Being a fan of comic books, I cut my teeth on the medium by reading superhero books. My introduction was like most others, with the spandex crowd, reading the adventures of brightly colored men and women fighting the good fight against a cadre of just-as-colorful villains, aliens, and other assorted bad guys. And again like most others, I have a very soft spot for the genre because when it’s done well, the stories can be so great. This got me thinking about the business of telling a good superhero story, and what it takes to do it.
Many people think of superhero stories and think of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Spider-man, the Fantastic Four, and Captain America, but in the modern industry there are plenty of other superheroes. Heroes like The Savage Dragon, Spawn, Invincible, and others that have been around for some time now, so the realm of a good superhero story is not the sole possession of the big two. These heroes follow the basic ideas of making a good superhero story too, so what are the best ingredients?
Of course, there are a number of reasons for a good superhero story. There are the obvious reasons, like what kind of super powers they have. There is no one out there that would disagree that the Amazing Spider-Man has far more interesting powers than Matter Eater Lad. Not that a good writer couldn’t give us a great Matter Eater Lad story, but I’m talking about long-form storytelling potential. You know the kind we used to have where the numbering was sequential, and the issue count ran into the hundreds. It was the ultimate proof of staying power, a formula that seems to have been abandoned.
Second only to having cool powers, there is the costume. The right costume can take an average character from humdrum to friggin-cool. There are exceptions though — I think again everyone would agree that the original Fantastic Four costumes were far from awesome, but the Fantastic Four have had some of the most groundbreaking sorties. I attribute that to some of the more important reasons, reasons I’ll go into a bit further on in this article.
Lastly, among the obvious reasons for a really great superhero story are the villains. A great hero needs great villains to go up against. There is a longstanding debate about whether Batman would be as interesting of a character without the impact of his rogues gallery. While I won’t say that he wouldn’t have been just as compelling, but it sure does help. Villains also mold the character in a way that might not be so obvious; they push the character to do more, be more creative, and try harder. So I think that we can all agree that a good rogues gallery, while not be a deal breaker, sure does help.
So if all the above-mentioned things are important, but aren’t the most important thing, what is most important for a great superhero story? Well, for me, it’s the back story. I want my superheroes with a solid supporting cast, dealing with their personal lives on top of their superheroic endeavors. Go ahead, test this theory out. Name off all of your favorite superhero runs, that were part of an ongoing series, and tell me if they dealt as much with the character as their superhero alter ego.
Superhero stories fail when all they deal with is the superhero side of things. Take the “Reborn” run from Daredevil (a personal favorite), for example. The whole reason this story was effective was because it dealt with the tragic events happening to Matt Murdock. The more we can connect with the characters, getting to know and care for them, the more we will enjoy the stories. The first hundred issues of Spider-Man is probably one of the best examples of what I’m talking about. There is a reason that Spider-Man was considered the most popular superhero for so long. Peter Parker took us into the angst-ridden life of a normal teenager, something that everyone can relate to.
In short, the reasons that make a great superhero story are the same rules for making great prose fiction. Surprise your reader, get them to feel something, give your protagonist goals that the reader can root for and, above all, bring on the conflict. In superhero stories the conflict often comes down to superpowered throw downs, but the basic ingredients are still there.
This leaves me wondering: what does everybody else find essential for a good superhero story? What are the things that really get you to pick up a book month after month, year after year? What is it about a character that makes you follow him or her?