Admittedly, terms like “capepunk” can be rather ridiculous at face value. In short, the idea is a take on superhumans and superheroes (no, not just ones that wear capes) that applies real-life problems such as the terror of the general populace, the psychological strain of the superhero and supervillain lifestyles, and more besides. At its core, the entire subgenre of capepunk is centered around a single, dual-faceted question: “Why do supers adopt that lifestyle, and is it worthwhile to do so at all?”
The “punk” aspect, taken from the likes of the far more popular cyberpunk genre and its type, designates a counterculture around the subject, a turn against the grain that pushes away from the establishment, an approach that can take the form of in-story critique and antagonistic authority figures or just be an extremely unconventional approach in general, but the former is more applicable in this case.
Stories in this vein exist all across comics, of course, and have developed directly into popular superhero films especially in the past decade or more in both live action (such as, but not limited to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the Dark Knight films, and the DC Extended Universe) and animation (such as The Incredibles films). However, rather than dwell on every property that does so, ranging from the deconstructive “Watchmen” to the reconstructive, groundbreaking approach pioneered in the exploits of Spider-Man since his inception, it seems best to instead delve into several key works that emphasize, even specialize in capepunk storytelling.
It is worth noting that between Man of Steel, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and The Boys, alongside the concluded Netflix Marvel shows like Jessica Jones, some people are likely very tired of the “dark and gritty” storytelling, especially in the first two. However, some fresh looks in on it, ones that are not quite so hopeless, are perhaps what the doctor ordered.
And so, examining the film Chronicle, the novels of The Reckoners trilogy, the video game series inFAMOUS, and the web serial novels Worm and Ward, it goes without saying that We Want Comics!
“A lion does not feel guilty when it kills a gazelle, right? You do not feel guilty when you squash a fly… and I think that means something.” – Andrew Detmer
Three teenaged boys, cousins Matthew “Matt” Garetty and Andrew Detmer along with their friend Steve Montgomery, find a crystal deep underground. Coming into contact with it results in them all developing extensive telekinetic abilities, from just moving things around with their minds, to flight, to psychically enhanced strength and durability.
Normally, this seems like it would be the start of a classic superhero journey, especially with social outcast Andrew getting powers not unlike Peter Parker’s social status. Unfortunately, Andrew’s isolation, combined with the physically abusive behavior of his father, result in him becoming an extremely unstable, albeit strong, superhuman gradually willing to lash out at the world, resulting in destruction all around Seattle that Matt is forced to stop after the death of Steve. Rather than focusing in on heroics, the film’s story concentrates in on the abuses that can lead to a terrifying outburst in this vein from very real, very relatable contexts, not unlike Stephen King’s Carrie.
Aside from deconstructing the classic Spider-Man story of power and responsibility on Andrew’s side and reconstructing it once more through the lens of Matt, the actual threats to the emergent superhumans are extremely low key, befitting a world at the very start of any knowledge regarding superhuman capabilities. Mundane police officers and street gangs are the only real physical threat to the telekinetic teenagers beside one another, helping to showcase how horrifying such an influence can be on the general populace if it suddenly emerged into the light.
Continued Adventures of Matt Garetty
One option is the development of Matt’s story as a hero. As he was last seen in Tibet, he has not yet grasped the nature of his powers. Using the time there to train himself or even hear more about the story behind the crystal that gave him his abilities would make for a pretty good miniseries on its own.Continued below
Furthermore, using such a framework could allow for the development of something of a greater supporting cast in Tibet, if the monastery there is actually occupied. While this kind of story would not push forward very much, it would still be a way to see more of the traumas and tribulations involved in the aftermath of Matt’s fateful decision near the end of the film itself.
The nature of the crystal that gave the boys their powers was only explained by the film’s screenwriter at Comikaze 2013, for a version of a sequel that would ultimately likely never happen due to other writers having been brought on instead. In essence, it was an underground life form called a “Massive Omnivorous Geodesic Organism (M.O.G.O.) that died before it could finish the process of turning the three boys into “drones” to collect protein for the endangered species, granting their powers in the process. He had planned for a trilogy in which another such M.O.G.O. had successfully converted an entire city, which could lead to its own rogues gallery for Matt in the process.
Who is to say that there was only one form of manifestation for “drones” and their powers? What are “drones” like? Is any surface military prepared to deal with this threat at all? When many people get the same powers as Matt, when that kind of physiology becomes the norm, what is a “superhero” anymore? Plenty of room for expansion for this kind of tale, especially as it was stated it would be darker in tone than the original film.
For the highly emotional writing involved in Chronicle, Dan Abnett or Peter Tomasi could do a good job on each of these stories. In terms of artwork, Szymon Kudranski’s pencils and Antonio Fabela’s artwork work together marvelously for the “through a video camera” nature of storytelling as well as the dirty, gritty story itself.
Sucker Punch Productions’s inFAMOUS
“Just because something isn’t normal doesn’t mean it needs to be fixed.” – Delsin Rowe
In this world, superhumans are known as “Conduits,” empowered by energy released by an object known as the Ray Sphere that activates their “Conduit gene,” making them similar to the likes of metahumans (DC Comics), Inhumans (Marvel Comics), and psiots (Valiant Entertainment). While a rare few take up the role of superhero, many others indulge in their powers to form street gangs and carve out territory.
While there were some elements of capepunk in inFAMOUS for the first two games starring Cole MacGrath, the genre really came into the fore with the second sequel, inFAMOUS: Second Son. Incessant Conduit-related gang activity and the annihilation of entire metropolitan areas across the east coast of the United States lead to the creation of a new federal agency known as the Department of Unified Protection, a.k.a. the D.U.P., along with the branding of all Conduits as “Bioterrorists” who need to be locked away, ostensibly for both their own protection and that of those around them.
The new protagonist, Delsin Rowe, is the epitome of a “punk,” lashing out against the system in small, relatively harmless ways such as vandalism until his powers bring him into direct conflict with the authorities on a far more dangerous level, being more of someone who just wants to “stick it to the Man” instead of an out-and-out superhero. Furthermore, other more down-to-earth elements are more prominent, such as drug use and worries about the families of both heroes and villains alike.
Continuing the Narrative
With the fall of the D.U.P., but not that of fear regarding Conduits, the narrative of inFAMOUS has plenty of room to evolve. Will the government response heighten and be more lethal, as Director Brooke Augustine fears? Will the reactions of the population of Seattle prompt a more evenhanded, level approach that integrates the worries of Conduits while also taking up the fight against the villainous ones? Going down the road of pure chaos as in Cole’s story or reinforced order in Delsin’s story just shows how one form of extremism or the other is too much, but perhaps something in between is a more balanced, newer conflict?
With the changing nature of the story, along with a need for a possible fresh face in general, the path forward can also allow for a new protagonist altogether. Changing tone provides for a different character to be best equipped for face it, one who would be different from all of the other three before him or her. Who would be best for the position? Hard to say, but if a new comic combines a newer Conduit with an equally new locale (as is the tradition at this point), there’s very few limits on what can be done.Continued below
Paper Trail: The Continuation
The story of Celia Penderghast was a loose end that was left incomplete at the end of the “Paper Trail” quest line. Developing into a Magneto-like assailant, the paper manipulator who also calls herself “Saisei” became a rogue agent of the D.U.P., active even after her former friend Director Brooke Augustine fell from grace. In her words, “Now I know that nobody can give you freedom… you have to take it.”
Combining the accidental influence of Delsin Rowe and her own experience with captivity, along with some homicidal impulses and the “follow the clues” nature of her quests, Celia could easily be a focus point for an investigator in the world of inFAMOUS. One option is a twofold narrative, following both her dangerous, at times murderous actions and the disturbed, but more heroic aims of an investigator, perhaps even one without any Conduit abilities whatsoever, in a kind of detective story as a scared non-Conduit attempts to arrest or otherwise take down Saisei before she can become too dangerous to the world at large.
As they have previous experience with the inFAMOUS franchise shown in their work on the “inFAMOUS” comic book miniseries for DC Comics, writer William Harms and illustrator/colorist Eric Nguyen could work together for another story. However, outside of them, another option is Tini Howard on the writing and Corin Howell on the artwork. Another possibility is the combined efforts of Gabriel Hardman’s illustrations and Jordan Boyd’s colors, for a look similar to “Green Lantern: Earth One,” which itself was similar in style to the comic book-like cutscenes at certain points in the game franchise. For the Paper Trail story, Gurihiru could do a particularly good job of mimicking the cartoonish artwork of Celia’s own manga she wrote out herself, and could be used or the story on the whole to add to the cognitive dissonance she may be experiencing.
Brandon Sanderson’s The Reckoners Trilogy
“Where there are villains, there will be heroes. Just wait. They will come.” – Blain Charleston
Here, superhumans are called “Epics,” empowered by the entity known as Calamity that appeared in the sky twelve years before the story’s start, granted both a slew of powers and a singular weakness each, though some are more vulnerable to mundane methods of killing than others. The Epics themselves tend to be seen as evil, whether just murderers or otherwise seeing themselves as above human. The reality is more complicated than any of that, with the empathy-removing tendencies often constrained to the use of powers, and able to be turned back to their (often) less murderous identities if avoiding using them for some time, or at least being influenced by their weakness.
In the intervening dozen years, the United States was thrown into chaos, becoming the “Fractured States.” The only real law is the Epics themselves and their enforcers, to whom they sometimes grant their power if possible. The overall effect is that along with being completely terrifying, the world created by the Epics is nearly completely unrecognizable. For example: Newcago, Chicago after it had been turned entirely into steel to the point of it being literally worth less than dirt; Babylon Restored (a.k.a. “Babilar”), Manhattan after it had been drowned, mostly below water with only the high rises above it; Ildithia, the levitating, constantly moving city of Atlanta after it had been transformed into salt; and the wrecked wastelands of what were once Portland, Houston, San Diego, and Albuquerque.
Enter the Reckoners, a group that hunts and kills Epics when possible using knowledge on them individually and a variety of underhanded tactics to make up for being (for the most part) not Epics themselves. The underdogs of the tale, they are nonetheless not entirely heroic, as they can fall prey to prejudice about even less violent Epics, though only in select circumstances.
Dawn of the Reckoners
In the second book of the series, Firefight, Reckoners founder Jonathan “Prof” Phaedrus mentions how he once tried to create a superhero team with some of his friends, namely Abigail “Regalia” Reed, Lincoln “Murkwood,” Amala, and the non-powered Dean Knghthawk. While starting out attempting to do some real good, the psychologically toxic nature of Epic powers drove Regalia, Murkwood, and Amala to villainy, with Prof eventually being the only one left, even forced to kill Amala.Continued below
This kind of story is perfect for a comic book. The slow degeneration of the team as it breaks apart, the loss of Prof’s hope and optimism, and ultimately his decision to create the anti-Epic Reckoners with Tia, his friend of many years all can be the basis of an intriguing miniseries at least, and would give added depth to Regalia as well as context to the talk about Murkwood and Amala.
Even after the final book of the trilogy, Calamity, with the majority of problems involving the psychological effects of the powers solved, Earth has been seriously impacted by the influence of the Epics, and as noted above, remains fundamentally broken. Happily ever after is not in the cards for these people, and a different series, even ongoing, would be a good way to showcase it all.
With many Epics returned to their senses, on top of some new ones emerging from the Reckoners themselves, not everyone is completely aware of the danger having passed, and quite a few people would likely still blame them for everything on account of the sheer magnitude of their influence. While the provisional government in Newcago is a nice thought, not everyone would be that well organized or understanding. The fact that some supervillains do exist, including one revealed to have been in control of himself the entire time in the closing moments of Calamity, would not help to keep people feeling secure.
As the populace of the world likely turns against Epics, the Reckoners would ironically be forced to balance things out, though keeping them off-panel would be the best option to moderate their implied effectiveness in this regard. Two protagonists would be the best option to acknowledge the fact of each side in the conflict having valid points; one from the ranks of the lower tier Epics, the other from those without any powers whatsoever. Unlike the Reckoners, who have worked with Epics before, this duo would probably have to be in conflict with one another instead, in order to show that they cannot always get along in spite of anyone’s optimism.
Added to this balancing act is the use of Epic-based technology, which hurts the living whose cells it utilizes but can still use those of the dead to “motivate” the associated response in the form of simulating powers. Due to the harm said technology causes to living Epics, there is the possibility of legal issues coming up around the use of said devices, giving rise to a likely black market of said items in spite of it being extremely dangerous for those manufacturing it.
For writing, Peter Tomasi, Al Ewing, and the combined efforts of Tini Howard and Ryan Cady could each do a good job of getting a feel for the hope and horror of the world. For the artwork, some possible options are Stjepan Sejic, Atilio Rojo, or Mike Perkins, with the latter having Paul Mounts on colors. For darker parts of the world, Elena Casagrande’s illustrations could work well with Nate Lovett’s colors to paradoxically blend gritty and smooth styles.
(Manga-Style Fan Cover by TaylorHebert.)
“Some of us wear the villain label with pride, because they want to rebel against the norms, because it’s a harder, more rewarding road to travel, or because being a ‘hero’ often means so very little. But few people really want to see themselves as being bad or evil, whatever label they wear. I’ve done things I regret, I’ve done things I’m proud of, and I’ve walked the roads in between. The sliding scale is a fantasy. There’s no simple answers.” – Taylor Hebert
While part of a world of parahumans and their more active “cape” individuals, the story of Worm and its sequel Ward focuses in on what drives a superhero or supervillain. On the surface, the answer may be very simple: one works toward order for all, the other toward satisfaction for oneself. However, the reality is very different, as there is a stark difference between the actions a cape takes, along with their legal status (both of which decide whether they fall under the umbrella of hero, villain, or morally gray rogue) and the reasons for a cape to do something. Heroes can be in the life for selfish or overly controlled reasons related to their public relations, as well as a means to be shielded from criticism for their own abuses of power, since, much like many other lifestyles, the most influential of people in the limelight are able to get away with the most behaviors. On the other hand, villains may be acting to protect the ones they love, though going through villainous actions such as robbery in the process. Heroes can be truly awful people, while villains can be beloved in their territory or at least far more capable of protecting it. This kind of gray morality is not a hard and fast rule, with some heroes being genuinely well-intentioned and some villains being so depraved that they can leave people with nightmares in-world and out, but the lack of binary options nonetheless acts as a recurring trend.Continued below
While Worm focuses on a villain, Ward moves over to a hero, taking place after the apocalyptic, multiversal event known as “Gold Morning.” As a result, it concentrates on the psychological and physical traumas involved in cape work by using others in the life as a support group as well as a team, along with a wider exploration of the extensive multiverse.
A key element of both stories is Wildbow’s concentration in on the brutality of superhero life, especially for those without invulnerability-related abilities. A heavy explosion can cause temporary deafness or a multiple-day concussion. Heroes and villains alike need to see doctors for their injuries. Use of relatively normal weaponry such as a pocketknife or a handgun is common, especially with capes who have powers that lack any direct offensive capability. Even the language is harsh, with no attempt to tone down swears, especially for teenagers. In all, it comes across as a gritty representation of what being involved in conflict with people like crazed killers who can annihilate massive areas would actually be like. Even the “weakest” powers can be absolutely essential and disturbing if used by someone with enough creativity, from control over various small pests to just being able to extend any blade in hand indefinitely and invisibly.
Most of the focus in the stories is on versions of the United States. However, other countries have their own capes, their own ways of dealing with it all. Europe in particular has a lot of room to expand, especially in the pre-Gold Morning life. From Germany to Switzerland to the United Kingdom, there isn’t a lot of activity that influences the primary plot, but enough to give a basic idea of how the life functions there, from multiple groups in several countries to the continental threat of the three women known as the “Three Blasphemies,” in addition to terrifying events that took place in Switzerland in particular.
Given all of that room, a comic could expand on what life is like for people, especially capes, in that area. Conflict with the Three Blasphemies is especially useful, as readers know little about them beyond their existence as a massive threat and possibly working for one government or another.
Furthermore, Europe allows for a wide swathe of cultures to intersect as fights can potentially cross international barriers, leading to increased issues that would still not directly affect the United States enough to interfere with the central story in the web serial novel.
The Parahuman Response Team, or P.R.T., is effectively a largely non-parahuman paramilitary organization arm to local law enforcement that acts to fight against cape villains, utilizing various means produced by parahuman engineers known as “tinkers.” Much like their sponsored hero counterparts, they sometimes focus more on looking good than being good, and are essentially held down to their reputations, and are more of a public relations organization than truly concerned with just helping people.
A series focused on this group would basically be “super cops,” or “super SWAT.” Better equipped than the average person, the P.R.T. uses numbered case files and intricate power classifications based on both the nature of any given ability and the requisite response to it. As such, a series involving them might also delve into a “scientific” approach, as well as difficulties in rationalizing the difference between actually helping people and being essentially mainly a propaganda wing in practice.
Note quite villainous, but also not entirely heroic, a series involving the P.R.T. and its “cape busting” procedures, or those of its successors in Ward, could prove very interesting indeed.
With the deaths of more than ten billion people across multiple universes over the course of five days in Gold Morning, nearly everyone who survived Gold Morning is likely to have some kind of trauma from it. From the destruction of the P.R.T. (see above) to the widespread absolution by the authorities, many normal people are likely to have developed hatred for capes, villains and heroes alike. Their ability to influence things may be limited, but the non-parahuman populace would still be likely to have more than a few people who want to strike back, seeing little means to punish people who they feel deserve it in spite of anything they did to save the multiverse.Continued below
Focusing in on people who may still have resources similar to or related to the then-defunct P.R.T., along with the aid of a tinker, this kind of story can grant additional concentration on the ways in which normal individuals were impacted in a way that might potentially be overlooked by the main Ward story.
For writing, in a perfect world Wildbow would write it himself, but another option is Kieron Gillen, Bryan Edward Hill, or Brian Wood. In terms of artwork, having a rough art style is key, and the combined efforts of Robert Carey and Dan Jackson would be perfect, as would Michael Lark and Santi Arcas, or the colors of Rain Beredo paired with the illustrations of either Trevor Hairsine or Denys Cowan. In cases with illusionists or otherwise the stealth-based “stranger” parahumans, Mitch Gerads would do a good job of showcasing the assaults on the senses in his own artwork. In some of the goriest work, Ryan Stegman and Frank Martin, Jr. could do a very good job as shown with their work on the “Venom” series, and Joe Bennett’s work alongside Paul Mounts, as shown in “Immortal Hulk,” likewise shows pure eldritch horror that could come of some of the nastier parahuman abilities.
Of course, hyper-realistic takes on superheroes do not fit everywhere, and can be overbearing. However, stories such as these show a lot of potential for expansion that can really help lessen (or at least modify) stigma against it as a whole.