A BRIEF HISTORY OF SUPERHEROES
Superheroes have been presented differently through the years, reflecting how society and its values have changed.
Golden Age: Most were presented as social crusaders. Some fought for causes Americans might not have embraced at the time they were first published.
- Superman: Started as a champion for the oppressed. In his debut issue, he saves an innocent woman from execution for a murder she did not commit, helps a woman being beaten by her husband and exposes a corrupt U.S. Senator.
- Batman: A wealthy playboy who secretly works as a vigilant for social justice. His origin story wasn’t explored until several months after his first appearance.
- Captain America: A superhero created by two Jewish men. Captain America fought against the Nazis in Germany, long before the United States entered World War II and during a period when Americans were mostly isolationist.
- Wonder Woman: Her creator believed there should be a strong role model for women. After a U.S. pilot’s plane crash lands onto her isolated island homeland, she accompanies him back to the United States and, soon after, assists the United States in World War II.
Silver Age: Superheroes changed in response to claims that comic books were responsible for juvenile delinquency. Most of them were presented as a generic “force for good” but some new interpretations of superheroes made them more science based than magic based.
- Green Lantern: The first version of the superhero had magic-based powers; the new version received from an alien race a power ring driven by the concept of willpower.
- The Flash: The first version was a nod to the Greek god Hermes; the new version explained his origins based on scientific theories in chemistry and physics.
- Hawkman: The first version was an individual reincarnated from an Egyptian warrior; the new version was an alien from another planet.
The bridge between Silver Age and Bronze Age: The concept of “superheroes with problems.” They had character traits and personalities people could identify with.
- Spiderman: The first teenage superhero who wasn’t a sidekick. Peter Parker dealt with issues teens could relate to, from never having enough money to a challenging family life. His debut comic concluded with the moral “with great power, there must also come great responsibility.”
- The Fantastic Four: A team of superheroes who each had an identifiable personality trait. Reed Richards is a scientist who sometimes gets too caught up in his work, much to the dismay of his girlfriend (later wife) Sue Storm. Ben Grimm, who is “by the book” and struggles with how different he looks from everyone else, doesn’t always get along with Johnny Storm, a cocky jokester who loves his powers.
- Incredible Hulk: Bruce Banner gains his power through a freak accident and has to learn to control it. He goes through psychological issues ranging from isolation to depression because his power sometimes interferes with his work.
Bronze Age: Superheroes became more socially conscious and often addressed issues that everyday Americans confronted.
- Green Arrow and Green Lantern: DC paired up two superheroes, the former (Oliver Queen) who was frequently in contact with common citizens and becomes a social activist; the latter (Hal Jordan) who has spent so much time away from Earth that he can’t always relate to the common citizen. The two spent their time touring the nation and meeting with everyday people.
- The X-Men: Created as an allegory for prejudice and bigotry. The X-Men were mutants, born with their powers and treated differently because of it.
- Captain America becomes The Nomad: The storyline drew parallels with the Watergate investigation. Captain America uncovers government corruption, discovers the President is behind it all and loses faith in America’s ideals.
Modern Age Pre 9/11: Superhero stories explore more complex themes and more mature themes. In many instances, notable characters died.
- Crisis on Infinite Earths: Complex storyline designed to reboot the DC Universe. Several characters died, notably Supergirl and the Barry Allen version of The Flash.
- The Dark Knight Returns: Aimed at older audiences. Bruce Wayne was no longer Batman, but saw Gotham City falling apart and donned the cape and hood again, despite new leadership in Gotham City not liking the idea of the vigilante.
- The Death of Superman: The storyline that drew many people who had never read a comic book before to pick one up.
Modern Age Post 9/11: What does being a superhero really mean? The idea that there is more to being a superhero than just special powers or abilities.
Superheroes have evolved over time. They often deal with issues we face in real life and may force people to ask questions about what is the right path to take.
Straightforward hero: These heroes stay within the boundaries set by society most of the time. They may struggle with decisions but they exercise restraint. Their moral codes generally reflect the boundaries society sets, but they may sometimes conflict.
Examples: Superman, The Flash, Captain America, Wonder Woman
Vigilante: A hero who operates outside of society’s boundaries to a certain degree. They bend a few rules because they believe that’s necessary to get the job done. They will try to exercise restraint but may employ tactics some would question. They are influenced both by society’s boundaries and their personal life experiences.
Examples: Spiderman, Batman, Daredevil, Green Arrow
Antihero: These heroes are not interested in society’s boundaries if they prove to be a hindrance to accomplishing a goal or objective. They won’t exercise restraint for the same reasons. Their moral code is almost always shaped by life experiences. It’s those life experiences that make them sympathetic to the reader, even if the reader may not agree with their methods.
Examples: Wolverine, The Punisher, The Watchmen
BASICS FOR WRITING SUPERHEROES
A superhero is more than just powers and abilities, though one, the other or both are part of the equation. But there is more to a superhero than physical attributes or special talents.
Think more about what your superhero stands for. What he or she stands for comes from:
- Life experiences.
- Values taught.
- People met.
- Places lived.
- Hobbies and interests.
A superhero shouldn’t always be considered, from the start, as somebody who is “in the right” against somebody who is “in the wrong.” The question to ask is what, if anything, determines that the superhero is “in the right” and the other person “in the wrong,” even if the other person has a valid point. (Or perhaps your superhero may not be “in the right”?)
Always consider how new experiences further influence your superhero. Consider how those new experiences may differ from previous experiences and if they cause your superhero to reconsider.
SAMPLE THEMES FROM GRAPHIC NOVELS, MOVIES AND TV SHOWS
Justice League: The New Frontier – Set in the mid-to-late 1950s during challenging times for the United States. A mysterious entity observes human beings, determines they must be eliminated, and superheroes with differing mindsets must come together to save the world.
Sample exchange from the film based on the graphic novel. Superman has arrived at a village in Indo-China in 1954 and finds several dead men and Wonder Woman celebrating with local women in a lodge.
Wonder Woman: Come on in, Kal. Join the celebration.
Superman: Diana, what’s going on here? (The women point guns at Superman.) Tell them they’d be wasting their bullets.
Wonder Woman: Don’t judge them, Kal. They get a little nervous around men now.
Superman: What are you talking about?
Wonder Woman: I was heading up river when I passed this village four days ago. The people here helped the French and the rebels didn’t like that. They murdered the men and children and they threw them in the river. These women were beaten and penned in tiger cages for the rebels to… use.
Superman: The rebels… how did they die?
Wonder Woman: I only disarmed them. I left their guns in a clearing and then I let the women out of their cages.
Superman: They did this? And you just stood by and watched?
Wonder Woman: I gave them freedom and a chance for justice. You know, the American way.
Superman: This is what the government’s afraid of, Diana. Us acting like vigilantes.
Wonder Woman: I have to do what I think is right.
Superman: That’s what a lot of the others said at first, remember? And now Batman’s a fugitive, the whole Justice Society is retired and Hourman is dead. No matter how much good we do, deep down, people are going to be scared of us. Isn’t that why you and I signed those loyalty oaths?
Wonder Woman: Take a look around, Kal. Oaths don’t mean much here. All I see is suffering and madness.
Wonder Woman: There’s the door, spaceman.
Captain America: The Winter Soldier – Captain America works for SHIELD, which wants to implement a system that can target a threat at any time and eliminate it before it becomes an issue. Captain America raises his concerns with this idea.
Exchange between Steve Rogers (Captain America) and Nick Fury when Fury reveals to him Project Insight, the system SHIELD has designed to eliminate any threat.
Nick: This is Project Insight. Three next-generation helicarriers synced to a network of targeting satellites.
Steve: Launched from the Lemurian Star?
Nick: Once we get them in the air, they never need to come down. Continuous sub-orbital flight courtesy of our new repulsor engines.
Nick: He had a few suggestions once he got an up-close look at our old turbines. These new long-range precision guns can eliminate 1,000 hostiles a minute. The satellites can read a terrorist’s DNA before he steps outside his spider hole. We’re gonna neutralize a lot of threats before they even happen.
Steve: Thought the punishment usually came after the crime.
Nick: We can’t afford to wait that long.
Steve: Who’s “we”?
Nick: After New York, I convinced the World Security Council we needed a quantum surge in threat analysis. For once, we’re way ahead of the curve.
Steve: By holding a gun to everyone on Earth and calling it protection.
Nick: You know, I read those SSR files. “Greatest Generation”? You guys did some nasty stuff.
Steve: Yeah, we compromised. Sometimes in ways that made us not sleep so well. But we did it so that people could be free. This isn’t freedom. This is fear.
Nick: SHIELD takes the world as it is, not as we’d like it to be. And it’s getting damn near past time for you to get with that program, Cap.
Steve: Don’t hold your breath.
Justice League Unlimited – A TV series with an ongoing arc in the first two seasons about the Justice League having so many superheroes in its organization, and so much power accumulated, that an underground organization, Cadmus, works under the auspices of the government to develop counter measures in case the Justice League goes rogue.
Sample exchange from the episode Flashpoint, in which Superman has a lengthy discussion with Martian Manhunter, Green Arrow, Supergirl and The Flash about Cadmus.
Superman: Give me one good reason not to go down there and take them out.
Manhunter: If you didn’t know the answer, you wouldn’t have bothered to ask.
Superman: Don’t handle me, J’onn. I’m serious.
Manhunter: We don’t have any hard evidence that they have committed any crimes.
Superman: Oh, come on! You know they’re dirty.
Green Arrow: Then maybe we should put more energy into proving it and less about like acting like a bunch of hyper-thyroid storm troopers.
Superman: I don’t remember asking you for your opinion.
Green Arrow: No. How about when you guys hijacked me up here against my will and made me join this team? Batman says I was supposed to keep you guys honest.
Superman: Do I look like Batman to you?
Flash: Actually, you kind of do… especially when you are all scowl-y like that.
Superman: We can’t let Cadmus get away with it.
Manhunter: No one’s saying we should. But we have to keep a cool head.
Supergirl: Do you know what they did to me?
Green Arrow. Kid… Hamilton is a piece of garbage. Luthor is worse. But this isn’t the way to stop them.
Manhunter: We must also consider the possibility that Cadmus is right to be afraid of us.
Manhunter: And there is strong evidence of Cadmus having legitimate connections to the government.
Superman: Maybe to some rogue black ops group, but the government wouldn’t get involved in anything like this.
Green Arrow: Hey, I’m the only guy in the room who doesn’t have superpowers. And let me tell you, you guys scare me. What if you do decide to go marching down there, take care of whoever you think is guilty? Who could stop you? Me?
Supergirl: So you want the government to have a bunch of superhuman weapons just to keep us in check?
Green Arrow: No. (Silence) I don’t know. (More silence). Yeah.
(Supergirl is surprised.)
Green Arrow: Look, I’m an old lefty. The government must do for the people what people can’t do for themselves. And the people sure can’t protect themselves from the likes of us.
Superman: We’re not talking about the government. We’re talking about a shadow cabinet that’s taken it upon themselves to eliminate us. They came after us. We have to hit them back hard.
Flash: Grammy Flash always used to say that the problem with an eye for an eye is that everybody ends up blind.
Other graphic novels to discuss
The Dark Knight Returns – Set in a dystopian world, in which superheroes are not allowed to operate. An aging Batman sees Gotham City falling apart and is unwilling to stand by and let that continue, so he dons his cape and cowl again.
Flashpoint – Barry Allen, aka The Flash, lost his mother at a young age when she was murdered. He wakes up one day to find out that his mother is alive, but everything else in his life is different, too – and the world is in the midst of a devastating war.
Civil War – After young superheroes filming a reality-based series cause a major disaster, the government wants all superheroes to work under government control, causing superheroes to take sides.