Potential in Spandex
By Rob St. Martin
Rob St. Martin
The word evokes images of
spandex-clad, impossibly muscular men and scantily-clad, impossibly endowed
women, fighting cataclysmic battles punctuated with witty banter and
melodramatic proclamations. The overwhelming majority of superheroic
fiction, it seems, revolves around adolescent power fantasies. Or at the
very least, that's how the majority of the public views superheroes.
The best of superheroic
fiction explores themes of truth, justice, loyalty, love, honour, teamwork,
and responsibility. It's a genre that encompasses an incredible wealth of
story possibilities, drawing from a wide array of other genres. It's a
genre that deserves its own place in speculative fiction.
But what is that
Some argue that superheroic
fiction rightfully lies purely in fantasy. The characters have
unbelievable, miraculous powers. They fight against tyranny, injustice, in
battles that seem purely dualistic -- Good versus Evil. No shades of grey,
simply black and white, right and wrong, the ultimate extremes of the
spectrum of morality, as most fantasy seems to embrace.
While it's certainly true that
superheroic fiction takes elements from fantasy, simply calling it fantasy
denies the science fiction aspect to superheroes: aliens marooned on our
planet; mutations caused by genetic abnormalities or accidental exposure to
radiation or chemicals; robots, androids, cyborgs, and artificial
intelligences; spaceships and interstellar travellers wielding technologies
far in advance of our own. All these trappings of science fiction, and more,
can be found within the pages of superheroic fiction.
Nevertheless, it's equally
inaccurate to call superheroic fiction 'science fiction.' Creatures from
mythology inhabit the pages of superheroic fiction, side-by-side with
aliens, robots, and spaceships. Other possible fantasy aspects include:
ancient, lost civilizations; gods, goddesses, and demi-gods; sorcerers and
witches; dragons, unicorns, and pegasi.
Equally, there are those who
argue that superheroic fiction can rightfully be called the descendant of
pulp crime fiction. After all, in that tradition crafty detectives seek
wrong-doers on a nightly basis, using tried and true methods of deductive
reasoning, following the clues to the criminal's hidden lair.
The truth of the matter is
that superheroic fiction derives its own particular genre separate from all
these genres, and it includes science fiction and fantasy and pulp crime
fiction, all rolled into one. Superheroic fiction, then, represents the
purest form of speculative fiction. In a science fiction story, you
couldn't have a unicorn or a dragon without explaining it as a genetically
engineered pseudo-being, or something similar. Putting a robot into a
fantasy story would have to be explained as a clockwork man or a golem
brought to life by magic. A detective in pure crime fiction wearing tights
and a cape would have to be attending a costume party, or taking part in a
But with superheroic fiction,
you can have all these things together. Mutants, aliens and interstellar
cops team up with sorcerers, descendants from Atlantis, and quasi-mythical
demigoddesses on a regular basis. The overwhelming possibilities of the
combination of the genres create an irresistible environment for speculative
That's what draws me, as a
writer. The potential to write anything you want, regardless of the
trappings of genre. And that potential allows a writer to look past the
trappings -- past the Bam! Bif! Pow! -- and get to the heart of the matter.
You don't even have to put your characters in spandex, if you don't want to
-- the genre contains plenty of individuals who resist the call of colourful
costumes and dramatic masks. The freedom to do anything at all forces me,
as a writer, to look for what truly matters to the story, to find what the
story is really about.
Responsibility. Teamwork. Loyalty. Trust. Love.
That's the true potential of