Fun With Superheroes

I've grown up with superhero comics. All those brightly colored characters and their epic adventures have probably influenced me more than I care to admit. But while my love for the genre hasn't faded, suspending my disbelief grows increasingly difficult with age.

Oh, I know, supers were never meant to be realistic. There's a reason why they are considered a subgenre of fantasy. All that flying and lifting bridges doesn't even give a nod to the laws of physics. That's not the issue here. But even the most implausible fiction can be made believable if we understand why things are the way they are, and how we can expect them to behave. Trouble is, superhero fiction often fails at that nowadays. I have a suspicion why, too.

See, one of the most important pieces of advice you can give a budding artist is to practice drawing from nature. That's because drawing is an analog process, and analog copying inevitably introduces errors. You may be learning to draw from someone's drawings... who were based on someone else's drawings. Suddenly, you're many steps removed from reality, and your art looks fake. It's the same with genre fiction.

Think about it: why do superheroes wear gaudy technicolor costumes? Why do they have code names and fight crime? At least it's obvious why they wear masks; but then, what about those who don't?

Some superhero origin stories answer these questions in a satisfactory manner. Other less so, and most just fail completely. Which doesn't necessarily make for poor stories, but it's grating once you start noticing the problem.

Take the Flash for example: once he becomes the fastest man in the world, his first thought is to don scarlet coveralls and fight crime in a vigilante fashion. Why? He's a cop, for crying out loud! It's completely out of character. By way of contrast, Jim Buchanan a.k.a. the second Johnny Saturn has an entire story arc dedicated to explaining his change. And what about the Flash's villains? They come up with all those wonderful inventions, such as freeze rays (a perennial villain favorite) and use them to commit petty crime instead of, you know, selling them for billions of dollars.

In all honesty, superpowered characters using their abilities realistically would shortly lead to a technological singularity. So much for still having a story to tell in the next issue. But the writers could at least acknowledge the possibility.

While on the subject of costumes, why does the Flash keeps his in a ring? He's the fastest man in the world! Surely he could simply run home and change every time he needs to? (The answer is that he wasn't quite that fast at his origins.) But at least we know how the Flash ended up with a costume: he made it himself. Firestorm, on the other hand, somehow ended up wearing something that just happens to look like one when he first formed. Huh?

Other heroes do it more or less right: Green Lantern wears the Corps' uniform, only with a mask; Batman dresses as a bat to be scary. Superman wears what amounts to a Kryptonian national costume, at least according to the 1979 movie. Wonder Woman... cough cough, bad example.

I won't get too deep into the issue of masks; suffice to say, I find it infinitely more plausible that people don't recognize Superman in his Clark Kent guise due to exceptional acting skills (as Christopher Reeve brilliantly demonstrated) than Green Arrow's tiny domino mask in any way disguising his beard... or his attitude.

Is there a superhero who gets all of these elements right? Yes! My favorite example is by far the Rocketeer. I've only seen the movie, but think about it: he wears his shiny airshow outfit for a costume; the helmet is purely functional, and only incidentally a mask. (It's also actually effective as a mask, and absolutely beautiful too.) He first uses the jetpack -- at great risk to himself -- in order to save a friend, and later to fight off people who are after him and those he loves. Said jetpack is very hard to reproduce because the research behind it was secret, and has been lost as of the story beginning. Even his code name was coined by journalists in search of a sensational story. Everything about him makes so much sense, he's in a different league from most other supers.

If you're creating a new super nowadays, please mind the above points. And if your hero has to wear his underwear on the outside, at least make it look like a weightlifter's equipment. You know why, right?