Who Are the Superheroes of the 21st Century? (And a New Release!)

When I started working on THE MINUS FACTION, I decided that I wanted way more realism than you would find in a standard comic book. I also wanted to avoid mere replication of the classic superhero canon, which is to say:

-a (usually white) male meta-human prince (Superman, Thor, Namor, Black Panther, etc.)
-a (usually white) male titan of industry (Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, and so forth)
-a (usually white) male accident of occult science (Flash, Spider-man, Hulk, and many more)

Nor did I want them to be simply female versions of those things — or worse, mere knock-offs like Supergirl, She-Hulk, Batgirl, Spider-woman, and the rest — for as much as Wonder Woman was an advance, she still reinforced traditional race and class divisions. Diana rules because she’s best fitted to because she’s an aristocrat: as ennobled of character as of physical strength. And is anything whiter than a star-spangled master meta-race of mythologized Graeco-Roman-European-Americans?

I think not.

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The old heroes, as Mal McDoom notes in Episode Two, are fundamentally conservative power-fantasies where we as readers project ourselves into the entitled and beautiful classes to do battle with external threats: Nazis, aliens, supervillains seeking to enslave mankind. That kind of thing.

To be fair, some of that is born of necessity. It’s hard to write Superman directly into any actual historical event as his involvement would necessarily change the outcome. And then there is the commercial necessity of not offending your readers, only half of whom are likely to share your politics on any given subject. Thus you have to keep your evil as ecumenical as possible, something that threatens everyone rather than one or another segment of society. An invading force from across the sea (or another dimension) fits that bill nicely.

But more importantly, we like our mythic superheroes to be exactly that, mythic. The exploits of the superhuman Gilgamesh were read aloud at the Babylonian New Year, every year, because his story exists singularly outside linear time, rather than for a mere moment as our lives do. The Babylonians didn’t experience the epic as we experience an audiobook, or even a biography. To them, it represented mankind’s climb from barbarism — symbolized by Gilgamesh’s accord with the wild-man and near-equal Enkidu — and our ultimate mortality. These were timeless truths whose lessons needed to be continually reaffirmed as part of the annual cycle, the eternal return.

This is why superhero stories are so often rebooted, and no one ever really dies. They are mythic, not linear. They gain their power not by advancing from cause to effect and ultimate end, but by being told and retold, Just like the parables of Jesus or antics of Krishna, Peter Parker must keep learning, over and over, that with great power comes great responsibility, because his is a parable of entry into adulthood, and the more the story deviates from that, the worse it tends to be.

But despite all those good reasons, the fact remains that you rarely see superheroes directly tackling actual problems normal people face. Poverty, for example. Or racism. If present, it’s usually a side note to the story, something that’s noted on the way to or from the fight with the bad guy, something the superhero could get to if only he weren’t so busy constantly battling a more immediate (but ultimately toothless) evil. As much as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark might sacrifice for the rest of us, at the end of the day, they’re still princes, just like Gilgamesh or the Buddha. They still retire to a secure and private castle full of servants and luxury and beautiful companions where they don’t actually have to rub elbows with any of the people they just saved from imminent doom.

That all sounds very political, but really I’m not aiming for it to be. In fact, with THE MINUS FACTION I wanted to explicitly avoid the implicit politics we inherited in the myths of the 20th century. I wanted a clean slate. So I asked myself “Who are the superheroes of the 21st Century? And what would they face?”

Coming up with challenges is easy. Just read the news. Wealth inequality. Environmental decay. The use of technology to control and suppress rather than enlighten and empower.The loss of authenticity that follows the loss of autonomy that follows the loss of privacy.

Of course, starting fresh doesn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Archetypes resonate for a reason. So right away I knew I wanted — indeed, I needed — a character who was super-strong. Physical power is the purest, simplest superhuman trait. It was also clear, in answer to my question, that a super-strong character in the 21st century should be female. But that left me at immediate risk of knockoff syndrome, of creating a superficially female tough guy: a butt-kicking, name-taking celebrity/scientist/entrepreneur/princess who undergoes a super-powered transformation that reveals or mimics her “true form.” Ben Grimm was the kind of guy who would give you a clobberin’ long before he became The Thing.

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I love inverting tropes. It’s what I do best. There are so many weaklings-turned-strong. Why not make the super-powerful character powerless? Such a person would be resisted, especially if that person were female in a poor country. (Let’s face it. In the era of rapid globalization, all the heroes can’t come from North America, even though that is my major market.) The social structure abhors a deviant, after all.

No, you aren’t a deviant. Not really. The social structure lets you think you are to keep you from being an actual deviant, such as a pedophile. The social structure first tells deviants that really they’re not. “You’re not really gay. It’s all in your head. We can cure you.” Failing that, the social structure resorts to threats, followed by actual violence.

But actual violence doesn’t work so well against a woman who can curl Volkswagens. So the social order tells her, “You’re not really super-strong. It’s all in your head. We can cure you.” And that is the origin of Xana. From Guyana. A country in the AmaZON. Named after the mythical all-female race.

Of course, a lifetime of being shat upon is not something you just cast off in one day, even a day where you beat Boraro the Disemboweler in a single blow. It takes a little more than that. Like having a city bus dropped on your head…

I took exactly the same approach with John, but where Xana’s inversion is psychological, his is physical. Every superhero team needs a super-warrior, of course, someone trained in actual combat. Otherwise there’s not much hope anyone would survive, at least not in the real world. But how to make that new?

By making him a contradiction, a man whose physical realities are at odds with his potency and whose power is at odds with his conscience. Not Steve Rogers, weakling-turned-hero, but the opposite, the inversion: Captain America turned weakling

After John, I had a clear strategy and coming up with my team got easier. I knew I wanted to have a genius, a master architect (often of questionable morality) who serves as the foil to the conscience of the team: Batman to Superman, Iron Man to Captain America, Ozymandias to Rorschach. What’s a bigger contradiction/inversion than putting that ability in the body of an eleven-year-old girl?

Excuse me, eleven-and-a-half.

Where Xana is the heart of the team and John the spirit, Wink is the brain. That left only one thing: the folly. And since every great team is bestowed from beyond — Thor’s hammer, Green Lantern’s ring — it made sense (and was another contradiction/inversion) to put the most power in the body of the least competent: an everyman.

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But that creates an immediate imbalance. If Ian’s abilities were under his direct and conscious control, he’d be more than a match for anyone in my slightly-more-realistic superhuman universe. On the other hand, if his powers merely manifest at random, the character becomes a mere vessel, and that strays awfully close to deus ex machina, a plot device I abhor. (His powers, if not under his control, would need to keep appearing ex nihilo to save his life.) But more to the point, it’s hard for readers to root for an inanimate object. Ian-as-host becomes an annoying distraction.

My answer was to put his abilities under his autonomic rather than somatic nervous system — which meant he could only get at them indirectly — and to make their use a genuine threat to his own safety so that he couldn’t just keep whipping them out all the time. And I even snuck in a reference to Mjolnir. In Episode Three, the Professor mentions the Oric was named after the Bronze Age god in whose statue it was found, and that the meteor-like vessel that brought it to earth would have appeared to those Bronze Age people as if their god had smote the sky with his hammer. (Then he adds, “I think we were meant to find it.”)

But it’s the formation of the team, how they are brought together, that most directly answers my question — who are the superheroes of the 21st century. It’s not what you think. At least not yet. You’ll have to wait for Episode Five: Aftershock to discover the truth. Let’s just say that team really is a four-letter word.

Before that, we need to see the gang in action together, both for and against each other. Episode Four: Blackout sees John vs. Ian, Xana vs. Wink, and all four against a resurgent menace, including everyone’s favorite psychopathic bolt-thrower alongside a new enemy: a former Royal Marine and current paranoid schizophrenic who may be the only person on the planet stronger than Xan.

All Deadbolt and Brickbat need is the cover of darkness, which the team accidentally provides. And I promise nothing is the same after.

Episode Four: Blackout, available now!

Team

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