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