Here is the archive of the lists Lorendiac posts here, and here is his latest piece! Remember, again, this list is written by Lorendiac, not Brian Cronin. – BC.
I once listed the various reasons why some people become superheroes and start looking for villains to smite — and on another occasion I examined the options they have after they’ve subdued a villain in the traditional slugfest and then start asking themselves: “Now what shall I do with him?” (Those discussions, among others, can be reached via the links at the bottom of this piece.) But it recently occurred to me that I’ve never really addressed the middle portion of that process: Given that someone has already chosen to dress up as a superhero, just how does he go about finding those bad guys so he can smite them properly?
To put it another way, what’s his preferred method of target acquisition?
Here are the answers I found for how the heroes and the villains may end up confronting one another.
(Obviously, there is no law which says a certain hero must use just one or two methods over and over. Some have developed styles which blend several methods together.)
11 Methods of Target Acquisition
01. Police Band
02. Spy Tech
06. Detective Work
07. Pursuing One Long-Term Mission
08. Answering Appeals
09. On Patrol
10. Baiting the Trap
11. Chance Encounter
01. Police Band
“Hmmm. Bank robbery in progress, over on Fifth and Main? I’m only a few blocks away — reckon I’ll swing by and see what I can do!”
Modern law enforcement agencies have systems in place for rapidly spreading the word about current and recently-committed crimes. Some superheroes find ways of accessing that information network so they can react to emergencies which sound as if they require the hero’s special talents. Sometimes that’s as simple as keeping a police scanner handy to listen to current transmissions; sometimes the hero’s methods go far beyond that.
For instance, Batman’s friendship with Commissioner Gordon traditionally gives him access to anything the vast resources of the GCPD have already learned about the matter at hand (including material which has been provided by the FBI or other law enforcement oufits). Of course it doesn’t always work that smoothly — sometimes Jim Gordon isn’t Commissioner this week, and sometimes he is but his relationship with Batman has fallen on hard times — but we can usually assume this steady flow of information to be the default condition unless we are specifically told otherwise.
Furthermore, some superheroes have been employed as law enforcement officers, which gives them direct access to all sorts of data without needing to eavesdrop or hack into anything.
Sometimes the employers know exactly who they are hiring, and the hero is ordered to respond to the scariest reports that come over the radio. The Savage Dragon started his crimefighting career this way when he was hired by the Chicago police — if bullets were just bouncing off a super-powered perpetrator instead of stopping him, they called in Officer Dragon to do what a regular SWAT team couldn’t! Other superheroes who have collected regular paychecks from local or national governments, or even from the United Nations, in exchange for their “superheroic” activities, have included Plastic Man, Agent Liberty, the Avengers, Alpha Flight, the Justice League International . . . and, more recently, all of the Marvel heroes who chose to participate in the 50 State Initiative.
Sometimes the costumed stuff qualifies as “moonlighting” in the superhero’s off-duty hours — for instance, when Dick Grayson became a rookie cop in Bludhaven, his fellow cops didn’t know he was also Nightwing in his spare time. Other superheroes who have tried to juggle a “regular law enforcement” job with an unoffical “costumed superhero” sideline have included the Golden Age Guardian (Jim Harper), Captain America (Steve Rogers), the Silver Age Flash (Barry Allen), the original Human Torch (Jim Hammond), and The Martian Manhunter (“John Jones” of the Denver PD).
02. Spy Tech
“Whoa! Look what just flashed up on this screen! The police don’t know about it yet, but I do! If I hurry, I can get there before regular cops notice the problem, interfere, and maybe get themselves killed!”
This way the hero isn’t just eavesdropping on what the police are hearing at the same time; he’s often one step ahead of them because he has useful toys they don’t!
The X-Men have sometimes been able to use Cerebro to pin down the locations of powerful mutants of interest, even if no one else in the world has noticed that these people are mutants.
Batman has also made heavy use of this approach, often via the services of Oracle (Barbara Gordon), who refuses to fret about the laws relating to wiretapping and hacking into private databases and so forth. At various times, Oracle’s talents have also been available to Batman’s apprentices, and to the Suicide Squad, and to the Justice League, and to her own hand-picked “Birds of Prey” agents. She likes to stay busy!
“Eh? A few miles down the road, someone is firing an automatic weapon. Reckon I’d better check it out!”
Unlike “Spy Tech,” this approach means the hero’s ability to rapidly learn about things happening far away is not dependent on advanced technological aids. Instead, his “natural” perceptions go far beyond those of any normal person’s physical senses.
Superman is the poster child for this one. For instance, if a large explosion happens anywhere in Metropolis when he’s in residence, his super-hearing is probably going to pick it up while automatically ignoring all the miscellaneous “background noise” which doesn’t sound nearly so life-threatening. Likewise, his X-Ray vision and telescopic vision can be incredibly handy!
Daredevil’s senses are not as far-reaching as Superman’s (and he’s conspicuously lacking in vision-based powers, for obvious reasons), but still give him a huge advantage, although he has usually preferred to keep that fact to himself and let his enemies assume he’s just a normal guy in a red outfit.
In addition to superhuman enhancement of the “normal” senses, there are other ways for information to reach a hero from afar and alert him to problems he may want to deal with. Including clairvoyance . . . telepathy . . . and even precognitive visions which can tip him off to what’s going to happen at a certain place and time — or perhaps what might happen unless he interferes!
(The movie Minority Report took that last scenario to the limit — precognitive visions about your future misbehavior could be used as the basis for your being arrested, charged, convicted, and sentenced for the violent crime which you had never actually gotten around to committing in the first place!)
“Well, that saves me the trouble of going out and looking for trouble tonight — the trouble is looking for me instead, and it’s loaded for bear!”
This naturally reminds us of Richard Connell’s classic short story “The Most Dangerous Game,” the basic premise of which has been shamelessly ripped off on innumerable occasions — in movies, TV episodes, comic books, whatever. In this approach, the villain has decided: “I’m the greatest hunter in the world — and I’m tired of tracking and shooting mere animals. What I need is a human quarry who’s resourceful enough to give me a real challenge!” (Kraven the Hunter was a classic example when he debuted in the Silver Age.)
Some villains are not dedicated to “the thrill of the hunt” as a strong motivating factor in their daily lifestyles, but occasionally feel the need to hunt down and trap or kill a particular superhero — or entire team — for some other reason entirely!
For instance, while recently rereading (and parodying) the classic Dark Phoenix Saga, I’ve been reminded of a point which I had almost forgotten! The villainous agenda wasn’t just to brainwash Jean Grey into deserting the X-Men and working for the Hellfire Club (or at least for Mastermind) from that day forward. Sebastian Shaw and his colleages of the Inner Circle of the Hellfire Club also wanted to capture as many of the X-Men as possible (along with potential new recruits Kitty Pryde and Alison Blaire) so as to use them as guinea pigs in trying to isolate — and learn to manipulate — the genetic “X-Factor” which made all the difference between ordinary humans and super-powered mutants. For some reason, the never-clearly-explained methods which Shaw and his buddies had in mind were expected to be fatal to the living subjects, which explains why they were unwilling to experiment on themselves and preferred to round up other mutants instead. But once they had the key factor properly isolated, they believed they’d be able to start producing mutants to order!
Note: Looking back on it, my best guess is that the Hellfire Club of that era (around 1980) had never heard of the very similar work which — according to a retcon several years later — had already been happening for a long time in the island nation of Genosha. If Shaw and his cronies had been aware of it, they could have simply tried to make a deal with the Genosha government, or else swipe some of the Genegineer’s research and technology for their own purposes. Either of which would have been likelier to succeed than the complicated stunts they actually pulled against the X-Men.
“Will you come into my parlor, said the spider to the fly . . .”
This is slightly different from “Hunted.” The villain is still taking the initiative in seeking a confrontation, but this time the villain doesn’t exert himself to go looking for the hero — he merely “invites” the hero to come looking for him at a certain place and time! This can range from the tantalizing clues of The Riddler and his ilk, which often have double meanings and other dirty tricks concealed within them, to something as simple and straightforward as Norman Osborn kidnapping Gwen Stacy and daring Peter Parker to come try and rescue her on a certain bridge!
06. Detective Work
The following dialogue is quoted from “The Question Annual #1.” Batman (Bruce Wayne), Green Arrow (Ollie Queen), and The Question (Vic Sage) are having a little chat. Batman has just finished explaining something, and now the others react.
THE QUESTION: How do you know all that?
BATMAN: I’ve spent years developing informational resources —
GREEN ARROW: I thought you just swung down from rooftops and cleaned bad guys’ clocks.
BATMAN: Occasionally I do. That’s approximately four percent of my activity. The rest of it is finding out things.
Writer Denny O’Neil was trying to make a point. Just because Batman’s stories tend to emphasize the moments of frantic violence doesn’t mean that’s practically all he ever does! Those moments are likely to come after long hours of less flamboyant behavior as he uses good old-fashioned detective work to solve mysteries which have caught his interest. But the cerebral stuff doesn’t look nearly so exciting on the comic book page, so writers tend to just quickly summarize most of the “lead time” which was necessary for Batman to know how to be in the right place at the right time to engage in the obligatory slugfest and then hand over his latest adversaries to the police!
(I’m a little surprised, though, that Green Arrow, who had already spent long years as a costumed crimefighter himself at that point in his continuity, hadn’t realized that the occasional juicy news item about Batman beating up the Joker only represented the tip of the iceberg in how Batman budgeted his time. Unless Ollie was just being ironic?)
07. Pursuing One Long-Term Mission
“There’s one target I’m really interested in attacking, in any way possible, until the problem is settled for good! If I just happen to stumble across other violent criminals along the way, I may take a few minutes to deal with them — but I can’t afford to waste time looking for random riffraff otherwise! Got to stay focused!”
Yes, sometimes the hero is obsessively focused on tracking down and punishing one person or evil organization. Making a clean sweep may take a long, long time, but he is strongly motivated to see it through. Of course such a large goal may also involve heavy use of Spy Tech, Detective Work, and other methods of learning enough to know where the enemy’s vulnerable spots are in any given adventure.
For instance, back in 1980 DC introduced Tom Tresser, their first user of the heroic alias “Nemesis,” who was dedicated to taking down a crime syndicate whose leaders were collectively called “the Council.” Nemesis disguised himself as various people in his efforts to get in close to one Council member after another and find ways to bring each one down. That mission statement provided the backbone for all his stories of the next couple of years (mostly as a back-up feature in “The Brave and the Bold, with two full-issue team-ups with Batman along the way). In his last story of the Pre-Crisis era, Tom Tresser apparently died in a terrible explosion in the moment of triumph against the last member of the Council, and — having finally completed his mission — was not heard from again for about four and a half years before John Ostrander dusted him off for “Suicide Squad.”
08. Answering Appeals
“Please! You’re my last hope! I don’t know where else to turn!”
Here the hero waits for the victim or other concerned parties to call his attention to a particular problem. I am told that way back in the Golden Age, the original Hourman (Rex Tyler) placed a newspaper ad in which he offered to use his powers to help those who needed his special abilities to solve a knotty problem.
I think Rex was offering to work for free (but I haven’t read that Golden Age story, so I can’t swear to the details of his ad.) But sometimes a hero is waiting for someone to offer to pay for his time and trouble in working on their case as a freelance bodyguard, investigator, or what-have-you — and once he takes the case, he will give it his best. Heroes for Hire, the Power Company, Silver Sable’s Wild Pack, Booster Gold, Mark Shaw (Manhunter), The Human Target, the Suicide Squad, and Firearm (an Ultraverse character in the mid-90s, if you didn’t know) have worked along those lines.
09. On Patrol
“I feel bored — time to hit the streets and poke around at random, hoping to find a violent crime-in-progress so I can derail it! Maybe a supervillain ripping open an armored car or something!”
It is truly amazing how often this one works!
Granted, sometimes a story starts out with a hero attempting this free-form approach, and then one of the other methods is used to actually bring about the major confrontation of that issue. Superman may be flying a routine patrol over Metropolis when his super-senses detect gunfire from below. Batman may already be out on patrol in the Batmobile when he hears a police report about a villain running amok, not too far away from Batman’s current position. Spider-Man may be doing his web-slinging around Manhattan, just for fun, when someone suddenly attacks him, meaning to hunt him down and kill him for a bounty!
In all fairness, I should mention that sometimes a writer pointedly reminds us that “wandering round and hoping for the best” is not the most efficient way to catch dangerous criminals. For instance: When Harlan Ellison wrote a Batman story for “Detective Comics #567,” the entire plot was about Batman’s frustrated attempts to find an excuse to bust somebody that night, and his general lack of satisfying success!
(Batman did collar one little drug dealer, and then promptly got chewed out by the customer — an undercover cop — for messing up an ongoing investigation which was meant to lead the detective further up the supply chain so he could identify much bigger fish before the GCPD arrested everybody at once. That was a hollow victory at best.)
At the end of the story, Batman returned home and complained to Alfred that it was the worst night of his life!
10. Setting the Trap
“I’m betting that scumbag can’t resist this big fat juicy target! When he comes into view, I pounce!”
In #05, “Lured,” I pointed out that the villain may be seeking to get the hero to approach him on a battlefield of the villain’s own choosing. The hero, of course, has the right to employ similar tactics to make the villain come to him.
The hero may use himself as very obvious bait, or he may disguise himself as someone else whom bad guys are likely to try to kill or abduct in the near future (The Human Target specializes in that one), or the hero may set up some other situation which a villain will hopefully find incredibly alluring, but will not assume has a superhero lurking in the shadows! (Granted, some villains have such swollen egos that they don’t really worry about that point, because they’re confident they can easily handle any hero who is likely to show up!)
Another approach overlaps with Detective Work. Some superheroes don’t have the sort of material resources which Bruce Wayne and his ilk can muster to arrange a high-profile event from scratch, tailor-made to a certain villain’s known tastes. Failing that, there’s always the low-budget possibility of deducing what a certain villain already wants to do next (stealing a certain item or killing a particular person, for instance), and then just lurking in ambush for hours, praying that you understood the foe’s agenda as well as you thought you did when you started this stakeout.
11. Sheer Coincidence
“Fancy meeting you here!”
This is the one where the superhero was making no effort to find a villain to fight, and the villain was not planning to attract a superhero’s attention today . . . and yet, thanks to dumb luck (or “the mysterious workings of fate,” or whatever catchphrase you prefer), they suddenly meet in the same time and place anyway!
This one probably happens almost as often as “On Patrol” — which is incredible, when you think about it.
What are the odds that if a superhero goes on vacation to a tropic isle, he’ll just happen to stumble across a villainous conspiracy or rampaging monster?
Or that if he travels to a small town to visit an old friend or relative, a murder will occur during the hero’s brief stay?
Or that if several English-speaking heroes in plainclothes are taking a French class in Paris, some of their fellow students will coincidentally be supervillains, also in plainclothes?
In real life, you might say the chances of any of those problems arising at a moment when you just happened to be visiting a usually-peaceful environment were vanishingly small, so why worry about it? But in the worlds which our beloved superheroes inhabit, the laws of probability appear to function in an entirely different fashion from what we take for granted! (And no, I’m not even talking about stories involving those few heroes who explicitly have the power to distort the probabilities! With them, it would only be remarkable if unlikely things didn’t happen at the drop of a hat!)
I am reminded of the time in “The Amazing Spider-Man #4” when Spider-Man had recently tussled with Sandman for the first time — and had been humiliated, finally running away after his mask was torn open. (Stan Lee loved to have Spidey conspicuously fail the first time he faced a new villain . . . then regroup, belatedly develop a more intelligent plan than “I’ll punch his lights out in ten seconds flat!”, and go on to victory in the stirring rematch!)
The following day Peter Parker had to attend high school classes, so hunting for Sandman would presumably have to wait until late afternoon or evening. However! Sandman just happened to enter that same high school in an attempt to shake the police off his trail for a bit, and just happened to make his way into the very classroom from which Peter was briefly absent on an errand for the teacher, and just happened to start trying to bully the school principal into issuing a high school diploma for Flint Marko (since he had never completed high school before becoming a hoodlum). The principal flatly refused, which didn’t go over well — but he was saved from serious harm by the timely arrival of Spider-Man, bursting into the room after hearing the commotion and doing his quick-change act!
That’s right — of all the buildings in the Big Apple which Sandman could have picked as a place to hide, and of all the rooms which he then could have entered within the building he picked . . . he inadvertently ended up in the classroom to which Peter Parker would be returning any minute now! How’s that for Sheer Coincidence?
Not that the improbability of the situation bothered me at the time I first read the story as a mere slip of a lad, and not that it really bothers me today, either! But when I wanted an amusing example of an incredibly coincidental encounter in a “classic” story, it sprang to mind!
Well, those were all I came up with on my own. If you think I completely overlooked another approach to the problem of finding someone to pummel with a clear conscience, please speak up! Of course it always helps if you can provide specific examples so I can better visualize what you’re talking about.
As promised above, here are some links to many previous pieces I’ve perpetrated over the last few years, comprising what I have come to think of as my Numbered List series. Every once in a while it amuses me to think about some odd aspect of the superhero genre, and to try to list and explain all the different approaches I can remember for that sort of thing, or all the different reasons that ridiculous things keep happening.
12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character
17 Excuses for Bringing Back a Dead Character
16 Types of Retcons
19 Ways to End a Superhero’s Romance
22 Ways to Show a Superhero Killing Someone
9 Categories of Continuity
5 Types of Superhero Team Members
Secret Identities: 10 Ways to Unspill the Beans
Superhero Finances: 10 Situations
13 Reasons to Use a Deathtrap
14 Functions for a Superhero Costume
10 Types of Superhero Successors
14 Ways to Rehabilitate a Disgraced Hero
14 Motives for Becoming a Superhero
12 Tricks for Keeping Superheroes Young
13 Reasons to Quit the Superhero Racket
12 Rationales for a Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest on the Cover
What To Do With a Supervillain After You Catch Him: 12 Options
14 Motives for Becoming a Supervillain