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Can Super-Humans be Categorized?
They are a diverse lot
Can they be classified?
Comic book characters are a diverse lot. Some have near godlike powers while others rely on gadgets or simply extensive training. Many, whether for games about these characters or for a shorthand description in fiction, like to pigeon hole them into categories. Can such a collection of bizarre characters be so subdivided or are their characters that simply defy classification. If there are characters who cannot be easily categorized are these a majority making any system useless or are they a handful that can safely be called wild-cards in any system.
An iconic brick
Probably the first group of super-humans categorized by anyone are those that are super strong and often bulletproof. Commonly called bricks or tanks these may be the first superheroes portrayed. The 1930s portrayal of Superman cast him clearly as a brick able to leap great distances but not fly. Nor did he have many of the other powers that were later added to the character. Examples of pure bricks in modern portrayals include the Hulk and the Thing from Marvel comics. The weakest bricks in comics or comic based stories can lift a car and while their skin can't bounce bullets, they can stand up to being thrown around quite a bit more than most people. The strongest of them can knock planets out of orbit and withstand the heart of a star.
As bricks are to human strength and resilience the speedster is to reaction time and agility. Like bricks there is a wide variety of power levels portrayed in speedsters. DC comics Flash can actually run at or near the speed of light. The Beast from Marvels X-Men on the other hand has superhuman acrobatic capability but cannot outrun a car. Some characters are portrayed as having their speed and agility only useable in a tightly focused way. The assassin Bullseye for example can turn anything into a deadly weapon but does not have the same speed and agility in other pursuits.
A well known blaster
Some super-humans are portrayed as having abilities that make them living weapons. These blasters have innate destructive ranged abilities. Blasters might use flame, heat, lightning or the ever popular “force beams” to deliver their attack. Many can also use their destructive ability in a defensive manner surrounding themselves with an “aura” that destroys incoming bullets and damages other threats. The Human Torch is an obvious example of this. Some can also use their powers as a form of propulsion. Curiously this propulsive aspect does not usually cause recoil problems when their abilities are used as an attack. Blasters like Cyclops though have neither defensive or propulsive uses for their power.
An almost archetypal example
Some of the characters in stories about supers have no powers at all. Instead they use tools, often more technologically sophisticated that what's available in the real world. These gadgets are their only means to get on an even footing with their powered cohorts. Some like Batman seem to have the ability to pull out whatever device the circumstances call for in addition to a standard arsenal. Other techno heroes, like Iron Man, put all their gear into a single suit of armor with fairly clearly defined capabilities. There are also techno heroes who center themselves around a specific weapon. Archers like Green Arrow or Hawkeye are perhaps best known for their high tech Robin Hood persona but they aren't the only ones. The Avengers Black Knight has used both his magical “Ebony Blade” and an advanced light-saber like energy sword.
Then there are those who's powers are described as the result of years of martial arts training. Sometimes the abilities they exhibit are well beyond event the most wildly exaggerated stories of the prowess of martial artists. Iron Fist for example can punch through steel. Large groups of cannon fodder martial artists also provide a conveniently formidable foe for super-heroes to prove their prowess against. Both the League of Shadows in DC comics and the Hand in Marvel have served this purpose.
A shifter who duplicates animal abilities
Many supers are portrayed as shifting from a powered to a normal form as when the Hulk loses his temper or Torch flames on. Some supers though have the ability to transform themselves as a primary power. There appear to be two sorts of shape shifters. For one group like Mistique they can emulate another individuals appearance including clothing and built in weapons but without their capabilities or powers. The other group typified by Beast Boy undergoes a change that, although it might have limits, includes the capabilities and even super powers of the target duplicated. Depending on the limitations on the second group they may be among the most powerful of all characters in comics. A shape shifting duel between Warlock and the Impossible-Man once threatened to devastate Tokyo when they shifted into a Shogun robot and Godzilla respectively. The city was only saved when Warlock's friends reminded him he could out transform his opponent by changing color as well as shape.
Reading minds altering memories
While power mimicking shape shifters may be among the strongest characters in terms of raw power those with psychic abilities can be the strongest in more subtle ways. Many powers can be referred to as psychic that might better fit into another category. One who can telekinetically lift objects and divert attacks with their mind might best be described as a psionic brick. A super who can ignite fire with their mind could be clarified as a form of blaster. Telepathic or other extrasensory powers however can't generally be shifted into another category. Some of these might know an enemies moves ahead of time by seeing the future or reading minds. Others can actually control their enemies minds, alter memories, or mess with someones perceptions to get them to do what the psychic wants. Even the most physically imposing characters seem vulnerable to such manipulation.
Then there are characters who can do virtually anything, often through means of magic. Characters like Dr. Strange, Dr. Fate or other mystics seem to be capable of anything. Some wizards might have limits of energy or location but often storytellers use these limits more for dramatic effect than to restrict what the character actually does.
The power of ice
A close cousin to the wizard is the elemental who seems able to do anything with a specific type of material. The X-Men provide several examples of this sort of character. Magneto can do virtually anything with metal or magnetic fields, Storm manipulates weather and Iceman can do almost anything with frozen water. Some elementals are portrayed as being able to create as well as control their material. Others like Pyro can control their element bit rely on technology or natural sources to create it.
Seriously how do you classify this guy?
How worthwhile are the categories?
While it is clear that there are many super-human characters from the comics that fit neatly into categories, others do not. Superman may have started as a simple brick in the 1930s but in today's portrayal he's a brick/speedster/blaster hybrid. Not all hard to classify characters are a result of the kind of power amplification Superman has gone through over the years. Green Lanterns ability to do virtually anything with green energy might classify him as a wizard but his dependency on his ring and the power battery makes him a techno hero too. As mentioned Batman can pull out whatever gadget he needs but he's also a formidable martial artist. Then there's Spiderman. His agility might classify him as a speedster, but his strength makes him a low end brick. His web-shooters put him in the techno hero category and his ability to stick to walls is rare enough to warrant it's own category. The abilities of super-humans are as diverse as the imaginations of their creators can make them. While fitting them into categories can be fun no system can cover everything. Characters either end up spread across multiple categories or one must create separate categories for certain characters. Even when characters like the Hulk or Power Man fit neatly into the brick category they have vastly differing capabilities. So while classification systems provide a simple shorthand for describing a characters capabilities to new members of their audience even there the utility is often limited.
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