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View Full Version : B&N Week 185: Why Do We Create Superhero Stories?


Steven Forbes
07-08-2014, 09:26 PM
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Weve got another Tuesday upon us, so its time for another Bolts & Nuts question!

Why do we create superhero stories?

In America, whenever someone thinks of comic books, they automatically think of superheroes, and those superheroes are usually Marvel/DC. Superman, Batman, and Spider-Man, and usually in that order. Recently, with technology finally being able to keep up with our imaginations, weve got Marvel and DC virtually waging war in theaters. Weve got other comic properties also on the screen, many of which most moviegoers dont realize the properties were comics first. [Men in Black, Hellboy, A History of Violence, The Mask, and much, much more.]

But why do we create superhero stories in particular? What is it about the superhero that appeals to us so much?

People much more scholarly than myself will say that superheroes are the modern myths, much in the vein of the adventures of Hercules/Heracles and Perseus. Superheroes, some say, were created to suffer, because their suffering was akin to our own suffering, but the suffering of the superhero was turned up to almost unimaginable levels. Their suffering had to match the power they wield.

Click here to read more. (http://www.comixtribe.com/2014/07/08/bn-week-185-why-do-we-create-superhero-stories/)

Co.Inkadink
07-08-2014, 10:31 PM
I don't want to do nothing but superhero stories. I may be in a very small minority but I feel there are things that we can do with superhero stories that have never been done before, However I don't think we can do them with the big 2 mainstream superheroes. I see them as the ultimate metaphor for all kinds of problems of the human condition. They have been used now to represent the world outside our window, creators trying to make them more and more like us. That isn't totally bad but the execution has been poor IMO. I don't want power fantasies or swimsuit issues. I want a psychological dissection of the human condition and problem solving. I think we can use them to teach and instruct and help people understand themselves better. I think a good writer could be a sort of counselor or mentor to the reader. Show a better way through the characters. I'm not saying all stories should be light happy fluffy either. Show how we overcome real problems through the characters, delve into the psyche and get some healing.
The superheroes problems would be on a huge scale and carry more of the metaphorical idea or allegory to life. I love stories like this. I get a lot out of good writing and learn things about myself from it. I've watched Mad Men through several times and I get life lessons from the characters every time. I don't think that is the intention but it's more on how not to act sometimes it is.

The world of the superhero can be hyper intense but very down to earth as well. Their struggles and limitations with powers and secret identities can mirror our own with the self image and masks we wear. We all are many people trying to fit in and be accepted and loved and understood and superheros can help to illustrate that inner struggle in a way that doesn't seem preachy or on the nose sometimes. I think when smart creators can do this and it's caught rather than taught we will have some fine stores. I still think the sky is the limit.

I like other stories than superheroes other genres but I always come back to them, I'll but a bad superhero comic sometimes before I'll buy a good indie book. That's a problem I suppose but it's ingrained in me.

tim1961
07-08-2014, 11:38 PM
...with bright colors and easily identifiable characteristics.

Personally I thought the Fantastic Four were brilliant, when you think about them they embody the four elements: Reed = water, Sue = Air, Johnny = fire, Ben = earth.

When the X-men came they superseded the FF with more members and more powers, but then there were too many vague energy-bolt type powers and a lot of weird personality crises. I think the X-men's premise is a bit implausible; anyone with a super power would be an immediate celebrity and loved by millions who want to get closer to them, not shunned and exiled.

And Superman is the best super hero ever. When you think about him, he's reversed; the secret identity is the 'normal' version, the Clark Kent. The non-secret version is Superman himself.

But I think comics can do more. Way more. Superhero stories are but a small tip of the iceberg. I sometimes cringe when I hear of a writer coming up with a decent story line but ruining it with slapping a super power on a character. It's as if (s)he feels obligated to squirt on the whipped cream on top in the form of a hot body in spandex.

To those who feel they need to add a superhero element to their story I have two words: Wonder Warthog.

-Tim

Alyssa
07-09-2014, 03:08 AM
I feel there are things that we can do with superhero stories that have never been done before, However I don't think we can do them with the big 2 mainstream superheroes.

I agree. I really don't read that many "mainstream superheroes" (aka the staples of DC and Marvel). Never really held a lot of my interest. It seems like they're trying desperately to make things new and interesting, but in that effort they're simply perpetuating the same old tripe. Since the 80's (well, as near as I can figure... someone correct me on that date if I'm wrong) Marvel and DC have figured that the way to revive the superhero genre is to make things darker and grittier. The superheroes become anti-superheroes. Repeat ad nauseum.

I mean, I'm all for a dark and gritty story with a brooding protagonist. Only if it's done well. If it's shoehorned into a framework that was never meant to support that kinda story? My interest is lost.

They try to modernise old superhero properties. More gore, more violent ends. More homosexuals, more black characters, more mental illness. It's like they're trying to tick all the boxes of modern society, but only at an utterly superficial level. They're not telling a story that rings true. Like a little girl clopping around in her mother's high heels, makeup smeared across her face. It's a parody, nothing of substance. I hate that.

BUT, people gobble up these superhero tales because we're reaching out for it, and this is the best we've got. Why are folk reaching out for superhero books? I've got my theories.


I think the X-men's premise is a bit implausible; anyone with a super power would be an immediate celebrity and loved by millions who want to get closer to them, not shunned and exiled.

There's a lot of things with X-men that I find implausible, but I'm not sure it's the shunning vs. celebrity that is the biggest problem.

I have a friend, ex-footy player. I swear I could fit inside one of his thighs. He's a monster of a man. But he's also one of the sweetest men I know. If he WASN'T? You bet I'd be scared of him.
An armed man tried to break into his house one night. My buddy had this ARMED man sit down on the grass, submissively quiet, until the cops arrived. My buddy didn't have to do anything but tower over this guy and tell him what was gonna happen. This same criminal attacked the arresting officers from inside the cop car, while he was being driven back to the station. He was confident enough to attack TWO armed police officers, but not gutsy enough to so much as run away from my unarmed friend.

Now take my buddy, and add claws that shoot out of his fists. Or give him the ability to shoot fire from his bare hands. You really think the general population would be swooning over him? Trouble-making radicals might worship him, but I'd say the general public would be way cautious. Add to their caution a good dose of anti-mutant propaganda? If society could be convinced that black people carried diseases like animals, and that Jews were trying to overtake the world, I don't think it's a far stretch that people would turn on mutants.


All this being said, if you haven't already, you NEED to read "Rising Stars" by J. Michael Straczynski. The way he showed society reacting to the mutant/superpowered people... one of the best books I've read.

(As a side note, the binding on the Compendium doesn't even come close to coping with the thickness of that collection. The story is worth every cent, the binding isn't. See if you can hunt down the trades).

I suppose another example would be in Watchmen. Look at how society treats Ozymandias. Then look at how they see Rorschach.

But I think comics can do more. Way more. Superhero stories are but a small tip of the iceberg. I sometimes cringe when I hear of a writer coming up with a decent story line but ruining it with slapping a super power on a character. It's as if (s)he feels obligated to squirt on the whipped cream on top in the form of a hot body in spandex.

Even the current SUPERHERO stories are the tip of the iceberg. Look at Chew. For all intents and purposes, Chew is about superpowered people. Looooooooooonnnnng way from being anything like DC and Marvel's offerings.

I'm currently working on a story that *technically* deals with superpowers. It's not a superhero story.

For starters, why do superpowers always have to be positive, or useful? Here's a quote from Rising Stars. Spoiler warning, but he was a super minor character (more or less only showing up in the convo I'm quoting below). Some bits removed.


Peter Dawson is... was... invulnerable.

Nothing could hurt him because nothing could get through the energy shield. He couldn't feel knives, or bullets, or broken glass or nails.

But he also couldn't feel warmth, or cold, or the touch of another person's hand. He was totally numb, from head to toe.

There's a surgical procedure for dealing with chronic pain that involves severing the spinal nerve that carries the pain impulse. But the nerve bundle also carries touch, sensation. Imagine going through life unable to feel anything. Ever. That's what life was like for Peter Dawson.
With one exception.

The process of salivation and chemical exchange at the molecular level during eating meant he could taste what he ate. Taste was the only sensation he could have. So he ate. He ate all the time.

[...]

In high school, he was practically drafted onto the football team. What more could anyone ask for than a linebacker who was invulnerable?

In theory, it sounds like having the rock of gibraltar on the scrimmage line. But that wasn't the reality.

The force didn't make him any faster, or any stronger... it just meant he couldn't be hurt when the other side rolled over him.

[...]

He took one temp job after another, always waiting for the big break that he was sure was bound to happen at any time. The closest he ever came was a commercial spot for an insurance company here in pederson.

[...]

He hired an agent, a manager, a publicist, companions for the night the commercial debuted... and waited for the job offers to come rolling in from Hollywood.
They didn't.

[...]

I'd very much like to know how he was murdered.

[...]

We spoke to his co-workers at the station. Apparently he'd been up since dawn, so he was exhausted when he went home. Fell asleep in his chair, watching TV.

If like you say, he couldn't feel anything, then he never felt the tape that went around his arms and legs, keeping him in the chair.

Or the plastic dry cleaning bag his killer slipped over his head.




Superpowers don't always have to be the deus ex machina that Marvel and DC have made them. Which I guess brings me more in line with Steven's above article.

I think stories, in essence, deal with two things:
> Our HOPES
> Our FEARS
Adding in the superbeing is simply a way to explore these hopes and fears at their extremes.

The Nephilim:
Giant, powerful men. They took women, lived abundant lives. They were gods on Earth. Isn't this what men, in general, aspire to? Power, riches, fame? But the Nephilim were also incredibly violent. The sons of fallen angels. Not only were they to be feared (the Nephilim were incredibly murderous), but they were also shunned by God. And ultimately, they were wiped out. That sounds fear-worthy, to me.

Hercules:
Son of Zeus, a mighty warrior, courageous, famous. But he also had to face countless trials and battles. While I'm not familiar with the intricacies of his "end", I think it was something about a jealous wife making a mistake that ultimately led to his ongoing excruciating pain- leading to Hercules essentially committing suicide by pyre so he could rejoin his father in heaven. There's hopes and fears in that sentence alone.


The more powerful the superhero, the more hope we put in him that he will never fail. After all, if HE fails, what chances do us mere humans have? This fear might be part of the reason why so much early entertainment had heroes win heroically, even if by deus ex machina (thinking of the old plays here). Our beloved heroes just COULDN'T lose.

And then we start to face our own mortality and weaknesses. The world becomes more unstable. Once the World Wars came, war was no longer glorious, a chance for young men to be part of invigorating legend. The world went skewif, there was no glory in war. Even the victors lost more than ever before, and the "heroes" came back to PTSD, broken families, a crumbled economy, and (in many cases) loathing.
People start to lose themselves to AIDS, mental illnesses, drugs. We have to start locking our houses up at night, and we have to supervise our children at all times.
Stories about Zombies are no longer stories of dull voodoo servants, but a reflection of our own disappearing humanity. Superheroes who always win the day ring false with us. Superheroes start to lose, they start to give up hope. A reflection of our fear, perhaps? That if SUPERmen can't win, then how on Earth can we expect to? Is mankind, in general, starting to give up? Has it become impossible to relate to a hero that is supposed to represent the best of humanity, if that hero isn't in some way broken?


I think superheroes (in one form or another) will always be with us, because it lets us examine the extremes of our hopes and fears. Analyse the hero, and I think you can get a good understanding of the society that accepted that hero.

crognus
07-10-2014, 02:55 PM
I'm not going to lie. Superheroes are one of my least favorite comic book subjects. I read comics when I was young and then stopped until junior year of highschool. Primarily because I wasn't aware there were comics outside of the Superhero genre. What got me back in, was my friend who introduced me to Y: The Last Man. Until then, I really hadn't thought of comics as just a medium of storytelling.

Even now my bookshelf is cluttered with DMZ, Walking Dead, Fables, Saga, Sweettooth, 100 Bullets, but hardly any superhero stuff. The exceptions are books that break the mold, such as Watchmen, Killing Joke, Red Son, etc.

Strangely, I do really like Superhero movies. I think directors have been willing to be way more experimental with Superhero's in movies, because they have less continuity to worry about. They are allowed to reboot more often and ignore other parts of the universe.

I'm interested in Superpowers, but superhero plots generally seem so contrived to me. Something happens, 21 pages later it's, for the most part, resolved. Even when they try to make things "darker" they don't make them more realistic.

If Unbreakable, that movie with Bruce Willis, was an ongoing comic story I think it would have been one of my favorite comics ever.

crognus
07-10-2014, 03:01 PM
The more powerful the superhero, the more hope we put in him that he will never fail. After all, if HE fails, what chances do us mere humans have? This fear might be part of the reason why so much early entertainment had heroes win heroically, even if by deus ex machina (thinking of the old plays here). Our beloved heroes just COULDN'T lose.

To be honest I think people are a little tired of seeing superheroes win. One of the reasons Batman is gaining far more popularity than Superman now (besides the Dark Knight Trilogy) is that he seems more human. People can relate to him. Superheroes who always win aren't relatable to me.

I like stories where superheroes either fail or have to give up something to succeed. For example, in the Christopher Reeve Superman where he had to break his promise to his father to not overly interfere (by rewinding time). Or at the beginning of Batman Beyond where Batman retires because he is forced to use a gain to overcome his opponents.

Steven Forbes
07-10-2014, 03:02 PM
So, you want superheroics to be more realistic, yes? Is that your contention?

crognus
07-10-2014, 03:57 PM
Or the new Superman: Man of Steel: Clark searches his whole life for answers about who he is. But when those answers threaten the world he grew up in, he has to give them up.

crognus
07-10-2014, 04:06 PM
So, you want superheroics to be more realistic, yes? Is that your contention?

Yes. It depends on the story though. I think if you make superheroes too realistic you point out how absurd the idea is. Having people run around in outfits punching bad guys doesn't really fix anything. For that reason, I don't think pre-existing characters have the luxury of becoming too realistic. I think Year One pushes realism nearly as far as you can go with Batman. If you try to push it much further, you risk pointing out that Batman is a ridiculous character.

Perhaps, it's not necessarily the characters themselves that I want to be more realistic. I just like stories challenge my current way of thinking. That alter the way I see the world. To illustrate this point let's bring up The Killing Joke. Alan Moore had this to say about his own work, "Ultimately, at the end of the day, The Killing Joke is a story about Batman and the Joker; it isn't about anything that you're ever going to encounter in real life, because Batman and the Joker are not like any human beings that have ever lived. So there's no important human information being imparted."

However, ideas that we can apply in reality, are completely possible within the superhero/science-fiction/fantasy genres. In fact, stepping outside of reality, can often give us more insight into reality. We become more willing to become more detached, and we can look in on the situation as an impartial outsider. For example, Farenheit 451, allowed Bradbury question certain aspects of the McCarthy Era and bypass the strong political predispositions of it's readers. Hell, even Scott Pilgrim, which is completely unrealistic, has great ideas to share about overcoming and accepting your past. They have something to say about the real world. Something we can take away in the end.

Fiction serves two purposes. The first is to entertain us. The second is to impart new ideas upon the viewer/reader. The best works do both. The reason why certain superhero stories will be remembered, while others will not, is because they achieved both.

I'm not so much against superheroes, more than I'm against how a lot of superhero comics have stagnated into the same story over and over again.

Steven Forbes
07-10-2014, 06:29 PM
You like deleting your replies.

(I can still see them, though.) ;)

crognus
07-10-2014, 07:25 PM
You like deleting your replies.

(I can still see them, though.) ;)

I often am writing my replies at work. I work in a call center, which means I have a couple minutes to type a response. I'll get typos, and sometimes the ideas aren't a properly fleshed out response. So I deleted and consolidated some of them. Haha.

crognus
07-10-2014, 07:38 PM
Jeez, are you against editing, Steven?

Newt
07-11-2014, 10:41 AM
The parallel between superhero stories and classical mythology is interesting as much for the differences as the similarities.

Superhero stories have a few basic dichotomies that are assumed: good vs. evil, fairness vs. unfairness, law and order vs. crime and anarchy; the strong vs. the weak. The hero represents one side, the villain the other. These are not necessarily the same motivations in mythological stories.

The battle between Achilles and Hector at Troy is one of the great mythological showdowns, but Achilles is not good and Hector is not evil; if anything Hector is, at least by modern standards, a better man; but he's on the wrong side, and he loses. Herakles does not perform his labors to improve the world; even his occasional deeds of seeming altruism are done for his personal glory or on a whim, rather than some overriding impulse to help others. Theseus is just a flat-out jerk, and Jason is worse. Odysseus' lying, manipulation, underhandedness, general untrustworthiness, and piratical habits are not "antihero" qualities, they are celebrated as part of his heroic nature.

The qualities those stories promote are things like honor, glory, and propriety; ethical considerations are far down the list. If anything, superheroes have more in common with medieval romances than with classical mythology. Superman would understand Arthur and Gawain far better than Herakles and Achilles.

The one comics hero who would fit in to the classical mythos: Conan.

Buckyrig
07-11-2014, 11:05 AM
Hmm...I remember reading somewhere that the guy who created Conan intended him as an example of a Nietzschean Ubermensch.

The more things change...

Newt
07-11-2014, 11:16 AM
I don't know about that. Howard was obsessed with historical decay. He spelled out in at least one Conan story that barbarism is the natural state of mankind, and that civilization is just a temporary phase. Conan was the perfect exemplar of the natural man - more Rousseau than Nietzsche.