[box]Surprise! Just in time for All Saints Day, Firsts in Fiction Podcast brings you the flip side of the villains coin. Nathan Bodell and Aaron Gansky talk heroes: what makes them great, what makes them last. Sadly, Steve wasn’t able to join us for this special bonus cast, so you’re stuck with Nathan and I as we get our nerd on and take examples from some of the all-time greatest comic book heroes. You can listen below, or download the file here. Enjoy!
A good hero is relatable. Back in the day, heroes were nearly gods. They had nearly infinite power and ultimate control over their environments. But Stan Lee changed that when he created his heroes for Marvel Comics. His characters, while powerful, were real people with real problems. Spider-Man’s selfishness cost him his favorite Uncle. As a teenager, he still had to attend classes and make the grade. Once he graduated, he had to find a way to support himself. He couldn’t fly off to the Fortress of Solitude and live there. He needed a place to sleep, a place to heal. These struggles allowed readers to better relate to the characters.
And as much as we love Superman because of his wholesomeness, he’s too powerful. Because he’s so over-powered, writers have to come up with some contrived story-lines and stretch to create conflict. You can only go back to the Kryptonite well so many times before it looses any appeal. In the interest of creating conflict, the writers had to develop a character as powerful as Superman–entire Doomsday.
Superman’s relatability comes through in his alter ego Clark Kent, a bumbling, clumsy reporter who’s such a nerd he can’t get the girl of his dreams, despite working closely with her. He also has Ma and Pa Kent to worry about. That family dynamic is at the heart of the new movie, which explores his relationship with his father and how that led him to become the hero that he does. It also explores the darkness in the hero, the struggle he has to overcome in order to keep that darkness in check, and how he is forced to protect a people that has rejected him.
When creating a hero (for comic books or a story that has elements/sci-fi elements), developing a power set is very important. The powers must be limited in some way to create a sense of balance between the hero and the villain. In the same way, in literature, our characters should have strengths and limitations. Our heroes will utilize their attributes in such a way that will increase their strengths and minimize their weaknesses. For example, Batman is only human. His strengths lay in his intelligence, wealth, and physical conditioning and fighting skills. He uses these to outwit the criminally insane who, often, have their own supernatural powers. Iron Man falls into this category as well. No super-powers, only super-smarts and super-dollars.
Some heroes benefit from a darker character make-up. Batman, while committed to protecting innocence and preserving all life, his villains push him to the edge every time, and the reader wonders how strong Batman’s convictions are. He’s vowed never to kill, but he’s come close several times, and often, while bringing a criminal down, he does quite a bit of damage.
Consistency of character is important as well. We all like to see characters change, but they should have an internal moral compass that guides them. These deep convictions should remain the guiding force of our heroes. These are the characters that captured America’s attention for decades. If they were to change suddenly, we’d be worried about who they will become. We understand they can grow, but the internal make-up of the character, their values and principles, should not change.
Another common trait of heroes is a balance of power. Their should be a cost for their powers. Usually, we see this in the duality of the character. Superman is nearly all-powerful, but his alter-ego is a low-confidence nerd who can’t win the girl. Spider-Man can crawl on walls and shoot webs, but his personal life is a mess. One of my all-time favorite comic book heroes is Spawn, a bit of an anti-hero. After selling his soul to the devil to come back from the dead, Spawn can use his powers to do just about anything he wants, but there’s a catch: he’s got a limited amount. The more power he uses, the closer he gets to going back to hell. That ticking clock serves as a constant reminder of the central tension and conflict of the series, regardless of what happens in an individual issue.
Good stories will take our best loved heroes and push them in ways they haven’t been pushed before. It will test the character of their make-up, and even have them question their moral compass. Marvel has taken this to heart when they ran two major series cross-overs that featured conflicts, not between heroes and villains, but heroes and heroes. This type of conflict is unique, and features ripples that run through the universe of the heroes. It’s like watching history unfold. This can be seen in the “A Death in the Family” series for Batman. This series features the death of Robin–Batman’s closest friend. The affects of this series still have ripples in the DC universe.
A good series will also explore the psyches of our characters, and their interpersonal relationships. As Nathan says, it introduces the human element to a meta-human world. Because, at the heart of comics, though the reader is attracted to supernatural meat-human elements, we’re more interested to see how our humanity works in a world with supernatural and meta-human elements.
Good characters and good series work together and eventually develop into good titles. These epic titles end up running for decades, even generations. And while it’s hard to predict which titles will become favorites and last for so long, there seems to be a few common elements.
The first commonality is an adaptability to our culture. Superman began fighting crime, but when the war came around, he fought Nazi’s. After the war, his attentions turned more toward Lois Lane. Why? Because these were the things our nation feared and hoped for. One of the greatest comics I’ve read was an Amazing Spider-Man about the aftermath of 9/11. It rolled everything into one issue: the humanity in a meta-human world, the feeling that, despite their powers, heroes are still human. Culturally, America was grieving, and for the first time in a long time, we put aside our political differences and became united through our mutual fear and lust for justice. In the issue, Spider-Man works with Doctor Doom and Magneto to sort through the rubble and look for survivors. Our imagined heroes worked with our real heroes: fire-fighters and policemen. For once, we stopped fearing our government, stopped distrusting each other, and worked together to accomplish a goal.
Now, in a post 9/11 world, we feel divided again, and much of the comic stories revolve around domestic terrorism, government injustices, conspiracy theories, technology-gone-wrong, etc.