want to do the title justice.

Let’s go even deeper. Let’s say you wan to write the Fantastic Four. Unless you’re taking Mr. Fantastic out of the picture, you have to be up on realistic sounding technobabble, as well as being able to make the simple sound exceedingly intelligent. I remember an issue where Reed tells Johnny to increase the sublimation rate of the liquid before such and such happens. This was during a fight. Johnny yells, “English!”, to which Reed replies, “Boil the water!”  See what I’m talking about?

Science fiction demands that you know something of real science and ways to fictionalize and stretch what you know. You have to extrapolate what you know into realms that haven’t yet been penetrated by science. As a science fiction writer, you HAVE to be what I call a junior scientist. If you’re writing superheroes, there’s no two ways about it. It cannot be done otherwise. [We’ll talk about magic next time.]  Taking the magic users out of the equation [as well as the horror characters, if they’re magically based], how many characters are born with their powers, have had some sort of accident, is technologically based, or are aliens?  All of them, right?  These are things that can be [and usually are] explained as scientifically as possible. [And I’ll admit to liking the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for “scientific” explanations of powers and breakdowns of equipment and such over DC’s Who’s Who. I don’t know if DC has come out with anything else resembling the Who’s Who after the first set. Their Secret Files and Origins left a lot to be desired.]

The junior scientist is something that HAS to be part of your nature, as a superhero writer. It doesn’t matter which universe you’re playing in. You’re writing science fiction, so you have to read and study it in order to not sound like a blithering idiot when you go to write it. You can try to avoid it all you wish, but sooner or later, you’re going to come up against something that will be techy in nature. If you’re writing a character that’s a scientist…  You see where this is going. Go study.

Next week, we’ll talk about magic and horror. 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 for rate inquiries.

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