Patrick E. McLean : Just what it says on the tin.

Thoughts on Writing Superheroes

My first thought is that I’m scarcely qualified to deal with this question. Especially not when there are guys like Brian Micheal Bendis, Paul Jenkins, Alan Moore, Frank Miller, J. Micheal Straczynski… I don’t even know how to pretend to order these guys, but they’re all brilliant and more versed in the genre than I will ever be. (I mean Straczynski, I’m barely writer enough to spell his name correctly.)

But my second thought is that you don’t need to be an expert mountaineer to point out to someone where the slopes are steep and tricky. I have written three books in a series called How to Succeed in Evil, which provides a reasonably unique take on a world of super-powered people through the eyes of a unique villain. So whether or not I have summited Everest, I have certainly pulled on my boots and put myself to the hazard.

Obstacles are the problem.

A lot of what makes a great story is tremendous obstacles and adversity. The bigger the odds the bigger the heroism. So if you’ve got Superman (who can basically do anything) then the hard part is coming up with obstacles that would be difficult for him to overcome. That’s why in the Superman movie, they give him the challenge of being in too places at once. That’s also why Kryptonite exists. Mineral, maybe. Plot device, definitely.

Why is always more important than how.

Why does Superman want to save the world? That’s the real question. What drives someone to become a hero? With Batman, it’s rage (and guilt, I think). He watched his parents die. When a Superman story has a good take on this “why” is good. When it doesn’t, it’s flat.

For How to Succeed in Evil, I had my Superman analog accidentally kill his parents as he was discovering his powers. So he is driven by guilt. He is trying to atone. But, of course, no one can ever atone for that. He’s also driven by his image. A few people know about it, and use that as blackmail to control the big guy.

The story is never about the story.

All good stories are about something else. Especially Superhero stories. X-Men? About kids not fitting in and the tremendous changes of puberty. Spider-Man? Spider-Man is about Peter Parker trying to live a life and be a hero. In fact, the title is totally misleading. It should be Peter Parker. We root for Parker and the difficult, human challenges that he faces. Sure, it’s fun that he can climb a wall and shoot webs from his wrists, but that’s not why a great Spider-Man story works.

Spider-Man works when Peter is human. Is vulnerable. Struggles. Makes mistakes. Sure, we like to fantasize about being all powerful, but what draws us into a story and makes us love a character doesn’t have much to do with ability, it has to do with their choices, the sacrifices, a character makes. Their humanity. Not their inhumanity.

It helps have a Han Solo Character.

By that I mean, in any fanciful setting, you’ve got to have a character who just doesn’t buy in. This gives everybody else permission to sink into the world. In Star Wars, Han didn’t buy in to any of it. Good guy meets bad guy, they whip out lightsabers and start talking. I mean for crying out loud, Return of the Jedi has the Emperor monologuing for what, a half-an-hour?

But in Empire Strikes Back, when Han sees Vader, he just pulls his gun and fires. This what-would-an-ordinary-person-do response helps stories where people have superpowers be grounded.

In How to Succeed in Evil, that character is Topper. Edwin wants to take over the world because he is coldly rational and needs to have control. Topper just wants to grab some cash, break some things and screw his brains out. A foil is very important.


I love Mignola. Unabashedly and without reservation. Since Cosmic Odyssey, in fact. But Hellboy is magnificent. The sense of weird Lovecraftian horror
, the dark moody art, Nazi’s, Giant Monkey robots — what’s not to love? But for me, the most interesting thing about Hellboy is that he is his own Han Solo character. What makes the demon protagonist of Mignola’s work great is that he is the character with the most humanity in the series.

Seriously, check out this two-page story, “Pancakes”

If you don’t know, the overarching story of Hellboy is that his right hand is the key that unlocks the apocalypse. His destiny is literally to destroy the world. And he says no. In a thousand ways, he rejects his destiny to do what’s right. Hellboy’s sense of what’s right very nuanced and he wrestles with it in every single story.

At his best Hellboy isn’t superpowered. He’s a guy slugging it through as best he can in a confusing world that doesn’t make much sense to him. It’s the same struggle we all face. Trying to do the right thing with horribly limited information. And that, more than any destiny or power, is why people love Hellboy as a character.

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