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Monday, January 21, 2008


Thinking about Image Comic's current contest for creating a new superheroine (that's, uh, a superhero of the female persuasion, not a high-intensity injectable opiate, which would be "super-heroin" -- although the similarity is not coincidental, since the word "heroin" probably comes from the German word "heroisch", meaning heroic), my thoughts have wandered onto, among other things, what makes people like a given superhero. And I'm not talking just, "Yeah, I like Cyclops" -- I'm talking about, "Gee, I love Spiderman so much, I'm going to name my newborn 'Peter Parker Wojahowitz', and it's a girl!"

So, what makes people really dig certain superheroes, while others are left languishing in the margins of the illustrated world. I mean, hey, I liked Blue Beetle, but why wasn't he popular enough to sustain his own comic for more than a couple dozen issues? What is it about Wolverine that he gets not only his own comic, but appearances in as many X-mags as they can squeeze him into, as well as being a regular part of the Avengers (well, the renegade ones, anyway), plus being the go-to guy for special appearances any time sales flag in a lesser comic book?

It's not a difficult task to draw up a rough list of the all-time most popular superheroes (at least in North America):

- Superman
- Batman
- Spider-man
- Wolverine
- Green Lantern
- The Hulk
- Iron Man
- Wonder Woman
- Captain America

While I'm sure there are others that readers will vehemently argue should be included, few will argue against any of these being on the list. So, the question is, what do they all have in common that makes them so popular?

I suppose that, in fact, one should precede that question by asking, "Is there anything these superheroes have in common?" (Of course, they're all superheroes, but I think we can dispense with that commonality as being axiomatic, or at least part of the definition of the problem space. If they weren't all superheroes, we wouldn't be asking either question.) Is there an answer to the pre-question? Let's just say "Yes", and get on with our analysis.

Now, looking at these heroes, it's hard to find a commonality. In fact, in addition to things they have in common, we also need to determine what's different about all of them compared to less popular characters. If Wonder Woman wasn't on the list, we could say that they are all male, but there are plenty of unpopular heroes who are also male. Thus, gender is not a mitigating factor in popularity. Similarly, we need to exclude all common traits that are also common to the lesser supers.

In addition, we also have to consider combinations of traits. It could be (and is likely that) there are plenty of traits which, when considered independently, are common to both the "in" crowd and the "out" crowd, but that, when evaluated in combinations, are specific only to the members of our list. Clearly, this is going to be a difficult task.

In fact, this is the sort of task that direct, serial evaluation is not particularly well suited for. If I do this analysis deliberately, drawing up nine lists of traits (one for each hero mentioned), and then finding commonalities, and then identifying combinations of commonalities, and then taking those identity points and comparing them against the larger population, I could be at it for months (years, decades, centuries, millenia). There must be a better way to do this, to come up with a guaranteed popular new superhero based on an analysis of existing creative successes.

Mustn't there?

In fact, anyone who has seriously tried to be creative and successful knows there is currently no good formula for success. Sure, it would be easy to draw up a list of things you think you shouldn't do, but even that might be wrong. Twenty five years ago, most people would have included "make the superhero be a mean-ass S.O.B. who carries an arsenal of military-grade weapons to blow the heads off of anyone who pisses him off" in the not-a-good-idea category. But then came the likes of The Punisher (who many would argue should be on the above list), and that stricture was proven wrong. In fact, while in general the idea is not really a good one, the inclusion of other traits, such as a personal code of honour that makes Mr. Castle go out of his way to avoid harming Law Enforcement personnel, and a giant skull on his chest, and a permanent five o'clock shadow, and a never-say-die attitude, made for a character that not only bucked the trends, but helped redefine them.

As it turns out, though, the subconcious mind (the one that people tap into when they're being creative) is fairly adept at collating this kind of information, taking huge amounts of data, quickly winnowing out the stuff that doesn't fit, and then producing potentially effective combinations. While I may not be able to describe all the things that make for a great superhero, with practice, I can become pretty good at creating some decent approximations.

Of course, this subconcious system relies a lot on what some would call "instincts" -- the ability to throw out the losers and pick out the winners from this giant soupy mess of ideas. This instinct, though, is really no more than an incredibly complex, self-redefining set of rules by which ideas are evaluated. As long as we are subconciously willing to update our evaluation rules, to accept that we can improve the subconcious processes by which we create ideas, then we will continue to create, and make better creations.

And if we don't? Well, I'm sure we've all read comics that reek of stagnation. Mary Worth, anyone?



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