Wednesday, May 18, 2011

In Defense of Superheroes

My writing output has dwindled in the last few weeks, mostly because I've been working like a dog on some revisions for one of my books. And I also wasted time created book covers (see here and here).

It's a superhero novel.

Speak up, son!


When I first started writing...and trust me it hasn't been that long ago...I was a little shy to utter that phrase. I gave a more friendly, PC answer: "I write sci-fi and fantasy." Which I's just a lot of that science fiction and fantasy stuff involves people in spandex. With capes.

I still get a little embarrassed about it from time to time. I think people are going to tell me it's immature to like superheroes. They're going to tell me those types of stories are for kids. They're going to smile, nod, and head straight for the door because the guy they just talked to had the immature audacity to pitch a freaking superhero book.

So today I write in defense of superheroes.

Because they can be complex.

They can be real.

They can be flawed.

To me, superheroes reflect ideals. Your super-duper-good vigilante represents the American Dream (Superman). Your masked, shadow-stalking vigilante represents the gray areas of life (Batman). A guy like Captain America stands for liberty and freedom. Captain Marvel symbolizes the latent power of youth and good intentions.

Even the villains have their place. The Joker is an agent of chaos, Lex Luthor stands tall for big business, and Red Skull represents Nazis. And Nazis are bad.

This is nothing you haven't heard before. People far more eloquent than me have covered this topic in greater depth and detail. But I'm explaining why I'm not embarrassed to like and write about superheroes.

Superheroes give us something to aspire to. The real world is full of heroes, but sometimes it doesn't feel like it. In broad terms, superheroes clearly define themselves. The guy in the cape is there to save the day...and you know it because he's wearing a friggin' cape. If we were all so selfless, just imagine how much we could accomplish.

They're just like us...except, you know, they can fly and stuff. Ye Olde Spider-Man is probably the best example here. Poor Peter Parker can't do anything right, gets paid peanuts for taking pictures, and saves the day on the side. Sure, some multi-billionaires are hard to relate to (*cough* Bruce Wayne *cough*), but a great superhero story has a character in there who's relatable. Many have families to protect.

From a storytelling perspective, they're flexible. This is a wide-open genre full of diverse opportunities. You can go supernatural (Ghost Rider), humorous and nigh-invulnerable (The Tick), dark and brooding (I'm not even going to mention his name), intergalactic (Silver Surfer), high-tech (Iron Man), vampiric (Blade), paramilitary (The Punisher), godlike (Thor), and much, much more.

There's lot of "in between." Not every hero dons red, white, and blue. Sometimes they don't wear the white hat...sometimes the hat is gray. Maybe the "hero" kills people. Maybe he/she has to make an impossible choice to prevent some terrible catastrophe. Maybe they have to choose the lesser of two evils. Maybe they have to make a deal with the bad guy. Maybe they are the bad guy.

We can paint in broad strokes. Superheroes certainly have their own shorthand. We know who the guy with the huge biceps and chin that doubles as a nutcracker is supposed to be. We understand the multi-trillionaire with the cowl has all the gadgets. The genre definitely has its tropes...and those easily-accessible ones help set up a world...and then allow authors to flip it upside down.

Grandeur and wonder already included. People can fly, run faster than sound, move things with their minds, and walk through walls. These are not normal abilities (except in comics, of course). Sure, these things can become mundane, but writers who step back and awe at these superhuman acts can share the experience with their readers.

You want stakes? I got your stakes right here. Every story needs high stakes, something big on the line. The stakes don't get any "higher" than superhero stories. I mean, come on, the world's going to blow up. An alien invasion is imminent. A mad scientist plans to unleash a super ray turning everyone into Christopher Walken ( sounds like the perfect world...but when everyone is Walken, there is no Walken).

What do you think? What draws you to the genre? What pushes you away? Is this just "kid stuff?"