By Iain Jackson
1 October 2007
or, Building A Superhero Universe, Part I
Let's be clear: by "fixing," I don't mean either taxidermy or vasectomies. After all, the first would be impossible, or at least wildly improbable without the use of grotesque quantities of kryptonite (. . . although, if he managed to kill Superman, you know that Luthor would have him exhumed and stuffed, just to gloat). Given that Superman's been married to Lois for a while now, that whole "Man of Steel, Woman of Kleenex" thing would not seem to be a concern, and they show no signs of having insane numbers of children—or any children—so the vasectomy would also be unnecessary (and also probably equally impossible). In fact, I'm not really talking about the Big Blue Boy Scout at all, really; I'm talking about superhero comics generally.
Superhero comics dominate American comics, or appear to. In this country, when you think "comics," you automatically think first of men, women, and aliens in wildly improbable costumes. In actual point of fact, superhero books are a bare minority even of American comics, when all forms are included (newspaper comic strips, editorials, other types of books and floppies, etc.), and a sharp minority elsewhere. Here, superhero titles have a miserable time holding readers after a certain point, largely because people think of them as literature only for children and teenagers. In fact, those are the types of stories you see in them most frequently—themes of being special, yet feeling all alone in the world, the only one of their kind, as young people sometimes feel. But . . . why is that, really? Look at other forms of speculative stories. Space opera and futuristic science fiction stories have stories and readers among all ages and types of people; it may have first seemed like a young man's adventure genre, but it didn't stay that way. High fantasy stories appeal to all sorts of readers. Stephen King would go broke if people of all ages didn't like horror stories. Moreover, these stories have equivalent comics—think Transmetropolitan for futuristic science fiction/political thriller, or Artesia for heroic fantasy, or Walking Dead for horror—and nobody even begins to think of those as comics for children.
Here's another thing: if you concede that superhero comics are built around the Chosen One theme (and I don't, necessarily), then why is the Chosen One theme considered to be worth reading only for kids when it occurs in comics, but adults think it's wonderful when it occurs in prose books? Harry Potter is the Chosen One writ large—or at least very long. Most high/heroic fantasy pretty much reduces to, "Let's find a Chosen One, put them, and ideally their entire world, through hell for three or more novels of nearly 1,000 pages each, and see how everything turns out at the end." And yet people don't automatically think that these are stories only for the young.
Here's another interesting thing: as long as superhero themes don't appear in comic-book form, or as long as the title doesn't quite ring the "This is a superhero comic! EW!" bell in their heads, people who otherwise wouldn't give them a look seem perfectly willing to give superhero stories a gander. Look at Michael Chabon's The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (which, OK, not so much superheroes as superhero creators, but if the genre didn't have some traction with adults, it wouldn't have worked), or Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman, or The Coyote Kings of the Space Age Bachelor Pad or From the Notebooks of Dr. Brain by Minister Faust. None of those books could exist or work if adults didn't appreciate superhero stories. And it is, oddly enough, possible to get people to read a superhero comic book title as long as they're not quite aware that's what they're doing; Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 8 is doing shockingly good business for Dark Horse, pulling in people who read that and only that title . . . but what is Buffy if not a superhero? Yes, of course the story is dressed up in horror tropes, but the chosen one with extraordinary powers who swoops in to save the day is nothing if not a superhero; she just carries a stake and a slightly different portfolio. To be sure, what's pulling people in is the chance to see that specific story continue; those same people more or less serenely ignored the first iterations of the Buffy and Angel comic books that were intended as supplements/adjuncts to the series, rather than a continuation. (It's going to be interesting to see if Angel, season 6 does the same sort of business as Buffy, given that it was a much lower rated television series. But I digress.)
So. We know that people will read superhero stories that don't appear in comics. We know that people may, under certain circumstances, read superhero comics when they normally wouldn't. So how do we get them to appreciate superhero comics as something that can be appreciated for all age ranges?
You change the stories you're telling.
In theory, it would be possible for DC and Marvel to do this. However, it would require quite a few changes to how they work and how they think of their stories and characters, and . . . no. Not going to happen without several major changes of management.
There's the business of making comics of course. Floppies and graphic novels. Downloads and dealing with the internet generation. Creating/expanding audience. All that business stuff, and we'll deal with that in a later (and probably quite a bit shorter) column. Right now, let me describe to you what, if I won the powerball lottery and had a small fortune and only slightly lost my mind, I might do with my very own comic book company. Bits and pieces of my preferred approach, or something maybe kind of close, exist in titles available now, but nobody pulls them together into a coherent whole.
Today . . . let's build us a universe.
The Universe and its People
What would this universe and its people look like? Well, like most comics, it would take place on some analogue of Earth, primarily because that's going to be easiest for readers to relate to on a regular basis. Not that something that's absolutely and completely Other wouldn't be interesting—and not that there won't be characters or stories about those who are that distant Other, because watching a planet freak out is pretty much a superhero staple—but for a day in, day out read, basically, you're going to need people living in something like an understandable human situation.
As far as the people themselves go . . . take Alan Moore's approach in the Top Ten titles, and have almost everyone with superpowers or supergadgets or super something. However, where Moore makes Top Ten's Neopolis effectively an extremely large ghetto where superheroes congregate to live because the rest of the world is so difficult to live in, I'd make the entire world—maybe the entire universe—filled with metahumans and the like. But—and this is key—a minority would not have any powers whatsoever. In part, this is because some people will find it easier to relate to characters who don't have powers. It also allows you to play with the theme of The Chosen One in quite a different way; the curse—and being the chosen one is almost always a curse of some sort, even when disguised as a blessing—is that you're special because you're not special. Because you don't have have the ability to leap umpteen leagues in a single bound, or to fly, or to incinerate continents at a glance, or to plunder someone's mind with a single thought, you have to learn to operate differently. Mind, it would need to be a substantial minority. You don't want it to be so rare that it's like Jim Valentino's Normalman, where his lack of superpowers amazed and thrilled everyone and their thrills and amazement made his life miserable, and you don't want it to be like Garth Ennis's and Darrick Robertson's The Boys, where metahumans pretty much make the normal people's lives miserable. It also allows you to play with minority issues in a very different way: "Black? Who cares? He can fly! You, on the other hand . . . you got nothing. Who cares who you are when you can't fly or jump or read minds or anything interesting?"
What sorts of powers will they have? Probably more or less the usual assortment. For the sake of sanity, in a universe where almost everyone has some ability, people will generally have one and only one power. There will probably be a few—a very few—magic users; you don't want many of them because they're such wild cards and can make deus-ex-machina storytelling too easy to reach for. They'll likely run in families—the people with super strength may bequeath their strength to their children, flyers may beget flyers, etc. Of course, people with different powers will have children together, and the mix may produce something totally different, or maybe one power will dominate the other. People without powers will, of course, need to find other ways to cope. Toybox in the Top Ten universe, like her father, invents ingenious little toys and devices to make up for the powers that she lacks (or used to lack, until she opened the box and became Pandora). Tony Stark/Iron Man, Kathy Kane/Batwoman, and Bruce Wayne/Batman are independently wealthy and can build their own devices as well; Green Arrow is a master archer (you'd think that ability would be a lot more limited, wouldn't you?). And there will be those powerless people who aren't wealthy and aren't magnificent inventors, and who will have to get by on the power of their own brains.
Other than that . . . well, it's a superhero analogue of this universe. You're going to have people of all creeds, shapes, and colors. You're going to have a few dozen aliens, because what's a superhero universe without aliens to wonder at and about?
The Core titles and how they work
The primary title of this superhero universe would be something like Kurt Busiek's Astro City. The idea behind Astro City is that it moves back and forth between following superheroes and following the ordinary man on the street; you get different views of the various major events happening in Astro City. The one downside, if it is a downside, to Astro City is that you seldom come back to characters to see what's happening with them after their first story arc is done; Samaritan—Astro City's Superman, more or less, and the guy in the middle of the cover next to this paragraph—has had only two individual issues in the entire extremely peripatetic run. Readers like coming back to characters now and again, so this series would wander perhaps a bit less. Maybe we'd spend one year with our more regular characters, a year with someone we'll likely never see again, then back to the regulars. It's also a title that will pull together characters from the other titles. The spine of the universe, more or less.
A good entry level title for everyone would be something like Grounded, by Mark Sable and Paul Azaceta. In Grounded, Jonathan lives in a universe where many people, including his parents, have super powers, but he himself does not. For reasons that surpass all understanding, he gets sent to a high school full of superpowered kids. (Seriously, knowing what kids can be like, would you do that to your unpowered and therefore terribly vulnerable child?) He becomes a chosen one because he's an average ordinary person, when everyone else around him seems special, and yet he turns out to be special because of that lack, because it forces him to look at the world differently. However, rather than simply focusing on one person throughout his junior high/high school career, the title would look at different people throughout. The title would look more like, say, a comic book version of Degrassi Junior High/Degrassi High. Moreover, it would keep doing that; as people graduated, they'd either move into the working world—and thus into the main title—or they graduate, go on to college and become freshmen . . . or Freshmen, as the case may be.
Like that title, we follow people through their first year of college. Unlike Freshmen, once the first year is done, we follow the next group through their first year, including both people from the high school title, and new characters from other places who come to the college; we also continue with our previous group — with the sorts of additions and subtractions you'd normally have at college during that time, as well as the abnormal additions and subtractions you get in the superhero world. The titles could, in fact, be something generic, like "College: First Year", "College: Second Year" and so on, and the actual titles would remain static while the casts moved through each one. Additionally, not all of the college-bound will go to the same university; we can use that to follow our superteenagers in different cities, different colleges, without needing to generate a new title to keep track of them. And, again, once they graduate or otherwise leave college, they move into the main title, or maybe to a completely new title of their very own, if they've caught people's interest. The idea with all of this is not just to pull in younger readers, albeit with somewhat more varied stories than they usually get; it's also to give your characters reasonably large social circles, of the sort that people normally have, and which characters in superhero comics almost never seem to. This also gives you continuous entry points—you don't always need to know umpteen years of history behind a given character to get interested in the universe, because you've got places to start fresh.
Because you have these specific titles with younger characters, here's a rule for the other titles: no teenaged or young sidekicks. It's not that you can't have stories in which teens go out and be superheroic, and it's not that they can't maybe stumble into infrequent adventures with the adult superheroes, but it can't be the way the universe works. Using child/teen sidekicks would constitute felony child abuse and endangerment in pretty much any reasonable jurisdiction, to say nothing of the fact that child labor law enforcement would not be at all amused by all this unpaid labor. It's a wonder that Batman hasn't been arrested for what happens with the Robins many times over; all were minors when they started, two of those minors have died — one of them has actually managed to stay dead — and all got seriously beat up on a regular basis. The justification for some sidekicks has been, "Well, they were going to do this anyway; I just gave them guidance and kept them from killing themselves." That just means the child has drawn the adult into aiding and abetting their irresponsible actions. So, no teen sidekicks, but titles with teen adventurers charging headlong into stupidity on their own and occasionally falling annoyingly into the adult superhero adventures.
One year of comic book time would equal one year of time in the real world. You can call it "2007," call it "Big City, Year 4," call it what you will. Time passes at very roughly the same rate in the books and outside them. It's going to help maintain your series bible; when the year is the same in all of your major titles, it's going to be easy to tell which events should be occurring at the same time. It also means that when you do the big, world altering, all-title crossovers—and you will, because who can resist the urge to irritate the hell out of their readers like that?—you'll be able to make sure that things stay in lockstep. (This will be referred to later when we get to the business of publishing.) The other thing about having one year of book time equal one year of real world time is that your characters will grow up, mature, and so on. In other words, your characters get to age. Superman and Batman don't get stranded somewhere between 35 and 40 for the rest of their existence, despite it becoming an increasingly strained device. The characters in this universe get to grow up, move out, have families or not, see their children grow up . . . and they would die. They would die of old age, they would die of disease, many would die in attacks from supervillains or hostile aliens or gods. But a surprising number of them would just die of normal age and disease related causes, eventually.
A lot of superhero fans, for some reason, just hate this. They hate the idea that characters age and die, they want to keep them in four-color amber forever. And they find the stories about everything that isn't whiz-bang fight comix stuff terribly boring. But here's the thing: if you look at other comics and other books, the type of fiction that people read is exactly that sort of stuff. If you want to hold onto the adults, you have to be willing not only to allow the characters to age, but to tell stories that not only wouldn't interest the youth, but that wouldn't be appropriate for them. For example, Marvel took a great deal of flack early in 2007 for the Spiderman:Reign storyline, in which not only was there a frame of full frontal nude and elderly Peter Parker (Marvel actually made a "variant no-penis" edition of the issue, despite there being really not much to make a fuss over), but Mary Jane died due to repeated exposure to irradiated semen.
Apart from the considerable "eww! ick!" factor of the latter, people kept wondering how this was appropriate for a character normally aimed at teenagers. In a universe where your characters age normally, and you plan for stories in your continuity specifically for adults, you can handle full frontal nudity and other such topics without getting people all stirred up. (. . .OK, maybe not so much the whole "death by irradiated semen" thing.) The audience will change—the people who hate those stories will migrate back to the more traditional fight comix stuff (and get mildly frustrated because they can't follow their characters without moving to the icky stories), and those who don't may hang on to see where things go.
One thing you can do for the readers who don't want to see their characters age is to tell stories that are offshoots of main continuity, limited arcs fixed to specific points in time. Some of them may be stories that are alluded to in the main titles, but never told because of lack of space or appropriateness or scope for the stories being told at the time. There's a certain amount of risk with this path—because of the time structure, these stories will be always period pieces by design, and writers will need to remember that all events after the date of their stories are off limits for them. There's every chance that the stories themselves will wind up falling out of continuity because of later events in the main titles. These offshoots may need to be specifically labeled as Elseworlds/What If type stories, and the editorial staff then later picks and chooses which story arcs are considered main continuity.
Letting your characters age in main continuity means that you can also explore things from the far end of life. What does happen when superheroes get old? We don't really see that much in mainstream DC or Marvel; after all, their superheroes don't get old, except in Elseworlds like Kingdom Come—and they weren't really all that old. One version of this appears in Gail Simone's and Neil Googe's Welcome to Tranquility, a series taking place in DC's Wildstorm superhero universe. The inappropriately named small town of Tranquility is where many superheroes go to retire. To an extremely limited extent, you get to see what it's like to try to keep order in a community where immensely powerful people live. They may no longer have all the power they once did and may or may not be willing to accept that; they may be just as powerful as they ever were, but be afflicted with the sorts of conditions that many people get as they grow older. Readers who only want traditional fight comix aren't going to want to see that sort of thing—they aren't going to want to see their beloved heroes get beyond the prime of life, never mind actually old—but people who like other sorts of stories will appreciate seeing something more. In order for it to resonate, however, it's going to need to be heroes that we know and love—maybe the parents and grandparents of people in the junior high/high school titles, maybe characters we've seen in the main title. For example, in order to give readers something to look for in our older heroes title (I'm tempted to call it Twilight Time, taking place in the suburb of Twilight), maybe the first year or two of the main title can be involved with the last hurrah for some of these heroes; their adult children are desperately trying to get them to hang up the cape, because they're putting all sorts of people at risk, including themselves. The grandchildren and greatgrandchildren are dealing with the fallout of all this while trying to go to school and deal with the problems of superpowered youth.
Another rule: the dead stay dead. None of this "Jean Gray, 16 resurrections and counting" business, oh no no no. If you kill off someone, they stay dead, and the hole they leave stays unfilled. Thus, you have to think very carefully about whether or not you really, truly want to kill someone. And make no mistake; you will be killing characters, and they will be characters that your readers care about. You get no emotional investment in killing villains or oddball characters that nobody knows. That's why, during the great bloodletting in the Bat corner of DC's universe three years ago, they killed off Jack Drake and Stephanie Brown. And, in turn, those characters illustrate why you want to give your characters a reasonably large social group. When DC Editorial decided, "Hey, we need to kill of someone close to the Bats," they looked around and realized that there was, quite literally, nobody else. Barbara Gordon and most of the Birds of Prey were off-limits—they'd done quite enough to Barbara over the past decade, thank you very much, and they didn't want to kill any of the Birds because they had plans for them. The fans would revolt if they killed Alfred. Their social circles were so narrow—forced by the nature of the work and their secret identities—that there was nobody left to kill. Similarly, if DC Editorial decides that they want to kill someone near Superman . . . well, who is there? Lois is untouchable; they were only able to kill her in Elseworlds or on Earth-2 (in other words, not the Real Lois). Lana . . . people really don't care so much any more. Her character has been badly used. His parents, like Jean Gray, are existential poptarts: dead one moment, then alive again, old then young. They've been put through the wringer so much, killing them doesn't have the emotional charge it once did. And then there's Jimmy Olson, who may in fact be on the express lane to corpsedom, now that he knows Superman's secrets. Superman really doesn't know anybody. Making everyone a superhero means that, whatever their secrets may be—and there will be some—at least they don't have to worry about hiding that they're superpowered and run around doing good deeds. By giving your characters a social network that we also follow, when you do decide that someone's gotta go, you've got a decent number of people to choose from, and you still get the resonance that you want for the audience.
At some point, you will look at walls and walls of date- and character-indexed story bible, and think to yourself, "Self, keeping track of all this is a pain in the rear. Wouldn't it be a good thing to have a major clearing of the universe, simply kill everyone off and reboot? . . . Hey. . . ." At this point, of course, you will be gently encouraged to seek employment elsewhere. The universe is the universe. Deal with it.
This is pure pie in the sky, of course. But it's kind of a fun pie to make, isn't it?