Superheroes and the Unlimited Power

Why Superheroes?

They're in our movies.  Every few years there's a rush of superhero films (and apparently a big rush as of this writing).

They're on television.  We've been having superhero stories for quite a few years now.  We've also had "superheroesque" shows like Buffy and Supernatural, which are superhero stories with other trappings.

They're in games, despite the fact that superhero games have a dismal history with a few shining gems.

They are, of course, in comics.  Comics may expand their themes in North America, but it keeps coming back to superheroes.

So, why superheroes?  Why are they everywhere, and even when they fade, why do they come back?

I could talk Joseph Campbell and nostalgia and the like – and there are indeed many reasons.  But I think one reason that is oft ignored is that the superhero genre is not a genre – it's a mishmash of all genres.  That gives it a freedom and a power that people operating in the media spheres of the geekonomy need to understand.

If we take a look at the origin of superheroes, they themselves are a mishmash.  Batman starts as a pulp detective in a costume.  Superman and Spider man have their origins in science fiction.  Wonder Woman's background is myth and magic, as is Doctor Strange.  Superheroes themselves come from many types of stories and backgrounds.

The creative cocktail of superherodom becomes richer when these characters began crossing over and sharing continuities many decades ago.  Batman's dark world was also the world of god-like Superman.  Spider man coped with his science-given powers in the same universe where dread Dormammu challenged Tibetan-trained Doctor Strange.  Though "fused genres" were known before in the pulps, and in the weird fiction of HP Lovecraft and others (which often fused science fiction and the occult), superheroes did it bigger, broader, and more prominently.

The result of this is, I believe, a kind of "metagrenre" that accepts a kitbash of story types, character types, and backgrounds.  This acceptance of crossover means that stories with a superheroic element to them can do most anything and find a public that accepts it.  If it's got a bit of the comic book in it, people will accept alien detectives from Mars, magic-wielding aliens from a world of wizards, and a romantic comedy triangle between a superhero, his secret identity, and a tough-as-nails female reporter.

If it's got a superheroic streak to it, you can have fun and get away with things you couldn't in any other genre.  Buffy the Vampire slayer can toss in vampires, cyborgs, and government conspiracies into one story.  Alien bounty hunter Lobo can fight demons.  You can do anything.

If you want to do everything at once, the superhero genre or a variant is the way to go for your story, book, comic, or other media property.

The flaw of course is that people are less likely to buy a mash-up without the superheroic streak to it – though I think that's beginning to change.  However it's still rare to see the kind of crazy genre combinations that you see in superhero and superhero-like stories.

But if that gateway has been opened, as we've seen, it may change in the years to come.  Batman and Doctor Strange and the rest have blazed the trail for us to slam together accepted genres.  At the rate we're seeing superheroic themes in media, it may become accepted.

You'll want to be there.

– Steven Savage