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B&N Week 20: Superhero Universe

| May 10, 2011 | 5 Comments


It’s Tuesday! The best day of the week for me, really. What can I say? Tuesdays excite me. [Git yer head outta da gutter!]

We’ve been talking a lot about superheroes lately, and we’re going to finish up with them this week. Sad, I know, but everything must come to an end.

With all this talk about superheroes, I haven’t really said all that much about their universes. Getting one set up, that is. You didn’t know how much work getting a superhero universe set up would be, did you? To be honest, neither did I, until I started doing it. But let’s get into the Bolts & Nuts of it, shall we?

Did you watch Lost? (Huh? Steven, you’re losing me.) Doesn’t matter. You’ll catch up soon enough. So, did you watch Lost? I did. I tried to get into during the second season, but found it kinda dense. It was hard to penetrate, and there were a lot of questions I wanted to ask, and the answers would lead to more questions. So, I stopped watching it, and finally got back into it by watching it from the first season on Hulu. [I watch a lot of shows on Hulu.] When I started watching from the beginning, and then going on through the seasons, I was amazed at how interconnected everyone was, and they didn’t know it. Add some powers, and you have a great superhero universe set up. [And I specifically didn’t use Heroes as an example because Lost is a better show.]

When you’re standing up a superhero universe, there are a few things that you MUST follow in order to be successful with it. Learn the lessons of the failed companies that have come and gone before you, one of the most spectacular crashes of an interconnected universe being CrossGen.

The first rule of a shared universe is just that: it’s a shared universe. I suggest that you make connections behind the scenes to different characters. Pen-Man dates Lotus Girl, who had a baby by Gerald, who’s split personality is Pen-Man’s arch nemesis WhiteOut; Graven Image know’s Pen-Man’s moment of death, and is trying to keep him alive by keeping Pen-Man away from One Liner, who happens to be Lotus Girl’s estranged brother…  In a shared universe, all of these characters need to not only interact, they also need to be somehow connected behind the scenes. Instant drama, sure, but it also makes things seem just a little more real. Just don’t overdo it.

The second rule of a shared universe is: don’t overdo it! For the love of oversized digital clocks everywhere, don’t overdo it. You can overdo it with the connections so that things become improbable, but more than likely, you’re going to make a ton of titles in order to “compete” with Marvel/DC. Forget the fact that you don’t have the money to do this. We’re not even going to worry about that. What we’re going to worry about is creating a glut of properties for your universe.


When I first decided to write comics, it was something my cousin and I were going to do together. We had a LOT of ideas for a lot of different books. We had about ten different ongoing series we wanted to do, with more on the way. It was superheroes, and we tried to fill every niche we could: regular neighborhood heroes, world-class heroes, a couple of team books, a supervillain book, a cosmic book, a wild sci-fi book, a magic book…you can see where this is going. If we had a concept that we thought had legs, we’d turn it into an ongoing series, and we’d keep getting up. It got to the point where we noticed we’d have to hire writers in order to help us tell the stories in our universe. We knew we wouldn’t be able to write them all ourselves. Did that stop us?

Not in the least.

Don’t do this. Just don’t. Instead, create ONE book, and introduce characters in that book. [See Invincible for a good way to do this.]  If those characters have enough reader interest, then you can think about expanding your universe. But it needs to be done organically.

The Marvel Universe didn’t just come into being. They were basically a collection of stories that became a universe over time. It was done organically. This is what I want you to do. If you’re going to create a shared superhero universe, you have to let it grow organically. A single title at a time. I know you don’t want to hear “slow and steady wins the race,” but that’s what I’m advising you to adhere to. Even with that advice, you can still go the way of CrossGen. I don’t want that to happen to you.

The third rule of a shared universe: understand how your science works. This is where your powers as a junior scientist will really come into play. If you really want to know your characters, break down their powers as scientifically as you can. Look at what Kirkman did for Invincible. He modeled a handbook after the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe, which is much better to my mind in breaking down powers than DC’s Who’s Who and their Secret Files & Origins.

This is probably the most enjoyable, labor intensive part of setting up a superhero universe. You get to play with and tweak your characters to your heart’s content, before ever putting them through their paces in a comic. [Just remember: five villains to every hero.]  It’s also pretty easy. Generally, you’re dealing with science, and scientific rules are easy to adhere to, as well as to break if you’ve got a scientific enough reason for it. You can go quantum with things, or skirt the metaphysical/paranormal with things like telepathy. Easy. Just understand how your science works.

The fourth rule of a shared universe: make sure your characters are interesting! You’d think that would be first, but you’d be wrong. Having a shared universe means that it’s populated with lots of characters. The characters that you choose to spotlight are going to be the heroes that will make or break your universe. Since that’s the case, your showcase heroes have to be interesting. Remember, they are going to be the lens through which your universe is going to be viewed. The more interesting and compelling your showcase character, the more compelling your universe will seem.

Since we’re talking about characters, let’s also talk about power levels for a little bit. When he first appeared, Professor Xavier was so powerful he was able to affect the brains of robots. As he’s gotten older, the Hulk has gotten stronger. Hell, even one of his catchphrases speaks to it, with him being the strongest one there is. Thor can put on a belt that will double his strength. Marvel went so far as to create Class 100, meaning a character could lift 100 tons or more. Superman used to be able to move planets. Spider-Man alternately can lift 20 tons, then has trouble lifting a VW Bug.

If you’re creating a hero within a role playing system, I suggest using that system’s strength rating across the board. This will ensure that your characters will have a stable base that won’t fluctuate [unless you want it to, of course]. Make sure that the power ratings translate well on the page, too. And please, don’t forget to do some sort of studying. If your cosmic character is forty stories tall and eats planets for sustenance, then it’s safe to say that they’re firmly entrenched in the uber-upper echelon of the power scale. Don’t have them at the power level of Captain America. It just won’t work. Junior scientist.

Next are the locations you use. I have questions when it comes to this: where is Keystone City? Gotham? Metropolis? Place them on the map for me, please. This is going to be difficult for most of you. I’m a little fuzzy on it myself, and that’s with me seeing maps when Sovereign Seven was being published. [Just went way back, I know.]

Anyway, I’m not much of a fan of made-up locations. They only make sense to the creators, and then you have to go and place them somewhere in the real world. And the problem is that most times, these places end up looking like New York City. Although Gotham is a character in and of itself, it’s also a basically New York at night. Metropolis? New York during the day.

I’m a much bigger fan of using real locations to place your characters in. It’s just easier, and to me, grounds them more. The problem then becomes that you still end up using New York as a default city where everything happens. There have been complaints about it. But by the same token, when you try to get away from New York, the readers don’t come. Go ahead and try placing your heroes in San Francisco. See what happens. [And yes, the X-Men are going to move before too long. I don’t see that lasting.]

Of course, the choice is always going to be yours, but understand that it will be hard to have readers know where things are happening if you use made-up places. Where’s Dakota? Exactly.

Next are the niches that have to be filled. Heroes and villains with powers are one thing, but you have to decide on their origins. Mutants [born with their powers], accidents [mutates?], aliens, magic users, martial artists, gods, technological, demons, monsters, hidden races, and what have you. These niches all have to be filled, hero, villain, and those that wish to be left alone alike. Don’t forget the cults, sects, and corporations, as well. If you want a vibrant, full world, then these all have to be represented.

Since we’re talking superheroes, we also have to talk super-science. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: superheroes are science fiction, and as such, you have to learn to stretch to those boundaries. You can’t get away with 60s style gobbledygook anymore. Now, your technobabble has to sound as authentic as you can make it. That means your fiction has to be based on actual science.

Example: I was reading Popular Science a couple of years ago, and there was a small article about a couple of guys who made an algorithm that had voice recognition, so if you sang a song, even a few bars of it, it would find that song for you if it was in their database. Know what my first thought was? That was the first step toward a universal translator! The next step is the Google Wave, which can correct a word that is misspelled only because of the context it’s being used in. Where have you been, instead of where have you bean. Add those two together, incorporate a translator, and viola. Sure, the idea of a universal translator is nothing new, but the reality of it? See what I’m getting at? Use real tech as the basis for future tech. Yes, there are going to be those who are better at this than others. Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try it.

There is one thing that you shouldn’t do, but I know you’re going to do, anyway. Everyone does it, but I’m going to urge you not to, if you can at all help it.

I don’t want you to make approximations of characters you love for your own universe. You want to make your own versions of Superman, Batman, Captain America, and so on. Resist the temptation, unless you can add something unique and useful to the character. I mean, only a billionaire can afford all the toys of a Batman or an Iron Man, unless you do something interesting with them. Resist the temptation, because readers are going to see them for what they are. Hyperion and Nighthawk. Apollo and Midnighter. Laurel and Hardy. [Okay, maybe not the last.]

It takes a lot of forethought and planning to make a new universe nowadays. So many considerations and things to keep in mind, so many disparate things that have to hang together well in order for a single title to seem robust and lively.

When I was working on Fallen Justice, the entire mini had been plotted and was in the midst of being written when I realized there weren’t enough heroes or villains in order to make the world seem realistic and full. When I mentioned this to Cary, he agreed, and I went on a tear of creating new characters. [You’ll have to read the series to see what happened with these creations.]  A lot of the considerations that I’ve presented here are usually taken for granted. I know I took them for granted. That’s not something I want you to do. Fallen Justice could have been basically a hollow universe. That wouldn’t have been any fun to read.

Create full universes. Know how everything hangs together before you start working on the first issue. Even if you’re only talking about a single corner of your universe, the more you can mention in passing and have it make some semblance of sense, the more robust your universe, and the readers will want you to explore more of it.

And that’s it for superheroes, unless someone wants me to go into something specifically.

See you next week!

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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 (5)

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  1. Wow, has it been 20 weeks already? Time sure flies when we’re having fun!

    As always, a very interesting read, Steven. You should really think about putting this to print at some point. It’s a book I would surely buy.

    Anyway, to the point: it’s a nice coincidence that you should talk about world building this week becuase I’ve been stumbling a bit in my writing lately due to that very same issue.

    How much of your world should you present in a first issue of a comic? For my part, I know I hate it when a comic opens up with an info dump of tsunami proportions, but I eqally hate it when I have no idea of the bigger picture.

    The script I’m writing right now – the one you’re so eager to read – is more of a #0 than a #1. It’s a sort of prequel presenting one of the main characters’ origin story. Can I afford to leave some things about the world vague or should I dive right in and set the stage for eveything that comes after?

    • Know what I hate?

      Questions. Hate ’em. Can’t stand ’em. Especially when I have no idea how to answer ’em.

      Really, Yannick, it’s all about individual effort. Time for a quick story.

      This past weekend, one of my buddies asked me to go over a script he wrote. It’s a first issue of a five issue story of a trilogy of books. (Did I lose you?) The first issue was typical first issue fare. It was nothing but setup.

      And you see that with a lot of first issues. It’s nothing but setup, and it becomes boring because of that. You generally know how the first issue is going to end. The trick is, doing it in a way that the reader won’t expect.

      That means doing more than just a setup. If you start with action, and keep that up, forcing the reader to play catch-up, that can be interesting AS LONG AS THE READER KNOWS SOMETHING OF WHAT’S GOING ON BY THE END OF THE ISSUE.

      Sorry. I’ll use my indoor voice.

      But you get my point. The reader can be behind, you can still do a setup, but have them play catch-up in order to understand what’s going on by the end of the issue–even if what they THINK they know isn’t what’s really going on.

      It’s about expectations.

      Another short story.

      I have a client who wrote a limited series, and is getting ready to write another one within that same world. Well, he wanted to write a single issue “bridge” from one series to the other. I did the responsible thing in telling him that was a bad idea, because he should really find a way to get across the information in the “bridge” somewhere within the next limited series. (Doing the right thing is much more important than money in my pocket.) He thought about it, and came around to my way of thinking.

      I’m not much of a fan of zero issues. It’s another way of getting money. I’m not a fan of the Marvel “jumping on” points with their .1 system. It screws with the run, the continuity, and I don’t think they should be done. But that’s just me.

      Give the information you need to in the regular story. If you have to give more info than that, then that’s what backmatter is for. I think more comics should have backmatter. But then again, that’s just me.

      • (Ha! Caught you stealth-editing! I was wondering where that “Johnny” was coming from…)

        Thanks for the reply, Steven. I agree with you that the story is really what matters. Getting the backstory into it, well, that’s a trick of the trade that will comwe with a good mix of ingenuity, practice and just how much mork I put into it. I’m happy to admit I’ve been a lucky beginner in this case: I think I manage to hook the reader with some action as early as page 2 and to keep them wondering for the rest of the issue. Whew!

  2. Cclark says:

    Wow, what a great article to find. I started a shared superhero world at the end of Jan. and it’s been very fun to work with. Your article here has been a wealth of information.

    What I’ve found the hardest so far is finding members that want to join without any offer of pay. :\ Hoping to stumble across some artist that feel they can work without pay and for now have fun with some art.

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