Do you like superheroes? Admire them? Glad they’re around?
Let me specify a bit. I’m not talking about super-cops, “crime-fighters,” or agents of social authority or legal systems. I’m talking about the ones who wield real power and who fight the really big threats – whose existence reveals the uncertain boundaries among science, mysticism, reality, and human morality. Doctor Strange. Wonder Woman. The Hulk. The Swamp Thing. Thor. Quantum. The Silver Surfer. Phoenix. Superman himself.
Especially when I reach out and scrub away the protective layer of coincidence that prevents toppling buildings, spattering blasts of energy, and flung vehicles from hurting anyone like you. Or the dubious convention that any of the above-named characters really cares which government is in power in any particular spot on the planet. What if one of these characters, without being mean or villainous, did not have an overdeveloped sense of responsibility toward every other human being? … Do you really want him or her doing the super thing in your neighborhood? In your city? In your freaking state?
Here’s a quick look at some of the background for my upcoming comics titles (One Plus One, Sword of God, and Ophite), about rarely-seen characters called superheroes.
In case I hadn’t mentioned it clearly, all three titles feature villain protagonists. I’m taking that pretty seriously, that they act against the law as most people know it, and also as most probably want it; and the default public reaction to the actions is shock and disapproval. As I’ll talk about later, many or most supervillains treat their activities as a highly motivated career, put a great deal of attention into their public images and self-promotion, and do quite well for themselves in varying degrees of collusion with institutions of power.
Heroes don’t factor much into the stories at all, but what they’re like is important to the setting. So here’s what I passed out to the artists about that.
My model for them is based on the most powerful, most dramatic superheroes in comics, with the implication that such beings provoke more mystery and fear than they do celebrity or popularity. As I see it, these characters do not have comics based on them.
They are few. About ten of them, world-wide. None of them are associated with a given nationality in a symbolic way.
They are excessive. Crazy powers, crazy presence, WMD-level if they decide to.
Related to these is their odd naming convention, always starting with a preposition: In the Light, Into the Fire, Out for Blood, For the Truth, From Hell. In casual reference, it’s ordinary to use the final word only.
The visual designs should really show off the body and include iconic branding with an easily-recognized single logo or object or physical feature. They have either skin-tight, skin-exposing costumes or yards and yards of billowing material. They tend not to have masks, and they effortlessly pose, moving in pure opera. Their powers are abstract, with the “no limit” implying that judgment and passion are the true parameters of their capabilities.
Let’s use a distinctive color palette for heroes only: silver-white, blood red, slate blue, sky blue, black obsidian, ivory white, glowing yellow, olive green – no brown or grey at all. Whereas the corresponding or opposing palette for the villain characters is much broader, including multiple shades of the same color and all variants of brown and gray.
They do not fight crime. Most of the time, their appearances are dramatic but very mysterious. They’ve been known to do something really drastic, like stop a war (or finish one), or to suddenly make away with a whole city council or something like that, or to show up at the U.N. with some bizarre demand. It’s true that historically these actions tend to solve problems … but it’s still unsettling, and it’s also true that when they’re defied or refused, really bad things happen then.
Related to this is the implication that vast and terrible things are happening beyond our understanding. Is an alien armada about to attack Earth? Do unguessable dimensions yawn open beyond dark corners? Is an ancient evil awakening, soon to rip asunder the fabric of time and space? If so, then these superheoes are protecting us all, which is great, I suppose. But that doesn’t mean you want one of them anywhere near you.
Also related is their constant involvement in impossibly complex soap opera. When a hero shows up, he or she is clearly upset about everything going on at some personal level. A loved one is in danger either right here or very far away, some event in the hero’s past is either triggered or directly involved in the current situation, there’s some other crisis which is demanding attention at the same time as this one, and so on and on. We know this because they’re talking about it as if anyone cared.
Take-home: supervillains don’t have to worry about superheroes, most of the time. In the unfortunate event that a villain’s actions do capture a hero’s attention, usually due to an overlap with the soap opera, that villain is usually toast. The only villain powerful enough to face off with a hero directly is Prophecy Girl. The only villain known historically to defeat a hero is our very own Bandit.
Like I said, these aren’t the main characters. The readers don’t know their back-stories or the nature of their opponents or their general motivations any more than the fictional ordinary person does in the comics. If their paths cross those of the main characters, it’s coincidence and (from our characters’ point of view) grossly bad luck.
Why? A couple of reasons. It pleases me as much as any comics creator to apply a limited and completely arbitrary dose of “real” “perspective” to the familiar concepts, especially when I think it’s in a way not beaten into the ground already. I also see the odd balance of absurdity and sublimity, in both psychology and visual design, to be an exciting creative challenge.
But the main one is that I’m writing supervillains, and they can’t be dragged by the neck to the local slammer going “owie owie” and “duhhhr” every week by the local do-gooder in orange tights. For me to write supervillains, about what they want, what they do, and how that goes, then the conventions of self-defeating stupidity and absurdly biased coincidence that make the heroes even barely credible enough to find them by default, let alone to defeat them consistently, have to be junked. The smart villain has something to do in the absence of equivalent-power heroes, whereas the converse is definitely not true. If the Vulture is smart enough to avoid Manhattan, then Neighborhood Super-Guy simply doesn’t have anything to do.
Especially for the kind of villainy I like thinking about for stories: the venal, successfully profitable kind. The kind that really is getting away with it. The kind that lives and operates in the world, and why the world likes them, despite all protests to the contrary. No one’s written it this way before. Coming soon.
Next: Inking is sexy
Posted on May 12, 2016, in Xaos Comics and tagged Doctor Strange, Hulk, Phoenix, Quantum, Silver Surfer, Superman, Wonder Woman. Bookmark the permalink. 24 Comments.
All right, Edwards, you’re setting some pretty high expectations here. I haven’t been this excited about comics since I took a comic drawing class from inker Aaron Sowd back in the 90s.
Also, aren’t you forgetting Dr. Manhattan on your list of uber powerful, but remote and unknowable super “heroes”? It seems like Moore wrote him along the sort of guidelines you are describing (but then of course he handed the villain the “villain ball” by having him start killing off superheroes to get them all riled up and come after him-have I said thank you yet for introducing me to TVtropes.).
I’m glad you like it! You can see some of the primary content as a patron, especially the kinds of characters I’m writing as the protagonists, so you’re getting a more thorough view of what I’m up to.
Completism isn’t my top priority. Also, Doctor Manhattan has a way of sucking all reader attention to him and rendering them incapable of writing anything but Watchmen fan boilerplate, so I save him for directed attention rather than including him in lists.
You won’t thank me for TVtropes after you decide your job is less important than “one more click.” Beware!
It certainly sounds like a fresh take on the premise. I’m curious if you arrived at the ‘phenomenal cosmic power’ or the ‘villain as Goldman Sachs’ angle first?
My first reaction was puzzlement, because it seems like like actively intelligent, non-hobbled villains should have no problem keeping heroes of similar competency & power at bay, most of the time. But I’d certainly be interested to see where the idea leads.
My aim in writing these came straight out of the impulse that spawned the post Second-best villainy, which as you can tell by that content is a long-standing topic for me. So villains first, I guess, although I am not entirely sure what you mean by your description of them. Let’s hold off on that latter for now, as I’d prefer to do that via the comics themselves.
I’ve more to say about your “should” statement but will save that too. Suffice to say that at least in this fiction (never mind “must” or any other categorical clam), someone who decides to strike out for truth, justice, the good, what’s right, et cetera, and does so … well, pretty much is a villain too. Coincidence doesn’t save or validate motivations in my stories. And on a related point, I have a very clear idea of how super-powered vigilantes relate to that point. I’m afraid I’ll continue to be vague; have to preserve some reason for people to pay me $2/month for inside info, after all.
I guess I (and Alan?) got the corporate-criminal impression from “the venal, successfully profitable kind” that “do quite well for themselves in varying degrees of collusion with institutions of power.” But hey, I’m sure paved with good intentions works just as well. Knock ’em dead, Ron.
With and without good intentions. I find it entirely plausible that the most vicious hit-and-run type villain would play up his outlaw status in terms of media image, while collecting hefty paychecks from a dozen different espionage/security and corporate coffers.
Interesting. I do enjoy a good villain. Have you read Irredeemable yet?
One of my long-gestating game ideas, Heliophage, is about waking up one day with Majestic class superpowers- and you’re the only one. What next? Fight Evil? Okay. What evil? Where? How? Do you go in to work as usual and just wait for something bad to happen? When was the last time someone needed saving in your presence? Buy a police scanner? How will you reckon with law enforcement? Fly to Iraq and try to find the Taliban? How will you reckon with national sovereignty? And what happens when the first Church of You shows up? All the real-life crap comic book heroes almost never have to deal with.
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Remember Anathema? “If you had to kill a whole lot of people, where would you … start?”
I do not remember Anathema, actually. I’ll take a look.
A question about the villains: what makes them supervillains, rather than just plain old criminals? Or, of course, just plain old capitalists?
The only real thing that makes (post-COIE) Lex Luthor a supervillain is his obsession with Superman. Otherwise, he’s just a businessman.
It looks like you are de-emphasizing ideological supervillains as well. No Magneto types. Fair enough. They’ve been done.
Oh, and you left off one of the scariest superheroes of all: the Spectre.
I must have said something wrong about my villain protagonists. I didn’t say anything about them being businessmen or capitalists or anything like that. Maybe it was my term “career,” … possibly read as 9-to-5 or business suit or something like that. That’s not what I meant.
Think Vulture. He pulls off a flamboyant heist and is set for a few years, plus everyone’s scared to death to mess with him when he decides to do another one. Or better, someone like the typical death’s-head scary paid assassin, with powers. He wears his costume and mask not on the job, but when meeting clients. He does the job looking like anyone else, which is, you know, much more sensible regarding the act of killing someone.
So, powers, because this a powers idiom we’re talking about, and costumes, not just “because super-powers” from the reader’s point of view, but also in the sense of pragmatic albeit flamboyant image-building.
Alan, I ask that you not phrase things as corrections or accusations. “You left out” is not what I need here. “How about” is perfectly valid, has the same intended meaning, and is much more courteous. I’m not open to negotiation about it.
I’d say, “internet tone problem”, but I should be more careful.
It’s cool! Teeny bit of attention to it, from both of us, and we’ll both like the outcome. Plus I have no doubt re: your actual intent.
P.S, The Spectre, absolutely.
It must be a bit frustrating when you write about your cool take on heroes, and everyone starts talking about the villains! So I’ll say that you seem to have found a good place for them – they (apparently) have a reason to exist, and to not be that involved with the villains. The view from the outside works.
Back onto the villains, unfortunately.
You’ve obviously got this worked out, but I am intrigued by the difference between them and more mundane criminals. What’s the difference between a bank robber with a freeze ray and a plain old bank robber? A mob boss in a fancy mask versus an ordinary mob boss? And yes, Lex Luthor and a particularly unscrupulous businessman? If I am reading you correctly, image (and image maintenance) seems to be a key factor. Superpowers too, naturally.
I can certainly see people liking them, even in their own lifetimes. Responses to various gangsters and “Public Enemies” shows that. Then there are historic figures – Ned Kelly in Australia, and even (Confederate bitter-ender) Jesse James. John Brown too, for that matter. All of these were officially reviled, and yet had considerable grass roots sympathy. That’s irrespective of whether they deserve that sympathy – there’s quite a range within that group, and I’ve only listed a handful of examples, intentionally biased towards the US.
Add powers, fancy costumes and image management, and yes, you are onto something.
Now I’m wondering what antagonists they will face in your stories…
All very cool.
Well, since you wanted feedback on the ‘heroes’-
I’m afraid I’m in the class of people where the “oh, come on!” eye-rolling-response completely overwhelms enthusiasm for this type of super-agonist unless the story is specifically about the real-life crap that oberon mentions- e.g, political entanglements, religious framing, the shockwaves of awe and terror they have on the wider social landscape.
I know that you intend for them to be background figures, with the spotlight on the villains, but I suspect that even the threat of the former’s intervention, however rare and exigent, would be a sword of damocles hanging over every policy-maker’s head, and that nothing resembling modern human societies would survive in that context. Quite aside from which dictators rub them the wrong way, I can only imagine how election cycles would be shaped by the fear of installing the ‘wrong’ candidate, where wrong is defined, explicitly or otherwise, by an extremely visible transhuman hyper-being.
Could crime-as-we-usually-recognise-it persist indefinitely in this scenario, even if the heroes themselves barely glance in the direction of ground-level villainy? Are you planning to ignore or minimise this, as part of the ‘completely arbitrary’ dose of groundedness, or is this something the villains have to grapple with as the series goes on?
Consider the mental states and attitudes of – to pick a few – the Hulk, the Silver Surfer, and Doctor Strange. Policy-making? Election cycles? They literally don’t care. You may be retaining more of the default genre convention that Thor or Wonder Woman would be invested in aspects of human social arrangements at that level than I am. This convention arises directly from the 1940s and especially the 1950s, when pulp/action heroes were shoehorned into the role of U.S. WWII heroes and as icons of anticommunism. It’s one of the things I’m leaving behind. I do not think of the heroes as utterly inhuman, but I do see their origin/core humanity being rubbed away or distilled into over-abstract forms in a lot of ways.
Note too what I said about numbers – ten, maximum, characters of this sort, world-wide. All of whom are presumably very busy, either with godawful crises that others never see, or with intensely personal, gaudy melodramas that would interest a fan of their comic books, if there were any, but don’t have anything to do with anyone else.
What happens when such a character’s path (rarely) crosses those of the principal characters does crop up in my scripts, yes. As I see it, a little bit of that goes a long way.
I’m not sure the heroes would really need to care about policy or election cycles in order to affect them, any more than earthquakes or hurricanes would need to ponder their position on building codes. If they’ve been known to stop or finish wars, make away with city councils or show up at the UN, then… yeah. I find it hard to imagine the First, Second and Third Churches of Hulk not being a thing.
But this is all just speculation about background detail on my part, and I’m sure it can be glossed over with little loss. Thanks for the clarification, and again, best of luck with the project.
Your take on Supers sounds great to me – as a lightweight comics-reader, I’ve seen bits of those issues in the movie/TV stuff over the last few years, and even when inept, it lends some thematic resonance. The harder sell for me is caring about venal villainy, but I can see how your angle might work …
For me superheroes are boring, plain and intense.
Make everyone a Superman, dr. Manhattan or Sheogorath and this is where things starting to get interesting to me.
Make a world small, compared to society. Let everyone be a villains, heroes, just me’s and legends of their own stories and see them shine. ))
Could you provide an example of a comic which fits your suggestion?
I’m yet to find one, sadly.
Only glimpses and pieces, here and there.
That’s why I don’t read comics much.
You can consider Eclipse Phase and other Transhuman settings as close, as possible to this idea.
Also, I had that plot bunny, where ROB comes to Earth and broadcasts: “You may fear, because I’ll start killing you in ten years. But from now on every one of you will get superpowers beyond your wildest imaginations. There will nothing impossible for you with sufficient time and synergy, apart of actually stopping me. But you can try. By-bye!” Craziness ensues.
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It reminds me of Universe Gun.
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