What is a superhero? What is a supervillain? What are the traits that define and separate these two? What cultural contexts do we find them in? And why we need them? Editors Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD and Peter Coogan, PhD collected a series of essays examining these questions from both major comic book writers and editors, such as Stan Lee and Danny Fingeroth, and leading academics in psychology and cultural studies, such as Will Brooker and John Jennings. The following essay by legendary comic book writer, editor, publisher, and producer Stan Lee is extracted from What is a Superhero? and entitled “More Than Normal, But Believable”.
A superhero is a person who does heroic deeds and has the ability to do them in a way that a normal person couldn’t. So in order to be a superhero, you need a power that is more exceptional than any power a normal human being could possess, and you need to use that power to accomplish good deeds. Otherwise, a policeman or a fireman could be considered a superhero. For instance, a good guy fighting a bad guy could be just a regular police story or detective story or human-interest story. But if it’s a good guy with a superpower who is fighting a bad guy, it becomes a superhero story. If the good guy is doing something that a normal human being couldn’t do, couldn’t accomplish, then I assume he becomes a superhero.
Not surprisingly, then, the first thing I would think of when trying to create a character is, what superpower will I give him or her? I’ll make somebody who can throw fireballs and fl y in the air. I’ll have somebody who can crawl on walls and shoot webs like a spider. So, automatically, those characters become superheroes. Of course, if they were evil, they would be supervillains, because the same rule applies: to be a supervillain, you have to be a villain, but you also have to have a superpower, just like a superhero has to. The word super is really the key.
But there’s no formula for creating characters. With Iron Man, I knew I wanted someone in an iron suit, and so his powers came from that. With Spider-Man, I knew I wanted someone with spider powers, so the name and costume came with that. It doesn’t matter whether you start with the character’s code name, his powers, or his costume; none of these conventions of the genre works better than the others as a starting place for creating a superhero. It just depends on whether you get lucky and what sells.
There doesn’t necessarily have to be a connection between the personality of the alter ego and the powers of the superhero. When we created the Fantastic Four, I knew that I wanted each of them to have distinct powers. Even though Reed is mentally bright and flexible, Johnny is a bit of a hothead, Sue is a shrinking violet, and Ben is a big lug—which fi ts with their powers—I could have made Sue go on and on and speak with big words, or made Johnny the intellectual, or given Reed a temper. The powers of the characters don’t necessarily have to reflect the personalities of the characters, and the Fantastic Four would have been just as successful if there had been no link between their personalities and their powers. It just depends on how it works out. That’s the way things were back then.
The problem with telling superhero stories is that it naturally follows that you need a supervillain. You need a foe who can make the story interesting, someone who’s at least as powerful as—and hopefully even more powerful than—the hero, because that makes the story fun. The viewer or the reader has to think to himself or herself, how is our hero ever going to get out of this? How is he ever going to beat the villain? We have to keep the reader on the edge of his or her seat. So the most important thing is to have a supervillain who is equally as colorful as and even more powerful than the hero apparently is.
I try to make the characters seem as believable and realistic as possible. In order to do that, I have to place them in the real world, or, if the story is set in an imaginary world, I have to try to make that imaginary world as realistic-seeming as possible, so the character doesn’t exist in a vacuum. He has to have friends, enemies, people he’s in love with, people he doesn’t love—just like any human being. I try to take the superhero and put him in as normal a world as possible, and the contrast between him and his power and the normal world is one of the things that make the stories colorful and believable and interesting.
Superman was the start of the whole superhero thing. He had the superpowers and wore that costume with the bright colors and silly cape. It’s the costume that was different. Zorro didn’t have superpowers, Doc Savage * didn’t have superpowers; they could just do things a little better than the rest of us. The Shadow † could be a superhero because he could make himself unseen, and if he appeared in a comic book today, he might be a superhero, though he doesn’t really wear a costume. I’m not an expert on the Shadow, but I think he just had a dark business suit and a sort of raincoat and a slouch hat. Superman’s costume was different because of the bright colors, that silly cape, those red boots, his belt, and his chest symbol. I mean, it’s ridiculous, because you really don’t need a costume to fly or fight bad guys. If I had superpowers, I wouldn’t wear a costume.
But it does serve as a way of colorfully identifying the superhero, and it also announces him. When he gets into a fight with a bad guy, the costume sort of explains that he’s the good guy.
Although a costume isn’t required of superheroes, the fans love costumes. The characters are more popular if they wear costumes. (Don’t ask me why.) In the first issue of the Fantastic Four, I didn’t have them wear costumes. I received a ton of mail from fans saying that they loved the book, but they wouldn’t buy another issue unless we gave the characters costumes. I didn’t need a house to fall on me to realize that—for whatever reason—fans love costumed heroes.
I think people are fascinated by superheroes because when we were young we all liked fairy tales, and fairy tales are stories of people with superpowers, people who are super in some way—giants, witches, magicians, always people who are bigger than life. Well, as we got older, we outgrew fairy tales. Most people don’t read fairy tales when they’re grown-ups, but I don’t think we ever outgrow our love for those kinds of stories, stories of people who are bigger and more powerful and more colorful than we are. So superhero stories, to me, are like fairy tales for grown-ups. I don’t know why, but the human condition is such that we love reading about people who can do things that we can’t do and who have powers that we wish we had.
* * * * *
* Editors’ note: Doc Savage is Clark Savage, Jr., a pulp adventurer whose adventures were published by Street and Smith from 1933 to 1949 and who has seen numerous paperback and comic book revivals. He is also the subject of a campy 1975 feature film, Doc Savage: The Man of Bronze, starring Ron Ely.
† The Shadow is a dark pulp vigilante who debuted in 1931 and went on to be the subject of a radio series, movie serials, paperbacks, comics, and a feature film. On radio he was voiced by Orson Welles and other actors, and he was played by Alec Baldwin in the 1994 film. He is often depicted as having the power to “cloud men’s minds” in order to be invisible. Writer Bill Finger was influenced by the depiction of the Shadow when he co-created Batman.
Stan Lee’s name is practically synonymous with the word “superhero.” He co-created many famous superheroes during his time at Marvel Comics: the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, Thor, Spider-Man, Iron Man, and the X-Men, among many others. Stan imbued his characters and stories with an element of psychological realism, making it easy for fans to relate to the characters and their plights. Stan became an editor at Marvel when he was 19 years old and went on to become its publisher. Stan continues to create new superheroes under the banner of his POW! Entertainment company.
Robin S. Rosenberg, PhD and Peter Coogan, PhD are the editors of What is a Superhero? Robin S. Rosenberg is a clinical psychologist. In addition to running a private practice, she writes about superheroes and the psychological phenomena their stories reveal. Peter Coogan is director of the Institute for Comics Studies, co-founder and co-chair of the Comics Arts Conference, and an instructor at Washington University in St. Louis.