Ronin Round Table: Atlas of Earth-Prime–Diversifying the Roster

With various Dragon Age products in various stages of production but without a lot of news to give folks right now, I’m going to take today’s Ronin Round Table to talk a bit about something else I do a lot: making superheroes and supervillains. Particularly, I want to talk about making superheroes and supervillains from countries that aren’t the US (and to a lesser extent Canada, the UK, and other major Western English-speaking nations).

There’s a long and dubious history in comics of whenever a foreign superhero or supervillain is needed, one just grabs a stereotype or well-known cultural theme and slaps some powers on it. Thus rarely is a superhero from say, Italy, a mutant with fire powers. Nah, he’s a Sicilian son of a murdered mobster empowered by the Roman God Mars or something. Or a Russian supervillain is a failed KGB super-soldier with "Red" somewhere in his name. Some critics will sneer at any and all such characters, declaring them to be automatically offensive and silly.

But here’s the thing. That’s really not true. Yes, they can sometimes be a problem but often these characters are actually awesome. For example, that Marvel’s Black Panther is an African king who is the epitome of the jungle super-man isn’t the problem, stereotypical though it might be in various ways. Because Black Panther is awesome and has no small number of admirers among comic readers of all races and cultural backgrounds. He’s Marvel’s version of Batman but with his own unique story and themes. Likewise guys like Marvel’s Silver Samurai work as a villain. Sure, he’s a Japanese guy with ties to the yakuza and a samurai theme, but damn if he isn’t cool. Or DC’s Rocket Reds. Or…well we could go on and on.

So that’s not really the problem.

No, the problem is when that’s all of the superheroes or supervillains that you have from "foreign" places. Or even most. One badass Japanese cyber ninja is a cool. One guy wearing the flag and acting like a stalwart defender of his nation’s ideals is neat. Ten of those guys starts to give the impression that while the US and some other places are diverse and nuanced (which is fair), everywhere else is monocultural and simple (which is not). That’s not so cool.

So what are most supers from other countries like? Well, pretty much like anywhere else. I submit they need to be. Not just for the non-stereotypical or predictable characters to be better but for the occasional flag-suited patriot or cultural tie in to really stand out and work. Also, because it’s about the only thing that makes sense. There’s no logic in a set up that has American supers with a dozen different origins for powers and hundreds of powersets and yet every single Native American super that shows up has mystic powers that draw "from the land" or "were granted by the Great Spirit" and who all have names like Thunderbird and Buffalo Chief. Nope, there would be a guy who got radiation powers from an alien spaceship who calls himself Positron or something. There would be several of these guys. And others still who pick a culturally themed name but have powers that come from a more general source. Or the reverse. There’s both room and a need for this sort of diversity in our costumed heroes and villains. It keeps things fresh, interesting, and varied.

I mean, let’s get real here a second. There are guys in Botswana who are hardcore death metal fans (seriously, Google it). Do you really think if one of those guys got hit by cosmic rays and got the power to shoot fire out of his eyes he’d drop all that a just call himself "Bwana Botswana" or something? Setting aside that Bwana is a Swahili word and Setswana is the language of Botswana for a moment…no, no he wouldn’t. He’d be something like Lord Burning or Hell Lord and would likely dress all in black leather and spikes, because that’s where he draws a lot of identity and inspiration from, not just "Oh, I’m from this nation that isn’t the First World…guess I’m all about that."

This is what brings me to the Atlas of Earth-Prime series for Mutants & Masterminds. One of the things I’ve been really happy with is that pretty much even without us talking about it, all the folks who have contributed to this new PDF series has had the similar thoughts. Namely, "Well yeah, I mean I want some of the expected types and I want them to be cool, but I’m also going to make sure there’s plenty of masked detectives, mutant speedsters, and other more broadly seen supers out there." Which is great, really. I can’t say how amused I was that "but everyone is so polite, eh?" Canada’s premier supers team are basically foul-mouthed dirty fighting super-hooligans.

I never want to lose the Black Panthers, Rocket Reds, and such, but as supers pop culture expands across the world with films, comics, TV, and games, they shouldn’t be the only superheroes and villains we see from the rest of the world. It’s time to fill out the rest of the world with heroes of all types, which is something the Atlas of Earth-Prime is setting out to help with. It can’t do it alone, but I like to think it’s a noteworthy effort nonetheless.