Note: This is a guest posting from Jason A. Fleece, dramaturg for our summer MainStage production of Soon I Will Be Invincible.
In my earlier blog posts, I discussed the history of superhero fiction to give a context for the tropes and traditions that inform the world of Soon I Will Be Invincible. The main work that I did for this production, though, was to contextualize the characters of the play by drawing connections to superheroes and supervillains of (mostly) the Big Two, and to give the cast reading lists of the superhero fiction that inspired their roles.
Last time, I covered the two primary characters of Soon I Will Be Invincible, Fatale and Dr. Impossible. Today I’m going to cover some of the other heroes of The Champions.
Superman was the very first superhero, created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster and debuting in Action Comics #1 in 1938.
Superman was born Kal-El, the lone survivor of the planet Krypton.
Well, lone other than Supergirl. And General Zod. And all the other criminals in the Phantom Zone. And Krypto the Superdog. And all the people living in the shrunken bottle city of Kandor.
Lone is a relative term.
His father, Jor-El, knew of his planet’s impending doom and, when the powers that be refused to heed his warnings, saved his infant son by putting him in a rocket to Earth. Raised by the Kents, farmers from Smallville, he was given the name Clark and believes in helping everyone—no matter what. Clark works as a reporter at the Daily Planet in Metropolis, and saves the world every day.
Early Superman comics depicted Clark Kent as a rough-and-tumble young socialist hero, exacting violent vengeance on slumlords and abusive husbands.
This version of Superman was edgier than you might expect, less interested in upholding the law than in doing what was right. At the start, Superman’s abilities were more limited—he could leap an eighth of a mile, “nothing less than a bursting shell” could pierce his skin—but eventually his strength increased and his leaping became full-fledged flight. He would later gain powers like heat vision, x-ray vision, and super ice breath.
In the 1950s and 1960s Superman’s rebellious ways made way to an avuncular figure of paternal authority. The advent of the Comics Code and the relative lack of popularity of the superhero led his stories to become weird sci- fi, as red kryptonite or magic would make him behave strangely . . . or he’d take ever more bizarre journeys into space and undergo weird transformations . . . or he’d spend time gaslighting the two women vying for his affection, Lois Lane and Lana Lang, or torturing poor Jimmy Olsen.
He seemed to gain more increasingly strange superpowers as the writers needed them: super- ventriloquism, super-hypnotism, a super-homunculus that would come out of his hands to do things for him.
As the Silver Age waned and the 1980s and 1990s began, comics started to trend away from madcap fantasy and into more “realistic” stories. This led to a sadder, more elegiac Superman who struggled with his responsibilities and dealt with threats that he couldn’t punch his way out of.
In the early 1990s Superman died, killed while saving Metropolis from Doomsday. He got better. He also had a mullet for a while. ￼Then he turned blue. It was the nineties.
￼During all of this, he revealed his secret identity to Lois Lane and they got married. It was kind of a big deal.
In 2011, when DC rebooted their entire line, they wiped Superman’s story clean. Superman was no longer married, Lois never knew his identity, and so on. His costume was tweaked several times, and elements of his Golden Age exploits crept back in.
Superman has always been my favorite superhero. He’s inspirational. He makes you want to stand up straight and to help a stranger.
CoreFire Recommended Reading and Viewing:
Action Comics #1 (1938) by Siegel and Shuster Superman
For the Man Who Has Everything by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons
Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow by Moore and Curt Swan
Superman: For All Seasons by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
Superman Birthright by Mark Waid and Leniel Francis Yu
All-Star Superman by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Superman/Batman: Public Enemies by Jeph Loeb and Ed McGuinness
Action Comics #775 by Joe Kelly, Doug Mankhe and Lee Bermejo
Superman: Red Son by Mark Millar, Dave Johnson and Killian Plunkett
Irredeemable by Mark Waid and Peter Krause
(this isn’t technically a Superman story, but it’s a great deconstruction of Superman using an obvious Superman analogue)
Supreme Power by J. Michael Straczynski and Gary Frank (another deconstruction that doesn’t actually star Superman and the rest of the Justice League but is still definitely that)
Legacy is a particularly important theme in superhero comics, particularly in DC Comics. Batman trains sidekicks, and in fact has had five prominent Robins, three Batgirls, and a Bluebird. Dick Grayson, Jean-Paul Valley, and Terry McGuinness have all been Batman instead of or alongside Bruce Wayne. There have been several different Flashes. Three Wildcats. A whole Corps of Green Lanterns (and Yellow Lanterns, and Blue, and Red, and so on).
In Soon I Will Be Invincible, Damsel is the daughter of a Golden Age superhero and an alien princess. DC Comics’ Black Canary, as specifically the daughter of another Black Canary, is probably the closest analogue.
Black Canary, in most incarnations, is Dinah Laurel Lance, daughter of Dinah Lance (nee Drake), the first Black Canary, and Larry Lance, a Gotham City police detective. Dinah grew up around the Justice Society and had decided as a child that she wanted to be a part of that community, although her mother did not at first approve. She received training from Ted Grant, a boxer and the superhero Wildcat.
Dinah has a superpower, the “Canary Cry,” a sonic scream that can be used as a weapon.
The thing that has always been most fascinating about Dinah as a legacy hero is her status as a lynchpin of the superhero community.
Dinah has been a member of the Justice League—a founding member in some continuities, the leader in some incarnations. Through the League she met her eventual husband, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow. Dinah and Ollie’s relationship is often volatile, as Ollie is a womanizer and a rogue, and Dinah has a tremendous amount of pride and self- respect. Their marriage fell apart when Ollie killed a supervillain in cold blood as retribution for the death of his former sidekick’s infant daughter.
She worked with fellow superheroes The Huntress and Oracle as one of the Birds of Prey. ￼￼She helped Oliver’s sidekick, Roy, overcome his addiction to heroin, and had a very protective attitude toward him.
Unfortunately, Much of this continuity was erased with the reboot of the DC Universe in 2011. Dinah now has a completely different history, including time as a government operative and soon as the frontman for an indy rock band—but those changes occurred after Austin Grossman wrote his novel, and it’s certainly the pre-reboot version of Dinah that inspired Damsel.
Damsel is also an alien princess, much like DC Comics’ Starfire, the alien princess from the planet Tamaran who fled her tyrant sister to and eventually became a member of the Teen Titans.
Damsel Recommended Reading and Viewing:
Birds of Prey, Vol. 1: Of Like Minds by Gail Simone & Ed Benes
JLA: Year One by Mark Waid & Barry Kitson
Green Arrow/Black Canary: For Better Or For Worse by various
Teen Titans Animated Series (2003-2006) has a really quirky take on Starfire
Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (Damsel is also quite reminiscent of the Silk Spectre)
Blackwolf, the non-superhuman who is at the peak of mental and physical training who beats the crap out of criminals, has cool gadgets, and is very much the brains of his team of heroes, is primarily an analogue of DC Comics’ Batman.
Batman was created in 1939 by Bob Kane and Bill Finger as an attempt to capitalize on the success of Superman (at the time, Action Comics and Detective Comics were not owned by the same publishers).
Inspired by The Shadow, Zorro, and the Scarlet Pimpernel, Batman is a terrifying figure of the night who uses fear and theatrics to fight crime.
Bruce Wayne, of course, was the son of a wealthy doctor, orphaned as a young child when his parents were gunned down in the street by a mugger. ￼Understanding that “criminals are a superstitious and cowardly lot,” Bruce took on the identity of Batman, donning a cape and cowl and patrolling Gotham City. Bruce trained his entire life to become a perfect physical specimen, the World’s Greatest Detective, and a brilliant tactical mind.
Batman has always been particularly interesting as part of a team, whether that team is made up of his confidantes and proteges (such as his butler Alfred, police commissioner Jim Gordon, and various Robins and Batgirls and others) or made up of more colorful and more powerful heroes like the Justice League or the Outsiders.
He always becomes the leader of the group, running operations, planning battle tactics, and keeping the team working like a well-oiled machine. At the same time, however, Batman tends to be gruff and somewhat secretive, leading to frustration among the group.
Blackwolf Recommended Reading/Viewing:
There are countless great Batman stories that speak to Batman’s motivation as a terrifying creature of the night, and if this was a play about Blackwolf I’d list far more of them than I do below, but what I’d really like to focus on are stories that speak to Batman and how he works as part of a team.
Batman and the Outsiders Vol 1 by Mike W. Barr and Jim Aparo
Kingdom Come by Mark Waid and Alex Ross
JLA: New World Order by Grant Morrison and Howard Porter
JLA: Earth 2 by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
JLA: Tower of Babel by Mark Waid and Howard Porter
JLA: Divided We Fall by Mark Waid and Bryan Hitch
Batman and Son by Grant Morrison and Andy Kubert
Justice League Unlimited, Season 1/Episode 5 (“This Little Piggy”) and Season 2/Episode 13 (“Epilogue”)
While Batman is certainly the primary influence on Blackwolf, he is a little bit more of a rogue, a little more fun, than the Dark Knight. I see a bit of Marvel’s Iron Man, Captain America, and Wolverine in Blackwolf—all three are dynamic leaders, brilliant tactical minds, and/or rakish and charismatic heroes with an edge. Here’s some non-Batman-related reading/viewing that I think would also be informative:
Iron Man (2008 film)
The Avengers (2012 film)
Old Man Logan by Mark Millar and Steve McNiven
Wolverine and the X-Men Vol 1 by Jason Aaron and Chris Bachalo
She’s a champion of an ancient mythology that no longer exists and/or is no longer being worshipped. She uses a mystical artifact to fight crime and to aid her teammates as a superhero.
I think she’s equal parts Thor and Wonder Woman.
Created in 1962 by Stan Lee, Larry Lieber and Jack Kirby, Thor is Marvel’s version of the ancient Norse God. He is the God of Thunder, the son of Odin the All- Father, the brother of Loki, the God of Mischief.
￼In the Marvel Comics continuity, it is unclear whether the Asgardian pantheon are actual gods, or advanced celestial beings who might as well be gods.
In any case, the Marvel version of Thor, after displeasing his father Odin, was banished to Midgard (Earth) to inhabit the body of a handicapped physician, Donald Blake. Eventually, this was retconned—Blake turned out to have always been Thor, his memories and life an illusion created by Odin to teach Thor humility—and Thor abandoned the Donald Blake identity.
Thor’s mystical hammer, Mjolnir, can only be lifted by someone who is deemed worthy.
Other people who have lifted Thor’s hammer include Captain America, Storm of the X-Men, an alien with a horse head called Beta Ray Bill, and also a frog who was transformed into Throg, the Frog of Thunder.
Currently, Thor is no longer worthy (we still don’t know why) and can no longer lift his hammer. He has been replaced by a new female Thor, whose identity I won’t spoil here for those of you who want to discover the comics for yourselves.
Elphin also resembles DC’s most prominent female superhero, Wonder Woman. Wonder Woman was created in 1941 by William Moulton Marston, who also happens to be the inventor of the polygraph machine. Also known as Diana of Themyscira and as Diana Prince, Wonder Woman is the daughter of Hippolyta, and comes from an all-female society of Amazon warriors. Most versions of the story say that Diana was made from clay and given life by the Greek Gods. More recently, it was revealed that Diana is actually the daughter of Zeus and that the clay thing was a ruse meant to keep the god Hera, Zeus’ wife, from murdering her out of jealousy. ￼Either way, Diana is steeped in Greek mythology.
Wonder Woman carries with her a magical golden lasso, which compels anyone bound by it to tell the truth. She also wears a pair of magic bracelets that she uses to deflect bullets. If Wonder Woman’s wrists are bound together, she is rendered powerless. In some stories, Wonder Woman pilots an invisible jet; in others she can just fly, no jet needed.
The tone of Wonder Woman’s stories varies wildly. Early stories were weirdly kinky, making overt references to bondage and commenting that slavery and submission were good as long as you had a kind master.
For a while in the 1960s, Diana was a secret agent, with a racially insensitive Asian caricature named I Ching as her mentor. Her costume and powers were gone, and she was known for her mod wardrobe. Gloria Steinem was very upset by this version of Wonder Woman.
Many stories in the 1990s and 2000s emphasized the dichotomy of a warrior Amazon trying to be a symbol of peace.
In current comics, she has become the God of War after Ares’ death, and also is in a romantic relationship with Superman.
While Elphin is a close comparison to Thor and Wonder Woman in the broad strokes, the mythology Grossman uses as her background is the world of Faerie, which is drawn from equal parts Shakespeare, Celtic mythology, and other Pagan myths.
Elphin Recommended Reading/Viewing:
Essential Thor Vol 1 by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby
Thor Vol 1 by Walter Simonson
Thor (2011 film)
The Greatest Wonder Woman Stories Ever Told by various
Wonder Woman: The Circle by Gail Simone and Terry Dodson
Brian Azzarello and Cliff Chiang’s run on the Wonder Woman comic, which have been collected in six volumes
A Midsummer Night’s Dream by William Shakespeare
The Sandman by Neil Gaiman and various artists (Gaiman’s seminal comic has several appearances of the faerie world and Titania that I believe are a major influence on Grossman’s character)
Mister Mystic is a sorcerer, a mystical gatekeeper who handles the threats that his companions, based as they are in science and the empirical world, cannot fathom. He is almost certainly based on Marvel Comics’ Doctor Strange.
Created by Steve Ditko in 1963, Dr. Stephen Strange was a gifted neurosurgeon. After breaking his hands in a car accident, Strange lost dexterity and control of his fingers and was unable to continue operating. His quest to regain his abilities as a surgeon led him to the Himalayas, where he became an apprentice to the Ancient One. Eventually, Strange surpassed the Ancient One and became the Sorcerer Supreme.
Strange lives in his Sanctum Sanctorum in Greenwich Village with his manservant, Wong, and protects the Marvel Universe from mystical threats. Dr. Strange has been an Avenger and a Defender.
Among Doctor Strange’s most trusted confidantes are Brother Voodoo, a psychiatrist from Haiti and powerful houngan, and Clea, the niece of the Dread Dormammu.
Early Dr. Strange comics were known for their complicated and psychedelic artwork. Another distinguishing feature of Dr. Strange comics is the detailed mythology of The Book of Vishanti, the Eye of Agamotto, the Crystal of Cytorrak, Baron Mordo, Dormammu, The Mindless Ones, Raggadorr, Watoomb, and so on.
While Dr. Strange is arguably the most prominent mystical hero in comics, there are many others, particularly in the DC Universe, including Dr. Fate, The Spectre, Zatanna, and John Constantine.
Mister Mystic Recommended Reading:
Marvel Masterworks: Doctor Strange, Vol 1 by Stan Lee & Steve Ditko
Doctor Strange: The Oath by Brian K. Vaughn & Marcos Martin
Doctor Strange & Doctor Doom: Triumph & Torment by Roger Stern & Mike Mignola
The Books of Magic by Neil Gaiman, Roger Zelazny, John Bolton, Scott Hampton & Charles Vess
John Constantine Hellblazer: Newcastle by Jamie Delano, Richard Piers Rayner & Mark Buckingham
John Constantine Hellblazer: Dangerous Habits by Garth Ennis & William Simpson
The original Robin made his debut in Detective Comics #38 in April of 1940. He was Dick Grayson, a young acrobat who was taken in by Bruce Wayne as his ward after Dick’s aerialist parents were murdered in front of him. Eventually, Dick outgrew the Robin identity and became Nightwing, a hero in his own right. Currently, Dick Grayson is believed by most to be dead and has infiltrated the spy organization Spyral under orders from Batman.
After Dick Grayson became Nightwing, Bruce soon took in another ward, Jason Todd. Jason was a street kid, who Batman first met boosting the tires off of the Batmobile. Jason was more rebellious and difficult than his predecessor, and his relationship with Batman was not nearly as smooth. Jason was killed by the Joker—beaten with a crowbar and then blown up. Jason eventually returned from the grave and now fights crime as the Red Hood.
Despite Jason’s death, Batman has continued to have teenage protégés who use the Robin identity, including Tim Drake, Stephanie Brown, Carrie Kelley, and most recently Damien Wayne, Batman’s son with the villainous Talia al Ghul. Batman has had other sidekicks as well, including several Batgirls, the Spoiler, and Bluebird.
Robin was the first, but there have been many other superhero sidekicks over the years, including Bucky (Captain America’s sidekick), Kid Flash (The Flash’s sidekick), Speedy (Green Arrow’s sidekick), and Wonder Girl (Wonder Woman’s sidekick).
It is not uncommon for a superhero sidekick to take over the identity of their mentor. Wally West and Bart Allen (Kid Flash and Impulse) have both done stints as The Flash. Dick Grayson was Batman for a bit when Bruce Wayne was dead (he got better), and many stories have implied that Damian Wayne will one day become the Batman. Bucky Barnes was Captain America for a while when Steve Rogers was dead (he also got better). Often, kid sidekicks will team up and have adventures without their mentors, forming groups like the Teen Titans, the Young Allies, and Young Justice.
Rainbow Triumph Recommended Reading/Viewing:
Batman: Dark Victory by Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale
Batman: A Death in the Family by Jim Starlin and Jim Aparo
Batman: A Lonely Place of Dying by Marv Wolfman and George Perez
Batman and Robin: Batman Reborn by Grant Morrison and Frank Quitely
Batman and Robin: The Pearl by Peter Tomasi and Patrick Gleason
Batman: The Movie (1966), starring Adam West and Burt Ward
The Flash: Born to Run by Mark Waid and Tom Peyer
Impulse: Reckless Youth by Mark Waid and Humberto Ramos
Young Avengers by Allan Heinberg and Jim Cheung
Young Avengers Vol 1 by Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie
I could go on. I haven’t covered the mysterious Lily, or the robot Galatea, or the edgy crusaders of the Chaos Pact—not to mention the evil Baron Ether or the nefarious Nick Napalm. But I can’t give away all of our secrets, True Believers. You’ve got to see the rest for yourselves when you come see Soon I Will Be Invincible.
Maybe I’ll see you there. Until then, Make Mine Lifeline!