Superhero Re-imagining – Rise of the Expies

I have been thinking about superheroes again.

I blame the Avengers. And the book Seven Wonders. And Mark Waid. And Cirque du Soleil, oddly enough. Cirque are the word leaders in good looking spandex outfits right now – they made the most recent Spiderman costume. They’re also the world leader in people doing amazingly athletic things in spandex (you may argue the Olympics have them beat – I disagree).

The recent-ish trend in comics is to acknowledge that, after 80 odd years of superheroes, there really aren’t any interesting new ideas left for superheroes. You really can’t come up with a new set of superpowers that hasn’t been done before. So the new approach is deconstruction and The Expy (warning! Tv Tropes link!). Alan Moore started the thing with Watchmen. Mark Waid did it recently with Irredeemable (Superman) and Insufferable (Batman). There are plenty of examples in between.

The deconstructed expy approach had some definite advantages. It lets the writer play with the tropes of the original, all the raw material of underwear pervert comics, without having to deal with the sacred cows of the original’s iconic stuff. As one reviewer of the Avengers noted, the original material suffers from time-shifting – characters from the 30s, or even the 60s, are overwhelmingly white, and there aren’t a lot of good roles for women. DC spent a lot of time trying to fix that (go Gail Simone!), then more recently decided to give up on diversity and double-down on the straight white male demographic. But you can only do so much with the originals – Batman will always be a rich white guy with emotional problems. Superman will always be a Christian white guy with traditional values. Captain America, symbol of the nation, will always be a white guy. Wonder Woman will always be a white woman who fights crime with a bathing suit and bondage gear. You can’t change the iconic elements of the character too far before the pop culture zeitgeist pushes back. The expy lets you change things in ways the originals can’t be changed, to tell new, interesting stories.

That’s the background I’m coming from right now.

After seeing the latest Cirque show, Amaluna, the image of the flying moon valkyrie form the end of the show kept bouncing around in my head. Riffing off of that, I ended up with an expy of Wonder Woman. Moon Princess Valkyrie! The basic element I stole from the show was women with visible muscle tone in teal and bronze flying around fighting evil. They serve a moon goddess. Basic superhero premise, yes? So, if there’s a moon goddess, and she has, well, goddess-y powers, why isn’t *she* the one fighting evil? Why send less-powerful valkyrie minions into the world to fight for her? I decided that this underwear pervert universe has weird gods. There are a pile of extra-dimensional entities that have lots of power, and do things that only sometimes make sense in their strange other-realms. Their interactions with Earth were recorded as “gods”, but the myths cast them as far too human. So, there’s a moon goddess, but she’s so strange you can barely converse with her. Sure, she has immense power, and occasionally does amazing things with it, but mostly she utters enigmatic pronouncements while being a swirling cloud of black and silver imagery.

That’s my answer to that problem – the “moon valkyries” are demigods created to be the moon goddess’ human interaction experts. They live in the paradisaical always-night world of… some clever name. Luna? Argentia? They can understand the goddess better than a normal person, but they can also have actual conversations without turning into glowing cats or gesturing in non-euclidean dimensions. And sometimes, the goddess sends them into the world to do stuff. Enigmatic missions! There’s a vague protocol for when her agents can and can’t interfere – the gods have worked out agreements to keep the Earth from being ruled by divine agents, ever since the mess in the ancient world (which wil be alluded to often before some mini-series explains it).

Were I actually writing this as a comic, there would be some initial framing of the history, showing the Sisters (“moon valkyrie” is a bit too much to use as an actual name, I think) interacting with mortals through the ages. The Sisters are all female, but aren’t all white ladies – I would go so far as to suggest that perhaps their ethnic makeup tends to mirror that of Earth, so in modern times, most of them are Asian or South Asian. There would be a story about one of them going overboard and setting herself up as a queen. And another about a Sister falling in love with a man. And a couple more, establishing what the Sisters do when they’re following orders, and what happens when they exceed their mandate. The latter end badly for all involved.

With all that setting in place, here comes our heroine. She is, of course, the most specialest Moon Princess Valkyrie EVAR! She outfights her sisters, outflies them in races, beats them at chess, whatever. Then the Goddess sends her to Earth, to the modern world, on an enigmatic mission to stop some Evil Dude from messing with Ancient Moon Artifact. While there, though, she gets an impression of how messed up the modern world is. She stops the Evil Dude, but she also stops a mugging, and starts to Have Opinions on modern culture. The Goddess tells her it’s time to come home, and she’s all “Well, no – I got shit to do here!” And then the two of them have a weird conversation that ends with our Princess somewhere between exiled/banished and “on long term assignment”. So she’s on Earth to superhero around, and has limited access to paradise moon world and her Sisters. It’s a premise! Now she fights crime!

As far as identity goes, she’s going to be queer, no question. Sorry Steve Trevor! She’s a feminist, Jim, but not as we know it – as an outsider, she questions society as we’ve made it, while having her own baggage of cultural assumptions from an alien culture. For ethnicity, I’m not sure. I can think of three or four different options, and they’re all potentially problematic. So this stays a question mark until I actually try to write this or do some character study art. Which may never happen.

The next idea was The Bat-Men. Nolan’s Batman films, to me, were a deconstruction of the hero, more a critique of him than a celebration. The final film seems to answer the questions about Batman with a solid “he can only do this for a little while, and even then, he probably shouldn’t”. Various folks have examined the many different identities that Batman covers (my favourite is the Planetary/Batman crossover from Warren Ellis). He’s the world’s best martial artist. He’s the world’s greatest detective. He’s a scientist. He’s an inventor. He’s trained in the art of disguise and stage magic. He’s an expert driver, pilot, etc. All in one guy. Except that in practice, Batman as written and filmed generally picks one or two elements of this and lets the rest drift to the background.

So, my Batman idea is to just let there be a bunch of Batmen. The more I thought about it, the more I love the idea of a sort of Batmen ensemble show/book/mediathing like Leverage. The sort of thing that works perfectly with the basic setup of the RPG Prime Time Adventures; a handful of interesting characters with different skills and motivations who solve problems. Each story spotlights the unique traits of one or two characters with the rest providing backup until it’s their turn later.

Batman number one is the fighter. He’s the rich kid who saw his parents gunned down in front of him, and then devoted his life to becoming the ultimate badass. He has a moral code that forbids killing, but has leeway on severe injuries. He’s trained all over the world in every martial art that has a name, and several that don’t. He spends hours every day keeping himself in shape – he is, essentially, a professional athlete. His costume is modern ninja. No cape. Lightly armoured vest, knee and elbow pads, utility belt, gloves with padded knuckles, lightweight boots. Mask with the bat ears, padded around the upper part of the face to cut down on concussions, black eyes and broken noses. He’s the one bringing the startup capital to the bat-game. He’s CEO of the family company (or maybe Chairman of the Board?), but as CEO, no one expects him to be that involved in the daily operations. The company folks who run things know he’s weird and eccentric, but he shows up when he has to and doesn’t piss people off. He’s a white cismale with traditional good looks. I want him to be a little on the short side. He broods, glowers, and has difficulty forming healthy emotional relationships. For now, I will nickname this guy the Bat Ninja.

Batman number two is our STEM specialist. He’s a genius inventor, with science skills and a couple degrees under his belt. He takes the idea of the batsuit to its logical conclusion. His suit has wings, and he can actually fly with it. His helmet has big actual bat-like ears, and includes sonar, night vision, etc. The lower half of the face is open, but the suit has a respirator attachment that pops up when air-borne toxins or poor air quality is detected. He’s not quite Iron Man; the suit makes him a little stronger, but he’s not going to be bench-pressing cars. No missiles or lasers, either. For combat, it’s punching or using the retractable claws in the gauntlets and articulated boots. In the suit, he’s essentially bulletproof, though really big caliber guns and explosives are still a threat. While not as skilled as the Bat Ninja, he’s quick and relies on the suit to keep him going in a fight. Out of combat, his sensor array and his science skills make him useful at processing evidence, tracking down bad guys, etc. He’s also the go to guy for emergency “computer hacking” scenes. He’s a tall, skinny black guy. He got into this through making gadgets for Bat Ninja. HE doesn’t have a big scary trauma in his past. Crime fighting is part trying to fix the world like it’s a machine, and part compensating for getting beat up for being a nerd when he was younger. He’s over confident and takes unneeded risks. His day job is doing something unspecifiedly sciencey at Totally Not Wayne Enterprises. We’ll call him Tech Bat for now.

Batman number three is our Great Detective. He’s done a lot of things on both sides of the law; he was a con man, but one good enough to never get caught. He’s the one with the stage magic and disguise in his background. He worked in forensics and crime scene investigations stuff, bouncing around law enforcement without ever actually becoming a cop. He doesn’t have a law degree, but that’s mainly because he doesn’t have a good personality for school; he gets bored too quickly. He figured out who Bat Ninja was, but before he could decide whether or not he wanted to do anything about it, his brother was killed by the mob for giving information to the cops. With the “proper” channels stymied by corruption and incompetence, he went to Bat Ninja, and they took down the criminals responsible. He’s the Bat with the long flowing cape who always manages to make the big, dramatic entrances at just the right time, who knows everyone’s secrets and always seems to have a clever contingency plan. These days he works with Bat Ninja’s family company as a vague sort of business guy/”management consultant”, providing social cover for Bat Ninja’s social awkwardness. Let’s call him the Bat Detective until I manage to come up with names.

These guys are all in their late 20s/early 30s (TV/comics code for “middle aged”). Maybe a little older – old enough to realize that they can’t keep doing this forever. So, while the three of them are good to fight crime together now, they know they need someone to replace them when they have to retire.

First off, we get our Batgirl, who I am going to model off of Cassandra Cain. An Asain girl in her late teens, trained to be an assassin by her abusive asshole dad. She lacks the life skills for a life without violence, but she met the Bat family before going too far down the wrong path; she’s never killed anyone, to her father’s disappointment. She trains with Bat Ninja for combat skills, but it’s the Bat Detective that is teaching her how to be a human being who can function in the world. I think the kids don’t get proper costumes, since they’re supposed to be out of the field, but Bat Girl (who definitely isn’t going to have “girl” in her official name, and whose actual name will be something more Asian than “Cain”) will wear a lot of practical clothing in dark colours. Dresses and more conventional “girly” outfits are for when she’s off balance and dragged into a social setting.

Secondly, we get the Robin riff, a kid whose parents were killed in front of him, like Bat Ninja’s. With the Bats to look after him, though, he hasn’t become grim and obsessed. He’s actually fairly well-adjusted, all things considered. He’s got a knack for computers and the sciencey stuff, but also has the Bat Detective’s flair for drama. He has a hard time relating to Bat Ninja. He’s a year or two younger than Bat Girl, and they have a sibling sort of relationship. He’s the only one of the group that has a significant group of friends outside of “the business”; while both of the kids go to school, our little boy hostage actually socializes there. He dresses in whatever hip young teens are wearing these days.

There’s an older woman, a doctor, who works with the Bats as support. She doesn’t fight, but she patches up the Bats after fights, helps the kids with school stuff, and tells the Bats when they’re being idiots. She’s closed her regular practice, but teaches medicine part time at the local teaching hospital.

At five characters, that’s probably enough. I’d like to find room for another female character for balance, though any of the Bats could gender swap in a pinch. Part of the setup I think is important, though, is that there’s no sexual tension between characters. Love interests have to come from outside the group. That avoids the tired trope of the female characters devolving into X’s Girlfriend as their primary identity.

This is the expy combo that’s least possible to actually do, sadly – I can’t think of how to make the combo work without the bat imagery, and I suspect that’ll get you sued unless you’re doing it for DC.

Lastly, my noodling brings me to Superman. In most versions of the story, Supes’ parents send him to Earth on purpose. Knowing that, on Earth, he will have super powers. Given that Earth wasn’t directly aware of Krypton, we can infer that either his rocket had FTL capabilities, or cryosleep facility. Kryptonite suggest the latter, sort of. In any case, it seems to me that they could have sent their kid to a planet with a red sun where he’d be normal, but they chose to send him somewhere he’d be superhuman. I think that says something about the parents that sent him to Earth.

With that as a jumping off point, my Superman expy idea has him being sent away from his dying world by parents that don’t look particularly human. There’s no real reason there would have to be two parents, or anything identifiable as “gender” as we know it, either. I’m talking proper aliens, too weird to put in a movie with extensive CGI. So they send the kid off in a tiny space ship with a moderately bright AI on board, the kid in a cryopod type thing. The ship zooms off into space, looking for intelligent life. It finds Earth, and starts examining the life there, and re-configuring the kid to match. Starting with a basic human template, add on as much superpower as weird alien science can manage. Template the kid on the highest status humans it can find – in our case, white dudes in America in the 50s. This is taking the idea from Kill Bill – Clark Kent as Superman’s judgement on humanity – and adds some more weight to it. Everything he is is an AI’s eugenics experiment. Was the plan to have him be a superking, ruling over humanity with his superdickery? If so, was the pope hat part of the plan?

The spaceship that brought him to Earth doesn’t need a lot of nudging to turn into a version of Brainiac, and Lex Luthor’s motivation for opposing supes can be explained by having him exposed to his true origin.

The only thing keeping Superman from being a monster is the moral code instilled in him the the parents that raised him. The classic moral issue is responsible use of power, sometimes dipping into noblesse oblige territory. A superman raised a little later than the original depression era supes could have a lot of potential for discussions of acknowledging privilege. And the inherent problems of a white male godling doing that discussing. My mental image of Failed Overlord Superman and Moon Princess Wonder Woman sitting around debating Judith Butler and bell hooks is probably over the top, but I find it amusing any way.

Unlike the Batmen, Supes really does need to be the only super powered person in his story – he’s so over the top powerful that the story, and the character, need a lot of human level stuff to keep things relatable, and to keep the character from losing his grip and going shopping for a pope hat.

Anyway, there’s my idea dump. Nothing ground breaking, to be sure. But I wanted to get it down, and see what people think about it. All part of my dream of trying to “fix” comics. As a bonus, I now have my gaming itch going again, when I really don’t have time to run a game. Did anyone actually read all of that? Comments? Arguments? Criticisms?

2 thoughts on “Superhero Re-imagining – Rise of the Expies

  1. Hiya! Congrats on blogging 🙂 I haven’t had a chance to read more than the first few paragraphs but I have to say, I totally don’t see Superman as necessarily Christian. Maybe it’s because of how he’s portrayed by my favourite fanfic writer (who really ought to be hired by DC to write canon, her fic is better than most of their comics) but he seems to me to be sort of beyond all that. He can see everything going on around the world, I think he’d be more easily compared to the Christian god than to any Christian follower. 🙂

    • And to be fair, for some of the Silver Age, I think Supes started referring to “Rao”, the Kryptonian god.

      I do think that every Supes post-crisis has been Christian, though, and I am not sure DC could or would ever change that.

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