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May 6, 2016

Superheroes

by Chris

My son is very angry with me. As part of my day job (yes, we authors more often than not have day jobs), I’m spending the next few months in sunny California. It turns out California is quite some distance from my normal residence in New Jersey, which is something I discovered by somewhat foolishly choosing to drive from there to here. You know what’s amazing about driving for twelve hours through the middle of Kansas? Let me know when you find out.
Bouclier Captain America, for superheroes movie
Bouclier Captain America, for superheroes movie (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Anyway, the point is that I’m away from my family for quite some time, and if that wasn’t bad enough, there are some very important events that I’ll be missing. Chief among these, and of most importance to my twelve-year-old, is the release of Captain America: Civil War. Launching today, as it happens, this is a movie event that he has been waiting for with bated breath since the first trailer was released almost a year ago. He’s just a little obsessed with the universe of Marvel comics, and even Star Wars: The Force Awakens couldn’t distract him from his anxiety over waiting to see this movie.

I’ve had to arrange for us both to see the movie simultaneously, 3,000 miles apart, so neither one of us knows how it goes down before the other. Tomorrow I’ll be heading to the theater while he goes with his mother, and I expect a frantic FaceTime call within minutes of the final post-credit scene. This isn’t to say I’m not excited myself, but there’s little in this world to rival a twelve-year-old’s comic book obsession. In fact, it makes me wonder exactly how superheroes became so appealing to the masses. Why are iconic characters like Superman and Batman so indelible in our cultural memory, and where did they come from in the first place?


What Is a Superhero?

The first thing, I suppose, would be to define what makes a superhero in the first place. The most immediate answer in my mind would be, naturally, superpowers. Think Superman, Captain America, The Incredible Hulk, or any of the X-Men. These are people who have some sort of ability that transcends those of normal humans. The ability to leap over tall buildings, stop bullets with their mind, or withstand pulverizing attacks, in many cases is what defines these superheroes and makes them stand out from the crowd of normals all around them.

Yet while this definition can apply to a majority of superheroes, there are some that don’t quite fit the bill. What superpowers, exactly, does Batman have? Other than being pretty tough and having a wealth of fancy gadgets, it can’t really be argued that Batman is anything more than a normal person with a strong will. The same could be said for Iron Man, or Ant Man, or even Wonder Woman (to an extent—she does have an element of super strength); none of these characters have any inherent ability. Some of them are rich—hence the gadgets—but can any superhero really possess wealth? Their alter ego certainly can, but is this then what makes a superhero super? Many do truly have a secret identity; Batman’s Bruce Wayne, Spiderman’s Peter Parker, and of course Superman’s Clark Kent.

But some superheroes defy even this convention; in particular, Marvel’s X-Men characters rarely pretend to be anything other than themselves, which frequently leads to the story’s central conflict—as mutants, they are shunned and hunted down by the society around them. And in Marvel’s cinematic series, even Tony Stark reveals himself as Iron Man early on (arguably to his own detriment, as evidenced by the sequels).

If not superpowers or alter egos, is perhaps strong will and determination, then, that make the superhero? It could certainly be said that each of the superheroes I’ve mentioned so far have strongly-held beliefs about good, evil, right and wrong; they (more often than not) fight the good fight, defeat their enemies, and save the world. In some cases they do so even at the risk of appearing as the villain themselves; Batman is frequently the target of police investigations as as vigilante, fighting crime with sometimes illegal and often morally gray methods. Sometimes they have unbreakable moral codes, although others have no qualms maiming or killing their enemies without a second thought. Some are heroes very reluctantly, and seek out desolate wildernesses to avoid human interaction (think Incredible Hulk, or even Wolverine).

Yet some superheroes work in morally dark places, doing whatever they feel like and not particularly caring who they hurt (Deadpool, I’m looking at you). In some instances, we even find ourselves rooting for the villain, because the hero is so ambiguous.

Robin Hood and Maid Marian (poster, ca. 1880)
Robin Hood and Maid Marian (poster, ca. 1880) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
It would seem, then, that defining a superhero—at least on the surface—is not so straightforward as it might seem. So in that sense, what exactly makes a hero?

The Ancient Hero

The dictionary defines a hero as “a person who is admired or idealized for courage, outstanding achievements, or noble qualities”. This, of course, applies to both fictional and real people—we often refer to real-life figures as ‘heroes’ of their respective doctrines—a scientific, political or humanitarian hero. Sometimes we have personal heroes—people who inspire us to become greater than ourselves.

Perhaps this is the best definition I can offer; a hero is someone who can inspire, who can lead, and who can cause change in the world. This change doesn’t always have to be down to themselves: perhaps the people they inspire are the ones who truly change the world, but the hero is that first initiator.

But what does this mean for fictional heroes? Are they any less, for failing to be real? Some, of course, have their roots in real people, while others have become so ingrained in myth and legend that it can be difficult to ascertain if they ever truly lived or not. Was Robin Hood real? Certainly Loxley, Nottingham and Sherwood are all very real places, and there were most definitely outlaws in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. What about King Arthur and his knights of the round table? Many of the historical references in his tales can be correlated to true events, but so much romance and exaggeration has been built up around the figure that it can be hard to separate the fact from fiction.

One of the most ancient heroes, of course, is Odysseus, from Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey poems. Many of the characteristics of the archetypical hero are present: a strong person, both physically and mentally, overcoming seemingly insurmountable challenges, fighting his way against evil and danger to regain that which he loves the most. Many of the central themes in The Odyssey, such as epic journeys, wandering lost, and being tested spiritually, can be traced throughout the history of literature to the present day. If one were to boil stories down to their bare components, it could be easily argued that every ‘epic’ tale owes its existence to Homer and his original tales.

Beowulf is another example of an ancient hero, often considered to be the first in the English language. Building on the frameworks set out by Homer, Beowulf sees the titular hero travel great distances, defeat terrible monsters and demons, fight temptation and gain great rewards. Beowulf is also a good example of a tragedy, in that—unlike The Odyssey—the main character dies at the end, though it is less of a tragedy than those of the earlier Greeks, or later of Shakespeare.

The Modern Superhero

Movie poster for 1920 film.
Movie poster for 1920 film.
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Still, despite these characters being inarguably heroes, they aren’t what we would typically define as ‘superheroes’. Wikipedia references the word ‘superhero’ as dating to at least the 1910s, which despite being now a hundred years ago is definitely within the more modern realm of literature. Many would argue that Superman, or perhaps Batman, is the first true superhero, fitting many of the criteria outlined above—secret identity, supernatural powers, and fighting for the moral good. But were there precedents? Also on Wikipedia, a list of American superhero movies dating back to 1920 shows that five out of the first ten live-action films based on the traditional superhero trope are about a very different masked vigilante: Zorro.

Unlike nearly every superhero portrayal to follow, Zorro actually first appeared in 1919 in a serialized novel, The Curse of Capistrano. This prototypical hero possesses many of the characteristics that we now have come to associate with superheroes: masks, weapons, secret identities, exceptional skills and incorruptible morals. In the original novel (republished as The Mark of Zorro in 1924), the masked Zorro fights against corruption and evil characters who steal from and abuse the poor, while trying to win the affections of the beautiful Lolita Pulido. In many ways, of course, this feels reminiscent of Robin Hood, who fought against the same kind of corruption and for the hand of Maid Marian.

Still, Zorro predates almost any other superhero by nearly twenty years; it wasn’t until 1938 that the world was introduced to Superman, and the world of heroes changed forever. It’s likely that Superman’s success is a combination of luck and timing; comics were becoming increasingly popular as an entertainment medium, having grown out of the humorous illustrations of the 19th century periodicals. With the ever-growing threat of war from Europe in the late 1930s, a character who stood for ‘truth, justice and the American way’ was not only appealing but provides a deep insight into the psyche of American culture at the time. The specifics of the character’s origins are probably incidental; it wouldn’t have mattered if Superman had been a normal person like Zorro or not, as long as he protected his country from the very real forces of evil spreading from Germany.

So began what is often referred to as the ‘golden age’ of comics, with many of the iconic superhero characters such as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Captain America originating from this period. Although the popularity of comics waned in the following decades, the characters lived on, translating to the silver screen over the years with varying levels of success. (One could argue that with the popularity of superhero films today, comics are seeing a correlated resurgence in popularity as well.) Classic films such as 1978’s Superman and 1989’s Batman have gone down in history as some of the best superhero adaptations ever created; others, such as 1990’s Captain America, have been long forgotten.

Where Are Literature’s Superheroes?

Superheroes, clearly, adapt well to the visual arts; their over-the-top antics and powers are well-suited to comics and film, where—especially with today’s CGI technology—anything can be visually represented. The suspension of disbelief is far easier in a film or comic, where if you can make something visually appear realistic, it’s likely to go over well.

The same can’t be so easily said for novels. In a medium where the reader has no choice but to imagine the scenarios painted by the writer, the author is presented with much more of a challenge in order to make certain things appear believable. In a comic strip, you can show, often in as little as two or three panels, Superman jumping over a skyscraper. How would that appear in a novel? Superman then jumped over the Empire State Building. The reader suddenly has some difficulty imagining it. Can you go into more depth? Perhaps—With a tense of his inhumanly powerful muscles, Superman kicked off from the ground, leaving cracks in the pavement below him. The wind whipped his hair as he sailed first hundreds, then thousands of feet into the air, soaring effortlessly over the highest spire of the Empire State Building. Yet all of this could be represented in a matter of seconds in comic or film.

The Violent Century
Is there an inherent disconnect between superheroes and literature? Is it impossible to represent larger-than-life heroes in a novel, or a short story? Perhaps not so much as you might think. In writing this article, I came across a fantastic website at superheronovels.com. Dedicated to discovering and reviewing superhero prose, it highlights a very overshadowed corner of literature. Novels such as The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar and Less Than Hero by S.G. Browne take top spot in their best of categories, and frankly make me want to find and read superhero novels.

Novels make their living, so to speak, by inviting the reader to imagine new people and worlds they had never thought of before. Certain stories are perfect for film, while others couldn’t exist in any form other than lengthy prose. Sometimes the two can be combined, though with difficulty; even with over twelve hours of back-to-back film, Peter Jackson only managed to touch on the depth and intricacies of Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. Conversely, sometimes the novelization of an original film can add in extra detail that, in some cases, detracts from the story itself.

The lesson herein is probably that each story has a preferred medium, but that doesn’t exclude the possibility of other options as well. If a superhero can be portrayed successfully in comics and in film, then why not in a novel as well? The one thing novels are fantastic for is giving insight into the minds and thoughts of the characters. Personally, I’d love to know what Superman thinks about when he’s saving the world from Lex Luthor.

I will continue to enjoy Marvel’s roster of superhero films for as long as they want to churn them out. I’m very excited to see Civil War, and Doctor Strange with Benedict Cumberbatch this November has me chomping at the bit. I’ve never been too into comics, although I do enjoy them when I read them.

But the idea of superhero novels is new to me, and presents some exciting possibilities. While I might never find Superman or Batman in a 400-page novel, I can now begin to imagine that there could be certain superhero stories—particularly, in my mind, the reluctant hero type—that would lend themselves better to a long piece of prose than to foreshortened comic panels or a two-hour film. I for one will be looking into the offerings at superheronovels.com, and I can’t wait to discover a new world of fiction.

Have you read any superhero novels? What are your favorite forms of media for portraying these kinds of stories? Let me know!


Chris: features writer. Raised between the soaring peaks of the Swiss Alps and the dark industrialism of northern England, beauty and darkness have been twin influences on Chris' creativity since his youth. Throughout his life he has expressed this through music, art and literature, delving deep into the darkest parts of human nature, and finding the elegance therein. These themes are central to his current literary project, The Redemption of Erâth. A dark epic fantasy, it is a tale of the bitter struggle against darkness and despair, and an acknowledgement that there are some things the mind cannot overcome. Written from a depth of personal experience, Chris' words are touching and powerful, the hallmark of someone who has walked alone through the night, and welcomes the final darkness of the soul. However, for now he lives in New Jersey with his wife and eleven-year-old son. You can also find him at http://satiswrites.com


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9 comments:

  1. Hear, hear. Superheros come in all sorts of packages :)

    ReplyDelete
  2. I enjoyed the movie for Kickass - a tongue-in-cheek superhero film with appeal for grown-ups and young adults.
    Even though it was based on a comic it had some great production values.
    In literature I go more for anti-heroes, like The Catcher in the Rye.

    ReplyDelete
  3. American Gods by Neil Gaiman- kind of goes off the hero theme while delving into gods of every religion walking among us.

    ReplyDelete
  4. The Fortress of Solitude, by Jonathan Lethem was something else.

    ReplyDelete
  5. Fantastic analogies! Thank you so much for sharing this.

    ReplyDelete

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