(The first part of this series can be found here: The Alternative Superhero: Part 1 – Changing the World)

What would superheroes be like in the real world?

The classic superhero lives in a fantastical consequence-free world. Writers have often tried to add more realism to this world in an attempt to tell fresher and more engaging stories.

The first big injection of realism occurred with the Marvel explosion in 1963. Spiderman, the poster-boy for this, not only had to beat up the Rhino and Doc Octopus, he also had to figure out where next week’s rent was coming from, and how to finish his term paper. The new elements here were social realism and more realistic characters. Previously, superheroes had typically been aspirational figures, the kind of person that the young boy reader would hope to become. Astronauts, police officers, wealthy playboys, scientists, with relatively stable lifes, often with an attractive wife or girlfriend in a stable relationship. Spiderman turned this on its head by making the hero a relatable figure, whose life would not be that dissimilar from the readers. He had money worries, trouble juggling his school life with crimefighting, and was certainly not a smooth ladies man by any stretch of the imagination, even in his superpowered alter-ego.

Unlike Wonder Woman’s political activism discussed in the previous blog, this psychological realism was easy for subsequent writers to pick up and run with. Stan Lee’s other creations of the time had a laundry list of realistic problems – Iron Man’s alcoholism, Matt Murdock’s blindness and struggle to maintain work/crimefighting balance, the X-Men’s racism analogy with mutant-phobia. Even Thor had a bad leg as Dr. Donald Blake. Unsurprisingly, these flawed characters were a huge hit with readers, and are now dominating our movie screens today, over 50 years later.

Realism comes in many forms.

Denny O’Neill and Neal Adams introduced some socio-political realism into comics in the 1970s, most famously with the Green Lantern/Green Arrow stories that tackled racism and drug abuse, and other hot topics of the day. These stories examined how a superhero would react when confronted with real world problems that can’t juts be punched in the face and dragged off to jail. In 1985, Alan Moore took this much further with Watchmen, looking at the political implications of the existence of a single superhuman, and how this would change world history, and the face of the Cold War, and so on. Both Watchmen and Frank Miller’s Dark Knight Returns also broke new territory in trying to realistically depict what kind of person
would become a costumed crimefighter, both plumbing the depths of violent obsession, psychosis and sexual perversion.

Any axis can be traversed in two directions.

Watchmen and Dark Knight together were an unfortunate accident, or a simultaneous response to the zeitgeist, in that both explored the same corner of the superhero genre – the obsessive non-powered vigilante. They provoked a wave of imitators, who possibly assumed that they were great because of their subject matter rather than the fact they were both just great comics with good writing and art. Fortunately, it wasn’t long before a backlash occurred with a wave of comics that took superheroes into far less realistic territory.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman told the wistful surreal story of the embodiment of dream and his family, and acted as a massive gateway to comics for many readers who wouldn’t have touched the testerone-soaked vigilante realism spawned by Watchmen and Dark Knight. Grant Morrison’s Doom Patrol took a group of damaged world-weary superheroes and dialled the surrealism up to 11, as they fought fictional cities that have boosted themselves into the real world, supervillain teams based on nihilist art movements and all the other threats that the JLA were too straight to handle. Pete Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man embraced political realism, and had incredibly well-rounded characters, but did so through the psychedelic lens of an alien with a reality altering “Madness Vest” exploring the “Mental States of America”. This sort of exploration became the basis for DC’s Vertigo imprint.

Other writers have added their own brand of realism since then. Warren Ellis’ superhero work like Stormwatch and The Authority often strives for greater scientific realism, or at least a more respectable sounding brand of pseudoscience. Mark Millar’s Kick Ass was a return to the original question – what would a superhero be like in the real world?

I’ve tried to assemble a diagram below of the relative realism of some different superheroes. On the horizontal plane, we have axes for psychological realism (how realisitc is the charcater’s internal reactions to being a superhero?) and socio-political realism (how realistically does the writer portray their impact on the world?). There’s a vertical axis for scientific realism, with the characters colour-coded blue for realistic, red for less realistic in terms of how the science of their special abilities work.

In the red corner, we have CaptainMarvel/Shazam, who deliberately embraces a joyful lack of realism. He loves being a superhero, punches bad guys in the face, and got his powers from a magic wizard. The Powerpuff Girls live in a similarly care-free world, but introduce three simple psychological archetypes for viewers to identify with and for the writers to play off each other, and have a little bit more scientific plausibility. The Rocketeer is hardly any more complex, but has much greater scientific accuracy being just a guy with a jetpack. In the blue corner, Watchmen delved into the warts-and-all psychology of why anyone would put on a costume and fight crime, thought long and hard about how the government would deal with masked vigilantes and genuine superhumans, and fully explored the science behind its one superhuman. Not only were Doc Manhattan’s powers couched in some solid modern physics, but the wider implications of his powers were tackled, such as the ready availability of lithium for batteries.

Judge Dredd on the left is a politically satirical character with a deliberately one-dimensional personality. The Maxx on the right represents a strip concentrating much more on the character’s internal lives and psychology than the outside world.

This graph is by no means comprehensive. You could come up with other axes of realism quite easily. A single character is often more of a smear than a well defined point – Christopher Nolan’s Batman occupies quite a different space from Tim Burton’s, or Grant Morrison’s, or Frank Miller’s or Adam West’s.

The main point to take away is that there is lots of room in this phase space for different ideas, and that none of these axes range from good to bad in terms of quality.

Where does Universe Gun sit? Its distinctly average in many ways. The characters have the usual X-Men level of traits, motivations, and personal baggage, with perhaps a bit of a nudge towards realism in that I do not equate having superpowers with wanting to fight all the time. The socio-political side is explored a fair bit, with the criminalisation of superpowers, and analogies to real world wealth inequality, but it isn’t a primarily political strip. With the science, I delve into nanotechnology and strong AI, and try to leverage my physics background to make this sound convincing, but fall back on the magic element of orgone when I need to.

Average scores shouldn’t be seen as a sign of failure, as long as you can explain why. Many of these axes could be subdivided into more specific sets of constraints.

I’ll conclude this series soon with a look at how superheroes can co-opt other genres.

See you soon, subdividers of psychological, scientific and socio-political super-sluggers! Dr Mike 2000, 17 May 2015