This is the first in series of blog entries looking at the history and evolution of the idea of the superhero. I’m specifically interested in identifying when new elements were added to the mix, and how these new elements were picked up and changed over time.
When I started making Universe Gun almost two years ago, I had to ask myself a question that I imagine most superhero comics creators ask themselves. How will this one be different?
In the west at least, the medium of comics is absolutely dominated by superhero strips, and it did occur to me that the last thing the world needs is another white British guy writing about superheroes. They are my lifelong love, though, and I wasn’t about to change that. So how was I going to make something unique?
Lets start by defining what a superhero is. The key ingredients of the classic superhero are:
Codename and Dual Identity The name can be descriptive of their powers (eg Flash) or their mission (eg The Punisher)
Special Powers These are well-defined, often unique to each character, and have a science behind them defining their limits, weaknesses and so on.
Costume Superheroes tend to wear the same clothes all the time! (Consider how weird it is that the Wasp was known in the 80s for constantly changing costumes as a point of difference!) Tintin and Mickey Mouse do too, but superhero outifts are usually outlandish and striking within the fictional world.
Protector of the status quo A traditional superhero fulfills a role somewhere between a freelance policeman and soldier, using physical force to right wrongs.
Superman and Batman are the classic examples of this model. They have secret lives as Clark Kent and Bruce Wayne. Their powers and gadgets are key parts of their stories. Both have iconic costumes that have changed a little over the years. Superman as originally conceived stood for “Truth, Justice and the American Way” – and would straighten out slum landlords and other bullies who used the system to prey on the weak and powerless. His actions were not necessarily legal, but definitely the right thing to do. He changed over time, but one of his defining features is an unswerving moral compass as he stands up for the weak and powerless. Batman’s primary motivation is to punish criminals, basically filling in for an overstretched police force in a crime infested city. Superman uses raw power, Batman strikes fear into the hearts of his opponents.
The first major alternative to this this model would be Wonder Woman. In 1941, she was outstanding for being a woman in a genre that previously revolved around male characters. (Superhero fiction has a mixed record of representing the broad spectrum of humanity that exists outside of straight white dudes. On the plus-side, the X-Men have done an admirable job under Chris Claremont and onwards. On the down-side, we’ve yet to see a Marvel movie with a female or non-white lead. I won’t go into this issue too deeply here because I won’t stop if I get started, and my own work should make it obvious where I stand on these issues.)
Back to Wonder Woman – what is less obvious is that she also breaks the fourth definition as a protector of the status quo. In the fictional world, her mission is “to bring peace to Man’s World”. Batman and Superman are correcting individuals who are breaking the smooth running of a system endorsed by their writers. Wonder Woman actually seeks to change the world, and leave it different from how it’s inhabitants see it running. Her creator, William Moulton Marston, created her with the express purpose of making the world a better place. He wanted a strong role model for girls, but also subscribed to a belief that the world would be better if men submitted to loving domination by women. If you don’t know the story of her creation and creator, here’s an excellent article on Comic Book Resources on her real-world origins.
Decades later, Wonder Woman is still fighting for peace. She may not have made much headway, but she’s still presented as a critic of our society at the least, shaking her head at the way things are done in “Man’s World”.
How has her legacy been continued?
The Marvel explosion in 1963 consists mainly of characters who follow the soldier/policeman model. The X-Men are the closest to an exception here, with their agenda to bring about a peace between humans and mutants that doesn’t currently exist. Even so, their main opponent is Magneto, who wants to really shake things up, and the X-Men spend much of their energies preserving the world the way it is. Spiderman’s famous quote, that with great power comes great responsibility, suggests that he might try to improve the world, but he barely wields enough power to hold his own life together, let alone look outwards. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in Part 2.
The British invasion/Vertigo explosion in 1985 onwards provided little change either, despite its iconoclastic energy. The Doom Patrol and Shade the Changing Man protect the world from downright bizarre threats, but are still protecting the normal world for the normals. Swamp Thing spends a final issue arguing why he isn’t going to clean the planet up for humanity. The most notable exception from this era was Alan Moore’s Miracleman. In a super-Maslow’s heirarchy, the story starts with Miracleman first fighting for his own survival, then investigating his origins. When Miraclewoman appears in the story, they start to look at changing the whole world for the better, and Moore gets into some serious speculative fiction about how superhumans and aliens would alter the world. It ends on a high note, with the presence of just a few superhumans making life better for everyone. But along the way it almost mirrors early superhero history, with the desire to actually improve the world coming in with the first female hero.
There’s a recurring storyline in superhero comics where a group of heroes trying to get proactive and change the world. The public support them, but not our heroes, and they’re then revealed to either be misguided fools taking on more than they can chew, or revealed to be villains or aliens in disguise. Squadron Supreme by Mark Gruenwald was ahead of its time in 1985 in exploring this. In a parallel branch of the Marvel Universe, analogues of the Justice League get proactive and start tackling the root sources of crime. This leads them into murkier ethical territory like mind control, and their efforts are eventually undone. It explored the question quite thoroughly before deciding that the heroes had overstepped their mandate by trying to create a better society.
Grant Morrison’s run on JLA kicked off a similar story, where a group of photogenic superheroes arrive from space to take over from the JLA and get proactive. They’re revealed as evil Martians bent on enslaving the Earth. After their defeat, Superman explains to the rest of the team how they aren’t here to lift humanity to greater heights, but to protect them along the way. Interestingly enough, it’s Wonder Woman who questions the JLA’s reactive approach to superhero-ing in this epilogue scene.
It’s not my intention to rag on Grant Morrison for the views expressed by the JLA. He could no more turn them into a force for planetary change than he could permanently kill Superman (as he himself points out – no writer can do that because another one can resurrect him). Instead, he wrote the Invisibles as a proactive superhero team in their own bubble universe, and wrote the JLA as the conventional superheroes they are in their title, and I’m glad he addressed this point at the start rather than just taking it as read.
Alan Moore’s Promethea is an obvious inheritor to Wonder Woman’s agenda. The new Promethea discovers early on that her role is in fact to bring about the end of the world, and is understandably quite shaken by this revelation. It’s gradually revealed that this apocalypse is not quite as apocalyptic as it sounds, but more of a spiritual revival. Even so, the new Promethea runs and hides from her duties until her hand is forced. Margaret Case, the Promethea from World War I puts it very eloquently early on in the story:
Is the status quo really worth defending? It’s a great question.
Spoiler alert – the story ends with the apocalypse taking place. Rather than a fire and brimstone end of the world, it’s depicted as a bizarre and unsettling shift in reality that leads to a better world. Nothing has changed physically, but people seem more relaxed and at peace, and spiritual matters such as contact with the dead are now commonplace occurrences. The regular superheroes try to stand in her way and fail, and for once are proven wrong in trying to protect the status quo.
I came to Promethea quite late in 2008. I’d already created Ms.Amazing by this point – a superwoman intent on upgrading the planet rather than protecting it as it is. I’ll never forget the chills I got reading Promethea as the similarities between the two characters hit me. I’d previously considered Ms. Amazing as my Superman equivalent, but looking at it now, I can see her more like Wonder Woman, and sharing that common root with Promethea.
The other more unlikely heir to Wonder Woman’s legacy could be said to be Mark Millar. Under previous writer Warren Ellis, The Authority were a Justice League with a difference. Ellis brought a new “Wired magazine” aesthetic to his superheroes, with better pseudo-science than ever, and a black-ops paramilitary edge that grew out of his run on Stormwatch. It was quite an achievement to create an entire team who felt completely new, with superpowers you hadn’t seen before such as Jack Hawksmoor’s urban adapatation abilities, or the Engineer’s nano-active blood. Even team leader Jenny Sparks, just another lightning shooter at first sight, had an amazingly fresh backstory as a “Century baby”. Their opponents, such as “God”, a vast alien entity that tried to terraform the earth back to Pleistoscene-era conditions, were quite unique too. However, they were still just policemen/soldiers keeping the world safe. (Ellis does write an awesome superhero parallel for wealth inequality in Planetary, by the way.)
Enter Mark Millar and Frank Quitely. They started with a really pertinent question, as the heroes embark on a no-nonsense humanitarian mission to dismantle North Korea, which was thinly disguised only due to editorial mandate:
If you’re politically aware, and read the news every day, its obvious that there’s a lot wrong with our world. The standard superhero creed of non-intervention in world affairs starts to fall apart and make little sense when you know their are death-camps, torture and human rights abuse happening on your doorstep. We’ve had this question answered in Squadron Supreme, and in Morrison’s JLA, and many other stories, and it’s always sounded a bit mealy-mouthed to be honest.
The run ends with the wedding of Midnighter and Apollo (gay Batman and Superman analogues), and team leader Jack Hawksmoor delivering an awesome monologue directly at the readers at how the traditional model of superheroics really doesn’t work. Is Batman more than a rich man who beats up mental patients and poor people, while using his contacts in the police to look the other way? Well, yes and no, but it’s certainly something you might want to address if you write the character now.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped subsequent writers from writing about costumed protectors of the status quo as before. Millar himself continues to write politically aware superhero fiction (such as MPH, which looks at social inequality through a superhero lens) but few have followed his lead into that territory.
There’s one obvious reason why writers don’t embrace the proactive superhero. Most superhero comics are indefinite ongoing series, which require a solid status quo as a backdrop. this backdrop is usually shared across titles. If the character sets out to change the world, then they either have to fail, or wreak havoc with all the other comics whose universe they share. This would be why most of the examples I’ve given have been limited series like Promethea, which always had an end in sight, and took place in a small continuity run by a single writer.
Another reason to not adopt a proactive approach is that you can drift into political territory too easily. Most of us want to change the world in some ways, but its not all in the same way. Unfortunately, even a simple agenda like protecting the environment can become politically charged. Even a vague notion like “bringing peace to Man’s world” has the power to upset people. Even now in 2014, feminist discussion of comics or games is all too often met with a grossly inappropriate and vitriolic response. You have to be careful to not turn your comic into a soapbox, as Grant Morrison found when he wrote Animal Man initially as an animal rights comic.
Depending on what you want to write, it may be best to play it safe and sidestep these issues. If you’re trying to do a character based buddy-comedy, it may not be appropriate to start addressing the superhero impact on climate change, for example. On the other hand, comedy can be an awesome vehicle for making serious points – just look at South Park.
So this gives me the first checklist point for creating a new superhero, or team.
What are you fighting for?
Even if you opt for the default answer of “protecting the world from evil” you may want to have a quick think about what exactly “evil” means. Is it street crime, or world dominion or destruction, or somewhere in between?
What bugs you, the writer, about our world, and can you talk about it somehow in your strip?
See you in seven, suffering Sapphites! Dr Mike 2000, 4 Oct 2014
A little postscript about he image at the top. That’s George Reeves as Superman and Robert Lowery as Batman, as they were portraying these two heroes on screen around the time Wonder Woman was created. Wonder Woman herself never appeared on screen until the 70’s with Lynda Carter’s famous TV series, so I Googled “1940’s actress” to find a suitable subject. I settled on Hedy Lamarr. She’s not a great choice in that she plays more “cruelly sophisticated” than Wonder Woman requires. What pushed it was the fact that she’s credited with having invented the basic principles behind Wi-Fi! This seemed strangely, if obliquely, relevant since William Marston Moulton, Wonder Woman’s creator, is one of the inventors of the polygraph lie detector! here’s to entertainment figures who invent stuff!
All three portraits were done on paper with real pens using a photograph as visual reference, like life drawing. I’m doing the Inktober challenge of one ink drawing per day for October, these three helped kick it off. You can follow my efforts on my Facebook page, or my Tumblr at drmike2000comics.tumblr.com