Feature: The Science of Writing Superheroes

OnlySuperhumancoverOnlySupMMPBcoverRecently, two of Christopher L. Bennett’s novels with superheroic themes got a new lease on life. His debut original novel Only Superhuman (Tor, 2012), a hard-SF transhumanist adventure, is now out in paperback, while Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder (Pocket Star, 2008) has been revived as a fully dramatized audiobook by GraphicAudio (who gave Only Superhuman the same treatment six months earlier). One was an original creation in which he tried to approach superheroes in a new way, the other a book that had to fit a continuity half a century old. So how did they compare?

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THE CHARACTERS

I’ve never liked the conventional wisdom that villains are more interesting characters than heroes. Giving into your negative urges is easy and boring; characters who struggle against petty, selfish drives to do the right thing are more complex and interesting to me. Besides, who gets better lines, Elmer Fudd or Bugs Bunny? I created Only Superhuman’s Emerald Blair with the goal of making the heroine more interesting than her foes, a comic hero who, like Bugs, was always quick to get on top of a crisis and handle it with flair and wit. But I also wanted her to be human, flawed, and multilayered, with a lot to learn. I figured she needed a past tragedy to inspire her heroism, in the vein of characters like Batman and Spider-Man, and Spidey’s axiom “With great power comes great responsibility” informed much of her journey. Years after my first stab at a novel about Emerald, I worked out a fuller backstory for her and realized it was more interesting than the book I had, so I started over with a new story, a bildungsroman about her rise to heroism and her growth as a person.

drowned_thunderI found myself using a lot of the same creative muscles when I wrote Spider-Man in Drowned in Thunder. He’s also a wisecracking comic hero with plenty of angst and doubt. But Spidey’s life story has already been told. How could I craft a worthwhile tale about an established character I wasn’t allowed to change? The answer was to challenge his core values so he could rediscover and reaffirm who he was over the course of the story. I feel that Peter Parker’s capacity for self-criticism is key to making him a hero, because it’s only when we’re able to admit we may be wrong that we can make ourselves better. But what if Peter decided to stop second-guessing himself? What would it cost him?

The inverse of that is J. Jonah Jameson, Spider-Man’s nemesis, who rarely doubts his convictions and thus is routinely wrong about the webslinger. What if Jonah were forced to question himself at long last? Jameson is one of Marvel’s most complex and contradictory figures, and I really wanted to explore what made him the man he is. I wanted this book to have something new to say, and really delving into Jameson’s psyche—and putting new twists into his rivalry with Spider-Man—was irresistible.

THE WORLD

OnlySuperhumanCDOnly Superhuman arose from a desire to explore how advances in genetics and robotics could give humans real superpowers someday. I chose the colonial era of the Asteroid Belt because it was a wild, lawless place that could host diverse fringe societies, a setting that could justify a story about transhuman vigilantes taking on colorful foes. Initially I went with the cliché of libertarian spacers resisting central authority, but further research revealed that the enclosed, tenuous environments of space habitats would require strict discipline and order, a setting where libertarianism could never fly. So instead the “Striders” became fierce nationalists, regimented in their own habitats but distrusting outside authority—leading the Troubleshooters to play up their superhero image to win the Striders’ trust in a way a transhuman paramilitary could not. I also researched how the orbits and geologies of various asteroids would affect the cultures that settled them, helping me make Strider society richer and more diverse.

But Drowned in Thunder takes place in Marvel’s New York City. Rather than building a world from first principles, I had to tackle one that already existed. But it still came down to research, reading every Spider-Man comic I could find and using visits to New York Comic-Con as opportunities to scout locations. Walking the streets where Spidey swung let me refine my tale and add texture—for instance, realizing how strong the winds were between skyscrapers gave me a new appreciation for the challenges of webslinging.

THE POWERS

spider-man_drowned-in-thunder CDOnly Superhuman’s “mods” have powers grounded in real scientific possibility. This imposed a lot of limits—no flying, no teleportation, no size-changing, no telepathy (well, not exactly), no magic. A few characters have fairly distinctive abilities or specializations, like Hijab, a Muslim woman veiled in an invisible stealth suit, or Jackknife, a quadruple amputee with interchangeable bionic limbs. But mostly my emphasis was less on the physical powers than on the ramifications and ethics of power, its use and abuse. Superpowers are as much a thematic device here as a plot device.

With Spider-Man, his powers and equipment are well-established. But I wanted to say something fresh about them. I decided to apply my analytical style to the workings of the spider-sense, Peter Parker’s preternatural awareness of danger, in hopes of offering new insight. I researched the sensory abilities of spiders and found that Stan Lee knew what he was doing better than I realized. Later writers have retconned the spider-sense into a near-psychic danger alert, but I followed Lee’s original portrayal of it as a heightened physical sensitivity and spatial awareness, all with precedent in real spider senses.

THE COSTUMES

Bennett's own design for Emerald Blair/Green Blaze

Bennett’s own design for Emerald Blair/Green Blaze

I originally conceived the Troubleshooters as federal agents wearing personalized variations on a standard uniform. When I reworked that to play up the superhero angle, each Troubleshooter gained an individualized costume, with Emerald’s outfit gaining a flame motif befitting her new nickname, the Green Blaze. But I wanted the costumes to be more practical than the unlikely attire of many comics superheroines. The novel’s cover shows Emry in an abbreviated, low-cut tank top, but my intent was a less skimpy top that she could seal up more securely before going into action, with only her head and arms left bare. Many “mods” are durable enough that they can afford to go scantily clad—the male lead, Eliot Thorne, habitually wears a far more plunging neckline than even Emerald does—but Troubleshooters’ garb is high-tech light armour, not mere decoration.

Spider-Man’s costume is well-established, but again, I took the opportunity to research and examine its workings in detail—what he wears over it to conceal it and be ready for action, how his eye shields contend with rain (or don’t), and particularly how his webshooters work and the things he can do with them. Again, I was able to draw on the imaginative, well-considered work the comic’s writers themselves have done over the decades.

THE TAKEAWAY

In sum, writing hard science fiction and writing media tie-ins aren’t all that different. They both involve researching a subject thoroughly and trying to be true to its rules while still finding interesting ways to bend them. And they both involve finding characters that you can relate to and speak through, whether you find them in your own imagination or someone else’s. If the Green Blaze and Spider-Man have a lot in common, maybe it’s a reflection of what I believe in, and what I look for in a hero.

Click here to buy Only Superhuman from Amazon.co.uk

Click here to order Spider-Man: Drowned in Thunder from Amazon.co.uk

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  1. Pingback: Discussing my superhero novels on Sci-Fi Bulletin | Christopher L. Bennett: Written Worlds - October 7, 2013

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