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[GUEST POST] Peter Clines (Author of EX-ISLE) on Super People vs. Superheroes

Peter Clines is the author of the Ex-Heroes series, including the new EX-ISLE, and also THE FOLD. He babbles on about superheroes a lot on Twitter.

Super v Super

by Peter Clines

So, my new book Ex-Isle came out earlier this month. It’s the fifth book in my ongoing Ex-Heroes series about superheroes in the world of a zombie apocalypse. Some of them, like St. George and Zzzap, have inherent superhuman abilities. Some have technological abilities, like the Cerberus battlesuit or Captain Freedom’s super-soldier enhancements. And one of them may be the smartest person in the world.

From the very beginning, though, I knew one thing I wanted. These weren’t going to be books about people with superpowers. They were going to be books about superheroes.

That may seem like an odd distinction to make, but bear with me here for a minute…

There have been stories of people with superhuman powers since… well, pretty much since there were stories. Gilgamesh had super-strength. Perseus could fly and turn invisible. The Bible is loaded with people who display a variety of abilities—strength, fire resistance, sonic attacks, and matter transmutation among them. The Green Knight could recover instantly from fatal wounds. The Brothers Grimm wrote up stories about the strongest man in the world, the fastest man in the world, and four or five of their friends. Henry Jekyll developed a formula that let him change into someone else while Jack Griffin concocted one that turned him invisible. In modern times, Stephen King has written books about teenagers with telekinesis, schoolteachers with precognition, and cute little girls who can start fires with their minds.

I feel pretty safe saying none of these folks would be considered superheroes. A few heroes in there, absolutely, but superheroes…? I think not.
So being a superhero isn’t just about having super-powers.

Yes, you in the back, I hear your grumbling. Just stick with me for now.

Masks and costumes are nothing new, either. Odysseus disguised himself when he finally made it home after years of wandering. The Phantom of the Opera hid his identity with a costume. The Count of Monte Cristo used a collection of disguises during his elaborate revenge scheme. Jason Voorhees, Michael Myers, and Jigsaw all wore masks, too.

I feel pretty safe saying they’re not superheroes, either.

So…if it’s not just superpowers, and it’s not just a costume, what classifies a character as a superhero?

In talking with folks, I’ve noticed we all tend to gravitate toward a bunch of similar first impressions. A superhero generally has abilities above and beyond the norm, yes, and they also have some sort of costume, which usually helps protect a secret identity. But when we think of superheroes, we think of people who are publicly fighting for something bigger than themselves, even when they have no vested interest in the outcome. Very often, they’re a symbol of hope—even when their look might be designed to frighten criminals.

There are a few superheroes who don’t hit every one of these points… but not many, in my opinion.

I didn’t want to just tell a story about a woman who made a cool armored suit. Or a guy who could shoot energy beams. Or a brilliant woman who’d been trained by some of the world’s top assassins and criminals. All of these sound cool, absolutely, but to me the most important thing was that they were superheroes. That they weren’t just trying to settle a personal score–they were actually trying to make the world better for everyone. That they were symbols of hope.

Because after a zombie apocalypse, the world would need heroes more than it would need someone who can punch through a wall.

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