The Post-Superhero Era: The Protagonist as Celebrity or Consultant

For years, the advice to aspiring young creators has been, “Don’t create superheroes. DC and Marvel have that market locked up. Do your own thing.” That advice seems to be sticking, with plenty of new, exciting titles launching recently that avoid creating yet more musclemen and babes in spandex fighting for justice.

Superheroes used to be wish fulfillment, but for the past couple of decades now, it hasn’t been fun to dream of that. Too many stories have focused on the downsides and the crippling responsibilities, taking all the enjoyment out of imagining yourself with superspeed or the ability to fly. So what are we imagining now, based on the new titles launching? In many cases, it’s one of two things.

Celebrities

America's Got Powers #1 cover

The one trend that is driving new superhero comics is hero-as-reality-show-celeb. It’s most obvious in the recent Image launch America’s Got Powers, which sets up the idea of a superpowered competition show, like American Idol but with fighting instead of singing. (I’m probably the only one who remembers the similar WildGuard by Todd Nauck in 2003.) It makes a certain amount of sense — we now aim to become famous for being ourselves, perhaps with some kind of talent but mostly through luck and determination, which describes the motivations behind a lot of classic heroes. (AGP, by the way, is drawn by Bryan Hitch, so it looks amazing.)

Also in this category are Supurbia, which is structured after the Housewives shows and, to a lesser degree, Hell Yeah, which introduces superheroes as military heroes, dropping them into our world during action in Kuwait, and then winding up with a dissolute kid who acts like tabloid fodder, hanging in clubs. (The setup is not explicitly compared to a reality premise, but we do see the superhero on a TV talk show.)

Even these superhero books postulate dark forces controlling things behind the scenes. The show structure in AGP is manipulating society in a bread-and-circus, distract-them-with-entertainment fashion. There’s a secret agent deep undercover among the neighborhood in Supurbia. That leads into the more common super-factor these days:

Conspiracies

In these stories, the protagonist is a multi-talented individual on the outskirts of a corrupt society fighting for what’s right. This is the next-generation wish figure beyond the superhero. Prefigured by Transmetropolitan‘s journalist Spider Jerusalem, these characters might be burglars or consultants or mercenaries.

The one thing they have in common is they’re all super-competent and nearly untouchable. In Jonathan Hickman’s Secret, there’s a master of corporate espionage who can defeat any security system and knows more than anyone else. He faces off against a powerful law firm who steals and engages in perversion. Thief of Thieves lays the achievement out in the title. Saga sets its runaways in a science fiction world, but they’re still eluding the established justice system to live life on their own terms.

The difference between these guys and the old-school heroes is that they’re fighting for what they see is right, often against their society instead of for it. They follow more in the mode of Bogart than Batman. Sometimes, they just want to be left alone. They’re throwbacks to the superhero root of vigilantes that sprung up to give readers a sense that there’s someone out there who can battle the entrenched special interests who seem to be beyond the law.


3 Responses to “The Post-Superhero Era: The Protagonist as Celebrity or Consultant”

  1. David Oakes Says:

    You are not the only one who remembers “Wildguard”.

    Or JMS’s “Rising Stars”, where and entire town of kids all got superpowers from a cosmic event.

    Even for a post-post-modern “We have seen this all before”, Ross isn’t saying much that is new. But gosh darn if Hitch can’t draw pretty!

  2. James Schee Says:

    The origin for AGP actually reminded me a lot of Malibu’s The Strangers(and its spin off Night Man) complete with mysterious light and even based in San Francisco. With a bit of Hunger Games thrown in as well.

    Still it was a decent start, and I look forward to seeing what happens next.

    Superbia I can’t make my mind up on. On one hand there are some old comic jokes cliches that are just too easy. But I did enjoy some of the supporting characters.

  3. David Oakes Says:

    This had scrolled off screen before I remembered my second point:

    Aren’t the Secret and the Specialist just the two sides of the Superhero, as far back as Superman and Batman?

    “If only they [Lois] could see the real me [Superman], then I [Clark] would be loved.”

    “The State [Gotham] is corrupt, and only I [Bruce] have the means [WayneCorp] and the will [Batman] to fight them!”

    It is a long tradition, going back to every Pig Farmer who was destined to be King, and every Masked Bandit who turned out to be a King in Disguise.




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