Goodness, it’s been a while, hasn’t it? Office work became increasingly problematic over the years, but thanks to a wonderful opportunity that I will be able to detail in the coming weeks, I can focus on my creative writing full-time.
That said, the overwhelming majority of my forthcoming work will be for the client that has made my liberation possible. Again, I will explain further soon, but for now, I’d like to talk about one of my design philosophies, particularly when it comes to superhero settings.
It can be argued that the very first page in the first superhero comic indulged in explaining its protagonist’s fantastic powers. (The only argument being, was Superman the first superhero?) Wisely, Siegel and Shuster kept the exposition on the topic to under a hundred words and a mere two panels, but on that first page they established a tradition that continues to this day.
As the superhero genre grew, however, empowered characters developed an ever-growing set of origins. This was no problem when each was in his or her own setting. Superman fought brilliant criminals, every threat explained through science and engineering. Captain Marvel – today known as Shazam – faced foes with either fantastic technology or diabolic magic, and his allies came from the same origin set. The Flash and Captain America battled fellow mutates and even more mad scientists. Wonder Woman’s foes had alien powers, divine might, or…yep, more mad science.
The debut of the Justice Society changed comics forever, uniting an all-star team of heroes from multiple lines. Justice Society adventures were thrilling affairs where the team faced world-shaking threats. They also begged a rather formidable question: Wait, how can all these people live in the same world at the same time? One Flash or Wonder Woman or Green Lantern or Hawkman was implausible, but our world is filled with implausible things. If the platypus is real, why not a superhero? The problem becomes when you ask readers to go from accepting a single one-in-a-billion improbability to a dozen such improbabilities. A hundred. A thousand.
Wait a minute…
For decades, comics leaned on what would one day be known as Bellisario’s Maxim. Some indulged in the fantasy that the heroes were real, just having adventures “over there,” so why would reality need an explanation? Others dodged or ignored the question entirely. Superheroes are super because that’s how the genre is. It’s right there in the name.
As comics – or more to the point, comic fans – grew up, hand waves became less satisfying for many. Humans are problem-solving animals. We want to know how things work. So as the Golden Age faded into Silver, then Bronze, then Iron, comic creators increasingly sought Unified Superfield Theories. For new settings, this was easy enough to bake in, assuming the team didn’t decide to go off the rails later. Existing worlds, however, faced a dilemma. They already had inventors, mutants, wizards, aliens, psychics, synthetics, demigods, and countless other anomalies fighting side by side against a host of myriad foes with as many different origins, if not more.
Marvel went with cosmic intervention. The Celestials tampered with humanity, infusing us with the X-Factor gene, while more esoteric entities were responsible for sorcery and its ancillary creatures. These powers cosmic are all part of a strange, interconnected society that lurks in the background most of the time, only coming into prominence in comics that directly involve titanic powers, or for epic crossovers where the universe or multiverse was at stake. To put it more simply…the King did it.
DC has not had as much luck in creating an interconnected origin. They tried to use the Source – which, to be honest, I don’t think is a bad idea – but that went over about as well as Parallax. Superman’s arrival is often the spark for the superheroic age, sparking a metagene renaissance, but the effect rarely comes from direct intervention (Smallville’s Kryptonite mutants being a notable exception).
The upshot of all this history is that, in my admittedly unscientific and anecdotal experience, there has been a long, slow riposte to this trend: the aforementioned Maxim, or its twin sibling, the MST3K Mantra: “It’s just a show, I should really just relax.” As a rule, there’s nothing wrong with that. I love comic books and superheroes, and if the explanation is “this universe is weird and has a lot of stuff going on, don’t overthink it,” that’s great! Thing is, the pushback can lead to a rejection of the entire idea of the UST (Unified Superfield Theory, not the other thing), opposing the notion that any superhero setting should have cohesive metaphysics.
As most readers have likely figured out, I disagree with that position. While there’s nothing wrong with willing suspension of disbelief, I’m one of those people who likes to pop open the proverbial hood and get into a setting’s engine. (It will undoubtedly amuse some that I have no such desire with my actual car. I want it to get me from point A to point B and back with minimal fuss.) As examples, I’m fond of Marvel’s cosmic continuum, Aberrant’s quantum mechanics, Watchmen’s “they’re all people in funny suits except for the living god” approach, and the “it’s all magic deep down” model from Champions. Each has advantages and disadvantages, with some placing the super-MacGuffin front and center while others leave it in the background most of the time. Personally, I’m fond of the superhero kitchen sink approach. Whatever the meta-origin may be, it should allow every kind of hero from Superman to Wonder Woman and Doctor Strange to Ironheart.
This is relevant to the work I’m doing today (literally, I’m going to be working on such a model right after posting this). That’s part of what I can’t go into detail on yet, but stay tuned. It won’t be long before I can start nudging the veil aside on a returning classic.
Hope is a phoenix
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