B&N Week 15: Superheroes & Power Fantasies

| April 5, 2011 | 3 Comments

C-130 rollin’ down the strip…Bolts and Nuts gonna take a little trip…

Oh, sorry. Had a Marine Corps flashback. But it’s Tuesday, and that means it’s time for me to wax poetic about something poetical. Or something like that.

Last time out, we had an overview of superheroes. I also said we might be here for a while. This week,   we’re going to talk a little about origins, creation, myths, and their place in comics. A lot, right? Guess that means we’ll be talking about it over a couple of weeks. And just to be clear, when I say superhero, I’m also talking about supervillains. For the purposes of this column, whenever I mention superheroes, I’m also talking about their counterparts. Just so we’re all on the same page. We good?

So, let’s get started!

Superheroes!   I love ’em. They’re the reason I got into comics in the first place. Probably the same reason most of you have, as well. Superheroes just have something that most people don’t get, but we want to be a part of in some form or another. I mean, seriously, there’s no way that fanboys [and fangirls] made The Dark Knight into the colossal giant it is, storyline be damned. Even if you don’t like the movies, you know of someone that saw it, and can tell you something about Bruce Wayne, without ever picking up a comic book. Superheroes are franchises in ways that most other comic characters aren’t. They are the modern myths, and we owe it all to two Jewish boys in Siegel and Schuster.

I have a confession to make. I’m not a big DC fan, and we’ll get into the reasons for that when we talk about creating superheroes yourselves. I find Superman to be too powerful and unrelatable, and an extreme far cry from his roots: faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. Now he flies, doesn’t need to breathe often, ice-breath, heat vision, invulnerable, extremely intelligent, and more powerful than any other hero, ever. To go from having to run everywhere in order to get around to having to be powered down because he was able to move planets says a lot about a guy, y’know? However, without Superman, we wouldn’t have superheroes the way we know them today, and for that fact alone, I’ll be eternally grateful to him.

I could go into a long dissertation into the history of superheroes: how every one of them are knock-offs of Superman, whether or not they’re similar in powers or looks or anything else, but I won’t. That’s not the purpose of this column. The purpose of this portion is to give you a brief glimpse of what came before, so you can understand where we’ve been in order to understand where we’re going. I could suffice it to say that every superhero is Superman in disguise, but without any context, they’re just words.

When Superman first hit, there was nothing else like him on the stands, and because of the sales he garnered, there were lots of companies that were coming up with their own version of him. Some characters were sued out of existence, and others just faded. And when Batman hit the stands, whoa-boy! Every kind of ferocious animal imaginable was assigned a man after its name, and a new hero was born! Notice that they’re not around, don’t you? The reason for that? They weren’t any good.

This naturally begs the question, what makes a good superhero? (Yeah, Steven!   Mr. Guru-Man…)

Well, I’m personally a fan of Stan’s method of character creation: a powerful character with a flaw, or way to be defeated. You have Superman who’s good just because, and you have Spider-Man, who’s good because of the lesson he learned about power and responsibility. You have an alien masquerading as human, and you have a human who’s just trying to get by. Which is more relatable?

[Ever notice I do my best to head off all of the hate-mail before it starts? Well, here it is again. This is my own personal view. Don’t send hate-mail of Superman is da bestest evah. This isn’t about that. This is about character creation on your part. Thanks.]

This is the 2000’s, and we like to think of ourselves as sophisticated and complex. Our heroes, no matter what we say about wanting them to be simple with the good versus evil thing, have grown up with us, which means they’re also sophisticated and complex. This means that both heroes and villains need to have a reason for being, besides just cool powers.

Time to look at Pen-Man.

Pen-Man has the power of words, and is super-strong, because the pen is mightier than the sword. He’s also hyper-intelligent, and can teleport through paper and ink. Weaknesses? He has a finite reservoir of ink, and needs to carry refills. The bigger the job, the more ink he runs through. Hmm. Maybe he’s like the Green Lantern, except with ink. That works, right?

So, we have powers that work, as well as a weakness. Now, we need a reason for being. (Origin, Steven!) Yeah, I know. Just making sure that you knew. Anyway, Pen-Man used to work at a pen company,   and….you fill in the rest. What? You want me to do all the work for you? How are you going to get ahead that way?

There are a few problems when it comes to superheroes. These problems are inherent within the sub-genre itself, and even though that’s the case, you need to be made aware of them.

One of the inherent problems is the fact that superheroes are seen by many as an adolescent power fantasy. That may not be something said consciously, but it’s there, nonetheless. (Steve, I don’t know if I can follow you out on this limb…)   No worries. It’ll hold my weight just fine. Now, I want you to think about a few things.

How many male superheroes are there compared to female? I’m talking superheroes, not girlfriends or girl Friday’s. I’m going to say that Marvel Comics has a ratio of 10:1. No, this isn’t fact or anything like that. Let’s name some names, and yes, I’ll keep it short: Cyclops, Angel, Iceman, The Beast, Prof X, and Marvel Girl. The original X-Men. The Hulk, Ant-Man, The Wasp, Iron Man, Thor. The real original Avengers. Mr. Fantastic, The Thing, the Human Torch, the Invisible Girl. See where I’m going with this? Take all of those teams, and some of them can be broken down into individuals, so branching them into families will get you a ton more males than females. (Steven, we know this!)   Knowing it is one thing. But do you realize it? (…)   Thought so. And more than likely, the ratio is probably larger than that.

Now, you take all of those male bodies, and objectify them. (Eew!) Stop it. This is serious. If you look at all of the superhero bodies, you don’t see yourself in them. You see highly chiseled bodies and impeccable looks. Even the Hulk, for all his monstrosity, isn’t truly ugly. Put the Hulk up against a Morlock in a looks contest, and he’ll win. And he’s gotten more handsome over the years, to boot. But the point I’m trying to make is that these bodies are almost always perfect. Pick up any superhero comic, and you’ll see exactly what I’m talking about. And that’s just the men.

Women? They can forget about it. They’re sexual fantasies on paper. All you need is one look to tell you that. They’re generally a D-E cup, with impossibly small waists, and costumes that are painted on.     And don’t forget that they fight in heels. (Steven, that’s just not true.)   Maybe not anymore, but honestly, that’s recent. Like the past 10 years or so, if not less.

Now, the litmus test. How many women read superheroes? If there were an honest poll, testing all kinds of things among comic readers, it would probably be found that there are less than 5% of women that read comics period, and of that number, less than 1% read superhero comics. Again, these numbers are just my guesses, based on nothing more than my experiences. But the question isn’t where are the numbers coming from, the question is why aren’t more women reading superheroes?

Well, when you have perfect bodies playing war on paper, what appeal is there for women? How many little girls like to play war? How many would rather play with their dolls? Exactly. That translates to their reading habits.

Now, when you have things like women in refrigerators, you start to get the sense that there really isn’t much in superhero comics for women except the icebox.

And don’t forget the reason for superheroes themselves. They have powers for a reason. Different ways to beat up on their foes. If you can shoot a laser from your forehead at will, I’d say that’s more effective than being able to pull a gun on someone. The bullets will run out eventually. ForeHead Man? Who knows when that thing’ll turn off. And see that uniform he spray painted on, showing off his chiseled abs and chest? See those thews? Yeah, you better run!

So there’s the adolescent power fantasy. There’s also the fact that most of them are white. Actually, the bulk of them.

No, I’m not going to turn this into a racial thing. Just realize and understand what’s going on. Most comics are bought by affluent Caucasian males (and by affluent, I mean well off enough to go spend money on something frivolous like comics). Most creators of superhero comics, especially when they first started, were Caucasian males. Writers write what they know. What does a White writer know about the Black experience? What do they know about what it’s like to grow up Chinese in America? Why is it that it’s always the white guy who comes to the rescue, or comes out on top, doing something no one else could do, or hasn’t been done in a long time? A perfect example is Iron Fist.

Iron Fist was born of a time when the martial arts were sweeping the West. [Yes, I know boxing is a martial art.]   Everyone wanted to learn karate or kung-fu, and on Saturday afternoons, we all sat around the television to eat up the Drive-In Double Feature that were nothing more than martial arts fight fests. Iron Fist was born in this time, riding the Bruce Lee wave. So was Shang-Chi, the Master of Kung Fu, but he didn’t stay around too long.

Now, how many characters in the Marvel Universe are not White and well known? Outside of Storm, there aren’t any.

Ready for the litmus test?

How many of the characters you’ve made are not White? I’m Black, and most of the characters I’ve created are White. I’m semi-socially conscious, and most of my characters are not of my race. What does that say about me? Nope, wrong question. What does that say about you?

So we have power fantasies, we have comics basically being about White people, and then there’s the storylines. Tortured and twisted, and very off-putting for a newcomer. (Steven, what are you talking about?)   Simple.

X-Man. Nate Grey. Explain him.

(Simple. Nate is the Age of Apocalypse version of Cable, who is Nathan Summers, the son of Scott Summers and Madelyne Pryor. Madelyne is the clone of Jean Grey, whom everyone thought was dead as the Dark Phoenix, but was really in a statis cocoon at the bottom of the Hudson Bay. Of course, everyone knows that Scott is Cyclops, and that Jean Grey was Marvel Girl/Phoenix/Dark Phoenix/whatever her name was when she died (again). Madelyne turned into the Goblin Queen, and then died, but now she’s back…)   Okay. You’ve just done that, without even getting to the Age of Apocalypse since the first breath you took. Now, if every comic is someone’s first, how are they supposed to get all of that and understand it? And that’s the problem with superheroes in general. They age without aging, and the more they age, the more convoluted they get. It’s soap operas for men. When you have characters that have been around for fifty and sixty years, it’s hard for them NOT to get convoluted, especially when they start interacting with one another.

It’s terrible, isn’t it? And you know what? You’re going to be doing the same thing with Pen-Man. You’re going to follow in the footsteps of what’s gone before, because that’s what you’ve grown up with and you think that’s the way it’s supposed to be done.

I’m not going to tell you you’re wrong, but I’m not going to tell you you’re right, either.

What I AM going to tell you is to try to be different. Look for the differences, and see where they can be exploited.

I was shortly a part of a writing group, well, was going to be their editor, and they were going to do something different. They were going to create a superhero universe, where the team members were going to do one of two things: they would either star in their own books, or they would be seen in the team book, but not both. Wolverine, the most overexposed character ever, is in a hundred billion places at once. They weren’t going to do that. They were going basically do limited series on characters that ran when the character was not being featured in the main title. They didn’t want their character being in two places at once. That’s different.

That’s what you need to do.

So, what do I want you to do with all of this information?

I want you to make superheroes that matter. Superheroes that last. Superhero creation is hard. They need to be created well on a fundamental level, able to withstand internal and external changes, as well as appeal to the audience. You have to learn a trick to character generation, and I didn’t know it was a trick until later.

When I create a new character, in order to make sure they’re balanced, I role-play them. (Steven, I think you just took a turn for the stupid.)   No, listen.

Most of the characters I’ve created were due to role-playing, and getting into their characters is something every writer needs to do. My main characters, I can slip into and out of with ease. Secondary characters I don’t worry too much about. My new characters are the ones that have me worried. I don’t have anyone to role-play with. And I mean real role-playing, with a table, dice, and people. MMORPG’s are fine and fun, but you don’t really get into character with them. I like City of Heroes, but how many are really playing and playing in character? Not many. And as a new writer doing superheroes, role-playing is honestly a great thing.

And that’s it for now. Your homework is to create a superhero and role-play it. I want two of them: one male, one female. Examine them from all angles. Find out who they are, why they are, why they do what they do.

Next week, we’ll talk about myths and villains. Until then, be good.

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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 (3)

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  1. Jules Rivera says:

    “Now, when you have things like women in refrigerators, you start to get the sense that there really isn’t much in superhero comics for women except the icebox.”

    Wow, you went there. I applaud your gall, good sir.

    Now, while girls don’t like “war” stories, I think there is more of an audience to be had with girls looking for a good adventure story (and comics where all the key women aren’t DD strippers who get horribly murdered for shock value). This was most of my impetus for starting Valkyrie Squadron. Hell, I got started in comics because of Sailor Moon, because that was campy girly action fun.

    I’d be interested to see the male to female ratio of readers when it comes to manga. I bet it would be a lot lower than for superhero books.

    • Thanks, Jules.

      I have a couple of stories wherein I have female leads, one of which being a superhero tale. I’d like to pick your brain in a more private setting about it, sometime in the future. (The thing with creating a superhero universe within a limited setting is that it sucks, because you don’t want to fill it with characters that will never be used again–especially if you have another setting that the characters can be used in.)

      Anyway, I could make an entire post about “women in refrigerators”, but that’s not within the purview of this column. However… If it’s something you’d like to talk about, I have a platform that will be perfect for just such a thing.


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