Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Powers Do Not Equal Personality

There’s an old game fans love to play while sitting around, dreaming of the day they get to write the adventures of their favorite superheroes: “Who’s in your Justice League?” The rules are simple, create a list of roughly seven to twelve characters who you’d want to see month after month saving the world from, say, Despero.

You see different strategies employed, from the Big Seven (only characters capable of supporting their own book… oh, and the Martian Manhunter) to the Heavy Hitters (if you can’t bench-press a tank, you can’t join), to the Professionals (characters who don’t have their own book, who can devote their full time to the team) to the Personal Favorites (say it with me now, “Geo-Force?”). And you see some old arguments pop up, like whether Batman would join the team or if Aquaman is ever useful.

But there’s one team creation strategy that baffles me. The belief that a Justice League team needs to have a Flash, needs to have a Green Lantern. That Superman and Captain Marvel shouldn’t both be on the team because their powers are too similar, and Firestorm and Captain Atom can’t both join because they would “over lap”.

It’s the belief that superpowers are the definition of a superhero’s character, and that a team composed of diverse powers is interesting, and a team with similar powers is not.

That’s just ludicrous.

I mean, it certainly doesn’t make sense from a story perspective. If you’ve got four guys with omnipotent magic wishing rings, why not bring all of them? When Batman took out Brother Eye in Infinite Crisis #6, he brought Green Lantern Hal Jordan and Green Lantern John Stewart. Why? Because Batman’s not an idiot.

But more the point of literary criticism, it doesn’t make sense from a storytelling perspective either. Superheroes’ powers don’t dictate their behavior. Sure, if you’ve got claws and super healing, you’re probably cutting people and getting beat up a lot, but isn’t that why Beast is much more interesting? Because his intellectual persona runs counter to his feral appearance and abilities? So, just because two characters have the same abilities doesn’t mean they have the same personality or that they would act the same in a team dynamic.

Think how different Grant Morrison’s run on JLA would be if, instead of artist and novice superhero Kyle Rayner, Morrison had used macho jackass Guy Gardner as the Green Lantern on the team. Instead of a nice P.O.V. character in over his head and out to prove himself worthy, you’d have an argumentative jerk who’d balk at Superman’s every order and repeatedly moon Batman (I didn’t say it would be a worse book, just different).

Or take the current line-up of the Teen Titans. Supergirl, Wonder Girl, and Miss Martian have very similar powers—super strength, speed, flight—but they don’t fulfill the same function on the team. Supergirl is trying, finally, to live up to the example of her cousin and be a role model hero. Wonder Girl, on the other hand, has developed a violent rebellious streak and become a destabilizing element. And Miss Martian tries to play peacemaker but is naïve and bumbling in her attempts.

In short, they’ve become the Power Puff Girls.* And that’s a good thing, because it’s in their personality differences that the story lies.

Superpowers are not what make characters interesting. How characters react to having superpowers is what makes them interesting. A team where everyone has a different power but they all act the same (like the Silver-Age Justice League or X-Force) is boring. A team where everyone has the same power but acts completely different is fascinating.

So the next time you’re creating your fantasy team, don’t think “I need a runner, a fighter, a magician, and a flyer” like it’s a D&D game. Think “Who’s the leader, who’s the instigator, who’s the peacemaker? Who’s new? Who’s old? Who wants to do more? Who wants to do less? Who’s proud to be there? Who’s about to quit? And who’s holding it all together?” Because it’s in how these characters are different, different as characters, that makes the team worth reading about.

*Yes, Supergirl also has heat vision and Miss Martian can shapeshift, but that’s like how Blossom has ice breath and Bubbles can speak Spanish.


Anonymous said...

Nice to see you back!
But you forgot something.

Who's in YOUR Justice League?

Steven said...


Anonymous said...

Sounds good, but only if everyone includes Detective Chimp.
And Mogo.
And Dkrtzy RRR (the math progressionn).
Maybe Leezle Pon too, but he's not a deal breaker.

SallyP said...

Oh my God, they ARE the Powerpuff girls!

And I must admit that the thought of Guy Gardner continuously mooning Batman just fills me with delight.

But I do know that whomever is on the Justice League, I want Kevin Maguire to draw it.

Moriarty said...

Excellent post and you couldn't be more on the money. The Green Lantern Corps are the very definition of your argument. Essentially, they've all got the same powers, but it's their individuality that makes the group interesting.

I'm sure Sally would back me up on this, but one of the greatest things that Geoff Johns brought to the forefront was that each GL's powers manifest themselves in a visibly different way. Just flip through the big end fight with Parallax in GL: Rebirth. Hal explains how Guy's powers is crackling with energy, John's is massively detailed and technical, and Kilowog's is raw power that actually makes a sound. Without the differences defined in their personality (and represented by how they use their powers), one GL would basically be the same as any GL. And that would kind of suck.

The Justice League is no different in that regard.

SallyP said...

Oh Matthew, you're so smart!

Viking Zombie Boyfriend said...

I totally agree. I felt the same way about She-Hulk quitting the Fantastic Four the second the Thing came back. But folks are so hung up on that whole "4" thing. They coulda been five for awhile and still been called the "F.F."