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Thread: Week 46- Superhero Levels

  1. StevenForbes Guest

    Week 46- Superhero Levels

    Welcome back to another Tuesday, and yet another installment of Bolts & Nuts.

    Let’s get right on into it.

    Last week, we talked about superheroes in general terms. This week, we’re going to get more specific with it.

    Superheroes come in a few basic flavors: street-level, world-class, and cosmic. It’s the rare character that can move between all three, and they never do so comfortably. It’s much easier, however, for a world-class character to go cosmic, and vice versa.

    There are reasons why universes such as Marvel/DC are so broad in spectrum: they’re trying to appeal to everyone, while also giving the appearance of being complete within themselves. Not a fan of Spidey as a character in his own book? Try him in New Avengers. Want to read a great run on a world-class/cosmic scale? Go read Grant Morrison’s JLA. It really doesn’t get much better than that.

    When you think about superheroes, specifically, about writing them, I want you to think about what you’re reading first. What you’re reading, what you’re enjoying, will give you insight as to what you’d probably end up writing.

    Let’s break it down a little bit.

    Superhero books come in two flavors: lone hero and team. Doesn’t get easier than that, does it?

    Lone hero books are just that, but not really. The focus will be on the hero, but the hero also has a supporting cast that needs to be created, also. No, I’m not going to talk about villains just now, in this context. The villain has to be there, of course, and there has to be a lot of them, so for our purposes, they have a basic slot to fill. As long as there is a hero, there will be a villain.

    So, the supporting cast. This cast doesn’t have to be pretty large, but it has to be there. And honestly, the larger the supporting cast is, the more chances you have for drama to unfold. The supporting cast can be other heroes [just be careful of turning it into a team book—see Invincible for a nice way to turn another hero into a supporting cast member and not into a team book], or it can be friends and family of the main hero, if not both.

    There are also the cast members that are there to be what I think of as “little villains.” Let’s go with Flash Thompson, Peter Parker’s friend. Well, they’re friends now, but when he first appeared, and for years afterwards, Eugene “Flash” Thompson was there simply to be a thorn in Peter’s side, with the added bonus of being one of Spidey’s biggest fans. (Eugene?) [Eugene. Yes, I’m a nerd. Thought you knew that already?] You also have people like J. Jonah Jameson that fill the role of the little villain. They’re there to prick and sting the lone hero without actually doing too much harm.

    Now, I’m a VERY big proponent of having the supporting cast be their own people, and not play the “damsel in distress” role. I don’t believe in having them be there only to need to be saved by the hero. That lessens their importance to the series, as well as cheapens you as a writer. You don’t want to be cheap. Not when you’re first starting out. I suggest letting the trials and tribulations of the supporting cast impact the hero from an angle. It will be more fun that way.

    Team books are a different creature altogether. Team books are actually ensemble books, because each character has to have a decent amount of face time. I think it would be best, especially just starting out, if each member of the team had a subplot of their own. That’s just my suggestion, and modern comics bears this out for me.

    I do NOT suggest having a team so big that it’s unwieldy. If you’re creating a team, have as many as you can comfortably handle. Personally, I would suggest no more than six—and that’s pushing it. Four or five is a nice number to start with, but if you really want to stretch it, go six. [Don’t be surprised if you find a lot of characters standing around doing nothing. If they’re standing around for too long doing nothing, then you really have no use for them, and I suggest cutting them from the team.]

    When you have a team book, you don’t need a large supporting cast. The teammates play the dual role of having a lot of face time, as well as being part of the supporting cast. Use them wisely.

    When we’re talking about the levels of your characters, be careful not to switch too often from one level to another. Let’s talk Spider-Man. (You like him a lot, don’t you? You use him as an example a lot.) [There’s a reason for that. Spidey’s popular, and most people read him. That makes him accessible to use as an example without a lot of explanation. How many of you still read Spawn? My point exactly.] Spider-Man is a street-level hero, through and through. When he’s part of the Avengers, he goes to being a world-class hero. Because they’re the Avengers, they can become cosmic heroes [but I’ve never really been comfortable with them in that role]. This means Spidey can move from the street to space, but space really isn’t where he belongs. He’s much better on the streets, and being a world-class hero.

    However, it takes something extraordinary to move Spidey from the street to a cosmic level when he’s by himself. There was the two-issues where he went toe to toe with Firelord and won, and there was the time when he had the Uni-Power and was Captain Universe for a little bit in order to beat the Tri-Sentinel that Loki set up. And then there are times when he’s had brushes with the Silver Surfer and –coughcoughMephistocough-, but these things aren’t run of the mill for him. Neither should they be for your street-level character.

    Your world-class heroes are your globetrotters. These are the heroes that can be anywhere in the world and kick all kinds of ass. Captain America, Iron Man, and the like. These are the characters that aren’t rooted to one place. They can be anywhere in the world for an adventure, and they won’t be out of their element. When you create these heroes, I’m going to urge you to get them away from anything familiar as “stomping grounds” as soon as possible. Sure, the Avengers have Avengers Tower [or wherever they’re housed now], but the very first adventure that the New Avengers had took them to the Savage Land. So, having a base of operations is fine, but get them out and about as soon as you can. The sooner, the better.

    Your cosmic heroes, of course, are most comfortable out in space. Heroes such as Nova, Quasar, the Silver Surfer—these are your very powerful, cosmic heroes that roam space and take care of extraterrestrial threats. (Nice of them.) [I know, right?] They take on the really big threats, usually by themselves, because they have the power to do it. These heroes aren’t that good anyplace else, and they tend to band together a lot. [Which is kind of funny, since space is pretty vast.]

    When dealing with cosmic characters, you’re also generally dealing with creating aliens. Right off the bat, when creating aliens, I want you to get away from making them humanoid. Your imagination is much more vast than that. There are more than enough humanoid aliens around. The aliens are either insectoid or some sort of humanoid: two arms, two legs, just different colors. Maybe made of rock or something. [A small aside: “hard” sci-fi writers will say that in order to use tools, thumbs are needed to grasp. This may or may not be true, especially when it comes to things such as telekinesis. Don’t let your man-centric prejudice and all of the movies, shows, and sci-fi books you’ve devoured shape your thoughts to what an alien “should” be. Stretch your imagination. Just make sure it looks like it will make sense when drawn.]

    I’ve said before that when you’re writing superheroes, generally, you’re writing science fiction. This means you have to be semi-intelligent. (Steven!) No, really. You have to be. Not only do you have to be semi-intelligent, but you also have to know something about fighting. Let’s take them one at a time.

    Let’s say you want to write Iron Man. This is a technologically based character, of course. This means you should have some affinity for technology [especially for today’s stories], because the readers are going to be expecting it you to know something of what you’re talking about. You can’t do Iron Man without having some sort of tech-talk. Not if you want to do the title justice.

    Let’s go even deeper. Let’s say you wan to write the Fantastic Four. Unless you’re taking Mr. Fantastic out of the picture, you have to be up on realistic sounding technobabble, as well as being able to make the simple sound exceedingly intelligent. I remember an issue where Reed tells Johnny to increase the sublimation rate of the liquid before such and such happens. This was during a fight. Johnny yells, “English!”, to which Reed replies, “Boil the water!” See what I’m talking about?

    Science fiction demands that you know something of real science and ways to fictionalize and stretch what you know. You have to extrapolate what you know into realms that haven’t yet been penetrated by science. As a science fiction writer, you HAVE to be what I call a junior scientist. If you’re writing superheroes, there’s no two ways about it. It cannot be done otherwise. [We’ll talk about magic next time.] Taking the magic users out of the equation [as well as the horror characters, if they’re magically based], how many characters are born with their powers, have had some sort of accident, is technologically based, or are aliens? All of them, right? These are things that can be [and usually are] explained as scientifically as possible. [And I’ll admit to liking the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe for “scientific” explanations of powers and breakdowns of equipment and such over DC’s Who’s Who. I don’t know if DC has come out with anything else resembling the Who’s Who after the first set. Their Secret Files and Origins left a lot to be desired.]

    The junior scientist is something that HAS to be part of your nature, as a superhero writer. It doesn’t matter which universe you’re playing in. You’re writing science fiction, so you have to read and study it in order to not sound like a blithering idiot when you go to write it. You can try to avoid it all you wish, but sooner or later, you’re going to come up against something that will be techy in nature. If you’re writing a character that’s a scientist… You see where this is going. Go study.

    Next week, we’ll talk about magic and horror. See you then!



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    I often talk with the many science teachers at my disposal...I KNEW teaching would be useful, somehow...to get ideas or figure out how something may or may not work.

    They get a kick out of the fact that most of the science terms I know, I only know because a hero or villain had that term as a name, and their powers were such that gave me an inkling as to waht the term meant in real life.

    Also, I find that some of the science textbooks and even science fact books that the kids can buy at school book fairs have been helpful. They have the information in a level designed for the novice, and I can use it easily enough.
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5



  3. StevenForbes Guest

    You're lucky, Seb. Having access to teachers is a great boon.

    Honestly, if you fancy yourself a writer of superheroes and you don't have something like a book of facts, an old textbook, a book of physics made simple, SOMETHING science-y, then you're not really a superhero writer. (The same can be said for horror writers: books on magic, vampires, hauntings, demons, what have you. If you don't have them on your shelf and haven't read them at least once, you're just faking the funk.)



  4. MartinBrandt Guest

    I should take a picture of my bookshelves some day for you guys. LOL

    Solid words again Forbes. I love reading your columns.



  5. Dungbeetle Guest

    Amusing and insightful again. Amen on the science point. I try to write what I know, but I also work in a school (a lowly minion) and find I'm picking stuff up all the time... writing about mind-warping technology etc. and then coincidentally attending behaviour management training where I was taught about the hormone cortisol, it's relationship to adrenaline, and it's function in memory repression... I probably couldn't ask for a better job. Knowing what you're writing about seems like an obvious must, and I'm constantly on journals etc. and challenging myself with characters from different backgrounds I initially know little about.

    I'd also suggest going up a level from what you want to write to really help you come at it from a different angle from everyone else. I'd (shame on me) never read Children of The Atom, and was told it was sort of the staple down-to-earth-mutants story, but when purchasing it I also bought Brave New World by Huxley to balance it out a bit.

    Since I started writing last Autumn I've probably read and learnt more than I had since I'd left school, haha.



  6. StevenForbes Guest

    Thanks, Were-Lock. I try not to be dry with the info I'm trying to provide. Most of this is no-brainer type of stuff, but some of it is articulating what you probably subconsciously realize. A lot of that has to come to the fore when writing, so that it becomes second nature so you don't have to think about it. At least, that's my goal.

    And Joe, I look at writing as a neverending learning process. I'm still learning and asking questions and trying to tell my stories in different ways. I think the learning will stop when I'm dead, because that's when I'll stop writing. (Notice, I said I think that's when it'll stop. I'm not too certain...)



  7. Sliverbane Guest

    Eh-hem Next week....magic, horror....FANTASY, YES?

    I hope so. I'm eager to get your perspective on fantasy comics.
    When dealing with cosmic characters, you’re also generally dealing with creating aliens. Right off the bat, when creating aliens, I want you to get away from making them humanoid. Your imagination is much more vast than that. There are more than enough humanoid aliens around. The aliens are either insectoid or some sort of humanoid: two arms, two legs, just different colors. Maybe made of rock or something. [A small aside: “hard” sci-fi writers will say that in order to use tools, thumbs are needed to grasp. This may or may not be true, especially when it comes to things such as telekinesis. Don’t let your man-centric prejudice and all of the movies, shows, and sci-fi books you’ve devoured shape your thoughts to what an alien “should” be. Stretch your imagination. Just make sure it looks like it will make sense when drawn.]
    Oh, yes this point is a favorite of mine. I yearn for more non-humanoid aliens and creatures. [I admit that I fall back on the humanoid form (two legs, two eyes, two arms...etc.) for my lead characters, but I make an concerted effort to dapple the Bestiary with strange non-humanoid people/cultures.

    Reminds me of some of the Green Lantern's I saw that were pretty odd and interesting body shapes.



  8. StevenForbes Guest

    Not really fantasy, per se. Still tackling superheroes. We'll be here for a while yet.



  9. CalvinCamp Guest

    Why is science any more important than any other aspect of a superhero story? Anything you don't know should be researched (police procedure, for instance - because your vigilante crimefighter is going to butt heads with the cops eventually). Science is no different, and no more important that I can see. And science may even be largely irrelevant to a given comic, unless the character or story are particularly science-oriented. In general, superhero comics (stretchy geniuses aside) don't really seem to sweat it all that much (and please don't try and tell me that a kid gaining superpowers because he was bitten by a radioactive spider has anything to do with science - 'cause I'll laugh in your face).

    I'd also like to point out that, these days, you don't really need any book on your shelf. You can research online. I had a story that required knowledge of astrogeology as it pertains to potentially habitable moons - I sure didn't have anything like that on my bookshelf, and neither did the library, so I researched it online (I even managed to find an actual astrogeologist to chat with and bounce some ideas off. Try that with an old text book).



  10. Join Date
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    Quote Originally Posted by madelf View Post
    Why is science any more important than any other aspect of a superhero story? Anything you don't know should be researched (police procedure, for instance - because your vigilante crimefighter is going to butt heads with the cops eventually). Science is no different, and no more important that I can see. And science may even be largely irrelevant to a given comic, unless the character or story are particularly science-oriented. In general, superhero comics (stretchy geniuses aside) don't really seem to sweat it all that much (and please don't try and tell me that a kid gaining superpowers because he was bitten by a radioactive spider has anything to do with science - 'cause I'll laugh in your face).

    I'd also like to point out that, these days, you don't really need any book on your shelf. You can research online. I had a story that required knowledge of astrogeology as it pertains to potentially habitable moons - I sure didn't have anything like that on my bookshelf, and neither did the library, so I researched it online (I even managed to find an actual astrogeologist to chat with and bounce some ideas off. Try that with an old text book).


    First off, you have a valid point; all research is important, not simply science. And yes, some stories will involve less science than others, I believe Forby's point was simply that Super Heroes are a sub-genre of Science Fiction, and should be treated as such.

    Now, as for you other arguments...

    I tell my students not to rely solely on internet research. You never know where some of it comes from. I could set up a few accounts, and tell you that I'm a astrogeologist. I'm not sure why someone would fake that, but weirder things happen online every day. ( I'm sure your guy was legit, I'm just making a point. ) So, having an actual verifiable, researched, textbook or other printed source ALONG WITH your internet sources is a plus. Also, as I said, textbooks are made o present the information to a layman. That makes it a little more accessible than a site set up by scientists for other scientists. ya know?

    As for the Spidey jab, while we all know radioactivity plus insect bites do not a super-hero make, it's still a good example. Look at at the various tweaks that origin has gone through through the years. Because we now know much more science than Stan Lee did, the origin has been altered to no longer include radioactivity being blasted away above an unshielded open room, accessible to the general public. because, thanks to our knowledge of science, we all laughed in the faces of the original version.
    Last edited by SebastianPiccione; Wednesday, June 24, 2009 at 02:48 AM.
    "Living Robert Venditti's Plan B!"

    CAT. 5



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