I've been thinking about this for quite some time. I may be completely wrong - I'm not a professional comics writer, as you all know. But I am a writer. I doubt I'll ever work for DC, Marvel or any American comics publisher - although, I''d jump at any chance, don't get me wrong. :)
But let's just assume I'm hired by a comics publisher. My assignment (amongst writing kick ass stories) is to create a new superhero - be it in an already established book or something entirely new, if possible within continuity. What could I do?
First of all, every character has a function within any given story. When writing a story, I like to see the character first, to know him and give him a voice - and then put him against a certain situation that will create drama, comedy, action, emotion. I have to be aware of the character and take advantage of everything he or she offers me. Of course, you could do it the other way around, too: create the fictional world first and then pit your hero against it. I'm not telling you anything new, but I want you to keep this in mind.
So let’s keep assuming I'm hired by Marvel or DC, the publishers with a superhero tradition that goes back to the first half of the last century. How do I create a new character, an important character for any of these universes? Hasn't everything been already said and done? Yes? No? While our understanding of a villain may have changed, and superhero comics seem to keep pace with that (Dr. Light becoming a rapist in Identity Crisis, Zeke Stane hiring suicide bombers in Invincible Iron Man), what do heroes have to do to avoid becoming outdated? If the values they represent are rather conservative (and don’t get me wrong – these are the values I want to stand for, too!), why is evil in comics becoming more threatening? They go over the board, there’s nothing to stop them from inflicting pain and spreading disease, terror and death. Will the good force win at the end? Can good guys even cope with all the terror? If yes, then how realistic is that?
It seems to me that it’s easier to create new supervillains than superheroes. How could this character fight against the forces of evil? Where would he fit in the larger picture?
I have a strange relationship with realism. Sometimes I want more realism, sometimes less. I can’t tell you what the criteria are – to be honest, I don’t know them either. It’s just a feeling in the guts. My view of Marvel’s superheroes is this: stories about important topics (racism in X-Men, problems with growing up and finding your place in the world in Spider-Man, tragic love in Daredevil, family issues in Fantastic Four) in a rather realistic tone, but not aggressively realistic. On the other side, DC superheroes depict ideals to me: the perfect man (Superman), the wise woman (Wonder Woman), the down to Earth man (Flash), the greatest crime fighter (Batman). In other words, I see Marvel more story-oriented, while DC is rather character-driven. Well, it’s not really the case, if you open up a Marvel or DC book nowadays, but that’s how I perceive the distinction between the companies - the real vs the ideal. Don't misunderstand me: Marvel does have fully fleshed-out characters (Daredevil is the closest a superhero has got to Shakespeare in my opinion!) and DC has been very story-oriented in the last eventful years, making superheroes do things that won’t fit with the character (for example, Geo-Force’s suicide attempt in a recent Final Crisis tie in – yes, with apologies to his fans, I couldn’t care less for Geo-Force but attempting a suicide? That goes to tell you how bleak the superhero job has become, how desperate and pointless it is being a hero in a world fed to the devil!).
Anyway, the reason I’m yapping here is that first you have to know the history to create a new hero. If you’re that good, you may do it without knowing jack about it, but I’m not that good and have always had a thing for analyzing history. But let’s keep the assumption game going on: I now know everything important about the superhero history. There’s an empty page in front of me and I hear that voice again: "Write!"
There are some heroes or concepts I read or heard about in the last years that I think do create something new. It’s hard, in my opinion, but not impossible. The hero I have in my mind all this time is Terra, as created by Jimmy Palmiotti, Justin Gray and Amanda Conner. I know she’s the third or fourth or fifth DC superhero to carry this name – heck, even the powers are the same or at least very similar to her predecessors. So where’s the new? It’s her character. I still remember reading Supergirl #12 (where she debuted) and being awestruck that after the fight she stayed around and helped the people and repaired the damage she had caused during the fight. What a simple but beautiful gesture! Remember that ideal I was talking about and DC should represent, in my opinion? You can find it here! There’s something Buddhistic driving her – fight evil, then help people, then repair the damage. The superhero’s job is not done with the fight – there’s more work to do, hearts to be mended, material loss to overcome! And think about how your actions affect nature! Obviously, for a character called Terra and having Earth based superpowers, this is what drives her: fight evil, regain balance. Don’t neglect all this. And remember you’re doing it for the people – not because it’s cool to have these powers and show them around.
Although there could really be a story with an interesting character in the last sentence, that’s not a story I’d want to read. Hasn’t it already been done somewhere? I don’t know, but I do think so. I’m 26 years old, so I’m still ages away from calling myself a wise man, but I do believe that superheroes were created in times of need for an ideal. World War Two needed these ideals – America, but generally the free world of those times, needed a super man, a captain America, a wonder woman, it needed avengers and justice leagues and societies. (Note the missing capitals!) After WW2 other topics became more interesting – how do you make a living, finish your studies and get the girl you love? How do you cope with life? Heroes became more human, drama invaded their lives. Giffen and DeMatteis brought back fun in comics, Frank Miller reinvented Daredevil and Batman making them dark, crime fighting knights. Superheroes (and generally what stubborn professors call trivial literature) have always been the pop culture response to what the masses fears the most, to what concerns them the most. Let’s put it that way: Superhero stories should be about the zeitgeist. They have always had a place in human culture – the Greeks needed a Hercules, the Germans a Siegfried, the Americans an Uncle Sam. (Unfortunately, I’m not that acquainted with Asian and African mythology, but I’ve no doubts there are similar examples there.) This is what superheroes mean to me – they have to be relevant. (This is why I think that big superhero events like Final Crisis and Secret Invasion are essential every ten years or so – older heroes need to be reinvented to work within contemporary political, religious, cultural and so on situations. But don’t overdo it, as is the case during the last five years – constant change wears the characters off and don’t provide a stability for him to evolve. And it drives readers away!)
So when our times are getting darker; nothing and nowhere’s safe; you can’t trust anybody – don’t you feel the need for a hero you can trust? In one issue Terra made me believe I found that hero. Jimmy, Justin and Amanda created a superhero who really cares!
But let’s stop with the advertising here. As much as I’d like to see the miniseries outselling any event, I’m asking about the possibility of creating new superheroes. So I’ll tell you about some superheroes I created way back when. I still like some of them, but I just doubt I’ll ever use them – I don’t really aim to become a comics writer. It’s fun and all, I love working with creative people, but it’s more of a hobby than something I want to do professionally. And even if there’s something you can borrow from this – you could never stop my imagination from inventing new and better heroes.
From 1999 to 2001 I was working on creating a superhero universe. It all started with a book idea I’m working on right now, but I’ve scratched most superhero elements by now.
Hawk was my response to Iron Man. Back in the Middle Ages a knight embarked on a mission that led him to North America. He died there. Fast forward to our days, and a police detective is framed of having murdered his partner. He escapes (of course), but somehow he stumbles on a cave and finds out the armour of the knight. He takes it on to fight evil and clean up his name. Derived from the symbol on the armour, he takes on the name of Hawk. Now, I remember he was supposed to have a genius friend who would eventually upgrade his armour and allow him to fly and so on. Borrrring. Has been said before, hasn’t it? Looking at it now, I see more potential in depicting the adventures of the knight: Imagine arriving in North America. A rather empty continent. And your armour reminds the Native Americans of a hawk. There’s something totemic about you, and you look otherworldly. Just keep thinking about it, it may lead you somewhere…
Poison Rose was supposed to have gravity based powers. She could make herself heavier or lighter. She was an attorney at day, a crime fighter at night… Yeah, we’ve seen that before. What intrigued me the most about her was her professor who was also caught in the experiment that gave her those powers. His body turned completely black (imagine him in a comic – I would merely give him two white eyes) and was ostracized from university and society in general. But instead of becoming either a villain or a hero, he became indifferent. He would read books all day and, being able to control his own gravity, he would stand topsy-turvy or in any given unnatural position while reading. He could also create black holes and beam himself wherever he wanted.
You notice I’m telling about this because there’s little potential to these stories. They could never carry a series. They’re not interesting enough.
Let’s up the ante, then. I called the character Little Devil – it was about a kid, not older than ten years old, living in the streets. He was abandoned by his parents and everybody else because he was red, had horns on his head and, well, looked like a little devil. Although at this point I hadn’t read anything Hellboy-related, he must have influenced me in creating this drama character. Which is also the reason I didn’t pursue this idea any further.
But keeping up with devils, I dressed the luckiest man in the world in a black Daredevil costume and pitted him against evil. Imagine you can depend on your luck so much that nothing can kill you – well, you could die of old age, but even if you fell out from an airplane without a parachute, you’d still survive it! Now, I thought this man would eventually be driven crazy – because he can’t explain it, because it’s illogical. Imagine you’re a bank robber and you hear a superhero coming at you and laughing insanely all the time. You point a gun at him and it backfires. Merely by being there, this superhero affects the events.
Once I had the idea of creating a hero, but having two persons behind the mask. I mean, after all everybody looks the same when wearing a mask – at least in comics. What’s the point of a mask after all? You could deceive your enemies, they could hardly find out about your true identity, because it I think Sue is Super Lady, then why does she stand next to her? Maybe it’s Jennifer, but wait, did you just see Super Lady leap off the roof? Oh and don’t worry about realism and voices that could sound wrong – isn’t it comics after all?
I like these characters. I see potential in them. But are they relevant? No. They lack the right context that will make them work. I did create some other characters you may call superheroes in a wider sense, but allow me not to talk about them here. I’m not sure if they are as good as Terra, but I know they have something important to say. And they will say it.
I know new, even innovative superheroes can be created. It’s a hard task, and the audience makes it even harder to get them started. Would this new hero be able to support a new ongoing series? I certainly want this to happen. We need superheroes who represent today’s world, we need them to be ideals, we need to have something to strive for – in order for us to become heroes, too, to be influenced by them and do the right thing! So if you’re a professional writer working for a major comics publisher, please try to create an important hero for our times. We need it!