How many superheroes are enough?

by Mark Lawrence

I’ve been reading about, and more recently watching, superheroes my whole life. In the 70s I was raised on Marvel & DC comics, and the UK’s 2000AD. I watched the original Batman show on TV and the first Incredible Hulk. I saw the cast list for these universes begin to sprawl: characters with weirder, weaker, more fringe powers, clone characters revisiting powers and combinations of powers, the formation of teams and alliances. And then, with the growing power of CGI, the shift to the big screen and franchises that came to dominate most other forms of entertainment.

And now new shows are cropping up on streaming services bringing whole new pantheons of superheroes into play. The most recent of these that I’ve seen is The Boys, on Amazon. There’s only so much variation that can be squeezed into the genre before you start to be able to pattern each new player onto the archetypes of the past. In The Boys we have Homelander, who is pretty close to Superman, The Deep, who is pretty close to Prince Namor, A-Train, who is a version of the Flash, and so on. So, the same or similar powers, but assigned to very different people, and saying something new. In this case it’s a fresh, dark, and funny take on the idea that power corrupts.

In the midst of all this Wild Cards has been steadily keeping on keeping on since the eighties. Dozens of books featuring scores of authors pouring out their imaginations to furnish us with another plethora of super-powered individuals. And, in the case of Wild Cards, a complex and well maintained parallel history as world events start to diverge from our history following the arrival of the Wild Cards virus in 1946.

We’ve reached the point where some might sigh at the prospect of learning who is the new show’s tank, magician, fast guy etc. Do we need any more, they might ask? What was wrong with just having Superman and Batman? Spider-man and the Hulk? Isn’t this a bubble waiting to burst? A popular trend where so many are jumping onto the bandwagon that the wheels are bound to come off?

Well, possibly. But in another sense we will never have too many superheroes any more than we will have too many romances, or detectives solving crimes. Because, just as in those genres, the superhero genre is primarily about the people involved. The fact that they end up in bed, or in court, or duking it out in a volcano, is secondary. It’s in many senses just the window dressing.

All of these stories are really just about us. They’re about people, ordinary humans. They may focus on the man or woman streaking through the sky. But the story at the heart of it is going to be some variant on the issues troubling all those folk craning their necks back and asking, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane?”

The vast array of powers we’re presented with are ultimately methods for highlighting or crystallising some aspect of the human condition. The fact is that there’s no superpower for escaping yourself, and that’s what all our superheroes discover sooner or later. Run as fast as you like, fly as high as you like, there’s still a regular person at the middle of it all.

Just as it’s known that suddenly having a bunch of money does not nail on long term happiness, and that millionaires still commit suicide at a pretty similar rate to those on modest but sufficient incomes, it’s also likely that having the strength of twenty men or being able to shoot fire from your hands is not going to erase the day to day difficulties of existing.

In some way giving a person a bunch of impressive superpowers brings life’s problems into sharp focus. Suddenly they’ve got nothing to hide behind, and less to distract themselves with. So much of our life is occupied with the struggle to marginally improve our lot. To reach those goals we’ve set ourselves. If a superpower makes them all immediately achievable we’re stuck with the problem of what to replace those goals with, and the realisation that it was the journey toward them, the progress, that made us happy. The goals themselves often turn out to be hollow totems.

One of the interesting topics that superhero fiction often tackles is one that only tangentially depends on their power. Namely that of celebrity – which is a topic that has been changing character for as long as we’ve had superhero fiction. My first encounters with superheroes all involved characters who kept two identities – a costumed hero and a regular everyday disguise. One consequence of modern life has been that it has become increasingly hard to believe in the possibility of keeping that secret identity secret. CCTV, drones, smart phones, satellite imagery and the like all combine to make it difficult for any costumed superhero to return to their normal life untracked and unobserved. This has led to the reimagining of figures like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage who, unlike their comic book originals, don’t bother with costumes, hero names, secret hideouts or any of the traditional trappings of the genre.

In this case much of the story can involve issues common to any celebrity and the superpower is simply the vehicle that takes the character to celebrity. They share with pop stars and famous actors the experience of having every eye turned their way, of being vulnerable to the anonymous mass, of having their actions publically critiqued, and of being used to further careers or sell advertising space. Just another example of how superheroes can wander into new areas of social commentary, and how the genre continues to have legs.

I’ve written a grand total of two superhero stories, both Wild Cards related, and both about the same character. I tackled a subject close to my heart and went with a rather non-standard character and power. But, I maintain, that I could quite easily have chosen a character who was simply super strong, or super fast, or could do cool things with fire, or who bullets bounced off from, and still have written an engaging and worthwhile story with something new to say. Not something new about being strong or fast, but about the lens that those features applied to the character’s life and how things played out.

In my Wild Cards story I went with a disabled superpowered character, and we’re not talking Professor X sitting in his wheelchair with a plethora of compensatory magics here. We’re talking a very severe disability that largely overwhelms what would otherwise be very significant powers. I think in some ways a superpower and a disability offer similar scope in terms of writing about the person. I’m obviously not saying that disability is a superpower. I’m saying that both a disability and a superpower will to a degree set someone apart from the herd in terms of their experience. The person becomes a rarity and the challenges they face change. For a disabled person the shift is often to make things that most find easy suddenly become difficult. Our superpowered person is now dealing with challenges that most of us will also never encounter – if they are super strong maybe they have difficulty regulating that strength so that they don’t damage friends and things. If they are super fast a host of possible difficulties arise from the trivial bug-splatter problem to more trying issues of friction, physics, and crash liability. But all of them are now seen as different. All of them experience the world in a new and unusual way. The fact is that they still have to deal with the same sort of shit that plagues the rest of us – friends, family, mental health, existential angst etc. And part of the continuing interest in superheroes is that they can show us those common troubles in a new light and let something fresh be said about them.

In the Wild Cards universe, just as in many other superhero settings, the powers that individuals gain aren’t chosen, earned, or deserved. They’re not suited or tailored to the individual. I guess in the wider world of superpowered people there are a few counter examples, most famously Iron Man, whose superpower isn’t “super” at all: it’s intelligence from the very extreme of the bell curve that encompasses all of us. With Tony Stark he very definitely chooses his powers (albeit from a list of physically possible options) and arguably earns them (using the unearned gift of genius).

So with my disabled Wild Cards character, inspired by my quadriplegic youngest daughter, I had the virus – the vector by which powers are delivered in the Wild Cards universe – dole out a small selection of gifts, many of which cruelly failed to compensate the common abilities that the disability had taken away. And in this way I guess I also highlight the way in which the powers able-bodied candidates gain in other stories often cruelly fail to compensate the problems that plague them, which could be anything from relationships, loneliness, money worries, lack of direction, depression, alcoholism etc.

My character, The Visitor, gains superhuman strength, but because she has no control over her body it achieves nothing save destruction when her epilepsy causes fits. She gains great resilience, rendering her stab-proof. Which is hardly a blessing when your medical conditions often require that you have injections. And she gains one other power – one that really does change her prospects. A power that allows her a unique window into other people’s lives and experiences. Something that allows her to share in things that she had never imagined she might be part of. And it’s a window that I hope offers the reader something new as well.

Superheroes are great fun when they’re punching their way through walls, and taking down huge monsters or gangs of thugs. But ultimately that grows old as an end in itself. Even as a child in the 70s I recognised that the “pow!!”, “bam!!”, “zap!!” of the Batman show swiftly became formulaic. The Marvel comics I was reading had much more to offer. Sure, they still had plenty of “pow!!” and of “bam!!” about them, but then Thor would land on an isolated rock with the sea all around him and bow his head, and the sun would set behind him, and he’d struggle with the argument he’d had with his father and whether – now that Odin had halved his powers – he would continue to be the man he’d been. Did his strengths define him? And in another story the Hulk would see his under-sea comrades die around him and be on his own once more after a brief period of belonging. And in yet another the Silver Surfer would watch city streets from far above and struggle with his pride and his difference and his loyalties. 

These are scenes that have stuck with me for over 40 years, sifted from the fist fights and cosmic blasts and lengthy dialogue crammed between heartbeats. So, to my mind the answer to “how many superheroes is enough?” is a simple “you can’t have too many”, any more than you can have too much fiction. There’s always something more to say, some more fun to be had, some more shocks to experience.