Nov 21 2007

Where are the happy superheroes?

I recently wrote a scene where Agents Orange and Black discussed how the government might profile the alternate identities of superheroes. Black focused on relationship troubles and Orange goes for characteristics like being close to people that have been kidnapped more than once.

I think I missed two important characteristics: cheerfulness (specifically the lack of it) and extraordinary and seemingly inexplicable job performance.

Job Performance

No matter how “ordinary” superheroes pretend to be, they always end up having spectacularly successful alternate identities. They won’t just be a mild-mannered journalist, they’ll be a Pulitzer-quality mild-mannered journalist. Even freelance photographers, the homeless bums of the media world, will be so eminent that they publically tell their boss they want twice the money. Industrialists will invariably build world-shaping conglomerates. Let’s not even talk about super-scientists. (Well, actually, I will talk about them, in the chapters with Jacob Mallow and Dr. Berkeley).

If I were in charge of the OSI, I’d *definitely* have a watchlist of the 500-1000 most productive and influential members of American society, with a focus on top performers in the scientific, media, academic and business communities. We can rule out the political/governmental/judicial sphere, but definitely not pro bono civil rights attorneys looking to make the world a better place. That’s obviously too many people to run surveillance on, but it should seem highly suspicious if any of these individuals is involved in anything supercrime-related. Who misses one board meeting too many? Who has cranked out one Nobel-worthy advancement after another? Of course, that works for government-friendly scientists as well.. .

The OSI’s WWII-era predecessor did a comically bad job attempting to cover up the species of Dr. Joe “Slizard,” who showed that an atomic bomb was theoretically possible. Of course, in WWII keeping the identities (and species) of your scientists was critical because roughly a third of the nation’s lab assistants were fanatically hardened Nazi assassins. The real Slizard was saved on several occasions because a Nazi threw himself at a paid actor that played Slizard at public functions.

Cheerfulness, a lack of

Ever since the end of the Silver Age of comic books, most superheroes seem to have been pathologically unhappy. This unhappiness often stems from personal tragedy, government/social persecution, or the realization that you’re a tool who only get published to make shots at Vietnam veterans.

On the whole, superheroes often demonstrate a marked inability to cope with loss and trauma without becoming 1) totally withdrawn/asocial 2) pathologically violent 3) internally conflicted. It’s probably a good thing that American servicemen have proven much more resilient than Captain America; beating the Nazis and subsequent foes would have been quite tricky if everyone went to pieces as soon a friend died. NOOOOOO, BUCKY!

Speaking of post-traumatic stress disorder, Andrew Sullivan and Blackfive, the Paratrooper of Love, go at it over how best to help the traumatized deal with PSTD.

In terms of OSI target identification, I think that I’d place a special emphasis on people that are…

  1. Cynical– though many heroes try to hide it with quips, pretty much every superhero is cynical and/or grim
  2. Unable to find happiness in everyday affairs; perpetually depressed
  3. Noticeably asocial– have you seen the latest Batman movie?
  4. Short on intimate, deep relationships.

Spiderman is the crucial exception to most of these, but even he can get emo when Venom is involved. This rubs against Rule 27 of Comic Books: He who is the most well-adjusted is the most ass-kickarific, with the corollary “with great power comes great instability.”

But, generally, I think that a psychiatrist would have some success identifying potential targets of concern. Just another reason that the hero-in-hiding should stay away from the counseling services of the Bedlam Clinic.

Superhero Nation specifically

I don’t think that many of my characters are deeply unhappy except perhaps Jacob Mallow. I’m inclined to think that angst and superheroicness are mutually exclusive. And angsty supervillains are damn unsatisfying and lack the charisma to really move the audience and plotline. So even Paingod is pretty optimistic, in a villainously libertarian kind of way.

8 responses so far

8 Responses to “Where are the happy superheroes?”

  1. ShardReaperon 12 Jul 2009 at 6:20 pm

    The problem with that is that the dialogue could, in my opinion, come off as strained. For example, if he was slightly less cynical, but still enough to make rude snide comments at any chance, the character would be a total dick. And then you’d have to have an encounter with Samantha where she makes a comment about his humanity or something along those lines and he slowly reverts to his original self; those types of situations could come off as forced and cliched.

  2. FarawaySoulon 12 Jul 2009 at 6:42 pm

    What about a character that creates a kind of… how to put it… cheerful “mask” as a response to sorrow? He practically tricks himself into believing that he is fine when he actually isn’t. It’s not in his POV, so he might be relatively easy to write… or maybe not.


    I made the bored, light-hearted character Riley because I thought those sad, vengeful characters where too cliche. Too bad it’s hard to write him.

  3. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Jul 2009 at 7:13 pm

    In one of my other ideas, I thought up a character who is literally emotionless and doesn’t even pretend to have them. A running gag is that the other characters forget it a lot and he has to remind them:

    (Female character accidentally knock him over, lands on top of him)

    GIRL: Uh, this is awkward.

    GUY: Maybe for you.


    GUY: Emotionless, remember? Unbreakable spell.


    GIRL: How badly do you want the curse to be broken?

    GUY: I can’t care, that’s the whole point of the curse.

    GIRL: Oh, yeah, that detail just slips my mind a lot.

    GUY: Not half.

    When he gets his emotions back (or if, I haven’t decided whether to give him a happy ending or a neutral one) he’ll be having quite a few mood swings as he experiences all the emotion he was meant to over the years he was cursed. Haha.

    “I hate myself and want to die. I hate you guys, too. OOH, A PONY! Let’s go jump in the lake! Eep! The army will catch up to us soon. You guys aren’t spies, are you? I’m so glad you’re my friends! NOW SHUT UP!” Haha.

  4. Marissaon 12 Jul 2009 at 7:15 pm

    Whovian, he sounds… pregnant. In the end, I mean.

    “Oh, it doesn’t really hurt and it’s so beautiful and magical, BUT OH GOSH THE AGONY, YOU DID THIS TO ME, GET THIS HELLSPAWN OUT OF ME,” etc.

    (…Just to clarify, that was meant as a joke.)

  5. ShardReaperon 12 Jul 2009 at 7:41 pm

    Usually a cynical person would be considered a shell of their former self and in a way, it’d be like their humanity was stripped away and they were all grim, all the time. So Sam would say something along the lines of “give me the guy who always brought a smile to my face.” You get what I’m saying?

  6. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Jul 2009 at 7:42 pm

    Haha. Yeah, he does, eh? I might have someone say that actually.

    GIRL: What the hell, are you pregnant?

    GUY: What the hell, did you fail sex ed? OF COURSE I’M NOT, YOU IDIOT!

    GIRL: You’re insane.

    GUY: …How can you say something like that to me? (cries)

    Haha. Seeing as he’s a badass magic user who used to work for the enemy and could own Chuck Norris in a fight, I find that extra funny.

  7. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 12 Jul 2009 at 7:49 pm

    “It’d be like their humanity was stripped away”

    I have the emotionless guy mention that when he has the opportunity to see his family again:

    GIRL: You listen to me! You have a family who would welcome and love you no matter what! You’re lucky that it wasn’t taken away from you!”

    GUY: I’m the one without emotion, but you are showing a lack of empathy. If you don’t have that, use logic. I have no humanity left. They think I’m dead, and when they find out I am nothing but a shell, they will be crushed because that means I don’t love them anymore. I can’t just say to them ‘I don’t love you because I was mind raped’.

    I love metaphors about humanity. When they’re well executed, they make me think for ages about what makes us human, why we’re here, etc.

  8. B. Macon 12 Jul 2009 at 8:19 pm

    Rather than having Sam say he always brought a smile to his her face, I’d recommend giving us details. How has he helped Sam before? (This is a pretty good way to show the protagonist’s personality… for example, we could show that he’s humorous by pulling goofy antics, helpful or thoughtful by helping Sam in a way that really matters, a bit snarky by making fun of Sam whenever he she needed some perspective, etc. (I know some people that complained about getting 96% on tests… some gentle mockery is exactly what they need).

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