You may have noticed the new menu item up top, for Fire & Clockwork Press. That’s the official name of my publishing imprint! All shiny and new. And as soon as I have a concrete release date for Love and Other Impossible Things, you guys will sure as hell know about it. VIVE LA BIBLIOTHEQUE!
Ludicrously powerful characters have been a standby in stories for as long as humankind has been able to tell stories. You cast back and find Gilgamesh all the way at the very start of things, as well as figures like Hercules/Heracles, Sun Wukong, and Cúchulainn, just to name a few. So it’s little wonder that we continue to tell stories of gloriously OP men and women to the modern day. Superman, for instance, is a natural continuation of this impulse, up to and including his weird proliferation of various “super” powers during the Silver Age.
In the present day, we have many examples of the same sort of character. Like Superman’s post-Silver Age incarnation, though, the modern instinct is to ensure that these superhumans remain relatable. They may be able to manipulate the forces of nature, but they must have their feet solidly on the ground.
At least, most of the time. Because it’s damned tricky to walk that fine line between what is essentially godhood and what is human. In the spirit of investigation, I’d like to offer up two examples of the modern-day ubermensch: one that is handled well, the other… Not so well.
Keep in mind that this means that there will be spoilers for the original Watchmen by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons (though in all honesty that came out in 1986 so I’m pretty sure the statute of limitations on spoilers has expired) as well as the anime The Irregular at Magic High School. Also keep in mind that I am not including any of the material from the Before Watchmen prequel series or from whatever the hell is happening in the DC comics universe right now as they attempt to merge Watchmen into mainstream continuity. Also, all information about Irregular at Magic High School is derived from the 26-episode anime run and not from the light novel.
So, to start:
Shiba Tatsuya is the protagonist of the light novel and anime The Irregular at Magic High School, which is basically about students attending a high-tech Japanese Hogwarts. He is a first-year student, starting the same year as Shiba Miyuki, his sister (though you wouldn’t know it to look at them). However, Miyuki is a Course 1 student (a “Bloom”) whereas Tatsuya is a Course 2 student (a “Weed”) who just barely made the cut to get in.
Sounds like a pretty standard shounen anime setup, right? Hot-blooded underperforming protagonist grits his teeth and manages to become the best despite all obstacles.
Except there’s one problem. Well, several, technically. The first is that Tatsuya isn’t hot-blooded. He’s retiring, emotionally stunted, and intellectually brilliant. Going into the series, he is already the true identity of the reclusive Taurus Silver, who designs and engineers high-end magic tech, and he’s able to read the pretty computer-generated lights created by magic users, which allows him to know which spell they’re casting before they even cast it. He’s also a wildly gifted martial artist and, as you can see, handsome in that tousled kind of way.
The biggest problem, though? Tatsuya is literally the strongest magic user at the school. It’s just that the only people who know are himself and Miyuki.
For reasons the anime doesn’t really get into, Tatsuya had his true magical potential locked down when he was younger, along with most of his emotions (as seems standard for this sort of thing). The only exceptions to both his magic and his emotions are Miyuki, for whom he can actually feel things (incest, wincest, etc.) and because she holds the key to allowing him to use his full magical potential, which you discover later in the series is enough to destroy the planet.
You know the Little Doctor from Ender’s Game? The weapon that causes a contiguous mass to degenerate and erupt in cosmic fire? Tatsuya can do that. With magic.
While all of this is pretty cool, there’s very little to balance it all out. It’s difficult to say “oh but he’s socially awkward” when your protagonist is still fawned over by all the ladies and can also set off an explosion a thousand times larger than the one that destroyed Nagasaki while also being rich and super smart. The only thing that would push him even further into Gary Stu territory would be if he had just a HUGE penis.
Which he probably does, in fanart. But I digress.
As you’ve probably gathered, Tatsuya is my not-so-great example of a superhuman from modern storytelling. He leans too far toward the uber end of things and doesn’t have nearly enough mensch to temper it. Which can be fine. The Showy Invincible Hero trope exists for that very reason, and I’m a big fan of it. But the Showy Invincible Hero is a staple of shounen-style anime, which we previously established Irregular is most certainly not. Catharsis doesn’t really happen for the audience when your hero annihilates their enemies with blase indifference, regardless of how impressive their method of choice might be, and suspense is impossible when you know that your hero can turn a drop of water into a nuke with his brain. That’s how you wind up with a Boring Invincible Hero.
Now, on the other hand, we have another superhuman who is also emotionally stunted but intellectually brilliant and all-powerful, but also manages to be compelling…
Formerly Dr. Jonathan Osterman before being deconstructed at the atomic level and rebuilding himself through sheer force of will, Doctor Manhattan is one of the central players in Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s superhero deconstruction Watchmen. While I’ve grown weary of a lot of Alan Moore’s bullshit over the years (there are recognizable patterns in his work re: rape-as-drama, which is lazy at best and disgusting at worst, as well as a penchant for the pretentious), Watchmen continues to be a favorite of mine.
A friend once described Doctor Manhattan’s power set as “God”, which is hardly inaccurate. He has absolute control over all matter and energy and exists simultaneously at all points along his personal timeline, so he is capable of seeing both the past and the future. He constructs a crystalline, clockwork palace from Martian dust at one point late in the story, and singlehandedly won the Vietnam War for the US. He’s the reason the US is entirely energy independent and why no other country on Earth even dreams of fucking with North America.
Which makes him even more absurdly overpowered than Tatsuya. And yet he manages to be one of the saddest and most human characters in the entire Watchmen saga. He is distressed by his slow, inevitable disconnection from humanity, and chained by his awareness of his future. Fate is a functional reality for him, and time is a track he rides along, parroting the words he is supposed to say at this moment to this person. When his view of his future is clouded by tachyon interference (a lovely bit of technobabble nonsense), he can be surprised by the realization that the probability of a thermodynamic miracle is mirrored by the probability of all the actions of all humans throughout history leading ultimately to any given person’s birth and existence.
Part of what helps set Doctor Manhattan apart from Shiba Tatsuya is that the main problem he encounters—the mystery of the mask killer—is not one that can be resolved by his godlike abilities. And his vision of the future, which would help, is deliberately clouded by the perpetrator. It’s impossible to solve a mystery with brute force (contrary to Rorschach’s opinion), which leaves Doctor Manhattan entirely passive for most of the story, at a loss. In point of fact, his role for a good 75% of the narrative is to have his chain jerked by the villain.
When he does act, however, he is decisive and unstoppable. This, at least, he has in common with Tatsuya.
Even if he does wear 100% less pants.
In the end, there appear to be two mitigating factors that ensure Doctor Manhattan isn’t a narrative wrecking ball that are absent for Shiba Tatsuya:
- Doctor Manhattan is in a story where his PHENOMENAL COSMIC POWERS and preternatural genius are of very little practical use. What effect they would have is stifled by the antagonist’s Batman-scale preparations, leaving Doc blind and ripe for manipulation. Tatsuya, on the other hand, is always three steps ahead of his opponents or already has them outgunned in the worst way possible because his talents are consistently applicable to the given situation.
- Absolute power is shown in Watchmen to, if not corrupt absolutely, alienate absolutely, which seems to be a natural extension. Upon surpassing humanity, how does one hold onto it? Doctor Manhattan’s slow drift into largely amoral godhood is the most poignant example of this, though Ozymandias is an excellent runner-up. Tatsuya, though, never appears to be at risk of entirely losing himself to his overwhelming power and intellect; for all intents and purposes, he’s a Completely Normal High School Guy. Except for the part where he can destroy planets and clearly wants to bang his sister.
SO, those are my thoughts on wildly overpowered protagonists in fiction. How about you lot? Got any other examples? Do you have beef with one or more of the points I made? LET ME KNOW IN THE COMMENTS.