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The 10 Rules of Quality Superhero Fiction

With superhero comics becoming more and more impenetrable due to their insistence on fetishizing decades of continuity, it comes as little surprise that one of the best superhero narratives in the past year was a film, THE DARK KNIGHT. In thinking about what made DK so compelling, I found myself struck with the similarities to ULTRAMAN MOEBIUS & ULTRAMAN BROTHERS. UM&UB exists in a very different world than DK, and yet they hit the exact same story beats. DK may have more meat on it, but UM&UB’s simple structure lays bare the elements that make both superhero stories great.

Naturally, one might think that if these elements work so well with these two stories with their radically different concepts and intended audience then should be universal. In fact, when compiling this list, I was struck how every single one of these points are echoed in the best superhero story of the past few years, Grant Morrison and Frank Quietly’s continuity-free ALL-STAR SUPERMAN.

1) Start the story by showing how horrible the badguy is. This is almost counter-intuitive; surely the hero should show up first? Not really. We know who the hero is, that’s his name on the title, so we know who it is we came to see. What we don’t know is who he’s going to face. So let’s take some time to show what the threat level is. And if possible, show that threat on the moon.

2) If you must have a damsel in distress, go out of your way to show how smart and capable she is. Make her a young genius who would have led a happy and perfectly fulfilling existence had evil not show up to turn her into a trophy the hero must achieve. Scientists, reporters and lawyers are good for this.

3) Mentors are important, and full of wisdom. It’s always good to have a few people older and wiser than the hero. These guys can despense advice and encouragement, and, when necessary, act disappointed. Tangentially related to this is the “mustached adult” character, who is not a mentor per-se, but a partner who provides unconventional assistance. These guys are the uncles who go along with your plan to get illegal alcohol after the father-figures have already said no.

4) When out of costume, your hero should have a leather jacket.  This should be self explanatory. 

5) Don’t explain how things work. Honestly, the audience doesn’t care. Show it working, and leave it at that. The Ultraman Brothers can create a cage that lasts 20 years by firing their Ultrabeams at each other? Sure. Batman can get a fingerprint from a shattered bullet in a brick wall. Fine. A formula to grant superpowers? Why not? We believe it because we watch it happen, not because someone explains the details.

6) Have some other people dressed similar to the hero. Again, this appears counter-intuitive. Surely the hero should be one of a kind, right? Well, yes and no. We want to show how unimportant the costume is, and what better way to show lesser versions of the hero in lesser versions of the costume? Ski-masks are optional, but they make the point eloquently.

7) Super-violence affects us all. Be we a small boy who watched his dog destroyed by a monster, or regular people on a ferry sitting on a bomb. This is where you pin your emotional peak, on these people. The heroes and villains have enough to worry about.

8 ) Evil looks evil. We should never for a moment doubt who the bad guys are. Their outsides should look just as twisted as what lies within.

9) Sacrifice is necessary in order to triumph. To have a quality ending, you have to raise the stakes to the point that hero cannot win unscathed. The climax must be hard-won, or it has no business being at the end of the story.

10) The story is over, but the legend continues. Even though the villain is defeated, there’s other dangers out there, and the sunset must be ridden out toward. The is not so much setting up for the sequel as it is showing the war against evil never ends. And our heroes are ready to face it.

You know what else follows these rules to the letter? IRON MAN. In fact, one can use how well that film follows these rule to how satisfying (on not, in the case of the climax) it was as a whole. One of the best superhero comics of the past year, Jaime Hernandez’s brilliant riff on female superheroes in Love & Rockets: New Stories #1, follows most of them–we’ll see if he hits all of them later this year when Hernandez publishes the climax.

Nerd that I am, I’ve always got some sort of superhero story in the back of my head.  It’s good to know how to put ‘em together.

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7 Responses

  1. Saw your headline and, having almost finished my own super hero themed graphic novel (“Shades”), I was convinced I was going to have to disagree with most of these. Actually, though, I found my story ticks most of your boxes! Good list!

    I’d have added a few more but they tend to be tips that apply to any kind of fiction, not specifically super hero tales, so I suppose they don’t necessarily apply.

    Anyway, if you’re interested, you can read “Shades” online at my website. Then you can tick the boxes, too!

  2. Ha ha! #5 is so true.

  3. This is an awesome list. And thanks for the recommendation of ULTRAMAN MOEBIUS & ULTRAMAN BROTHERS — looks like just the thing for movie night with my kids.

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