Like Vols. 1 and 2 of this series, Vol. 3 presents ten superhero archetypes. For each archetype, author Jason Tondro provides an overview of the archetype and advice for modeling that type of hero in ICONS. An example character demonstrates each archetype in action, with illustrations by ICONS artist extraordinaire Dan Houser. This volume covers the magician, man [sic] of tomorrow, master of the atom, master of the elements, master of the martial arts, minority hero, monstrous hero, mythic hero, occult hero, and psychic hero. The advice given for each archetype is solid, and the sample heroes well illustrate each archetype’s unique qualities.
Commendably, most of the sample heroes have a hook or twist that individualizes them even as they represent their archetypes. You can think of Mona Lisa, who illustrates the magician archetype, as a kind of female mashup of the Phantom Stranger, John Constantine, Harry Dresden, and Mata Hari … she’s a ritual magician and occult investigator whose utter focus on her task leaves a trail of emotional pain in her wake. Spectrum, who embodies the man of tomorrow archetype, has an interesting backstory and a cool new power (ultra-power, giving a hero access to a menu of powers one at a time). Dawn, representing the master of the elements archetype, and her partner Dusk combine elements of Frank Miller’s future Batman and Robin with Cloak and Dagger (the latter implicitly acknowledged in the fluff). Dusk and Dawn also amp up the whole “archetypes” theme in a very intriguing way. Giza reminds me of Marvel’s Living Pharaoh; I found iHero just silly. Each character writeup includes some story ideas that could bring heroes in your ICONS game into contact with the heroes presented in the Field Guide. Most of these sound like fun, although a few have blind spots, such as getting a blood transfusion from the Rubberband Man to soften the skin of an invulnerable hero—how are you going to get the Rubberband Man’s blood into the hero if you can’t penetrated the wounded hero‘s skin? The ideas presented about hero teams on p. 59 will be useful even if you don’t want to use the specific teams from the Worlds of Wonder setting, presented on the following pages.
I enjoyed Volume 3 very much, certainly more than Vol. 2 and perhaps as much as Vol. 1, and I think that Vol. 3 provides helpful advice to ICONS players or GMs who have vague ideas about what they want from a character, but don’t quite know how to pull it off. The archetypes help.
Why, then, only three stars? The product exhibits several features that compelled my “rigorous reviewer” aspect.
First, if I’ve transferred the powers to the ICONS Character Folio, the archetypes tend toward the extremes of the ICONS power curve, and sometimes beyond. Of the ten superheroes who represent archetypes described in this book (an eleventh hero, Dusk, appears but relates to an archetype from an earlier volume), only three could be built by players using the 45-point build system: The Rubberband Man at 37 build points, Giza at 40, and Dusk at 45. Two others, the Dragon and the Drifter, are so close that GMs using the build point system would probably let things slide. But then we get into Mona Lisa at 52 points, iHero at 61, Naga at 62, and Watchdog at a whopping 80—according to the ICONS Character Folio’s math. This is important because players seeking to instantiate a particular archetype in their characters may find it quite disappointing that they can’t easily emulate the more powerful characters in this book. Players trying to “reverse-engineering” randomly-generated characters, to associate randomly-generated powers and abilities with specific archetypes as an imagination tool, won’t have as much of a problem here … but since the Field Guides are in some ways “how-to” books, the review must take this into account.
Second, this volume has only half as many illustrations as each of the previous installments. In Vols. 1 and 2, Houser provided an illustration for the archetype writeup itself plus an illustration of the sample character who displays that archetype. In this volume, only the named characters—not the archetypes themselves—are illustrated. Fans of Houser’s art will be disappointed by the quantity of illustrations, but certainly not be the quality, which remains as perfectly suited to ICONS as ever. However, if you’re thinking of sharing this product with children or teens who play ICONS, be aware that the illustration for Naga, the occult hero, is borderline pornographic, about as far as seminude can go without dropping the prefix. To the unwary reader (or parent), this comes as a bit of a shock—never mind the disconnect between Naga’s negligee outfit on the one hand the text’s description of her Buddhism and her “long cloak and hood” on the other.
Third, the minority superhero archetype rubs me the wrong way. I don’t think Tondro has gone far wrong in describing the phenomenon of “blaxploitation” comics and superheroes whose main story roles were to represent their ethnicities. As a straight, white, Christian male, I don’t fit into any minority demographic at all (unless “biblical scholars who play Dungeons & Dragons” qualifies), so I may be speaking out of turn, but I think comics have moved on—or have tried valiantly to move on—from the minority superhero archetype. Luke Cage might have started out as a minority hero, but nowadays his skin color is not the primary thing that identifies his role in the superhero community. He’s more of a “family man” (with an Anglo wife) than “first and foremost a representative of [black Americans],” to use Tondro’s phrase. Ditto with other heroes Tondro tags as minority heroes, like Blue Beetle (Jaime Reyes) and Batwoman (Kate Kane). Jaime’s Latino heritage and Kate’s sexual orientation are obviously key parts of their social context and the “soap opera” aspects of their stories, but it’s inaccurate and insulting to real-world people with similar demographics to suggest (as Tondro does by identifying these heroes with the minority hero archetype) that, if forced by circumstances to choose, Blue Beetle would always help a Latino before a non-Latino and Batwoman would always help a lesbian before a heterosexual or even a homosexual man. This wouldn’t bother me so much if the Field Guides didn’t have the “how-to” vibe, but they do. I would have been happier with this volume if the minority superhero archetype had been omitted altogether, or had been discussed as an historical chapter in comics with the advice “don’t make a demographic feature like ethnicity, gender, or sexual orientation the central feature of your superhero” instead of guiding readers on how to create such characters.
Fourth, there seems to me a strong undercurrent of sexism in the Field Guides, and it’s rather evident in Volume 3. Just a glance at the front cover will suggest the gender imbalance inside. The cover features the Watchdog, a male hero whose body is completely covered by his battlesuit; Spectrum, a male hero whose costume covers all but his eyes and a small amount of his forehead; and Mona Lisa, a female hero wearing a clingy knee-length skirt, a short-sleeved skintight blouse with a deep V neck, and no mask of any kind. Three female heroes are featured in the book; Mona Lisa has the quality “haunting beauty,” Dawn has the quality “gorgeous,” and Naga is illustrated with practically no clothes on. The only male in the book who has an aspect related to his looks is the Drifter, whose badly scarred face gives him the challenge “hideous appearance.” The frequent use of “man” and “mankind” as generic terms for humanity—even in the writeups for female characters—is awkward at best; note the phrasing “a representative of his … gender” when describing the minority hero, even though males are not generally considered a minority gender (statistically, we just might be a few percentage points behind females in total world population, but the term “minority” isn’t just about mathematics in this context). Elsewhere, Tondro tags Rachel Summers as a hero representing the man [sic] of tomorrow archetype; by contrast, to choose but one example, Catman is not tagged as representing the femme feline archetype in Vol. 2.
Finally, the credits page indicates that the volume was “editied [sic] by: Paula Rice”—not carefully enough, apparently, to prevent the misspelling of “edited," the odd hyphenation of “entertainment” in the middles of two lines in a row, the misspelling of “crucible” as “cruicible”—and that’s just on the credits page! The rate of grammatical and spelling errors is lower than that throughout the rest of the book, although a few errors crop up again and again. “Which” very often appears where “that” is needed; a noticeable number of punctuation marks are placed incorrectly relative to quotation marks (the fact that correct and incorrect positioning sometimes follow each other on adjacent lines of text shows the errors to be true errors, not stylistic choices). Spectrum’s specialties appear actually to be Mona Lisa’s, copied and pasted, instead of his own. There also seems to have been some kind of font embedding oversight or glitch during PDF generation; the sample heroes’ abilities do not appear in the same typeface used in volumes 1 and 2, and the effect of a compressed substitute sans serif font in the midst of all the comic-book lettering (Blambot) fonts is quite noticeable and jarring. Proper use of language matters, especially when you’re selling a product made of words; I would very much like to see Vigilance Press exercise more literary vigilance in future products.
Oh, and the PDF needs bookmarks. After the complaints about Vol. 1’s lack of bookmarks (recently remedied), I’m rather surprised that Vol. 3 doesn’t have any.
By now you may be wondering why I went all the way up to three stars, instead of why I didn’t go higher! I don’t think the volume’s problems should be hand-waved away, but they don’t go so far as to make the volume a bad purchase (as long as you know what you’re getting). The lengthy critiques above stem from my own need to explain as clearly as possible why I gave a mediocre rating to a product that I mostly like and can recommend (to mature readers). I’d rather have the book in my ICONS toolbox than to not have it. There’s a lot of very good content here for readers who approach the book with realistic expectations about what it will deliver. I’m looking forward to Vol. 4, and hope it will exceed expectations.