Who is worthy of the mask? Effective Superhero Creation
Superhero creation can be a tricky business. Superheroes as we have come to know them have existed since 1938, when Superman was created; that is over seventy years of history which can be extremely intimidating to new writers. In that time there have been so many stories, origins, costumes, powers, continuities and even deconstructions of the genre. It can seem nigh impossible to create a hero that stands out among the hundreds of characters, many of whom have had decades to be developed and embedded in popular culture. It can be especially intimidating today because of the exposure superheroes have received from hitting the Mainstream due to the surge of successful superhero films in recent years. After all, anyone who creates a super soldier may be accused of “ripping off” Captain America. How then can one create a superhero with his own identity; how does one make a single tree visible in a forest? There are a few tricks.
The first issue to address is the matter of the origin story. How did a regular, or not so regular in some cases, human being gain the powers or the drive to become a vigilante? It can be very tempting to just throw him into a random situation that gives him powers for no reason. The origin should ideally be connected to who the character is as a person. An example would be Spider-Man. Peter Parker is very gifted in science. It is his passion, which is why he went to the science exhibit where the radioactive spider bit him and gave him his powers. While people like Flash Thompson would have been playing football or cruising around, Peter Parker chose to go to the exhibit, much to the mockery of his peers. It makes it far more thematic then if he had been struck by a radioactive meteor just walking down the street; his character drove him to be in the right place. Obviously, there is an element of chance as the spider could have bit anyone nearby, but that is something that the reader must simply accept. The point is to make it as believable as possible; this is still a type of world where men and women in spandex beat on criminals after all.
The second issue to address is the actual powers themselves. Superhero stories are fun, so there should be powers that allow for daring rescues and amazing battles. However, in order for a hero to truly stand out, there should be a power that makes him interesting as well as exciting. One idea would be to give the hero a power that allows him a different way of perceiving the world. An example would be Daredevil. He is blind which already differentiates him from most of society, but his super radar sense gives him a unique view of the world. He sees, or rather perceives, the world in a fundamentally different way. The picture below is an artistic representation of Daredevil’s super sense. He can hone in on a single voice in a crowd, hear the cocking of a gun from a great distance, and even sense a person’s heartbeat to detect lies. Daredevil’s abilities allow for exciting action, but also allows for interesting art work and presents a type of being that people can only imagine.
There is then the matter of the struggle, which is arguably the most important aspect of a superhero. It is why readers are compelled to buy the hero’s book for months or even years. The hero needs an opponent that can challenge him. The Flash has Captain Cold, whose freeze ray slows chemical reactions which is the source of the Flash’s power. The Flash has to think of a way to defeat Cold without just charging with his fists swinging. The web series The Quest, featured on comicbooked.com, shows the struggle of the Crimson Blur. The Blur’s archenemy Diesel has rock hard skin to counter the Blur’s super speed. The fight in episode four of the second season shows Diesel’s skin become too troublesome for Blur to deal with, so he needed both a special weapon and the help of an ally to defeat him. Compelling stories are told when the unstoppable force meets the immovable object.
The external struggle is the obvious choice, but the internal struggle can be just as, if not more, effective. Batman, for example, has to struggle with the darkness inside of him to prevent from becoming just like the criminals he battles. Spider-Man struggles with balancing his normal life and superhero life, the latter often ruining the former. The strongest example of internal struggle belongs to The Man of Steel himself. Superman is so powerful that there is almost no one who can touch him. He can move planets, and even incinerated moons just by looking at them if the conditions are right. So, what could possibly be the conflict here? What happens if superman loses his temper? He can be as much of a danger to his friends as well as his enemies. It is also very tempting for him to see himself as a God, which he has struggled with before. The Man of Steel says it best himself.
The final things to consider are the costume and the symbol that the hero wears. This epitomizes everything for which the hero stands. The costume should make sense and the symbol should be memorable. When someone sees the red “S” they know exactly who it represents and more importantly what it represents. It is a safe bet that the crest makes everyone feel safe, except of course for the bad guys. The costume should be as sensible as possible, after all this is still a genre of tight colorful spandex. The character Magog from Kingdom Come was intended to epitomize what not to do when creating a superhero costume; his costume was everything bad about the 1990’s antihero. He can fire energy from his staff and has enhanced toughness, so his costume does not make a lot of sense. He wears armor in haphazard pieces not really intended to cover anything and he has unnecessary pouches everywhere for gadgets that he never displays and does not even need.
This can be contrasted with Batman’s costume. The Dark Knight uses stealth and intimidation as his main weapons, so his costume has dark colors that allow him to blend in with the darkness and the frightening visage of a bat which is a creature of the night associated with fear. The costume also opens a window into his psyche as he was terrified of bats as a child, but has turned that fear into a weapon to use for good. The costume shows his strategy, obsession, and ability to over come adversity and use the darkness to his advantage. When the readers see that bat symbol on his chest, they know that someone has done something wrong, and that someone is going to pay for it.
The process of creating a successful superhero is the same as creating any sort of successful fictional character. The most important ingredients are creativity and passion; if the writer does not care, why would the reader? Telling a heartfelt and compelling story are truly what will make a hero stand out, old or new. Though the decades of history can be intimidating, and though it seems like just about every concept of superhero has been created, that does not mean that the ability to be compelling has disappeared. Everything is based off of something else, but uniqueness can be found in passionate and creative execution.