Who are the superheroes of the 21st century?

It was clear from the beginning that in order for THE MINUS FACTION to be something special, it would have to be more than a simple recycling of the classic superhero canon, which is to say characters who were:

  • meta-human royalty like Superman, Thor, Aquaman, Wonder Woman, Black Panther, etc.;
  • wealthy titans of industry turned vigilante like Batman, Iron Man, Green Arrow, Ant-man, and so forth;
  • hapless accidents of occult science like Flash, Spider-man, Hulk, and many more.

This is true not least because all but one of the characters in that list are white and all but one  are male. Not that there’s anything wrong with white superheroes, or even with creating one more. What strains belief—even more than that lifting a magical hammer can summon the powers of a demigod—is that all of them would be the same, regardless of what that sameness is.

Simply adding a token woman doesn’t do much, frankly. Most “name brand” superheroines, after all, are already mere knock-offs of their male counterparts: Supergirl, She-Hulk, Batgirl, Spider-woman, VagiThor, and the like. And as much as Wonder Woman is a rare exception, she still reinforces traditional race and class divisions. Diana rules because she’s best fitted because she’s an aristocrat: as ennobled of character as of physical strength. And is anything "whiter" than a mythologized master race of star-spangled Graeco-Roman-Americans?

I think not.

The old heroes, as Mal McDoom notes in Episode Two, are fundamentally conservative fantasies that stipulate (rather than challenge) the power structure, fantasies where we as readers project ourselves into the privileged and beautiful classes, whose assumed power apparently requires no justification, in order to battle external threats: Nazis, aliens, supervillains seeking to enslave mankind. That kind of thing.

Dr. Doom by Paolo Rivera

To be fair, some of that is born of necessity. It’s hard to write Superman directly into any actual historical event as his involvement would necessarily change the outcome. And then there is the commercial necessity of not offending your readers, only half of whom are likely to share your politics on any given subject. Thus, the thinking goes, you have to keep your evil as ecumenical as possible, something that threatens everyone rather than one or another segment of society. An invading force from across the sea, or another dimension, fits that bill nicely.

But more importantly, we like our mythic superheroes to be exactly that, mythic. One of the first stories ever recorded in the history of our species is the Enûma Eliš, which follows the exploits of the superhuman king Gilgamesh and which was read aloud at the Babylonian New Year, every year, because Gilgamesh’s story exists singularly outside linear time, rather than for a mere moment, as our lives do. The Babylonians didn’t experience the epic as we experience an audiobook or celebrity biopic. To them, it was civilization itself: our climb from barbarism (symbolized by Gilgamesh’s accord with the wild-man and near-equal Enkidu) and ultimate mortality (when the hero fails to cheat death). These were timeless truths whose lessons needed to be continually reaffirmed with the passing of generations.

This is a big reason why superhero stories are so often rebooted and no one ever really dies. It’s not necessarily laziness, or even bad writing—although there’s that, too. Rather, it’s that the writers understand the genre is mythic rather than linear-temporal, that superhero stories gain their power not by advancing from cause to effect and ultimate end, but by being told and retold. Just like the trials and resurrection Jesus, or the antics of Krishna, Peter Parker must keep learning, over and over, that with great power comes great responsibility, because his is a parable of entry into adulthood, told for our sake rather than his. The more the story deviates from that, the worse it tends to be. (Filmmakers, take heed.)

This is also why you rarely see superheroes conquering the problems of real life. Poverty, for example. Or oppression. If present, it’s usually a side note to the story, something that’s noted on the way to or from the fight with the bad guy, something the superhero could get to if only he weren’t so busy constantly battling an eternal but ultimately toothless evil, like the fire demons of Dimension Zeta. For as much as Bruce Wayne or Tony Stark might sacrifice for the rest of us, at the end of the day, they’re still princes, and just like Gilgamesh or Rama, they retire to a private and secure castle full of servants and luxury and beautiful companions where they don’t actually have to rub elbows with any of the people they just saved from imminent doom.

Now, that all sounds very political, I know. But really that wasn’t the point of my asking who the superheroes of the 21st century are. The point was to identify the implicit politics that already existed inside the hero myths we inherited so that they could be explicitly avoided. I wanted a clean slate. So I wiped it all away and asked, who are they? And what evil would they face?

Coming up with challenges is easy. Just read the news. Expanding wealth inequality. Creeping environmental decay. The use of technology to control and suppress rather than enlighten and empower. The loss of authenticity that follows the loss of autonomy that follows the loss of privacy.

Coming up with heroes was a little trickier. But then, I knew starting fresh didn’t mean reinventing the wheel. Archetypes resonate for a reason. Right away I knew I needed a character who was super-strong. Physical power is the purest, simplest superhuman trait. In comics, of course, heroes are praised for their unusual strength. But in the real world, a super-strong person would be resisted, if only out of fear and uncertainty over what they might do. This is especially true if that person were female, and moreso if she were from a poor country—because let’s face it, regardless of our political orientations, we have to accept that the 21st century is one of rapid globalization. In such a world, heroes can’t ALL be white males from North America. Most people on the planet are Asian, after all. Recognizing that, recognizing the world as it is today, isn’t a proactive choice. Ignoring it is—the construction of a deliberate anachronism that may or may not resemble anything that actually existed (like a period romance). Diversity is reality. Homogeneity is deviation.

But if I made my super-strong character female, that left me at immediate risk of knockoff syndrome, of creating a superficially female tough guy: a butt-kicking, name-taking celebrity-scientist-entrepreneur-princess who, following every pre-modern fairy tale, undergoes a magical transformation that mimics or reveals her “true self.” Ben Grimm, for example, was the kind of guy who would give you a clobberin’ long before he became The Thing, just as deep down Cinderella was always really a princess. She just needed to find the right pair of shoes.

My character Xana isn’t defined by her strength any more than by her ethnicity (which I intentionally don’t specify). She is a person, a mother, a Christian, and a friend before any of the rest, and her burgeoning power is as much a struggle for her as it is for those around her. As in life.

After Xana came John. Every superhero team needs a super-warrior, of course, someone with actual combat experience. Otherwise there’s not much hope any of them would survive. But how to make that new? By making him a contradiction, a man whose physical realities are at odds with his potency. Not Steve Rogers, weakling turned flawless hero, but a man whose power is at odds with his conscience, struggling to find his place in a new reality—a soldier who finds his greatest strength is helping others realize theirs.

But let’s face it. The fun part of the 21st century, like the fun part of sci-fi, is the tech! We all expect this to be a century of wonders, where technological advancement outpaces society’s ability to adapt. Thus, I knew THE MINUS FACTION needed a tech genius, a master architect of ambiguous morality who serves as the foil to the conscience of the team: Batman to Superman, Iron Man to Captain America, Ozymandias to Rorschach. And what’s a more appropriate symbol of a new era than a child? Hopefully it’s a bit unexpected to boot.

So where Xana is the heart of the team and John the spirit, Wink is the brain. That left only one thing—the folly, Ian, who represents us. Not the best of us, like Superman, but us as we really are: usually well-intended, occasionally bumbling, and ultimately possessed of great power. (Remember where I said most people on the planet are Asian?) And since every great superhero team is bestowed from beyond—Thor’s hammer, Green Lantern’s ring, etc.—it made sense to put the most power in the body of an everyman.

But that creates an immediate imbalance. If Ian’s abilities were under his direct and conscious control, he’d be more than a match for anyone in my updated superhuman universe. On the other hand, if his powers are not under his control, then they would have to appear out of nowhere just in time to save his—and everyone else’s—butt. That strays awfully close to deus ex machina, a plot device I abhor, not least because it’s lazy but mostly because it's weak. It creates no real tension.

My solution was to put his abilities under his autonomic rather than somatic nervous system, meaning he can only get at them indirectly, and to make their use a genuine threat to his safety. For one, I think that’s just a really fun idea. But it also serves the story by creating tangible suspense. And I even managed to sneak in a reference to Thor’s hammer, Mjolnir. The Professor mentions the Oric was named after the Bronze Age god in whose statue it was discovered, and that the meteor-like vessel that brought it to Earth would have appeared to those who found it as if their god had smote the sky with his hammer.

But it’s the formation of the team, how they are brought together, that most directly answers my question. If we have any chance of resisting the “forces of evil” that now threaten to consume humanity, we’ll have to stand together independent of the agencies—represented in comics by groups like S.H.I.E.L.D.—that organized us in the past. For in the new millennium, they are our very adversaries.