Rules of the Superhero Genre
By Joe Sergi, author of Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures
I would to thank you for allowing to come on your site and ramble about my favorite genre—superheroes. I am the author of Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures. The book is the sequel to Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy. The first book introduced DeDe Christopher, an ordinary teen with an extraordinary destiny to become Sky Girl. Being a teenage girl is hard enough, but for DeDe, it is proving impossible. In addition to cliques, books, and boys, she has to worry about capes, apes, and aliens. When we last left DeDe, she had just adopted the mantle of Sky Girl at the end of her sophomore year of high school. In this book, DeDe must learn what it means to be a heroine as Sky Girl faces the all too real enemies and allies of SkyBoy, including the clever Quizmaster, the beautiful Penny Pound, the enigmatic Jersey Devil, and the magical MissTick. DeDe must also face personal challenges as she discovers the secrets of her late father and his connection to SkyBoy--secrets that will affect Sky Girl’s destiny.
Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures is technically classified as young adult. However, this book more correctly fits into what is known as the superhero genre. There are certainly challenges to writing in this genre. Traditionally, the superhero genre was limited to the comic book medium. Sadly, while the superhero genre has had great success expanding into movies and television, superhero prose fiction is a hard platform to sell. I find it amazing that while comics has gained exposure as a medium and is no longer limited to the superheroes genre, the superhero genre, itself, hasn't really been able to expand into novels or short stories. And while characters like Superman and Spider-Man tend to do well, original characters are a hard sell. But, I think it’s a great genre and believe it deserves a chance to thrive beyond licensed properties.
When I was shopping Sky Girl around, several publishers were interested in the book but ultimately decided that the target audience for prose superhero fiction was too small. I do not believe that and hope that I can prove them wrong with my books. I do not believe that comic fans will avoid my book because it doesn’t have pictures in it. Similarly, I don’t think young adult, fantasy, and science fiction readers will avoid the book because it is about a superhero. There is a market for fun superhero stories and it does not matter what medium they are presented in, whether it be film, comics or novels. Someday, I hope I am remembered for trying to challenge industry norms in an effort to reach new readers and dispel these misconceptions. I hope Sky Girl is remembered for helping me succeed in that challenge.
So what is the Superhero genre?
Robert McKee, in his great book about screenwriting called Story points out that when writing genre fiction, there are certain rules that must be followed for each genre. For example, a mystery story must always have clues and a solution and, when writing a comedy, the cardinal rule is that the main characters can’t really get hurt. In the words of Mel Brooks, “tragedy is when I stub my toe; comedy is when you fall into an open manhole and die.” Similarly, superhero fiction has basic rules that apply and that make the superhero fiction genre unique.
A superheroine needs an origin that begins in tragedy. Superman’s planet exploded, Batman’s parents were murdered before his eyes and Uncle Ben was killed through Peter Parker’s inaction. Very rarely does someone wake up and decide, “I have a well-adjusted life, I think I will put on a colorful costume and become a scourge of the underworld.” The catalyst of Sky Girl is featured in Chapter 0 of the first book, which sets up the main mystery for the remainder of the series. “What happened to SkyBoy?” The fate of DeDe’s father fits directly into that. Does this mean that DeDe is psychologically imbalanced? Of course not. I mean, Clark Kent grew up just fine despite being the last survivor of Krypton (if you exclude Supergirl, the Phantom Zone criminals, the city of Candor, Krypto and . . .well, you get the idea).
Second, superheroes wear costumes. Generally, good guys wear primary colors and bad guys wear purples, green and black. Of course the primary reason for this is that in the early days of publishing, the printing process was not very good. So, it helped if the reader knew that the little red and blue blur was Superman and the purple and green one was Lex Luthor. In my book, Sky Girl’s costume is based on her male counterpart SkyBoy and is purple and black. That costume, and the color scheme, was a deliberate choice. Then again, the Phantom, one of the original pulp heroes, wore purple and black, so it could be an homage to him. Plus, the Hulk, himself, is green with black hair and wears purple pants and he’s a hero . . . Isn’t he?
Superheroes have powers. Firemen, policemen and teachers are all heroes--but, they are not superheroes. This is because they do not possess that metahuman gene that gives them powers. (Except for my sixth grade English teacher, Mrs. Lucas--that woman had eyes in the back of her head!) Some, like Batman, get their powers the old fashioned way, through study exercise; but he is still the world’s greatest detective. Others get them through birth (the X-men), environment (Superman), radiation (Hulk and Spider-Man), or drugs (if you think about it, Captain America is the poster child for steroids). And of course, Batman and Iron Man have the greatest superpower of all time: more money than they know what to do with. Sky Girl has several powers, including flight, invulnerability, a skypulse, and sky vision, which she discovers throughout Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, the first book. In the second book, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures, she discovers and trains to use even more of her powers. The mysterious origin of her ever-growing list of fantastic powers will be explored in the third book of the series.
Superheroines also need a mentor. In The Power of Myth, Joseph Campbell explains the hero’s journey. Part of that journey involves a wise mentor who helps the hero with her destiny. Luke has Obi Wan (and later Yoda). Daredevil has Stick. Clark had Pa Kent. Billy Batson, on the Saturday morning show Shazam, had Mentor (Saturday morning shows aren’t very subtle). Over the course of the story, Sky Girl meets several potential mentors. Some have her best interest at heart, and others have selfish motives. Part of her journey is to determine who to learn from.
A superhero must also overcome overwhelming obstacles. If someone overcomes adversity and defeats the villain, they are a hero. But, to be a superhero, a person must face super overwhelming odds to defeat a supervillain. Batman would just be a man in tights without the Joker. Stan Lee, in the early days of Marvel Comics, added to this by having Spider-Man not only face off against the Green Goblin, but he also needed to make enough money to buy medicine for his Aunt May. Sky Girl is no different. In the first book, she faced off against the villainous Commander Chimp and his Gorilla Army. The new book greatly expands her rouge’s gallery of villains. There is also personal challenge for a teenage girl growing up, such as whether to use her powers for personal gain or whether to accept her mother’s new boyfriend.
Related to that, a hero is only as good as his or her villains. With a few exceptions (like Venom), Spider-Man’s major villains were all introduced in the first year of the book. They still plague him to this day. Batman consistently faces the same insane criminals month after month (as if Arkham Asylum has a revolving door). In fact, the Flash’s enemies actually refer to themselves as The Rogues. In Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, we saw that Sky Boy has his own rogues gallery called the Retallion Battalion, which Sky Girl inherits. These are some pretty tough characters and Sky Girl faces off against nearly a dozen of them in the second book. Each of these characters plays a large role in the overall Sky Girl story.
Another aspect of the superhero genre is the existence of a confidant/sidekick. Batman has Robin, but what many people don’t seem to realize is that he also has Alfred. The Hulk had Rick Jones. Captain America had Rick Jones. Captain Marvel had Rick Jones. Rom had Rick Jones. (Wow! That Rick Jones gets around). Superman had Ma and Pa Kent, and then Lois, and then not Lois, and now only Ma Kent. Sky Girl has Jason, her comic geek friend. He helps her in her hero’s quest and would be proud to be known as her faithful sidekick. In the new book, he also gets a chance to shine.
Although the ten-year-old me would never admit it, love plays a special role in the superhero genre, especially unrequited love. “If only I could tell Nurse Jane Foster how I feel, but I can’t because I am also the Mighty Thor.” This theme permeates almost all the silver age books, especially in early Marvel Comics. Daredevil loved Karen Page; Spidey loved Liz and then Mary Jane; Clark Kent loved Lois Lane who loved Superman and then they didn’t. I think DeDe (Sky Girl) is a little young for love, but she is certainly interested in Adam Berg, the star quarterback. Unfortunately, he is involved with Nicole Debis, DeDe’s rival in every way. The ante is upped when DeDe gets super powers. Given the change in modern heroic fiction, perhaps there is hope for DeDe to find true love. This is especially true after the pair get to spend so much time together in the second book. After all, Superman finally married his Lois Lane and Spider-Man eventually married Mary Jane. And then they didn’t.
Another trope of the superhero genre is a superheroic code-name. “Look, up in the sky; it’s a bird, it’s a plane; it’s Clark Kent.” That just doesn’t have the same oomph. Much the way that criminals would not cower in fear from the Bruce Wayne symbol (even if they are a superstitious and cowardly lot). DeDe’s best friend, Jason, spends a lot of effort deciding what the right name should be for DeDe. In the end, there can only be one. In the second book, one of my favorite chapters to write is when Jason tries to teach someone the importance (and copyright ramifications) of a super villain code name.
A super hero needs witty banter. Spider-Man is clearly the master of this. And then he wasn’t. But, every hero is responsible for learning how to crack wise in the face of danger. Perhaps these jokes provide a psychological advantage, throwing their adversaries off guard by making them angry. Maybe, the humor is their only weapon against the dark world of evil they inhabit. I did a panel at Balticon about humor in paranormal romance, and someone mentioned that humor is a subtle way to show the strength of the hero—so perhaps that is the reason. Sky Girl is still relatively new to the proper way to converse with the enemy. When the second book opens, DeDe has had the whole summer to practice and train with Jason. She’s actually gotten quite good at being a costumed adventurer—except for her banter. She still stumbles through quips causing her opponents to wince. Luckily, Jason is there to show her the ropes and help her with the comic timing. Hopefully, as her confidence improves, so will Sky Girl’s banter.
Every superhero needs a catch phrase. Everyone knows that Wolverine is the best at what he does (even if what he does isn’t very nice). People know that “it’s clobbering time” when the Thing cocks his fist. Perhaps fewer are aware that Psylocke’s psychic knife is “the focused totality of her psychic powers” (even though Chris Claremont had her say it every five minutes in Uncanny X-Men). SkyBoy’s catch phrase is, “Good golly!” Sky Girl doesn’t have one yet, but Jason is working on it and will know it when he finds it. After all, GI Joe fans are aware that “knowing is half the battle.” (What they may not know is that the other half is comprised of equal percentages of red and blue lasers).
Most importantly, good heroes always triumph over evil villains in superhero fiction. It is the never ending battle. Everyone who looks forward to their weekly Wednesday comic book delivery knows exactly who is going to win that battle. And no matter how dark the reign gets or even in the blackest of night, the heroes will fight the siege of that final crisis and ensure that they will have their brightest day and enter a heroic age. Things look pretty bleak for the world of SkyBoy at the beginning of Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy. Hopefully, Sky Girl can save the day. Who am I kidding? Of course, she can. Can’t she?
I hope this discussion has helped flesh out the world of superheroes in general, and Sky Girl in specific. Did I miss anything? Please let me know. And thank you for allowing me to come on and talk about a topic that I love.