I now call this meeting of the Terrifying, Villainous, and Truly Reviled Order of Persons Evil and Super to order! I'm sure you all know the reason we are here... The Allies of Order have bested us once again! But Fear not! I, Marcus Murderous, The leader of T,V,T.R.O.P.E.S., have formulated the most diabolical plan yet! We shall write Super Hero stories ourselves, thereby gaining power over our hated foes, the Vanguard of Virtue!
In one way or another, we've enjoyed stories about superheroes for centuries; tales about men and women blessed with extraordinary powers and abilities using those gifts to champion the innocent and battle the forces of darkness have circulated throughout mythology and literature since ancient times. However, the idea of what we today think of as the superhero has its origins in the pulp magazines and comic strips of the 1930s, and its genesis with the 1938 debut of Superman, who over seventy years later remains in regular publication as a comic book as well as the subject of cartoons, films, television shows and more besides. Since then, armies of superheroes and supervillains have been created in the pages of comic books (where they dominate and practically define the medium) and on the big and small screens, and they show no sign of disappearing any time soon.
If you want to write a superhero comic book (or a superhero story for any medium), these pointers will show you what the common themes, advantages and pitfalls these characters present. Naturally, do check out Write a Story for advice and tropes that hold across genres as well. See also Be the Next Stan Lee for specific advice on how to follow in the footsteps of one of superhero comics' most noted figureheads.
Well, for superheroes, you generally need superpowers — although of course Batman got around without them. But then, some might say that his Crazy-Prepared abilities, superhuman level of easily accessible monetary wealth, and alleged company favouritism are superpowers in and of themselves....
Superheroes also generally require the Secret Identity - a public superhero identity and a private civilian identity. This is not uniform, however, and there's many superheroes who only have one (and even for those who have both, sometimes it's the civilian identity that's the mask, and the Superhero form is the real "them")note .
Costumes and code names are also iconic for the genre.
What sort of powers do you characters have? Are they active all the time, or is there a sort of on/off switch between their regular persona and their hero persona, with only the hero one superpowered? And where do these powers come from? Magic is certainly a possibility, but may turn away a good chunk of your audience for various reasons (religion, sci-fi leanings, etc.). X-Men managed to Hand Wave it as science, letting us get past the initial hurdle of why they had powers (let alone how the powers managed to work... Seriously, genetic ability to control the wind!? Enlighten us, O wise one; how the hell does that work?) and just move on to the storytelling.
What is the scope of your hero's powers? Superman, for example, is your typical hero-god type, who seems to have it all. Then you have your human hero, your Batman, Captain America, Hawkeye, etc. In between the hero-god type and the human hero are a wide variety of options. You could have your power specialist, like The Flash or The Hulk, or your all purpose type who is not exactly a powerhouse in and of himself, but is able to make a wide variety of powerful things happen, like Doctor Strange and his spells, or Green Lantern and his ring.
And how many people have powers? If it's more than one, there's the question of whether they have the same powers, or similar ones, or wildly differing ones. Whether they have a common origin is another question; too many ways to produce a super may make your world seem random, but too few limits your scope (and can also push your story closer to Fantasy or Science Fiction, depending on the origins). If there's a wide variety of power levels, that will produce one sort of world; if all superpowered characters are more or less equal, that will produce a very different one.
And how are the powers distributed? At random? If not at random, the criterion will have a big influence on what sort of people are chosen, though that can range from nearly random (everyone at a specific location, though some locations will have more variety than others) to selective (anyone whom the Mad Scientist thinks safe to abduct and operate on) to highly limited (The Order carefully selects candidates using magical tests). Is there an age limit? Do babies develop powers, or adults? Or the ever popular adolescent?
Furthermore, are you going to deconstruct the genre a little - show what those powers would really be like? If you get hit with a fireball, does your body react like you've been actually set on fire, or does the story stick with over-the-top antics in which a fireball is a mere inconvenience? To what extent can characters get hurt, bloody, dirty - and how long does it take to heal from injury?
Also consider the nature of the character; is your superhero going to be The Cape, the traditional upstanding and noble ideal of a superhero, or are you going with a more cynical Anti-Hero? Be warned, however, that if you go down the latter route, you can end up running into the highly discredited '90s Anti-Hero.
How willing is your superhero to kill? Are they completely against it no matter what, preferring to turn villains in to the proper authorities once defeated (Batman, Superman); do they only resort to killing if the situation absolutely calls for it (Wonder Woman, Daredevil), or is killing the primary way that they deal with villains (Punisher, Wolverine at his worst)?
Is there any kind of Super Registration Act in effect? How do the heroes feel about it, or the prospect if it happen? While American superheroes have traditionally been individualists opposed to any kind of government regulation, this article points out that in Japanese superhero series such as One Punch Man and My Hero Academia, superheroes seem to be in agreement that they should be regulated and anyone opposed to that is crazy.
Your characters need to have personalities. They have to be people, instead of merely a reason to show off whatever powers you cook up for them. And they need to interact in a realistic way.
Also, everyone is sick of "teams" who fight each other more than they fight the enemy. Stop doing that.
Oh, and don't forget weaknesses. Only one superhero ever got away with being the best at everything, and even then he had trouble with the writing. Also, when looking at weaknesses, you don't automatically have to go with a Kryptonite Factor. Many characters do well with a Logical Weakness or, as mentioned below, the lack of a Required Secondary Power note . And many superheroes, though possessing powers, are of a low enough tier or possess obvious enough weaknesses that they don't need special weaknesses. The barely superhuman Captain America is an obvious example, but even powerful characters like Storm, who can call lightning down on you but will still fall to a gunshot, don't need special weaknesses.
When dealing with female super-characters specifically, many (particularly male) writers and artists also fall into the trap of granting super-women the Most Common Super Power, to at times absurd degrees; try and watch out for this. Superhero stories by their nature generally provide highly-idealised versions of both the male and female physique, to be fair, but there's no shortage of overly-busty superwomen out there, and showing a few different physique types (both male and female) couldn't hurt. Similarly, plenty of superheroes have costumes that could be best described as Stripperiffic — consider the practicality of the costume as well as the character's appearance in it. Furthermore, don't you dare make female super-characters disposable such as killing them off merely to motivate the male characters; not only does having them Stuffed into the Fridge like this frequently come off as sexist and misogynistic, it is also incredibly insulting to the fans of said female super-characters (as well as female comic fans in general), and they will not stand for it.
The modern superhero universes (Marvel and DC especially) tend to suffer a lot of Continuity Snarls as a result of the long-lasting continuities of many different characters (most of whom were created by different people with different objectives in mind, but have been acquired as properties by a select group of owners over time) being forced together. Comic book fans tend to demand that continuity is kept straight and clear, so that's something to keep in mind. However, try to avoid Pandering to the Base too much; too much obsession with continuity and backwards-gazing can cause Continuity Lock-Out if you're not careful, which tends to drive away new readers.
As discussed below, an increasing tendency has been to examine the Darker and Edgier aspects of the superhero mythos. Whilst it's a valid approach to take, do not make the mistake of assuming that it's automatically more interesting or original than the more traditional approach to the superhero; an entire period of superhero comics is called the Dark Age precisely because almost every superhero comic being published had to be Darker and Edgier, so a lot of it's been done before. And not necessarily that well; with superhero comics, it's quite easy when shooting for 'adult and mature' to end up in 'adolescent and immature' instead. Violence, sex and cursing aren't automatically more grown-up or interesting than the alternatives, so keep this in mind. Also consider that some characters are more suited to being made darker than others; what works for Batman might not necessarily work for Superman. And keep in mind that it doesn't hurt to add a little idealism into a Darker and Edgier trope and not make it grim dark for the sake of it or else it could risk having your story reach Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy levels.
There used to be a time when Death Is Cheap was a daring approach but over time its constant use has made it a punchline to todays comic fanbase. Even character death has been handled as nothing more than a cheap gimmick to boost sales rather than a captivating story plot point.
Superpowers featured in comic books tend to be grand, idealized and desirable - super-strength, for instance, or flight. A possible subversion is to grant your character powers that, on the face of it, do not seem particularly useful, and then explore how they can nevertheless use them within superhero situations. Removing Required Secondary Powers also can add new spice to old cliched power sets — imagine The Flash unable to slow down, or Superman actually having to follow the laws of physics.
Another subversion would be to focus on non-heroic characters. For example, a comic about the trials of a sidekick, or a Villain Protagonist — the webcomic Narbonic did both (at the same time!) to great success. Changing the focus from Heroes to Heroes-in-Training, such as in the webfiction Whateley Academy and the webcomic PS238, is also an option. Or even a character who isn't a hero or a villain at all, but just happens to live in a world with them (like Kurt Busiek and Alex Ross' Marvels); how might the Innocent Bystander feel about living in a world of superheroes?
Or even a superpowered person who chooses a job having nothing to do with crime, fighting or committing. Though that will mean very atypical plots, unless you focus on people trying to coerce him into one or the other.
To those who are tire of the Death Is Cheap approach that the superhero genre usually gets then why not have it that Death Is NOT Cheap? Not just for the villain but for the hero as well. To really make it that nobody is safe why not take a daring method by killing off your title character just to drive the point home. Especially to showcase that Plot Armor is futile. Just make sure that you have other interesting characters to replace the main character and not have your story become too grimdark in the process. As the old saying goes: "There's always darkness before dawn".
Try averting the Status Quo Is God trope by having characters actually age. Maybe showcase how the world will actually change now that you have super beings in it. Also, the older a super hero gets, the greater possibility that the hero's reflexes might not be as sharp as they once were.
Suggested Themes and Aesops
Comes Great Responsibility is one of the biggest themes of a lot of superhero works. Just having extraordinary powers is not enough, as there are many people who would use such powers for less-than-heroic things. What makes a superhero is the decision to use such powers to help other people, not for mere personal gain. One of the best ways to show this is to pit your hero not against a villain with powers opposite to those of the hero (though that villain can still be a valuable addition to the hero's Rogues Gallery), but against an Evil Counterpart — a villain with the same powers as the hero, and who may have even had the same thing happen to him in his origin story, but who chooses to use said powers for evil.
All of the Other Reindeer is also a common theme in superhero stories, especially in modern works; many such stories tend to have the superhero regarded with suspicion, fear and even contempt by the populace at large - you may wish to explore the reasons why this might be (jealousy, inadequacy, fear, etc). A common set-up here is to have a Villain with Good Publicity/Hero with Bad Publicity dynamic, where the villain is popular and well-respected despite their (usually well-hidden) corruption, and the hero is treated with suspicion and fear despite their good works.
In recent years, it has become common to present a more cynical take on the superhero, reversing the traditional Comes Great Responsibility image of the hero to present the opposite; selfish, reckless, irresponsible and egotistical "heroes" who are only considered heroes because they are, on the surface at least, on the side of law and order. See '90s Anti-Hero Alternatively, the hero might be just as well-meaning as the traditional hero, but despite their best efforts usually ends up doing more harm than good. They may also be presented as government, military or corporate stooges who aim only to keep a repressive status quo in place, and have no particular interest in whether the innocent live or die as long as the goals of their organization are met. Any of these can lead to a Beware the Superman situation where the world is actually worse, not better, for having superhumans around; the villains would be bad enough, but the heroes are in many cases just as bad. Keep in mind however that this theme, whilst initially a subversion of Comes Great Responsibility, has been used a lot since the mid-eighties (so much so that the proliferation of these types of stories in the mid-eighties and nineties was common enough to see that era named the Dark Age), and so isn't necessarily fresh or original by itself; a fresh spin on it couldn't hurt.
Lots of superheroes end up with power-based motifs: flames, ice, birds, plants, the sun, what have you. You can also have a motif to go with your theme; for example, in Watchmen, in keeping with the deconstruction theme the motifs of the various superheroes are often subtly based around their various neuroses; for example, the Comedian is a sociopathic nihilist who believes everything's just a bitter joke.
Suggested PlotsMost superhero stories are reactive by nature - the hero is called to action or spurred into action by a villainous threat or some other danger to either themselves or those around them that requires their attention. Some villains are personal, small-scale threats, while others like to think bigger, their Evil Plans threatening entire cities, if not entire worlds and beyond. Some stories don't have villains, and generally involve the hero doing a good turn for the community, such as pitching in with their powers to rescue people from a natural disaster, a major fire or some other threat. Such stories are a good way to show that your hero isn't all about bashing the crap out of bad guys.
You have the option to make the powers the basis of most of your plots, or even specifically The Plot, but it's better to include character-based plots as well. Still, it makes sense for your characters to grow into their powers or have to learn how to make their powers work. For a character with complicated powers, the story line can include not only character growth, but developments as the character learns new ways to use his or her powers. Even for a character with simple powers, like the Flying Brick, learning to use those powers carefully can take time and stories.
And the loss of powers is nearly always traumatic, dramatic, and everything you want to milk to the last drop. Don't overlook the potential for some good power-cancelling objects (or forces, or characters) in your universe.
The secret identity issue can be effectively used in a scenario where the hero is placed into a situation which would be easily solved were they in their superhero persona, but because they are currently in their civilian persona presents the challenge of ensuring that a satisfactory resolution to events can still be achieved without compromising their secret identity.
Also, a major asset to superhero fantasy is subgenre flexibility; most superhero characters can be put into any subgenre setting and make it work. This arose over the decades with writers, who needed to make the monthly deadlines, have put superheroes in a wide variety of fantasy/science fiction tropes so often that you'd expect them to work. For instance, name another fantasy genre that can shift settings and dramatic tones so completely from story to story that reader would accept. For instance, one publishing year period for the classic 1980s New Teen Titans comic book series by Marv Wolfman and George Perez had the team fight a supervillain's cult, then go off into outer space for a Space Opera story, and then return for a gritty, and relatively down to earth, Film Noir story about runaways, without having to justify the change.
Set Designer / Location Scout
Traditionally, superhero comics are set in the modern city. While this affords many classic possibilities, if you want to do something different, consider playing with the timeframe or the population density. How many superheroes are found in suburbia, or protect the wide fields surrounding a farming village? There have been a few superheroes spotted 20 Minutes into the Future as well as a few further out still, but rarely many modern-style superheroes in places inspired by times prior to the 20th Century.
Actually, the more powers you have, the less useful actual weapons become... depending of course on the type of powers the characters have. Why use a gun when you can shoot fire from your fingertips? In this regard, you get more leeway when dealing with stuff marketed at kids, because while a gun is "teaching kids imitable violence," fireballs are, well, not exactly something they can emulate. As far as we can tell, at least.
Spandex, Latex, or Leather? Spandex has been done to death; so have tights and body suits. Do you want to go with Civvie Spandex, for a mixture, or maybe even dump the body suit altogether? Are you going to go for actual crunchy armor, sentai-style? Is this a form of Powered Armor? Is it going to be futuristic, or is it going to be old-school metal armor? The Mighty Thor wore the latter. The choices really depend on the flavor of both the character and the setting — Batgirl wearing Magical Girl Warrior Frills of Justice would just be weird.
One potential use for heroic costumes, beyond maintaining a separate identity, is the same as the reason that soldiers wear uniforms: to say "shoot me - and not that civilian over there". This may be a useful factor, depending on whether there's any sort of honor code among the villains, or even as a psychological game of sorts ("I'm shiny, I'm a bull's-eye, you'll shoot in my direction even if you don't care about harming civilians").
The costume could also be functional instead of just hiding one's identity and making them recognizable. The costume could be bulletproof, fireproof, or be resistant to any number of other things. A cape could also have these properties, ideal for protecting innocent civilians with it. Costume qualities really depend on the hero: dark and stealthy for the ninja prowler or ultra-resilient for the big brawler. If the costume is a suit of Powered Armor, there are a number of armaments and upgrades the character could get for it. The costume could also be a Clingy Costume, made up of anything from liquid metal to an alien symbiote; a Clingy Costume might also be useful if it protects others from the effects of the hero's powers. Civvie Spandex, especially a Coat, Hat, Mask deal, is ideal if the hero wants to be able to blend in a crowd, slipping away after removing anything identifying them as a superhero.
Regarding superheroines especially, try and avoid making their costumes overly Stripperiffic; consider practicality as well as showing off the superperson's good looks and excellent physique. If you wanna do this, make sure you aim for equal-opportunity fanservice — try adding in a male Walking Shirtless Scene or two for every female gogo-fighter.
There is also the classic Not Wearing Tights trope for someone who is wanting to write a more modern approach to the superhero genre and not have their heroes fight in a Clingy Costume. Which could work if your superhero setting is based in an Alternate Universe with real people in the real world with super powers added to it.
This is where the superhero comics shine: big battles with Big Bads. Don't skimp on the punches, the kicks, the throws, the arm bars and whatever else you can think up. If you're going to include some martial arts more sophisticated than the punch in the face, at least do a little research into martial arts so you can make the fight look good.
You'll have to decide the amount of property damage, though, and whether it has an effect on the heroes once the battle is over.
Casting Department: Supporting Cast
A hero needs a supporting cast, as well. Even if his parents are dead, an older mentor figure is often around (Ma and Pa Kent, Alfred, Aunt May...). Add a love interest, but make it filled with personality sparks and friction, nothing too smooth or easy. A hero's alter ego usually involves work — you get your boss (Thunderbolt Ross, Perry White, J. Jonah Jameson), and minor characters like Jimmy Olsen or Rick Jones that can be good foils for our hero.
And, of course, there's your Rogues Gallery...
Casting Department: Rogues Gallery
Nothing can sap a story's energy faster than a weak or boring antagonist. When you create a villain, you should always have a hero in mind, or at least match him/her up with the right one. Remember to stay in concept: Batman inhabits dark urban Gotham, Captain America must continue to face national threats and treat basic ethical dilemmas, while the Fantastic Four, essentially scientific explorers, face dimensional and intergalactic enemies. Here are a few villain types that seem to work well with any given character:
The Dark Half
Sounds generic, but it's a classical archetype — the grim doppelganger who shows the dark side of our hero, and showcases just what kind of evil his or her powers can be put to. This doesn't have to mean a literal Evil Twin, just some character who is extremely similar to our hero, only evil. Superman, for example, has Bizarro. Though he began as a comedic figure, Superman: The Animated Series showed how he can be Played for Drama: He has all of Superman's powers and memories, only twisted.
Spider-Man faced this kind of antagonist in the form of Venom and then Carnage. Hulk has an even better example in Maestro, a future incarnation of himself. And most of Batman's antagonists can be read as mild variations on himself, as if to show that a mere hair's breadth separates him from a villain like the Joker (which was Moore's point in The Killing Joke).
While the Dark Half resembles the hero a great deal, the Antithesis is the hero's opposite in some regard. What makes them opposite can be concept or scope, an exception to the "stay in concept" advice earlier. For example, who is Superman's foremost foe? Lex Luthor, a mere mortal. Luthor's savvy cunning contradicts Clark Kent's farmboy ethics, Luthor's worldly wealth, good publicity and dizzying array of technological terrors counters Superman's otherworldly might. And consider the Hulk again. What is Hulk's primary power? Strength. What is the antithesis of strength? Intelligence. Enter the Leader, someone who was also bombarded with Gamma Radiation. Sometimes the antithesis is even more straightforward - Captain America defends the United States and liberal-democratic values, so naturally a Nazi like Red Skull or a Fascist like Baron Zemo are decent archenemies. Sounds simplistic, but it's a way of challenging our hero's concept, of testing its mettle with a direct contradictory force.
The Epic Threat
Every hero ought to have one foe, team, organization, or even an entire planet that poses an epic, destroy-the-world threat. These are the big guns, the ones far above and beyond the average villain. The effect is to make the hero an underdog, someone who must risk it all and dare attempt the impossible to thwart something with disastrous effects for, potentially, the entire world.
Be wary when writing such a threat, though, for a couple of reasons. First, if you have too many epic threats, you dilute their meaning. They ought to be more rare than they've been in comics recently, and most certainly ought to come in more varieties than yet ANOTHER Alien Invasion. Secondly, there ought to be villains specific to this epic threat, not just an average enemy with high ambitions. Darkseid, for example, is inherently epic - whatever he does threatens the entire Earth. But what if the Joker decided to try and take over the planet? Forget it. Keep epic threats in the hands of epic characters. There are plenty to go around, too: Darkseid, Apocalypse, Thanos, Dark Phoenix, you name it. Even Batman, a normally street-level hero, has a relatively epic threat in the form of Ra's Al Ghul, someone who consistently schemes to wreak havoc on the planet.
Power, Concept, and Personality Specific Villains
Beyond the archenemies and long story-arc villains, it helps to have lower level foes, for those one-shot adventures or to mix it up and keep things lighter. The goal, however, remains to contrast something with our hero to define him better. One way to do this is to target one trait of our hero - a power, an aspect of his concept, or one of his personality traits - and build a villain to counter or challenge it.
Power Specific Enemies are the easiest and most common. If, for example, you have someone super strong like the Hulk, pitting other strongmen against him will only be interesting for so long. It helps to work off Hulk's weaknesses, or work around his powers to make strength less of an advantage for him. Hulk can't exactly connect a blow with Zzzax, for example, since he's pure electricity, and pitting him against someone ultra fast, who doesn't stand still long enough to get punched, throws someone like Hulk off. Similarly, Superman is extremely powerful, but that's why Parasite poses such a threat - he can take that power away, even use it against him. And let's not forget villains tied to Kryptonite Factors either — Colossus, for example, has a bad time whenever he's up against Magneto, while Metallo weaponizes Superman's weakness to Kryptonite.
Concept Specific Enemies are a bit more valuable, though. For example, Batman resides in an urban environment. His enemy Killer Croc represents the dark underbelly of the streets and sewer systems, the infamous crocodiles running around the drainage system which forms a well-known urban myth. Part of Hulk's concept is the fact he's an outcast, so a writer could emphasize that by pitting him against a Villain with Good Publicity. Superman benefits from enemies related to Krypton.
Personality Specific Enemies may seem even more rare, but can be the most useful of all and actually happen all the time. Again, contrast is the key; the beauty of Joker facing Batman is to see someone so light-hearted contrasting with the mirthless Dark Knight (not to mention the fact that the light-hearted mirthful clown is a psychopathic murderer while the grim, black-clad avenger is a hero. These personality traits can also challenge the hero to play a different game than they're used to. For example, what if you placed Green Lantern Kyle Rayner against someone older, wiser and no nonsense, countering his youthful creativity? How about Flash against someone ultra-patient, extremely careful and low-key? Spider-Man against someone completely cold, completely unaffected by his humor and taunts?
Another way to target these specific details is by exaggerating the trait - someone who's faster, more agile, and even more witty than Spider-Man would really keep Peter Parker in check. And, of course, you can combine any number of these detail specific elements and build a foe accordingly. The point is, the villain always ought to add something to the hero.
But everybody seems to love seeing some new, kick-ass villain step up to the plate and wreak irreparable havoc on a hero's life, like a Doomsday or a Bane. The question is, why do these foes stay on the backburner while classic foes like Lex Luthor, Joker and Green Goblin return again and again? Because the latter aren't here-goes-everything, "let's throw caution to the wind!" destroyers. Like the heroes they fight, they too are complex characters with ambitions and schemes. Pitting heroes against these fly-by-night anarchist destroyers is cheap entertainment upon which comics with inferior writing (like early Image titles) rely too much. Let villains be part of the cast, steadier personalities with whom a reader can identify. Who knows? If they're interesting enough, they may, like Catwoman and Venom and The Punisher, be worth showcasing in their own title.
Casting Department: Superhero Teams
(see also: Write a Five-Man Band)
The best series about solo heroes usually include a lovable, interesting cast of supporting characters, but this can overly elevate the hero in their midst. Regardless of the fact that characters like Lois Lane are rather likable, for instance, at some point you'll probably get tired of Superman always being the one who saves Metropolis.
So that's one of the reasons to do a story with multiple heroes. Second, you get more bang for your buck - though individual characters get less attention, you get more explosive action for your money. But concerning character creation and development, readers get to see the heroes evolve in relation to other heroes around them, not merely their bosses or lovers or family members. After all, heroes share the same status when they're together, leveling the field so they can work with (or against) each other in a more balanced manner. Team situations further lead to issues of cooperation, trust (do you let your teammates know your secret identity?) and personality compatibility that all play on the epic scale of super-powered action dealing with larger-than-life threats.
Though the earliest superhero teams, like the Justice Society of America and the All Star Squadron were simply single heroes assembling together, newer groups have more interdependent team members who rely upon each other. The first great team in this sense has to be the Fantastic Four, which remains one of the deeper, more fascinating teams out there. First of all, have you noticed how rarely they've been separate from one another? There's a reason for this - they need each other to work. The most isolated character of the bunch is the Thing — who, sure enough, had his own title for many years, probably because his m.o. is the most self-contained: he must tragically cope with the physical deformity his great power has cursed him with, forever isolating him from humanity.
Add to the Thing's tragedy his perpetual affection for the Invisible Woman, wife of Mr. Fantastic; then take the Thing's long-standing friendship with Mr. Fantastic; then consider how the Invisible Woman and Human Torch are siblings. What wonderful interconnections! It makes for great stories of characters who do more than simply team up from time to time - they're friends and relatives of one another. Each character, in turn, bounces off the other three, helping each develop.
Since the Fantastic Four, there are two other groups that really defined an interconnected team. The first is Chris Claremont's X-Men. If one were to read Giant Size X-Men #1 in isolation, one could be forgiven for thinking it was a poor, gimmicky attempt to create some kind of international superhero team, but subsequent stories would prove that idea wrong. Wolverine's toughness was a real rarity back then, something that shocked yet excited readers when he was willing to kill opponents that threatened him. Ever since him, this anti-hero stock character has been recreated ad nauseam to such a point that entire teams sometimes seemed to be a bunch of whiskered Jerkasses who'd just quibble, show off, and light up a cigar afterwards.
The beauty of this X-Men team was how balanced Wolverine was by his teammates. Nightcrawler and Wolverine were best friends, for example, and Nightcrawler was, and continues to be, a real gem of a character. He's a gentle sould trapped in a frightening exterior, yet he accepts his state sadly but optimistically, with none of the "badass" resentment readers choked upon in later X-titles). Nightcrawler's debonair, swashbuckling romanticism was extremely appealing, just as was the clash of Colossus' youthful, artistic sensitivity with his super-strength and drive to fight enemies. The younger-still Kitty Pryde had a crush on him while she was trying to prove herself to the group, and Storm dealt with her love of nature that so sharply contrasted with the technology and violence of the team's opponents. And to balance all these guys were the X-Men staples of Professor X and Cyclops, the perpetual mentor and straight-arrow team leader.
On top of that, the characters' powers really complemented each other. Wolverine gives you the offense, with Cyclops and Storm able to do pretty awesome damage themselves. Colossus is both your staple strong-guy and the team's most potent defender. Nightcrawler is your covert operator, offering great transportation as well with his teleportation. Kitty Pryde is the fly in the ointment, the one who is almost impossible to capture, and Storm offers wonderful all-purpose power stunts that always come in handy. When you can balance characters and powers like this, you're ready to roll... and roll Claremont did with his great themes of mutant prejudice, and the cosmic adventure of the Phoenix Saga.
The other genre-defining team was DC's response to Claremont's X-Men - Marv Wolfman and George Perez's New Teen Titans. Once again, the basic premise sounds as cheesy as the X-Men's seemed - it's just a team of sidekicks and adolescent neophytes. And hey, there's a reason the Silver Age Teen Titans isn't generally regarded as one of DC's greatest books. But here, Wolfman makes a wonderful new team of his own that works due to great character creation and interaction. Dick Grayson as Robin, and eventually Nightwing (a change in name and costume that was badly needed) is Batman's estranged sidekick, still living in Batman's shadow and dealing with his drive to do too much. He's involved with Starfire, an alien beauty who is simultaneously socially naive and a trained warrior. Cyborg is best friends with Changeling, though they're almost complete opposites; a tough-minded, working-class hero befriending a young, obnoxious prankster. Raven is your angst-ridden heroine taking on others' pains, while Wally West is secretly infatuated with her. Even Kid Flash and Wonder Girl are treated wonderfully - both are more solid and experienced heroes, but cope with relationships and identity ("Who is Donna Troy?", for example, is a fabulous issue, showcasing her and Dick Grayson's deep friendship)
In the latter 90s, the idea of a team being an assembly of heroes rather than really interdependent got revived with Grant Morrison's JLA. Especially considering the themes of Kingdom Come, this team is more like a pantheon of gods than heroes who need each other, but that in itself is an interesting idea to explore, with Morrisson pitting them against huge, epic threats and having characters like the less-experienced Kyle Rayner self-reflect on the awe of being in such a force.
Regardless, many series have attempted to recreate the chemistry of these teams, some with more success than others. One of the biggest factors in some teams' flatness is their creators trying too hard to make the personalities clash too much, ether too extremely or too simplistically. The examples above all include heavy doses of friendship, comradely, even a few relationships - the tension they contain is balanced by cooperation. Hopefully, new teams to come our way will reflect complexity, depth, and the full range of human emotions (not just egotism, confrontation, and tension) that made classic superhero teams so spectacular.
Extra CreditCity Building: Say you don't want to have a series set in an already established city? Having it be set in a fictional city provides more creative freedom to build your own city lore with its quirky little residents. Astro City, is the comic to read if you need an example of how to do a comic based in a fictional city.
CreatorsMarvel and DC have spent decades doing a great job of holding our attention. Study them well.
In particular, the work of Stan Lee and his collaborators at Marvel, especially Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko, in the 1960s is widely credited for creating the ideas of superheroes (and villains) with more than one dimension, and for spearheading a lot of what we take for granted in modern superhero comics. Twenty years later, The New Teen Titans proved DC's earliest really successful emulation of style with a youth oriented style that proved so influential that DC decided to revise all of The DCU towards it in Crisis on Infinite Earths.
In the 1980s, the work of the great talents like Alan Moore, Frank Miller and John Byrne show how you can modernize the classic characters to make them feel like truly complete characters who are true to their times. Those ways are respectively, subtle tweaking (Swamp Thing), emphasis of a different tone (Batman), and wholesale revision (Superman).
FilmAlso study the X-Men movies, especially the second, fifth, and seventh. They did a great job of porting to a new media. The Dark Knight is also extremely well-regarded for a very dark Film Noir take on the genre. In addition, the classic Superman movies starring Christopher Reeve will show you how much masterful sincere acting can contribute to the genre's dramatic power. Also, the The Avengers is now a stand-out example of how to finely balance tone to have action, drama and humor in the genre while properly allotting screen time for each character so everyone gets to shine. Also, although it is not adapted from a comic book, The Incredibles is fantastic (what do you expect, it's Pixar!), and is a perfect example how to do a classic-style superhero story without being Campy. RoboCop (1987) is also a fine example of the Super Hero film as futuristic satire with a surprisingly undertone of humanity amid the ultra-violence.
Western AnimationSpeaking of new media, the DCAU as a whole is an excellent job of transporting comic book characters into Western Animation while The Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes! is the best example of how the Marvel characters get such treatment. In addition, Disney's Gargoyles, created by Greg Weisman, is a superb original creation that can show you how Shakespearean literature and medieval history can provide a wealth of material when use in conjunction with the conventions of the genre. Just remember to confine yourself to the first two seasons that were first-run syndication, avoid The Goliath Chronicles episodes and read Weisman's SLG comics that replaced them as canon.
Deconstruction and ReconstructionFor a great Deconstruction of the Superhero genre as a whole, there are none better than Watchmen, Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and Kingdom Come. However, remember that their dark tone is balanced with a degree of sober intelligence and a mature sense of redemption or tragedy at the end. Without that deeper feel, any superficial emulation will feel like a despicable despoilment of characters who deserve better.
But, if you do read the deconstruction, be sure to also read the Reconstruction to avoid setting your story in Darkness-Induced Audience Apathy territory. Astro City, Justice, and Marvels are good ones.
Much of the work of Rob Liefeld tends to be criticized as being representative of many of the faults of The Dark Age of Comic Books - poor art, ludicrously over-muscular and over-macho characters and dialogue, poor plotting and an overly-adolescent idea of 'maturity'. His work is often considered a good example of what to avoid.
Outside of comic books, the later movies in the original Superman and Batman movie franchises (particularly Superman IV: The Quest for Peace and Batman & Robin) are generally looked upon dimly, being considered over-campy, poorly-plotted and written and generally of low quality.
You may also want to avoid most of Jeph Loeb's later work, particularly The Ultimates 3, unless you have an obsession with death and/or women being eaten. His earlier work, in particular those that involve Batman, Tim Sale or both, are safe for consumption, however.
Also, beware Frank Miller's later works as well. The Dark Knight Strikes Again um... didn't quite live up to its predecessor and both All-Star Batman & Robin, the Boy Wonder and Holy Terror were poorly received as well.
Now, my minions! You have what you need, now go to the studios of DC and Marvel and take over the writing staff! Make Superman as weak as a baby! Make Batman afraid to leave his home! Force the X-Men to go back into hiding! Force Spider-Man to make a deal with Mephisto to undo everything that has been done since the Silver Age! (What do you mean, they already did that?)
Not so fast, Marcus Murderous!
Gasp! The Vanguard of Virtue! This... This Cannot Be!! T.V.T.R.O.P.E.S., Fight off the intruders!
(many bad puns and onomatopoeic sound effects later)
Curses, our plans have been foiled again! But you have not seen the last of Marcus Murderous! AHAHAHAHAHAHA! AHAHAHAHAHAHA!