So discussion with the gaming group have helped solidify superhero plans a bit more.

How does one reconcile a desire for a superhero setting featuring talking apes and at the same time evoking some of the everyman with superpowers aspect of the Heroes tv show? Well, in addition to more RPG products than I should have bought in the house (hey I’ve been gaming for close to 30 years) there’s a decent collection of comic reprint books. I’ve especially enjoyed the Silver and Golden Age reprints from DC and Marvel Comics.

I gravitated towards books from the early Silver Age and made a number of interesting discoveries:

  • Not all superheroes went for the costume look. Challengers of the Unknown, Fantastic Four, and Doom Patrol all, at least in their beginning, featured protagonists who went without costumes. This appeals to looking a bit more for the Everyman feel. Some of those who did wear costumes wore ones which were more like uniforms, such as the later Fantastic Four and the original X-Men.
  • Similarly, not everyone used secret identities. The Challengers of the Unknown and Fantastic Four never tried to keep their identities secret. And the Doom Patrol would have loved to have been known by their “human” names as opposed to their heroic ones.
  • When dealing with “alien civilizations”, while the heroes might be exposed to the full scope of the civilization, most civilians see just special examples of these alien civilizations, if they see any members at all. For example, seeing Prince Namor or Gorilla Grod is far more common than visiting Atlantis or Gorilla City. That said, when the civilization does impose on boring mundane life, it tends to be very dramatic — consider for example how major the events of Atlantis invading in Fantastic Four were.

This began pointing me to a Silver Age setting. As it did so, more advantages occurred to me, most especially the technology difference. Without instant communications, the internet, etc. it is much easier to believe that strange civilizations and alien visitors can remain essentially unconfirmed as far as the layman is concerned.

Now what is the Silver Age of comics? A little googling will find a decent history. Essentially, the Silver Age was the birth of a second generation of superhero comic books. Starting with Superman in the late 1930s, the superhero was one of the most popular comic book genres. These comic book characters proved popular during World War II. However, with the end of World War II, the superhero diminished in popularity. Most characters vanished from the scene, losing their titles to make room for horror and western titles. Essentially, the only characters to survive the end of the Golden Age in the late 1940s were Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman.

In 1954 with the publication of the book Seduction of the Innocent, America became convinced that comic books were contributing to delinquency of America’s youth.  Horror comics like Tales from the Crypt were the main target, but superhero comics were also targeted. Sited was the “obvious” homosexual/pedophile relationship between Batman and Robin. Superman was “clearly” un-American and fascist. And Wonder Woman encouraged bondage. (Well, there may have been something to that last one.) Subject to congressional hearings, the comic book industry established a self-censoring Comics Code Authority to insure good, decent comic books. The requirements of it made horror comics all but impossible. By default, superheroes became the main focus. DC Comics is generally regarded with launching of the Silver Age with Showcase #4, introducing a new version of the Flash. Soon after the modern incarnation of Green Lantern was introduced. At rival Marvel Comics, Stan Lee and Jack Kirby introduced the world to the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man as well as bringing back several Golden Age characters..

These stories tended to have a fairly high science fiction component, especially when compared with their Golden Age predecessors. This was partially due to the requirements of the Comics Code Authority, which made portrayal of realistic crime and the occult very difficult. Also, this was the dawn of the Space Age.

Now I don’t feel the need to be a slave to every element of the Silver Age of comics — except for the need to have super-ape villains from time to time. But there is a lot of neat stuff to mine. In a previous post I developed some background while considering a Golden Age setting. And I think that background overall works well for what I’m looking for. The basic idea being the Tunguska Impact in Siberia before World War I is part of an asteroid that as hurtled through space from the doomed planet Xenon. This allows the world to be be sprinkled with artifacts as well as “meteor rocks”. These allow fantastic inventions and mutations. And over time it allows the birth of mutants on Earth, much like in Marvel’s X-Men. However, I’d like to introduce something of the era’s Red Scare.

I’ve posited that the Tunguska Event is largely responsible for most of the Talents in this setting. This allows the creation of a “Golden Age History”, Now what if in this history their is a Superman equivalent. But unlike Superman, he landed in  Tungunska in Russia. He is encased in a stasis chamber and only released at the first expedition to investigate in in 1921. This allows hum to mature and fight for the Motherland in World War II. Red Star sounds like a good name. Someone with the original Superman’s power set — no flying or x-ray vision, just really strong and really tough to hurt. Really, really strong. Since the Soviet Union was a US ally in World War II it seems reasonable that some of America’s Talents met him in the war. And most probably got along with him — he’s not a bad guy, just extremely devoted to the Soviet Union.

Enter the House Un-American Actives Committee (HUAC), looking out for commies everywhere.  I think we can assume when the dust settles these masked adventurers are portrayed as in league with the U.S.S.R. In its aftermath most Talents retire. The world is safe for democracy. Move to 1959. The world is in need of a new generation of heroes. What do these heroes do? Who do they fight? Off the top of my head, here are some of my ideas:

  • Aliens! It turns out the planet Xenon had enemies. Enemies who followed its fragments to Earth. And who wish to TAKE OVER THE EARTH!!!
  • Monsters! These aliens are going to need monsters to help them.
  • Supervillains. From the eastern European Doctor Doom knockoff to the wanna-be messiah like Magneto.
  • Lost Lands. Places like Atlantis, Gorilla City. Visit them. Stop them from attacking the known world.
  • Communist infiltrators. (Despite the paranoia, they do exist).
  • Wild Talents, affected by out of control mutation. (i.e. “Freak of the Week” episodes of Smallville).
  • Mad scientists.
  • Nazis who survived World War II.

A team structure like the Doom Patrol or X-Men seems a good starting point – some sort of NPC mentor who helps set the tone and gives missions. At least to start. These mentors can later suffer some sort of horrible fate, leaving the PCs on their own once the campaign has gained some momentum. As far as the tone goes, the Silver Age works pretty well for my group — we tend to have a decent amount of goofiness. That said, I don’t quite expect a bunch of people in their thirties (with me closing on 40) to have the “purity” of the period — we don’t have a Comics Code after all. So I’d expect the tone to be more in keeping with the Justice League International books of the late 80s and early 90s. Also I plan on, at least at the start of the game, keeping a lot of the action our heroes engage in as being unseen by most people — not quite to the extent of Heroes, but such that it takes time for superheroes to impact the world in a major way.

As far as inspirational sources go, there’s a variety of good references. Obviously there is the original source material as well as some later works which look back on that period. Highlights to  my mind include:

  • Doom Patrol Archives – An often overlooked gem, the early Doom Patrol were, in my opinion at least, far superior to the similar X-Men. Grant Morrison reinvented the Doom Patrol in the late 80s and early 90s in a very bizarre run.
  • X-Men Masterworks – To be honest, I find the early X-Men a little on the weak side. I think the book really began finding its footing when Roy Thomas took over right before it went on hiatus. In the 70s X-Men was reinvented with Chris Claremont’s excellent run which had the misfortune of turning the X-Men into a franchise.
  • Fantastic Four Masterworks – A good example of a closely nit team — and one that forgoes the use of secret identities. I prefer the early Fantastic Four to the Avengers; the Fantastic Four tend to have more “adventures” as opposed to lots of battles with superbaddies.
  • Green Lantern Archives – The early Green Lantern books have a nice Jet Age/Space Age feel to them, with Hal Jordan as the fearless test pilot. It also has a strong science fiction influence, with many stories involving aliens and Green Lantern visiting other planets.
  • Justice League International – Far out of period (actually an Iron Age book), the adventures tend to have a humorous tone. I expect our game will resemble this…
  • New Frontier Volumes One and Two – A recent work, revisiting the transition from the Golden to Silver Ages. Makes the assumption that each character’s adventurers began the year of their first appearance in comics. Superman has been adventuring since 1938 for example. Shows the Justice Society of America forced into retirement during the Red Scare and the emergence of a new generation of heroes in the 1950s. Deals with the racism of the day in a way that never occurred in the comics, but not a “grim and gritty book”. Probably my biggest inspiration. The animated adaptation is quite good.

Beyond comic books there’s some good books and videos to get the feel of the period, both in fiction and non-fiction. Some items I’ve pursued or am considering: