This is a response to three issues I’ve noticed in comics relating to power level:
1) Power creep – We’ve all seen it. Consider Wolverine (as discussed in “My Love/Hate Relationship with Wolverine”). In the beginning, he could heal from injuries in days to weeks that would put a normal human in traction for months. For anyone who’s ever broken their arm and had to learn to use their other hand or broken a leg or ankle and learn to walk on crutches, such a healing factor is a darn nice superpower and probably one you wish you had at the time. Now, he can be thrown out of a skyscraper and be completely recovered in an hour. He’s hardly the only one. Popular heroes and villains seem to experience power creep more than lesser known characters.
2) “Strong as s/he needs to be” – this is when a character has such a vaguely defined power that they are suddenly a lot stronger/tougher than they ever have been before. Iron Fist is an example of this. He is a skilled martial artist who, through his abilities learned in K’un Lun, can focus his powers to enable him to punch something very hard on desperate occasions (hence the title “Iron Fist”). Sometimes this is just once a day to take out the big boss and sometimes it is enough to enable him to take out a practical army of armored battle suits. This situation usually occurs when writers have painted themselves into corners and can’t figure a better way out.
3) Deus ex machina powers – This is when a character suddenly develops a brand new, high level power via a poorly explained plot device, a la Emma Frost’s diamond armor. This usually occurs when writers have painted themselves into corners and can’t figure a better way out (As I recall, Emma Frost had just been presumably squished to death). This can also occur when writers think it’s cool. Superman is a great example of this. He has acquired flight, ice breath, laser beam eyes, and I don’t know what else over the years.
My solution – it would benefit writers to occasionally think of their stories and characters like characters in a role-playing game with the writer as the gamemaster (or Storyteller, or Dungeon Master, or Judge, depending on the specifics of the system). Not to get bogged down in the details, a role-playing game basically works like this: each player has a character with defined vital statistics, skills, and/or powers. The GM is a neutral party that creates a world for the players and makes up challenges for them. Sometimes this is monsters to fight or puzzles to solve. When players are successful, they earn points that eventually allow them to improve their vital statistics, skills, and/or powers. The role-playing part comes in people being allowed to pretend they’re superheroes (Marvel Superheroes is actually a old RPG) or mages or cyborgs or whatnot.
So, you are thinking, what does this have to do with writing a comic book, in which the writer has complete control of all the characters (as opposed to a GM who only has control of the situation; the other players control their characters)? It is the job of a GM to create a balanced game and challenges that are appropriate not just to the vital statistics/skills/powers of one team member, but the whole team. It is easy for a writer to fall into one of the three power issues listed above, but very hard for a GM for the following reasons.
1) Power creep:
It is difficult for power creep to become a problem in a role-playing game as long as the GM is paying attention. Part of this is of course that a game has rules which does allow for power growth along specific and defined paths. All power comes with a price, and not in an ominous sense, but a pragmatic one. Players must succeed in a certain number of challenges to improve their vital statistics/skills/powers. This only makes sense. In the real world, just because someone wants a BS in Biology doesn’t mean that printing out a diploma means they have the knowledge. In the real world, if someone wants to bench press 200 pounds, they don’t just wake up one morning able to do that. Improvement takes time and effort and intermediate steps. When GMs (and writers) forget that, the whole balance of the team (see 3) and the balance of the world is thrown off. Actually, it’s worse with writers.
2) “Strong as s/he needs to be”:
A game works by how well the rules are written. Some games allow more flexibility than others, but in general a character can’t be stronger than their vital statistics/skills/powers. Now, a player may use those vital statistics/skills/powers in a novel way that solves a problem that might otherwise be beyond their power level, but that’s not the same as a 98-lb weakling suddenly being able to bench-press a taxi. There are some examples of a weak character defeating a strong enemy without this power issue in the comics. Rick Jones can’t take a hit from the Hulk (frankly, few can). However, due to other skills (empathy, knowing the Hulk, etc.), he can calm the Hulk down and ultimately defeat him while others who are much stronger, like Thor, could not defeat the Hulk. However, Thor does not have the same skill set.
3) Deus ex machina power:
This assumes, of course, said power is awesome. Something like vampirism certainly brings a whole host of new powers, but in general a whole host of new problems as well. A GM who just gave out a totally awesome high-level power to a player would be turned on by the rest of the players (“You don’t have to kill him; just make his knees bend the wrong way”). There would have to be a very compelling story reason for it, and the GM would be forced to re-balance the party challenges, which is pretty difficult. Take the original Avengers for example. Iron Man, Ant Man, Wasp, Captain America were fairly bad-ass (ok, not really Ant Man and the Wasp, but anyway). But Thor is a god. Many of the early stories involve Thor proving he’s not just a god in name, but actually a god with all the power one would expect. Add to that the Hulk, who can hold his own with Thor. It is difficult to have a villain who is a credible threat to all members of such a team. Any villain who can fight Iron Man/Ant Man/Wasp/Cap is going to get his rear end handed to him by Thor and/or the Hulk. Likewise, a villain who is a credible threat to the Hulk or Thor is going to leave the other four as nothing more than bloody smears on the landscape. I realize this is not actually what happened in the early comics, but Stan Lee/Jack Kirby had to work around that inherent power differential. It’s not easy to do. If my Google-fu is to be believed, Chris Claremont ended up with this problem with the Phoenix. The idea was to create a female equal to Thor. The problem with this was pretty obvious and that was what partially lead to Jean’s demise.
Ultimately the goal of a GM is to have a balanced world and if they want to upset that balance, they need a really compelling story reason. And here is where writers really get themselves trouble when they fall into the three power issues. Comic book writers work in a collaborative universe. They share the same characters. For example, Writer 1 decides that since Mockingbird is the only normal human on the New Avengers that she needs superpowers, and writes that into the story. Now Mockingbird is nearly as physically strong and tough as Ariel (Jessica Jones). Well, Writer 2 wanted to feature a mini-series with Mockingbird and Hawkeye fighting HYDRA agents. Now Writer 2 must contend with Mockingbird’s new powers which, let’s face it, will allow her to wipe the floor with HYDRA agents before Hawkeye gets off two shots. However, if Writer 2 increases the power level of the enemy to fight the new Mockingbird, Hawkeye stands a good chance of getting killed. And what’s done is hard to undo since a character’s power creep is often tied to their popularity. I.e., would anyone really like it Wolverine’s power levels went back to those in the original comics? Probably not. This becomes more problematic with villains, since good villains are harder to find than good heroes. My prime example of this is Norman Osborn, who was first seen tangling with Spider-man in the 60s and last seen (by me anyway) catching a punch from Luke Cage (who himself has had power creep so badly he can actually fight the Thing), throwing Luke Cage into the air like a toy, and flying under his own power. At this point, I can’t see how he could be just a Spider-man villain again; he’s just too over-powered for Spidey.
I do understand why Mockingbird got superpowers. It’s really difficult to balance the power threat when one member of the group is so much more vulnerable than the others. Trying to shore up that inherent physical weakness sometimes creates its own problems. Frankly, many JLAs fall apart for me because the team is so outrageously super-powered – Superman, Martian Manhunter, the Flash, Green Lantern (pick one; even that jerk Gardener is dangerously powerful), Wonder Woman, Aquaman (in his latest incarnation), and…Batman. I get it; he’s Batman. I love Batman as much as the next person, but it seems just unbelievable he should always be the one to save the day when compared to the virtual gods he’s surrounded by (Wonder Woman may actually be a goddess). Sure, he’s a detective and tactical genius. Not to blaspheme the Bat, but it’s sort of like any issue in which Superman is saved by Jimmy Olsen. It works once in awhile, but if it happened every issue, people would wonder how super Superman really is. It’s just really, really hard to keep writing situations in which the skills and talents of a “normal” human trump god-like power.
The upshot is this – if writers thought more like GMs, they wouldn’t increase a character’s power or give a character a new power “just because it’s cool” or because they really like that character. They also couldn’t have the weakest character consistently saving the team. Such actions throw off the world balance if not for the writer who bestowed the powers, but for the other writers who have to deal with the consequences. And frankly, we readers do notice that. Collaborative writing is hard enough, but it would help if writers thought a little more like GMs about the long-term effects of their story arcs.