Can Super-Humans Be Categorized?
Can Super-Humans Be Classified?
Comic book characters are a diverse lot. Some have near god-like powers while others rely on gadgets or simply extensive training.
Many, whether for games about these characters or for a shorthand description in fiction, like to pigeonhole them into categories. Can such a collection of bizarre characters be subdivided, or are there characters that simply defy classification?
If there are characters who cannot be easily categorized, are these a majority making any system useless, or are they a handful that can safely be called wild-cards in any system?
Probably the first group of super-humans categorized by anyone are those that are super-strong and often bulletproof. Commonly called “bricks” or “tanks,” these may be the first superheroes portrayed. The 1930s portrayal of Superman cast him clearly as a brick—able to leap great distances but not fly. Nor did he have many of the other powers that were later added to the character. Examples of pure bricks in modern portrayals include the Hulk and the Thing from Marvel comics. Even the weakest bricks in comics or comic-based stories can lift a car, and while their skin can't bounce bullets, they can stand up to being thrown around quite a bit more than most people. The strongest of them can knock planets out of orbit and withstand the heart of a star.
As bricks are to human strength and resilience, the speedster is to reaction-time and agility. Like bricks, there are a wide variety of power-levels portrayed in speedsters. DC comics’ Flash can actually run at or near the speed of light. The Beast from Marvel’s X-Men, on the other hand, has super-human acrobatic capability, but cannot outrun a car. Some characters are portrayed as having their speed and agility only usable in a tightly-focused way. The assassin Bullseye, for example, can turn anything into a deadly weapon but does not have the same speed and agility in other pursuits.
Some super-humans are portrayed as having abilities that make them living weapons. These blasters have innate destructive ranged abilities. Blasters might use flame, heat, lightning or the ever-popular “force beams” to deliver their attack. Many can also use their destructive ability in a defensive manner, surrounding themselves with an “aura” that destroys incoming bullets and damages other threats. The Human Torch is an obvious example of this. Some can also use their powers as a form of propulsion. Curiously, this propulsive aspect does not usually cause recoil problems when their abilities are used as an attack. Blasters like Cyclops, though, have neither defensive or propulsive uses for their power.
Some of the characters in stories about supers have no powers at all. Instead they use tools, often more technologically-sophisticated than what's available in the real world. These gadgets are their only means to get on an even footing with their super-powered cohorts. Some, like Batman, seem to have the ability to pull out whatever device the circumstances call for, in addition to a standard arsenal. Other techno-heroes, like Iron Man, put all their gear into a single suit of armor with fairly clearly-defined capabilities. There are also techno-heroes who center themselves around a specific weapon. Archers like Green Arrow or Hawkeye are perhaps best known for their high-tech Robin Hood persona, but they aren't the only ones. The Avengers’ Black Knight has used both his magical “Ebony Blade” and an advanced light-saber-like energy sword.
Then there are those whose powers are described as the result of years of martial arts training. Sometimes the abilities they exhibit are well beyond even the most wildly exaggerated stories of the prowess of martial artists. Iron Fist, for example, can punch through steel. Large groups of cannon fodder martial artists also provide a conveniently formidable foe for super-heroes to prove their prowess against. Both the League of Shadows in DC comics and the Hand in Marvel have served this purpose.
Many supers are portrayed as shifting from a powered to a normal form, as when the Hulk loses his temper or Torch flames on. Some supers, though, have the ability to transform themselves as a primary power. There appear to be two sorts of shape shifters. For one group, like Mistique, they can emulate another individual’s appearance, including clothing and built-in weapons, but without their capabilities or powers. The other group, typified by Beast Boy, undergoes a change that—although it might have limits—includes the capabilities and even super-powers of the target duplicated.
Depending on the limitations on the second group, they may be among the most powerful of all characters in comics. A shape-shifting duel between Warlock and the Impossible-Man once threatened to devastate Tokyo when they shifted into a Shogun robot and Godzilla, respectively. The city was only saved when Warlock's friends reminded him he could out transform his opponent by changing color as well as shape.
While power mimicking shape shifters may be among the strongest characters in terms of raw power, those with psychic abilities can be the strongest in more subtle ways. Many powers can be referred to as psychic that might better fit into another category. One who can telekinetically lift objects and divert attacks with their mind might best be described as a psionic brick. A super who can ignite fire with their mind could be clarified as a form of blaster. Telepathic or other extrasensory powers, however, can't generally be shifted into another category. Some of these might know an enemy’s moves ahead of time by seeing the future or reading minds. Others can actually control their enemies’ minds, alter memories, or mess with someone’s perceptions to get them to do what the psychic wants. Even the most physically imposing characters seem vulnerable to such manipulation.
Then there are characters who can do virtually anything, often through means of magic. Characters like Dr. Strange, Dr. Fate, or other mystics seem to be capable of anything. Some wizards might have limits of energy or location, but often storytellers use these limits more for dramatic effect than to restrict what the character actually does.
A close cousin to the wizard is the elemental, who seems able to do anything with a specific type of material. The X-Men provide several examples of this sort of character. Magneto can do virtually anything with metal or magnetic fields, Storm manipulates weather and Iceman can do almost anything with frozen water. Some elementals are portrayed as being able to create as well as control their material. Others, like Pyro, can control their element but rely on technology or natural sources to create it.
How Worthwhile Are the Categories?
While it is clear that there are many super-human characters from the comics that fit neatly into categories, others do not. Superman may have started as a simple brick in the 1930s, but in today's portrayal, he's a brick/speedster/blaster hybrid.
Not all hard-to-classify characters are a result of the kind of power amplification Superman has gone through over the years. Green Lantern’s ability to do virtually anything with green energy might classify him as a wizard, but his dependency on his ring and the power battery makes him a techno-hero too. As mentioned, Batman can pull out whatever gadget he needs, but he's also a formidable martial artist. Then there's Spiderman. His agility might classify him as a speedster, but his strength makes him a low-end brick. His web-shooters put him in the techno-hero category, and his ability to stick to walls is rare enough to warrant its own category.
The abilities of super-humans are as diverse as the imaginations of their creators. While fitting them into categories can be fun, no system can cover everything. Characters either end up spread across multiple categories or one must create separate categories for certain characters. Even when characters like the Hulk or Power Man fit neatly into the brick category, they have vastly differing capabilities.
So while classification systems provide a simple shorthand for describing a character’s capabilities to new members of their audience, the utility is often limited.
© 2014 T Richard Brown