Things That Need to Go Away: Superhero Analogues

Sometimes in comics it becomes apparent that an author wants to tell stories about a character they’re not legally allowed to use. Usually it’s Superman, because he is, to use the internet parlance, the ur-example of a superhero. Because they can’t use Superman, however, they create a character who resembles but is legally distinct from him. This “character” probably has a lantern jaw, spit-curl hairstyle, the flight, strength, and invulnerability combo of powers, and a clever name like “Mighty-Man” or “Superion.” This character is an analogue, and is something that needs to go away.

“But Jesse,” you say, in your horrid, nasally internet voice filled with shame and regret, “there have been some great analogues! What about the Squadron Supreme? What about The Guardians of the Globe from Invincible? What about The Plutonian from Irredeemable? What about Apollo and the Midnighter?” To which I am forced to say yes, I have enjoyed some of those, but many of them branched off from their parent characters and became something in their own right. Not to mention, the aspects of those analogue characters that are the weakest are the ones they borrow, because it’s all so bloody transparent. People borrow and steal in literature all the time, but literature is so vast and its proponents so snooty and erudite that they can be far more varied in their influences, and can’t go for direct copies of characters. You don’t see ten novelists a year breaking out, say, a Holden Caulfield analogue (and well that they don’t. I would make war upon them to the seventh generation. I hate that little proto-hipster bastard). But in comics, our common language is, again, mainstream superheroes, which is two sets of characters controlled by two companies, several of which are nigh-universally recognized. So yeah, if you make a character who’s designed to represent Superman, people are going to notice. As any good writing teacher will tell you, the last thing you want to do is break the narrative dream. You want people to be along for the ride, ignoring the man behind the curtain as much as possible because they care about how it’s all going to turn out. The best way to break that is calling attention to what you’re doing, and using obvious analogues forces the reader to realize it’s all just artifice, instead of believing for the moment in the story itself.

Not to mention, most analogues are handled with about as much subtlety as Godzilla sodomizing the moon.ย  “Ooh, he’s Superman, but he’s a self-righteous blowhard!” “Ooh, it’s Wonder Woman, but she’s a lesbian!” “Ooh, it’s Batman, but now he’s black! See? Because Batman is dark, and black people are…dark? But in a different way? Oh, man, I just got all racist there.” Even my example characters are realizing just how silly it all is. I should point out that I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with black or lesbian or any variety of diversified heroes; frankly, there should probably be more of them, but there seem to be unfortunate implications about how they get applied in these circumstances, and seriously, they do. It gets even worse when the analogue follows out to the supporting cast. Seriously, are we supposed to be impressed with characterization of a Flois Flane, daring reporter? Or Malfred the Manservant? Or Bex Buthor, criminal mastermind?

I can see people taking issue with what I’m saying here, based on the notion that nothing is original and there are only maybe two or three or ten actual stories in the world, depending on how smug the English professor they heard that idea from was. Again, I must concede that originality is perhaps the most dangerous and elusive game of all, and even in our best and most honest moments as creative individuals, we’re probably cribbing from influences we don’t even realize we have. If you want me to get all Jungian on your ass, I can break out the notion of archetypes, ideas that are pre-made and recur in various cultures in various forms, and that superheroes are in and of themselves an archetype of our culture. Funny enough, I don’t actually have a problem with archetypes or even superhero archetypes. What I do have a problem with is endlessly passing off someone else’s character with a different coat of paint as one’s own and calling it pastiche or homage or satire. What’s the difference? Well, let’s look at a couple of characters of the same archetype who are in no way analogues of each other. The Flash and Quicksilver are both what we’d call speedsters, which is to say their sole power is running really really quickly, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. The Flash gained his powers in a lab accident while Quicksilver is a mutant. The Flash is a straight-laced, somewhat bumbling police scientist who manages to be late to everything despite his speed. Quicksilver is a former terrorist who is ridiculously impatient at how slow the world around him moves and as such is rude and nasty to just about everyone, even if there’s a somewhat decent person buried in there. It would be hard to accuse those characters of being rip-offs of each other, even if the starting point is basically the same.

Originality is about the details, about taking old ideas and making them new, or taking a new spin on something that has been done before, or hell, actually doing something that no one has done before. While probably rarer than I know, I don’t believe this last one is impossible. You may notice that my devil’s advocate speaker from the beginning of this piece (man, this thing has more characters than a play by Beckett) left out perhaps the most classic set of analogues in the form of Watchmen. Alan Moore did indeed start with the Charlton characters, but rather than simply give them a palette-swap, he took only the most basic aspects and transformed them into characters in their own right, and rather than simply having them say something about the characters they started as, they had actual lives of their own and different ideas to express. For that reason, to my mind, they are as original as anything else out there.

Now, I realize that an analogue character is not plagiarism and we are supposed to see them as some form of commentary a lot of the time. But seriously, if you’re working in superheroes, you don’t need to copy what’s already there to make your point. It’s a genre where anything is possible, which is what a lot of people love about it. Why walk the safe path and use Superman Jr.? Why not blaze a new trail? Why not add to the lexicon instead of spelling someone else’s words a little differently?