SUPERHERO THEORY 101 – Create Iconic Well Defined Characters

 

One of the things I love about Batman…

Is that he is such a well defined character, with such specific values, and a particular look and feel to him, that you have to have some sort of reaction no matter if you encounter him in a comic book or a film.

Batman is iconic not just because he is popular and well known, but because he was designed to be iconic from the beginning.

The silhouette, color scheme and chest insignia make him instantly recognisable. Costumes and colours are key features of designing Superheroes.

Scott McCloud has a great section in his book Understanding Comics on color and specifically the colours of Superheroes, take a look at the two pages below.

Understanding Comics_191 x Understanding Comics_192 xGreat stuff, I never get tired of reading McCloud’s ideas and theories.

Good characters such as Batman have strong values that distinguish them from other characters.

Crap characters that are ill-defined are easily mixed up with similar characters.

Characters such as Spider-Man, Hulk, Superman, Wonder Woman and Batman are easily identifiable by their unique look, costume and colours, and their personalities, villains, world/setting/background in their respective fictions.

The more simple a characters costume, potentially the more iconic it is. The more symbolic it is not only of the character, but the values they embody, the adventures and fantasy they stand for and the genre they appear in.

The repeated use of the same colours for superheroes (particularly from the 1940’s-1960’s) came to symbolise the characters themselves as Scott McCloud discussed in work magnum opus Understanding Comics.

Superman Spiderman Hulk Batgirl doodles for iconic colors

Now, I can’t draw to save my life. But take a look at my scribbles above and see if you can recognize the characters from their colour schemes and iconic symbols. Hint: that one with the Bat symbol is NOT Batman.

You can see from my terrible picture that superhero colour schemes may have come about due to the technology (or lack of) at the time for printing what was basically works of art on glorified toiler paper – but they are still recognisable even when a someone like me scribbles down somewhat abstract interpretations of genre classics.

The colour schemes that were a limit of technology came to be an essential feature in the iconography and design of superheroes. Today we have a far more rich and deep colour palette available for both digital and print productions, not to mention colour separations and special lighting effects comparable to movies that just were not possible in the 1940’s. I am glad that limitation was there, because without it, superhero fiction may not have developed the same iconic tropes that they are known for.

While it’s easy to look at a classic Superhero and notice how ridiculous they look, an important feature of Superheroes is that they are larger than life. Their costumes, colours and chest symbols make them instantly recognisable, and distinguish them from ordinary mortals and other types of generic Heroes from different genres.

One of the reasons it is hard to create an original superhero characters today that are as instantly iconic as Superman or Batman, is that it is very hard to distinguish your character from all the other characters that have already been created.

Like walking into a restaurant where every table is full, many of the great iconic costume designs, colour schemes and basic personalities and superhero archetypes are already taken.

This makes it hard for a creator to distinguish their character from all the similar characters already in print.

Sometimes a creator will do something unorthodox that makes the character stand out in some way, what you would call in video game terms a “modifier”.

A modifier is simply taking something familiar and changing one or two things about it.

For example if you are playing a first person team based shooter – on a tropical island – a generic Mercenaries vs Marines game or whatever. An environment modifier may be to change from day to night. An objective modifier may be playing capture the flag, team death match or whatever, while a thematic modifier may be now one team is all zombies, and the other team are humans with very basic weapons such as knives instead of RPGs.

Taking this modifier example to superhero fiction we get simple, but powerful ideas such as:

“This guy is like Batman… but he kills everybody” (moral/behavior modifier)

“This guy is like Superman… but he’s a Nazi in World War II” (setting modifier)

“Here’s a Wonder Woman character… who is openly gay” (character value modifier)

You can take any basic hero archetype and modify one or two things. You keep the archetype recognition value of costumes, powers, chest symbol etc. But you make something just different enough that people think “hhmmmm… interesting” or “boy that looks like gimmicky crap”.

Until we read the imaginary story from one of the above three examples (or a review) we don’t really know if the elevator pitch is any good or gimmicky crap. There is a fine line being being clever and just making a spectacle for the sake of spectacle. Most of the time we get crap in comics, and sometimes we something unique or actually worth reading.

Some writers, such as Warren Ellis manage to do the gimmicky and bizarre stories, with loads of spectacle to get reactions from people, but he also has substance in his stories (most of the time).

apollo and midnighter kiss the authority

It is easy to churn out gimmicky stories that get attention.

“Superman and Batman as gay lovers” (Apollo and Midnighter from The Authority)

It is harder to do the gimmick, but have a decent story to go along with it

“Superman and Batman as gay lovers… in a morally complex Orwellian world where the JLA has decided to take over the world for the benefit of humanity, who are too useless to look after themselves.”

kick ass hirt girl mark millar  Three examples of commercial superhero fiction that COULD have been gimmicky crap, but turned out to be pretty good that I really enjoy are:

  • The TV series HEROES which can be described as “powers without costumes”
  • Mark Millar’s Kick-Ass (character and story) can be described as “costumes without powers”
  • Brian Michael Bendis / Michael Avon Oeming’s POWERS can be described as “detectives without powers who investigate the crimes of those who do have superpowers.

heroes tv show jeph loeb

These three ideas manage to make themselves easily understood, while distinguishing their intellectual property from all the other similar comics, novels, TV, films etc already out there with subtle modifications to superhero genre tropes

While quality can vary during a project, I feel that Powers, HEROES and Kick-Ass were all really solid ideas. They were entertaining and managed to do something new with something familiar (superhero genre conventions), or at least they felt fresh and new, even if we had encountered some of the same ideas in other stories. They may not maintain the same quality all the way through, but the initial idea and execution is solid.

To do something interesting in the superhero genre, you either have to create something that is very very very good so that it can stand out from other works. Or do something that is so unique and different that you can honestly say it has not been done before.

Or do both.

Be unique and very very good,

and the property is more likely to be noticed amid the noise of other properties,

but quality is no guarantee of success.

Powers brian micheal bendis avon oeming

Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead comic book is very very VERY good. I really enjoy reading the book, and also watch the brilliant AMC adaptation of the show. However if The Walking Dead was with a minor publisher that had crap distribution, it likely never would have sold as well, and it never would have been turned into a successful television show on a swanky network like AMC that does “proper television”.

Fortunately The Walking Dead was published by IMAGE comics, a company started by comic books writers and artists that values creator rights and royalties. If The Walking Dead had been published by a smaller publisher, we most likely would have never heard of it, let alone have our friends and relatives telling us how good it is. My mother watches The Walking Dead, and she has never read a comic book in her life, or watched a Zombie film. She has watched all of Joss Whedon’s Angel at least twice though. So she does enjoy some genre material.

the walking dead tv series michonne comic kill zombie 11

If The Walking Dead had been published by a bigger brand publisher like DC or MARVEL then Robert Kirkman would have had no real stake in the intellectual property. The Walking Dead  most likely never would have been made into a television show. It probably would never have built much of an audience as DC and Marvels’ bread and butter is superheroes, not zombie fiction.

Because of the success of The Walking Dead as a property, and Robert Kirkman’s success as a writer, we got to read fun projects like Marvel Zombies. Where the entire Marvel Universe is turned into Zombies and they eat the whole planet, before leaving to eat people on new worlds with the powers they absorbed from eating Galactus. The Incredible Hulk eating Silver Surfer’s head in one of my favourite scenes from Kirkman’s Marvel Zombies series. It is as gut-wrenching and disgusting and grim as any issue of The Walking Dead, but it is also laugh out loud hilarious throughout the series. Even Robert Kirkman himself (in the trade collection introduction) could not believe what Marvel let him do with their iconic characters.

hulk eat silver surfer head mostly skull

Superhero fiction then works best when we know the genre tropes. Writers can surprise us by subverting or modifying these tropes to make something new, or that at least FEELS new, or interesting.

I love post-modern superhero fiction. But I wish more of it was hilarious like Marvel Zombies, and less grim and boring like Allan Moore’s Miracleman.

Yes I just said that. Miracleman is brilliant and important and blah blah blah. But it also DEAD BORING! It doesn’t even have one good zombie in the whole story!

Give me Mark Waid’s Irredeemable any day of the week over Miracleman. It has any evil Superman that tries to kill the whole planet. It’s 30 issues of exciting superhero fiction that manages to be iconic, subvert genre tropes and it is not CRIMINALLY BORING!

Well I’m done.

More on this topic in the near future no doubt.

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