Avid readers know how book can be an incredible form of escapism where almost anything is possible and you never quite know what’s going to happen next. This is especially true when we look at graphic novel and comic book collections. Comic books, especially, are cram-packed with character tropes… but it’s interesting to see just how much crossover (or not) there is with genre fiction!
What are Character Tropes?
A ‘trope’ is a common motif in a specified niche of work or art. So a Character Trope refers to common attributes that are found across a wide spread of certain characters. Each body or niche of work has its own set of character tropes (and plot tropes, and name-tropes and…(etc))
Sometimes we love these character tropes, as they offer a sense of comfort and stability. Sometimes they’re overplayed and, frankly, annoying. Love them or hate them, here are ten common tropes that transcend genre media, which readers of both novels and comics will recognise.
1. The ‘I Used to Be Normal’ Origin Story
Every superhero has a beginning. In the world of comics, this is called the “origin story” and it’s normally dramatic or explosive. The origin defines the character and often drives their behaviour. Sometimes, superheroes come about as the result of a genetic mutation; sometimes, characters have accidents involving mysterious chemicals. Sometimes they become superheroes thanks to magic. The origin is arguably the most important and compelling factor of any superhero story, and no comic would be complete without it.
In Paranormal and Fantasy Fiction, however, the protagonist often already has the power… but either doesn’t know about it or can’t use it until an inciting incident happens (usually the result of age as in The Old Ways, strong emotions as in Shattered Echo, or by unlocking a secret).
2. The Secret Identity
The idea of a masked hero is so deeply ingrained into popular culture that we can’t escape it. Hiding behind a secret identity emboldens the superhero, allowing them to fight crime without having to worry so much about the repercussions on their loved ones. Bruce Wayne has Batman; Peter Parker has Spider-Man and Superman has Clark Kent.
3. Having a Tragic Backstory
Often, a superhero is driven by a terrible and tragic backstory, usually involving the death of a loved one. Many writers believe that characters need something earth-shattering, meaningful, and dramatic to make them want to seek vengeance, fight evil and restore justice. This particular trope is one of the most eye-rolling, especially when it overlaps with the fridged girlfriend trope.
4. The Antihero
We all know the antihero — the character without all the usual good qualities you expect of a hero, but who is still the protagonist. Despite their many flaws, we root for them. While they aren’t idealists or even necessarily moral, they are complex and compelling enough to keep us hooked. They have their way at doling out justice, and it works — most of the time.
In the world of comics, the antihero didn’t become really popular until the 1970s, but since then, they have arguably become even more popular than the traditional superhero. Great examples include Deadpool, Wolverine and Catwoman.
The Fantasy and Sci-Fi genres are also rife with anti-heroes. From the reluctant Teltö in Wise Phuul to the deeply flawed Agent Pilakin in Under the Shell, depending on the circumstances these individuals can be even more relatable than their super-good-and-pure counterparts.
5. The Sidekick
The sidekick helps to keep the hero grounded while offering a feeling of constant support. They’re also there to continue the fight when the hero can’t. They don’t even have to be as obvious in their role as Robin is to Batman. Even Captain America has a sidekick in Bucky.
Sidekicks are often seen as more interesting than the protagonists themselves, usually because the readers don’t get quite as much insight into how they tick. Sometimes, they even take on a life of their own – Jarka from The Wind Reader now has his own story to tell in The Wysman, and Bayer continues the tale of Eeres in Fracture.
6. Good vs Evil
Of course, the fight between good and evil is one comic book trope you can never escape. Almost every hero has an archnemesis — look at the Joker, Lex Luthor or Magneto. These larger-than-life villains give the hero a reason to keep fighting.
7. Good vs Good
What’s less well known is the good vs good trope — but it definitely exists in comics. Look at the Marvel “Civil War” comics or the ongoing feud between Superman and Batman. It’s a good reminder that even in comics, the world isn’t black and white. There are shades of grey that give our heroes the platform to collide.
In Eighteen Lives, the character of Death may not be all he seems at first, and for Danny Parque in We Bleed The Same, both sides are awash with moral grayness. These nuances serve as a reminded that very little in life can be condensed to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, and digging through the implications to make up our own minds as readers is what keeps pulling us back to this trope.
8. Being Very, Very Rich
This is a trope we’ve seen again and again. It might even come across as lazy — heroes like Batman and Iron Man have so much money they don’t need to worry about how they will afford their cool new crime-fighting gadgets. Continually fighting forces of evil is so much easier to do full-time when you have a bank account that’s groaning under the weight of your impressive fortune.
9. Villains with Medical Degrees
This is an interesting one. Have you noticed the abundance of supervillains in comic books with doctorates? We don’t know whether they have earned these degrees legitimately or if they’re masquerading (additional note – who on earth are they trying to impress!?) but what we do know is having the word “Doctor” in front of your name is a game-changer in the villain world. We only need to look at Doctor Doom, Doctor Polaris, Doctor Octopus, Doctor Destiny and, of course, Doctor Death to see this trope holds water.
… we’re looking at you, Professor Loosestrife!
10. The Resurrection
Death is meaningful enough to inspire heroes to become superheroes, but in many cases, death means nothing in comic books. We know this because some heroes, despite everything, keep coming back after they have died. So death isn’t always the end for heroes. Not that we’re complaining — there’s certainly something exciting and rewarding about a hero who even death can’t defeat.
It’s even more interesting when baked into the whole arc of the story rather than as a way of bringing back a character just because they’re popular. Heather Kütz has had… well… Eighteen Lives, and she’s officially done with Death’s nonsense.
About the Co-Author: Brent Moeshlin is a comic book guru and owner of Quality Comix, the number one buyer and seller of vintage comic books online.