When I was a kid I was never really in to American comics or superheroes. That said, I LOVED Batman. I watched the animated series religiously every day after school (favorite episode: Harley and Ivy), and later I stole my boyfriend’s Frank Miller Batman comics (which are what I miss most about that relationship). I never really did become a comic reader. I couldn’t stand how convoluted and unending the stories were (they never END! No one stays dead! There’s never any closure!), but my love of Batman has never really let up. Conversely, I hate Superman with a burning passion.
Even though Bruce Wayne is handsome and impossibly rich, he’s still only human. Everything he uses to fight crime – the toys, his strength, his connections, he has to work for them. Superman was just born with his powers, and while he struggles nobly not to abuse them, he still has freaking eye lasers. Where Superman is treated as America’s weapon of mass destruction with a conscience, Batman is a detective. Superman punches holes in walls, bounces bullets off his chest, then fries the Ant King with his laser vision. Batman follows clues, makes deductions, and then is waiting in the dark in the drug lord’s hideout before the evil doer even knows he’s been caught. Batman, SO COOL.
When I wrote my very first novel (which, thankfully, I never finished), I had a main character who was the only one of her people born with great magical power. I wanted a heroine having to accept the greater destiny she was born to. Classic first novel stuff, I don’t have to tell you how bad it was. I worked and worked on this novel, but I could never get it right, and eventually I threw it away as a failure. Years later, while I was thinking about all the novels I’ve started and never finished (it’s a long list, folks), I found myself getting caught on this story again. I still like the magical system and the basic world premise I created, so why hadn’t it worked? I kept thinking on this question until, a few days ago in the shower, it came to me.
I’d written a novel with Superman, not Batman.
See, by giving my main character fantastic powers at birth and making her the only person to have them, she never had to do anything for herself. Any challenge I made for her she could overcome by using her fantastic powers, and she never really had to suffer or fight for her choices. This isn’t to say there weren’t fights, the book was pretty much a running string of fights, but the MC was never pushed, never sent to the edge. She never had to think or grow, she wasn’t even a character really, more like a talking jar with generic humanist values I stuck super powers in. In short, boring.
Contrast this to the book that made it, The Spirit Thief. I’m not saying my main character, Eli Monpress, is Batman, but lets’ just say he would have had Batman pajamas as a kid. Make no mistake, Eli is powerful, but he lives in a world full of powerful people, which means power is no longer enough. He has to use that power in new, clever ways which, by default, gives me, the author, conflict to play with right off the bat. His power is not what makes him interesting, it’s how he uses, or doesn’t use, that power. In fantasy I think it’s very easy to fall into the trap of giving your characters too much power, of making them Superman. This can be done overtly, by just giving them super powers, or subtly, by giving them an inescapable destiny of victory.
This set up can work just fine (hell, it worked for Superman), but I prefer Batman stories where the power is in the person, not the magic or the sword or the alien artifact. After all, take away Superman’s powers and he’s just this guy. Take away Batman’s money and he’s still god damn Batman (which is why, whenever the Justice League travels into the dystopian future, Batman is always the only one still alive). Like most authors, I’m a sum of all my influences, and I think there’s a little bit of Batman in all my main characters. If any one of my characters were stripped to their barest parts, they would still be themselves, still be dangerous, still be able to get things done.
At the end of the day, I’m happy with that. Batman for life!