(posted earlier on the Titan Books site, here)
It’s amazing that superheroes are still popular, because our concerns as a species have become terrifyingly small. Earlier generations used to really believe in things; gods, life in outer space waiting to greet or annihilate us, nuclear bombs, unknown monsters, evil, identikit foreigners. It was an easier time for superheroes. It was clear what people needed protection from, and there was some kind of consensus that the world was a nice place, worth preserving; that there was a single, right way to think and feel and act. You could tell who was Good or Evil just by looking at them. Good times.
But if today an alien ship carrying a baby landed in a wheatfield, or a dead billionaire’s son decided to put on a strange costume and beat up gangsters, imagine the lawsuits. Imagine the reality shows. Imagine the Twitter feeds. It’s a tough world to be a superhero in.
The first thing about superheroes is that they’re supposed to protect us from the Global Threat Special of the Day. But I come from a part of the world that needs a more-or-less complete overhaul, not status quo, and it seemed clear that people who acquired superpowers today might easily decide, if they wanted to help people at large, to do the very things that supervillains might have done in the 50s. When writing Turbulence, it became incredibly hard to find a hero, or a villain, because everyone in the story was simply trying to make the world better in their own way.
The challenge for creators of superheroes has always been to draw the lines of belief for the characters they make, the values these heroes defend, the people they decide to represent. A lot of not-so-great superhero stories avoid these questions, of the potential uses of their heroes’ powers versus how they actually use them. If there’s any aspect of superhero culture that I really felt needed changing, it was a certain inward-looking tendency; that people with extraordinary powers should be content to operate on a really local scale, fighting their own villain sets to maintain the status quo, instead of really changing the world just because they could. But then several other comics, from The Authority to Morrison’s JLA have already gone there, and I wanted to as well.
If you look at superhero stories over a period, they always reflect those eras’ obsessions, fears, fashions and beliefs. But what does our world believe in? What do people want now? What do they fear most of all?
I believe these are the questions that drove a lot of the newer successful superhero franchises of the 21st century – Heroes, Misfits, and Alphas. I especially enjoy the latter two, which I saw after writing Turbulence – a lot of the powers are the same, even though the characters and settings are of course completely different, which must mean that there’s some global consensus on what people are like, everywhere.
These were definitely the questions that led me to decide that the people who underwent the superhero-power-origin flight from London to Delhi in Turbulence would find themselves altered in a way that physically manifested their innermost desires; they would get not the powers they had asked for, but the powers that they really wanted, like it or not. Of course, the side effect of this in the book is that most people got off the superpower-granting flight with better abs, a better sex life, coffee shape, a promotion, a new iGadget or handbag, or whatever other things people really want nowadays.
This seemed the only thing to do to tell the story of an age that’s really all about personal gratification, individual opinion, aspiration, desire. Which is why Turbulence isn’t a story that would work in the 60s, and would be completely different if set in the future. Because what people want keeps changing, especially in the degree of importance of that desire. For example, we’ve had any number of heroes who’ve had the ability to control computers, communication networks, be wi-fi superhackers. But these were never really the heroes in most comics I found them in; they were villains, or tech-support sidekicks, which seemed a decently ironic place to put an Indian hero in, and give him the starring role. In today’s world, the communications demigod, the influence exerter, the inventor/designer and the emotion manipulator are the real powers; the strong guy and the flying man and the rest of the old-school powers are present and potent, but what could they really do to fix the world?
It’s also a tough world for superheroes because a lot of the perks of the job are missing – the whole costumes and names thing, for a start. All the good ones are taken. Imagine deciding your superhero name and then not getting the GMail address to go with it. It’s also pretty much impossible to come up with an absolutely new power – hundreds of mostly insane creators, with or without substance-induced help, have twisted the human body and brain in pretty much every direction possible. Even the few powers in my book that I think are new I’m pretty sure I’ll find in some comic eventually – if I think they’re new it’s probably because I haven’t read enough, or they’re based on new technology. This helped me in a way, because it placed the focus firmly back on the humans, the actual characters, not their powers – and reassuringly, Batman and Spider-Man aren’t two of the world’s three most popular superheroes because of the scale of their powers. The downside of all this superhero updating, of course, is that you end up with heroes who are nothing like the granite-jawed ubermenschen of the past – they’re just normal people muddling along and doing the best they can. But if the greatest superhero stories can be set in the real world, isn’t it only fair that we let today’s metahumans’ powers be super, but let them figure out the hero bit on their own?