If my idea works, even a little- you’d call bull on the second line. It would jar with the images cropping up in your head. The Wolverine image is bound up in lumberjack masculinity (with ninjas), you see him snapping back single malts without rocks. Do you even have an idea of Wonder Woman having a favourite drink? Her image is completely bound up in whatever vague notion of Greek mythology we’ve got on the go. And that’s not one that easily answers questions about pub preferences.
Superheroes are a language. Hieroglyphics in Ted Baker suits. Storytelling steroids that let you cut to an impossible premise without stopping for world building, internal logic exposition or any dreary things that have turned too many bullet train narratives into a drunk horse wading through mud. Or the Panama papers. I’d like to reference the Panama Papers. And I have. So there we are.
Every superhero character strikes a distinct note, a function. The culturally significant ones at least (I love him, but it’s hard to apply this to Booster Gold…which should change….by time travel!). Every one of them has a specific role to play, idea and tone to communicate.
What would the dialogue and narration be in a scene where The Punisher deals with a gang of teenaged coke dealers? What if we switched The Punisher with Zatanna? What happens when we trade Zatanna for Deadpool? Deadpool for Amanda Waller? (Would the same artist work just as well for all of these characters?)
Superhero stories, because of the characters they use and the audiences inbuilt understanding of who those characters are, live with a continual invisible right click properties list, spanning powers, morality and dialogue styles at the least. So when you’re writing a story in these worlds with these characters, it’s an opportunity for less explanatory exposition and more dialogue, more character. It’s open season on playing with narrative forms and premises. It’s the forgotten pouch in the superhero writers tool belt, a key to a secret narrative sweet shop.
(Quick note, apologies, I did want to go one post without referencing Batman to try and get a sanity stamp or something, but I can’t think of a better example than below).
Take Almost Got Im; a Batman: The Animated Series episode by Paul Dini & Eric Radomski. Two-Face, Poison Ivy, The Joker, Killer Croc and The Penguin cheat at cards in a seedy den and argue about who came the closest to killing the Batman. They argue and settle it by telling their “almost got ‘im Batman story”. Dini; 25 years later, is using the Bat characters as a Greek chorus to tell the story of the personal struggle he went through after getting mugged, using Batman and the Joker as opposing sides of his conscious in a Vertigo graphic novel called “Dark Night”.
That’s what these characters can be – tools that let you express ideas, tones and concept without even bothering to express them in the first place. Put The Joker in the corner of someone’s flat and we know what happens next. Put Alfred in the corner of someone’s flat and we know we’re getting sarcasm and Earl Grey.
The language of superheroes means that we can tell a story without stopping to define motivations or relationships; we can just explore what those motivations and relationships are. You don’t need to know who they are, their relationships with each other or even what a “Judge Dredd” is. They’re bad guys, they’re playing cards and they don’t like Batman – even kids understand the rules.
Now look to Golden Age comics – take that era where Superhero comics told an insane new story every month. A cosmic impossibility as a premise for a well-known character to adventure through; Jimmy Olsen as turtle boy. They might have done it in a simplistic way, good guy saves friend in goofy eye catching trouble – but it would be trickier to tell the same story with new characters.
You don’t have to explain who Superman is, who Jimmy Olson is to him, why Superman can fly, why he’s going to save Jimmy. You just know.
No one has to ask “What’s a Superman?”
(Dear imaginary person: A “Superman” is a socialist power fantasy by two Jewish boys in the late 30s that due to commercial popularity has now been claimed by neo-liberal junkies looking to either shout “MERICA” , try to bring back the halcyon era where the WASP had even more cultural power or simply go on a rant about “liberty” so lug headedly simplistic Ann Rand would wake up from the dead because she felt something on her nose. Deep breath. Deep breath.).
Superheroes let you tell stories where the memory of the audience does a lot of the leg work for you.
Unfortunately, said steroids do mean that a revisionist take will have to do some extra work to explain reinterpretations or weird takes. Revisionist takes like Batman v Superman, without warning or good writing, offered interesting ideas on the arcs of the characters but alienated a familiarised audience. Well it did for me. WHY DID HE HAVE A GUN, WHY WAS HE BRANDING PEOPLE, WHY DID HE USE A KITCHEN SINK—-
So these steroids, I really wish their power was utilised more often or in more interesting ways. As characters, Superheroes are often imposed with a monthly rhythm of end game threats and it feels like a wasted opportunity. They’re shortcuts, a gift of time and narrative momentum to go tell some impossible story – to cut to a premise without needless set up. We know who everyone is, we have expectations that can be played with for commentary or mounted for expediency. They are opportunities, for experiments; rewriting Aristotles act structure, warping the role of a narrator, bucking the Vonnegut wave – all of that and more.
Superhero stories can do anything, quicker than any other stories. Soap operas with no logic restraints and continuity that can be rewritten by a panel box. So go somewhere new, somewhere no one else can. No, I don’t know where, and I shouldn’t – because that’s the secret super power of a Superhero story.