I made a comment yesterday in twitter that needs some expansion. I remarked on how “You all know each other” is a trend I have really, really enjoyed in supers stuff, both comics and games. Without an explanation, this sounds like just another version of “you all meet in a tavern” but it’s actually something else entirely. It’s the idea that the supers are part of a community. It is not merely that the PCs all know each other, rather that they are all parts of the same community, so they know (and, importantly, are known) the whole community. A member of the group who is not a member of the community is an anomaly.
Comics have always been elevated by their relationships. These relationships keep the stories from being something more than just guys in tights fighting it out. One of the best examples of this is Doctor Doom. As a villain, he is often a template for characters that are identical in almost every way, yet fall completely flat on the page. Even Doom himself can fall flat, serving as Generic Big Bad Guy Stand In. But in the Fantastic Four, he comes to life – he’s compelling and gripping. A lot of people like to attribute that to a rich backstory but I think it’s something much simpler.
He *really* hates Reed Richards. Not in a grand, huge, villainous laugh sort of way but in the intensely personal, mundane way that you hate that jerk from college. That hate manifests in a number of ways, some mundane, some profound, but it’s always there, and it brings the character to life.
This is far form the only such example of characters in comics being brought to life by their relationships. Bruce and Clark are vasty more interesting to me than Superman and Batman ever were. Professor X and Magneto were at their most interesting as good friends with a single bright point of disagreement. Lex Luthor gets better every time his gripe with superman gets more personal (and more motivated than YOU MADE ME BALD!).
To some extent, this is old hat, but it’s important because it’s informed on the direction comics have been going. As these relationships develop, you start getting larger groups of people who are connected through their superness. Historically, the purpose of a team of superheroes was to take on threats they could not face individually, but more recent writers have been putting a lot more thought into what it means, socially, to be a part of one of these groups, especially n the face of the fact that most superheroes have pretty dysfunctional ‘real’ lives.
In many cases, the group has become a surrogate for the extended family. Especially groups that have had large, rotating rosters over the years (The Teen Titans and the X Men stand out in this regard). Treating them as more than members of a giant club turns stories that would be banal into compelling tales. Even informal groups, like the Batman Family, or the various super heroes of Marvel’s New York City can develop this kind of potency.
Unfortunately, when comics get mature enough to do this, editors usually take this as a sign that it’s time for a culling. Nuanced networks of relationships don’t bring in new fans, so things need to get simplified. Histories get retconned, characters get killed off, and the surrounding characters get rewritten or disposed of as “cheesy”.
But the idea has taken root. You see it most often now in stories where supers are new to the world, maybe originated from a single source. JMS’s Rising Stars and Supreme Power are great examples of this, and in RPGs, White Wolf’s Abberant Setting has many elements of this too. And I love it. I want to see it in more RPGs because, frankly, we can handle more nuance than comic book editors.
I’ve already seen this idea of membership in the extended group driven home very well in Amber, and I have also seen it brought to life in certain spins on the World of Darkness (new and old). It can contextualize the world, and being stories to life by giving them faces you’ve seen before. It also lets the world reflect the actions of the players in a personal, recognizable way. Having peers means you can have peer recognition – that’s a huge social incentive.
So, next time you’re thinking about how your characters know each other, consider for a moment the possibility that they not only know each other – they know a lot of other people too, because they’re all members of an extended group of some flavor.
1 – I say supers here because, in fiction, they’re a discreet, identifiable group. A lot of these ideas could apply equally well to any other genre if the group is similarly identifiable (such as spies, criminals, members of the magical community or the like) but I use supers because they’re on my mind and the examples are nicely colorful.
2 – Rich Backstories tend to be about as interesting in Comics as they are in RPGs, which is admittedly double edged. The story rarely grabs us, but the way it informs interactions can be compelling.
3 – This illustrates a kind of key point about talking about comics, which is that you are always wrong. Whatever you liked or didn’t like gets sanded and revarnished over so many times that it effectively stops being relevant, and it may never be returned to. Comics can only be discussed as a series of snapshots, and you pick the snapshots you value most. When someone else picks a different set, then you might both be passionate fans who love the property but have (apparently) mutually exclusive views on it.
4 – A point that was reflected wonderfully by Rosenbaum’s performance on the Lex Show…er, early seasons of Smallville.
5 – though, to be fair, The Legion of Super Heroes really _is_ a giant club, and part of why it works is because it embraces that role. Less family, more soap opera and more space awesome. Also, Karate Kid should TOTALLY fight an entire planet.
6 – The Teen Titans offer the best and the worst of it. One arc, the Technis Imperative, seems to be about an alien invasion, but is really about just how important the Titans are, as a family, to a bunch of kids who had pretty messed up childhoods, and how far they’re willing to go for one of their own. Even more, it delves into the relationship with the previous generation (one of the writer’s great turns is illustrating that the JLA has been an extended family too) and highlights where it is strongest and weakness, and why sometimes it needs to change. It is, to my mind, a very rewarding arc (that is, I suspect, pretty cheesy to those without any interest n the characters).
Contrast this with the events leading up to DC’s latest rewrite. As fas as I can tell, DC decided that there were just too damn many titans, and had not one but two, back to back fights where the villain shows up, is badass, the titans declare that messing with one of them is messing with all of them, we get a huge splash page with lots of Titans, and then the villain proceeds to murder them. Literally. They pretty much just killed off characters left and right. It was dramatic and all, but it ultimately felt kind of tacky.
7 – Thinking about Aberrant was what got this all started. Also, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Underkoffler’s “Fanfare for the Amplified Man” campaign setting in Truth and Justice, which is basically this idea in pure form.
8 – The new Hunter’s rules for the scale of your organization are perfect for reflecting elements of this idea mechanically.
9 – The Century Club doesn’t _really_ count in this regard because there’s no incentive to flesh out any membership beyond those who are playing. It’s membership is really a convenience to allow for a rotating cast. But that’s not to say it couldn’t be used in this way with a little spin.