Saturday, February 9, 2013

The Dreaded "R" Word

In my previous post, I wrote of Wonder Woman and how the issue of her being "relatable" was an ongoing problem for her.

But you know what…if you’ve been a fan of the superhero genre in general, you’ve probably encountered the “relatable” issue. Superman is often plagued with the complaint he is too “un-relatable.” Spider-Man has long been praised for being the most “relatable” superhero. And if things aren’t going so well, or if sales aren’t so good, the battle-cry of it being not “relatable” anymore—or at all—is often heard at least once.
To the point where, honestly, I think people put way too much stock in what's "relatable" or not...but that's a whole other discussion for another time.

And there are fewer things that make me want to bury my head in the sand more than when a writer, editor, producer, creator, or Bob proclaims they are going to revamp a character or story to make them more relatable. If snarky, jaded fans interpret “We’re trying to make it more accessible” as “We’re dumbing it down,” then I believe we should start interpreting “We’re making it more relatable” as “We’re about to bone your favorite character. Hard.”

I say this because it seems so very often, when people try to discuss how relatable or un-relatable a character is, they don’t seem to know what that even means. And from my experience, the effort to force it usually leads to some of the most misguided, asinine, destructive, and all-around BAD ideas.

I think, easily, the apex epitome of how bad this can get is the notorious Spider-Man story, One More Day. I know ragging on One More Day has become something of a dead horse by this point, but if you want to see how bad the "relatable" issue can get, you need look no further.

I'm sure most already know this debacle, but let's recap for context if nothing else:
Bunch of higher-ups at Marvel Comics felt that a big problem with Spider-Man was he was no longer relatable to the readers. And the reason he was no longer relatable, according to them, was because he was married to Mary Jane—because, by their logic, comic readers cannot identify with a married man. What to do..? Can't just divorce the two; that would make things worse. No, the solution was to construct a storyline in which Aunt May is mortally wounded by an assassin sent to kill Spider-Man. So Mephisto—in essence, Marvel's Satan—offers to save her. In return, he wants to make it so Peter and MJ were never married. Because...evil. Spidey, incapable of handling the guilt of letting Aunt May die agrees and *POOF* Spider-Man was never married.

So what do we have here? People don't relate to Spider-Man because he's married—a dubious statement in and of itself. So to solve this, they have him make a deal with the devil to give up his supermodel wife because he has severe, crippling mommy issues. Because if there's anyone comic readers identify with and relate to, it's Norman fucking Bates.

Or how about this: if you're a fan who frequents message boards or engages in open discussion long enough, you've probably encountered or even participated in this exchange at least once:

FAN #1: "Superman isn't successful anymore because people can't relate to him."

FAN #2: "Oh, people can't relate to Superman, but they can relate to a billionaire that dresses like a bat and was trained by ninjas..? Yeah, that makes sense."

And what usually follows will likely be debate over how Batman’s better because he has no powers—even though he’s so often portrayed as the most unbeatable character in the Justice League—and how the problem with Superman is he’s too powerful—even though I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone complain about the Hulk being the “strongest one there is.”

Here’s the thing with what makes a character relatable or un-relatable: it’s broad, abstract, universal concepts that does the trick. It ties into motivation and how the character’s backstory shaped that motivation. What the protagonist wants, why they want it, and how their past shaped them into the people they are. If you take any writing or character creation course, the first thing you’re always told to ask when making a character is, “What do they want?”

People relate to Batman because we all know and understand what he wants and why he wants it. He watched his parents die when he was a kid and vowed to fight crime. Within that motivation, there’s fear of loss. A desire for justice and/or revenge. Abstract concepts—it isn’t just “insert tragedy into the hero’s origin” and presto, you’ve got a relatable character. What motivates Batman is something basic, yet intangible, that everyone can understand and relate to. Everything else—the dark demeanor, the brooding attitude, the martial arts, detective work—that’s all flavoring and window dressing. Yes, it’s all critical to his appeal, but the core thing is that simple driving motivation: he saw his parents die and he wanted to do something about it.

That’s a simplification, of course. There are other factors to consider like conflict in the face of motivation. If people complain about Superman’s power levels, what they’re really taking issue with is his apparent lack of conflict. Where’s the drama in a guy who can solve things so easily, with so little risk? Over-powered as the Hulk can be, he has an inherent and relatable conflict to his character.

But I think if there's any advantage someone like Batman has over characters like Superman or Wonder Woman, it's that his motivation is very easy to sum up in a simple, straight forward sentence. And therefore, he is easier to sell as a relatable character. Why is Bruce Wayne Batman? Parents murdered, he fights crime. Simple, straight forward, you hear it, you get it.

Now to compare with Superman: someone asks what Superman’s “deal” is. You respond, “He fights for truth, justice, and the American way.” Yeah…but why? It's not that he doesn't have a motivation. Further, it's not that his motivation is un-relatable. If there's a problem with Superman, it's that his motivation is harder to sum up in a simple, straight forward pitch. Why does Superman fight for truth, justice, and the American way?

Because he was raised in Kansas.

Doesn't exactly hit you the way Batman's does, does it? And again, it's not that Superman doesn't have a motivation that we can relate to, or that his backstory hasn't shaped that motivation. The problem is Superman's backstory and motivation works better when seen, not told. I think this is probably why Superman's backstory and upbringing in Smallville is so often retold in comics, flashbacks, the movies, and TV shows. It works better when we see how his being raised by Ma and Pa Kent in Kansas made him Superman. Simply saying, "He was raised by nice folks in Kansas" just doesn't ring true as well as "His parents were killed and he wants justice" or "His uncle was murdered in a crime he could've prevented."


  1. If people complain about Superman’s power levels, what they’re really taking issue with is his apparent lack of conflict.

    Comments like this have always bugged me because it comes across like people are assuming rather than doing research on something. Here are a couple of (pre-52) Superman villains:

    General Zod, Doomsday, Darkseid, Lex Luthor, Bizzarro, Brainiac, Cyborg Superman, Metallo, Mongul, Parasite and Mr Mxyzptlk.

    Of all of them Lex Luthor is the odd one out. Why? Because the others - through exploiting one of Superman's weaknesses (yes, he has more than one), using their own powers or just raw strength, they can not only MATCH his power but even surpass it. So to me, how can you call him over powered when the evidence implies otherwise.

    Having said that, Lex does indeed challenge him on a mental level and the "Tom and Jerry" esk cat and mouse game (i.e. he can never fully stop Lex Luthor), and New Krypton showed that people like General Lane can also prove to be a problem. Superman CAN face conflict that either matches his power or challenge him in other ways. I've always seen him like a rocket launcher; it is indeed over powered when trying to stop say a bank robbery, but against a helicopter or a tank it's perfect.

    As for being able to relate to him, it really depends on the story you read. Stories like "For the Man Who Has Everything", "Last Son", "Brainiac" and "New Krypton" (of the ones I've read) have done a great job of showing someone you can relate to. Heck one of my favourite JLU episodes is based around "For the Man Who Has Everything"; just the scene where he screams "BURN!" at Mongul alone is one of my favourites as I could feel his anger and upset at what had been done to him.

    And personally I find "striving to be a hero/better person/help others" to be something I can aspire to more so than "avenge the death of a loved one".

    1. All very true and thank you for responding.

      I hope I didn't come across like I was saying Superman never has conflict--hence my usage of the word "apparent."

      I only really mentioned that at all because often when people discuss how Superman is "overpowered," they seem to miss the real issue and assume the solution is to simply de-power him and that will make him relatable.

      Which isn't the case--it's conflict he needs and that's where villains are really supposed to come into play as you pointed out.
      And there are other sources of internal conflict to be mined, but I'd leave that to someone better versed with Superman's character than I am.

    2. Nah it's fine; you didn't. I just wanted to add my own personal view point as it always annoys me how people seem to overlook his rogues gallery; yes they're not as iconic as Batman's but I feel it's more lack of exposure. Most of the famous ones have been in movies or the old Adam West TV series. However I do feel he could lose a power or two; I mean with the caliber of villains he does face, does he really need his "invulnerability"? Like I said, it doesn't seem to help him much against a punch from Doomsday or Darkseid. Bullets can still bounce off him (if needed) as they could put it down to higher durability like Aquaman but not flat out "invulnerability".

      As for internal conflicts, I personally found Grounded was good for that, but more due to my interpretation (the story overall was a bit meh). To me it was him dealing with the fallout from Brainiac and New Krypton and needing time to himself to work through them (something I've had to go through myself). All-Star Superman is also a good example of it.

      I will admit that I do feel good Superman stories are few and far between. I've only really been reading him for the last few years and while most have been enjoyable, I do find outside of the few I mentioned last time, All Stars and Red Son (the last two taking place in an alternative universe) are really noteworthy (maybe Death of Clark Kent; need to re-read that). I often wish someone like Geoff Johns would write him more often as he was one of the writers that helped draw me to the character and seems to be good at writing both the physical and mental conflict.

      I also agree strongly with what you said about Batman and how he can beat the rest of the Justice League. Ironically I view him as the over powered hero because of this (and at times swear he has reality bending/deus ex machina manipulation as a super power; how else do you explain some of the crap he can get away with?!).

      I will add though that I do think a paternal role suits him. Some of the interaction between him and Conner Kent/Superboy really highlighted thus, such as the Superman mini series during Blackest Night. The scene where he abandons the villain in favour of saving Conner was one of my favourite scenes as it highlighted the selfless attitude I admire in him and at times have tried to emulate in my own life. Imagine if he had to spend more of his time either setting a good example for someone or having to be weary about them meaning he can lose focus.

      In my eyes everything is there to make the character work as well as others, but it needs people to shed their narrow minded viewpoint of him and the right writer to come along to write him.