Friday, April 27, 2012

Speculative Fiction Tropes: The X-Factor

Today continues the April A-Z Challenge. This month, I'll be blogging (almost) daily about a different speculative fiction trope, one for each letter of the alphabet. Today's entry is on the X-Factor. No, it's not about a reality-tv singing competition. I'm talking about superpowers.

Like many American children, I grew up reading comic books. My parents didn't have a whole lot of money, so I was never able to subscribe or buy them on a regular basis. Mostly, I got my hands on them by borrowing and trading with my friends.

Unfortunately, this meant I wasn't able to keep up with any of the long running story arcs at the time. I would begin in the middle, rarely ever finding out how the big bad gets put down. But it didn't matter. Because I knew that with every issue, I was guaranteed larger-than-life characters kicking ass with awesome superpowers.

While superhero fiction is usually traced back to early pulp heroes like Zorro and John Carter of Mars, one could conceivably look much further back for the genre's origins, to the superhuman figures present in the mythologies of ancient civilizations. Many of these heroes and demigods had powers comparable to any modern day superhero. The Greeks had Heracles (Hercules, if you prefer), the Sumerians had Gilgamesh (Gil, if you prefer), the Chinese had Sun Wukong (Goku, if you prefer).

Throughout our history, we've never stopped telling tales of extraordinary people with extraordinary abilities. They may look just like us on the surface, but they have something extra that makes them far above you or I. They have the X-factor, and thus are called to the path of heroism.

To this day, my favorite work in the superhero genre is undoubtedly Watchmen, in which Alan Moore beautifully deconstructs the superhero concept against the growing tension of an alternate history cold war.

One of the main characters is Dr. Manhattan, who is practically made of X-factor. After surviving an accidental disintegration, he perceives reality at the quantum level, manipulating matter at will. Moore used him to convey a more realistic vision of what might happen when a good man is granted omnipotent power. At first he embraces his new role as superhero, but ultimately he wallows into existential crisis as he loses touch with his humanity.

One of the first "real" stories I ever wrote featured a pair of superpowered warriors grown in a lab, duking it out in a post-apocalyptic world after repelling a lone alien invader who comes to Earth looking to establish his own religion. Hey, don't make that face. I was sixteen! The point is, I've always had a thing for that X-factor.

I don't really have the time to do much comic reading these days, though I do make the effort once in a blue moon. I remain intrigued by the superhero archetype. What is it that has driven us to invent characters like these throughout our history? What's so appealing about fictional men and women with superhuman abilities? Perhaps it stems from an awareness, or even insecurity, of our own frailty. After all, bullets don't bounce off of the real heroes of this world. It would be very nice if their duties didn't tend to come with short expiration dates. Maybe that's why Superman and his ilk are endearing to so many. With him watching out for you, there's no need to recruit anyone else.

Recommended Reading:
Watchmen by Alan Moore
Wildcards series (shared universe)
Soon I Will Be Invincible by Austin Grossman

Recommended Viewing:

Recommended Gaming:
Champions Online
Freedom Force


  1. The Watchmen movie definitely looks like something I could get into. I just might look it up this weekend. Thanks!

    Oh, and you said: "...a lone alien invader who comes to Earth looking to establish his own religion. Hey, don't make that face. I was sixteen!"

    Hmm, I made a book rec to Vero earlier. It somewhat had that theme, however the establishment of religion was a byproduct caused by the arrival. It was a good book though: "Letters from the Flesh" by Marcos Donnelly.

    Happy Friday!

    1. Sounds intriguing! I'll definitely add that to my ever-expanding "to read" list. I hope you like Watchmen. While the movie isn't as near and dear to me as the graphic novel, it's still a great movie.

      Thanks for the comment, Tracy!

  2. I have never seen anyone so succinctly sum up an entire character arc as you did with that "wallowing" comment about Dr M.

    And I have to say, while it wasn't quite Moore's work (what adaptation ever is), I happened to enjoy the relative faithfulness with which it was put on screen. I even thought the things they changed made sense.

    I think we also tend to identify with superheroes because, despite their powers, they are still at core people (or whatever) who are trying to do the right thing despite the obstacles. That speaks to something in most of us.

    1. Yeah, I think the movie was about as good an adaptation as we could have had. And I agree, the changes they made were for the better of the silver screen and modern audiences. Writing this blog entry made me want to watch it again!

      You're definitely right in your comment about superheroes being identifiable. The most beloved are the ones we see the most of ourselves in. That's why Spider-Man is so popular, I'm sure. He wasn't just any normal guy blessed with power. He was a fragile, nerdy kid.

      Thanks for stopping by, SLC!

  3. The story idea you had when you were sixteen actually sounds quite good.

    I love the superhero genre, and even creates my own superhero universe for when I become a better writer. I never thought about the genre beginning with the ancient Greek's myths. Cool observation.

    1. Thanks, magic mint! I've been tempted to write a superhero story myself one of these days. I've even thought about starting up a traditional comic at some point (although I suppose a webcomic would be more feasible these days).

      Thanks for reading!

  4. I love superpowers! I don't care where they come from, Krypton, genetic mutation or alien experiments, people who are able to do all those cool things are totally addictive to watch!

    Great post, J.W., excellently explained! And that story you mentioned---writing about alien religion and warriors with superpowers at sixteen?


    1. I'll return your fist bump, but hesitantly. I guarantee it's not as cool as it sounds! It's a very strange story, that was very strangely written. It was kind of a superhero post-apocalyptic science fantasy. Think Lord of the Rings meets Dragon Ball Z, written terribly. :P

      Maybe one of these days I'll go on a nostalgia bender and rewrite some of those stories from my strange teen years. I suppose they still have a place in my heart.

  5. Awesome post (and nice to meet you). Great food for thought, too--why are superheroes/superpowers so appealing, indeed? I feel the urge to think on it long and hard... I suspect, over a bottle of wine (or two), we might find strong parallels between superheroes and religion. Ooooohhh... Would *love* to have that discussion!

    1. There are definitely parallels there, for sure. Like the ancient mythologies I mentioned in the post, many religious works have larger-than-life figures with seemingly superhuman abilities. I'm sure many superheroes over the years have been inspired by or even based on mythological and religious figures!

      Thanks for stopping by, Guilie. Nice to meet you!

  6. I think it might be about escapism. As readers, we love a story that we can really get lost in and that takes us away from our everyday lives (no matter how good or bad life might be). I think the superhero thing is an extension of that. Like you said, the concept goes back thousands of years, and many mythological stories have characters with amazing abilities and powers. (Although part of it, in those days, was explaining natural phenomena that people didn't understand.)

    Oh and what you said on my blog about this being almost being a "cheat" for the letter X? Not at all - this is an awesome post!

    1. Escapism definitely plays a large role, I'm sure. Hell, escapism is a huge factor in the readership of speculative fiction in general! But the more fantastic, the more of an escape to be had, and superheroes are definitely fantastic.

      Thanks for the kind words, Stacey!

  7. Kudos to the X-man reference up top! That show definitely held the X-factor for me. I remember running home from school every day so that I'd be in front of the TV in time to watch the next X-isode! I also agree with the escapism comment-- it's great to be taken away to a life that feels better than your own sometime. There's also that palpable sense of awe as a child when introduced to new, exciting, remarkable worlds far less boring than math class and homework!

    1. I'm with you on that one! X-Men was probably my favorite cartoon as a kid (at least, after I grew out of the Ninja Turtles). As I mentioned in the intro of this entry, I didn't always get to find out the endings to story arcs in the comic books, so I'd be ecstatic when the animated series would adapt them.

      Thanks, Randi!


Thanks for reading!