Thursday, June 15, 2006


I call this blog ‘Legion Abstract’ because of one of my favourite writers. His name’s Bill James, and he’s best known for creating the bestselling and revolutionary Baseball Abstract books in the 1970s and ‘80s. James changed the world of baseball analysis through his writing. I don’t claim to be his equal as a writer, and I don’t pretend that I’m going to have anywhere near as great an impact on the world of superheroes as he did on baseball, but I do like to think that I’m bringing something of the spirit of his work to this site. There’s just something about the superhero genre that makes me want to figure stuff out about it (as anybody who’s read my old website probably already knows).

One of the things that interests me a little is the distribution of superpowers in superhero teams. If you were to set up a superhero team, what powers would you want to be represented? How many times? What’s normal?

I came to this question originally through role-playing games, where this is obviously an important issue. Specifically, I remember a section of the Champions rulebook that dealt with this on an individual level. It said that every character in a superhero role-playing game had to be able to do three things: move, attack, and defend. This seems like a sensible statement, and in a game where each player is responsible for a single character, it’s more or less a true one. But in a story (where you have no players) about a cooperative team of superheroes, there’s a little more leeway.

First let’s look at the possibilities. These are all the types of superpowers I can think of:

Strength. No explanation needed.

Invulnerability. Includes things like armor and regeneration. Anything that lets you not care if you get hit.

Mobility. Includes flying, super-speed, or even a motorbike. Anything that means you don’t have to hitch a ride.

Distance Attack. Energy blasts, archery, whatever. You’re standing here and that guy way over there gets hurt.

Close Combat. Something that makes you better in a brawl, like martial arts or claws.

Stealth. Could be invisibility, or shrinking, or walking through walls. Just as long as the bad guys don’t know you’re there.

Sensory/Communication. Enhanced senses of any kind, or unorthodox means of communication.

Distance Effect. Like ‘Distance Attack’, only with some kind of interesting event substituted for physical damage. Examples include telekinesis or stretching. Just so long as you’re standing here and something cool happens over there.

Other Environments. The ability to hang out someplace like underwater or in outer space like it’s no big deal.

Mass Mobility. The ability to take a few of your teammates with you when you go somewhere.

Healing. No explanation necessary.

Miscellaneous. Anything that doesn’t fit in the other categories.

These next few are more descriptions or modifiers than actual superpowers.



Mental Powers.


Some notes on these. The most common powers by far are Strength, Invulnerability, Distance Attack and Mobility. Almost every supergroup has these powers represented, and most often more than once. This is desirable. They really are the most useful in a fight, and fighting is what we’re usually talking about. Next most common are Close Combat, Distance Effect, Stealth and Sensory/Communication, and ideally a supergroup would have all these powers available too, but it’s okay if only one hero has them, and it’s not the end of the world to do without them entirely.

Obviously, if someone in the group has Mass Mobility, it makes it a lot less important for everybody else to have some kind of Mobility. If you’re in a big group, you may not have to be able to attack and defend all that well; there’s some safety in numbers and you can do some division of labour.

It’s not good for your group to limit themselves only to things like Strength, Invulnerability, Close Combat, Mobility and Distance Attack. They’re famous and popular as superpowers, but it’s hard to improvise with them. At least one hero in the group needs a hat that can produce a rabbit every now and then; some kind of versatile option.

For some strange reason, Healing is one of the least common superpowers out there. Off the top of my head, I can’t think of a superhero with this power. (I include it because of its tremendous importance in the role-playing games I mentioned earlier.) But why not? Imagine how useful it would be!

It might not be all that easy to see which of these powers someone has. Look at Chameleon. He’s a shapeshifter, but I don’t have ‘shapeshifting’ on my list. That’s because my list doesn’t care about how someone does something; only about what he can get done with it. So what does Chameleon’s shapeshifting do for him? Well, he can turn into something that flies; that gives him Mobility. Similarly, he can acquire Strength or Invulnerability or Stealth or Close Combat or Other Environments. His antennae give him a Sensory power, and he can do some stretching for Distance Effect. That doesn’t really cover everything, so you can also throw in Versatile and Miscellaneous. This isn’t an exact science, but it does help you figure out your supergroup’s capabilities.

Let’s check out a few supergroups to see how their powers break down. We’ll start small.

The Fantastic Four have these powers:

Strength (the Thing)
Invulnerability (Invisible Girl, the Thing)
Mobility (the Human Torch)
Distance Attack (the Human Torch)
Stealth (Invisible Girl)
Distance Effect (Mr. Fantastic)
Technology (Mr. Fantastic)

That’s not bad for a group of four. They’ve got all the basics covered (except for Close Combat, and you could argue that Mr. Fantastic has that) and even though there are no really versatile powers here, Reed might be able to whip up a gadget in a tight spot.

On the other hand, these guys need some help.

The Inferior Five:

Strength (Awkwardman, Dumb Bunny)
Invulnerability (Dumb Bunny)
Distance Attack (White Feather)
Mobility (Blimp)

Their leader, Merryman, doesn’t even register on here, but he’s nevertheless useful because he’s the only one with two brain cells firing. Nobody’s much good in a fight, nobody can sneak around worth anything and they have no other tricks in their bag.

The Incredibles:

Strength (Mr. Incredible)
Invulnerability (Violet)
Mobility (Dash)
Stealth (Violet)
Distance Effect (Elasti-Girl)
Versatile (Elasti-Girl)

These guys aren’t quite as well off as the Fantastic Four. They can react to a lot of situations, but they don’t have a lot of stopping power. With no Close Combat and no Distance Attacks, they’re pretty much relying on Bob being able to punch all the bad guys out.

Let’s try a larger group.

The Zoo Crew:

Strength (Captain Carrot, Pig-Iron)
Invulnerability (Fastback, Pig-Iron)
Mobility (Captain Carrot, Fastback, Alley-Kat-Abra, Yankee Poodle)
Distance Attack (Yankee Poodle, Alley-Kat-Abra)
Close Combat (Alley-Kat-Abra)
Stealth (Little Cheese)
Sensory/Communication (Alley-Kat-Abra)
Distance Effect (Rubberduck, Yankee Poodle, Alley-Kat-Abra)
Versatile (Rubberduck)
Magic (Alley-Kat-Abra)

No holes. Lots of duplication. Plenty of firepower and plenty of ways to come up with a Plan B. And only seven members. The perfect superteam.

Justice League (cartoon lineup):

Strength (Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter)
Invulnerability (Superman, Wonder Woman, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern)
Mobility (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Martian Manhunter, Green Lantern, Hawkgirl)
Distance Attack (Superman, Green Lantern)
Close Combat (Batman, Hawkgirl)
Stealth (Batman, Martian Manhunter)
Sensory/Communication (Superman, Green Lantern, Martian Manhunter)
Distance Effect (Wonder Woman, Green Lantern)
Other Environments (Superman, Green Lantern)
Mass Mobility (Green Lantern)
Technology (Batman)
Mental (Martian Manhunter)

There’s no reason these guys should ever lose a fight.

Anybody else we want to look at? Let’s try this group.

Mystery Men:

Distance Attack (Blue Raja, Bowler, Spleen)
Close Combat (Shoveler, Mr. Furious, Sphinx)
Stealth (Invisible Boy)
Distance Effect (Bowler)

Not bad for street-level heroes, but with no Strength, Invulnerability or Mobility they’d better not take on any giant robots or alien invasions.

Okay, okay. How does all this apply to the Legion?

First, the Legion gets a break on a couple of these categories. Everyone’s got a flight ring, which means everyone automatically has Mobility and Sensory/Communication. This is a big advantage. (In the first version of the Legion, they also had those transparent automatic polysuits that let them do their thing in outer space without batting an eye. I wonder if that’s still true.) Anyway, leaving out the flight rings, let’s run one of these lists for the Legion roster that Triplicate Girl outlined in #15.

The Legion of Super-Heroes:

Strength (Ultra Boy, Micro Lad, Chameleon, Brin Londo)
Invulnerability (Ultra Boy, Chameleon)
Mobility (Ultra Boy, Chameleon)
Distance Attack (Lightning Lad, Ultra Boy, Atom Girl)
Close Combat (Karate Kid, Brin Londo, Shadow Lass, Chameleon)
Stealth (Atom Girl, Invisible Kid, Phantom Girl, Chameleon)
Sensory/Communication (Saturn Girl, Chameleon, Ultra Boy)
Distance Effect (Shadow Lass, Light Lass, Cosmic Boy, Star Boy, Princess Projectra, Chameleon)
Other Environments (Ultra Boy)
Miscellaneous (Chameleon, Element Lad, Triplicate Girl)
Versatile (Chameleon, Princess Projectra)
Mental (Saturn Girl)
Technology (Brainiac 5, Invisible Kid)

But I was being generous with some of these. Look at Distance Attack. Ultra Boy’s flash-vision is a minor power compared with what else he might be doing in a fight, and Violet’s guns aren’t really (I think) for general use. So Lightning Lad is really the only threat the Legion has at long range, and that’s where this team is going to miss Sun Boy, who would have been another one. (Although, as the Distance Effect entry shows, the Legion can do lots of things at long range other than blasting the hell out of something.)

Similarly for Strength. Chameleon isn’t that strong all the time, and neither he nor Brin are very strong. The Legion has had a lot of super-strong people in past incarnations (Superboy, Supergirl, Laurel Gand, Blok, Monstress, Ferro Lad, and of course Mon-El) but now we’re down to just Jo and Gim. It’s the same problem the Incredibles have: lots of options, but a little low on raw power.

Or look at Invulnerability. I’m not saying that the Legionnaires aren’t tough, but let’s face it, almost everyone on their team is subject to being punched out. This is a problem from a tactical point of view.

Most of the other categories aren’t much of a problem. There aren’t any magicians on the Legion, except maybe Projectra, but that may not be such a big thing in this 31st century. Everything else is covered at least a little bit.

It’s good from a storytelling standpoint, though. A team like the current Legion, that’s versatile but vulnerable, has a strong need for leadership and teamwork. They’ll need to improvise and pull cheap tricks with their powers. All of which is great stuff to read about in a comic book.

So maybe we won’t see Mon-El show up in this version of the Legion anytime soon, and maybe Supergirl won’t stick around for long. Looked at one way, that’s a shame; looked at another way, a fight between Mon-El and Elysion wouldn’t have been half as thrilling as the one where Brainy, Atom Girl and Invisible Kid took him down.

As long as we’re doing this breakdown, though… let’s split up the superpowers by sex (we could count Chameleon as male, for historical reasons, but let’s simplify things by leaving him out for now).

Female Legionnaires
Distance Attack (Atom Girl)
Close Combat (Shadow Lass)
Stealth (Atom Girl, Phantom Girl)
Sensory/Communication (Saturn Girl)
Distance Effect (Shadow Lass, Light Lass, Princess Projectra)
Miscellaneous (Triplicate Girl)
Versatile (Princess Projectra)
Mental (Saturn Girl)

Male Legionnaires
Strength (Ultra Boy, Micro Lad, Brin Londo)
Invulnerability (Ultra Boy)
Mobility (Ultra Boy)
Distance Attack (Lightning Lad, Ultra Boy)
Close Combat (Karate Kid, Brin Londo)
Stealth (Invisible Kid)
Sensory/Communication (Ultra Boy)
Distance Effect (Cosmic Boy, Star Boy)
Other Environments (Ultra Boy)
Miscellaneous (Element Lad)
Technology (Brainiac 5, Invisible Kid)

Now, we’re dealing with seven female Legionnaires versus ten male Legionnaires, but that’s still a big power imbalance here. The guys have all the Strength, all the Invulnerability, all the Mobility, all the Distance Attacks (except, again, for Violet’s guns), and more Close Combat. The girls, when they have an advantage, have it in the more subtle superpowers, the ones that involve the senses, or the ones that let them stay out of the way.

If I’m criticizing anybody here, it’s (collectively) the Legion writers of the distant past. I’m sure that Waid and Kitson didn’t go out of their way to select female Legionnaires that would have less dominant superpowers than the male Legionnaires; they’re just using the best-known Legion characters from the whole arc of the group’s histories. And superpowers seem to have been handed out on kind of a sexist basis in the past. I know; I was shocked too.

There have, at times, been powerhouse female Legionnaires, mostly more recently. Supergirl alone would cover the differences between these two lists, and she’s on the team as I write this. Same for Andromeda. Kid Quantum and Kinetix would only show up on one of these superpower charts as ‘Distance Effect, Versatile’ each, but they were certainly very powerful; so were Kono and the White Witch and Celeste in different ways. During Ayla’s time as Lightning Lass (or Spark (or, sigh, Pulse)), she had an excellent Distance Attack. XS and Veilmist and Dawnstar and Shikari were as mobile as anything; Catspaw and Monstress and Thunder were all formidable in a fight (as was Dream Girl, as written by Waid, anyway).

And I’m certainly not saying that characters like Shadow Lass or Phantom Girl aren’t good comic book characters, or good superheroes, or strong characters. Look how long they’ve lasted. Can you imagine a stronger character than Saturn Girl? I’m just saying that I sometimes like to see superheroines kick the ass, and let the superheroes take the names... but the current female Legionnaires largely don’t have a lot of power to hose around. Supergirl’s a good start, while she’s here. Is there a follow-up?

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Blogger Amy Reads said...

Hi Matt,
For some reason, this isn't posting in my blog, so I'll try it in yours!

You asked, What would you consider to be an example of a character (female or male) who has physical, tangible powers, and yet is not alien or otherworldly in some way? Because, looking at some of the examples you give (She-Hulk, Molly Hayes, Wonder Girl)... it seems like a hard category to qualify for.

And I respond,
I agree with your argument with my argument, which is why I made a concession. As I wrote through the post, I began to think about this very fact. There does seem to be a plethora of otherworldly powers out there, and not just for women. Superman, Martian Manhunter, etc. have powers because they are aliens, i.e. otherworldly.
I think the main part of the argument was the idea that most female superheroes have intangible powers, while so many superheroes have tangible ones.
Steel, for example, is a character who has physical, tangible powers that aren't otherworldly. Same with The Hulk (which is why my She-Hulk example probably doesn't work). While I was writing this, I began writing myself into another argument, I think, and the two started to diverge in strange ways.
But of the characters that have non-tangible powers, they are overwhelming female. Most male superheroes have strength, while most female superheroes have something untouchable.
Thanks for reading, and I'll continue to think about this :)

4:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Very interesting breakdown.

I've done the same when designing hero teams for RPGs, although I've used a vaguely military-sounding set of categories.

Using the X-Men as examples;

Airborne - Angel
Artillery - Cyclops
Armor - Colossus
Infantry - Wolverine
Communications - no 'pure' examples (most comm specialists in the X-verse are telepaths, all of whom also function as Artillery), Cypher perhaps?
Transportation - Lila Cheney

Medical - Elixir or the Morlock Healer

Most X-Men cover multiple bases, particularly the X-Women;

Storm - Airborne, Artillery
Rogue - Airborne, Armor
Nightcrawler - Infantry, Transportation
Gambit - Infantry, Artillery
Jean Grey - Airborne, Armor, Artillery, Communications, Transportation!

For gaming purposes, I find that I greatly prefer playing a superhero that has both a decent offense and defense, is capable of transporting himself effectively, and can at least heal himself to some extent. Lacking any one of those, I get frustrated by waiting for days to heal injuries, or being unable to even get to a fight, or being knocked out in a single hit, or being unable to even effect the challenge of the day.

It's interesting how teams in the comics end up covering the various shortages. The X-Men rarely have anyone capaple of transporting the entire team, and so, the Blackbird. Likewise for Legion Cruisers or the Avengers Quinjet or the Fantasti-Car. Few teams have dedicated communications specialists, like the various telepaths of the X-Men, and even those that do, often have better things for them to be doing than playing 'operator.' And so Commlinks or Legion Flight Rings become a necessity.

Very cool, thanks for writing this up, it's given me some new ideas to consider!

6:41 AM  

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