Superheroes are fun, but superheroes, defined as they often are by their powers more than personalities, can also be a little… bland. How to spice up their lives? Peter Clines has a couple of ideas on the matter, some more apocalyptic than others, which he explores in his latest novel, Ex-Heroes.
When the chance to do this first floated past me, I jumped at it. It was only later, when I sat down and had to come up with a Big Idea, that I realized I wasn’t sure what mine was. I mean, I’d never really considered myself a writer of Big Ideas.
Of course, Ex-Heroes is about superheroes fighting zombies in post-apocalyptic Hollywood, and more than a few folks have told me that in and of itself “superheroes fighting zombies” is a big idea. Except it isn’t. Zombies have been showing up in comic books for decades. And my zombies aren’t even anything special. They’re the classic Romero shamblers. I didn’t want to waste time making up new rules for no purpose except to have new rules (“It’s not like the movies– you have to shoot them in the spleen!”), and then waste more time explaining them.
So I suppose my Big Idea was the superheroes. I’d been a big comic geek as a kid (back when that term wasn’t something to be proud of), and I’d created lots of heroes all through grade school. Plus, as someone who still dabbled in comics now and then, I missed the classic superheroes I grew up with and wanted to write characters more like that.
Actually, on that note, I’d like to make a distinction. Like I said, I wanted to tell a story about superheroes, not superpowers. I think a lot of people confuse the two these days. It’s like baseball and football, and you can hit a lot of problems if you run out on the field thinking you’re playing the wrong one.
Consider this—Stephen King’s Carrie, Firestarter, and The Shining are all about kids with psychic powers. Steven Gould’s Jumper is about a young man with the ability to teleport, as is Alexander Key’s The Case of the Vanishing Boy. In Arthurian legend, the Green Knight has healing abilities that let him survive a decapitation. Robert Louis Stevenson and H. G. Wells both wrote about scientists whose formulas gave them superhuman powers. David Cronenberg did an excellent remake of The Fly where Jeff Goldblum combines his DNA with an insect, giving himself great strength, speed, and endurance (along with some interesting digestive abilities).
Are any of these superhero stories?
No, of course not. A character isn’t a superhero just because they have special powers or abilities. Not even if they have a catchy code-name, a cool uniform, or two belts and a thigh-band with a hundred little pouches between them. Tales of people with superhuman abilities go all the way back to the Epic of Gilgamesh, but a superhero story is a very specific subset of that very large group.
I think that a superhero is a person who makes a conscious decision to publicly use their powers for the greater good—for something that doesn’t involve them. They aren’t doing it just to save someone close to them or to show off or to get even. Superheroes feel compelled to use their abilities to help others, no matter how crappy it might make aspects of their own lives. Obvious as it may sound—superheroes act heroically.
And I wanted to write about superheroes.
I also wanted characters who weren’t weighed down with a ton of neuroses, hang-ups, emotional baggage, and all those other elements that some writers use to add “realism” to characters. They didn’t need to be flawless, but I thought it should be possible to make believable superheroes who fought for good and tried to do the right thing without being… well, messed up on three or four levels. After all, somebody doesn’t have to be screwed up to be a solider, a police officer, or a fireman.
Of course, it was easy to see where having “boy scout” (or girl scout) superheroes in the middle of a major crisis could be tough, story-wise. It’d either be ridiculous as said characters stuck to their moral code without wavering, or it’d become stock melodrama as they abandoned their code to “do what needed to be done.” Neither of these was a very interesting option to me.
Except it didn’t take long to realize they weren’t the only options. Being a boy scout doesn’t mean a character always does the right thing with no questions asked. It doesn’t mean they don’t have struggles or second thoughts. If anything, when someone has to go through those mental gymnastics because of their strong moral code, gets beat up physically or emotionally over it, and then still does the right thing… that’s when they become an interesting character.
To me, anyway.
So I wanted to have superheroes who were classic, but still realistic. And realistic without being flawed to the point of melodrama. And still be decent characters that the average reader could relate to and enjoy following.
No problem, right?
In retrospect, it’s not that I wanted to write about superheroes. I just wanted to write about heroes. Characters that people could look up to and be inspired by. And heroism is a pretty Big Idea. The one that’s sitting in plain sight if I’m talking about superheroes.
So I think I’m done now. That covers everything, yes?
Oh. And they also have to fight zombies. Because let’s face it…
Superheroes fighting zombies is a pretty cool idea.