Wednesday, 11 February 2009
SO WHAT EXACTLY IS IT WHICH MAKES A HERO SO SUPER?
“I swear by the spirit of my parents to avenge their deaths by spending the rest of my life warring on all criminals.”
One of my more recent musings has been upon what actually defines a ‘superhero’. Before coming up with my own thoughts, I first consider some more typical suggestions. The list below is drawn partly from Wikipedia’s list of ‘common traits’ and partly from a private mailing group to which I belong. I have tried to pare things down from what was common to what might seem essential, the quicker to get to the nub of it.
A moral code
It is as tempting to say “yes” here as it is difficult to say it without sarcasm. Recent research has shown that heroes in general tend to have something resembling this. The guy who uses his super-vision to peer in the back of the girls’ changing rooms is often considered more of a super-heel. (Unless of course he doesn’t get caught.)
A secret identity
This one sounds straightforward. After all, everybody knows who Clerk Kent or Bruce Wayne are, and their role in their respective stories. The glasses are as central as that big S. And of course it’s from here we get the idea the superhero has to wear a mask, otherwise his secret identity wouldn’t be very secret any more. (Except with Superman, where it was Clerk Kent who wore a mask cunningly disguised as those glasses.) It’s certainly true that threats to this secret identity are a common source of tension in superhero stories. (Spider-man was particularly susceptible to it.)
But in fact not all superheroes have secret identities. The Fantastic Four don’t. Captain America started with one in his wartime days, but when he got fast-forwarded to the present he left poor Steve Rogers behind. (I sometimes wondered what he did in Avengers mansion, the nights the others were out living their civilian lives.) And with The Spirit, Denny Colt was supposed to be dead, not living some other life away from crimefighting.
A Costume/ codename/ motif
From my mailing group Martin Skidmore was keen to point out: “this has to include a superhero codename, not like ‘my real name is Bill Smith but I will pretend to be... Jeff Williams!’”
Wikipedia elaborates this point into: “An underlying motif or theme that affects the hero's name, costume, personal effects, and other aspects of his or her character (e.g., Batman resembles a large bat.)”
Once uncoupled from the secret identity, this does, I admit, come to feel important. There is a huge element of ‘clothes maketh man’ about the superhero. The Fantastic Four started without their costumes, but when they got them it felt like a sign of things kicking into gear. Even the Spirit’s piddling little domino mask feels important, even if (as said earlier) he had no real secret identity for it to protect. His artist Will Eisner later admitted disliking the thing, but could never bring himself to dispense with it. This is true of even more peripheral and even less identity-concealing accessories, such as Luke Cage’s ever-present tiara. (You were probably not supposed to think of it as a tiara.)
But if those costumes and codenames are important, are they actually essential? Recent dramas such as the film Unbreakable or TV series Heroes have dispensed with them. Of course, this argument is double-edged, you’re supposed to see that act as audacious. Yet it’s an audacious thing to do to superheroes. Superhero characters they remain. It’s like the way a King is signified by a Crown. The Crown doesn’t make him the King, in a way that would work if anybody else tried sporting it.
A film about a guy who works as an insurance clerk doesn’t need an origin, where we flashback to him taking the job just for a while as he looks into college courses. But of course a superhero needs some explanation for how he got here. We think of the origin as an explanation for how he got his super powers, but it’s notable how it also commonly throws in how he got his codename, accessories and motifs. And its also notable how non-super-heroes need an origin to explain how they got those things. This is true even when they’re not particularly otherworldly. For example, the Indiana Jones films give us an explanation of how he first picked up his hat and bullwhip.
However, do we really need an origin? Batman didn’t get one for the first six months. (Which, when it finally arrived, lasted a whole two pages.) Unlike the Fantastic Fours’ costumes, I can imagine him continuing without one. Perhaps a superhero could be a perpetual man of mystery, in stories told through the eyes of secondary characters. Or perhaps he could perpetuate a civilian identity without any explanation of his origin. I’m not denying the origin makes the character more enduring, perhaps even better. I’m simply saying a superhero without an origin is conceivable. Like the secret identity, the origin is desirable but not necessary.
To these elements I would add one other, which I’m surprised nobody else has listed...
A spirit of independence
Like the private eye, the superhero is an independent operator, a sole trader against crime. It’s surprisingly common to have a superhero thought of as criminal within his own story, such as Spider-Man. Of course some superheroes do work for the authorities. But for this to work properly the relationship must be distant and frequently problematic (where not actually explosive), as in the recent Hellboy films. Superheroes can at times act with other superheroes (The Avengers), and perhaps even accomplish this without arguing all the time (The Justice League). But with penpushers and bureaucrats? They’d rather choke in their cowls!
The underlying point is that the superhero’s activities must be a calling first and a job second, if at all. Secret service operatives like James Bond inhabit another kind of story.
For this reason superheroes often have an alternative source of wealth (Batman and Iron Man being but two of many millionaires.) Spider-man’s problems with earning a living were, at the time, a major twist in the genre.
This one sounds like such a no-brainer, we must surely have arrived at our clincher. Superheroes = superpowers, comprendez? There’s a preponderance of stories where they lose those powers (Kryptonite being invented for this sole purpose), but these paradoxically underline their importance – by showing the size of the gap if they’re removed.
But what about the heroes whose powers were never intrinsic? Who gained them from a magic object (Green Lantern), technology (Iron Man) or even never really had them to start with? Batman for example has nothing actually super about him, and should more rightly be classed alongside Zorro, The Lone Ranger or The Green Hornet. (A type I’m going to go on to call the ‘emblematic hero.’) We know this, and yet it feels as meaningful to say he isn’t a superhero as to say a tomato’s not a vegetable. Our brains reject the information as pedantry, something of no real significance.
Probably the main dividing point, as much as there is one, is the origin. Batman “trains his body to physical perfection until he is able to perform amazing athletic feats.” Okay, we got that? ”Train his body.” No getting bitten by a power ring or handed a hammer by some cosmic rays. But how does that simple-sounding distinction work out in the wash?
If you’ve read this pulpy sort of stuff you’ll probably be familiar with passages such as this: “To escape the fiery pit, the hero had to leap...leap!...leap further than even he had before, further perhaps than had any man. He steadied himself... and leapt for all he was worth!” (NB If you haven’t read this sort of stuff, the hero generally tends to make it.) The inherent hyperbole of pulp, the heat that powers the pot-boiler are always pushing and prodding at the limits of human endurance, and with it eroding the distinction between the possible and the plain unlikely. Start with a hero who can run for the bus okay, and pretty soon he’ll be doing marathons on one leg.
”I swear to devote my life to the destruction of piracy, greed, cruelty and injustice in all their forms.”
It's for these reasons and more I think we need to accept there's a fuzzy line
between the superhero and the emblematic hero. The boundary between the two is not the one between North and South Korea, rigidly delineated and abundantly policed. It’s more akin to the border between North and South Ireland, a vaguely conceived concept buried beneath a criss-cross of tracks, where you’d have trouble offering up your identifying passport if you wanted to.
My theory is that the superhero is at most a subset of the emblematic hero, and that it’s the distinction between the emblematic hero and the rest that’s the significant thing. My theory is that this distinguishing feature of the emblematic hero is that he becomes a symbol for a general struggle (against crime, oppression, nasty stuff etc.) rather than goes on some singular mission or holds a private grudge.
Just as ‘super’ literally means ‘more than’, managing to collect one enemy doesn’t allow you to join the emblematic club. Tales of revenge and private vendettas are out. Perhaps the classic example of the character who isn’t emblematic but might look it from a distance is The Bride in Kill Bill. She has a code-name and enhanced powers, and even a (kind-of) costume. But she is solely motivated by revenge, not to do general good. Once she’s offed her tick-box list of antagonists, her story’s done.
“To avenge the helpless, to punish cruel politicians, to aid the oppressed.”
The epitome of the emblematic hero is therefore the Vow. This doesn’t have to be explicit, but it has to underlie everything else. Tarzan or Sherlock Holmes, for all their surface similarities, aren’t emblematic by this token - because they never made such a Vow. Nor does it have to be as general as ‘crime’, ‘injustice’ or ‘misdeeds’. The Scarlet Pimpernel wars against the guillotining French, and Zorro the Spanish presence in California. But this was still a general enemy, no solitary mischief-maker like Moriaty. A story can start with vengeance, such as the Lone Ranger running down the bandits who killed his buddies, but must quickly expand out. Spider-Man’s origin takes this at its most explicit, by demonstrating acts of personal revenge to be insufficient.
After the Vow, everything else falls into place. Paradoxically, this is often achieved through the cutting of immediate ties to society. This happens most spectacularly in Superman, where he loses his whole home planet. But Batman, the Phantom and the Lone Ranger are among many who lose their friends and family. There’s a common motif where the pre-hero is believed dead, for example in the Lone Ranger or the Spirit (who even locates his base in a cemetery). The Phantom is ‘the ghost who walks.’ The mask and costume therefore don’t just disguise the old identity but replace it – depersonalise the figure, make it into a symbol. Hence the current usage of motifs and symbols – Zorro’s Z, Superman’s S, Batman’s bat.
”My only desire is to see that the oppressed are assisted, and that the evil pay for their crimes.”
It’s perhaps for this reason that emblematic heroes don’t really exist before the Twentieth Century, and achieve a kind of critical mass around the Thirties. The original Scarlet Pimpernel play, by Baroness Orczy, was first performed in 1903. The first Zorro pulp novel, by Johnston McCulley, appeared in 1919. But after that we get The Lone Ranger (radio series, 1933), Doc Savage (pulp magazine, 1933), the Green Hornet (radio series, 1936) and The Phantom (newspaper strip, 1936). (Where Superman, the first superhero, inserts himself into this chain of cause-and-effect, is debatable. His first comic-book appearance was in 1938, but Jerry Seigal had conceived of him as far back as 1932. But the separate origins of social production seem more credible than mere copyism, so perhaps it doesn’t matter all that much.)
Perhaps this is because, along with everything else, urbanism and the rise of the mass society make crime start to feel anonymous. If somebody vandalizes something of yours you become less likely to wonder who might have something against you, and more likely to put it down to that darn riff-raff you read about in the paper. But what depersonalises crime also pushes it further beyond your control. If it’s most likely your neighbour who broke your window, you always can try (in some form) having it out with them. If it’s committed by purely anonymous forces, you can never be reconciled to them because they were never really against you in the first place. Furthermore, what renders crime anonymous can easily also make it appear endemic. What is unknown is by definition unquantified, so can easily lead into fears of a sinister unknown multitude. It’s widely documented how people commonly have a fear of crime wildly out of proportion to any crime statistics.
“Let me strive every moment of my life to make myself better and better, to the best of my ability, that all may profit by it. Let me think of the right and lend all my assistance to those who need it, with no regard for anything but justice. Let me take what comes with a smile, without loss of courage. Let me be considerate of my country, of my fellow citizens and my associates in everything I...”... oh you get the idea!
This is why, as Andrew Rilstone has pointed out, it changes everything when the recent crop of superhero blockbuster films make the hero’s nemesis ever-present. (Now done by Batman, Daredevil, twice in Spider-Man and counting.)
“In the comic, Daredevil's father is killed by a relatively anonymous gangster, which motivates him to pursue vigilante justice for the rest of his life. In the movie, the anonymous gangster turns out to have been the guy who grows up to become Kingpin of Crime, giving a personal twist to the final minutes of the movie.”
...which, of course, is switching things back – turning Batman into the Bride. It’s as if we’ve hit some kind of event horizon in mass society, where we can’t actually face the sheer anonymity of it anymore and need to take refuge in the pretence that everything has become personalised all over again. (I’m also of the impression that superhero comics have become much more obsessed with personal revenge, perhaps in a bid to make things more ‘gritty’. But as I rarely if ever read them nowadays I will concur if told better.) It’s similar to the way in which Thirties art commonly simplified and boiled down form into general geometric shapes, in a way that looks foreign to us today. The emblematic hero is fact becoming a casualty of our ‘me’ society, which finds its heroes journeys more often in winning reality TV shows. Perhaps today’s Spider-Man would simply have stayed a celebrity wrestler.
”And a lean silent figure slowly fades into the gathering darkness, aware at last that in this world, with great power there must also come great responsibility.”