If Spider-Man — and indeed the entire Marvel canon — has taught us anything, it’s that being a super-hero isn’t as easy as it looks. But if you think that’s difficult, try writing one… especially when you’re aware of all the inherent flaws of the genre, no matter how much you love it. In Superpowers, author David J. Schwartz writes up not one but five newbie superheroes, and decides in working with them to zig where most writers (and readers) zag, just to see what would happen. What’s the zig — and what happens? David J. Schwartz uses his super-typing powers to explain.
DAVID J. SCHWARTZ:
I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point I became a person who has a lot of skepticism about the things I love. Pulp fiction? Love it–aside from the bits where women always bring trouble, the mysteries rarely make actual sense, and the bewildering etymology of the word “gunsel.” Latin American literature? Transcendent, if you’ve got a tolerance for metric tons of macho, the dominance of Catholic themes, and a fascination with incest. The Lord of the Rings? It still gets me–except for the part where it’s all about buttressing flawed monarchies, defining good and evil along racial lines, and, well . . . elves.
Which brings me to comic books, specifically super-hero comics. I can’t get enough of these stories, and I have the long boxes to prove it. I love the discovery of weird abilities, the monthly struggle to do the right thing, the last-minute victory against overwhelming odds. This despite the rampant sexism in comics which presents women as ornaments or victims in order to appeal to the fantasies and insecurities of adolescent boys; despite the fact that I worry that heroes with unlimited power and unimpeachable virtue make some readers complacent about the state of truth and justice in the world; and despite the fact that the struggles between costumed figures often seem too mythic to say much about the mistakes and choices made by normal humans.
I like mythic, too, but for Superpowers I made a decision early on: no super-villains. No silly men with overly complicated plans, no giant monsters, no shadowy government organization pulling strings. In a way super-villains make it easy on heroes; obviously _someone_ needs to do something about Dr. Unpleasant, and who better than the ordinary sanitation worker who’s just received the strength of a gorilla from a radioactive plantain? This is how writers and editors avoid having decent, hard-working Captain Banana beat up on normal civilians, which is all well and good except for the part where crime becomes something perpetrated by archetypes instead of people.
That wasn’t going to work for me, because what I really wanted to talk about was power–political, military, and personal–and how we use it. The story is about how these five college kids in Madison, Wisconsin wake up one morning with new abilities, and how that changes their lives. It’s about their good intentions and the bad decisions that follow. In a way, power itself becomes a villain, because the thing that they discover is that once you have that sort of power, it’s very difficult _not_ to use it.
Which is all well and good, but there’s one thing that villains do really well, and that’s drive a plot. My Rule One for writing–hopefully every writer’s Rule One–is DON’T BE BORING. The challenge for Superpowers was, having decided to forgo the slug-fest, not to go to the other extreme and write a full-bore angst-fest. How to avoid that? My personal crutch is humor, and there’s a lot of comic potential in not knowing your own strength, or having no control over when you’re going to turn invisible. Keeping it light works until the point where it’s necessary to knock that crutch out from under the reader and beat them with it. Hey, you don’t need a villain; you’ve got me!
Did I say that I love superhero stories? I do, and as much as Superpowers is about Big Ideas, it’s also about the sheer fun of being able to fly, or to run the two-minute mile in less than a second. Yeah, these are power fantasies, but I think we’ve all imagined what it might be like to do those things. I also had a lot of fun referencing–both openly and in ways that only the true geeks will pick up on–the characters and stories that I obsessed over in my teens and twenties. Many of which did the sort of thing that I’ve tried to do with this book–tell a good superhero story with full awareness of the problems inherent in the genre.