Campaign Genre Conventions
Richard Reynolds, in his book Super Heroes: A Modern Mythology, offers
a "first-stage working definition of the superhero genre" based on a reading
of Superman's first, comic, Action #1 (Reynolds p.16): my comments
are in square brackets.
- The hero is marked out from society. He often reaches maturity without having
a relationship with his parents [i.e. conventional authority figures/sources
of advice are not available].
- At least some of the superheroes will be like earthbound gods in their
level of powers. Other superheroes of lesser powers will consort easily with
these earthbound deities.
- The hero's devotion to justice overrides even his devotion to the law.
- The extraordinary nature of the superhero will be contrasted with the ordinariness
of his surroundings [i.e. superheroes do not significantly change the nature
of the world they live in].
- Likewise, the extraordinary nature of the hero will be contrasted with the
mundane nature of his alter-ego [i.e. secret identity]. Certain taboos will
govern the actions of these alter-egos.
- Although ultimately above the law, superheroes can be capable of considerable
patriotism and moral loyalty to the state, though not necessarily to the letter
of its laws.
- The stories are mythical and use science and magic indiscriminately to create
a sense of wonder.
He also discusses the conventions of superhero costumes as a system of langue
and parole (that is, a structured set of rules within which each individual
costume is a specific instance), the different aspects of comic-book continuity
(of which he identifies three types, serial, hierarchical and structural) and
superheroes as mythology set in modern American society (Reynolds pp.26-37,
37-51, 74-83). A key part of that mythology is that "the normal and everyday
enshrines positive values that must be defended through heroic action ... the
normal is valuable and is constantly under attack, which means that almost by
definition the superhero is battling on behalf of the status quo ... the superhero
has a mission to preserve society, not to re-invent it." (Reynolds p.77)
The following dot points build on Reynold's analysis as sketched out above
and try to provide some guidance on how superheroic genre conventions affect
Costumes and Names
- Most superheroes and supervillains wear distinctive costumes. Wearing a
costume does not indicate mental abnormality or deviance: it is accepted and
- Likewise, many superheroes and supervillains wear masks, and wearing a mask
is accepted and acceptable behaviour.
- Superheroes and supervillains usually have unique codenames, going out of
their way to avoid using another active superbeing's codename.
The Role of Heroes
- Most superheroes spend most of their time dealing with non-superpowered
criminals. Superheroes who deal predominantly with superpowered criminals
either experience potentially lengthy periods of inactivity (such as the Avengers)
or operate on a cosmic scale (such as Quasar and Thor).
- Many superheroes can trigger major changes on a small scale but cannot affect
world-shaking events (such as stopping a major alien invasion) without assistance
or great effort.
- Superheroes deal with crises that would otherwise be impossible to thwart
by normal means, such as supervillains or natural disasters.
- Most superheroes follow a liberal and compassionate moral code which may
place them at odds with the law or stop them performing the most optimal action
(such as killing adversaries so that they can't present a threat in the future).
- Protecting the public or other innocents is a greater priority than capturing
- Superheroes are not punished for being vigilantes if they cooperate with
the police and do not kill people.
- Offences such as assault and battery are enforced more loosely than in our
- Some superheroes may give evidence in court without revealing their true
- Superheroes are often framed for crimes by villains but can clear their
names without being forced to reveal their true identities.
- Some supervillains frequently escape from prison.
Science and Magic
- Science and magic are capable of doing the same things, e.g. travelling
between dimensions or generating electrical energy.
- Superpowers and high technology do not have to obey the physical laws of
our real world.
- Although the superhero world is set in the past, the day-to-day technology
is that of the present-day real world. This simulates the "trickle-down" effect
of superscience speeding up the rate of scientific advances.
- The existence of highly advanced technology and superpowered beings has
not changed the superhero world so that it is unlike our real world: superscience
interacts mostly with superheroes and supervillains. That the Americans were
preparing to send a manned spaceflight to Mars in the mid-70s or that there
were superpowered beings who could have been sent to assassinate Hitler in
1941 has not altered the superhero world so that it is dissimilar to how the
real world was at the same point in time or is in the present day.
- Many superbeings are born in or move to the United States of America to
become superheroes or supervillains.
- There are many different species of aliens, and some aliens live on, visit,
or try to conquer the world.
- It is possible to travel to alternate worlds and times and to return safely.
maintained by Gary Johnson (gwzjohnson at optusnet.com.au)
last updated 31 December 2018