Let’s face it — as much as I love kicking back with a stack of superhero comics, originality has never been one of the genre’s trademarks. Given the fact that even the best characters have hundreds (or even thousands) of issues under their utility belts, you have to expect a certain amount of repetition.
Still, there comes a point when, after reading the same plot point for the millionth time, you have to wonder if it was ever considered an original idea. And that’s when you realize even the best writers in the business have deadlines to meet and fans to keep happy month in and month out. Result: clichés and lots of them.
Credit where it’s due: This list was inspired by The Movie Clichés List, a fun list of common clichés you might have noticed in the movies, as well as a few online boards I’ve visited where the topic of comic book tropes has come up. If you have any to suggest, I’m happy to add any good ones I might have missed.
At the risk of using a cliché to end this introduction… ’nuff said!
Heroes, once they receive their powers, immediately decide to use their powers for good. If a hero instead chooses to make money off those powers, a suitably tragic event involving a beloved family member will convince the hero to fight crime.
Children who witness their parents or loved ones die at the hands of a criminal will never receive trauma counseling, and will never arouse the concern of their caregiver when they devote themselves to training for their future crimefighting career.
Aliens who make their way to our planet will possess natural-born abilities that make them seem superhuman to us mere homo sapiens or there will be something about Earth’s environment that will instantly confer super powers on them.
Mutants are by definition heroes born with their powers. However, their powers will not become apparent only when a suitably dramatic moment takes place during their teen years (e.g., while under a circus big top when an elephant stampede forces a young mutant to use his/her special abilities for the first time).
Despite their genetic origins, mutant powers cannot be passed from parent to child; each mutant’s power sets is completely random as far as biology goes.
Ordinary people in a world with superheroes somehow know whether someone with superhuman powers is a mutant. It will never occur to a mutant to claim they got their powers in a freak lab accident or by some other means.
Radioactivity, right after mutation, is the biggest friend you can have when you’re looking for a source of superhuman powers. Whenever something that’s radioactive is introduced into the story, a character will receive phenomenal powers without any fear of radiation poisoning, sterility or other side effects commonly associated with radioactive materials in real life.
If suitably tragic, a major character will remember the heart-wrenching facts of his/her origin no less than once every 10 issues (five if their book is published by Marvel).
Wives, sons, nephews, and protégés who vow to honor a dead superhero by fighting crime in his name will, on an average of no less than once every three issues, question their ability to live up to their mentor’s example.
Lab accidents will always lead to the bestowal of superhuman powers. Loss of one’s sanity is optional.
All lab accidents that bestow superhuman powers on a person are billion-to-one flukes that can never be replicated in a laboratory… unless a sidekick is needed, then lightning can strike as many damn times as you please.
All crashed alien vessels are treasure troves of power-bestowing devices for any human who happens to come along. Humans who acquire artifacts from alien ships will never have any problem getting the artifact to work for them, and he/she will never suffer any ill effects that might conceivably arise from allowing completely alien energies or materials to come in contact with their bodies.
Any drug or scientific process developed to confer superhuman powers on anyone who receives the treatment will never be used more than once on a test subject because (a) the scientist who created the drug/process will be killed right after the hero receives his/her powers and (b) the scientist will forget to leave behind any notes or directions on how to repeat the process.
Heroes always have careers that allow them to duck out during the day without arousing suspicion among co-workers or friends: reporter, freelance artist, millionaire playboy industrialist, etc.
Heroes whose alter egos work in offices are always surrounded by a lovable collection of eccentric co-workers, among whom there will be at least two of the following:
- a co-worker with connections to organized crime or to one of the hero’s archenemies.
- a practical joker who delights in making the hero’s alter ego the butt of his jokes.
- a nosy person (usually a woman) who secretly suspects there’s more to the hero’s alter ego than meets the eye.
- A younger, eager-to-please sort who’s obsessed with the hero or superheroes in general.
- A gruff yet kindly supervisor whose son or daughter may or may not be involved in a street gang or cult.
Every hero, once disaster has been averted, is able to change back into his/her civilian identity immediately afterwards without exhibiting any signs of physical exertion (sweat, mussed-up hair, bruises, etc.).
Even though the hero’s alter ego is always the first to volunteer to “go get help” when a danger arises, no one ever clues in to the fact that his/her departure is always immediately followed by the superhero’s arrival.
No civilian will ever have the occasion to look through the hero’s eyeglasses and discover they’re not real.
Despite the abundance of surveillance devices and methods in the superhero’s world (security cameras, spy satellites, DNA match-ups, telepathy, invisible people, omniscient sorcerers, etc.), superheroes need never worry or take extra precautions to safeguard their secret identity.
Whenever a hero ducks into an alley, broom closet, washroom, or other such place to change into costume, there will never be anyone around to witness the event.
If someone should witness the hero go into, say, an empty office 20 floors up (or any other such place from which there’s only one exit), he/she will follow the hero, find an empty room, and mutter something about getting his/her eyes checked or say “I could have sworn I saw him come in here…”
If a hero’s co-worker, romantic partner, or archenemy does stumble across the hero’s true identity, then all it takes to convince them otherwise is a quick side-by-side appearance with a robot made in the hero’s image or a second superhero who’s more then happy to help out a friend.
With a few exceptions, alter egos have terrible romantic lives because trouble invariably happens every time they go out on a date, forcing them to come up with a lame excuse (“I just remembered… something came up”) and ditch their dates.
If a superhero’s alter ego is smitten with a member of the opposite sex, that person will have eyes only for the superhero, thus creating a love triangle that causes no small amount of existential angst for our hero.
If two or more superheroes decide to go out on a date or group outing while in their civilian identities, the evening will invariably be interrupted by a super-villain and/or natural disaster requiring their attention.
No hero will ever be in the washroom, watching TV, mowing the lawn, or waiting in line at the bank when the emergency signal, Trouble Alert or “secret hotline” beckons.
No one will ever recognize a hero’s voice when the hero is out of costume, even if the hero regularly does press conferences, television interviews, and/or public service announcements. Likewise, no one will ever recognize a hero’s build, posture, walk, hairstyle, skin tone, or the parts of the face that the hero’s mask doesn’t cover.
The only abilities capable of penetrating a hero’s secret identity are another hero or villain’s enhanced sense of smell or a talent for recognizing fighting styles (which, as all comic book readers know, are as individual as fingerprints).
A villain who kidnaps the hero’s alter ago as part of a plan to draw the hero into a trap will never put two and two together, even when the hero arrives on the scene three seconds after the villain’s captive escapes.