May 26 2009

How to Sell a Magical Superhero Story

Magical superheroes are rare and haven’t sold very well since the Silver Age of comics (late 1950s and 60s). Here are some tips to help you write a magical superhero story that a publisher might take seriously.

1. Do it as a novel, not a comic book. Comic books depend on male readers aged 13-25. The problem is that the people that are most receptive to magical superheroes (kids and women) generally do not buy comic books.  This is one reason that magical superheroes are very, very hard to publish as a comic book. The magical superhero stories that tend to sell even remotely well tend to be TV shows (Sailor Moon or Jake Long) or novels (Dresden Files).

2. If you are absolutely dead-set on a comic book, I recommend using Japanese-style art. American teens are somewhat more tolerant of magic in anime stories like Sailor Moon than they are of American-style stories like Dr. Strange or Zantanna.

3. Make it easy to understand what the character’s magic can do. Make the limits as clear as possible and keep them steady. If the hero’s powers fluctuate over time, it won’t be so interesting when he is suddenly able to overcome an obstacle. If you change the rules to allow the protagonist to succeed, your audience will feel that you’re cheating.

4. Keep the number of spells low. That will help your audience remember what the character can do, and it will help minimize the time you spend describing the content of the character’s spellbook. If all we know about the character is what’s in his spellbook, he’s probably not very interesting.

5. Restrict the protagonists’ access to magic. That will force them to devise nonmagical solutions once in a while, which is interesting. For example, maybe he can only use spells at night or when he’s not tired or maybe he uses up his reagents. If the character has to go without magic once in a while, he will help prove to readers that he is impressive even beyond his magic. For example, the protagonists had to solve puzzles at the end of the first Harry Potter book without using magic. Good stuff!

6. Most successful magical superheroes have Masquerade problems– nonmagical people can’t know about magic. That can create a lot of interesting and dramatic situations. How does your hero save the day and maintain the secret? It also helps keep the world somewhat relatable. Well, there are a lot of magical creatures running around, but life is still more or less the same for 99% of humanity.

7. Give the characters spells that can be used outside of combat. For example, Raven has telekinesis, which is fairly versatile.

8. I generally recommend against mixing magic and science fiction. It usually doesn’t work. Mixing fantasy and science fiction is usually tacky. I think that’s why audiences hated the alien twist at the end of Indiana Jones and Peter Parker’s deal with the devil in One More Day.

38 responses so far

38 Responses to “How to Sell a Magical Superhero Story”

  1. Andyon 26 May 2009 at 4:56 pm

    I enjoy reading your site, but it would be nice to know how you go about doing your research for these articles. Do you have sales figures or other statistics to back up your assertions about the non-popularity of magic-based super heroes, or are you just giving your impressions of the market?

    Just off the top of my head, it seems like Sandman, Hellboy, and Hellblazer have been fairly successful over the years. Alan Moore does magical heroes well (The League and Promethea, for example). Thor, Doctor Strange and Scarlet Witch have been important members of various incarnations of the Avengers. I recently saw Doctor Fate in an episode of The Brave and the Bold fighting alongside Batman. The Fantastic Four are basically sci-fi, but they regularly battle Doctor Doom. Batman has no powers, but he’s gone up against Ra’s al Ghul. There are plenty of other examples where sci-fi and magic mix in the comic world.

    In the larger pop culture, you’ve got Vampires and Zombies showing up everywhere you look. Not to mention Buffy Season 8 and other cross-over titles.

    So where exactly is the downside?

  2. Ragged Boyon 26 May 2009 at 5:34 pm

    Although, I do agree that most are relatively accepted heroes, they aren’t top-tier on a more national level. I say most of them, despite their strength, are B-class heroes at best, with maybe an exception of Dream (But I don’t think he counts as a superhero). And most of them are in their own magical setting, so it feels more natural than if they are thrown in with the regular vigilantes. I doubt I could find one recent magic superhero that has sold exceptionally well.

  3. B. Macon 27 May 2009 at 6:10 am

    Hello, Andy. I follow monthly comic sales pretty religiously. Except for Buffy– which is different from conventional superhero stories in a few important ways– I’d say that it’s unusual for magical heroes to crack the top 20 comic books in a given month. There are rare exceptions, but generally magical superheroes are kind of niche.

    For example, let’s take Hellblazer. On the April bestseller list, it reached #170. It reached #141 in March and #146 in February. Hellboy and Dr. Strange aren’t particularly close to the top 50, either.

  4. Stefan the Exploding Manon 27 May 2009 at 7:34 am

    A couple of comic books involving magic feature a bruiser main character. The Goon and Hellboy, for example, both of which basically involve the titular character beating magical baddies with their fists. The magical aspect isn’t dwelt upon too much and I think that’s the key. Having a set of rules for your magic and actually explaining these rules in the story can get pretty boring.

    The better comics about magic don’t feature superheroes. I haven’t read a good Doctor Strange comic in ages, and I honestly can’t keep track of how many times the Scarlet Witch has gone insane and changed reality with her powers. Magic comics work better as horror, I think. Swamp Thing, Sandman and Hellblazer sometimes, I suppose. All insanely good comic books, even though they don’t sell well.

    On something slightly unrelated, it really ticks me off when really good monthly series get cancelled due to poor sales, while monstrosities like Hulk still exist and sell better than they should.

  5. Ragged Boyon 27 May 2009 at 7:41 am

    I’m glad DC Comics, particularly Battle for the Cowl, is doing well and that Dark Horse made a higher listing (Even if it was Buffy).

    I hate most of Marvel, definitely including that big green booger.

  6. Ragged Boyon 27 May 2009 at 7:46 am

    Personally, I feel like it’s time for a change in both Marvel and DC. Maybe I’m asking too much. But I think it’s time to move focus away from the heroes of the Golden Age and focus on the Modern Age. When was the last time any of them came out with a new interesting superhero? I’m tired of Batman, Ironman, Superman, Spiderman, Cap’n America, and the Hulk. Maybe I’m not looking hard enough. I think I’m the only one who feel this way.

  7. Tomon 27 May 2009 at 7:52 am

    I agree to an extent. I think the world needs new superheroes who still follow the good parts of the old forumla (secret identity, superpowers etc etc.). But that’s why we’re here! To make the new superheroes of the 21st century! Well, that’s one of the reasons i’m here anyway.

    But at the same time, I want the old superheroes to stick around. I still like Spider-Man and Batman. The others… not so much. :P

  8. B. Macon 27 May 2009 at 8:00 am

    In the last twenty years, I think the most major additions have been Static Shock and Hellboy. Hopefully I’m forgetting someone major. I don’t see the Sentry catching on. ;-)

  9. Tomon 27 May 2009 at 8:05 am

    That’s in the comic book industry. On television we’ve seen Danny Phantom, Ben 10, and, dare I say it… Freakozoid. Then of course there’s all of the animated and live action adaptations of loads of superheroes on both small and big screen, each with reimaginings of the original stories.

    Your Mileage May Vary on how much you class Danny Phantom and Ben 10 as superheroes in the classic sense. Danny Phantom’s criminals have no intention to rob banks or take over the world (mostly) and Ben 10 is never referred to by the eponymous title at any point in the show. (I have been waiting for a chance to use the word eponymous for so long!)

  10. Ragged Boyon 27 May 2009 at 8:07 am

    “But that’s why we’re here! To make the new superheroes of the 21st century!”

    You’ve got an amazing point! I don’t know if Showtime will catch on, but at least we’ll be trying to move superheroes forward. I think this is just a fanatastic vision of mine, but I suspect we could incur a ‘baby boom’ for superheroes from our generation. I’m hoping we can revolutionize the industry and move it to our time. I’m such a modernist.

  11. Tomon 27 May 2009 at 8:12 am

    I fully agree! After Watchmen it seems as though superheroes went through a deconstruction period. I say we need to bring superheroes back! We need to do a reconstruction of the superhero genre. We need to say “y’know what, superheroes aren’t that bad! Sure they’ve been a little shaky recently but we’re here to set things straight!”

    That TVTropes article on Trope life cycles would be appropriate here. Too lazy to link.

  12. Tomon 27 May 2009 at 8:13 am

    Ah! I knew there was a superhero I forgot. American Dragon… and Kim Possible for that matter. Again, Your Mileage May Vary on how much they classify as superheroes.

  13. Ragged Boyon 27 May 2009 at 8:22 am

    I’ve been waiting a long time to use the word ‘modernist’. Then I realized that I am one and can use it to describe myself.

    I think the main problem with superheroes now is that a you have to avoid tons of cliches about what a superhero is supposed to be and do. It will take an exceptionally talented and creative writer to be the next Alan Moore in our generation. We almost have to force plots to be interesting and even though its not that hard to do, it takes time. I believe in us, though.

  14. Stefan the Exploding Manon 27 May 2009 at 8:47 am

    I read this quote from this comic book author. Can’t remember who, which is really maddening.

    “The whole point of deconstructing something is that you can put it back together again shinier and better.”

    Alan Moore didn’t intend for all superhero comics to become dark and edgy when he wrote Watchmen. I think superheroes have been taken apart bit by bit for long enough and I’m all for reconstructing superheroes as a genre. Superheroes should be fun!

  15. Ragged Boyon 27 May 2009 at 8:57 am

    Well that does it, dammit. I want all of you to run to your windows, open them and yell “I’m angry as hell!” It’s time to bring superheroes back to its glory.

    Then, I proposed we start the Superheroism Under Reconstruction Front (S.U.R.F.)! :-D Wish the works we plan to do we’ll bring superheroism back.

  16. B. Macon 27 May 2009 at 9:29 am

    Tom said: “On television we’ve seen Danny Phantom, Ben 10, and, dare I say it… Freakozoid.” True, but I don’t think any of those stories have legs. Once the shows run out of seasons– and they always do– that’s the end of it.

    The only lasting series I can think of that was launched by a TV show was TMNT, and now that I think about it, it was actually a RPG for adults before it was a cartoon show for kids. Go figure.

    I think one of the reasons that it’s easier to launch a lasting franchise through comic books than TV shows is that a comic book publisher usually owns the rights. The publisher is freer to push the story as hard and long as readers will take. In contrast, when the creator of a creator-owned series leaves the series, the party is usually over. Publishers are much better-equipped to keep writing the same kind of story for decades and decades. But creators get bored.

  17. B. Macon 27 May 2009 at 9:52 am

    I think that it’s pretty easy to classify Jake Long as a superhero. He shares so many of the peculiarities of most superheroes.
    –supernatural or incredible abilities
    –a modern setting (double points for modern NYC) — this is what distinguishes it from most fantasy stories.
    –a secret identity
    –a supernatural or otherwise incredible origin.
    –cartoonish art
    –the main character’s job description entails violence

    Not sure about Kim Possible.
    –I think the show bends over backwards to show that she’s not superpowered. (Her origin story is cheerleading!?!)
    –Most of her villains seem more like parodies of James Bond characters than supervillains.
    –Her job description does not entail violence and is not primarily protective in nature. (Most of the time, she’s not responding to a villain attacking someone, but rather trying to retrieve something. Violence is secondary. It’s more like Indiana Jones than most superheroes).
    –No secret identity.
    –Not a particularly distinct costume or appearance.

  18. Tomon 27 May 2009 at 9:56 am

    Hmm… I never thought of it like that (regarding the length of the series). There aren’t many cases of TV series spawning long continuities like comic books. Star Trek is the first example that comes to mind but even that ended (sorta…), Doctor Who would be another example thanks to regeneration providing a trick to prolong the series. Transformers too, but there it involved numerous reboots.

    Can you think of any other examples of TV series making long continuities?

  19. Triple-zeroon 27 May 2009 at 9:59 am

    If anyone here is tired of Marvel– God knows I’m not– then try 2000AD. It’s actually fairly good. As well as Judge Dredd, they also did Rogue Trooper.

  20. B. Macon 27 May 2009 at 11:44 am

    TV Tropes has a page devoted to long runners. Hmm. I think Captain Kangaroo, Sesame Street, Power Rangers (multiple series) and The Simpsons are good candidates. There are also a few franchises that launched (in Japan!) with manga and were successfully introduced to Americans with a TV show. That worked for Pokemon, Dragonball Z and Sailor Moon, among many others.

  21. B. Macon 27 May 2009 at 12:06 pm

    Erm, as far as I know, 2000 AD doesn’t do much in the way of magical superheroes. I hate to ask this, but are you a spambot?

  22. Ragged Boyon 27 May 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Oh, B. Mac, how is progress coming with the volunteer moderator’s accounts? Do you have an idea when they’ll be able edit comments?

  23. Marissaon 27 May 2009 at 2:17 pm

    I’m sure he’s doing the best he can, RB. :)

  24. Ragged Boyon 27 May 2009 at 2:35 pm

    I didn’t mean to imply that he wasn’t, I’m just curious.

  25. B. Macon 28 May 2009 at 5:41 am

    I’m not sure about the scheduling on the volunteer moderators. Hopefully by the end of June.

  26. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 28 May 2009 at 6:47 pm

    I agree, new superheroes are getting rare, but that’s what we’re here for! The modern age presents so many more possibilities than previous ages. We’re exploring everything from the reaches of space to the tiny cells that make us up. There are so many possibilities, and I plan to write stories about them until my fingers are worn down to stumps. (Gross image, I know).

    I like manga, too. DNAngel, Black Cat, Lovely Complex and Death Note are all I’ve read, and I love them. I want to go up to the city and buy the remaining volumes of Death Note (I have eight of them) and start collecting the others. Expensive, expensive addiction. Haha.

  27. Ragged Boyon 28 May 2009 at 7:29 pm

    I unless your explicitly collecting them, I don’t see much a purpose in actually buying manga books. When I was younger I just went to bookstores, sat on the floor, and read them. It only takes you 20-30 minutes to read a manga.

    But I’ve since stopped liking manga and most anime.

  28. B. Macon 28 May 2009 at 8:13 pm

    Ragged Boy said: “I don’t see much a purpose in actually buying manga books. When I was younger I just went to bookstores, sat on the floor, and read them. It only takes you 20-30 minutes to read a manga.”

    Sadly, I think that’s mostly true for comic books as well, particularly the ones that focus heavily on combat. (Gigantic, I’m looking at you).

  29. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 28 May 2009 at 8:39 pm

    I’m trying to collect all the volumes of my favourites. It’ll cost a lot and be hard to track them down (we don’t have an abundance here, and the specialty shops for manga are hours away from where I live) but I’m determined.

    I remember watching anime as a kid. I didn’t even know it was different from other cartoons.

    My days were spent on Astro Boy (I watched the 80s series on VHS, the 2003 series came out after I was an established fan), Cardcaptor Sakura, Pokemon and Sailor Moon, most of which I have not seen in ages and have forgotten the plots of. Astro Boy is the only one I can remember in detail, because I was such a fan. I realized the other day that all the pictures I used to draw were fanart! Haha. I was a seven year old fanartist, and the youngest I know of.

  30. Wingson 28 May 2009 at 10:09 pm

    Heh heh…another manga fan!

    I just really like the art in some of the series. Unfortunately, it’s hard to find a lot of books (me: NO! What happens next *dies*). I rather like fantasy manga the most (so many vampire romances… *anger mark on forehead*).

    I do the same, Ragged Boy. That is, reading them at the bookstore (the world’s best library!).

    I think P prefers anime, though (note to self: ask).

    - Wings

  31. Tomon 29 May 2009 at 3:31 am

    The only experience I’ve had of Anime is Dragonball Z, Pokemon, Digimon, this obscure one called Shaman King, one episode of Death Note (some day I will finish the series. Some day…), Yu-Gi-Oh and its first spinoff. Aside from that I’m also a huge fan of Yu-Gi-Oh the Abridged Series and Dragonball Z Abridged. Then of course there’s all the American ‘animes’ or American shows with a distinctly anime style. That of course refers to Avatar: The Last Airbender and Teen Titans. (Yes, Teen Titans is anime-style. Watch any episode and you’ll understand)

    Basically, if it hasn’t been dubbed into english and shown on TV here in the UK at some point, I haven’t seen it (making an exception for Death Note).

  32. Holliequon 29 May 2009 at 4:13 am

    I’ve seen the Death Note films (which were awesome) and mean to watch the anime at some point. It’s been highly recommended by most of my (online) friends.

    Cardcaptor Sakura, Sailor Moon, Pokemon . . . got those! :P I don’t read much manga but what I do read I enjoy. I recently started reading Naruto again.

  33. Wingson 29 May 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Then again, P watches television. No wonder he likes anime.

    My parents are so close to banning manga (I blame my 8 year old sister, who reads the books with the highest ratings and then reads them aloud to my parents). Life without manga is like ice cream without toppings – bor-ing.

    I’ve threatened P with messing up his hair, so he should be online this weekend. Hee hee hee…

    - Wings

  34. The ReTARDISed Whovianon 29 May 2009 at 8:12 pm

    The anime of Death Note is BRILLIANT. It’s just like the manga. But it’s in colour. And it moves. And you can hear it. Haha. One of my friends has the movies, so I’ll ask if I can borrow them next time I see her. I blame one of my friends for getting me into this expensive obsession. She’s a huge fan and talks about anime and manga all the time. It rubbed off on me and now I’m a fan too! Haha.

  35. A. N. Onymouson 29 Jul 2009 at 5:11 pm

    I thought people hated One More Day because of the pointless dissolution of many, many years of characterisation and also its just being editorial interference which was just pointlessly getting rid of the marriage of Mary Jane and Peter Parker; most of the fans I know (and I know quite a few!) would have accepted it had Dr. Strange just cast a spell to heal Aunt May.

  36. George Jackon 16 Oct 2010 at 2:33 am

    I agree with you 100% on writing about a superhero in the form of a novel as oppose to a comic magazine. Even before I came across your site I felt this was the best was to bring my NEW superhero story to the world. Therefore , I wrote and published a book – The Chip, a 21st century superhero. You can check out my website http://www.chipstory.com

    After this was published I did the first comic magazine that was of course derived from the novel visit http://www.gmjcomic.com

    If you are thinking about entering this business then you might want to consider this approach.

  37. B. Macon 16 Oct 2010 at 9:58 am

    George, I like your cover. The quality of art is high. (Also, the gradient on the letters looked interesting. When I tried a gradient myself in the SN logo, it was sort of a disaster).

  38. George Jackon 20 Feb 2011 at 2:56 am

    Hi everyone see The Chip: a 21st century superhero in action.
    http://www.YouTube.com/watch?v=z_1WyqzUYKE

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