So You Want To/Write a Superhero Comic
I now call this meeting of the Terrifyingly, Villainous, and Truly Reviled Order of Persons Evil and Super to order! I'm sure you all know the reason we are here... The Allies of Order have bested us once again! But Fear not! I, Marcus Murderous, The leader of T,V,T.R.O.P.E.S., have formulated the most diabolical plan yet! We shall write Superhero stories ourselves, thereby gaining power over our hated foes, the Vanguard of Virtue!
In one way or another, we've enjoyed stories about superheroes for centuries; tales about men and women blessed with extraordinary powers and abilities using those gifts to champion the innocent and battle the forces of darkness have circulated throughout mythology and literature since ancient times. However, the idea of what we today think of as the superhero has its origins in the pulp magazines and comic strips of the 1930s, and its genesis with the 1938 debut of Superman, who over seventy years later remains in regular publication as a comic book as well as the subject of cartoons, films, television shows and more besides. Since then, armies of superheroes and supervillains have been created in the pages of comic books (where they dominate and practically define the medium) and on the big and small screens, and they show no sign of disappearing any time soon.
If you want to write a superhero comic book (or a superhero story for any medium), these pointers will show you what the common themes, advantages and pitfalls these characters present. Naturally, do check out Write a Story for advice and tropes that hold across genres as well. See also Be the Next Stan Lee for specific advice on how to follow in the footsteps of one of superhero comics' most noted figureheads.
- 1 Necessary Tropes
- 2 Choices, Choices
- 3 Pitfalls
- 4 Potential Subversions
- 5 Writers' Lounge
- 6 Departments
- 7 Extra Credit
Well, for superheroes, you generally need superpowers - although of course Batman got around without them. But then, some might say that his Crazy Prepared abilities and superhuman level of easily accessible monetary wealth are superpowers in and of themselves....
Superheroes also generally require the Secret Identity - a public superhero identity and a private civilian identity. This is not uniform, however, and there's many superheroes who only have one (and even for those who have both, sometimes it's the civilian identity that's the mask).
What sort of powers do you characters have? And where do these powers come from? Magic is certainly a possibility, but may turn away a good chunk of your audience for various reasons (religion, sci-fi leanings, etc.). X-Men managed to Hand Wave it as science, letting us get past the initial hurdle of why they had powers (let alone how the powers managed to work... I mean, genetic ability to control the wind??) and just move on to the storytelling.
And how many people have powers? If it's more than one, there's the question of whether they have the same powers, or similar ones, or wildly differing ones. Whether they have a common origin is another question; too many ways to produce a super may make your world seem randomm, but limits your scope.
Furthermore, are you going to deconstruct the genre a little - show what those powers would really be like? If you get hit with a fireball, does your body react like you've been actually set on fire, or does the story stick with over-the-top antics in which a fireball is a mere inconvenience? To what extent can characters get hurt, bloody, dirty - and how long does it take to heal from injury?
Do their powers have limited use (Mana) and the need to be recharged, or are they simply available whenever the character wants to use them? Or even unable to be turned off?
Your characters need to have personalities. They have to be people, instead of merely a reason to show off whatever powers you cook up for them. And they need to interact in a realistic way.
Also, everyone is sick of "teams" who fight each other more than they fight the enemy. Stop doing that.
When dealing with female super-characters specifically, many (particularly male) writers and artists also fall into the trap of granting super-women the Most Common Superpower, to at times absurd degrees; try and watch out for this. Superhero stories by their nature generally provide highly-idealised versions of both the male and female physique, to be fair, but there's no shortage of overly-busty superwomen out there, and showing a few different physique types (both male and female) couldn't hurt. Similarly, plenty of superheroes have costumes that could be best described as Stripperiffic -- consider the practicality of the costume as well as the character's appearance in it. Furthermore, don't you dare make female super-characters disposable such as killing them off merely to motivate the male characters; such characters deserve better than to be Stuffed Into the Fridge, and the fans won't stand for it.
The modern superhero universes (Marvel and DC especially) tend to suffer a lot of Continuity Snarls as a result of the long-lasting continuities of many different characters (most of whom were created by different people with different objectives in mind, but have been acquired as properties by a select group of owners over time) being forced together. Comic book fans tend to demand that continuity is kept straight and clear, so that's something to keep in mind. However, try to avoid Pandering to the Base too much; too much obsession with continuity and backwards-gazing can cause Continuity Lock Out and / or Continuity Porn if you're not careful, which tends to drive away new readers.
As discussed below, an increasing tendency has been to examine the Darker and Edgier aspects of the superhero mythos. Whilst it's a valid approach to take, do not make the mistake of assuming that it's automatically more interesting or original than the more traditional approach to the superhero; an entire period of superhero comics is called the Dark Age precisely because almost every superhero comic being published had to be Darker and Edgier, so a lot of it's been done before. And not necessarily that well; with superhero comics, it's quite easy when shooting for 'adult and mature' to end up in 'adolescent' instead. Violence, sex and cursing aren't automatically more grown-up or interesting than the alternatives, so keep this in mind. Also consider that some characters are more suited to being made darker than others; what works for Batman might not necessarily work for Superman.
Superpowers featured in comic books tend to be grand, idealized and desirable - super-strength, for instance, or flight. A possible subversion is to grant your character powers that, on the face of it, do not seem particularly useful, and then explore how they can nevertheless use them within superhero situations. Removing Required Secondary Powers also can add new spice to old cliched power sets -- imagine The Flash unable to slow down, or Superman actually having to follow the laws of physics.
Another subversion would be to focus on non-heroic characters. For example, a comic about the trials of a sidekick, or a Villain Protagonist -- the webcomic Narbonic did both (at the same time!) to great success. Changing the focus from Heroes to Heroes-in-Training, such as in the webfiction Whateley Academy and the webcomic PS238, is also an option. Or even a character who isn't a hero or a villain at all, but just happens to live in a world with them; how might the Innocent Bystander feel about living in a world of superheroes?
Comes Great Responsibility is one of the biggest themes of a lot of superhero works. Just having extraordinary powers is not enough, as there are many people who would use such powers for less-than-heroic things. What makes a superhero is the decision to use such powers to help other people, not for mere personal gain. One of the best ways to show this is to pit your hero not against a villain with powers opposite to those of the hero (though that villain can still be a valuable addition to the hero's Rogues Gallery), but against an Evil Counterpart -- a villain with the same powers as the hero, and who may have even had the same thing happen to him in his origin story, but who chooses to do all kinds of bad things with his powers.
All of the Other Reindeer is also a common theme in superhero stories, especially in modern works; many such stories tend to have the superhero regarded with suspicion, fear and even contempt by the populace at large - you may wish to explore the reasons why this might be (jealousy, inadequacy, fear, etc). A common set-up here is to have a Villain with Good Publicity/Hero with Bad Publicity dynamic, where the villain is popular and well-respected despite their (usually well-hidden) corruption, and the hero is treated with suspicion and fear despite their good works.
In recent years, it has become common to present a more cynical take on the superhero, reversing the traditional Comes Great Responsibility image of the hero to present the opposite; selfish, reckless, irresponsible and egotistical "heroes" who are only considered heroes because they are, on the surface at least, on the side of law and order. Alternatively, the hero might be just as well-meaning as the traditional hero, but despite their best efforts usually ends up doing more harm than good. They may also be presented as government, military or corporate stooges who aim only to keep a repressive status quo in place, and have no particular interest in whether the innocent live or die as long as their bosses continue to profit. Any of these can lead to a Beware the Superman situation where the world is actually worse, not better, for having superhumans around; the villains would be bad enough, but the heroes are in many cases just as bad. Keep in mind however that this theme, whilst initially a subversion of Comes Great Responsibility, has been used a lot since the mid-eighties (so much so that the proliferation of these types of stories in the mid-eighties and nineties was common enough to see that era named the Dark Age), and so isn't necessarily fresh or original by itself; a fresh spin on it couldn't hurt.
Lots of superheroes end up with power-based motifs: flames, ice, birds, plants, the sun, what have you. You can also have a motif to go with your theme... not that any examples come to mind. Get back to you on that.
You have the option to make the powers the basis of most of your plots, or even specifically The Plot, but it's better to include character-based plots as well. Still, it makes sense for your characters to grow into their powers or have to learn how to make their powers work. For a character with complicated powers, the story line can include not only character growth, but developments as the character learns new ways to use his or her powers. Even for a character with simple powers, like the Flying Brick, learning to use those powers carefully can take time and stories.
And the loss of powers is nearly always traumatic, dramatic, and everything you want to milk to the last drop. Don't overlook the potential for some good power-cancelling objects (or forces, or characters) in your universe.
The secret identity issue can be effectively used in a scenario where the hero is placed into a situation which would be easily solved were they in their superhero persona, but because they are currently in their civilian persona presents the challenge of ensuring that a satisfactory resolution to events can still be achieved without compromising their secret identity.
Also, a major asset to superhero fantasy is subgenre flexibility; most superhero characters can be put into any subgenre setting and make it work. This arose over the decades with writers, who needed to make the monthly deadlines, have put superheroes in a wide variety of fantasy/science fiction tropes so often that you'd expect them to work. For instance, name another fantasy genre that can shift settings and dramatic tones so completely from story to story that reader would accept. For instance, one publishing year period for the classic 1980s New Teen Titans comic book series by Marv Wolfman and George Perez had the team fight a supervillain's cult, then go off into outer space for a Space Opera story, and then return for a gritty, and relatively down to earth, Film Noir story about runaways, without having to justify the change.
Traditionally, superhero comics are set in the modern city. While this affords many classic possibilities, if you want to do something different, consider playing with the timeframe or the population density. How many superheroes are found in suburbia, or protect the wide fields surrounding a farming village? There have been a few superheroes spotted Twenty Minutes Into the Future as well as a few further out still, but rarely many modern-style superheroes in places inspired by times prior to the 20th Century.
Actually, the more powers you have, the less useful actual weapons become... depending of course on the type of powers the characters have. Why use a gun when you can shoot fire from your fingertips? In this regard, you get more leeway when dealing with stuff marketed at kids, because while a gun is "teaching kids imitable violence," fireballs are, well, not exactly something they can emulate.
Well, they're spandex. That's been done to death; so have tights and body suits. There's Civvie Spandex, for a mixture, or you might dump the body suit altogether. And there's always the Badass Longcoat.
One potential use for heroic costumes, beyond maintaining a separate identity, is the same as the reason that soldiers wear uniforms: to say "shoot me - and not that civilian over there". This may be a useful factor, depending on whether there's any sort of honor code among the villains, or even as a psychological game of sorts ("I'm shiny, I'm a bull's-eye, you'll shoot in my direction even if you don't care about harming civilians").
The costume could also be functional instead of just hiding one's identity and making them recognizable. The costume could be bulletproof, fireproof, or be resistant to any number of other things. A cape could also have these properties, ideal for protecting innocent civilians with it. Costume qualities really depend on the hero: dark and stealthy for the ninja-type prowler or ultra-resilient for the big brawler. If the costume is a suit of Powered Armor, there are a number of armaments and upgrades the character could get for it. The costume could also be a Clingy Costume, made up of anything from liquid metal to an alien symbiote; a Clingy Costume might also be useful if it protects others from the effects of the hero's powers. Civvie Spandex, especially a Coat, Hat, Mask deal, is ideal if the hero wants to be able to blend in a crowd, slipping away after removing anything identifying them as a superhero.
Regarding female superheroes especially, try and avoid making their costumes overly Stripperiffic; consider practicality as well as showing off the superperson's good looks and excellent physique.
This is where the superhero comics shine: big battles with Big Bads. Don't skimp on the punches, the kicks, the throws, the arm bars and whatever else you can think up. If you're going to include some martial arts more sophisticated than the punch in the face, at least do a little research into martial arts so you can make the fight look good.
You'll have to decide the amount of property damage, though, and whether it has an effect on the heroes once the battle is over.
Marvel and DC have spent decades doing a great job of holding our attention. Study them well.
In particular, the work of Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in the 1960s is widely credited for creating the ideas of superheroes (and villains) with more than one dimension, and for spearheading a lot of what we take for granted in modern superhero comics.
In the 1980s, the work of the great talents like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and John Byrne show how you can modernize the classic characters to make them feel like truly complete characters who are true to their times. Those ways are respectively, subtle tweaking (Swamp Thing), emphasis of a different tone (Batman), and wholesale revision (Superman).
Also study the X-Men movies, especially the second. They did a great job of porting to a new media. The Dark Knight is also extremely well-regarded for a very dark Film Noir take on the genre. In addition, the classic Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve will show you how much masterful sincere acting can contribute to the genre's dramatic power. Also, the The Avengers is now a stand out example of how to finely balance tone to have action, drama and humor in the genre while properly allotting screen time for each character so everyone gets to shine. Also, although it is not adapted from a comic book, The Incredibles is fantastic (what do you expect, it's Pixar?), and is a perfect example how to do a Silver Age style superhero story without being Campy.
Speaking of new media, the DCAU as a whole is an excellent job of transporting comic book characters into Western Animation while Avengers Earths Mightiest Heroes is the best example of how the Marvel characters get such treatment. In addition, Disney's Gargoyles, created by Greg Weisman, is a superb original creation that can show you how Shakespearean literature and medieval history can provide a wealth of material when use in conjunction with the conventions of the genre. Just remember to confine yourself to the first two seasons that were first-run syndication, avoid The Goliath Chronicles episodes and read Weisman's SLG comics that replaced them as canon.
For a great Deconstruction of the Superhero genre as a whole, there are none better than Watchmen, The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come. However, remember that their dark tone is balanced with a degree of sober intelligence and a mature sense of redemption or tragedy at the end. Without that deeper feel, any superficial emulation will feel like a despicable despoilment of characters who deserve better.
Much of the work of Rob Liefeld tends to be criticized as being representative of many of the faults of the Dark Age of Comics - poor art, ludicrously over-muscular and over-macho characters and dialogue, poor plotting and an overly-adolescent idea of 'maturity'. His work is often considered a good example of what to avoid.
Outside of comic books, the later movies in the original Superman and Batman movie franchises (particularly Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Batman and Robin) are generally looked upon dimly, being considered over-campy, poorly-plotted and written and generally of low quality.
You may also want to avoid Jeph Loeb's later work, particularly The Ultimates 3, unless you have an obsession with death and/or women being eaten. His earlier work, in particular those that involve Batman, Tim Sale or both, are safe for consumption, however.
Now, my minions! You have what you need, now go to the studios of DC and Marvel and take over the writing staff! Make Superman as weak as a baby! Make Batman afraid to leave his home! Force the X-Men to go back into hiding! Force Spider-Man to make a deal with Mephisto to undo everything that has been done since the Silver Age! (What do you mean, they already did that?)
Not so fast, Marcus Murderous!
Gasp! The Vanguard of Virtue! This... This Cannot Be!! T.V.T.R.O.P.E.S., Fight off the intruders!
(many bad puns and onomatopoeic sound effects later)
Curses, our plans have been foiled again! But you have not seen the last of Marcus Murderous! AHAHAHAHAHAHA! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!