We talked about the heroes and the anti-heroes last week. This week we’re going to talk about the best of the best: the superheroes. Yay! Superheroes are usually found in comics and movies predominately. That doesn’t mean that they can’t be translated into works of fiction in words only.
As I am a lover of definitions, here is a definition of a superhero:
Superhero: a benevolent fictional character with superhuman powers.
It’s an easy enough definition to understand, but it packs a bunch of stuff in it as well. There are definitely differences between male and female superheroes and how they are portrayed (surprise surprise). There’s also a consideration on where to place your superheroes and what super powers they may possess. I’m going to start us off on a bit of history of superheroes and comic books and how they came to be.
Superheroes were born from comics and graphic novels. The first comic books can be dated back to 18th century Japan and in the 1830’s in Europe, but they didn’t really become popular until 1930’s and were mostly popular in the United States. The first comic book published in the United States was a collection of comics in a newspaper titled, Famous Funnies. The first superhero comic book was published in 1938 and debuted the rise of Superman from DC comics. It’s also important and interesting to point out that superhero comics were coming into being right as the Great Depression was ending and as Hitler was gaining power in Germany and that the breakout of World War II was imminent.
The Golden Age (1938-1950): The most popular comic books published during World War II featured Superman, Batman, Captain Marvel, Wonder Woman and Captain America. A lot of the rise of these characters had to do with finding hope in a hopeless situation. They represented people who could restore justice and peace to the world and put an end to the madness to the chaos overseas and at home. During this time a bunch of film serials were created featuring characters like Captain America and were made for children.
The Decline (1950-1955): After World War II comic book popularity did decline. Most of this was due in some part by the fall outs of the war and people returning back to a new equilibrium. The Seduction of an Innocent was published and garnered a lot of attention. Finally, the Senate Subcommittee was investigating and holding hearings on juvenile delinquency. Films and serials of comic book movies were discontinued for a time due to the turmoil and controversy surrounding comic books for a time. There were underground comic books that were featuring inappropriate materials and promoting violence.
The Silver Age (1956-1970): In the beginning of the 1950’s DC Comics started to revamp some of their comics, notably The Flash and Green Lantern, with a sci-fi focus to them. Marvel, of course, followed suit in the 1960’s and introduced new characters, such as, Iron Man, Spider-Man, Thor, The Fantastic Four, the Hulk and The X-Men. These new characters were more complex and had a higher potential for drama within their respective series. In the late 1960’s, superhero movies, mostly about Superman or Batman were being made and viewed for the general public.
The Bronze Age (1970-1985): Everyone became more political and dealt with social issues in their comics. Comic book titles became more sophisticated and character driven. The rise of the anti-hero in comic books was also rising. Some significant anti-hero comic titles would be: Wolverine or Ghost Rider. After the success of Star Wars, the first ever high budgeted Superman movie was produced in 1978 and was a huge success. There was then a wave of superhero movies, but The Fantastic Four and Captain America never did well or get released to the public during this time.
The Modern Age (1985-Present): Our superheroes got a lot darker – think The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns. Image comics started to make more of a name for themselves and let the individual artists retain right to their comics – individually owned over corporately owned (like Marvel or DC). The comic mini series Kingdom Come lead to the death of the anti-hero in comics. Comics reconstructed themselves to become more literary and artistically appealing with a healthy dose of idealism. Marvel Comics eventually bought out Malibu Comics and produced the movies Men in Black (1997) and Blade (1998) and made a killing on the movies. They were also the first comic book movies to ever win an Oscar. The 2000’s saw a lot of flops and some good commercial successes with superhero movies. By the 2010’s, they have them down pact and have turned out a number of successes. Marvel mostly dominates in the 2010’s while DC Comics did very well in the 2000’s.
Male vs Female Superheroes
Historically, superhero comics have been targeted towards men – mostly white men. Considering the time period when comics came out, this made sense. Your audience would be male, based on the roles men and women played in society at the time. However, this isn’t working in today’s society and, in fact, makes me a bit mad. It sucks, as a woman, to not see these amazing female superheroes and villains that can stand on their own two feet. I also like it when female superheroes do hit the big screen or the comic book shelves, that they’re not stereotypical and sexualized.
This is why when Wonder Woman was released earlier this summer, so many women were ecstatic over the outcome of the film. Yes, Wonder Woman was in a skimpy outfit, she does have to appeal to both men and women and have some sex appeal to be successful. The skimpy outfit wasn’t what was focused on though. The focus was more on her determination and how she used her body in an efficient and economical way. It’s the same things that happens to the male superheroes like Captain America or Thor or Superman. The emphasis isn’t in how tight his suit is, although there are some people who like to look at that, but on how they move and use their bodies in their fight against evil. The other thing that I loved about her was that she didn’t back down from her fight once Steve Trevor entered her life. She stands up for herself and does the saving of others no matter what anyone said to her. Again, we see this clearly with Captain America. He would not stop trying to join the army despite having a bunch of problems with his health and the fact that he wasn’t the biggest guy ever. He still carried out with his mission to join the army.
Now, I’m not saying that we should get rid of things that make women unique as superheroes and human beings, but it’s nice to see them acting and behaving in a powerful way. It doesn’t have to be in a masculine way. Catwoman is an interesting mix for a female anti-hero superhero. She does have the focus of getting what she wants and doing anything that she can to achieve that. She not only uses her wits and charms, but force and fighting skills to get what she wants done. I think we should also have more female directors involved with the making of the female superhero movies, as their perspective of things is going to appeal to a female audience more than a male director will. I remember watching Elektra (2005) when the movie came out. I was pretty young when I saw it and I thought she was an awesome character but something never sat right with me about that movie. Looking back on it, it had a lot to do about the framing of Jennifer Gardner while she moved. She moved pretty girly and in the action scenes there wasn’t a focus on her kicking butt. The focus was on her body, particularly her boobs. Again, there is nothing wrong with male directors and they’re great at what they do, but they don’t get what a woman is looking for from her female superhero.
One last thing I’d like to touch on is objectification and sexualization. It happens for both men and women in superhero movies and comics, but not to the same extent for men as for women. I’ll leave you with this Mic article to spell it out to you in simple terms with movie posters. If you want an interesting read I suggest you check out this article in ANA which is a journal that focuses on gender in new media and technology. The title of the article is “Gender Differences in Movie Superheroes’ Roles, Appearances, and Violence”.
Now with all of this said and done. There are changes being made to the roles superheroes play. There has been a slight increase in female superheroes. In fact, a couple years ago Marvel announced that they were planning on releasing a new Thor comic series that featured a woman as Thor. Comic book companies are also trying to diversify by creating new characters and re-branding other characters as other ethnic groups and they are adding in characters with different sexual orientations into their repertoire so they can appeal to a larger audience. However, they need help with making sure that this doesn’t get placed on the back burner. We as comic readers and movie watchers, as human beings even, should support these efforts whenever they are made. So that is buying and watching these efforts. It’s about keeping an open mind.
Writing a Great Superhero
So we’ve gone over the history of the superheroes and we’ve gone over some gender issues in superhero portrayal and representation in comics and film. Now we’re going to go over how to create an amazing superhero. We’re going to do this in two steps. Step one is going to be about the universe you set your superhero into and step two is all about your superhero themselves.
Your Superhero Universe:
- Think of your time period. Are you going to be setting this story in the past or does your superhero start in the past? (Think about Captain America being stuck in ice for about 90 years.) This going to affect a lot of plot elements, behavioral patterns and manners, customs, how they look at the world, etc. Do your research if you’re going to be placing it in the past. How about the future? What is that going to look like. Make sure you stay consistent in your future and have a solid idea of what it looks like.
- Where is your story taking place? Is it on Earth? In space? An alternate dimension? In someone’s head? Think of stories such as, Doctor Strange, Thor, Guardians of the Galaxy. Or is it taking place in a world much like ours, but the names of place have been changed. Do you have a fictional city where it is taking place?
- What is the reaction society has to superheroes? Knowing this helps you figure out your problems for your superhero and it can also help your hero out. If the society rejects your superhero, they will not only have to fight to gain popular opinion, but the villain as well. If they accept them then the superhero will have an easier time making a name for themselves.
- Is your world going to be superhero free to begin with? This one goes in hand with the suggestion above. If your superhero is the first of his or her kind, how is society going to react to them? Do they make crime worse and create a super villain from their actions?
Your Amazing Superhero
- Your superhero is only as good as his or her enemy. Your superhero is gifted with amazing powers of some kind. He needs someone to match this in either smarts or some sort of power to give him or her a challenge. If your superhero doesn’t have anything that makes them struggle then they’re not going to be that interesting and they’re not really a hero. Think of it like this: without the Joker we would have no Batman.
- Make sure they have some sort of weakness and a value that they stick to. For Captain America, it’s his unquestioning loyalty to his friends and his ideals that make him weak. He’ll die standing up for what he believes in, which is most definitely a virtue in his case and also a fault. He will never give up on what he believes even if it could mean the destruction of the Avengers or the world. His love and loyalty to his friend Bucky almost got him killed by Bucky.
- They have to have some sort of superpower that is beyond human capability. They are “super” because they are not like us mere mortals. They have that some thing extra that makes them awesome. Use your imagination here. They can be whatever you want them to be. They also don’t need to have just one superpower they have more than one if you’d like. If you’re having some problems thinking up a power for your superhero here’s a handy list from Wikipedia that outlines all of them.
- How does your superhero gain his or her powers? Do they get it from an industrial accident? From a traumatizing event? Are they born with it? Is it genetically modified? Are they born out of a science experiment? Is it something they grow into? Do they know about all their lives or find out suddenly? These are questions you need to decide for yourself. Your readers are definitely going to want to know this.
- Do they have an origin story? How did your hero become a hero? what were they like growing up? Knowing these details, whether you let your readers know them or not, will help make your character more grounded and help you figure out why they act the way though do or what their values are.
- Is your superhero human or not? This is going to affect how they are perceived by the rest of society. It can create a lot of internal struggle and esteem issues for a character that is a superhuman being and is not like anyone else. Especially if they’re an alien from another planet or they are human in an alien world. This could also give them some amazing benefits. If they were half eagle and human, they could pick up abilities that the eagle has along with whatever superhero power they get from their “human” side.
- Give them a sidekick, best friend, lover or beloved family member. They need someone or multiple someone’s so your character has someone to confide in. This person helps them get through the tough times and will believe in them no matter what. They can be funny or serious, but they need to be there to ground your superhero and to give them faith in their vocation.
Those are the main points that you need to consider when writing your awesome superhero and their universe. A lot of the other personality points that I’ve discussed in previous posts are still relevant here. You’re going to want them to be interesting and dynamic, but most of all you want your readers to relate to them. They are these extraordinary beings and we do need them to come down to the ground in some way or the readers won’t buy into your story.
If you get everything right you should have a character that both men and women will argue about like this:
Until next week.