Today I’m super excited to welcome debut author Stefan Mohamed to the blog to share his top five superheros with us. Stefan is an author, poet and sometime journalist. He graduated from Kingston University in 2010 with a first class degree in creative writing and film studies and won the creative writing prize for his year.
He went on to win the unpublished writer’s category of the Dylan Thomas Prize for his coming of age superhero novel, Bitter Sixteen, which is out now. Stefan lives in Bristol, where he works as an editorial assistant, writing stories and performing poetry in his spare time. Welcome Stefan!
We might as well start with the most iconic superhero. People have their issues with Superman – he’s so powerful that it saps any drama from his stories, he’s a do-gooder which isn’t very interesting, etceteras. The first of these I would agree with, to a point, although a good enough writer should be able to come up with a dramatic, involving story no matter how powerful the protagonist, but the second I entirely disagree with, because Superman’s essentially altruistic, benevolent nature is what makes him Superman. He’s the Platonic ideal of the superhero; not just because of his ludicrously overpowered nature (effectively invulnerable, super strength, super speed, able to fly, laser eyes, hurricane breath, X-ray vision, firing miniature versions of himself from his hands, although to be fair he doesn’t really do that any more) but because he is, at heart, good. He wants to help people, his moral compass remains true when all else are losing theirs, and, perhaps most importantly, this isn’t because of the basic goodness present in all humanity or some such nonsense. He ain’t human, after all. He has been brought up this way, he has chosen to follow this path.
Yes, you can play with darker versions of Superman. Sometimes they’re interesting – Mark Millar’s Red Son, in which baby Supes lands in Stalin’s Russia rather than Kansas, US, is one of the better examples. But ultimately, Superman is a good guy. He’s the good guy. And to him, a suicidal girl standing alone on a ledge is, at that moment, as important as any world-ending threat.
So leave him alone.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
She doesn’t wear a cape or tights. She wasn’t born in the pages of a funny book. But Buffy Summers is as much a superhero, and as much an influence on my writing, as any costumed crusader. Plucked from obscurity and given a destiny she did not ask for and frequently wishes she could shed, the trials that Buffy undergoes throughout the seven seasons of her show would break a lesser individual. At times they nearly do. But she endures. She keeps fighting the good fight, with a punch, a quip and a somersault. She makes mistakes along the way, of course, and some of them are pretty bad. At times she’s not even that likable. But, as her Watcher Rupert Giles says, “She’s a hero, you see. She’s not like us.”
Ms. Marvel (Kamala Khan)
The new Ms. Marvel hasn’t been around very long (she first appeared in 2013, inheriting the mantle from Carol Danvers, who is now Captain Marvel), but Kamala Khan is already resoundingly popular, with her first trade paperback No Normal one of the best selling comics of last year. And with good reason, because she’s awesome.
In wider cultural terms she’s a meaningful presence, because at a time when Muslim communities are routinely and shamefully demonised and ostracised, having a Muslim character headlining a high profile, relatively mainstream Marvel comic takes on real symbolic importance. But writer G. Willow Wilson never lets her political and cultural significance get in the way of telling a good story, and taken purely on her own terms she’s just a great character. Her powers are dynamic and visually exciting. She has a well-drawn supporting cast. And she represents every teenager who feels unsure of themselves, who feels left out or bullied for being different, who wishes they were someone else.
Is Batman a superhero? Maybe not. There’s nothing specifically supernatural in his background. But he is in peak physical condition, he’s a tactical genius, he’s a martial arts expert, a weapons expert. His superpower, effectively, is being the best that a human being can be – to the extent that he can stand shoulder to shoulder with titans like Superman and Wonder Woman.
More importantly, he’s the perfect, iconic illustration of the dark side of heroism (for the purposes of this, we’re defining heroism as “fighting bad guys”). For while Batman does have a strong moral code and sense of justice, he is also driven by grief and rage. Plenty of writers across the years have asked whether he’s good for Gotham City or merely a symptom of the disease that afflicts the place, or whether half the terrifying individuals in his rogue’s gallery – the best in comics, by the way – would actually be a problem if it weren’t for his presence. And the fact that Batman’s work is never done represents both the natural conclusion of superheroic obsession and a fairly bleak interpretation of existence – there is no final victory. There will always be bad guys, always be evil; it’s a fact of life. Bleak, yes, but potent, and ripe with storytelling potential.
In the same way that Batman represents one possible (disturbing) conclusion of superheroism, so Dr Manhattan, from Alan Moore’s masterful Watchmen, represents one possible (and equally disturbing, in its way) conclusion of having superpowers. Like Superman, but more so, Dr Manhattan is so powerful that he’s effectively a god. He can manipulate matter at its most basic level, travel in time, pop to Mars and build a palace, whatever he fancies. But unlike Superman, he has entirely lost touch with humanity. He is disconnected from the world and from the concerns of mere mortals – to Dr Manhattan, we’re ants. Not ants he wants to crush, necessarily, but ants to whom he’s basically indifferent. He’s a fascinating character, and a thought-provoking exploration of what unlimited power could do to an individual if they lacked the grounding presence of friends, family and morality; I don’t think that any conversation about the consequences of superpowers is complete without him.
Thanks Stef – a great list!
Bitter Sixteen by Stefan Mohamed is out now in paperback and ebook formats, published by Salt.