Superhero Creation: Inspiration or Insanity?

Have you read the Book of Lies? Recently I did. I avoided it for a bit. A colleague recommended it, and I thought “Naah, it’s just some fat novel with embossed gold lettering (all a bit too Danielle Steel), but he kept pestering me, and finally I picked it up one weekend. It immediately grabbed my attention and sucked me right in, a novel hasn’t done that in ages (not one without pictures anyway.) It was wonderful and terrible. I loved being able to lose myself entirely in this book for a few days, but I hated that I really couldn’t do much else during that time. Definitely a double edged sword.

Did you know that the author of this Book of LiesBrad Meltzer – wrote comics? Apparently everyone does. I did not, because I can barely remember my own name most of the time, let alone who wrote what comics (even if I did enjoy those comics.) He does, and I’ve read some of them, and enjoyed them. So I must like his style… who knows? But this book had an idea that got me thinking about all sorts of things, and although I loved the main crux of it – the search for truth, for eternity, for some kind of lasting message from a higher power – that wasn’t what made me tingle inside. The thing that got my mind rolling was the exploration of why some writers take an event from their life and use it to inspire a foray into an entirely new universe.

What is it that enables someone to take the most basic events of their life and write something so outlandish that it’s no longer even slightly recognizable as inspired by reality? If I were asked to write a story, it’d probably be a very tedious recounting of my own mundane life. It never occurred to me that the strange and mysterious universes of the superhero world could stem from the building blocks of everyday life. But reading the Book of Lies, I suddenly saw that instead of taking a traumatic experience and turning it into a literary emotional dumping, it could have been a seed for the invention of something quite bizarre. Obviously the novel is fictional, and whether the events described in the Book of Lies are true or not, what excites me is the concept that a real life event could be the catalyst for something entirely unreal and even completely super.

Naturally, I understand that when Stan Lee created Spider-Man as a geeky kid, he might have been drawing on his own experiences, or those of his friends, but I never questioned where the idea to have him scale walls and shoot webbing came from. Did Lee (or someone he knows) need these skills, or wish they had them? What perfectly ordinary chain of events led to the conception of such an outlandish character? Of course the Hulk was never much of a mystery to me, perhaps because we all know people who cannot control their tempers, or have had that moment of “seeing red” and not being able to control our own for an instant. But to take this moment of out-of-control fury and use it as the inspiration for a monster that has become an archetype of anti-hero culture, what kind of mind makes this leap? What kind of environment fosters this kind of creativity?

I’ve begun to believe that pretty much everyone depicted in superhero comic books is a little mentally imbalanced. Good guys who put on costumes to jump around are easily as weird as bad guys who put on costumes to try and beat them. All that leaping and double-life stuff… it sounds a little weird in the context of our reality. So taking this overall insanity of the main characters as a vague supposition, what does it say about the people who write these stories of heroism and daring on a daily basis? And what of the original creators? When these people experience a life event that is traumatic or intense enough to influence their creative process, are they delving (even for a moment) into their own chaotic, illogical, insane brain? And if they are, do we all have this capacity of foraying into some nether world of strange connections and inspirations? Is this a place it is fun to live in, or is it confusing and upsetting? How much of a leap away from reality did William Mouton Marston have to make to think; “I like bondage, and bondage is a great way to get guys to relax, I think I’ll invent Wonder Woman.” To Marston, did this seem like a perfectly rational step? Or did he, even for a moment, stop to consider that this was a pretty big mental leap from the private proclivities to a world of publicly consumed fiction?

What’s important to me here is not how much of a leap that connection is for the creators and writers of these characters, but how much of a leap from reality it is for the readers, for us as we enjoy the fruits of their labors. When we consume stories of daring adventure, do we feel transported, lifted from our mundane lives into a universe that is filled with possibilities? By opening the door to their own dream-state minds, have we been offered a glimpse of something more exciting by these writers? It’s entirely likely that the connection, the original inspiration for these outlandish concepts is what has kept us tethered to these stories. After all, if these garishly clad heroes weren’t rooted in our reality in some way, would we truly connect to them, would these classic heroes have become such an integral part of our culture?

It ended well, by the way… the book by Brad Meltzer. Better than a novel has in a long time, for me anyway. I tend to rush good books, and I nearly always regret it, since they nearly always end with a whimper, and generally just peter out to no great effect. But Meltzer kept me going, so that even in my rush to consume his book, and shove it whole into my brain in a matter of days, it still managed to end with gravitas and dignity. It reminded me that I love to write, I love to read, and I do love a good story. What more could you ask of a book?

Sonia Harris reads, writes, and designs things. Originally from London, she’s lived in San Francisco for just over a third of her life (how did that happen?) You can email her your thoughts on the fine line between insanity and inspiration at


  1. Now I wanna read Book of Lies. *sigh* I need more time in the day. I was not aware that chaining up an amazon would make them powerless. Warning to the ladies – if you dress as Wonder Woman at a con this year, I may try and chain you up. Just putting that out there.

  2. Another great article Sonia.  You regularly have the most thought provoking pieces on the site.  Keep up the good work.

  3. Paul Montgomery (@fuzzytypewriter) says:

    I really wanted to like Book of Lies. It’s a really interesting concept. But in all honesty, I was very disappointed with the writing. Never ended up finishing it. That said, I loved Meltzer’s Identity Crisis. My gateway into the DCU. 

  4. @CHUNK yikes?

  5. Great article Sonia.

    In my opinion, the best writers do not mirror their life experience on paper, but rather represent it in an abstract or an unrecognizable story. There are good examples for mirroring life, but I tend to enjoy the astract representation in all mediums (books, comedy, etc.). 



  6. @vadamowens Hey, at least I warned ’em! 😉 

  7. Very interestin article, good job Sonia! 

    I always remember the DVD extras for Spider-man where Stan Lee gives a pretty generic answer for how he thought of the character and have thought "there has to be more to it than that.  There has to be!"

  8. This is an extremely interesting idea.  I write myself, and use experiences and snippets of conversation to inform my writing.  I think most of it is that cathartic release we maybe didn’t get from any type of experience.  I was attacked a few months ago in front of my children, and got knocked out.  That experience made me feel weak, inaffective, and de-masculated.  I hung on those feelings for a few days.  Later, I started writing what would become a hard-boiled revenge story. 

    I also think, for me anyway, I always ruminate and retread personal interactions or conversations I overhear and interject a bit of fiction, and then just let everything kind of unfold on its own.

    Again, very fascinating, and great article!

  9. Insanity = Inspiration

  10. I really like Brad Meltzer as an author. I’ve read several of his novels, and they’re all quite good.

  11. The ending of Blackest Night #1 would’ve had no effectif it wasn’t for Identity Crisis. Just Sayin’

  12. I guess as a general rule most of us got into comics or comic book characters as kids or early teens.I think at that point it is probably about connecting with the power fantasies and the disconnect from reality was a type of empowering thing.

    Maybe creators are still in touch with that to a large degree,having had the seed planted in their youth from a long line of stories about heroes,from ancient myth to the stories of heroes in wars throughout the ages to cowboy stories and pulps then on to superheroes.I guess I see the impulse to create these stories (and read them) more as a response to fairly normal insecurities in a persons life rather than having anything to do with insanity,however minor or brief it may be.

  13. I thought Book of Lies was pretty weak as novel.  It was a great idea though.  It just, unfortunately, felt like Meltzer had the great idea first and then failed to construct a good supporting plot around it.