Why? Because they’re awesome. Because they are crash courses in thrilling storytelling. Because they are almost incomprehensible enough to be published by a hip indie lit journal. Because they save me the time and money required to read actual superhero comics, which are mostly garbage anyway (with all due love and respect to their creators: I know you guys are mostly doing your best with a ludicrously difficult format and schedule). Because I have a lot of fondness for characters I enjoyed as a child. Because they are so bad and so beautiful. (I’m also in it for the pouches.)
Superhero Wikipedia pages are insane because hero comics are insane. Understanding the conditions and constraints under which any story is produced will of course help you better appreciate said story, but in the case of hero comics it’s really the only way to understand most of what happens. Here are the key facts: 1) Hero comics are published on a monthly schedule. 2) Hero comics serve two consumer bases: teenage boys, who remember nothing, and nostalgic adults, who remember everything. 3) Hero comics almost always take place on what seems to be a present-day Earth. 4) Though comic book movies have never been bigger business, actual comic book sales seem always to be on the verge of collapse.
These facts add up to some deeply weird storytelling conventions. Hero comics are supposed to be extreme and implausible, but even Hollywood blockbusters generally spend a little quiet time establishing characters, exploring their dynamics, and showing how they live their lives between shoot-outs. Michael Bay gives you a romantic subplot in addition to pissing Autobots and racism. Hero comics want to do these things, but they mostly can’t: twenty-six pages of comic is not enough spacetime to make very much happen, and it’s certainly not enough spacetime to allow for laser action, grand speeches, and slower character bits. That is, unless you try to do all three at once. This leads to a lot of fights wherein people also make lengthy speeches mid-punch and have deeply involved discussions about their relationships. Worse yet, because of the fickle teenage boy constituency, everything has to change all of the time (it’s the only way you get them to pay attention) and also nothing can ever change (they don’t remember anything, because they are not reading regularly, so every issue has to be pretty much the same as the last; this is also demanded by the nostalgic adult readership, except for those segments of said readership who are tired of everything staying the same and demand that everything be changed, but differently from how everything is currently being changed, which is the wrong way).
And here’s the cherry on top: hero comics are continually set in the present day, and yet, again, there’s only so much spacetime available in each issue. (Usually somewhere between a week and fifteen minutes.) This paragraph from the Wikipedia page on the Marvel Comics universe explains things nicely (emphasis mine):
Comparatively little time passes in the Marvel Universe compared to the real world, owing to the serial nature of storytelling, with the stories of certain issues picking up mere seconds after the conclusion of the previous one, while a whole month has passed by in “real time”. Marvel’s major heroes were created in the 1960s, but the amount of time that has passed between then and now within the universe itself has (after a prolonged period of being identified as about ten years in the mid-to-late 1990s) most recently been identified as thirteen years. Consequently, the settings of some events which were contemporary when written have to be updated every few years in order to “make sense” in this floating timeline. Thus, the events of previous stories are considered to have happened within a certain number of years prior to the publishing date of the current issue. For example, Spider-Man‘s high school graduation was published in Amazing Spider-Man #28 (September 1965), his college graduation in Amazing Spider-Man #185 (October 1978), and his high school reunion in Marvel Knights: Spider-Man #7 (December 2004).
All of this adds up to stupidly elaborate, involved stories that should take years but officially take place over the course of weeks or months. In one year of X-Men time, about ten years worth of story happen: Professor X loses and regains the ability to walk three or four times, most of the cast is killed and resurrected, several alien races invade and conquer the planet, and a handful of time travel/alternate universe plots completely rearrange (“fuck”) the whole thing sideways anyway. And, again, all of this has to happen by way of character-driven fight scenes with lots of stirring speeches, and also everything has to change every month (or, in X-Men time, every thirty seconds) but also everything has to be periodically returned to the original state of play so that every possible reader will know what’s going on in any given comic (which, incidentally, no one ever does know, especially me) and long-time fans never get upset or alienated by revisions to the characters (which, incidentally, is all that fans ever do).
Now take all of the resulting story chaos, filter it through the obsessive attention to detail/functional illiteracy of certain Internet nerds, compress it just enough to be acceptable under the norms of Wikipedia, and you get the Professor X Wikipedia page, quite possibly the pinnacle of the genre. You know Professor X, right? He’s in all the movies, because he’s the guy who started the X-Men in the first place. He’s got a couple of basic characteristics: he’s a Martin Luther King Jr. analogue who believes in the equality of all mankind, he’s a “professor” (i.e., smart guy who teaches in not-a-college), he’s the leader of the X-Men, and his voice is really soothing. Also he needs a wheelchair. Well, that’s where the character started out, anyway. Then fifty years of storytelling happened, all of which officially took place in about thirteen years, and all of which is described in 55 bewildering, contradictory, hyperlinked-out-the-ass paragraphs, the (many) highlights of which I will now share:
Charles Francis Xavier was born in New York City to the wealthy Brian Xavier, a well-respected nuclear scientist, and Sharon Xavier. After Brian dies in an accident, his science partner Kurt Marko comforts and marries the grieving Sharon. When Xavier’s telepathic mutant powers emerge, he discovers Kurt cares only about his mother’s money. … Due to his powers, by the time he graduates from high school, Charles loses all of his hair. … soon, Xavier is drafted into the Korean War. He carves himself a niche as a soldier in search and rescue missions … Deeply depressed when Moira broke off their engagement without explanation, Xavier began traveling around the world as an adventurer after leaving the army. … Realizing that his and Xavier’s views on mutant-human relations are incompatible, Magneto leaves with the gold. … In a strange town near the Himalayas, Xavier encounters an alien calling himself Lucifer, the advance scout for an invasion by his race, and foils his plans. In retaliation, Lucifer drops a huge stone block on Xavier, crippling his legs. … In a hospital in India he is brought to an American nurse, Amelia Voght, who looks after him and, as she sees to his recovery, they fall in love. … Xavier founded Xavier’s School for Gifted Youngsters, which provides a safe haven for mutants and teaches them to master their abilities. In addition, he seeks to foster mutant-human relations by providing his superhero team, the X-Men … At one point, Xavier seemingly dies during the X-Men’s battle with the sub-human Grotesk, but it is later revealed that Xavier arranged for a reformed former villain named Changeling to impersonate him while he went into hiding … Xavier forms a psychic bond across galaxies with Princess Lilandra from the Shi’ar Empire. When they finally meet, it is love at first sight. … When the X-Men fight members of the extraterrestrial race known as the Brood, Xavier is captured by them, and implanted with a Brood egg, which places Xavier under the Brood’s control. During this time, Xavier assembles a team of younger mutants called the New Mutants, secretly intended to be prime hosts for reproduction of the aliens. The X-Men discover this and return to free Xavier, but they are too late to prevent his body from being destroyed with a Brood Queen in its place; however, his soul remains intact. … the only way to restore him is to clone a new body using tissue samples he donated to the Starjammers and transfer his consciousness into the clone body. This new body possesses functional legs … After taking a teaching position at Columbia University in Uncanny X-Men #192, Xavier is severely injured and left for dead as the victim of a hate crime. … Charles meets with former lover Gabrielle Haller on Muir Isle and discovers that they had a child. … Xavier leaves Magneto in charge of the school, but some of the X-Men are unwilling to forgive their former enemy. … He becomes consort to the Princess-Majestrix Lilandra while in exile, and when she later resumes her throne he takes up residence with her in the Imperial palace on the Shi’ar homeworld. Xavier joins Lilandra in her cause to overthrow her sisterDeathbird, taking on the powers of Phoenix temporarily wherein he is named Bald Phoenix, but sees that he must return to help the X-Men. … In a battle with his old foe, the Shadow King, in the “Muir Island Saga“, Xavier’s spine is shattered, returning him to his former paraplegic state … As a temporary side-effect he gains full use of his legs … Professor X is for a time the unknowing host of the evil psionic entity Onslaught … Xavier is left without his telepathy and, overcome with guilt, leaves the X-Men and is incarcerated for his actions. … Xavier’s evil twinCassandra Nova, whom Xavier attempted to kill while they were both in their mother’s womb, orders a group of rogue Sentinels to destroy the independent mutant nation of Genosha. … Nova then takes over Xavier’s body. … Xorn uses his healing power to restore Xavier’s use of his legs. … Afterwards, Xorn reveals himself to be Magneto, having apparently not died in the Sentinel raid on Genosha. Magneto undoes the restoration of Xavier’s ability to walk, kidnaps him, and destroys the X-Mansion … Xavier, now depowered but able to walk in the wake of “House of M”, reveals that he had gathered and trained another team of X-Men … Darwin follows Xavier into the crystal and pulls Xavier out. This somehow restores Xavier’s lost telepathy. … In the final fight, Xavier is accidentally shot in the head by Bishop. Immediately afterward Xavier’s body disappears and Cyclops declares that there are no more X-Men. … Charles eventually discovers Mister Sinister had set up Charles, Sebastian Shaw, Juggernaut, and Ryking as potential new hosts for Sinister’s mind. Bleeding slowly to death, he apparently gives in to Sinister becoming the new Mister Sinister. But in reality, Xavier is still battling Sinister for control of his body. … Xavier appears (back in his wheelchair) in the company of Norman Osborn and publicly denounces Cyclops’ actions and urges him to turn himself in. However, this Xavier was revealed to be Mystique who Osborn recruited to impersonate Xavier in public. The real Xavier is shown in prison on Alcatraz and slowly being stripped of his telepathic powers … Professor X resented how the other four members were subconsciously blaming him for the current mess. … Later, Professor X states that he cannot fight his own students and erases his presence in the battle from everyone’s minds.
How awesome is that mess?
One way that writers can genuinely learn from the vacillations of ostensibly iconic characters like Professor X is by thinking about how the scores of people who have written these characters over the years have searched for new angles and story beats to keep them engaging: they throw a lot at the wall, but only a few variations on the basic theme ever stick. The prof. is a sensitive, passionate intellectual whose body has been crippled even as his mind grows immeasurably powerful. He’s also a father figure to the X-Men. Most of his stories are reversals or intensifications of these basic traits. His body is further compromised or simply destroyed (thus granting his mind ultimate primacy; it doesn’t even need that filthy husk). His body is occupied by an alien force, which causes him to betray those who trust him most. Sometimes he forgets to be sufficiently sensitive, presumably because he’s so intelligent, and he lets his powers carry him away. Sometimes his body is restored, and he is made whole. Sometimes he loses his powers, and only his body remains. There were presumably a thousand other changes to the character in the series, but these are the ones Wikipedia remembers. These are the ones that stuck, that became canonical.
If you’re not sure what should happen to one of your characters next, you could do worse than to ask yourself what would happen to the superhero version. Would he lose his powers? Would he get stronger? Would he fall in love with a mysterious stranger? Would he discover a dark secret in his past? Would his body betray him? Try that, and see if it sticks.
I love superhero comic Wikipedia pages so much, I’m currently writing a novel that aims to wed them to certain structural and stylistic tics of Infinite Jest. After an education in character and psychological realism, plausibility and “craft,” I wanted to learn about story. I wanted to write something that was story and story and story. And this is, I think, the best way to think of mainstream hero comics, if you want to look on them kindly: they are pure, untamed story, guided by love (the love of the writers for the characters), by desire (the desire for an audience), by commerce (by the urgent need to sell, sell, sell — which is, I think, an excellent pressure under which to write). Hero comics are rarely graceful, satisfying, or thoughtful. But they do more narrative per page than anything else. There’s a lot of pleasure in that, a lot of humor, and a lot to be learned.