So, Gretnablue, Brawl2099, and I had a great discussion about what we like to see in characters that we think makes them great superheroes. The debate of which superhero is greatest will never end. Superman vs. Batman? Spider-Man vs. Batman? Wolverine vs. Batman? (Apparently a lot of people think Batman is great.) Those are questions that can never be answered to everyone’s satisfaction. On the other hand, what makes them great, that’s a lot easier to talk about.
Title image by Gretnablue.
Gretnablue: Firstly, you need something to get attached to them. This is going to be vastly different from person to person and I don’t think there is going to be one universal trait everyone can appreciate. It can be as simple as they find the character to be an excellent fighter, or have a personal connection etc. Take for example me and Cassandra Cain. The reason I was invested after issue #1 of Batgirl was because I felt connected to her because of how she struggled to speak and write. As a kid, I struggled greatly with my handwriting and seeing someone who also struggled and was able to be a badass respected by someone like Batman was rather inspirational to me.
Left: Batman #567 by Kalley Puckett, art by Damion Scott.
Aderyn: The ability to relate to the reader is in my top three as well. I don’t have to be able to project force-fields and turn invisible at will to connect with Sue Storm over the way she had a more motherly role with her brother growing up and had a similar instinct with him in their adult lives. Seeing someone that is similar to you acting as a superhero gives you that feeling like you can do anything too. Another way I think is when a character has a specific event or disability they overcome because, again, it makes the reader feel like they too can do anything. A great example of this is Echo.
Brawl2099: I totally think this is important, and that’s definitely why I am a much bigger Marvel fan than DC fan. With the exception of the Flashes, DC characters are larger than life gods. Marvel characters are your next door neighbor. I actually relate the most to Peter Parker. As a kid, I was a scrawny nerd who was often bullied, and often the smartest person in the room. That was Peter to a T, and I really loved it. It’s funny because that’s also why I love Superman, but it’s not the Superman side of him that I relate to the most, it’s the Clark side- a humble, unassuming farmboy. You need to have a human side.
Above: Superman & Pa Kent in Action Comics: Brainiac Part 4 by Geoff Johns. Image by Gary Frank.
Gretnablue: With your first point, I think we very much agree. I’ll admit I haven’t read much of the Fantastic Four (about 20 issues if I remember right) so I can’t comment on the specifics, but I do agree with the sentiment that seeing a superhero that you relate to gives you that feeling like you can do anything. The only thing I might disagree with is disabilities because that can backfire easily if the writer of the comic isn’t careful. I have autism and I have often found that heroes or characters with autism in comics either come across as offensive or patronizing caricatures that fall into untrue stereotypes. The problem is that writers assume Rain Man = autism (ignoring the fact that the man who Rain Man was based on wasn’t autistic) and ignore the fact that autistic savants only make up 1 of every 1000 people with autism and the majority of us are just normal people.
Aderyn: Yeah, characters with disabilities is a challenge to accurately portray, but I love it when it happens, even if I’m not disabled myself, because it makes for a better story. I greatly enjoyed the recent Hawkeye runs where you see a bit of what it’s like living as a superhero (both on the job and off) while being deaf, which is vastly different from when you have a superhero whose superpowers or cybernetic enhancements make up for the disability so that it’s hardly like s/he even has a disability, such as Daredevil.
Above: Hawkeye vs. Deadpool by Harren Duggan, art by Matteo Lolli
Brawl2099: That is such a double edged sword for relatability. I think that speaks to the writer doing their research, which is important. Anyone can be a geek, but what is it like to be blind? Deaf? Autistic? Hell, what’s it like being a lawyer? Without research, you go from a relatable character to a joke.
Gretnablue: Secondly, the thing that gets you invested should only be the start of it because if that is all the hero can offer, then you’re going to get bored quickly. This is why I think heroes that are everymen get boring after a while, they’re whole gimmick is that they are average. With Cassandra Cain it gave me intrigue, action, lessons on deception and ambition. It gave me both dark humor and incredibly good dynamics with her parents.
Aderyn: I have to disagree about the “everyman” being boring. Peter Parker in high school, yeah that can get boring after the billionth time, but I don’t think it’s a universal rule. Look at the Fantastic Four, sure they’re not laymen and instead are a well respected scientific genius, an Air Force pilot or astronaut depending on the continuity, and the CEO and COO of a major corporation. However, they’re Human side is what makes them engaging. Sue being a mother had changed her character into one with more agency. Johnny’s reluctance to maintain an intimate relationship with women over his fear of losing control of his powers is what makes him more sympathetic. Reed and Ben’s friendship is the cornerstone on which the team is built, and without it the team wouldn’t be as functional as they are.
Above: Fantastic Four #526 by Karl Kesel, art by Tom Grummett and Paul Mounts
Brawl2099: I kind of agree and disagree about the everyman point. Everyman-ness only gets you so far. There needs to be growth, and that growth is what gets you invested in the character. I know a hell of a lot of Spider-Man readers who dropped the character with “Brand New Day.” Why? Because the character that grew up alongside them suddenly lost all of that growth, while they were still in that same stage in life.
Gretnablue: The Fantastic Four are not what I would consider everymen. They are connectable and have humanity yes, but they also have plenty that makes them atypical and fantastical in my opinion. They are in the same boat as Batman, Green Lantern, Power Girl and Spawn in my opinion. Great in their own ways (Spawn is my third favorite hero) but not what I would call everymen.
Aderyn: I guess we just have a different definition, because I consider them everymen because without their superpowers they aren’t fantastical (yes, I like puns). Batman is a billionaire genius and far from an everyman character, I agree, same with the others. Fantastic Four is four people who came together before they even got their powers due to friendship, and of course, courtship.
Brawl2099: The thing (pun!) that gets you invested in the FF is their family dynamic. They’re far far from the “everyman” archetype, but they’re a family. There is no one in the world that doesn’t relate to that, whether they have a family themselves or not.
Gretnablue: What I meant are people who are specifically designed to be average Joe’s, with lives and personalities that their average readers would have like Kick-Ass, Scott Lang or Spider-Man. My problem with them is that A, you are never going to make a character that can appeal to everyone and B, they often find themselves in a rut doing the same things over and over because either the writers or someone in the comic-book food-chain is scared of evolving him/her in case of losing their readers. You’re right that this isn’t universally true and in my experience, the everymen who slowly evolve and adapt are the ones who shine like Sailor Moon, Ms Marvel and Dick Grayson.
Aderyn: Okay, those type of everyman I could see being problematic and repetitive. I love Spidey, but they’d definitely written themselves into a corner a few times that have led to less than desirable storylines. (I’m not naming names!)
Brawl2099: I’ll name names, JMS did it with Spidey. He put him in a high tower with his Avengers stories, then knocked him down way too far. Howard Mackie did it by tearing his life apart to the point that it was unbelievable and no longer relatable (who on earth could relate to your wife being blown up on a plain by a deranged stalker?!). You’ve got to keep the characters human. The Fantastic Four can go on the craziest adventures that no one can really ever get, but by grounding them in struggles at home, you’ve made them human again. That’s the same thing to go with the characters that Gretna mentioned. Kamala Khan is a different character 18 issues in than she was in issue #1. Dick Grayson is worlds away from his starting point. But you sympathize. You relate. You’re invested in where they end up.
Above: Dick Grayson/Nightwing in Grayson #4 by Tom King and Tim Seeley, Art by Mikel Janin.
Gretnablue: Lastly, writing will play a very important roles in making important a great hero. Poor writing can absolutely destroy a character’s reputation and even if the rest of the series writing is good, a massive cock-up can stay with a character for decades. Take Ant-Man, for example. Many comic book fans will always associate him with wife beating, or Spider-Man with deals with the devil or even Cassandra Cain with the events of One Year Later. Of course, no characters history will be perfect, it’s impossible. The key is though is whether the cons out way the pros, whether the bad stuff becomes so well known that it will always haunt the character.
Above: Young Avengers #4 by Allan Heinberg, art by Jim Cheung and John Dell.
Aderyn: Good writing is vastly important, I agree. It’s the centerpiece for any good Superhero because you can create the best superhero imaginable, but you can’t just tell us s/he’s awesome, this is comic books, you have to show us them being awesome. If the writing isn’t good then the character cannot develop and capture the attention of the reader. It’s semi related to my second point, which is a good villain. When people think Batman, they think the Joker. When they think Fantastic Four, they think Doctor Doom. When they think Xavier, they think Magneto. It’s not just having an adversary to fight, in the three that I list above they all have an interesting dynamic with their villain that is more than a fistfight and a ride to a jail cell. Doom and Magneto have both been allies to our heroes over the years, and Batman and Joker’s relationship has been well established to be mutually destructive.
Gretnablue: I agree that a villain can help make a good hero, but I don’t think it is a necessary one, especially nowadays. Take Iron Man for example. His rogue’s gallery has been a joke for decades, often called as Spider-Man rejects along with Daredevils rogues. However, he has gained popularity and greatness in recent years in face of that. Looking at the films, the villains are not the best, especially Whiplash. But thanks to Jr’s performance, Iron Man was able to overcome it.
Brawl2099: To go with it, writers need to learn when to let go. Compelling writing is key, but too many of these writers can’t let it go after a certain amount of time. They transform from compelling to hacks so quickly. Think of JMS on Spidey. He’s not known for the killer Morlun/Ezekiel story that started his run. He’s known for Sins Past, Civil War and One More Day. Superman in the New 52 has tons of issues, but one of the big issues was that the character was never made compelling until the point that Greg Pak and Charles Soule started writing him (in Superman/Batman and Superman/Wonder Woman), largely because some writers just hung on too long. As much as I disagree with the decision to “unmask” Clark Kent as Superman, you can’t deny that it’s engaging. It’s getting Superman back on track.
Aderyn: My final characteristic is a personal moral code. It doesn’t have to be so righteous as Captain America’s or Superman’s. I don’t even have to agree with everything they do, (Heck, one of my favorites is Deadpool and his moral code is circuitous at best). I do want to see where they draw the line, what they will or won’t sacrifice to do what they think is right. How they deal when something confronts them that goes against their code or when they have an ally who goes against it. The complex moral dilemmas are not only interesting at a personal level, but they are what helps define the term Superhero.
Gretnablue: I completely agree with you on the moral code and I can’t believe I didn’t think of that myself.
Brawl2099: I would amend moral code to include motivation. You could argue that one of the things that makes Deadpool great is a lack of moral code (or maybe even his moral code is whatever he’s paid for it to be). The Punisher’s only moral is that he punishes the guilty. It really doesn’t matter who it is- they need to have a clear motivation, and a moral code that has an internal logic. It doesn’t have to be real morals. It just has to make sense to the character and the reader.
Above: Amazing Spider-Man #517 by Stan Lee, art by Mark Brooks, Mike Deodato, and Jose Pimentel
So now, what do you all think? What characteristics do you think make a Superhero elevate to greatness? How do you want to see your favorite Superhero portrayed?
And don’t forget to join the three of us as we use this as a baseline to battle it out as we debate who the greatest Superhero of them all! (Which, will of course again not be answered to everyone’s satisfaction.) It will be a battle for the ages! Blood will be spilled! Comics will be torn! We will draw the line and have a 2 against 1 on the Marvel vs DC debate, war will begin.