I started a tweet with these words: “I’ll never be off superheroes in some form”. And it’s true!
I’ll talk about why, and what “superheroes” means to me, starting with this reply.
“these days I prefer the tokusatsu attitude and approach more than the long-running USA comic hero franchise because I feel like there’s just more JOY in it”
I absolutely agree with this sentiment, and I want to expand on it. So what are we talking about?
Superheroes vs. Comics, Adults vs. Children
To me, “the superhero genre” means a world in which people with diverse powers, origins, and mythologies interact with similar people. Wizards, aliens, genetic mutants, super-inventors, and any other kind of outlandish character can fit. In other words, it’s a genre of inclusiveness.
“The superhero genre” isn’t “anything in a comic book” and vice versa. But because comic books developed the medium, superheroes are often targeted at kids because comic books were.
So as an adult, what’s my basis for talking about the genre?
The easy version is “fuck you I like what I please”, and anyone else asked the same question should give the same answer.
Okay, why do I like it?
The genre gives me freedom to mash together characters and situations I dream up, no matter what. The reader’s suspension of disbelief has been established by the decades of precedent that superhero comics created.
Beyond that, I like these stories because they remind me that whoever you are, whatever power you have, it’s not only okay to be a good person, it’s expected.
A visual essay, reposted here, is worth reading for its summary of the appeal: “The best thing we can do with power is give it away”.
The buffet, and what’s on my plate
Buffets are great. You show up hungry, pay for a plate, pick only the foods you want, and eat. By its nature, the superhero genre is a buffet of options, no matter what kind of tone you like. Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, Kurt Busiek’s Astro City, and Moon Girl and Devil Dinosaur are all on the menu.
So what do I enjoy picking, what do I leave alone, and most interestingly, why?
American comic books
I actually don’t like a lot of mainstream superhero comic books, which might sound surprising. They’re what’s propping up my beloved superhero genre in American pop culture, right?
Something mainstream books do very badly is develop a long-term story. Villains with Joker Immunity keep coming back because they drive sales, but you’ve got to twist your story into knots to keep justifying it. Elsewhere, another JoQuer at Marvel decided Spider-Man should lose his marriage in One More Day. There are many, many examples of other creators putting their personal preferences ahead of reader interest or sensible storytelling.
If the status quo won’t change, and this week’s shocking swerve makes no sense, what’s the drama for? What’s the point of hard choices and character development if the status quo will be maintained no matter what?
Manga, manhwa, anime, etc.
There’s many other takes on the superhero concept. Works like My Hero Academia will develop their characters, and drive toward an end point for the stories - or at least not trap those characters in an endless status quo.
The genre of Tokusatsu as a whole could be called superhero. Individual Super Sentai shows follow a theme, e.g. Trains, Ninjas, Dinosaurs, or Wizards, but will then do a crossover movie with the successor series. Kamen Rider Decade pulled its previous shows into a single continuity via a parallel-worlds concept. Similarly, they will develop characters, tell stories to their conclusion, then move onto something connected but new.
Bellisario’s Maxim was said by the producer of “Quantum Leap”, when asked about the show. His response was, “don’t examine this too closely”.
As an audience member and creator, I personally want to examine things too closely. For me, a work holds up best when its internals make sense, and when the established facts of the story drive drama.
I could appeal to fiction for an example, but instead I’ll talk about the real space mission, Apollo 13. There’s an explosion on the ship en route to the moon. The astronauts are losing power. They make the choice to return home, but must solve problems like a buildup of CO2 in their atmosphere, which is impairing their ability to function. Thanks to some stellar feats of engineering and the professionalism of the crew (both in space and on the ground), everyone lives. But the facts dictated the drama of the situation.
“Doc” Smith was a writer of space opera. His stories regularly take his world’s established facts - like how faster-than-light travel works - and extrapolate military strategy from that. His ideas for organizing large fleets were adopted by the actual Navy.
But wait - isn’t the appeal of superheroes that you can bring in all these wild powers and origin stories?
Sure. But to me as a creator, it is fun to rationalize how all of this stuff could work together. I enjoy the challenge of making the tropes of the genre not only plausible, but necessary. There’s this thing, so of course human beings would have superpowers, and because human psychology works a certain way, and because of this or that, of course there’d be heroes and villains. And so on.
As a member of the audience, it’s easier for me to believe your story when you’ve set down the rules you’ll follow, and then follow them. Mystery stories have a concept like this, the “fair play whodunnit”, where the alert reader can solve the mystery ahead of the fictional detective based on the clues placed in the text. If you tell me how your world works, I get to follow along, and if I anticipate a plot development that stemmed from what you told me earlier, I feel good.
The ideal superhero world
So what does my ideal superhero world look like? Well, I’m writing it, so I have an answer to that now. But I can sum up from the points above:
- it celebrates service, collective effort, and inclusion
- it puts character development and story first, letting things change
- it’s consistent and authentic, but not exclusionary, in what’s possible
Give me superhero fiction - or really, any fiction - like this, and I’ll happily load my plate down with all of it.