Ultraworld

I continue to think about superhero role-playing.  Superworld, by the way, is an old RPG, which is why I avoided using it as the title of this post.  My current thought is, should a superhero campaign be created (which it won’t), to borrow extensively rather than reinvent the wheel.

In other words, my currently envisioned superhero campaign universe has DC and Marvel supers as NPCs.  See, I have a lot of Champions products and one of the things that comes through with Champions or with other non-licensed supers games is that they take the iconic concepts that DC and Marvel have done and create their own versions because they can’t just use the ones we know.  For instance, the “paragon super” is best exemplified with Superman.  In Marvel, the paragon is split up, with the personality and history (fighting Nazis) found in Captain America and the powers found in Thor (also Silver Surfer but Thor is more the man – interesting that both have silly ways of flying).

The knock-offs are only likely to remind everyone of the originals.  Now, these games can’t use the originals but GMs can.  Since I don’t want to play either the DC universe or the Marvel universe, by stealing characters from both, we don’t capture too much of the feel of either one.  This does create problems.  The various characters typically have highly developed backstories and may have abilities that make less sense outside of worlds built around them.  Again, using the obvious example, Superman’s ubiquitous weakness is Kryptonite, which means that the merge world has to have Kryptonite.

So, I started thinking of characters that I view as being iconic.  I’m not looking for the most popular characters or my favorite characters or whatever.  I’m looking for those who best represent concepts essential to the genre but also those that don’t necessarily make for good PCs, as the PCs can fill in essential roles rather than just being random supers.

Superman.  He’s a terrible PC – he can’t lose without creating a mess, he’s so absurdly powerful (especially the original) that challenges have to be ludicrous to be challenging.  There’s what?  A hundred types of Kryptonite?  Bad guys run around with Kryptonite hearts.  Etc.  It’s lame.  He does have other weaknesses, like his weakness to magic, but that’s not something you want as a challenge month after month, either.  He’s the best symbol of what it is to be a superhero, if not necessarily the most heroic hero (a moot argument).  He’s a problem because of his power level, but actually, I see the PCs not being cosmic level supers, which means NPCs will cover the cosmic level of super, which means … why not Superman?

Then, I ran into an issue right away which I’m going to talk a lot about below.  Before getting into that, Doctor Strange beats Doctor Fate for me as I’m much more familiar with the former.  No Batman as I’m a hater.  No Spiderman because Spiderman is the sort of character that a PC should be.  Spiderman has a wide range of activities, often fighting street thugs but also, infamously, beating Firelord (Herald of Galactus) in a one-on-one.  His Spidey Sense is a trump.

Trumps.  I’m a big fan of trumps.  Maybe they don’t work as well in gaming as in fiction, but I think they can.  The idea of a trump is that, no matter what your power level is, your ability trumps everything else.  Who is the odd man out of:  Silver Surfer, Thor, Daredevil?  It’s not meant to be a trick question.  Daredevil can’t normally hang with the other two.  Yet, if you read the Fear-Eater stories in Marvel Comic Presents(?), you would know that a Fear-Eater can defeat Silver Surfer, can defeat Thor, but flat out dies to Daredevil.  Not fails.  Dies.  The Man Without Fear has a trump in that he’s immune to … wait for it … fear.  Danger sense is easily findable with others, especially cosmic beings like The Watcher, but Spiderman’s is typically a trump – he senses danger as well or better than any other entity in the universe (even if it doesn’t always work).

No street level supers, in general.  I’m not into street supers as my recent post mentioned.  They are also easily replaceable.  I’m looking for concepts.  Dr. Strange satisfies the “I’m the ultimate magic guy who defends the universe from other universes with magic entities”.  Iron Man takes the powerarmored super role.  Flash (Barry Allen or Jay Garrick, I’m sure) takes the speedster role.  I’m not sure I want a water super role as Aquaman gets a ridiculous amount of grief and I actually find Namor sillier.

I didn’t get much further than this.  One reason I didn’t get further is that I started thinking about Wonder Woman.  No female super is remotely as iconic as Wonder Woman.  But, what is she iconic for?  Sure, her powers are different from Superman’s and she has her own stories and backstory and whatnot, but I see her being defined primarily by the fact that she is THE super heroine.  I’ve been doing research to try to recall other female superheroes who have enough cache to be iconic.  It’s actually fairly amazing the lack.

From DC, besides Wonder Woman, the most commonly named super heroines from best of or popular of lists, rather than sexiest lists (though they make those, too), are Power Girl, Supergirl, Black Canary, Huntress, Raven, Starfire, Hawkgirl, Batgirl, Zatanna(!).  Here we see an obvious problem with being derivative of a male super.  Power Girl and Supergirl are both Superman knock-offs.  Hawkgirl is related to Hawkman.  Batgirl, Batman.  Not that this is unique to DC, but I’m looking for characters to fill roles, so why not just use the better known male super that these relate to?  Raven and Zatanna are mystical, which might be worth something, though there’s only so much mystic supers you want in a generic supers world.  Huntress has something of her own identity, but I think she’s street.  Black Canary might have her distinct identity, but she lacks resonance [ha!] and notoriety.  While a much more independent super, I always think of her in conjunction with Green Arrow.

From Marvel, we get Storm, Rogue, Jean Grey, Emma Frost, Shadowcat as mutants.  Which brings up something.  Female supers rarely have their own comic.  Even if they are notable within a team, even an insanely popular team like the X-Men, the iconicness of the characters ends up being limited because they don’t have a distinct identity from the team.  Black Widow, She-Hulk, Invisible Woman, Spiderwoman, Scarlet Witch (yes, she’s a mutant but she’s more of an Avenger), Elektra, Ms. Marvel generally show up on lists.  Interestingly, Wasp doesn’t show up on many lists.  It’s fairly interesting who the original Avengers were.  Not Captain America, except in reboots.  Thor, Iron Man, Hulk, Wasp, Ant-Man.  We get some of the same problems with characters being defined by their relationships to male characters.  She-Hulk is defined in contrast to the Hulk.  He’s a berserker.  She’s a lawyer.  And, they are related.  Storm and Elektra (even if she’s street) are the only two out of these that I can see being all that enthused by as icons.

It’s also interesting to think about how many supers could have been women or still could be.  While there are plenty of female Green Lanterns, why did it go Hal Jordan, Guy Gardner, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner?  There’s nothing particularly male about a “willpower hero”.  On the other hand, I can see why there isn’t a (major?) female speedster taking the Flash name – superspeed is just not a power I associate with a female.  Captain America could be a woman.  Punisher.  Green Arrow.  Iron Man, not so much, not just because of his name, but also for an obvious element to females in superhero worlds.

Comic books are obvious geared toward male-centric wish fulfillment.  All of the women should be sexy from this point of view.  I personally don’t have a problem with this point of view, of course.  But, it limits character types.  Monstrous heroes, like The Hulk, The Thing, and many others are rarely going to be female (how popular was the female Thing?).  She-Hulk, for instance, is tall and green.  She’s often drawn absurdly hot, as long as tall and green and muscular aren’t major turn-offs.  She can’t keep a secret identity, but she’s not monstrous.  Similarly, energy beings, supers with no physical body, etc. (e.g. Wildfire) are rarely going to be female because lack of body is less sexy than having a (comic book) body.  Supers known for gritty violence are less likely to be female – Wolverine and Punisher could have been female characters, though Huntress is fairly violent as I understand things.  That’s kind of threatening.  Powerarmored supers could be women, but powerarmoredness doesn’t lend itself as well to women because female shaped armor can look silly, armor that disguises a great body is not sexy, and there’s an additional barrier to the female super’s flesh (note how many skin happy costumes female supers wear for how important flesh is).

I was amazed how few indie female supers showed up on people’s lists.  Witchblade was huge for a while.  I looked into Dark Horse, Image, out of business publishers to try to find notable female supers, but there’s actually not much that I have any recognition of.  One would think that this would be a niche that would work for the indie publishers.

Obviously, many iconic supers have been around for ages, from times when views on gender roles were different.  And, there are more and more female supers and some of them aren’t strippers, some occasionally even don’t dress like strippers.  Team compositions are increasingly better balanced.  More established teams often seem like 25% or less female in their more common configurations, while younger teams and teams that have less iconic characters seem more likely to be close to 50%.  Still, that there seem to be so few stories of a single, female super that is not related to a much better known male super is surprising.  Of course, I’m not up to date on the comic book industry by any stretch of the imagination, so there might be greater change than I’m aware of.

Anyway, this gender gap for a world I will likely never bother developing has been the subject of a number of discussions (now that I think about it, all with women) I’ve had recently.

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4 Responses to Ultraworld

  1. Andrew Haas says:

    How did those discussions go? (or even start?)

    One thing I’d like to see is a feminist deconstruction/critique of comic books/RPG gaming.

    I find the usual portrayal of women pandering and somewhat offensive, and there are few things that really offend me, loudmouthed ignorance being one of the few others.

  2. iclee says:

    You might want to take a look at this article: http://www.comicsalliance.com/2011/10/13/female-characters-superhero-comics/

    One discussion started because my friend, whose 3-yr old’s birthday party I was at Sunday, used to run a comic book store, and I wanted her input on whether I was missing any iconic super heroines.

  3. Andy says:

    Something interesting about this, I was watching a show on the history channel about….the history of comics and the comics authority code. At one point (in the 70’s), DC had tried to convert Wonder Woman into a character with less sex appeal and with more intellectual strengths. It was going to involve a costume change, of course. And she was going to be more involved in the military. Surprisingly, Gloria Allred was a huge opponent of this change. She claimed that she had grown up with wonderwoman as a role model.

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