After giving this a bit of thought, I'm (Finally) answering one of this month's questions which came from Joe:
Hey John, me and my friend were talking about our own superheros trying to make some up for a roleplaying game and that sparked an interesting discussion and i think it would be interesting to see your take on it. What do you think it "takes" to make a superhero/super villian stand apart from the others or even just successful?
Like for instance do you need an interesting backstory/background as to why they became a hero/villian or is it forgiving to have something similiar (like the orphan background)as long as the powers are good, etc, etc.
Basically in a nutshell, what do you think it takes for heroes in general to become big/popular/successful?
Before I begin, I would like to state that if I knew what it took for a hero to become big/popular/successful I'd be the most sought after writer in comics. I think there's also a connection made between heroes and readers that can not be calculated for which is why some characters such as Booster Gold or Green Lantern can be extremely popular with a large number of people while others couldn't care less about them (regarding these two characters, I confess I'm in the latter camp). Is this something inherent in the writing? or is it something inherent in the characters themselves? I used to believe that there's no such thing as bad characters, just bad writing, but I've come to believe that some characters are just not that interesting.
On to my actual answers. If you wanted to create a brand new superhero from the ground up, here's what I think you need.
1. There has to be something interesting about the superhero that sets him apart from others. This does not necessarily translate to unique powers. A character who controls snakes, or can transform into coffee maker is not going to provide a lot of interest over time. This goes for any powers. Electrical discharges, flight, mind control, telekinesis are all cool powers but in themselves aren't any more interesting than someone who uses a wrench or bad language. What's motivating this character to do what they do? The drive has to be interesting. Batman and Spider-Man are probably the two best superheroes ever created, and in some ways they are very similar. Their motivations for what they do are very clear. Their drive to fight crime comes from personal tragedies. Young Bruce Wayne was helpless to stop the murder of his parents. Adult Bruce Wayne wants to keep any other child from suffering the same fate he did. Spider-Man in a selfish move let a criminal go who would later murder his beloved Uncle Ben. Now, as penance, he's selflessly trying to keep that from happening to anyone else. What's Superman's motivation for fighting crime? I have no idea.
2. Not only must your character's superhero identity be interesting, but their civilian identity must be equally fascinating. It could be argued that Bruce Wayne doesn't have much of a personality outside of the Batsuit, but that's what makes Bruce Wayne fascinating. Bruce Wayne is a fantasy of what a lot of people wish they were like; rich, handsome, famous, but he has turned his back on all of that in order to be Batman. Batman is his real identity now. Bruce Wayne is the mask he puts on when he has to go among regular people. On top of it, he's made a decision to come off as a not too bright, spoiled, partying, socialite -- a complete ass, to keep people from suspecting he's really Batman. Spider-Man is a very intelligent young man who is completely overwhelmed in his day to day civilian life, and that life is often made worse for him by his selfless activities as Spider-Man. I would suspect that a Peter Parker comic book without Spider-Man would be a very enjoyable read. Would a Hal Jordan comic? I doubt it.
3. A worthy stable of foes. Your hero is defined by the villains he faces off against. Make your villains as interesting as your hero. It's even better if you can make them dark reflections of your hero. The heroes with the best rogues galleries are again Batman and Spider-Man along with Dick Tracy and The Flash. After that just about every hero falls short, which is why the movies rely on the same small group. Who does Superman have beyond Lex Luthor? Batman is someone obsessed with fighting crime to a degree that only his moral position separates him from many of the equally obsessed and psychologically scarred villains he fights. Spider-Man has a number of animal based scientifically enhanced foes. The Flash, who is not such a great superhero, has a distinctive assortment of villains possessing enhanced hardware that blur science and magic.
4. A strong cast of supporting characters. This is something Superman gets right in the staff of the Daily Planet and Ma and Pa Kent. Spider-Man also has a strong supporting cast both in the life of Peter Parker and for Spider-Man. Batman has Alfred and Commissioner Gordon along with Robin and the other members of the bat family. These characters can bring out certain aspects of the hero that you want to highlight or showcase, and we should care about them as much as the hero does. These are also the faces for all of the citizens they are out there trying to protect and just as vulnerable.
5. Accessories. When Mike Mignola was creating Hellboy part of his thinking was to create the ultimate 12" G.I. Joe action figure. Hellboy has a cool utility belt, gun, rocket pack, etc. Batman has a weapons packed utility belt, awesome car, helicopter, plane, boat, and high tech secret headquarters full of trophies and specialized equipment. All this stuff is really cool, but it also needs to refect the character using this stuff. Every bit of Batman's equipment tells us who Batman is. It's all dark, sharp, hard, precise and hard hitting. Spider-Man doesn't come with a lot of accessories, but those webshooters impress us with how intelligent young Peter Parker was to invent them, they're also multipurpose, and finite in terms of how much webbing they can contain, so they give Spider-Man a bit of a handicap in terms of how long he can use them, or what he can do if they break.
6. Good stories. The best heroes can bounce back from all sorts of crappy stories. Weak ones can't. Batman has also been incredibly versatile from being a friendly smiling member of the community to a dark avenger to the star of a campy tv series, to a more reality based superhero in the recent trilogy of movies. This is because he's become so iconic that there is a lot of room on how he can be represented. Even the 60s tv series was true to the character. Batman's obsession with crime was still there and his villains were still the crazy, psychologically scarred foes he's always faced off against. Use your character to tell good stories that will amaze your audience. Make them care about your hero. Make them want to be your hero.