Comic books love bringing people back to life, we can think of a person’s existence as the continuity of their memories, and the idea of a soul as carrying memories mean we have a way to say “this is really that person”.

As a writer, I have a few goals when I create worlds. One of those is to have a coherent framework that explains how things work in a logical, understandable way. Another is for a framework to lead to interesting and dramatically juicy outcomes.

Superheroic and comic-book stories are a kitchen sink. Gods, ghosts, and sorcerers work alongside high-tech heroes, mutants, and other people with unique powers. On the supernatural side, this often leads to the All Myths Are True trope. So when I need a framework for how all this works in the long-running Menagerie fiction I’ve worked on, what can I do that doesn’t contradict what’s come before, makes room for new stuff, and still lead to new interesting stories?

I have some constraints. First is that a main character of the Menagerie is a ghost, and some things have already been established about that character. Not much, but some. We had a Sorcerer Supreme stand-in, for example. He’s someone else’s IP so he’s been written out, but I still have to account for magic.

Let’s start with a really big lie that can power a bunch of what follows. There are more fundamental forces than electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak forces. There is what is called a “telepathic field”, the same way we talk about a “magnetic field”, and interactions between all of these fundamental forces are possible.

The Soul

Let’s start with some foundational human questions: what is the soul, and where do we go when we die?

“A key truth about the human mind is that it’s capable of apprehending its own mortality, but to do so would cause terror. We call this ‘mortality salience’. The specifics of terror management theory are debated, but the truth is still there: we can’t imagine our own ends.”

“The soul, on the other hand, is that which has already seen the end, in a sense. But as an artifact of mortality, our minds can’t perceive it any more than they can perceive the inevitable end of life. So while we have souls, and many people recognize intuitively that we do, our minds are strictly unable to experience having them.”

“The soul itself, meanwhile, serves as something like a lifeboat for memories. If the connectome of the brain is the DNA for making a person’s mind, the soul could be compared to the cell membrane. The soul becomes something like a psychic virus, able to inject its payload into a compatible host. In so doing, the mind lives again.”

The story this is taken from establishes a key metaphor: the soul is like a lifeboat for memories. When the ship of life flounders and sinks, the memories we created are saved, and taken elsewhere.


The Afterlife

“The soul is the residual imprint of a conscious mind. Its desires are like a ship’s sail, and the astral winds fill it and blow the soul to its desired destination. For some, that is this market or ones like it, where the gods and great powers offer them new destinations - for a price. For others, that is the Elysian fields, or other afterlives. Some souls dissolve, and their memories find new homes. And some remain in the world of the living, to trouble them with unfulfilled desires and impossible demands.”

The story this comes from introduced the concept of the “Orphean Market”, where souls would come to find a home, and gods would welcome them to various afterlives. Most souls would find their way to whatever afterlife the person believed in, but not everyone believes in something specific.

Later in the story, I also show that souls can enter compatible human bodies. For example, if you die and a clone is made of you, your soul will enter that clone. This makes logical sense in our framework - souls are ways of preserving memory, and they’d latch onto a body to hold that memory the same way an amoeba would hunt for food, or two compatible puzzle pieces would join together.

But this gives us a whole range of stories because it means an important character can live again, given the right body to re-inhabit. Comic books love bringing people back to life, we can think of a person’s existence as the continuity of their memories, and the idea of a soul as carrying memories mean we have a way to say “this is really that person”.

Because there are many afterlives, and many places for a soul to go, we have a specific scenario for drama to occur. You can bring someone back, but it may not be easy to find them.

Gods and Ghosts

Wait, gods? What’s a god, anyway?

A lot of superhero worlds are fine saying “every religion is true”, but not every religion can be objectively and empirically true. For example, if three different religions claim their gods created the Earth, they can’t all have done it unless there’s three Earths.

To establish this sort of pantheistic setting, I worked backwards. Gods are created when a critical mass of souls has assembled in one place, expecting the same afterlife. Gods start as a particular human soul, fueled by the psychic energy of the souls that gather around them. Another way to put this is that a god is powered by enough souls that believe in them.

So souls gravitate to underworld, form a collective, and a god emerges. Thus, all gods are the Deity of Mortal Creation trope, but gods begin as people.

So far, all of this gives me a really important foundation to work from when talking about metaphysics in this comic-book world: all this supernatural stuff really arises from ordinary human emotions and desires and experiences.

That’s critical to me, because that’s the same place good stories come from.

Wait, isn’t this just an example of another trope - Gods Need Prayer Badly? It’s not - a god’s power doesn’t come from the mortal devotees still in the living world, but from the worshippers who already crossed over.

This means that all kinds of ancient and forgotten deities can be found lurking in the afterlife. Among other things, this gave me one of my current villains, a member of the “Seven Wonders of the villain world”, who is the god of blizzards and battle for a long-extinct tribe of Neanderthals. They certainly have no active worshipers today, but they retain the power their tribe granted them.

There’s another scary option here, which is that anything with a soul can produce a god, not just human beings. Are dolphins sentient? How about octopi? Or aliens?

So far so good. So what is a ghost?

Ghosts can be summoned by magicians, or they can spontaneously appear. A ghost is a soul inhabiting a body-substitute crafted by magic. Another way to think of this: a ghost is a limited god, made up of only one soul.

What makes someone capable of amassing more souls and thus becoming a “true” god?

The laughter subsides. “You could say that souls have sockets, or attachment points, or spike proteins. Pick the metaphor you prefer. Some have only one. Imagine someone knowing they have a soulmate somewhere out there, and you get the idea. Places other souls can make a connection to you. You, Charlotte, and other people like you, have hundreds. Maybe thousands. Divine seedlings, waiting to sprout into new divinities with the right infusion of souls.”

“Right now, the Magus’ power is attached to those points. You’re the supernatural equivalent of a complex machine, when most people can only manage to be levers or pulleys or something simple. We’re stripping those old parts off, to build a new machine.”

Charlotte flares again, “A machine for Rook? No thank you.”

Devon’s voice is oddly placid, for all the intensity of energy surrounding her, and the emotions that she feels. “Very well. Do you prefer to think of yourself as a corporate god?”

Continuing the metaphor of souls as cells, I introduced the idea that souls naturally have different potentials for deep connection with each other. I chose not to explain how that potential is determined, or how it could be increased, but it’s essentially the midiclorian count of certain kinds of supernatural power level.

Because of our earliest conceit - that all this supernatural stuff is an expression of a fundamental force of the universe that interacts with others - we get stories like the one I just quoted, where a corrupt megacorporation wants to turn a ghost into the nucleus of a “corporate god”, and does so by building a huge machinery to forcefully graft souls onto her.


Magic is all of this god and soul stuff, but in reverse.

It’s taking that psychic potential of the mind and soul, and bridging it to other forces to achieve specific ends. Want to levitate something? Your mind couples the telepathic field to the gravitational or electromagnetic field, and something floats.

Sorcerers bargaining with demons or spirits for power? Their souls are joined by souls contributed by a god, or part of a spirit, or whatever. Ancient tomes, relics, and other paths to power? They’re literal paths - they put a magician in connection with something or someone in the underworld, or somewhere else in the cosmos, who might grant them power. The words and gestures and ritual requirements of a spell matter for the same reason precise legal wording is needed in contracts, and politeness is required when asking favors. Many invocations of magic are a form of communication.

Like the “corporate god” example, this opens the door to things like “technomagic”, where machines and gadgets can do things that look supernatural. There are many kinds of magic, just as there are many disciplines of science, and at bottom, what keeps magic from being understood by scientific inquiry is that magic is a process done by minds, and individual minds aren’t consistent, even with themselves.

Characters and Situations

What has all this led to in the actual fiction? Did all this work pay off? Let’s look at some products of this worldbuilding.

  • The superhero Equity aka Daph Palin (not my creation) was empowered by Palamedes, a demigod of vengeance. She has developed a (sometimes strained) working relationship with him.
  • Similarly, the villain Net Worth, aka Annette Worthington, is the high priest of Binarya the Cybergod, ruler of a digital realm.
  • Khyrrsz, the aforementioned Neanderthal tribal god of blizzard and battle, is a powerful villain with tremendous power.
  • Manny the Skull is the ghost of a pirate from the Age of Sail, now bound into his own preserved human skull. He acts as an advisor to Ghost Girl, using his life experiences and practical (if uncouth) wisdom in the modern world.
  • The Eigendrakes are an enigmatic force capable of destroying entire planets. They are memories in search of a home, bound together by a god’s soul, traveling across the cosmos and not caring what they plow through in their search.
  • One-shot villain Devon Crowninshield attempted to turn Ghost Girl into a corporate god by attaching loyal lackeys’ souls to hers, and overwhelming her own will and sanity in the process.
  • Mysterious entities in Albania and Iceland gave rise to the Maw and the Ghost Eater, both of which turned humans into undead for their own purposes.
  • The buccaneers of the beyond are pirates who sail the seas of the underworld, raiding gods’ afterlives for spare souls.