It’s strange to find myself writing about superheroes so much lately, considering I’ve never written within the genre. Aside from the one Cat Woman story I illustrated, my experience with superheroes has primarily been as a lukewarm fan. Like a lot of Gen Xers, I grew up reading Chris Claremont’s run of The Uncanny X-Men along with the occasional other Marvel title. I was also an avid fan of Bruce Timm’s DC Animated Universe, but that’s about it for me when it comes to the Big Two.
On the other hand, now is an exciting time in the superhero genre. As I’ve mentioned before, the failings of Marvel and DC have opened the door (and readership) to a new wave of independent titles that are re-invigorating the hero genre. There’s Keung Lee’s Battle Maiden Knuckle Bomb, Mike Miller’s Lonestar, Wither & Love’s Uniques, just to name a few. For the first time in a long time we’re getting books about heroes who are, well, ACTUALLY HEROIC.
As well, these new titles offer readers brand new universes and continuities to explore and enjoy.
That’s why, I’d like to talk a little about world building.
One aspect of both the MCU and DCU that never sat well with me is the portrayal of heroes from foreign nations. Too often, characters and teams from outside the US were simply pale copies of Stateside heroes peppered with a host nation’s perceived native aesthetics. Don’t get me wrong, there are certainly more than a few examples of the Big Two getting it right (several X-Men come to mind), but for every Alpha Flight or Excalibur, there are dozens of caped abortions like the New Super-Man and the Justice League of China—which is about as uninspired as a Turkish Star Wars.
Conceptually, a Chinese Justice League should be a goldmine of story opportunities, so why then did DC opt for the most obvious and boring route possible? What this title overlooks is that China already has a Superman and he looks like this (pictured below).
Marketed in the West as Super Infra-Man, Chinese Superman is a solar-powered “bionic kung fu superhero” who does battle with an invading horde of subterranean hell monsters lead by the villainous Demon Princess Elzebub. I’m not saying DC should have licensed the rights to Infra-Man, but wouldn’t their book be that much more interesting if instead of a kung pao version of Clark Kent, they had borrowed inspiration from China’s own superhero traditions?
Oh yes, China very much has it own native hero genre with its own unique tropes and visual aesthetics. Films such as Black Mask, Silver Hawk, Fist of Legend, and The Heroic Trio all show a distinctly Hong Kong take on super powers and masked vigilantes. Influenced by both American comics and traditional Chinese Wuxia (which literally translates to “kung fu hero”), these characters fall somewhere between Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Blade—with a little bit of Ultraman tossed in for good measure. Just imagine how much more interesting New Super-Man and the Justice League of China would have been if it were more like this:
Speaking of Ultraman, an entire book could be written on the superhero genre native to Japan. Sailor Moon, Kamen Rider, Super Sentai, Science Ninja Team Gatchaman, Dragon Ball Z, and the aforementioned, Ultraman are just the tip of the iceberg when comes to our friends in the Land of the Rising Sun. Back in 2008 Marvel did a decent job of applying Japanese hero aesthetics to a pre-existing team with a Big Hero 6 mini-series. Intended to be Japan’s version of the Avengers, the team features echoes of kaiju cinema and mecha anime right along side more tradition American comic tropes (all of which Disney then promptly ignored when making the near-unrecognizable Big Hero 6 movie).
Unfortunately, more often than not, though, Japanese heroes within both the MCU and DCU tend to have a one-note design ethic: the Japanese flag. Costumes usually favor red & white stripes meshing into a big red dot, usually accompanied by nunchuku or a katana sword. Hell, the Japanese member of Suicide Squad is even named Katana! Her gimmick? She carries a magic katana. C’mon guys, you can do better.
I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with the rising sun motif. Some of these costumes look genuinely cool. Problem is, it’s been done to death. It’s time for something new. So why not mine some hero tropes directly from Japan’s own superhero traditions? Imagine if the DCU had a Justice League of Japan and it looked something like this:
Now that’s a team I’d love to see inhabiting a world where a Justice League or Avengers type team also existed. Picture a moral stalwart of a character like Superman or Captain America having to interact with a hero in the vein of Kamen Rider, or someone straight out of the magical girl genre. There’s a multitude of possibilities—most which have yet to be explored.
Which brings me to the next native superhero genre that should and needs to be tapped by some clever creator out there building his own superhero universe. I’m talking about Mexico!
Most everyone knows about Mexico’s first costumed vigilante, Zorro. A creation of the pulp-era, Zorro was an “avenger the helpless, punisher cruel politicians, and savior of the oppressed” within Mexican-California. It’s often rumored that Zorro was an inspiration for Batman, along with The Shadow and Doc Savage. What most don’t know is that Zorro was also the creation of an American pulp writer, Johnston McCulley. No, if you want to get a sense of an authentic “Mexican” superhero, might I introduce you to El Santo! Mexico’s answer to Superman…
If you don’t know about El Santo, you don’t know what you’re missing. Luchidor champion and superhero, El Santo fights for justice in and outside the ring. Prophesized within lost biblical apocrypha, El Santo’s destiny is to do battle with enemies of mankind, be them criminals or vampires, zombies or space invaders, or even the devil himself. Sound balls-out insane? It is, and the films are a heck of a lot of fun. The success of El Santo as a movie franchise and comic book series led to a whole pantheon of luchidor wrestler superheroes.
The Big Two has flirted some with luchidor characters, mostly as villains (such as Bane and El Sombrero). Marvel has a lesser known Avenger named Rage who is basically a Luchador version of Billy Batson. That said, I have yet to encounter a continuity that actually embraces the true spirit of the luchidor superheroes. And what would that look like? Insanity.
So in conclusion, there’s a great big world out there that’s full of cool and interesting (and often bizarre) superhero traditions that have been cultivated beyond the United States. All of them find their roots in the classic America superhero, but have appropriated and assimilated these ideas into their own native zeitgist. While the superhero is and always will be a uniquely American form of mythology, seeing how other nations have adopted and modified the concept provides fertile ground for new and old comics universes.